Aboard the RMS Queen Mary - My Family Travels

Long Beach, California's restored museum ship welcomes the next generation aboard as her “daughter” ocean liner begins sailing the globe.

Ah, the romance. The glamour. The echoes of a class system rejected by America. As you catch your first glimpse of the historic ocean liner R.M.S. Queen Mary’s totemic black-and-red smokestacks, you may imagine yourself as a character from a particularly British novel, in evening dress, sipping champagne, while chatting with the Captain about the ship’s famous Art Deco decor.

You may be dreaming about an Indian Ocean crossing on her niece, the QEII, or a Caribbean cruise on her daughter, the QM2, or just recall the captivating Hollywood account of Titanic, which met a subterranean fate a quarter of a century before she was built. But you’ll be jolted back to reality when you reach the theme-park-sized parking lot of this permanently-berthed hotel and museum. And your child-of-the-90s will see something he can relate to–the adjoining 220-foot Mega Bungee Tower. Welcome to Queen Mary Seaport.

The City of Long Beach, California purchased the Queen of the Sea from the Cunard steamship company in 1967. Over three years the city renovated the ship, which had made her maiden voyage on May 27, 1936. Long Beach even had to completely rebuild the aforementioned smokestacks, as they were found to be held together by only 110 coats of Cunard Red paint. After 1,001 transatlantic crossings spanning three decades, the last of the super liners is best remembered by many for her role in WWII. As the “Grey Ghost,” she was camouflaged and stripped of Art Deco furnishings, her indoor pool was drained to accommodate bunkbeds, and her powerful engines ran at full throttle so she could transport 800,000 servicemen to Europe past enemy lines. She’s been restored to weathered elegance, but her sheer bulk can still make the historical displays on Promenade Deck come alive for the next generation. Never an easy task.

Whose Bed Should I Sleep In?

Today you can reserve cabins in the Hotel Queen Mary (562/435-3511; double staterooms from $109/N on weeknights) for a family voyage through history’s turbulent waters. While far from seedy, I was somewhat put off by the Hotel Queen Mary’s fading accoutrements and callow staff. During a recent re-visit to Long Beach, I was excited to see a Russian submarine, Scorpion, open for tours, and the new cruise terminal built by Carnival Cruise Line for their “Fun Ships.” Described as one of the most technically advanced cruise facilities in the world, the terminal offers unparalleled service and a boost to the local economy. Now, passengers on one of the Carnival ships who arrive early can check-in for their cruise in a lounge on the Queen Mary and wait for their departure in style.

Additionally, they can arrive a day or so in advance and lengthen their “voyage” by spending an extra night or two on the historic liner. All of the hotel’s 365 rooms and suites are located in what was once the first-class section. Which leads one to wonder, “Could I be sleeping in the same cabin where Sir Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, and Bob Hope once slept?” (Not all together, we would assume.) Your children may be impressed by the less esoteric: perhaps the Rube-Goldbergesque toilet with its floor-pedal action, or a shower that once supplied a choice of Hot Salt, Hot Fresh, Cold Salt, Cold Fresh. Guests Andy (7) and Charlie (4) wondered that there can be elevators on a “boat” with 12 decks, and that the steam air horn, blown four times a day, could be so loud.

Day Tours of the Queen

Even on a tour, your family can explore the liner from stem to stern; from opulent staterooms to the lowly Third Class section; from Sports Deck to the deep, dark Engine Room, where the ghosts of dead seamen are said to wander. Indeed, it is a fascinating walk for all ages through the defunct works of the ship, now labeled with their mysterious former functions: Low Pressure Ahead, Astern Turbine, 1st Intermediate Pressure Turbine.

Awestruck day-tripper, Dylan, interviewed near one of the huge remaining propellers, nods an emphatic Yes! when asked if he thinks the ship is cool. It’s a leading question, but a 3-year-old is old enough to make any of his displeasure or boredom known. Overnight guests receive free passage through the self-guided Shipwalk. A viewing of the special effects show “Ghosts and Legends of the Queen Mary,” and others are offered, and a one-day admission with tours is available to the general public daily 10am-6pm ($29.95/adults, $26.95/seniors and military, $18.95/ kids 5-11.)

If food plays a major part in your family’s outings, the Champagne Sunday Brunch in the aptly-named Grand Salon (by reservation only; 562/499-1606) is well worth the price to be serenaded by harp while sampling world-class cuisine at eleven culinary stations. There is even a children’s buffet island. Meanwhile, on other weekdays, breakfast and service in the wallet-friendly Promenade Cafe was only average. Two more upscale restaurants aboard have garnered good reviews from the convention and business crowd.

Around and About Long Beach

If you plan an extended or weekend stay, there are plenty of other attractions in the immediate vicinity to hold your child’s attention. Although the adjoining faux English village, The Queen’s Marketplace, is a touristy disappointment, it’s only a short drive to Long Beach’s Shoreline Village. This dockside entertainment area features some rides, live entertainment geared to children, shops, and seafood-heavy eateries. The kids will enjoy Mexican food, a pizza/pasta restaurant and several places for sweets and snacks. (Watch out for that sugar rush!)

A relative newcomer, the region’s Aquarium of the Pacific (562/590-3100) has attracted family visitors from as far as Disneyland to its state-of-the-art exhibits. Imagine encountering 550 marine species drawn from three Pacific Ocean eco-systems, ranging from tropical to glacial. Changing exhibits focus on jellyfish, whales and currently, sharks, and there is always something new for repeat visitors. If you want to travel further afield, it’s just a 30-minute drive (depending on Southern California traffic) to Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens(562/431-3541; 6400 Bixby Hill Rd., hidden within a gated community). Admission is free to this 7.5 acre Western oasis, which features educational programs in an adobe ranch house ca.1800. Within the lush gardens there are scheduled cowboy activities like roping and whip-cracking demonstrations.

In warm weather, families frustrated by the static Queen Mary will enjoy a day cruise to nearby Catalina Island. Ferries and high-speed catamarans leave from San Pedro or Long Beach dozens of times a day for the 60-minute crossing to the touristy, good-old-fashioned-fun shore town of Avalon. Call Catalina Express (800/481-3470, 310/519-1212) for information on overnight packages and a current schedule. In a rush? Try the Island Express (800/2Avalon) helicopter service. Avalon is a very popular, always crowded weekend getaway for southern Californians but you can look for last-minute reservations if the fancy strikes.

Today, the R.M.S.Queen Mary remains the main attraction of Long Beach. And, thanks to Cunard Lines’ new Queen Mary 2, known as the “largest, longest, tallest, widest and grandest ocean liner” in the world with an $800 million price tag, there has been renewed interest in the design and history of its namesake.

Details, Details 

The Queen Mary Seaport is located at 1126 Queen’s Highway at the south end of the 710 Freeway, on the water in Long Beach. For information call 562/435-3511 or visit www.queenmary.com.

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