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The Queen Mary: a floating hotel with a memorable past

The former Cunard Line transatlantic liner Queen Mary is alive and well and improving with age as a floating hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach, southern California. Having often seen the Queen during her regular visits to New York, before she was withdrawn from passenger service in 1967, ad then once again on my last visit to Long Beach in 1971, I wanted to see how she was doing under new ownership.

After driving down from Los Angeles in a thick fog, I pulled up to where she was supposed to be berthed. It was not until I reached the gangway that I was able to make out the three floodlighted orange-red funnels and a half-dozen lifeboats high up on the port side.

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Immediately upon boarding through the main foyer on A-Deck, the warmth and fondness I once had for the old ship were rekindled. Wood paneling of various shades, art deco light fixtures, potted palm trees, and long sloping corridors reminded me of this great liner's past -- 31 years of seagoing service, 1,001 Atlantic crossings, and un unparalleled wartime record with 800,000 troops carried around the world.

In a $55-a-night former first class cabin on A-Deck, I went straight to one of the large portholes, knocked the latch to one side and pulled it open. The fog outside was so thick it was impossible to see the water, let alone the city of Long Beach just across the harbor. Whistles from other ships and several foghorns gave the illusion of an imminent sailing for Cherbourg or Southampton.

The cabin's furnishings seemed more or less in keeping, though I would have expected more chintz and geometric designs in the fabrics. In the bathroom, the hot and cold saltwater taps were in place, though they no longer gushed seawater for Part 1 of a two- part bath.

There are four restaurants on the ship, and for dinner I chose Sir Winston Churchill's -- once the posh Verandah Grill. The decor had the somber tone of an English club, and the walls were covered with black and whie photographs depicting Churchill's life. The service was attentive and an excellent Steak Diane was prepared and cooked right at the table.

The next morning, the heavy fog still enveloped the ship. The breakfast room , the Capstan, was built into an open deck area used for winding in around two huge captans -- the heavy lines tying the ship to the shore. With four original restaurants from the days when the Queen Mary was sailing the seas, I did not see why the first hotel owners had to resort to artificial settings. However, the new owner, the Wrather Corporation, siad it planned to restore as much of the ship as it could to its original condition.

Unless one goes exploring, all the former first-class public rooms, done in monumental art deco style and reserved for special functions, will not normally be seen by hotel guests. Whole sections of the ship are still unused, though again the new landlord said there were uses for much of this space.

In the late morning I took the self-guided tour, a must for anybody with an interest in the giant liner's complex layout and important place in maritime history. Some of the exhibition areas, spread over 12 decks, were created out of the former passenger, crew, and engine room space and showed examples of the original furnishings, table settigs from all three classes, a display of ship models and historical photographs, wartime memorabilia including the troops' bunk accomodation, and the not-so-in-keeping Cousteau's Living Sea Museum.

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A portion of the engine room was still intact and full of instruments, piping , valves, and two 40,000 hp. steam boilers. It was here that I met a welder from New York who was proudly showing his wife and son where he had worked during the ship's wartime service.

One of the four 32-ton propellers was on view underwater and seen from an enclosed housing specially built outside the hull. Examples of first, cabin, tourist, and crew cabins were clustered beneath the bridge, which seemed a trifle unnecessary when there are hundreds of real ones all over the ship. The captain's quarters and the navigation bridge are in their original condition, with helpful guidance on hard-to-answer questions.The wireless room is used today by ham radio operators on a volunteer basis, and is open to any licensed radio operator on presentation of a call card.

During the day, the sun finally burned away the fog and the vast open decks became a pleasure to walk along, affording a fine view of the nearby Long Beach shipping port. As on a working ship, there was qhite a lot of outside painting and maintenance going on.

Besides the Queen Mary, there are some ancillary attractions, including Mary's Gate Shipping Center in the style of an English village and the soon-to-be-open Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes's massive eight-prop flying boat built at the end of the war and flown only once, just over a mile in Long Beach Harbor.

Within an hour's drive are Disneyland, Marineland, Universal Studios, Knott's Berry Farm, the boat for Catalina Island, and several beaches and water sports.

For further information, write the Queen Mary Hotel, PO Box 8, Pier J, Long Beach Calif. 90801 or phone (213) 435-3511. Single rooms are $55 to $65 and doubles are $68 to $78, with large one- and two-bedroom suites also available.

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