Saint-Nazaire’s Escal’Atlantic tells the story of the great passenger liners of the past. It does a great job recreating the history and life of those transatlantic liners that set off from France to take people to the far ends of the world. The stately ships were bound for south America, Europe, Asia and of course the new world of New York.

Two people walking across a gangplank to get into the Escal'Atlantic exhibition with objects below as if on dockside
Escal’Atlantic Entrance ©Vincent Bauza

Down at the docks

Escal’Atlantic is housed in the huge concrete submarine base built on the site of the old docks in 1940. The formidable Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (also known as The French Line) was founded here in 1862. But the strategic importance of the site, with easy access straight into the Atlantic, led to the inevitable destruction of the old docks by the Germans in 1940 and the building of their formidable submarine base.

Today’s ocean-going passenger liners are built nearby by Les Chantiers de l’Atlantique which is also well worth a visit. In October 2022 they finished and launched the mighty new MSC World Europa, the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG)-powered cruise ship.

Long view towards the docks at Saint-Nazaire showing in the distance the chantiers de l'Atlantique huge shipyards
The docks at Saint-Nazaire © Mary Anne Evans

The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Liners

The great ocean liners of the past came into their own with the development of steam power.  For two centuries they pioneered new routes and opened up the world. The only way to travel from continent to continent, Saint-Nazaire was in the forefront of shipbuilding and became the base for journeys, first to Central America.

Some of the ships were well known; others like SS La Provence which took 7 days from Le Havre to New York are not such household names. The largest ship in the French merchant marine and the largest built in France at the time, she was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean in 1916.

It was the great ocean liners, many built in Saint-Nazaire and operated by the the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, that set the standards. In the 1920s, wealthy Americans escaping prohibition made up many of the passengers in the top class cabins on ships like the Ile de France, launched in 1927.

Then came the Depression and a downturn until the mid 1930s when the style was set by the SS Normandie. Built in Saint-Nazaire and launched in May 1935 she was the fastest, most technologically advanced passenger ship, crossing the Atlantic from Le Havre to New York in a record 4.14 days. She’s the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built.

SS Normandie's maiden arrival in New York showing huge 3 funnelled Normandie surrounded by small boats near Ellis Island in black and white photo
SS Normandie’s maiden arrival in New York. Public domain

Walk through a reconstructed passenger liner

Step up a gangplank into the museum and you step inside a life of contrasts where the rich travelled in style, and the poor in steerage.

You can take a guided tour (currently only in French though they are working on an English alternative), or guide yourself on a 90-minute tour.

The museum is easy to walk through starting with the reception room that would have greeted past passengers.

Escal'Atlantic film showing world map of 1868 and routes being added by passenger ships
Escal’Atlantic Film © Mary Anne Evans

In a darkened space a large screen video lights up with the routes as they were added from different ports.

A series of rooms are connected by corridors where panels show how long the journeys were, how many passengers the passengers liners took and the cost of the different classes.

2 panels in Escal'Atlantic showing times taken by transatlantic liners in the 1900s
Escal’Atlantic © Mary Anne Evans

Setting the style

SS Normandie was the dernier mot in the new luxury paquebot style. Architect Pierre Patout created the Art Déco and Streamline Moderne style that even today looks as elegant as in the past. 

Other French designers created the luxury cabins, dining rooms, bars, swimming pool and winter garden. Jean Dunand designed the huge lacquer panels that greeted passengers in the reception hall (and you see one of his fabulous over-the-top creations on the tour). Specially designed Christofle silver, porcelain and glassware glittered on the tables in the dining rooms. Lalique glass torchères  and engraved glass panels made by the Cristallerie de Compiègne, better known as Degué added extra sparkle to already impressive rooms.

Something I would love to have seen is the children’s dining room. It was decorated by Jean de Brunhoff, who covered the walls with Babar the Elephant and his entourage.

elegant upholstered arm chair with chain below seat to hold chair to deck
Elegant and practical © Mary Anne Evans

Escal’Atlantic takes elements from many of the luxury passenger liners. You see some of the furniture and chairs like this one which had a small chain to attach it to the floor. So you wouldn’t be embarrassed while sipping your cocktail and sliding across the floor.

And the Louis Vuitton cabin trunk shown in all its glory still has the wow factor.

Escal'Atlantic exhibit of open large Louis Vuitton cabin trunk with hangers and shelves and drawers
Escal’Atlantic Louis Vuitton cabin trunk © Mary Anne Evans

Third class passengers

Photo of 3rd class cabins on liners with bunks suspended from ceilings
Third Class Quarters © Alastair McKenzie

A little further on you descend to the third class cabins. No luxury here for those people, mostly migrants, escaping the poverty of Europe.

A crackling old film shows the journey, where the passengers came from, and their arrival and reception at Ellis Island. Stoic, strong, sometimes frightened, they stepped off the ship to begin a new life in the USA. Migration began early: between 1870 and 1925 60 million Europeans took the voyage.

Become a director of a maritime company

Game at Escal'Atlantic showing map of world on big video screen in middle of table and phantom sea captain
Game at Escal’Atlantic © Alastair McKenzie

It’s worth playing the game on a huge round video table of a map of the world with other visitors. You become the director of a maritime company. Which journey will you take? Le Havre to New York? Saint-Nazaire to Veracruz? Then you’re off, managing your fleet, ships and hopefully the weather.

Where the real work was done

Escal'Atlantic engine rooms looking down through railings onto big pistons
Escal’Atlantic Engine Room © Mary Anne Evans

Steps take you past the engines below. Impressive but it must have been hell to work there.

A giant larder

Pause at the panel about the food that had to be taken on board. It’s the 1880s and the ships have to cater for 1638 passengers and 812 staff. Everything is here from fresh parsley to champagne with 2,500 kilos of cheese, 300 pineapples, 8,000 bananas, 15,000 lemons, 20,000 oranges, 7,000 pears and everything else in vast quantities. After all they had to make 700 kilos of bread every day.

Back on deck. Quoits anyone?

L'Atlantique Magazine cover showing three very fashionable ladies in 20s clothes
L’Atlantique exclusive magazine © Mary Anne Evans

You go back through the reception lounge and onto an imagined deck complete with very posh loungers in leather. Copies of their own magazine, L’Atlantique hang from the chairs. A large screen shows you the passing landscape; a few other ships, seagulls and horror of horrors…icebergs.

The last part of the visit

The bar at Escal’Atlantic © Alastair McKenzie

At the final part of the visit you emerge at the bar where you can order a cocktail.

A stairway leads you down, in your sweeping gown of course, to a dining room. Panels on the walls reproduce the original dining rooms while glassware and silver show you how expensive the whole experience was.

Film showing dining room on board liner in 1930s
Elegant dining © Mary Anne Evans

Everything was over the top in these glorious passenger liners. Normandie‘s first-class dining hall was the largest room afloat. At 93m (305 ft), it was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, seating 700 diners at 157 tables.

And as for the menus

Equally as fascinating are the menus. These were predictably grand, and filling. They included a bewildering range of dishes, always including hors d’oevres, soups, fish, meat, vegetables, cheese, delicious desserts, coffee and tea. Nobody in first class went hungry. One day it might be an 11-course choice running from grapefruit, through caviar, a soup, turbot fillet, chicken with fresh vegetable dish. It’s followed by spit roasted beef and buttered new potatoes and salad. To finish glazed biscuits and La Corbeille Fleurie de Friandises  – make of that what you will. You could always just choose fruit.

And for your dog? Consommé of beef, Le Regal de Sweekey which is mince meat with carrots,  spinach and side toast, La Gâterie ‘France’ of minced chicken, green beans and rice topped with meat stock and crushed biscuits. Then bones of beef, ham and veal followed by fresh vegetables and pasta and to end Biscuit. Bizarre.

There were also strict kosher menus with around 36 Americans per trip choosing them.

The end of the journey

Don’t worry. If all else fails there’s always the lifeboat.

Lifeboat hanging from ceiling in Escal'Atlantic

16 Boulevard de la Légion d’Honneur
Saint-Nazaire 4460
Tel: +33 (0)2 28 54 06 40
Open April 1 to Nov 6, Nov 11-13, 27, Dec 4, 11, 17-23, 26-31, 2022 daily 10am-6pm
Admission You must pre-book. Adult €14 euros, 4 to 17 years €7 euros, under 4 years free

More about the area

Saint-Nazaire Tourist Office

More about the French Atlantic Coast

Loire Valley from Saumur to Saint-Nazaire