After World War II, the Cunard White Star Line operated three ships on the Southampton—New York run. The famous RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth operated an express service, with the smaller and slower RMS Mauretania sailing as the third ship on the route. Already in 1946 the company placed an order for a running mate to the Mauretania, a ship of similar speed and proportions for the transatlantic run. Ultimately this was not to be the role of the new ship. Displaying admirable far-sightedness, Cunard White Star’s executives decided that the new ship would be built primarily for cruising. With cruising in mind, the new ship – soon to be named Caronia by Princess Elizabeth – received many features different from her Cunard White Star fleetmates. An outdoor swimming pool was a new thing, as was having a bathroom in every cabin. However, unlike modern cruiseships, her accommodations still included two classes, first and cabin. Yet on cruises only first class accommodations were offered, meaning the 351 berths in cabin class went unused.
To distinguish her from Cunard White Star’s liners, the company decided to give her a different colour scheme. Instead of going for the usual all-white cruiseship look, the Caronia received a unique paint in different shades of green, making her highly attractive and instantly recognisable, and leading to her popular nickname Green Goddess. Another striking feature of the ship was her funnel, one of the largest ever to be installed on a ship. Like those of her junior SS United States, the funnel easily caught the wind making the ship somewhat difficult to handle.
The brand new RMS Caronia made her maiden voyage on 4 January 1949 between Southampton and New York. Two more transatlantic crossings followed before the ship embarked on her first cruises from New York to the Caribbean. During her first years she spent most the year doing transatlantic crossings, only during the winter months she was engaged in cruising. In 1951 she made her first world cruise. From 1952 onwards she only made transatlantic crossings in August and September, with the rest of the year dedicated to cruising. In May 1953 the Caronia made perhaps her most famous cruise, associated with the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II (who had christened the Caronia six years earlier). The ship was used as a hotel as most of the accommodations in the UK were fully booked.
During her annual refit in November 1956, Caronia received complete air-conditioning. During her annual world cruise in 1958 she suffered the most serious accident of her career. While sailing out of Yokohama harbour at very slow speed in order to avoid collision with an American military vessel, she was pushed by high winds against the harbour’s breakwater, demolishing a lighthouse in the process. The ship’s bow was seriously damaged, but fortunately the United States Navy allowed Caronia to use their Yokosuka drydock for repairs. During the same year Caronia’s Autumn Mediterranean cruise had to be cancelled due to political tension in the Middle East.
1959 saw Caronia making regular transatlantic crossings for the last time. Competition from the jet airliner meant there weren’t enough passengers for her in the North Atlantic trade. From here her transatlantic crossings were repositioning voyages, taking a southernly route via the Bahamas instead of the usual direct route. Decreased passenger numbers in the North Atlantic also meant that more of Cunard’s liners were rebuilt into cruise use and received a similar green colour scheme to that of the Caronia, which in 1962 were established as the line’s official cruise colours when RMS Mauretania was rebuilt for cruising. In 1963 RMS Franconia and RMS Carmania followed. By this time the Caronia’s itineraries had settled into a yearly pattern, each cruise having found its ideal individual place in the calendar.
By the early 1960’s other shipping companies were catching up with Cunard and building their own purpose-built cruiseships, which were better equipped than the Caronia as well as better suited for cruising than she had ever been. To keep up with her newer competitors Cunard decided that in November 1965 the Caronia would be drydocked for ten weeks, new suites and lido deck built and her interiors brought up to date. 1966 brought with it a Seamen’s strike in Britain, which upset the Caronia’s itineraries badly. Due to climbing operating costs, 1967 became the first year when the Caronia didn’t profit her owners. Due to the increased competition, Cunard decided withdraw her at the end of the year. Fittingly, Caronia’s last voyage for Cunard was a transatlantic crossing from New York to Southampton.
In early 1968 the Caronia was sold to Star Line, a company owned by US and Panamian interests. She was initially renamed SS Columbia and sailed to Greece for reconstruction. During her last years with Cunard, the Caronia’s engines had fallen into disrepair in order to save money, and by the time she became the Columbia they badly needed repairing. Instead of ordering new parts from the original constructors, the ship’s new owners ordered similar parts from a Greek company. Whilst she was being rebuilt Andrew Konstaninidis bought out other owners of Star Line and renamed the ship SS Caribia. She also received a new all-white colour scheme. In February 1969 the Caribia embarked on her first cruise from New York to the Caribbean, during which her waste system malfunctioned. Things would get even worse on her second cruise, which ended with an explosion in the engine room. The Caribia limped back to New York, and she was never to make a commercial voyage again.
During the next five years there were constant plans to revive the Caribia, but in fact she remained in New York and debts continued to accumulate. Finally in 1974 her owners gave in and sold the once great ship for scrap. German ocean tug Hamburg was entrusted with the task of towing the Caribia to Taiwan. Whilst near Honolulu the ship was in danger of capsizing, but repairs were made and her voyage could continue. The ships encountered a bad storm near Apra Harbour at Guam. After the Hamburg’s generators failed her crew were forced to cut the Caribia loose, and the storm winds pushed her against Apra Harbour’s breakwater where the ship was wrecked. Being a danger to local shipping, the Caribia’s wreck was swiftly cut up. Her life ended just 25 years after she was commissioned, and despite being probably the most forward-looking ship of her time, she had only been in active service for 19 years.