During the Golden Era of cruising, ocean liners became the epitome of romance with many assignations, love affairs and honeymoons conducted at sea. But the decline of trans-Atlantic crossings by ship combined with mass-marketing of floating theme parks at sea changed that image. The only question is ‘would Cupid approve’ of the outcome.
Once upon a time cruising was synonymous with love and romance, aided by news reports of celebrity sightings at sea and feature films set on elegant cruise ships.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, news reels and newsmagazines were filled with photos of the world’s elite sailing in style aboard ships from Cunard, the French Line, the United States Lines, Holland America Line and more. After all, cruise ships were the only elegant way to cross great oceans, and nothing said “romance and sophistication” quite like the grand ocean liners of the day.
Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary was one of the most popular ships for royalty and politicians, and over the decades she hosted some of the most famous including Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the King and Queen of Greece, and members of America’s Kennedy clan. She was also a favourite among stage and film stars, including Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1950, the 18-year-old Taylor married 23-year-old Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr., and they chose to have their honeymoon on the Queen Mary bound for Europe in what media described as “one of the most luxurious suites on the ship.” Unfortunately, the extravagance didn’t help – while the ship survived 31 years, their marriage only lasted one!
The SS United States was another popular ship, and she also attracted the elite of high society, politics, commerce and royalty. Her passenger list included actors such as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, John Wayne, and Joan Crawford. And in 1968, a young student and future President named Bill Clinton sailed on the ship in tourist class on his way to study at Oxford.
If photos of glamourous people dressed to the nines dancing under the stars on spectacular ships helped shape the image of ocean liners as sexy, one voyage in particular caught Cupid’s imagination. After a whirlwind romance, American actress Grace Kelly left New York for Monte Carlo aboard the SS Constitution in April of 1956 to marry her real-life Prince, Ranier III of Monaco. The voyage and subsequent wedding generated worldwide media attention.
The romantic image of cruising was also enhanced by dozens of feature films set on ocean liners with star-studded casts and heart-wrenching love stories.
One of my favourites is An Affair to Remember, the 1957 film starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The storyline revolves around Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant), and Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) aboard the Constitution enroute from Europe to New York. Each has a romantic relationship back home but fall in love after meeting on the ship. As the Constitution returns to New York City, they agree to reunite at the top of the Empire State Building in six months’ time if they have succeeded in ending their relationships and are still in love with one another.
On the day of their rendezvous, Terry is hit by a car and is rushed to the hospital in serious condition. Meanwhile, Nickie waits for her at the building, and leaves at midnight believing she has rejected him. After the accident, unable to walk and in a wheelchair, Terry refuses to contact Nickie because of her disability.
Eventually Nickie finds Terry’s address, pays her a surprise visit on Christmas Eve, and learns of her disability. The film ends with them embracing and reigniting their love for one another.
Many other great films took place in whole or in part on classic liners, including Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1957), Romance on the High Seas (1948), and The Lady Eve (1941). Film critic Roget Ebert once said, “If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda’s hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.”
More recently, the multiple Oscar-winning film Titanic (1997) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet captured the hearts of millions around the world. The film, which tells the story of two young people from the opposite ends of society who meet and fall in love on the ship before it tragically sinks, proved to be a boon for trans-Atlantic cruising which benefited the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) when she was launched a few years later.
And in 2019, director Steven Soderbergh took a bunch of stars including Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candace Bergen on the QM2 for a trans-Atlantic crossing during which he filmed Let Them All Talk.
Television also played a major role in promoting passenger ships as romantic destinations, and one program in particular helped to propel cruise vacations into the mainstream – The Love Boat.
The Love Boat was a television series set aboard a cruise ship, and the show aired from 1977 to 1986. The hit series revolved around the ship’s captain and a handful of its crew, with several passengers—played by various guest star actors for each episode—having romantic adventures.
The one-hour show was usually set aboard the MS Pacific Princess, at the time a real-life Princess Cruises cruise ship. Other ships used in the series included the Island Princess, the SS Stella Solaris (for a Mediterranean Sea cruise), Royal Viking Sky (for European cruises) and Royal Princess and Sun Princess (for Caribbean Sea cruises). The latter has special significance for me as her later namesake was the first cruise ship that my wife Gail and I sailed on together.
Unfortunately, one of the side-effects of The Love Boat’s popularity was that it spawned demand for bigger and more carnival-like cruise ships, many of which were built to appeal to people who didn’t like the traditional cruise experience. As a result, the average passenger capacity aboard cruise ships went from less than 1,000 to as high as 5,000 people.
Ships began to resemble floating condominiums. Their interiors started to look more like a theme park or country fair complete with go-karts, bumper cars, skating rinks and bowling alleys. And evening dress codes were thrown overboard, with some lines allowing shorts, jeans and T-shirts into the dining room at dinner (how very romantic!).
Fortunately, there are still some cruise lines left for people who enjoy the romance of being at sea, and who love being on a ship that delivers a traditional cruise experience. They include luxury lines like Silversea, Seabourn, Regent and Crystal, and small ship/exploration lines like Lindblad, SeaDream, and Hebridean Island Cruises. And while some of these have relaxed their dress codes, they still require passengers to dress appropriately in public areas after 6:00 pm, and a few still have formal nights.
What this all means, of course, is that cruising is no longer as elegant, romantic and sophisticated as it used to be when ships ferried well-dressed ladies and gentlemen across great bodies of water on grand ocean liners.
For the millions of people who love floating theme parks, that’s probably a good thing.
However, for people like me who believe that an elegant sea voyage is still the most romantic vacation in the world, I join Cupid in hoping that the best traditions of cruising are never thrown overboard.
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