Friday, February 24, 2012

Fabled ex-Canadian frigate turned luxury yacht opens to London sightseers

The Newly Restored Christina O, Former Private Yacht Of Aristotle Onassis, And Her Tender Cruise At Sea April 24, 2001 In The Mediterranean.
Photograph by: Getty Images , Getty Images

Nearly 70 years after it joined the D-Day armada across the English Channel and helped launch the liberation of Europe, a Canadian frigate from the Second World War is back in British waters this week and open to sightseers at its London mooring for hour-long tours at 15 British pounds a pop.

But the curious visitors won't be hearing much about the perilous U-boat patrols or other war stories that unfolded on the decks of the former HMCS Stormont, a ship that only truly became famous after it was sold off by the Canadian government and luxuriously refitted in the 1950s by Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis — who went on to host many of the world's most glamorous and powerful guests aboard his legendary warship-turned-mega-yacht Christina O.

The storied vessel arrived in late January at the Docklands port district along the Thames River, quickly generating a buzz via websites maintained by London-area ship-spotters.

It soon emerged that the yacht — where Onassis successfully wooed opera superstar Maria Callas, and later the presidential widow Jacqueline Kennedy — would be staying in Britain until June, with the public invited to take audio-guided tours recalling the days when visitors as diversely renowned as Sir Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe strolled Christina O's opulent decks.

"Step back in time and visit the most famous super-yacht in the world," states the sales pitch for tours that began this week and are on offer until June at the Docklands.

"Walk around this floating treasure and relive one of the most glamorous eras of the 20th century," adds the online description of the tour, highlighting an onboard exhibition "packed with memorabilia" from the yacht's heyday before Onassis's death in 1975.

"Hear stories of Princess Grace, Jackie O, and Winston Churchill. See where one of the most famous affairs of all time started."

Christina O's latest incarnation as a dockside tourist attraction is all part of the ship's new identity as a commercial enterprise trading on its richly layered past.

Built in 1943 at the Canadian Vickers shipyard in Montreal, HMCS Stormont took its name from a former county south of Ottawa.

It served in the famous Murmansk Run convoys, maintaining a supply line to the Soviet Union through treacherous Arctic waters at the height of the Second World War.

The ship also escorted troops and munitions across the North Atlantic and hunted submarines before its participation in "Operation Neptune" — code name for the landing phase during the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

During one extended wartime voyage between Gibraltar, Murmansk and Halifax, HMCS Stormont was at sea for 63 straight days — the single longest mission of any Canadian frigate during the 1939-45 conflict.

But the ship's war-era exploits have long been overshadowed by its postwar service as Onassis's personal playground for the rich and famous.

The frigate was purchased from the Canadian government after the war and later given a $4-million makeover by the Greek shipping tycoon, who acquired Stormont in 1954 and renamed the vessel after his daughter, Christina.

Among the attractions onboard the 99-metre yacht are a full-sized swimming pool, a spiral staircase, 19 lavishly decorated staterooms and Ari's, the fabled watering hole with bar stools covered in minke whale foreskin.

"Madame, you are sitting on the largest penis in the world," Onassis is said to have told Monroe and his other Hollywood invitees over the years, including Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1956, Monaco's Prince Rainier and film star Grace Kelly had their wedding reception on the ship, which Egypt's dethroned King Farouk once described as "the last word in opulence."

In 1957, then-U.S. senator John F. Kennedy met Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, aboard the yacht, which also boasts a collection of priceless artwork and rare books.

Around that time, the decommissioned gunship became the setting where Onassis secretly courted Callas before he dumped the diva for Kennedy — subsequently known as "Jackie O" — in the late 1960s.

The ex-Stormont was eventually refurbished and relaunched in 1999 by Greek businessman Yannis Papanicolaou, who made it available for a princely sum of $5 million for one month of high-seas partying at the turn of the millennium.

Later, 10-day luxury cruises could be had for about $40,000 per couple.

Since 2006, Christina O has been available as a charter yacht for clients able to afford rental fees of up to $60,000 per day.

And in 2009, apparently in a bid to reach a bigger pool of potential customers, the ship's current owners began offering a one-night, Callas-themed, meals-and-entertainment package out of Monte Carlo for $3,000 per passenger.

The musical Mediterranean cruise, called the "Maria Callas Experience," was billed at the time as an "exclusive opportunity to be transported into the jet-set era of the 1950s and 1960s" — and to explore the places where "the most passionate, chronicled and ill-fated romances of the 20th century" unfolded.

Now, at least for the next four months, any tourist in London — perhaps even some of the few surviving Canadian veterans who served on HMCS Stormont during the war — can spend an hour soaking up the ship's colourful history for the equivalent of about $23.50.
© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

No comments:

Post a Comment