Today in Southampton, England, the new Cunard Line ship, the third Queen Elizabeth, was named by the actual Queen Elizabeth. Built for $634 million, it's the third QE to be named for her. I was invited to be one of just 1,600 people to attend the naming ceremony. Watch our first-look video of the lavish interior of this ship, the third in a lineage that goes back to the Great Depression.
Cunard President Peter Shanks introduced the ship by declaring that the new vessel would ease the economy "by easing dollars of out American pockets." Then 85-year-old Queen Elizabeth, wearing royal blue from hat to hem, pushed a button that smashed a bottle of white wine against the side of the ship, proclaiming her as her namesake.
It turns out a little Anglophilia can go a long way -- it can even lure middle-class, British-obsessed Americans across an ocean at upscale prices. But could you afford to travel like this? Not long ago, more people could.
The first QE liners, launched in 1938 and 1967 respectively, are no longer in service. The 2,092-passenger QE3 (or, as it's called, the QE) may be the newest ship on the seas, but she's also a throwback to a mostly forgotten oceangoing age when how much money you had determined the quality of your voyage.
Cunard has been sailing for 170 years, when its services were critical to the smooth functioning of the planet and a necessary economic lifeline between America and the Old World. The purgatorial cabins that were once called "steerage" are long gone, but the QE does operate under a three-class system mostly forgotten to everyday people in which your cabin class determines not just the luxury level of your stateroom, but also the place you eat and where you are permitted to soak up the sun on deck.
Many other class-inspired travel amenities are still a part of daily life on the QE, including after-dinner dancing, formalwear evenings, and fine art and antiques. The ship even has its own repertory theater company that performs plays, plus an on-board museum dedicated to the history of the line, which goes back to 1839 and has carried everyone from Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Taylor.
Just two generations ago, the only way travelers of average means could cross the Atlantic Ocean was to do it in a ship like the QE -- which unlike today's standard ships, had no balcony cabins. Today, what was once available to the common man is viewed as a luxury product, and the QE is not destined for regular transatlantic crossings -- only Cunard's Queen Mary 2 still undertakes those, and in early spring or late fall, for prices that start at $699 for a six-day, one-way trip. Instead, the new QE will undertake global ramblings as an upscale cruise ship that intentionally evokes the Golden Age.
As I tour the new ship, it's hard not to feel like the opulence of the QE is proof of our generation's lowered expectations, largely because it has become so unique. We no longer dress for air travel, theatrical performances, or ocean crossings. Travel is now routine, and generally affordable to everyone, and the old way of doing things can now be presented as the ultimate luxury.
Update: In the hours before launch, Cunard revised the QE's maximum passenger count to 2,068 passengers. Revisions such as that are not unusual in the cruise business, as cabins previously allocated to customers are sometimes requisitioned for staff.
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