History Aboard

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Who could forget his one-line characterizations of vanished ships: Île de France , “early Ginger Rogers”; Nieuw Amsterdam , “late Hedy Lamarr”; and Conte di Savoia ’s dining room, “Villa Borghese meets El Morocco,”and its lounge, “Sistine Chapel gone to sea.” And, in a twist of image, the Crystal Symphony , “the Normandie of now.”

Crystal is indeed aiming to provide the quality we either remember or simply dream of from the older ships. At more than fifty-one thousand tons, the Crystal Symphony lies midway between smaller “boutique” vessels like the Sea Goddess or Silver Cloud and the two-thousand-passenger behemoths that are becoming the norm. It’s extremely spacious, especially in its many public rooms and along its cascades of deck.

I got lucky when I was upgraded to a penthouse with a veranda and—as an added attraction—a butler. Erich, splendid in cutaway and white gloves, seemed disappointed that I couldn’t generate enough chores to challenge his ingenuity. But he carried out all missions with aplomb and an air of complicit amusement.

Verandas are a relatively new accessory aboard ship. First found only on top-of-the-line vessels, they are now percolating down to the middle range. Viewed from shore, rows of balconies tend to turn a vessel into a floating apartment block. But if you’re fortunate enough to occupy one, you can get used to it pretty quickly. Lingering on a private deck, drink in hand, watching an electric storm arc across the sea confers a wonderful, if temporary, sense of privilege.

Other Crystal attributes include its low-key but luxurious furnishings and the ship’s silence, with good insulation between cabins and few public announcements. Everywhere the service was gracious without being stuffy or obtrusive. But there are elements that might keep the Crystal Symphony , or indeed any present-day vessel, from truly becoming “the Normandie of now.” Writing about the Crystal Harmony in Crossing and Cruising , Maxtone-Graham finds the “balcony’s most insidious spinoff” to be the way they force passengers into isolation, particularly at the traditionally festive moments of arrival and departure: “I fear that cruise-ship balconies diminish the shipboard experience, fragmenting and segregating the passenger corpus irrevocably.”

Some passengers complain about Crystal’s two dinner sittings, which don’t afford the flexibility customary on the most luxurious ships. Maxtone-Graham concurs, explaining that this flaw—he calls it a “sociomaritime stigma"—was built in during the preliminary design stages, when decisions made about the number and size of dining spaces become virtually irrevocable. Another Crystal innovation partly makes up for this: Two smaller specialty restaurants serving excellent Chinese and Italian cuisine are open for dinner at no extra cost.

A characteristic shared by all of today’s vessels no matter how glamorous came clear to me as I chatted with various ship buffs. Rarely do you find a distinct national identity. Crystal, for example, is owned by NYK, Japan’s largest shipping company. When it came to matters of decor, they opted out of any reference to Asian origins, preferring to strike a note of soothing, nonspecific opulence such as one might find in a top hotel chain. In the days my parents sailed to Europe, it was the very Dutchness, Frenchness, or Englishness of a ship that guided their choice. These days a whiff of national character does linger on the QE2 and the Holland America vessels, while one ship buff has referred to the Stella Solaris as “a Greek colony afloat.”

Still, since the history of the great ships lies within living memory, the Crystal Symphony ’s passengers did provide Bill Miller with fresh material. First he learned about a movie set designer and a film editor, both now retired, who had worked on An Affair to Remember , which was partly filmed on the Constitution , and then he ran into a woman who as a child had sailed on the Constitution ’s: maiden voyage in 1951 and kept a diary. All this testimony would enrich Miller’s next book, a history of that very ship.

Miller first fell in love with ships as a boy, while watching their stately progress into New York Harbor from his hometown of Hoboken. In 1965 he noticed an ad in The New York Times that urged anyone interested in ships to gather in the ballroom of the Sagafjord during its next stop in New York. In those days, before security prevented it, visitors could board ships even if they weren’t seeing anyone off. All it took was a fifty-cent contribution to a fund for the widows and orphans of seamen. On board the Sagafjord Miller was astounded to find that fifty people had answered the ad. Until then, he told me, as if confessing some secret vice, “I thought I was the only one who liked ships. I asked myself, Who are these people?” Thus was born the Port of New York branch of the World Ship Society, which grew quickly and now numbers about 350 members, mostly in the New York area.