I sometimes think that the ideas we all have about the "romance" of leisure travel date back to the days when travel wasn't quite so widespread, when it was the exclusive province of the elite. Say, the late 19th or early 20th century. When we're suffused with this nostalgia, we don't think very often of the fact that we would most likely not be elites ourselves, and even if we were, we'd have far less time lord it over everyone since life expectancy was just shy of 50 -- because in all romantic fantasies, the heroes are always wealthy, beautiful and very lucky.
While I'm not sure it's worth trading a few decades of life expectancy for it, it still seems a real shame that it's no longer possible to book first class passage on those amazing ocean vessels that could take you almost anywhere worth going. The era, the experience and the lifestyle is vividly described in a lavishly illustrated new book, First Class: Legendary Ocean Liner Voyages Around the World
, published by Vendome Press. It's a book that makes a terrific holiday gift for anyone who loves boats, cruises, history, and it comes in a slipcase meant to resemble a steamer trunk.
Author Gérard Piouffre provides the historical context needed to understand the era of the ocean liner, which stretches from the time steam ships took over from boats that travel under sail and ends in the late 1950s, when air travel surpassed travel by water. The construction of these ships would take a workforce of 10,000 to 15,000, in order to create settings that were almost embarrassingly ostentatious, meant to resemble floating palaces or châteaus. That, of course, was in first class, but second class wasn't too terrible -- less luxurious, but still including "immense drawing rooms, libraries, smoking rooms," write Piouffre. It was meant to resemble an "impressively appointed country house." (Of third class, he says, the look was more dormitory.)
Beyond interior décor, First Class paints a picture of life aboard ship, reproducing menus, activities schedules and impromptu amusements. (On the long and boring trip from San Francisco to Hawaii, a game was organized in which two passengers were blindfolded and armed with rubber truncheons. Liability laws sure have changed.)
The book is organized into the old sea routes -- there's the transatlantic and transpacific crossings, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, the South Atlantic and the Caribbean, Routes of Ice and Gold (Alaska, and Iceland/Norway) for instance. Between the photos, drawings, ephemera and quotes from everyone from ordinary passengers to luminaries like Mark Twain, you feel like you're following right along in a great ship's wake. The most hypnotic chapter to me was the one that dealt with the route that went through the Suez Canal to the Far East, starting perhaps in Marseille, and calling on Alexandria, Mumbai, Calcutta, Rangoon, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and ultimately Yokohama, Japan. Really, I can't think of a voyage, in any time, that sounds more romantic than that.