Fit For a Queen: the 412-foot Royal Britannia

Thus once stated Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II about her home on the high seas–the 412-foot Royal Yacht Britannia, which sailed over one million miles in 44 years–to over 600 ports in 135 countries, on 968 official royal visits, with a crew of 276.

Since October 1998, the Britannia–one of the most famous ships in the world, and which has been rated the UK’s No. 1 Attraction for 2014-2015 by TripAdvisor–has been owned by the Royal Yacht Britannia Trust and berthed in Edinburgh’s Leith port. Via self-guided audio tours, some 300,000 annual visitors get to see how royalty once lived at sea.

The 83rd royal yacht since 1660, the Britannia was completed in April 1953 by John Brown’s Clydebank Shipyard in Scotland to replace the aging Victoria and Albert III, and had the ability to also function as a hospital ship, if needed. It could produce its own fresh water from seawater, and a two-month supply of meat and fish could be stored in the cold rooms. The dairy and vegetable rooms could hold enough supplies to feed the entire ship for a month. Fresh bread was baked daily, and 100 chickens could be roasted at a time in the ship’s two ovens.
Launched on April 16, 1953, it has hosted everything from formal state dinners to royal honeymoons–although not always a token of luck, since the four royal couples who honeymooned onboard ended up on rough seas, so to speak, eventually divorcing.

The first couple, Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones (later known as Lord Snowdon), honeymooned on the ship in 1960. Princess Anne (who celebrated her 21st birthday onboard) and her first husband, Capt. Mark Phillips, spent an unforgettable 1973 honeymoon enduring seasickness their first four days. Prince Charles and Princess Diana were aboard for 16 days on their 1981 honeymoon – noted for the princess participating in a sing-a-long in the crew’s mess. And the Duke and Duchess of York were the final honeymoon couple, sailing for five days in 1986. The honeymoon suite, the only room onboard with a double bed, was also used as the nursery.

The royal cabins have extra high portholes to allow for privacy in case a crew member passes by. The ship also houses a post office, three galleys, sick bay and operating theatre.

Prior to boarding, visitors can browse a vast display of royal photos, mementos, letters, and ship items. Lifts between the decks make the tour easily accessible. I particularly noticed several men gawking at the Rolls-Royce Phantom V, presented to the queen in 1960, housed in the ship’s small garage.
Some furniture was recycled from the previous royal yacht, Victoria and Albert III, and the queen and Prince Philip–a former Naval officer–delighted in decorating the Britannia to their tastes, personally selecting the fabrics, paintings and furnishings.

The Britannia–light, airy and stylish–is unpretentious and comfortable, with brass metalwork, mahogany wood and white walls adorned with artwork, family photos and personal mementos. When the yacht was first completed, no press were invited aboard and publications offered a huge amount for a photo of the queen’s bedroom. Alas, none was successful.

However, today visitors can get a close-up look at her former sleeping quarters, which were decorated to utilize the bed linen bought for Queen Victoria on the previous royal yacht. There’s a single bed with a floral bedspread, a custom embroidered silk panel on the wall above, a small desk, vanity and a full-length, three-way mirror. A connecting door leads to Philip’s quarters, and each has its own bath. The queen and Philip could press a button next to their beds to summon a royal steward.

The queen selected the deep blue color for the ship, instead of the usual black. Its crest is on the stern, and its name does not appear on the side of the ship.

For a state visit, the queen would take five tons of luggage aboard, including royal jewelry and Malvern water for her tea. Up to 45 members of the royal household would accompany her, including her surgeon, detectives, hairdresser, valets, footmen, ladies-in-waiting, press and private secretaries and chefs.

The Sun Lounge–a cozy area decorated with a blue-patterned sofa and bamboo furniture purchased by Philip in Hong Kong in 1959–was the queen’s favorite place onboard. This is where she would have breakfast and afternoon tea, enjoying the special ocean views through the large windows.

The Verandah Deck was used for cocktail receptions and group photographs taken with the royal couple by the ship’s photographer, dubbed Snaps. It was not uncommon for the queen and Philip to sneak away during a state dinner and autograph the photos, which were then framed and handed to the guests upon their after-dinner departure. This deck is where Philip enjoyed painting with an easel, where family members sunbathed or played deck hockey. A collapsible canvas pool was set up here for use by the royal children. The two-inch thick teak deck was scrubbed daily with sea water; the crew worked in silence and completed the task by 8 a. m. If royals strolled by, the crew had to stand quiet and still.

The State Dining Room hosted such dignitaries as Winston Churchill, Rajiv Ghandi, Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton. In the early years, it doubled as a cinema or for short church services (which all crew members were invited to attend) and for dancing:

Gifts given to the queen (which include shark’s teeth swords, daggers, arrows and boomerangs from various South Sea Islands) are in glass display cabinets on the side of the room. It takes three hours to set the 56 places for a state banquet (each place setting meticulously measured with a ruler), and the menus–in French–were given to guests as souvenirs. When the royal family was onboard, food was prepared by chefs from Buckingham Palace, who were flown out to the ship. Today this room is rented out for corporate or private dinners, with food still prepared onboard.

When the anteroom, drawing and dining rooms are opened together, up to 250 guests can be accommodated. The drawing room, with its mix of antique and modern furnishings, including comfortable chintz sofas and chairs, Persian rugs, a fireplace and fresh flowers (often flown in from the gardens of Windsor Castle), was used as the main reception room. It was also where the royal family could relax together, playing games, reading James Bond novels or singing. The Walmar baby grand piano, firmly bolted to the deck in case of rough seas, was often played by guests, including Noel Coward, or by Princesses Margaret and Diana.

“Overall, the drawing room was to give the impression of a country house at sea,” explained the ship’s interior designer, Sir Hugh Casson.

The ship was decommissioned at 3:01 p.m. on December 11, 1997 (hence all clocks onboard are stopped at that time). It was said to be the only time the queen was seen shedding a tear in public. She hasn’t been onboard since then. One of the last events attended by royalty–including Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge–was the July 2011 pre-wedding party of Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne.

The queen originally had requested an open coal fireplace for the drawing room, but since Navy regulations required that a sailor would have to be on round-the-clock watch with a fire bucket, that idea was nixed. Instead, an electric fire was chosen.

Well, even the queen can’t have everything.

IF YOU GO

Royal Yacht Britannia, a 15-minute bus ride from Edinburgh city centre. Board via the second floor of the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre; www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk. Self-guided tours take about 1 ½ to 2 hours. There is a tearoom on the top deck, a shop selling fudge and other candy made onboard, and a large gift shop.

We stayed at the Apex Waterloo Place Hotel: http://www.apexhotels.co.uk/en/hotels/edinburgh/

We enjoyed dining at the tiny Field Restaurant http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk/ and at the Witchery: http://www.thewitchery.com/ (Reservations highly recommended for both).

For more information: www.visitscotland.com and www.visitbritain.com