This year on my summer vacation I actually played tourist in my own home town. I've lived in Los Angeles for 20 years – never thought I would be here this long – and have pretty much seen/done everything over the years. Or so I thought. With keyboard at the ready, I searched the Internet for attractions that would appeal to both adults (me and my sister) and our 16-year-old niece, sort of a child, until you have to pay for her. Since the trip was for her birthday and she loves animals, especially sea creatures, the Aquarium of the Pacific was a must-stop. I had no issue with driving to Long Beach, but the aquarium is not that big and I didn't want to go down and back in the same day, as we'd assuredly end up spending more time in the car than experiencing the wonders of the deep. I knew the Queen Mary was right across the bay and figured that would be an interesting thing to see, too. (Well at least for the real adults.) There's nothing wrong with learning a little something on your vacation, right?
What I discovered is that not only is the ship a museum, but a hotel as well. That's right, you can actually stay over. Not many historical landmarks offer that pleasure. While I'm sure everyone who lives in the city of Long Beach knew this already, everyone I tell this to in Los Angeles is surprised to hear it. And intrigued. As was I. (Thanks to the eternal allure of the TITANIC.) The great thing about sleeping on a permanently docked boat is you get all the ambiance, but with none of the pitch and roll.
The Queen Mary has been parked in Long Beach Harbor since she was decommissioned in 1967 and has been both tourist attraction and hotel off and on over the last 40-plus years. I forgot her pier-mate was the Spruce Goose for awhile, but that little piece of history was hauled off to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon in 1993.
Many companies have been involved with her restoration and maintenance over the years, even Disney, and they've all tried to stay true to the spirit of the ship as she was in her heyday while still offering modern conveniences. This means the rooms are OLD – the ship was initially completed in 1934 – but have big cushy beds, your own modernish bathroom and, more recently, flat screen TVs attached to the burnished, wood paneling. I found it quaint and had no trouble imagining myself crossing the Atlantic gazing out my portholes at nothing but water and the big blue sky.
I was hoping for a bit more of Art Deco grandeur in the hallways and open spaces, but I did enjoy the displays showcasing items and photos from the ship's early days. Perhaps if the Queen Mary was just a hotel and didn't have to deal with a constant influx of tourists, i.e. daytrippers, they could make it more fancy and plush. However, you can't watch everyone and God knows things would go missing or be ruined, as you just can't have nice things around some people.
The bulk of the ship – everything below C Deck – was gutted for office space and to provide ballast and stability. You can still poke around one of the engine rooms, which is so cramped and dark, I felt instantly sad for the men who had to work down there. They must have eventually become stone deaf from the noise of all the machinery when it was running at full force. At least, they were probably never cold. Those afraid of cramped, dark spaces need not apply. One of the original propellers is still attached and visible in an underwater display. It is quite massive and sort of eerie. The ship is supposedly haunted and though I found no proof, looking at that propeller gave me the heebie-jeebies. I don't know if it's part of the "Haunted Encounters Tour" but I wouldn't doubt it. According to the pamphlet they gave us there were other things to see, like the bridge and the pool, but we were just there to relax, so like so many before us, we pulled up a chair on the Promenade deck and just enjoyed the fresh air and the view. Plus, there's only so much history a 16-year-old can take.
To complete our experience, we decided to have dinner in Sir Winston's Restaurant, the ship's fine dining option. It claims to have a dress code (Smart Casual), but since they're relying on tourists, it wasn't exactly enforced, which is a shame because the ambiance is very old-school fancy. The place was pretty empty – we went on a Tuesday – so we got to take our time and really savor our meal. A good thing when entrees are priced from $28 (for the chicken) to $50 for the Porterhouse steak. We decided to share the Bacon-Wrapped Scallops with Parsley Butter – large and perfectly cooked – and the Wild Mushroom Chevre Strudel. My companions both wanted beef so they opted for the Chateaubriand for Two, carved tableside, which is a nice touch. I usually go for the lamb, but this time ordered the Pan-Seared Petaluma Duck with Wild Honey Tamarind Glaze. I made the right decision. It was the most tender and delicious duck I've ever had. The vegetables it came with – roasted beets and some sort of sweet potato cake – were all undercooked, but I still came away from the meal more than satisfied. Got a chance to try the Chateaubriand as well, since my niece couldn't finish hers, and it was also perfectly cooked. Heaven with the Bearnaise sauce.
They have some Signature Cocktails, I don't remember the names of, but they were $8 each which is a very good deal for a restaurant like this. The wine list was quite small and filled with the usual suspects, but we managed to find a few solid choices that came out in very big, quality glasses with a hefty pour at a fair price. Considering the level of food and service, the list should be soooo much better. Clearly they don't care, because it would be if they did. Speaking of the service, while impeccable, it was a bit too earnest. Perhaps if they had had more people to wait on, we wouldn't have been barraged by bread and water. It's hard to relax and have a good time, when you're almost constantly being asked if you're having a good time. That being said, I'd rather have over-attentive waiters than uninterested ones, the norm in Los Angeles. For those looking for a more casual experience, the ship has several other cafe's and bars that provide snacks, beverages and less fussy fare.
I can't say if my niece was impressed by her time spent on this classic oceanliner, but I know I was. It's rare to be able to step back in time and enjoy a slice of how the world once was...even for a night.
Lisa Dinsmore is a writer, web programmer, movie and wine lover. She currently runs two review websites to share her passions: www.crazy4cinema.com and www.dailywinedispatch.com. She is also the Managing Editor of One for the Table.