As an ocean liner aficionado, I was pleased to learn several years ago that a new class of Celebrity ships would incorporate into their specialty dining rooms historical items from some of the twentieth century's most famous and beloved ocean liners. While most passengers are attracted to these unique restaurants for their top-notch service and impeccable cuisine, I was captivated by the fact that several artifacts obtained from prominent ocean liners were returning to the sea on modern passenger ships.
Celebrity has done a remarkable job in giving new life to a bygone era. However, the line touts the restaurants more as upscale alternative dining venues than for their historical significance. Therefore, what follows are the stories of Olympic, United States, Normandie, and Ile de France - the ships that inspired the specialty dining rooms on Millennium, Infinity, Summit, and Constellation, respectively.
RMS Olympic Restaurant (2000)
RMS Olympic was built in Belfast, Ireland in 1911 for White Star Line. Olympic is often referred to today as a near-sister ship to the legendary Titanic; however, she was an impressive ship in her own right. When built, the four-stacker Olympic was the largest passenger liner in the world (45,324 gross registered tons and 882 feet long), eclipsed slightly by Titanic a year later. Olympic originally housed over 2,700 passengers in three classes and was used primarily for Southampton to New York service. Her First Class spaces were intended to mimic the finest hotels, thereby allowing passengers to forget they were at sea. Among these amenities was an indoor swimming pool, one of the first in the industry.
Olympic, as other ships of her era, was used as a troopship during the First World War. She carried over 200,000 troops during her war service, and was nicknamed "Old Reliable." Among her wartime experiences was the ramming and sinking of a German U-boat.
After the war, Olympic was refurbished and was returned to passenger service in 1920. She remained in service through 1934, by which time the Great Depression had taken a toll on ocean liner travel. She was sold to scrappers a year later.
Many artifacts from Olympic survive to this day. Among these are several original walnut panels from the first class dining room, which now adorn some of the walls in RMS Olympic Restaurant.
SS United States Restaurant (2001)
SS United States was built in Newport News, Virginia in 1952 for United States Line. The 53,000-ton, 990-foot long liner originally carried 1,928 passengers in three classes. As SS United States was planned in the shadow of World War II, her specifications called for the ability for the liner to be converted into a troopship with just 48 hours notice. The United States government underwrote 75% of her cost, and plans were completed under tight security.
Known as the "fastest liner ever built," she captured the Blue Riband on her maiden voyage, when she crossed from New York to Southampton in an amazing 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. Her service speed was officially listed as 33 knots, although it was later revealed that she exceeded 40 knots during her sea trials.
The "Big U," as she was affectionately called, was built for speed, safety, and function. Reportedly, the only wood onboard was the butchers block and piano. (Legend has it that an aluminum piano was requested, but denied.) Everything else on board was fire-resistant, including the fabrics and artwork. Simple décor was used throughout, with none of the opulence found on earlier liners.
By the late 1960s, the popularity of air travel as well as a series of seamen strikes spelled the end for the Big U. She was decommissioned in 1969 and spent the next 23 years laid up in Norfolk. Most of her interior items were auctioned off in 1984. She switched hands several times and eventually wound up in Philadelphia in 1996, where she remains idle today. Fortunately, that may soon change: in April 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line stunned the industry by purchasing the Big U with plans to restore her to service under the line's Project America strategy.
The SS United States Restaurant on Infinity showcases six etched glass panels that were once part of the First Class Ballroom on
Normandie Restaurant (2001)
Sadly, SS Normandie is better known today for her tragic ending than for her ocean-going life. So, let's get that out of the way first. While being fitted for war duty as USS Lafayette in February 1942, a workman's torch accidentally ignited a pile of lifejackets and other combustible materials. The ship was soon consumed by flames and smoke, and was ultimately capsized by the excess water poured throughout her interiors as part of the fire-fighting efforts. She spent the next 18 months on her side at New York's Pier 88 before being righted and sold for scrap.
In her heyday, however, she was the grandest liner afloat. SS Normandie was completed in St. Nazaire, France in 1935 for the French Line, and boasted many "firsts" in the passenger ship industry. She was the first passenger liner to exceed 1,000 feet in length (1,028), the first to exceed 60,000 GRT (82,799), and the first to cross the Atlantic at an average speed of over 30 knots. As originally built, SS Normandie carried 1,972 passengers in three classes.
SS Normandie was also renowned for her stunning interiors. Her first class rooms were the most glorious at sea, and included a three-deck-high main dining room, a winter garden that included exotic birds and plants, a children's playroom with a puppet theatre, an 80-foot-long indoor swimming pool, and the first purpose-built theatre at sea. Intricate wall panels adorned several rooms, and custom-made Lalique light towers added to the ambiance.
Special attention was also paid to tourist and third class spaces. The Tourist Class Dining Room towered two decks and was adorned with elegant, glass columns. Tourist class passengers also had an outdoor swimming pool, a rarity on liners in those days. Third class spaces, while more sparsely decorated, were a true departure from Third Class areas on other ships, and included outdoor space on the aft portion of the ship, another rarity.
SS Normandie was in service for just four years before being laid up in New York due to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. While she met a most devastating end, much of her interior artwork was thankfully removed before the doomed transition to a troop ship. Therefore, many artifacts from SS Normandie still survive.
Celebrity's Summit is now home to several important works of art from SS Normandie. Four golden lacquered wall panels from the First Class Smoking Room are prominently displayed in Summit's Normandie Restaurant. Additionally, the statue of "La Normandie," which once stood atop the grand staircase of the First Class Smoking Room, now stands guard in Summit's main dining room, the Cosmopolitan.
Ocean Liners Restaurant (2002)
Unlike her predecessors, Constellation pays homage to transatlantic ocean liner travel in general. The foyer to the Ocean Liners Restaurant contains artifacts from several ships of the 1920s and 1930s, such as original travel posters and other memorabilia of the era.
The most prominent liner featured in the restaurant is the French Line's Ile de France. Built in France in 1927, the 43,153 GRT liner measured 791 feet and was capable of carrying 1,786 passengers in three classes. While her service speed was nothing to boast about (23 knots), she was celebrated for her innovative interior design, which was done in Art Deco fashion. Large, towering public rooms combined with modern lighting gave a spacious feeling, a novelty on ocean liners in those days. Other notable features of Ile de France included a launch for a seaplane (to expedite mail delivery) and a merry-go-round for the kids.
Her service as a liner was temporarily interrupted during World War II, when she served as a troopship for the British. After a post-war refurbishment (modernized interiors, the addition of several artifacts from SS Normandie, and the removal of her "dummy" third funnel), she resumed her transatlantic service for the French Line in 1947. She remained successful into the 1950s, and was honored for her role in rescuing over 750 survivors from the 1956 Andrea Doria tragedy.
Ile de France was retired in 1958 and was sold to scrappers, who began the destruction process by renting her to filmmakers to serve as a life-sized prop for the movie, "The Last Voyage." The ship was devastated by flooding and explosions, all of which were captured on film. (Needless to say, this is a movie this writer steadfastly refuses to see.)
Among the items saved from Ile de France were wall panels from the private dining room. Four black panels, as well as a set of red panels, are now featured in Constellation's Ocean Liners Restaurant.
For more information on the above ships, I recommend the following books:
On the Web:
Lisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past twelve years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.
Lisa is a SeaLetter Columnist and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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