With all the advertising you see nowadays for cruises to Mexico, the Caribbean, Alaska and you-name-it, it's pretty easy to get the urge to get on a big ship and just go. But if you're strapped for time — or cash — there is an alternative where you can get on a big ship and just stay.
The Queen Mary in Long Beach is not going anyplace soon. But it really doesn't need to — there is plenty to keep you occupied for a night or a weekend -- or a significant part of your Southern California vacation.
Pulling up to this giant ship ready to board with your suitcase-in-hand is reminiscent of that scene in Titanic where excited passengers are scurrying on board while the well-heeled are having their trunks portaged and their automobiles lifted onboard. While the Queen Mary is small by today's cruise ship standards, it looks mighty big from the parking lot.
Up the elevator and along the gangplank you go, just like you're boarding the Love Boat headed to the Mexican Riviera. But once on board, the first thing you notice is that the Queen Mary is historical — it's like entering the lobby of a fine old hotel with its antique furnishings, although many aspects of the ship and its quarters have been updated to the 1960s, the ship's later years. It's also apparent during this weekday visit that many people on board are participating in some sort of a conference — whether it's business, social or family-oriented.
After checking in at the lobby, we were anxious to see what our shipboard accommodations were like. Ours was a little larger than a standard stateroom, although not huge. We had a king bed, and all that you might expect in a reasonably upscale hotel room, with plenty of closets and work areas and a bathroom that, although small, offered both fresh and salt water, hot and cold. Even though we were on a ship, we had television and phone service. We also had two portholes — you might ask for a harbor view, as we had a fairly ordinary view of the dock and nearby construction.
Then it was off to explore this grand ship. Launched in 1934, the Queen Mary made 1,001 Atlantic crossings before its retirement in 1967. During its heyday, this was the way that America's elite shuttled between the U.S. and Europe and so the ship was outfitted to make this journey as comfortable as possible.
As you move around the ship on a self-guided tour, you come across many salons — all regal with their decidedly British influence in decoration. In-laid wood gives many of these areas a boardroom feel, while original paintings and artwork help to complete the mood. Outside, the old-wood decks made it easier to imagine you are on the open sea taking your daily walk and enjoying the vast ocean scenery. But most interesting are some of the areas normally inhabited by the crew — the crew's quarters, radio room, the wheelhouse. Throughout your tour, you begin to recognize the Queen Mary really is a museum — this is a big, old charming ship not to be confused with the gleaming, modern vessels of today.
That charm extends to the ship's restaurants where you can choose between fine dining at the 4-star Sir Winston's, the slightly less spectacular Chelsea or the surprisingly good Promenade Café, where we had a wonderful dinner for reasonable prices.
We also made a point to take a couple of special tours. The Ghosts and Legends Tour plays upon the ship's reputation for being haunted and is the Queen Mary's version of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Through special effects and an over-the-top tour guide, this little 45-minute adventure aims to put a little good-natured fright into visitors. We were actually more intrigued with some of the places in the ship that this tour takes you such as the engine room and an indoor swimming area, all sparsely lit to make them as spooky as possible.
Moored next to the Queen Mary is the Scorpian, a Cold War Russian submarine that seems to be in good enough shape to head out to sea. Visitors can walk through or see all the compartments in this claustrophobic vessel and wonder at the ability of sailors to stay trapped inside this machine for many weeks at a time as the submarine patrolled underwater to avoid detection. It's a fascinating self-guided tour — just be limber enough to squeeze through the round hatches that serve as passageways between the compartments.
The Long Beach area is a colorful waterfront with lots of restaurants and tourist attractions and major hotels. Those looking for California beach vacations will find the beach and much more.
It's well worth carving out a morning or afternoon to go see the Aquarium of the Pacific, just across the harbor from the Queen Mary. Home to more than 12,500 ocean animals, the Aquarium features 19 major habitats and 32 focus exhibits. We spent a couple hours wandering through the exhibits and found each one fascinating and a fun experience for oldsters as well as youngsters.
Of course one of the most popular exhibits at Aquarium of the Pacific is Shark Lagoon, the Aquarium's newest. With more than 150 sharks, the lagoon includes large sharks, rays and shark touch pools where you reach down and feel them as they swim by. There is much more at the Aquarium including exhibits on Southern California/Baja, Northern Pacific and the Tropical Pacific. The Aquarium and the Long Beach Harbor are a nice complement to your Queen Mary "excursion" and help to create a complete travel experience.
Finally it's time to check out of your stateroom and you realize this could be more than a one-time experience — a stay on the Queen Mary would be the perfect romantic adventure anytime. Its combination of history, elegance and novelty make it a world apart from your average getaway.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE:The Queen Mary is located at 1126 Queens Highway in Long Beach Harbor, an easy 90 minute drive from San Diego or less from most parts of Los Angeles. It's easily included on any Southern California vacation itinerary.
WHAT: The Queen Mary Hotel, the actual ship that made 1,001 Atlantic crossings, a sea-going home to some of America's most famous people.
WHEN: Midweek is always best if you can do it because you'll have fewer people on board. If you go on a weekend be sure to reserve well in advance. Check for travel deals and vacation packages offered at various times of the year. If you have last minute travel plans, ask for the lowest possible rate.
WHY: History, charm and the chance to stay on board one of the premiere cruising ships of its time. Numerous restaurants and attractions are nearby in the colorful Long Beach harbor area. We especially recommend the nearby Aquarium of the Pacific. Even those who prefer cheap vacations will find that the Aquarium is value for visitors of all ages.
HOW: Contact the Queen Mary at (562) 435-3511. Overnight accommodations range from $109 to $500, depending on the type of stateroom. The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at 100 Aquarium Way in Long Beach. For more information, phone (562) 590-3100.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If the Queen Mary is your kind of California vacation, be sure the check out other California Weekend articles on Dockside Boat and Bed, a Holland-America cruise to Mexico and houseboating.