“That the plush apartments and this proud ship have become a tourist attraction and an upmarket event venue breaks my heart,” says one TripAdvisor contributor. I tend to agree. There’s something a bit odd, even depressing, about strolling through the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre and boarding the Royal Yacht Britannia through what could have been just another store entrance. Decommissioned in 1997, Britannia didn’t ease into its current Imperial Dry Dock until January, 2012. It’s here thanks to a plan to rejuvenate Edinburgh, Scotland’s port of Leith and is self-promoted as a ‘must see’ five-star attraction. I’d call it a 4 Compass Curiosity.
Admission included an audio tour that was somewhat interesting. Not surprisingly, the experience began with royal yacht history. The first one was named Mary and given to King Charles II by the Dutch in 1660. The Britannia was the 83rd Royal Yacht. It replaced the 54-year-old Victoria and Albert, the 3rd royal yacht with that name, and visited 600 ports in 135 countries. Britannia was commissioned in 1951 with the hope of aiding King George VI’s recovery after surgery to remove a lung. He died during its construction and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, became very interested in completing it in a Glasgow shipyard. She selected furniture, fabrics, etc. and traveled the world aboard her for 44 years. The Britannia truly became a well-used floating palace on which the world’s most famous Elizabeth traveled over a million miles. 5 tons of luggage was hauled aboard for state visits and Malvern water for her tea. Sailors were called by their first names and shouting was forbidden. One of 20 officers, the Captain often changed his uniform 12 times a day.
It was rather fun to peer into actual royal living quarters and imagine what it must have been like to take one’s seat in the State Dining Room, the largest on the ship, for a royal feast. Lots of gifts presented to the Queen were scattered about or decorated its walls, like the wooden shark signed by all the residents of Pitcairn Island.
Britannia was the scene of 4 royal honeymoons. Princess Anne celebrated her marriage to Captain Mark Philips in the West Indies aboard her. The only double bed on the entire yacht was installed for Charles and Diana’s Mediterranean cruise honeymoon. The Queen’s slightly forlorn single bed in her stateroom reminded me of the fairy tale scene right before the Prince enters and carries the unsuspecting maiden off to his palace.
There are several bars aboard, tales of wombat tennis in the men’s club, tables set for games and puzzles, and details about the entertainment in the huge drawing-room that was clearly designed for relaxing. Life on board was not all about official duties. Britannia was, quite understandably, also a party ship.
With a staff of about 300 and a Captain who dressed like and for royalty, clean clothes must have been an ongoing need on long voyages. Indeed, Britannia’s laundry operated around the clock and could process 600 shirts a day. It’s clearly noted that the royal family’s laundry was done on different days than the crew, captain, and yachtsmen.
It’s a bit off-putting to see this now-malled relic of a bygone era when royalty could celebrate itself and not worry so much about public relations, YouTube, and dark comments about wealth and privilege. If the reason why Queen Elizabeth retired her beloved yacht was addressed somewhere on the dry-docked Britannia, I didn’t see it. It really doesn’t need to be.