Hot Flashback

by Martha Chapman

Vanessa Lee on board Cunard’s Carmania back in the ‘60s

Skylark featured a host of cruises back in the 80s

This stateroom on board The Victoria might be a hard sell today!

Remembering “The Good Old Days” in the Canadian Travel Industry


Ships and sailing have been around for thousands of years – but only in recent generations has the concept of sailing for pleasure been introduced. (No rock climbing walls on the Ark, I’ll bet.)

It’s surprising to see how many of the early shipping brands are still in the business. Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation (today’s P&O) claims it “invented” cruising in the early 1800s. In 1840 a Canadian fellow named Samuel Cunard inaugurated service across the Atlantic. And in the 1960s Ted Arison teamed up with a Norwegian called Knut Kloster to start Norwegian Caribbean Lines.

But in 1977 a company called Princess really put cruising on the map with a TV show called The Love Boat featuring a bubbly cruise director called Julie. Everyone wanted to be Julie.

One Canadian with more cruise memories than most is Vanessa Lee, who this year marks 40 years in the industry. Known as a cruise expert, magazine publisher, entrepreneur and huge proponent of the industry, Vanessa says she’s lost count of the cruises she’s been on (“162?”) – and if you include tours and special events, she’s been on altogether some 250 ships.

“My first experience on a ship was the original Queen Elizabeth crossing from Southampton to New York with my mummy, who wouldn’t fly. I was 15 and couldn’t get over how grand it all was... charming and elegant.” Vanessa was with Paramount Holidays when she 1st experienced the "pleasure cruise" concept. The occasion was a Royal Caribbean FAM on Song of Norway in 1982, and Vanessa recalls being horrified at how small the ataterooms were. “Back then, ships were more utilitarian with narrow corridors, and when you went into a stateroom you’d walk in and see 2 beds on either side of the window – you’d move one over to the other to make a double bed. The chap who started Royal purposely had small rooms so that guests would use the ship and enjoy the facilities." 

Dining, too, has changed: “Back in the 80s, you had a choice of early or late seating for dinner, and you sat at the same table with the same people every night. And the midnight buffets! They were huge – complete with ice sculptures and chocolate lava thingies and shrimp everywhere. Decadent.”

Entertainment was pretty lame by today’s standards, with tiny stages and dance floors. “The cruise director was chief cook and bottle washer and had to do everything. You could see why this had to change,” recalls Vanessa.

One significant change for the industry in Canada was the introduction of cruises by the ITC operators, who made cruising both affordable and accessible.

Lorol Nielsen, now Director of Investor Relations for Clifton Blake, had a hand in the early development of mass market cruising for the Canadian industry. “I worked for Peter Linnett at Strand Holidays where in the mid-70s we launched the first air-and-ship charters – a 2 wk. Med cruise, including air, cost $599!”

Later she went to work for Sunquest which had a hugely popular ship called The Dream Cruise. “We put together the 1st council of cruise expert travel agents to help us Canadianize the product.  One thing they suggested was to increase the offerings for families, so we did that – and on their advice, put Kraft Dinner on the menu. We shipped over cartons of the stuff, and it was a huge hit, resulting in really positive remarks on the comment cards. Then, all of a sudden one week the comments on the Kraft Dinner were super negative, so I called the chef to see what had happened and he told me they had run out of KD and he had improvised with some other sort of pasta!”

Ah… it all seemed a little kinder, gentler (and much cheaper) back then!

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