From the Queen Mary to Holy Ship

Winter may conjure cozy, fireside toddies or black-diamond trails of fresh powder. But if an alien were to understand this season by Instagram alone, he would surely arrive with Corona and sarong in tow. And so, in that universal snowbirding spirit, artists such as Destructo and Chromeo hopped aboard the cruise-meets-music-festival Holy Ship earlier this month, where the buffet table may not get quite as much action as it’s used to.

For explorers and cargo, transportation by sea dates back to ancient times. But it was in the 19th century when the development of steamships led to a new market: luxurious vessels promoting the journey itself as a vacation.

According to cruise history buff Michael L. Grace, “On July 4, 1840, Britannia, the first ship under the Cunard name, left Liverpool with a cow on board to supply fresh milk to the passengers on the 14-day transatlantic crossing. The advent of pleasure cruises is linked to the year 1844, and a new industry began.”  

 

Given the limitations on large public spaces on these ships, passengers were expected to share dining tables. The superliners of the 1930s and 1940s implemented over-the-top elegant decor and convivial recreational activities to distract passengers from the potential unpleasantries of living on a boat. In this footage of a cruise to Cuba from around 1940, check out the rather fresh-looking buffet table at 5:14!

When traveling by boat was de rigueur, staying on a ship for a week could elicit the excitement of newness and adventure. These days, the notion more easily evokes cabin-fever boredom. It’s clear that modern cruise lines combat those claustrophobic fears by describing even their food with an emphasis on variety. Royal Caribbean advertises “Dynamic Dining — a world of culinary exploration,” while Carnival promotes “Your Plate. Your Choice.” From pizza to curry to filet mignon, now that we don’t need a cruise to travel the world, we expect the world on the cruise.

No matter how many celebrity chefs or Michelin stars your cruise line boasts, however, no one is immune to the perils of mass humanity. In 2014, the MS Explorer of the Seas set a new record for most sick passengers — 630, plus an additional 54 crew members. NPR reports: “The scenes aboard ship were of a fantasy cruise gone awry. Passengers who were supposed to be spending their days lounging on deck instead suffered bouts of vomiting and were confined to their cabins.” 

The Centers for Disease Control even has its own Vessel Sanitation Program! National Geographic explains: “The industrial-size servings of food on a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers can be particularly worrisome, since once the virus enters the food it can spread rapidly. Food can also get more easily contaminated with the virus if it sits out for several hours, as is often the case with buffet-style meals.” 

Nothing like a crowded, inescapable, virus-prone, endlessly swaying hotel to whet your appetite, no?

But nevermind that! Let us transport ourselves to a golden age of leisure, when evening gowns were recommended cruise-wear, crystal chandeliers were more plentiful than slot machines, and everyone ate the same damn caviar.

Check out our photos from Holy Ship, alongside nostalgic gems from Cunard Line’s archive shared on The Daily Mail!