The Ghosts of Vessels Past

What do three famous ocean liners of the past ... Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic; France's pride, the Normandie; and the S.S. United States, former title holder for fastest crossing of the Atlantic ... have in common?

Remnants of all three live on in the three Millennium-class ships of Celebrity Cruise Lines, where actual pieces from those famous liners have been incorporated into the decor of sophisticated specialty dining rooms. They include the Millennium, the Infinity, and coming later this year, the Summit.

The Olympic
"Olympic, known as "Old Reliable," entered service in 1912 and was withdrawn in 1935. Normandie, the "Ship of Light," was scrapped in 1946; and the United States -which fell victim to the economics of transatlantic air travel in 1969 - is now rusting away, her mighty propellers shipped on the fantail, at a pier in Philadelphia.

But salvaged items from each have been built into the Celebrity ships' small, intimate dining rooms with limited, reservation-only seating. Guests are advised that the dining experience may last up to three hours for the four-course dinner. Three hours is barely enough.

Proper attire - i.e., coats and ties for men -- is required. The restaurants impose a surcharge, well worth it for those who love fine food, excellent wines, superior service and a brush with the history of ocean liners. There can be a long wait for reservations on sail-away day, so choose your evening carefully - you're stepping back into history and don't want to be rushed.

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Millennium's dining room is themed to the Olympic. Original paneling from Olympic was found in a private collection, where it had been since the ship was decommissioned. The wood in the forward dining room is deep and rich, like you'd find in a small English castle. Off to one side is the original wine cellar from Olympic, with a modern-day change. Behind the glass doors is a modern refrigeration system holding rare (and not so rare) wines at the perfect temperature. The wine cellar also includes original crystal and a hidden brass bar sink that is a work of art.

The wine list boasts a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1890, Pauillac at a mere $2,160; and a tempting 1929 Chateau Margaux at the same price. A special occasion demands champagne: How about a bottle of Heidsick Monopole 1907 for $7,000? A Swedish merchant ship carrying 5,000 cases of champagne destined for the Czar of Russia (no wonder there was a revolution) sank in 1916, and the wines were recently recovered in a salvage mission. (Apparently the Baltic Sea is the right temperature to preserve wine.)

When Infinity made her maiden voyage recently, several special wines were loaned to her wine cellar from the Millennium. The Celebrity staffers continue to purchase rare and fine wines at auction and from other sources for these special restaurants. However, no guarantees are made to the aficionados who might choose one of these very old bottles: They may or may not be drinkable. No refunds, no returns.

Infinity's dining room, themed to the S.S. United States, is more scaled-back, keeping with the minimalist decor of the '50s and the designers' intention to make the ship fireproof. Thus there was no wood on the United States. Originally, the ship's ballroom had 18 etched glass panels with a deep-sea motif, trimmed with gold, designed by Charles Gilbert. Celebrity found six of them in a private collection, and they're now in the Infinity dining room. The other 12 are in a museum.

The decor of the Normandie-themed dining room on Celebrity's soon-to-be-launched Summit is yet to be finalized. Old pictures of the main dining saloon show a grand allee with two-story windows and a coffered wood ceiling, giving a hint of what might be coming.

Back in the ships' galleys, where work begins mid-morning for the evening's dinners (which are staggered on a half-hour basis from 6:30 through 9:30 p.m.), nothing is left to chance. There are large color photographs of how each course is to look on the plate, as well as photos of the expected dress of each staff member, depending upon the time of day. In keeping with the theme of days gone by, they are always "dressed".

Every morning of every cruise, the perfectly-attired restaurant staff meets for a seminar on one aspect or another of providing this retro-experience to passengers. They learn exactly how every dish is prepared, and how to answer every questions ("The Russian Salad has nothing to do with Russia ... "). They never have to look at a note to discuss the offerings, and they learn why which wines are recommended with each course. Landside restaurants should do so well.

Hold your hunger. In the second part of this article we will go to dinner together.

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