The SS United States in its heyday

Plus: Themed cruises along the Norwegian coast and up the Mississippi

The world's fastest ocean liner, the historic and glamorous SS United States, built in the 1950s, may be reborn as a swanky cruise ship. If that happens, passengers could travel in the lap of luxury just like Hollywood stars, royalty, and four U.S. presidents did in the vessel's heyday.

This ship, which hasn’t sailed under its own power for more than 40 years, was destined for the scrap heap. But luxury line Crystal Cruises just swooped in to save the United States and revealed plans to restore it and convert it into an all-suite vessel.

In 1952 the United States became a symbol of U.S. national pride when it shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record in on its maiden voyage in a Blue Riband-winning time of three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes (10 hours faster than the Queen Mary). During the 1950s and '60s "America's Flagship" was a magnet for the rich and famous. Among the celebrities who sailed on it were Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Sean Connery, Salvador Dali, Judy Garland, Duke Ellington, Cary Grant, Walt Disney, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, John Wayne, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, plus Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and future president Bill Clinton. And its record time has still never been equaled.

The 990-foot liner is slender and sleek, with two powerful funnels painted red, white, and blue. Passengers were carried in mid-century splendor: Sculptures representing the four freedoms graced the first-class dining room; the Observation Lounge was decorated with murals of ocean currents and constellations; and the Navajo Lounge had powdered enamel friezes by artist Peter Ostuni that depicted the sand paintings of the Navajo Indians.

But the United States couldn't compete with trans-Atlantic jumbo jet travel, and the ship was mothballed in 1969. It has been rusting away in Philadelphia, and though there have been numerous grand revival plans, they have all fallen through. Recently the SS United States Conservancy (which strove to save the ship and use it as an educational tool) ran out of money and had start exploing options for scrapping the ship.

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Fortunately, before that could happen, Crystal Cruises heard the SOS. The line caused a sensation by announcing it would pick up the $60,000 a month tab for dockage and maintenance while conducting a feasibility study for reviving the vessel. President Edie Rodriguez says Crystal expects to spend at least $700 million, "and probably a lot more," on the restoration. The vessel will have to be re-engined, with the steam plant taken out, and extensively rebuilt to meet modern safety standards.

Plans for the interiors show 400 suites measuring about 350 square feet each, plus dining, entertainment, a spa, and other amenities. (The liner originally accommodated more than 3,000 passengers in three cabin classes, but the modern United States by Crystal Cruises would carry just 800.) Historic features like the promenade and the Navajo Lounge would be preserved.

In an interview, Rodriguez compared the United States to classic but once-crumbling hotels like The Plaza in Manhattan or the Art Deco gems on Miami's South Beach, saying, "Look at how fabulous they are now—the chicest resorts around."

The restoration would be extremely challenging, but if feasible, the ship could sale as early as mid-2018. 

Also in Cruise News

Music on Norway’s Coast

Hurtigruten, the cruising company whose small ships ply the beautiful Norwegian coast (as well as other destinations), plans a dozen “Norway Cultural Voyages” this spring that will celebrate the life of the composer (and national hero) Edvard Grieg. Travelers can attend events like a piano concert featuring Grieg's music at his former country home, Troldhaugen; a lecture about the witch trials that darkened the tiny town of Vardø in the mid-17th century; and a concert in an old fish-oil tank, called the Royal Neptune Hall. Other highlights include an organ concert at Ålesund's big stone church and lectures about Norwegian legends and myths.

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American History on the River

Closer to home, the American Queen Steamboat Company will also offer a variety of themed sailings, including voyages on the Mississippi River aboard the grand paddlewheeler American Queen. On Civil War-themed journeys, passengers can enjoy presentations by Civil War experts and music from the era while the boat rolls past cotton fields, sugar cane plantations, and antebellum mansions; a tour of Vicksburg National Military Park is also included. (Departures are March 6 and June 12.) On the Music of America trip from New Orleans to Memphis (departing March 27), guests can enjoy entertainment by luminaries like songwriter Eden Brent and Barbara Sims who single-handedly ran the publicity and sales promotion department at Sun Records during its glory years. (Another Music of America cruise later in the year, departing Oct. 23, will travel from Nashville to Memphis and focus on country and blues.)

 Anne Kalosh doesn't count the cruises she’s taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she's on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for and Seatrade Cruise Review.