Cruising Through the Years

photo: MSC Cruises

Contributed by John Baker

Cruises are hot. For some years now new liners have been racing off the slipways like hotcakes to deal with the demand. Time was that cruises were the holiday of choice only of the well-heeled elderly, but not any more. Increasingly, a younger clientele is being attracted by increasingly active entertainments that have been added to the traditional delights of a generous table and a relaxed way of arriving at a new destination.

Taking a ship to see the Northern Lights between the near perpendicular walls of a Norwegian fjord has been popular since the late 19th Century when a number of shipping companies conceived the idea of converting commercial vessels to make them more comfortable for passengers and then sailing them to attractive locations. The idea caught on quickly and soon rival companies were following suit. The first purpose-built cruise ship, Prinzesse Victoria Louise, was completed in 1900 and until she was lost six years later off Jamaica was a roaring success.

The majority of ocean crossings at this time were still so-called line voyages but empty berths on many of them spurred owners to find new ways of filling them. The accent on the marketing started to shift toward highlighting the virtues of the complete change of scene that only a trip by sea could provide and the range of relaxed pleasures that just a short walk around a deck could provide. The first ship to feature a swimming pool was the White Star Line’s Adriatic, as far back as 1907, and high quality restaurants also made their appearance.

Since these distant beginnings, the history of cruising has seen many highs and lows. Wars and economic downturns have played their part in driving ships from the seas but they have always returned, as their passengers do, once the oceans contain only natural dangers and the enthusiasm for seeing the world from a different angle revives.

Scan the travel sections of the weekend papers and you are immediately reminded that cruising has never been more popular. Many of the papers actually contain lift-out sections devoted entirely to them. Naturally the online world, as well, is stuffed full of the websites of the Cruise companies. A Nordic adventure, freezing outside but warm and snug in the lounge, has always been an easy sell, just as the thought of island-hopping in the Caribbean in January warmed the imagination, but the range of destinations has grown to encompass just about everywhere not infested with pirates.

All parts of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to the Levant, the islands of the Pacific and Australasia, the Baltic States and South America, and all points in between. The growth in the number of voyages and destinations reflects that of the number of passengers clamouring to lose their land legs but another kind of growth has perhaps been the most startling outcome.

When the Queens Mary and Elizabeth split the Atlantic half a century ago they were as large as anything afloat. Now they are dwarfed by new mega-ships, flat-sided like towering apartment blocks, their funnels hidden by space-age superstructure. Style and scale changes but the cruise cruises on.

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