Our departure was delayed for several hours because the ship was undergoing a comprehensive scrubbing, under the watch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There had been an outbreak of norovirus — a highly contagious disease whose symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea — aboard the trip just ending. More than 200 people had fallen ill.
Our crossing, therefore, became a near-military-level operation in norovirus eradication. Purell dispensers were planted, as they always are, at the entrances to the ship’s restaurants. If you ignored these dispensers, waiters hovered nearby, extra vigilant about squirting a cleansing shot of ethanol into your upturned palms. There were 2,481 passengers aboard our ship, as well as 1,242 crew members, and we collectively spent the crossing rubbing our Purell-spritzed hands together like villains in an epic silent movie.
A more exact motto than “Cunard. Anything” would probably be “Cunard. Everything.” The Queen Mary 2, longer than the Chrysler Building is tall, does its best to overwhelm you. Each day’s schedule, left at your door the evening prior, is stuffed with more activities than a fall parents’ weekend at a good liberal arts college: lectures, films, recitals, musical productions, LGBT gatherings, church services, watercolor classes, AA meetings, planetarium shows, wine tastings, Pilates sessions, whist socials.
Most of these distractions are thoughtfully presented. After a screening of the recent film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in the theater, for example, you may attend a talk and book signing by one of its stars, the actress Celia Imrie. Among the lecturers was the English historian Juliet Nicolson, the granddaughter of the writer (and Virginia Woolf’s lover) Vita Sackville-West.
Some of these happenings were merely terrifying.
The live entertainment aboard the QM2 often brought back vivid and gruesome memories of being forced by my grandparents to watch TV variety hours like The John Davidson Show. One night I fled a musical review devoted to the songs of Sting after only three of his greatest hits.
A crossing on the Queen Mary 2 is the sort of thing people put on their bucket lists. More than a few passengers on our crossing seemed perilously close to kicking that bucket. The QM2’s dance club pulled a frantic young crowd after midnight. But the average age on our crossing, I’d guess, was well over 60. There was an abundance of wheelchairs, walkers and canes.
People do die on passenger ships. While I was on a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship (these tours cost $120, and tickets are scarce), a medical officer displayed a small morgue, with metal drawers for four bodies. If more space is required, he said, smiling, there is always the ice cream freezer.
The demographics for cruise ships have always skewed old. Who else has the time to spend eight days crossing an ocean in January? By focusing so exclusively on the retired leisure class, though, the virtues of crossing are being lost on a younger generation.
You do begin to forgive the Queen Mary 2 its dowdy sensibilities. It is, you realize, nothing less than a floating distillation of English inclinations and values, a watertight container of cask-aged nostalgia. It has been built for survival, not speed. It is a place to have kippers for breakfast, clear marmite soup for lunch, well-brewed English tea in the afternoon and a pint of lager in the early evening. You are notified that “military or award decorations may be worn on formal nights.” In winter, this is a relatively affordable passage to make: Our tickets were a total of about $1,500, although alcohol, spa treatments, Internet and other things can easily cause this figure to double. The QM2 may no longer be the longest, tallest and widest passenger ship extant, but it is still the largest ocean liner — sailing point-to-point, as in across the Atlantic, as opposed to a cruise ship, which makes a loop that finishes where it started — ever built. It’s the only ocean liner in regular service between Southampton and New York.