The history of cruises: The journey is the reward

The gentle sensation of the wind and waves, the pleasure of the little luxuries offered on board, the freedom to indulge in spot of travelling: with these promises the cruise industry has been inspiring people for more than 115 years. A retrospective. 

160 years ago nobody in their wildest dreams would have contemplated volunteering for a sea journey. Back then, the world’s oceans were ploughed by sailing ships, which were subject to whims of the wind and weather. People would board a vessel with only one aim in mind: to reach their destination as quickly as possible with any detours.

But then steam ships arrived on the scene, and soon the idea of taking a sea journey purely for pleasure was born. As early as 1819, the first propeller-driven steam ships were crossing the Atlantic, and soon the shipping companies – spearheaded by German and British shipbuilders  – were competing to build even larger and faster vessels. Luxury started making an appearance; the ships were subdivided into classes, with the upper classes offering the same luxury and level of service as that of a large hotel. From around 1850, transatlantic passenger travel became a lucrative business, not least because of the millions of Europeans emigrating to the New World to seek their fortune. The shipping companies developed a perfectly-honed system, from ship’s engineering through to timetables, passenger handling services and food and drink on board the vessel. 

The actual birth of the cruise industry can be dated back to 1890, the year in which Albert Ballin, director of the Hamburg-America Line, introduced a completely new idea to an astonished world: during the stormy winter months most of his transatlantic vessels were moored in the harbour, and so he decided to send the flagship of his Hapag Line across the Mediterranean on a pleasure cruise. On 22 January 1891, the world’s very first luxury cruise passengers departed from Cuxhaven on board the Augusta Victoria. 227 passengers had booked Ballin’s 57-day “excursion” to the Middle East. The ship stopped off at exotic locations such as Alexandria, Beirut and Constantinople. Emperor William the Second of Germany, who “by chance” happened to be in Cuxhaven on this very day, deigned to inspect the ship in person prior to its departure. A “happy coincidence” which Ballin, who later became friends with the Emperor, used as a highly effective business secret: he always knew in advance which routes the “Travelling Kaiser” would be taking.

The Oriental dream cruise, which effectively followed in the wake of the imperial Yacht Hohenzollern, was an immediate success. In the following winters, the company’s ships were sent down south in the winter, and around 1900 Hapag built the world’s very first purpose-designed cruise ship: the Prinzessin Victoria Luise. She was followed in 1904 by the Meteor. From summer 1894, Hapag started offering trips to Norway, and from 1896 cruises to the West Indies.

These very first cruises were exclusively booked by wealthy passengers. The luxury offered by the large transatlantic vessels was now available on ships that sailed to tourist destinations purely for the pleasure. The passengers would stroll around the decks, and put in an appearance in the magnificently appointed staterooms and salons. There were captain’s receptions, gala evenings and musical entertainment, thus providing a festive and luxurious setting. The elaborate dress code was part of the programme and played a key role in the daily rituals on board.

Cruises resumed again after the First World War in 1923, when they became even more popular than in the early years. In Germany, the National Socialists used cruises as part of their propaganda, treating loyal “comrades” to a few pleasant days on board one of the state-owned and operated “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength Through Joy) vessels, which would cruise up to the North. Great care was taken to avoid foreign ports of call, which is why the KdF trips were not cruises in the true sense of the word. 

After the Second World War ocean liners were for many years the only way of crossing the Atlantic. Cruises were rediscovered at the height of the German Economic Miracle: the first German vessel to take cruise passengers on board was the white Ariadne, which started offering cruises to the ports of the Mediterranean from 1958 on. And from 1960, when transatlantic flights started taking over from ships as the fastest way of crossing the Atlantic, the shipping companies started offering more affordable cruises to ports in the south for  average wage earners.

In the 1980s new destinations were added. Ever since, expedition cruises have travelled to the Arctic and Antarctica, down the Amazon and the Orinoco. Even the legendary North-West Passage around Canada, from Greenland to Alaska, which is only passable during the few ice-free summer months, is today offered by several cruise companies, and passengers are taken ashore in rubber dinghies.

Today, many ocean liners offer classic cruises in stylish surroundings, with formal balls, gala dinners and captain’s receptions. At the same time, two developments show just how much the style of the industry is changing: firstly, the emergence of less formal club ships aimed at families with children; the popularity of this type of cruise started growing in 1996 when the first AIDA started operating. Secondly, the trend to increasingly large vessels, which came to Europe from the United States. With the twins Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, which launched in 2009 and 2010 respectively, the US cruise line Royal Caribbean currently holds the record for the biggest ships: the two liners have space for over 6,000 passengers each plus 2,200 crew members – making them the equivalents of floating towns!

But however they vary, all of these concepts have one thing in common: the ship and its unique atmosphere are what makes this experience so special. 

 

© KREUZFAHRT GUIDE / Bellevue and More Publishing Company
Author: Gerritt Aust