Posted on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 by Peter Knego
Peter Knego continues his Maritime Heritage Cruise on board Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ MARCO POLO with a day in Belfast, where the TITANIC was built. A full day visiting the legendary Harland and Wolff Shipyard and the newly-opened Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest TITANIC Exhibit, ensues — exactly 100 years after the eve of disaster.
All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.
Saturday, April 14, 2012
MARCO POLO was backing into her berth at Belfast as we peeked through our curtains. Soon, we were off to capture our perfectly-lit ship from the Titanic Quarter on Queen’s Island, which, as the crow flies, was only a few hundred yards away. But, as the cab drives, it was some five or six miles…
Speaking of crows, our rush to the edge of the jetty across from the ship had apparently disturbed a gaggle of ravens who were just about to pick apart an unfortunate starfish. The ill-starred creature was still intact but my attempt to save it may have made things worse. I underestimated the distance to the water and a well-intended rescue toss back into the brine ended in a thud as it hit the moss covered rocks of the jetty…
The weather gods were certainly in our favor as Belfast bathed in a glorious northern light under puffs of clotted cream-like clouds. Beyond the TITANIC-themed open air exhibits, which included a replica of the White Star liner’s knife-like prow, the MARCO POLO was an elegantly sheered bar of blue eye-candy.
On the 100th eve of TITANIC’s sinking, that four funneled liner was everywhere in effigy.
We walked around the Titanic Quarter, an area that just a few years ago was abandoned and crumbling but is now in the process of a major revival. Of particular interest was the 420-foot, 1914-built light cruiser HMS CAROLINE. The recently decommissioned ship, which served in both World Wars, may ultimately be preserved alongside the NOMADIC in Belfast or taken to Portsmouth to be restored to her original appearance (sans the deck house on her stern). As with all such matters, funding is the hurdle.
Speaking of NOMADIC, the last surviving White Star Line ship (built alongside TITANIC at Belfast in 1912 to ferry passengers to and from the TITANIC and her fleetmates during their calls at Cherbouorg) gleams from stem to stern. Now in the small drydock adjacent to the Titanic Belfast exhibit, she was saved at the eleventh hour after being towed from Paris where she last served as a floating restaurant and nightclub on the Seine.
I did my best to talk our way on board but NOMADIC is still very much off-limits as work on her interior continues. Apparently, some key original bits are being removed, much to the distress of preservationists, but at least she has a home and a seemingly healthy future.
We returned to the MARCO POLO for lunch before joining a very special “Footsteps of the Titanic” shore excursion at 2:00 PM. This would be the perfect opportunity to try the full service lunch in the handsome Waldorf Restaurant. Not unlike Fred. Olsen and Voyages of Discovery (two of my other favorite British Cruise Lines), there is a buffet salad bar in addition to the menu offerings. For me, it was a perfect chance to create salads that are much bigger than what most normal people require.
We enjoyed a very fresh halibut entrée but I was especially impressed with the bruschetta starter.
Just was we laid our busy forks to rest, the first call for the “Footsteps Of The Titanic” excursion was made. We filed off the ship and into a coach that brought us back to the Titanic Quarter.
The tour began with a walk through the now derelict but utterly fascinating Harland and Wolff shipyard offices. This is place that for most resounds with TITANIC lore but for me, it was so much more. Harland and Wolff was the birthplace of a long procession of noble liners, from most of the Union-Castle Line fleet and the latter day White Star motorships BRITANNIC and GEORGIC to Royal Mail Lines’ ANDES, P&O’s IBERIA and the revolutionary “engines aft” Shaw Savill and P&O beauties SOUTHERN CROSS and CANBERRA. It was in these hallowed halls that all were conceived but of course, were it not for TITANIC, all of this history would probably have been razed.
We stopped in the glass dome-topped Drawing Room where the massive ships’ blueprints were laid out.
And the meeting room where White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay decreed that the OLYMPIC Class ships (including TITANIC) not carry so many life boats as doing so would cause “alarm” to passengers.
We also filed through the office of Thomas Andrews, the celebrated designer who quickly ascertained the TITANIC’s fate after she struck the berg and ultimately went down with the ship. The irony is that renewed interest in the subject means this crumbling but still very authentic building may soon be transformed into a luxury hotel — a pyrrhic preservationists’ victory.
We were led outside past the fantastic “art-chitecture” of the new Titanic Belfast. Our guide explained that the Gehry-esque building, when seen from above, forms a three point star and that its prow-like buttresses actually represent the OLYMPIC Class trio of ships: OLYMPIC, TITANIC and BRITANNIC. How nice that the designers acknowledged the other two magnificent ships that are so often marginalized by the TITANIC.
Near the entry, chin set to the sky, there is an impressive bronze sculpture.
Just beyond Titanic Belfast, the mighty slipway where OLYMPIC and TITANIC were launched is now a car park with markers that show where the two huge hulls once towered, side-by-side, on the stocks.
After TITANIC and all the other great Harland and Wolff ships were launched, they were fitted out in the shipyard, then moved to a drydock where their hulls could be cleaned, painted, and inspected. For a time the largest drydock in the world, the Thompson Graving Dock was built in 1903 and then expanded to accommodate the OLYMPIC class liners. It remained in use until 2002. The Pump-House was used to drain the dock once the gates were closed behind the visiting ship.
Tours will soon be able to descend to the floor of the drydock but for now we would have to be content with the view from above. The often-photographed yellow capstan was used to maneuver and secure the entering ship.
Inside the Pump-House, which dates from 1885, we had time to watch a film about Harland and Wolff, which has since gone from shipbuilding to ship repair and manufacturing giant wind and tide turbines.
We had the rest of the afternoon and early eve to explore the quarter and possibly tour downtown. Of course, we were assured Titanic Belfast was sold out but we stopped by the ticket office to see if we might be added to a waiting list, just in case. Amazingly, there were slots for 7:00 PM available, so we bought tickets and then decided to see as much of Belfast as we could before returning to the exhibit. A very nice couple from the ship had offered to share a cab they reserved at 9:00 PM, just in time to get us back to the MARCO POLO before she sailed for Liverpool.
On the boardwalk leading to the pedestrian bridge that crosses from Queen’s Island into downtown Belfast, there are a number of interesting sights. A giant statue not far from the NOMADIC looks like a partially-painted TITANIC as one would find in a plastic model kit.
I particularly liked the mosaic sidewalk memorials to all the great H&W ships of the past. Big thank you to fellow voyager Rich Turnwald for telling us to look out for them.
We managed to get only as far as the magnificent 113 foot tall, Albert Memorial Clock, which was built in 1869. Once a beacon for prostitutes, it is now the gateway to the pedestrian bridge leading to Queen’s Island.
We returned to the Titanic Experience at precisely 7:00 PM to begin our tour.
In the foyer, the lobby walls are like a giant ship’s plating.
The exhibit begins with a look at “Boomtown” Belfast during its industrial heyday in Gallery 1, then leads into a number of interactive exhibits with TITANIC design elements.
In Gallery 2, a very Disney-esque, multi-level ride takes visitors to the gantry where TITANIC was built to witness all of the sights, sounds and even smells.
Gallery 3 shows a filmed launch of what appears to be an intermediate Union Castle Liner of the 1920s.
Gallery 4, “The Fit Out”, shows what much of the TITANIC’s first class areas were like. It is followed by Galleries 5 and 6, which detail portions of the maiden voyage and sinking.
Gallery 7, “The Aftermath” recounts the news stories and tells what became of many of the survivors.
Gallery 8 is dedicated to the popular lore of TITANIC in films and music and Gallery 9 shows the wreck as it is today in high definition, wide-screen footage.
And then, almost two hours after it all began, we emerged into an empty lobby.
We had a moment to wander the grounds of the exhibit underneath its eerily lit prows. It was an especially poignant time to be there.
Back on the chilly stern of the MARCO POLO on a spectacularly clear but icy evening, we watched the International Space Station dart across the sky. The display of today’s most advanced technology on the 100th anniversary of the loss of what was then the world’s greatest technology was thought-provoking.
At midnight, a vigil was held in the Marco Polo Lounge in memory of those lost on April 15, 1912. Another followed at 2:20 AM at the moment TITANIC foundered but by then, we were in our own netherworld.
Our Romanian cabin steward Maurius provided a welcome bit of levity when we returned to 917.
A day to remember…
End of Part Three. Much more to come…
Special thanks: Richard Bastow, Martin Cox, Michael J. Masino