THE LAST LINERS: A FEW SHIPS STILL MAKE CROSSINGS CRUISES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Liner she's a lady," wrote Rudyard Kipling a century ago. In his day, passenger ships crossed oceans on line voyages, steaming from point A to point B; in consequence, they were called liners.

Although few of today's liners still make crossings, they remain veritable stars of the busy cruising circuit and, as such, are well worth booking.

Before the Wright Brothers put us all up in the air, liners served as inevitable and luxurious intercontinental transportation, crisscrossing Atlantic, Pacific and, indeed, every ocean in the world.

Those voyages were crossings, not cruises. Liner passengers were all going somewhere, unlike the large majority of today's cruise passengers who really go nowhere: After making some island calls, they disembark at the same port from which they embarked a week earlier.

Liners survived as crossing alternatives until displaced by jets in the mid-'70s. Nowadays, only one liner does what dozens used to. Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 periodically embarks on 30-knot line voyages across the Atlantic. Since she remains the lone survivor of a once plentiful breed, she deserves pride of place in the discussion to follow.

No sea voyage has quite the magic of QE2's trans-Atlantic voyage. Cruise ships, of course, make seasonal repositioning crossings from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, but none achieves QE2's dazzling speed and hence special mystique. It is not hard to choose between five sybaritic days afloat and seven uncomfortable hours aloft.

For the balance of the year, Queen Elizabeth 2 joins fleets of ex-liners on benevolent, warm-weather cruises. These are yesterday's trans-Atlantic thoroughbreds retired from fast ocean tracks and put out to cruise pasture. In addition to QE2, the major liners are Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway (which sailed for a dozen years as the France), Holland America's grand 1959 flagship Rotterdam, Constitution and Independence of American Hawaiian Cruises, and Cunard's Sagafjord and Vistafjord.

Smaller liners include Admiral Cruise's Azure Seas and Emerald Seas, Carnival's first trio of stalwarts (Mardi Gras, Carnivale and Festivale), Princess Cruises' Dawn Princess and Fair Princess, and all of Chandris' vessels except the brand-new Horizon.

Distinguished North Atlantic and Pacific veterans all, they have racked up thousands of sea miles on their figurative odometers. Yet they have a bewitching, historic charm, inside and out. Let us examine several of today's cruising liners, first from over the water and then on board.

The traditional look

Traditionally, funnels have been the focal point of any ship. From afar, one or two cylindrical funnels dominate the liner profile, creating a central midship summit atop the vessel. Conversely, contemporary cruise ships have one funnel only, near the stern, sharply raked, adorned with fins or sampans, occasionally incorporating aerial lounges as well.

Below the liner's central funnel are layers of superstructure deck, ringed with open promenades. Modern cruise ship hulls, especially Carnival's new megaships, have sheer, boxlike hulls with little access to open decks save at the very top.

Norway's funnels have unique, horizontal fins jutting out to either side. Designed to keep soot efficiently off the open decks, they work well unless an abeam wind is too strong. Just this past year, those distinctive funnels receded slightly, for, in a major profile action, NCL surrounded them with rows of top-deck suites, which appeared to lower their majestic height.

Before we leave profiles, it is worth remarking on those beautiful two-funneled sisters Constitution and Independence, which roam the Hawaiian archipelago on weekly itineraries. They have the world's only remaining counter sterns, gracefully evocative after-quarters dating back to the liners about which Kipling wrote before the turn of the century.

In the old days, ocean liners were always conservatively painted: black hulls and white upper works with the only splash of color up on the funnels. Although most of today's cruise ships are white, it is interesting that three of the largest liners cling to colors derived from the past. Queen Elizabeth 2 retains her near-black hull (following a disastrous experiment with pale gray after return from the Falklands). Rotterdam's is midnight blue and Norway's is deep royal blue. All other cruising liners are white, often dressed up with racing stripes or elaborate funnel logos to update them.

But, however they are painted, liners retain an intrinsic, aristocratic bearing that, to this passenger, promises welcome largesse below decks, especially in regard to the size, assortment and comfort of their cabins.

Since liners formerly carried first-class as well as tourist-class passengers, half of their cabins are grander than the other half. In addition, there are more public rooms because each class had its own dining room, lounges, card and writing room.

Extravagance and detail

New-built cruise cabins tend to be not only smaller, but also standardized. Owners would like all cabins on all their ships to be identical. Disparate sizes or an imbalance of luxury do not mesh easily with equivalently priced accommodations on existing tonnage. For instance, when ex-liner Norway joined NCL's fleet in the early '80s, mingling her lavishly proportioned cabins with the white fleet's humbler cruising quarters created a taxing sales and marketing challenge.

Closets on liners invariably are larger than the cruise lines' standard. One can walk into many of QE2's huge closets. An extravagance of clothing can be hung and shoes conveniently arranged. Empty suitcases are stored easily rather than thrust -- awkwardly beneath beds. Cabin bathrooms on board liners are not little factory-made boxes but proper bathrooms, often with huge tubs, generous sinks, storage shelves and cupboards, sometimes even heated towel rails.

Liners' cabin dimensions are invariably more generous than cruise ships'. One is surrounded by paneling instead of Formica, fittings and furniture are reassuringly solid and, it seems, everything is designed for rough weather and hence long life. Liners' cabins were built to last.

Sometimes those nearly indestructible cabins last too long. Liners' owners continually modernize them, a few at a time. But, liner buffs, take heart: Cabin and bathroom walls are seldom knocked down and reshuffled to make smaller cabins. Instead, new furniture, wall coverings and decorations are installed within existing walls so that those wonderful dimensions remain inviolate.

But, because of these cumulative renovations, it is safe to predict that by the year 2000, fewer and fewer liner cabins will look as they once did. Those splendid seagoing originals are, in fact, endangered species, well worth booking while still available during the '90s.

Goodbye to all that

There is, sadly, some public-room erosion on many ex-liners. Most alarming is what I must describe as cruising's apparently incurable epidemic of casino. Like some dread tropical rash, virulent casino breaks out on board every vessel -- liner and cruise ship alike -- infecting everything and everyone on its path. Periodic infestations of casino destroy not only classic liner interiors but, even more damaging, the classic tenor of shipboard life as well.

Customarily, the earliest casualty of casino creep is that presumed liner anachronism, the card room. Even Rotterdam's spacious card room is now awash with slot machines. On board Queen Elizabeth 2, the formerly evocative Quarter Deck card room is lined with winking, chiming, jingling one-armed bandits. Never mind that there is a casino one deck higher, never mind that the adjacent library (staffed by June Applebee, the only professional librarian afloat today) is chronically swamped with eager passenger/readers.

By sacrificing card rooms for casinos in the interest of "revenue enhancement," owners are selling too many clients short. There are many who love a good book, who like to write letters or perhaps do some work, who enjoy playing games or cards or chess; in other words, there are passengers to whom the casual obliteration of a card room is an affront.

On board Norway, the original France's library and adjoining card room remain as they always were. Additionally, the vessel still is flanked by promenade decks, holdovers from North Atlantic days. Unlike those left intact on board Rotterdam, France's promenades were further adapted to cruising.

Promenade decks were traditional liner appurtenances, customarily used only by day; after dark on the North Atlantic, they were always deserted. So, in 1980, when France became Norway, the tourist-class promenade was subdivided into a row of epic cabins, each with three, huge plate-glass (promenade deck) windows giving over the sea; never was there better dividend from a former liner's naval architecture.

One deck higher, the first-class promenade has been turned into a pair of continuous maritime boulevards, "Fifth Avenue" and "Champs Elysee." These broad, seagoing avenues have been air-conditioned and furnished with tables and chairs. They give effortless access not only to the aforesaid card room/library but also to an amusing selection of shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. Purser's desk and shore excursion desk are within an easy stroll, as well as entry to one of the most elegant rooms at sea, the Club Internationale. Double-height and elegantly appointed, it is a new/old liner interior of the most superior kind.

How fortunate that in these days of increasingly homogenized cruise ships, there still are some of Kipling's "ladies" in cruising.

John Maxtone-Graham is a marine historian and author of several shipboard classics, including "The Only Way to Cross," "Liners to the Sun" and "Cunard: 150 Glorious Years." He is working on a new book, "Crossing & Cruising."

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