Ocean liners have been carrying passengers across the sea since the 1840s. But the first cruise ship built for pleasure cruising wasn’t launched until the turn of the 20th century. Here’s the story of the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise, a revolutionary ship with a tragic fate.
SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise was a German passenger ship, built for the Hamburg-America Line, also known as HAPAG. She is considered to be the first purpose-built cruise ship.
Launched on June 29, 1900, she sailed with HAPAG until December 16, 1906 when she was accidentally grounded off of Port Royal, Jamaica.
But why was the first cruise ship built? And why was this groundbreaking luxury liner abandoned? Find out the real story of the first cruise ship, illustrated with vintage photos of the Prinzessin Victoria Luise.
Why was the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise built?
In 1886 Albert Ballin—today considered the father of modern cruise ship travel—joined Hamburg-America as the manager of its passage department.
Ballin immediately realized that in the winter months the company’s flagship vessel, the ocean liner Augusta Victoria, sat idle. Passengers didn’t want to travel in the North Atlantic in frigid conditions.
At this time, people traveled on ocean liners not as a vacation, but as a means of getting from one place to another.
Although he was criticized by his peers for the unusual decision, Ballin chose to send the Augusta Victoria on a 58-day pleasure voyage from Germany to the Mediterranean. This cruise would include shore excursions at various ports of call, and Ballin and his wife would be among the passengers.
From January to March 1891, the ship cruised from Cuxhaven, Germany to Southampton, Gibraltar, Genoa, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Constantinople (now Istanbul), Athens, Malta, Naples, and Lisbon before returning to Hamburg.
The journey was a success, and Ballin planned to offer more cruises through HAPAG, though at the time they were often called “pleasure voyages” or “excursions”.
The Augusta Victoria may have hosted one of the first cruise voyages, but she wasn’t a cruise ship. Like the other ocean liners of her day, this ship was built for speed and had very few amenities on board.
Ocean liners in the HAPAG fleet were all multi-class vessels, designed to limit premium deck space to first-class passengers, with restrictions on those staying in second- and especially third-class areas of the ship. This wasn’t the best setup for the wealthy clientele Ballin hoped to attract.
Deck space on these ships was also sheltered, to protect those on board from the elements when sailing in the North Atlantic—not exactly what you’d want for a pleasure cruise in warm weather.
Ballin firmly believed that only a ship specifically designed for vacationers would work for his vision, and that these new ships could spend the entire year cruising.
In 1899 Ballin became managing director of Hamburg-America. Just a few months later he commissioned Blohm & Voss, a German shipbuilding and engineering company, to construct his first cruise ship.
She would be named after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s seven-year-old daughter, Princess Victoria Luise of Prussia. The ship, christened Prinzessin Victoria Luise by the Countess von Waldersee, was due to launch on June 29, 1900.
How was the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise different from other ocean liners of the time?
As he hoped to attract wealthy travelers looking to adventure in style, Ballin made sure that the Prinzessin Victoria Luise looked nothing like a utilitarian ocean liner.
The design of his new ship looked more like a private yacht—with her slim hull, rounded stern, and clipper bow enhanced with decorative carvings and a figurehead of her namesake princess.
Painted in all white (which helped keep the ship cool in tropical climates as well as give her a more elegant look) she sported two masts and two slim funnels positioned amidships.
Once on board, passengers noticed that the luxurious interior spaces included amenities designed to pass the time at sea during leisurely voyages.
Reportedly in consultation with Germany’s kaiser, who had become his personal friend, Ballin included a library, a small gymnasium, and even a darkroom so amateur photographers could process their travel photos.
(Once the finishing touches were completed on the ship, the kaiser made a formal inspection and was said to be unhappy that Victoria Luise was slightly longer than his own royal yacht Hohenzollern!)
Also unlike the ocean liners of the time, Prinzessin Victoria Luise had all first-class staterooms—passengers on this new type of ship were no longer segregated by class.
However, there were no cheap fares to be had. Prices for these cruises, which lasted 14 to 33 days, ranged from $75 to $175 and up. (That’s equivalent to $2,315 to $5,403 in today’s money. The average yearly salary in the US at the time was only $449.80, so only the wealthy could afford to cruise.)
The ship had very little space for transporting mail or cargo—it was designed solely for the enjoyment of passengers.
Albert Ballin wanted his ship to be more like a “floating hotel” for his wealthy guests. Her 180 passengers would be served by 161 crew members, a passenger-to-crew ratio that was unheard of at the time (and only rivaled today by the most luxurious all-inclusive cruise lines).
How big was the first cruise ship compared to modern cruise ships?
Prinzessin Victoria Luise‘s hull was 52.2 feet wide (15.9 m) by 407.5 feet long (124.2 m). She measured 4,409 gross register tons (GRT).
If you compare Prinzessin Victoria Luise to Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas (the largest cruise ship currently in operation at 236,857 GRT), you could fit almost fifty-four of her inside!
But for the time, she was a considerable size if you take into account that the largest ocean liner sailing in 1900 (the RMS Oceanic), was only 17,272 GRT.
We’d consider a cruise ship of that size today to be tiny!
Where did the first cruise ship sail?
Originally, the plan for the Prinzessin Victoria Luise was to kick off with a 135-day grand world cruise for her maiden voyage.
The very first cruise ship would have left Hamburg on August 28, 1900, sailing eastbound around the world until she reached San Francisco. At that point, the passengers would disembark, travel by train across the United States, and return to Hamburg by ocean liner.
In 1900 construction on the Panama Canal hadn’t yet begun (that started a few years later in 1904) and sailing around the southern tip of South America would have added weeks to the journey.
A second group of passengers would embark at San Francisco and cruise in the reverse direction back to Hamburg.
But, neither world cruise ever sailed. Apparently, a strike at the shipyard delayed construction, and the Prinzessin wasn’t completed until December of that year.
Instead, the ship’s rescheduled maiden voyage from Hamburg stopped at Boulogne in France, Plymouth UK, and then sailed to New York to begin her first pleasure cruise.
On January 26th 1901, passengers embarked on a round-trip itinerary visiting several islands in the West Indies.
On March 9th, she left on her second cruise, sailing from New York to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
For the next several years, Prinzessin Victoria Luise cruised year-round (with the exception of six transatlantic crossings), also adding Baltic cruises to her schedule.
What were accommodations like on the first cruise ship?
All of the passenger cabins on the Prinzessin Victoria Luise were first-class staterooms, decorated with sumptuous fabrics and rich wood furnishings accented with brass.
The Emperor’s Suite, custom-built for Germany’s kaiser (though there’s no evidence he ever sailed in it) was complete with a private bath and toilet.
All staterooms had sinks with running water, but if you weren’t in a suite you’d need to confer with the bath steward to schedule your bathing time.
The space-saving bunk bed concept (popular on ocean liners of the time), was abandoned when designing Victoria Luise‘s staterooms.
Instead, side-by-side beds made for a more elegant boudoir. The ship also offered single staterooms for solo travelers.
All cabins on the first cruise ship were complete with electric lights, a ventilation fan, and a state-of-the-art electric paging system to allow passengers to summon the room steward.
Amenities aboard the Prinzessin Victoria Luise
Prinzessin Victoria Luise‘s lavish art-nouveau interior was opulent, with gilded detail work on every wall, crystal-paned domes to let in the light, and plush furniture and carpets in rich colors throughout the ship. Decorative live plants and cut flower arrangements augmented the beauty of the furnishings.
But the guest amenities on board the Prinzessin Victoria Luise were what made her stand out from the typical passenger ship of the time.
Albert Ballin’s dream of creating a floating hotel came to life on his ship—with a range of communal spaces to socialize, read, exercise, or just relax and enjoy this new cruise experience.
The Prinzessin Victoria Luise featured a gymnasium, what we’d consider a very small exercise room today! The gym included a stationary bicycle, a rack of Indian clubs (also known as exercise pins), a mechanical horse, and various other fitness contraptions of the period.
For gentlemen passengers, there was a vast smoking room—ladies were not allowed! This would have been a social hub for the men of the ship, where they could relax with a cigar and play cards, chess, or checkers.
But guests of any gender could enjoy getting to know their fellow cruisers in the Main Cabin, a light and airy room with a domed roof and skylight. Upholstered armchairs and sofas arranged around tables invited conversation.
The open decks, sheltered by a removable tarpaulin, were the perfect place to read the newspaper or gaze out at the sea.
Prinzessin Victoria Luise also had a popular promenade deck, so passengers could take the air and enjoy the view on a leisurely walk around the ship.
The ship also featured a music salon, a ladies’ parlor, and a well-stocked library. The onboard darkroom for amateur shutterbugs was likely the first one included on a passenger ship.
What were meals like on the first cruise ship?
On Prinzessin Victoria Luise, meals were served in the elegant dining room, an opulent atrium-style space with galleries brightened by a stained-glass rosette skylight.
Dinner on the Prinzessin was a lavish eight-course affair. Unlike on today’s cruise ships, diners didn’t have a choice of dining time, or a choice of what they wanted to eat!
But from the look of one surviving menu I found, guests on the ship weren’t exactly going hungry.
From the dinner menu on the evening of Friday, March 1st 1901, we see that cruisers began their meal with cannelons à la Prinzessin, which would be small mincemeat rolls or pastry rolls with rice and fruit.
The soup course was beef broth or soup à la Reine, a chicken and rice soup with cream.
Then on to the fish course, with fillets of fish à la Regence. This would have been a very elegant preparation for fish at the time—vintage recipes in this style often topped the buttered fish fillets with a creamy sauce, truffles, and lobster or crayfish.
Next was the meat course, roast beef American-style. Roast turkey followed, accompanied by preserves and salad.
If anyone still had room in their bellies, dessert that evening was strawberry ice cream and macaroons, followed by cheese, fruit, and coffee.
The tragic fate of SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise and her captain
On the moonlit evening of December 16, 1906, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise was entering Kingston Harbor in Jamaica. But sadly, she would never leave.
According to a New York Times article published later that month, the crew and several passengers told the story of what happened that fateful night.
Captain H. Brunswig, hoping to beckon a pilot to help him navigate the harbor, displayed the ship’s night signals. When no one responded, the captain decided that entering the harbor was too dangerous and he had better set off to nearby Port Royal to sit at anchor for the night.
He guided the ship toward Port Royal, spotting the two red lights he thought would guide him into the safety of the harbor there. But the captain misread the lights and sailed directly toward the lighthouse at Plumb Point.
At about 9:30 PM, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise suddenly stopped—grounded on a reef in the shallow water.
Captain Brunswig sent a boat ashore to report the accident, then returned to his cabin where he took his own life.
All of the passengers (none of whom were injured) stayed aboard the ship that night, unaware of the captain’s suicide.
The next morning, the third officer and fifteen members of the crew set off to Plumb Point, where they created a line of boats two feet apart, all the way to the ship. The crew handed the passengers from boat to boat until they all reached the safety of the shore.
What happened to the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise after the wreck?
Soon after the Prinzessin‘s grounding, two nearby ships came to her aid. Both the German cruiser Bremen and the French training ship Duguay-Trouin offered assistance, with the Bremen attaching lines in an attempt to tow the ship off of the rocks.
But the Prinzessin wouldn’t budge. She had suffered significant damage during the grounding—her engines were dislodged and the frame plates shattered.
A storm that blew through the area just after the accident battered the ship, damaging the hull even more as it listed and took on water.
The Merritt & Chapman Wrecking Company also attempted to recover the ship. However, in January of 1907 (a little less than a month after the Prinzessin ran aground) Kingston, Jamaica was hit with a massive earthquake.
Estimated to be about a 6.2 Mw magnitude, the quake killed hundreds, injured thousands more, and leveled 85 percent of the buildings in the city.
Recovery of the Prinzessin Victoria Luise was abandoned.
Have you ever heard of the first cruise ship, SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise? If you could go back in time, would you like to sail on her, or do you prefer modern cruise ships? Let me know in the comments below!
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Monday 13th of February 2023
I have a piece from that ship so I was interested in reading about her. The piece I have must have been from my grandparents as I have no history of it or where it came from. Enjoyed your article very much.
Thursday 9th of March 2023
@Carrie Ann, Like JC, I also have an original item related to the ship's first cruise. Mine’s a souvenir type hand fan detailing the West Indies cruise 1901. I don’t know if this would have been acquired on board or was promotional material at the time. Nice to read the article.
Wednesday 15th of February 2023
Hi JC, I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about the story of the Prinzessin Victoria Luise! It's so neat to hear that you have a piece from the ship - I'd love to see a photo of it, and maybe include it in my article for other readers to enjoy. My email is carrieann [at] shouldbecruising.com (just replace the [at] with @) Thanks so much for stopping by!
Tuesday 30th of November 2021
What a great job you did of bringing the story to life. I could almost see myself on the ship.
Tuesday 30th of November 2021
Hi Ava, I'm thrilled that you enjoyed reading about the first cruise ship! I'd love to time travel and see her myself :)
Monday 2nd of August 2021
I love the history! Thank you for detailing this 😊😊
Tuesday 3rd of August 2021
Hi Shafinah, Thanks for reading! I'm fascinated by the history, too :D
Sunday 1st of August 2021
What an interesting read. I had no idea. Thanks for sharing.
Tuesday 3rd of August 2021
Hi Ashlee, thanks so much for stopping by and reading about the first cruise ship!
Sunday 1st of August 2021
Wow! What an incredible story. I'm not sure I would want to be one of the first cruisers, but I admire those who waded those waters before me! Thanks for this bit of history!
Tuesday 3rd of August 2021
Hi Jennifer! It must have been such an adventurous experience for those first cruisers! I'm happy you enjoyed reading about the Prinzessin :)