Sure, they've seen better days, but that doesn't mean these two queens are down for the count.
From river lore to haunted cabins, Delta Queen and Queen Mary are rich in history, and they're spending their golden years offering some pretty nifty accommodations -- a hybrid of land and sea. So, whether you're a cruise newbie who's hoping to test the waters or a seasoned seadog who's craving a taste of the pre-Carnival cruise era, read on to see if a stay at either of these grand old favorites will make it onto your vacation itinerary.
History & Hauntings: A Night on Queen Mary
Ol' Man River & an Old-School Vibe: A Night on Delta Queen
Ship: Queen Mary
Where: You'll find it in Long Beach, California, just across from the active cruise port. A few minutes' drive will bring you to Long Beach's attractions, including shops and restaurants at Shoreline Village and the Pike at Rainbow Harbor, the Aquarium of the Pacific and the theaters of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. Los Angeles is about 25 miles away.
Back Story: Queen Mary debuted fashionably late for Cunard White Star in May 1936; although the ocean liner's first keel was laid in December 1930, the Depression and a merger between the Cunard Line and White Star Line caused lengthy building delays. In the early years, the ship competed with another iconic vessel, the Normandie, for the fastest North Atlantic crossing times, but it had to trade in its racing shoes for blacked-out portholes and gray duds to become a troop carrier during World War II. Its speed and hue earned it the nickname the Grey Ghost during that time. In 1945, the ship got its bright colors back and played cupid, transporting European war brides and children to the U.S. and Canada.
After another 20-plus years of transatlantic crossings and a few Mediterranean cruises, Cunard announced the ship was for sale. Long Beach purchased Queen Mary for $3.45 million, and the ship arrived in December 1967. At first, the ship served only as a floating museum until the first hotel rooms opened in 1972.
Cabins: QM's 314 rooms -- 305 cabins, nine suites -- are an odd mix of modern and historic. Amenities include flat-screen TV's, Internet access and iPod docking clock radios, yet natural light filters in through portholes, and the decor incorporates original heating units and bathroom taps. The inside and standard rooms, though quirky, are definitely basic, with tiny bathrooms that feel outdated and a bit musty.
For more space, you can upgrade to a deluxe or family room. The multiroom suites each feature a living room and either one or two bedrooms and a breakfast nook; these are the rooms to book for that stepped-back-in-time, posh traveler feel. The family rooms come with either two queen beds or a king and a twin.
Though many of the rooms are bigger than their modern-day cruise ship equivalents, the limited natural light and dim corridors make the place seem less inviting. Or perhaps it's the feeling that someone -- or something -- mysterious is watching or waiting. That's because some rooms come with an unusual amenity: ghosts! While the hotel will not publicize which rooms are supposedly haunted, guests can request an especially haunted room ... if they dare. Unusual experiences noted by guests include sounds of talking, knocking on the door (but no one's there), belongings moving about the room, lights turning on and off and drawers opening and closing on their own.
Onboard Attractions: Just like a real cruise ship, you'll find a host of (mostly useless) souvenir shops, a spa and event facilities. Dining options are either uber-casual or dress-up fancy, with little between. Sir Winston's (entrees from $30) is the date night splurge serving "old-school classics ... with a contemporary twist," while the Chelsea Chowder House offers sustainable seafood in a New England setting (entrees from $21, sandwiches from $13). A Champagne Sunday brunch ($49) is served in the old first-class dining room. For the riff-raff, the Promenade Cafe serves breakfast and lunch as a sit-down affair with prices from $12 to $30 for sandwiches and entrees (dinner weekends only). You can grab snacks to go at the Starboard Bakery, Hollywood Deli and California Shakes.
You can sip cocktails at several onboard lounges, occasionally with live music. Visiting alone and on a weeknight, we drove over the bridge for a better choice of dinner options and ate overpriced oatmeal at the Promenade Cafe for breakfast.
That said, don't miss the historic displays and guided tours. You can do a self-guided tour (with or without a headset featuring commentary) of the bridge, mockups of officer's quarters, the wireless room and more. You can peer into the nursery -- forerunner of today's kids' clubs -- and view displays of items from the ship's heyday (kosher China servingware, anyone?). For more in-depth information, you can sign up for a guided tour focusing on either the ship's history or haunting.
We Loved ... the old-school vibe of the ship. Walking down the corridor, we felt as if we could run into Jack and Rose or the cast of "Anything Goes." Our wood-paneled cabin, though fairly plain, had quirky touches like an original ship's fan and four taps in the tub for hot and cold water (fresh or sea). The old-school style was a bit marred by the fact that the ship is just old and feels it, but it's kitschy good fun anyway.
Of course, not many hotels have their own after-hours ghost tours (Paranormal Ship Walk, $50). Even if you're not a believer -- and the tour guides have a whole scenario about how the afterworld works -- you can't help but get goose bumps in the dark, deserted places you visit. Down in the engine room, we jumped when loud machinery would suddenly roar into action (guides blamed it on a mischievous ghost). A visit to the women's poolside changing rooms -- where we had to separate ourselves into our own stalls and stand alone in the dark while the guides told us of the room's haunting -- had several people screaming in fright. This isn't a tour where someone in costume will jump out from behind a wall -- the guides play it serious. Tourgoers are given the option of communicating with ghosts via divining rods, and we were chosen to play hide-and-seek by the indoor pool with a young girl ghost; the rods said we found her, but oddly enough, we didn't see a thing....
But We Could Have Done Without ... the confusing booking process. On Expedia's Web site, we had the choice of booking a Standard or Deluxe room, both of which are porthole accommodations on the Queen Mary Web site. But when we checked in, we found ourselves in a dim inside cabin and had to pony up an extra $20 for a room with a window.
Tip: If you want any sort of outside view, double check that you're booking a cabin with a porthole.
Cost: Standard inside rooms range from $99 to $179, deluxe outside rooms from $119 to $219 and suites from $399 to $449. To book, call 877-342-0742 or visit www.queenmary.com. You can also find the hotel listed on third-party booking sites, such as Expedia.
If a stationary ship isn't exactly up your alley, check prices on the real thing.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor
Ship: Delta Queen
Where: After an 80-year career on the West Coast and Mississippi River, this historic steamboat is now a hotel and eatery in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Located in Coolidge Park in the eclectic Northshore neighborhood, Delta Queen is a 10-minute walk to the city center, where you'll find the Tennessee Aquarium, AT&T Field (home of the Lookouts, a minor league baseball team), the Hunter Museum of Art and other local attractions.
Back Story: Completed and lavishly outfitted in 1927, Delta Queen originally sailed from San Francisco to Sacramento on overnight voyages. During World War II, it saw service as a Naval troop transport in San Francisco. Then, in 1947, the ship was bought by the Greene Line and literally boxed up and towed through the Panama Canal. For the next six decades, it steamed through America's heartland, reaching as far north as St. Paul, as far east as Pittsburgh and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Among its passengers was President Jimmy Carter, who vacationed onboard in 1979.
New Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, which disallowed the ship's completely wooden superstructure, threatened to end its career in 1966. Indeed, several times it was almost pulled from service, only to be saved at the last minute by legions of fans and congressional exemptions. Politics finally won out in 2008, when Minnesota congressman Jim Oberstar blocked legislation allowing Delta Queen to sail, arguing the vessel was a fire trap. In 2009, the National Historic Landmark became a Chattanooga hotel.
Cabins: Delta Queen is best described as a charming and cozy antiques-filled B&B. Don't expect a W hotel -- instead you'll find warm oak and Oregon cedar paneling, Victorian-style details and furnishings, and shiny brass fittings. The 88 cabins are small, even by cruise ship standards, and they don't feature typical amenities like telephones or TV's. (Free Wi-Fi is offered, though.)
Accommodations range from shockingly small cabins with bunk beds to significantly larger suites, which offer three to five windows and ooze period personality and charm. We prefer the rooms on the port side with views over the river to Chattanooga; those on the starboard side look onto Coolidge Park.
One other very important note: All cabins on the Texas and Sun Decks open up directly onto a common promenade. Only the accommodations on Cabin Deck are entered from the interior; these rooms feature large windows, including a lovely decorative band of stained glass.
While we enjoyed the neighborly feel of our cabin opening onto the deck, those wanting more privacy are better off booking cabins in the middle of Cabin Deck. Soundproofing in any cabin, however, is not particularly good.
Onboard Attractions: Stepping onboard Delta Queen is akin to entering a time capsule, and the boat is the attraction unto itself. Hotel guests can tour and use all of the public rooms. On the lowest deck is the Orleans Room, originally built as a freight deck and now used only for the complimentary breakfast buffet or special events. One deck above are the far more beautiful Cabin Lounge and Betty Blake Lounge, the latter a veritable gallery of steamboat memorabilia and art. Both of these rooms offer a cozy, atmospheric spot to sit and read -- but no food or beverage service.
The Texas Lounge houses the bar and the Paddlewheel Restaurant, whose dinner menu (Southern-fried catfish, shrimp and grits, etc.) was largely disappointing. Entrees start at around $17.
Everyone gravitates toward the mahogany Grand Staircase, which serves as a popular backdrop for photographs, and nearby is a small shop with Delta Queen logo items for sale. Both the Sun and Texas Decks have wide promenades with rocking chairs and tables to enjoy dinner outside or just a quiet view across the river.
Crewmembers provide free guided tours on request, including visits to the bridge and engine room. There, the massive Pitman arms that used to slowly turn the paddlewheel still look ready to sail the Mississippi.
We Loved ... the overall period ambience. When it was still moving rather than floating in 2001, we sailed on Delta Queen, and, returning to visit the boat in Chattanooga, we wondered if we'd find the same spirit and friendly crew that gave her such life when underway. Happily, today's staff love and care for the iconic boat and are all too happy to dish out epic yarns on her history.
(One particularly memorable tale: The ghost of Ma Greene, former owner and one of the first female river pilots, is reportedly still active onboard and keeps an eye over her favorite vessel.)
Mostly, though, we loved soaking in that riverboat charm. We were happiest sitting out on deck in rocking chairs, sipping cocktails while watching the sun set over the Tennessee River.
Small boats passed by, tooting their horns in respectful appreciation, and for just a moment, we could pretend we were once again slowly steaming, watching the riverbanks of America pass by.
But We Could Have Done Without ... the far-from-satisfying chow. When in service, Delta Queen was known for its Southern fare. So imagine our disappointment to discover the limited menu and humdrum food served in the Paddlewheel Restaurant. (Think chicken wings and potato skins as appetizers.) We also found service to be hit or miss. Because there is often no formal evening entertainment, the bar can be fairly quiet at night if the hotel isn't full. However, several times a month there is live music in the Texas Bar, and other organized entertainment and activities throughout the week (Monday Night Football, Thursday evening wine bar, etc.) help deliver the local crowd.
Cost: The cheapest bunk cabins start at $109 per night, while standard cabins are $139. Deluxe cabins, each with a queen or king bed, are $169. If you're willing to spend the money, the Master cabins offer substantially more space for only $20 more a night. The most expensive suites, located just under the bridge, are $259. All prices quoted are without tax. More information can be found at www.deltaqueenhotel.net or by calling 423-468-4500.
--by Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic Contributor