My first foray with six-star luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises was in 2012, when I accompanied two journalists on a 12-day “died-and-gone-to-heaven” voyage from Venice to the Black Sea.
We were allocated penthouse suites and with them came Engin, our Turkish delight of a butler, who attended to our every whim with utmost decorum and professionalism.
We were addressed as M’Lady, an expectation that came all too quickly to me. Breakfast was served on a silver tray, with impeccable white napery on my suite balcony each morning – my serviette being folded for me on my lap. That’s the thing about six-star luxury, it is so unruffled and discrete, that one wonders why or how one should ever live without it. Sadly, like all good things and my cruise no exception, it had to come to an end, and the bump that was the landing was hard, as my children and family quickly pointed out – “You’re not on the ship now!” So it was with some interest that I read the article in the Sunday Times of Crystal Cruises’ option to purchase the SS United States, which lies in considerable decay and disrepair. As a six star luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises is the world’s most awarded resort – on land or on sea, and it would take supreme vision to repurpose a 1950’s ocean liner to meet the rigours of today’s marine safety requirements, let alone the demands of a modern day tech savvy guest.
The glory years of ocean going liners in the 1950’s still conjure waving crowds at dockyard departures – a ship epitomising excitement and wonder of new lands and the promise of new life ahead. Hats and gloves were de rigeur for women, bringing with them bespoke luggage, which included round hat boxes, and men in suits accompanied by Trilby hats. Nowhere is this more epitomised than in the case of the SS United States. When she was launched in 1952, she was the biggest and fastest ocean liner that had ever been built in the United States. At 990 feet (304.5m), the SS United States was 108 feet (approx. 33 m) larger than the Titanic. On her maiden voyage , the liner’s 268 000-horsepower engines propelled it across the Atlantic in three days, 10 hours and 42 minutes – a record that stood until 1990.
Resting in Rust
Now the huge steamship that once carried both celebrities to immigrants across the Atlantic at record speeds, has spent the past two decades rusting in the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Last week Crystal Cruises* announced plans to overhaul the ship at a cost of at least $700million. Adjusting for inflation, that is about how much it originally cost to build the ship ($79.4million in 1951). However, before the SS United States can even be considered as a potential state-of-the-art commercial vessel, she must undergo a nine-month feasibility study, and will have to be extensively re-built to meet the rigours of over 60 years of new maritime rules and shipbuilding practices.
Glory Days are here again
If all goes according to plan the SS United States by Crystal Cruises will be transformed into an 800-guest-capacity vessel, featuring 400 luxurious suites measuring about 350 square feet with dining, entertainment, spa and other luxury guest amenities that are true to the ship’s storied history. Features of the original SS United States such as the Promenade and Navajo Lounge will be retained, while new engines and sophisticated marine technology will be installed to maintain her title as the fastest cruise vessel in the world.
The SS United States in its heyday had its quirks. Naval architect William Francis Gibbs built the boat with almost no wood in order to minimise the risk of fire. Glass and aluminium were used whenever possible — to the chagrin of wealthy passengers who thought some furnishings were not up to scratch for a luxury liner. Such was his pre-occupation with things pyrotechnic or not, that Gibbs even tried to have an aluminium piano built for entertainment on board. (Instead, a piano was constructed from fire-resistant wood.)
The SS United States was decommissioned in 1969 and is now owned by a conservation group, with a purchase option signed by Crystal Cruises. “The soaring symbol of grace and grandeur touched the lives of over one million passengers, thousands of crew members, and countless others who were thrilled by her mere presence in New York or Europe flying the Stars and Stripes,” says the SS United States Conservancy, which has campaigned ardently for her survival and staved off threats to sell off her assets as scrap.
Now it looks as though those efforts have not gone amiss, and Crystal Cruises’ has caught the vision, and perhaps has a canny sense of its market – one that is seeking experiences redolent of erstwhile glory and a touch of nostalgia. I watch the next nine months with interest!
*Crystal Cruises is represented in South Africa by Cruises International. Article image taken from the Sunday Times’ (ZA) 14th February, 2016 issue.