Sunday, March 22, 2015

Staying on board the RMS Queen Mary

Last month my wife and I did a bunch of stuff I'm only now getting around to writing about. One of those things was a visit to Los Angeles, and we stayed on board the Queen Mary - one of the last true ocean liners still afloat, and the only one left from the pre-war "golden age" of passenger ships.

The Queen Mary sailed from 1936-1967, after which she was permanently moored in Long Beach, CA and refitted as a floating hotel. During her time in service she carried passengers and also made for one of the largest troop ships in history. I've actually stayed on the ship before, back when I was a kid in the 1980's. Funny to realize now that the time between my two stays was longer than the time between my first stay and the ship's final voyage. I'm getting old.

I've always loved history in general and ocean liners specifically. When I was about 10 years old, my dad bought me this book about passenger ships, and I was hooked. It was the period from about 1910-1960 that interested me the most, when the biggest and most beautiful ships sailed and of course, some of the biggest tragedies occurred. (And some of the biggest mysteries - Titanic was found just after I got that book.) Of course it was also my dad who took me on my first trip to the Queen Mary.

The amazing thing about the Queen Mary is that, unlike many other floating museums around the world, she is basically as she was. The hotel operators (who seem to change weekly) have blocked off access to parts of the ship you're not meant to see, but except for some of the lower passenger decks, you're not missing much.

One of the now-blocked staircases.

You can even access the ship's infirmary, its engine rooms, and of course all the first and second class rooms and decks. And whatever updates have been done (mostly shopping and food options) have had to conform to the ship's original design. It's like going back in time.

The ship's "isolation ward", where contagious passengers were kept until arrival in port.

It even sounds like it's still a running ship, especially as you move aft. The important part of this video is the sound:

Most of that's probably the air conditioning system that didn't exist in 1936, but now not only cools the guest rooms but also provides a pretty convincing facsimile of the engines running and water rushing by.

The guest rooms themselves were originally first and second class staterooms, including suites that you can actually book that were once used by royalty and heads of state. We had a standard "deluxe king" booked at a AAA rate, and it seemed to be a pretty standard first class stateroom.

Parts of the ship were remodeled in the 1960's, and it shows - these green wallpapered areas have aged less gracefully than the wood-paneled art deco of the original 1936 decor. There are rooms in both sections of the ship, and it's kind of a crapshoot what you're going to get. Our first room had some wood but was mostly wallpaper; it also had two big portholes and a problematic door to the next room that let in so much sound it was like being part of the other room's conversation.

We asked to change rooms and got one that was actually smaller and less nice but had no between-rooms door and was very quiet. That's the thing with staying here - you really have to accept that you're paying to stay on a historic ocean liner, not a true hotel. The walls are steel and they are paper thin, and the doors between rooms are light and anything but airtight. The windows are real portholes, and some of them work better than others - the ones in our first room would not close.

There are various tours you can take but the ship's worth exploring on your own, and we did.

Almost all of the original etched glass still exists on the ship. Unfortunately a few panels (not this one) have been cracked.

It's definitely worth taking the tour, though, which gets you into a few places that are inaccessible otherwise and of course gives you a little more background on everything you see. If you're lucky, your tour guide will be old and crotchety. Ours was great; one of those guys that seems borderline senile until you slowly realize that it's all an act; just his warped sense of humor.

The first class lounge - not the even bigger dining room. Still a beautiful space. 
The dining room was in use (it's rentable). We caught a glimpse of it on the way out but I didn't get any pictures.

 Amazing metal work. No, that's not a painting. That's embossed and tinted metal.

 Here's our tour guide showing off a panel featuring every wood veneer used on the ship. I think there are 37 in total. This panel is not original to the ship, but they found it at the shop that first worked on the Queen Mary and they had to have it for display.

 This is the forward Observation Bar, still in use as a bar just as it was. The decor is unchanged since 1936, including that painting behind the bar.

 The art deco styling. Apparently everything in this bar is original except the TV's.

More great metal work.

Of course the ship is famous for its "ghost" stories, most of which were probably invented by the hotel to sell tour tickets.

On our first night on board, my wife and I had some of the best seafood we have ever eaten. This was not even at Sir Winston's, the ship's fine dining restaurant, but at the Chelsea Chowder House. This was the Alaskan Halibut (pdf link to the menu).

And this was the bread pudding. Mmmmmmmmmmmm!

On our second day, we visited the interior stern of the ship - this is the one area they seem to have really gutted to create a museum. This would have been where the third class and crew accommodations were.

The engine room, which they've done amazing work to since I last visited. Somewhere I have a photo from this exact vantage point that just shows a big, empty, black room with some dirty machinery still in it. I'm saying you could visit this room in the 1980's, but they had done nothing to it and this is as far as you could go. Nowadays it's freshly painted, nicely lit and there are catwalks all around. You can even walk the length of the propeller shafts all the way to the end and pretend you're in the "Poseidon Adventure" (which was filmed on the Queen Mary).

One deck is full of what seem to be completely handmade models of famous ocean liners - this, obviously, is Titanic. A few of the models are full cutaways on one side.

 We figured out that this is where Jack and Rose would have had their dance scene in the movie. James Cameron made it seem like it was down in the bowels of the ship!

"I'm the king of the world!"

All of the models that I can remember are Cunard White Star line ships - except this random model of the Normandie. From what I gathered the staff on board the Queen Mary seem to have a feeling of kinship (no pun intended) with the Normandie, most likely because of this famous photo and the fate the Normandie suffered just afterwards. It capsized while undergoing the troop ship conversion that Queen Mary had already successfully completed. That first photo is now prominently displayed on the promenade deck and is the first part of the main tour.

Queen Mary is an amazing ship, but I will say she could use a new coat of exterior paint!

Closing with a pointless 360 degree panorama from the stern of the ship.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

2015 Jeep Cherokee new owner impressions

My wife and I live in the northeast, where brutal winters ensure lots of driving on snow and ice and roads that resemble the surface of the moon more than anything most modern vehicles are designed for. Anyone who says normal people don't need SUV's only needs to endure one winter here to change their mind. Off-roading is supposed to be illegal on New York public lands, but don't tell that to mother nature or the DOT. A paved road around New York City is worse than most dirt roads elsewhere.

Planetwaves Fret Polishing System - works good!

Every guitar eventually ends up with frets that are dirty, dull or even rusty. This is at best unsightly, but it can also make playing harder because the strings can't slide along the frets as easily. There are a bunch of ways you can polish them up, from steel wool to a Dremel to just taking your guitar in to a tech who (hopefully) knows what he/she is doing better than you do. I've tried a few methods myself but today I want to talk about the one thing that really worked for me: D'addario's Planetwaves fret polishing system.

You'll notice that I'm working on my Scandal Haruna signature Telecaster. This is a cheap Indonesian guitar that obviously didn't go through a very good QA process, and mine had rusty frets right from the factory.

The Planetwaves system is basically just a few sheets of extremely fine-grit sand or fiber paper combined with a cutout cardboard fret guide to keep you from sanding your fretboard by mistake. Extremely simple, but that pleases my inner engineer. It also pleased my wallet, because the system costs about $5. It almost seems like something that cheap couldn't possibly be effective.

But it is! It may be a bit hard to see, but first, you should be able to make out that the left half of my frets above are mirror-like and silver, while the right half are still dull and brownish. Yep, I was about halfway done here. Also look at the paper - those black marks on it are rust from my frets.

This is the finished product. It's perfect! I really could not be happier with this system. It does restore your frets to a mirror shine as it says it will.

I later did the same to my Japanese Jazzmaster, which I play most often and its frets seem to dull quickly for that reason. It was a little harder to get them to a mirror shine, but I think that's because of the nature of their dullness, which is from tiny microscratches that accumulate through playing. This system seems to more easily handle dirt or rust than regular fret wear, although it did still help even on the Jazzmaster.

It does take some elbow grease. If you try this, don't give up after just wiping your frets a couple times. You really need to get in there and scrub back and forth vigorously. But the results can really be satisfying.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bought another Jeep - God help me, it's a crossover

After two previous Jeep Grand Cherokees (plus a rental), you could probably call my wife and I "Jeep people". I'm still old-school when it comes to SUV's - when I was a kid, I did go off-roading with friends, and to me the term "SUV" still means "pickup truck with a roof". A "crossover" is just a big hatchback - very few real SUV's even still exist.

You wouldn't think any of that'd matter in the suburbs of New York City, and crossovers sure are popular these days for urban/suburban folk like us. But this area often has 2 to 3 feet of snow on the ground in winter, and the poor roads have a way of shredding both tires and suspensions in a way that even a decent dirt road wouldn't. When half of a paved road is missing due to potholes, it's worse than not having any asphalt at all. Our PT Cruiser went through three full sets of control arms (the third time, out of warranty, cost us $1,000), our Mini has already popped one tire in the first few months of ownership, and even our current Grand Cherokee has needed some minor suspension repairs.

That Grand Cherokee is now 10 years old. It's served us well, but it's time for it to go. I knew replacing it wouldn't be easy. We wanted something tough but the few pickup-based SUV's left are usually cruise ships and very expensive, so we did look at some crossovers too. Our bank balance only has so many zeroes, our driveway only so much square footage.

We narrowed things down to a few compact SUV's and crossovers based on a combination of price, capability and looks, and we resolved to drive them all. These are the very disparate options we looked at, and the reasons why we considered and ultimately rejected them:

1. Nissan Xterra. This is one of the last "real" compact SUV's and we almost bought one. It's the right size, it's truck-based, has good power, excellent ground clearance and is the only vehicle we looked at with tires we wouldn't need to immediately replace. The problem is that it's just old (last redesigned in 2004), and it gets terrible mileage. We were buying rather than leasing and looking at resale value 6+ years down the line, the Xterra's probably not going to have any. But we liked it, and if we were leasing we might have made a different choice.

2. Mercedes GLK and GLA. My wife's wanted a Mercedes since she was little and we thought we could maybe stretch and afford a pre-owned one, or even a new GLA. I thought I could live with one if she really wanted it. They are nice looking inside and out. But the GLA's just too small and my wife didn't feel any connection to the GLK. And both would have required too many sacrifices from us to afford, especially if we weren't gaga over either one.

3. Nissan Rogue. The newly-redesigned Rogue isn't really that ugly up close, although I still think it's basically a minivan. But it has monstrous cargo space - my jaw actually dropped when the sales guy opened the hatch. Looking back to front is like looking from the back of a 777 cabin up to the cockpit. It's the only vehicle we looked at that matched our Grand Cherokee in stuff-carrying. It drove ok but it is very car-like (a negative for me) and the CVT transmission was pretty annoying. I also didn't have confidence it'd hold up to this area's roads and weather.

4. Mazda CX-5. Everything I read told me this was the crossover to beat - the unsung hero, the sleeper hit you've never heard of because poor Mazda just doesn't have the marketing budget of the big boys. It was supposed to be fun to drive, but on the test drive it felt like pretty much every other underpowered crossover. I drove the 2.5 (the 2.0 is no longer even offered) but still it felt slow. In corners it felt like a big PT Cruiser. It did have good cargo space, but the interior was really chintzy, and even our brand new tester rattled. Its AWD system is also fully automatic and allows no driver input. I do like the exterior, though.

5. A CPO Jeep Grand Cherokee. New Grand Cherokees are out of our price range but pre-owned we could probably swing. Still, even after looking at a 2012 with only 16,000 miles that I thought was a pretty sweet deal, my wife wasn't sold on buying something caked with somebody else's dirt and grime.

We ended up going with something we initially didn't even talk about: a new Jeep Cherokee Latitude. Go on, get it out of your system - you get used to the styling. I already think it just looks normal. It's like the first-gen Ford Taurus - eventually every car's going to look even weirder.

Why the Cherokee won:

It's still a Jeep and it's built for stuff like this. Which means it's going to eat New York roads and snow for breakfast.

No, we didn't buy a top-end off-road Trailhawk with "optional Mopar wheels", but:

  • A transmission upgrade to Active Drive II gives you real 4WD (with a "low" mode).
  • The same upgrade also gives you heavy duty off-road suspension and 1" more ground clearance. 
  • You can get it with a V6, and so equipped, it totally smokes its nearest competition. (Not the Xterra, though, which moves pretty good.) This is the real "sporty" crossover, not the CX-5.
  • The interior's almost as nice as the Mercedes' we looked at, minus the wood.
Long story short, while most crossovers we looked at were way more "car" than "SUV", the Cherokee's more of an SUV that just happens to be built on a shared car platform. At least if you get it how we ordered it.

Weird thing was the dealer had no idea Active Drive II even existed - they learned about it from us. It took us two visits and several hours total to figure out that neither they nor any other dealer around had one on the lot with that option, then probably another hour for them to figure out how to build one to order. (It's quick order package "27J" if you have the same problem with your dealer.)

A marathon of haggling followed that only seemed a fitting end to our 2 month-long search. We squeezed every dollar we could out of our dealer, trying to get them to match a TrueCar price (which I know only applies to in-stock vehicles) and to give us a reasonable trade-in on our current Grand Cherokee. They finally did in the end, but we were at that dealer from 3:30 to 9PM. We are a car dealer's worst nightmare. But we really wanted to make the deal, and we did.

Now we just have to wait for the custom build.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I'm the proud owner of two Fender Jazzmasters, a Gretsch G5422DC, and a Fender Twin Reverb amp - all musical equipment far better than my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to go to outer space.


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