Even though it’s July, at 3:30 in the morning it feels more like January standing on the 13th deck of the Queen Mary 2. At this ungodly hour, only 25 hearty souls are out here, some swaddled in bathrobes and blankets, others layered in sweaters and sweat shirts. One couple shivers while clutching a bottle of champagne and two flutes, ready to pop the cork at the first suggestion of light. None of us know each other, but one thing is certain: We are all dreamers willing to trade a few hours of sleep for the exhilaration of spotting the first hint of New York. It’s the first speck of land to appear on the ebony horizon since we left Southampton, England, six days before.
To be honest, my position on crossing the Atlantic aboard one of the most famous ocean liners in the world started as more doubt than passion. The idea of spending a week on the same body of water that swallowed the Titanic, with no place to divert should an unexpected storm or rogue wave surprise the ship, was unnerving. And, what would I do to amuse myself with zero port stops?
But for years my husband had nagged me about re-creating the Golden Age of travel, an era when the titled, the moneyed and the glamorous, from Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Taylor, made this rite of passage. Plus, he reminded me that we’d arrive home well-rested (no jet lag), as well as slim and trim, a result of daily workouts at the ship’s Canyon Ranch SpaClub, the only branch of the famous spa at sea. Eventually, I succumbed to his dream voyage. Little did I know it would turn into mine, as well.
At the start of our voyage on the ship’s Southampton dock, the world’s longest, tallest, widest, largest and most expensive ($800 million) passenger vessel ever built, towers above us. Styled like the grand ocean liners of the ’30s with long, flowing lines and graceful curves, the massive ship is twice the size of the Titanic or three football fields in length and as high as a 23-story building. The realization that we are about to share this floating city with 2,620 passengers and 1,253 crew members as we cross 3,166 miles of water at a maximum speed of 34 miles an hour causes even the coolest traveler to experience an Oh-My-God moment.
Thanks to staggered passenger arrivals and priority check-in, one of several perks of staying in a Grill Suite is that within minutes we zigzag up the gangplank and enter a metropolis where only beauty exists. (There are 32 pricing categories and 14 room types from inside cabins to ocean-view suites with balconies. Queen or Princess Grill Suites, two of the poshest choices, offer larger cabins, private butler or concierge services, private dining rooms and assorted in-cabin perks.) Feeling like two kids from Podunk plopped into Paris, we gawk as we enter the Grand Lobby. Heads up. Heads down. Look left. Look right. Our index fingers get workouts pointing to magnificent three-level swirling staircases edged in gleaming brass railings, massive walls of marble, stunning bronze sculptures and paintings from 128 countries, Waterford crystal chandeliers and sumptuous carpeting in grand swirls of red, sapphire and gold.
Fortunately, our sense of wonder hardly sets us apart. Everyone else is gawking, too.
“I’m Anna. I will be attending to you for your entire trip,” says the charming Asian woman who appears faster than Tinkerbell when we arrive at our suite. She explains our high-tech TV that enables us to do everything from order a bottle of wine to create a play list of our favorite background music. With the gusto of a good real estate agent, she points out walls of closets behind handsome wood panels, a spacious walk-in closet, a marble bathroom, balcony, king-size bed handsomely dressed in Frette linens and a creamy satin comforter and all sorts of bedside buttons that control every light in the suite. And, of course, champagne to toast our departure.
At 6:30 p.m. sharp, the whistle blows, letting everyone within 10 miles know we’re on the move. Every passenger is on deck as 150,000 tons of floating steel pull away from the last land I’ll see for six days. More bubbly, please.
We quickly develop a daily routine. In an attempt to fulfill our shape-up-on-board objective, before breakfast we take brisk laps around the Promenade Deck (three laps equal a mile) and/or work out at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub. We eat gourmet breakfasts and lunches in our intimate Princess Grill 180-seat private dining room, where Sunil, Daniel and Peter, our personal waiters, dote upon us.
Since there are nine other restaurants offering cuisine ranging from Asian to Italian, to a swanky Todd English spot, our concierge makes dinner reservations for us at a different one each night. Despite our efforts to order low-cal choices from the Canyon Ranch spa menu, we’re successfully tempted by amazing creations such as chateaubriand with a foie gras sauce or a decadent Thai coffee tiramisu. At Todd English’s place, a roasted duck breast with ginger-carrot cannelloni definitely requires extra treadmill time.
The ship’s size is a paradox. Obviously, it’s huge— there is more space per passenger than on any other ship at sea— but it feels intimate. Restaurants have lots of banquets or half walls or balconies to cleverly carve up big spaces and there are 13 bars and lounges tucked around the ship offering variety and intimacy. Deck chairs around the five pools (one with a retractable glass roof) aren’t crammed together, another perk of all that extra space.
I thought I’d be bored, struggling to amuse myself, but our days are filled with intriguing lectures by Oxford scholars covering subjects ranging from “The United States and World Security” to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Modern Cinema in a Nutshell.” I take acting classes conducted by members of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, the same school that gave us Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes, before taking a few computer and digital camera classes. My husband, Terry, plays a round at Pebble Beach on a golf simulator and we catch several shows in the world’s first planetarium at sea— impressive both because of its size (it seats 150) and the quality of its production narrated by Harrison Ford. Thirty laptop computers help us keep in touch with friends and family back home, and with the largest library at sea (more than 8,000 books in stock), we read a few long-neglected books.
There’s a wide range of passengers onboard, a mix of Americans and Europeans. While flipping through a book about how they built this ship, I chat with a gynecologist from Chicago and his pediatrician wife. One night we dine with an English couple from Devon. At the Champagne Bar, we meet a gutsy psychologist who sky-dives in her free time. Here and there we see a few groups of three generations celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary.
While there are a surprising number of young people on board (probably taking advantage of reasonable inside cabin prices), the crowd is mostly our age— over 50— and look successful or successfully retired. Unlike traveling by plane where no one establishes eye contact for fear that you might strike up a conversation, on board everyone is ready to chat at the first hint of a smile. Maybe it’s because subconsciously we are all aware that while the QM2 is large, in proportion to the sea, we are all spending a week together on a floating speck with no land in sight for a week. Maybe this unsaid reality makes everyone a little friendlier.
Of course, there is bingo, boutique shopping, dance classes, wine tastings, roulette and blackjack tournaments in a snazzy casino, and the required tacky art and T-shirt sales, the sort of things you’ll find on most cruise ships. Oops, did I say cruise ship? While we’ve taken many cruises pre-QM2, the first thing we learn on board is to never ever refer to the Queen Mary 2 as a cruise ship to anyone in the know or you’ll get an earful. (“This isn’t a cruise, this is transportation,” one experienced traveler berates me one afternoon.) And indeed, one family of four relocating to the United States from Germany said taking the ship was cheaper than flying because of the airlines hefty fees for additional baggage. There are none on the QM2. Twelve kennels accommodate passengers traveling with pets and real English nannies look after children in the ship’s nursery. Most people I talk to regard this experience as a cruise but not a typical one. This one has name-dropping status, unquestionable snob appeal.
Nighttime on the ship brings a nostalgia-tinged event that feel straight out of a movie— The Captain’s Black and White Ball, The British Ascot Ball, an extravagant Broadway stage show in a two-story theater that rivals the Kennedy Center before dancing on the largest dance floor at sea. Everyone is dressed to the nines— a surreal scene of perfectly coiffed women in sequined, floor-length gowns or chiffon-y cocktail dresses tucked onto the arms of tuxedo-clad men. The night prior to reaching New York we settle in at the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar decked out in our best black-tie attire for some vintage varieties and clink glasses to the fantasy that will end in eight hours.
“There, over there,” someone shouts as the first hint of the Big Apple appears on the horizon. The couple patiently hanging onto that champagne pops the cork. “It’s cocktail time somewhere,” they announce, generating a request from the jovial crowd for more glasses. We feel like we need a few sips as we glide under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Since we were warned in advance that there is only a six foot clearance between the ship’s massive funnel and the bridge, we don’t panic but it sure looks tight. What if it’s high tide? everyone buzzes. No one wants to find out.
As we approach the Statue of Liberty, a steady stream of passengers cram onto our deck, perhaps to recreate the moment when parents or grandparents immigrated to America and were welcomed by that same glorious torch. The party-like atmosphere is mixed with tears (including mine), a second-generation Italian whose grandparents left Italy and crossed this same ocean under much less glamorous conditions. Helicopters hover overhead and New York’s finest circle the ship, spritzing water from tugs and fireboats in a traditional welcome that began when the first Queen Mary steamed into New York on her maiden voyage in 1936. “Welcome back to the real world,” someone mutters. Very reluctantly we leave the fantasy version we’ve grown to love.
Rates for transatlantic crossings start at $1,395 per person for an inside cabin to $23,395 per person for the Grand Duplex Suite. 800-7-CUNARD, http://www.cunard.com