A haunted ship? Sounds cheesy, but when you have the combination of one sightseer who likes history (me) and another who hates it but loves ghost stories (my daughter, Meg) then a haunted ship is pretty ideal.
We were in Long Beach, California for a jump rope tournament and were quite disappointed to find very little beach, either long or short. But I could see this ship across the marina. It reminded me of the Titanic. And at our hotel, I learned that there was a free city bus that would take us there.
That turned out to be the only free thing about a visit to the Queen Mary. Although it now functions as a hotel and has numerous restaurants and bars, you can’t just walk into the lobby like any other hotel. You have to pay, and pay a lot.
There’s a basic self guided tour which was exactly what we wanted. Of course, we couldn’t just take that tour. We had to sign up for a package that included a choice of numerous other tours, including a couple of haunted options, a World War II tour and something involving Princess Diana, who my daughter had never even heard of.
We picked the cheapest combination, and it turned out better than I’d expected.
Since we were assigned a time for our haunted ship tour (described as a “show,” which led me to expect much cheese) we went on the self guided tour. Or at least we tried to. First we had trouble following the directions to find the place to start the tour. Then we found some exhibits about shipboard life, especially during the war years. We knew we needed to go up a few more decks to get to the main area where our tour would start. Following the signs that said “stairs” led us into a “staff only” section and left us trapped in a stairwell with emergency doors on all side that promised to set off an alarm if we opened any of them. So far, not a real impressive visit.
Fortunately, the alarm did not go off, we retraced our steps back to the very beginning and ignored the directions we got originally, and found our way up to the Promenade deck.
The Queen Mary is an ocean liner of a vintage about 20 years after the Titanic. Construction on the ship began in 1930, but the onset of the depression forced the owner, the Cunard Line, to merge with the rival White Star Line as a condition for getting a loan to finish construction. The Queen Mary launched in 1936 and set speed records for crossing the Atlantic. Service catered to the rich and famous until 1939 when the ship was stripped of her luxuries, painted gray, and converted to a troop ship. On one voyage, the Queen Mary carried over 16,000 returning soldiers, setting a record for the most passengers which still stands today.
Ironically, it was back in the war years when the ship earned her nickname “the Grey Ghost,” based on her color and her speed, rather than anything related to the paranormal.
That connection didn’t come until the tourist days.
Jet air travel made ocean liners obsolete by the 1960s, so in 1967, the Queen Mary made her final voyage to settle in to Long Beach to begin a new life as a hotel and tourist attraction.
It’s not clear when the ghost stories started. Some of them are based on well-known tragedies from the ship’s past. During the war, the Queen Mary accidentally rammed one of her escort boats, the HMS Curacoa, cutting the smaller vessel in two. Under orders not to stop for anything, the Queen Mary steamed on despite damage to the bow. Over two hundred crewmen from the Curacoa lost their lives and some of their spirits are said to haunt the lower regions of the Queen Mary. There’s also the unhappy story of an unfortunate crewman caught in a pressured hatch when it closed.
The sources of other ghost stories are a little more vague. There’s a guest room that’s supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a murdered (unnamed) guest. And there’s a mysterious lady in white who haunts the old first class swimming pool.
The haunted tour that was included in our ticket package got off to a really lame beginning with a couple of cheesy videos and the melodramatic warnings of our tour guide. We saw the old pool which was creepy not because of the ghostly light show but just because it’s a big dark space in the interior of a big dark metal ship. In the walkways we traversed through the interior of the ship, the spider webs looked very convincing (always a scare for an anachrophobic like me). Then a few minutes later, we went through a dark passage with something hanging from the ceiling that felt very much like those spider webs I’d noticed earlier. Very effective!
But the best part was the visit to the old boiler room. With the boilers removed, the space is dark, cavernous, vast, and truly unnerving, even without the special effects. In fact, when the lights and sounds popped up to simulate an explosion, it was actually a comforting reminder that we were on a planned tour. If we’d stayed in the dark dank empty space for long without it, I might have started seeing ghosts myself.
It was worth going on the ghost tour just to see areas of the ship that would otherwise not be open to the public. Of the areas that were open for the self guided tour, I was surprised how similar the Queen Mary was to modern traditionally decorated ships such as HollandAmerica’s SS Noordam. Walking the deck with the lifeboats overhead, I noticed very little difference from a modern ship. In other aspects, the old Queen Mary shares the same elements with modern cruise ships, but with a different twist. For instance, the Queen Mary has an exercise room, but instead of treadmills and ellipticals, it had a mechanical bull and vibrating belt to shake the fat from passengers’ waists. The kids’ playroom had none of the video screens that populate modern ships, of course but it served the same purpose – to keep the little ones occupied while Mommy and Daddy enjoyed adult entertainment.
One of the most interesting things to compare between the Queen Mary and a modern ship is the “class” system. It is less obvious on modern vessels than it was in the Queen Mary’s heyday in the 1930s. On the old ocean liner, certain areas of the ship were only open to first class or “cabin” (second) class passengers. On modern ships, the class system is more subtle, but still in evidence. There are separate dining rooms that charge extra money and spas and lounges that are only open to passengers staying in suites (i.e., first class).
The biggest difference between the grand old liner and new luxury ships is in the swimming pools. The Queen Mary had two swimming pools, just as many modern ships do. But while the modern pools sit out in the open surrounded by bandstands and deck chairs, the swimming pools on the Queen Mary were buried in the bowels of the ship, and segregated by class.
Of course, the Queen Mary differs from modern ships in quite obvious ways. Cruise ships now look like apartment buildings stacked on barges, because every cabin has its own balcony. Back in the day, if you were lucky, you got a porthole. And the Queen Mary is notably lacking in computers, televisions and slot machines. But is that such a bad thing?
All in all, I quite enjoyed our visit to the Queen. Was it worth the money? Hard to say. How much is it worth to shake hands with a giant cartoon mouse? Or to sit in the hot sand wiping sweat out of your eyes and spitting salt out of your mouth? No vacation is worth the money, if you really think about it.
So I try not to think about it, because I love vacations.
Hope you get to enjoy one soon!