One of the most elegant places to enjoy a cocktail must be the sophisticated bar aboard a grand old steam liner . Whilst the Golden Age of the steamers might be long gone, there is still a place where you can sip a Sazerac amidst the stylish surroundings of an Art Deco steamship: for this edition of Cocktail Hour, we’re stepping aboard the historic RMS Queen Mary. Once the jewel in the Cunard-White Star Line fleet, today she is a permanently moored museum and hotel in Long Beach. We’re off to explore and enjoy the elegant confines of the Observation Bar, in the company of SGE Member & contributor Tom Lynskey.
A previous Cocktail Hour spotlight began with spying a German U-boat periscope jutting out the roof of a building in St.John’s, NF, leading to the discovery of a bar below. Let’s look at the other end of that periscope – what if you could wine and dine in a lounge of a vintage ocean liner that was such a threat to Adolf Hitler that he placed a massive bounty on her? Any U-boat commander who sank the famous RMS Queen Mary would be given $250,000 and personally awarded the Iron Cross by Hitler himself.
But don’t let this threat dismay you. Queen Mary is a rough and tough lady on the outside, but inside she’s a glimmering star of the golden age of Hollywood. During the Second World War, she transported tens of thousands of troops to Europe, but when the war years were over, she was converted back to her original intention – as the pinnacle of trans-Atlantic elegance.
In the 1930’s, the White Star Line, the company that once owned the Titanic, merged with their chief rivals, the Cunard Line. The first ship sailing under the newly formed Cunard-White Star Line was the majestic RMS Queen Mary, and she plied the North Atlantic route since her maiden voyage in 1936, until she was finally retired in 1967. Miraculously saving her from scrapping, the City of Long Beach, California stepped in and purchased her for use as a hotel. She’s been there since.
Queen Mary had been on my bucket list since my teens, but I didn’t get to come aboard her until 2015. My friend and I had been wreck diving off Catalina Island and just returned to the mainland, stopping in to see the antique liner and splitting a cabin for the night. Boarding the ship, one is nearly intimidated by the scale of the black steel cliff that rises ten or so stories from the water.
Up to the Promenade Deck then all the way forward, through the former First Class Stairwell Forward, and into the Observation Bar. One doesn’t need to spend the night on Queen Mary to spend time in the bar; it’s open from around noon until midnight or later every night. Saturday nights, the bar is host to musicians and other live performances.
From the moment you step aboard, you’re saturated with Art Deco designs, rare wooden panels and carvings, and uniformed crew that transport you back to a time of higher levels of class and pride, but turn that up a notch when you enter the Observation Bar. This room curves with the shape of the ship’s forward superstructure, with large windows looking out on the ship’s forecastle deck. In a flash, perhaps aided by some of their cocktails, you can easily imagine the sea crashing across the deck and spraying these windows back when this ship was the best way to cross the ocean.
In the center of the room is the semi-circle shaped bar, with an original mural from the ship’s early days behind it. The room follows the curvature of the bar in the same circular shape as the front of her superstructure. A couple steps up from the bar is a larger terrace of additional seating. The original linoleum floor has been replaced with carpet, but the woodwork, brass fittings, and artistic elements remain largely unchanged.
My friend and I sat down after a week of camping and diving (and nearly dying twice, but that’s another story!). We chose a table on the port side of the ship – seated by the rich red paneled columns and the art deco vase-lamps that line the stainless steel railing – a railing meant to aid the tipsy in rough waves.
Who else had sat and drank where we are? The ship was a favorite of Winston Churchill, of Jimmy Stewart, and Bob Hope. Audrey Hepburn loved sailing aboard her. There’s a photo of Walt Disney leaning against those aforementioned large windows, though leaning against them from the outside. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sailed her frequently, and very likely patronized the passenger recording studio adjacent to the Observation Bar. This room hadn’t changed all that much since it was full of the celebrities we all know and love and, more recently, I can tell you exactly who was where we sat. Our table was in the exact spot Leonardo DiCaprio stood in during the wrap-party scene of The Aviator. John Malkovich played the piano in this room in the Malkovich overload scene in Being John Malkovich. And of course, the Queen Mary was the backdrop for the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure.
Potato Skins, Chicken Wings, Shrimp Cocktail – the usual bar fare, but with a twist of class added to it. You’re there for the atmosphere, but the food doesn’t disappoint. My friend and I toasted our successful expedition over a glass of champagne – the Queen Mary has her own line of champagne imported from South America for her Sunday Champagne Brunch. Not to exaggerate, but it really was the best champagne I’ve had. It was the perfect middle ground between sweet and dry.
You won’t get a full entree in this bar – appetizers and drinks only. If you want a full meal, the ship has a good handful of other restaurants to choose form, but you can (and I have) easily make a full meal out of the light fare offered on the menu. Sheesh – after camping, everything looked good!
In writing this article, I’ve come to the painful conclusion that I’ve only ever gotten a small handful of drinks there. I’ve had to call on fellow adventurers, historians, divers, and old friends I’ve met with in the ten or so times I’ve patronized the Observation Bar. Coming from a former US Navy Officer, naval engineer, and Titanic wreck diver, the “Old Fashioned” is the drink to get. My diving buddy, the Jack and Coke on the rocks is his personal choice. My business partner, joining me on a subsequent visit to the ship, the “Mojito tastes better, but the Long Island gets you more tipsy” . For an esteemed historian and artifact archivist, the Gin and Tonic. I hear the gin is top shelf and generously portioned. From a Sea Cadet buddy of mine, I was recommended the Rootbeer Float (he’s not old enough to drink – what did you expect?) . For my fiancé, the Merlot, and for myself, I haven’t fully settled on what my usual drink is. The Singapore Sling was good, as was the Moscow Mule. Frankly, and lamely, I have to say that sometimes just an iced tea and a pile of research papers is the way I prefer spending my evening the Observation Bar, the Ipod set to 1940’s music. The sun sets over the port bow. A pile of maps, old accounts, and an old diary with which to chart out the course for subsequent expeditions into the desert. Inside the Observation Bar is one of my favorite places to be.
The RMS Queen Mary can be found moored at 1126, Queens Highway, Long Beach, California, 90802. The Observation Bar is open Mon-Thurs 12pm-12am, Fri-Sat 11am-2am, Sundays 11am-12am. www.queenmary.com
For more seafaring adventures from Member Lynskey, take a look at this!