Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2

03/16/2013 12:00 AM

03/14/2013 3:58 PM

The first rule about traveling between America and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line and the world’s largest ocean liner, is to never refer to your adventure as a cruise. You are, it is understood, making a crossing.

The second rule is to refrain, when speaking to those who travel frequently on Cunard’s ships, from calling them regulars. The term of art — it is best pronounced while approximating Maggie Smith’s cut-glass accent on Downton Abbey — is Cunardists.

The third rule, unspoken, is to not fling your champagne flutes into the roiling North Atlantic. My wife, Cree, broke this one. It was our second night aboard the ship. We were crossing, in January, from New York to Southampton. I was in black tie. She was in an extraordinary little black dress. We’d been flailing about, in the ship’s ballroom, to an adroit orchestra. We were happy, and tipsy.

We pushed open a door to the promenade deck. The icy wind heartlessly X-rayed us, but it was impossible to pull away from the railing. The North Atlantic in January is no joke; its heaving beauty is mesmerizing. It’s a volcano of sorts, one that seems to demand an offering. Better a champagne flute than to leap over the railing yourself.

This stemware-tossing impulse is, apparently, an old one. Evelyn Waugh, in his travel book Labels (1930), described being alone on a boat deck at night in the Mediterranean, champagne glass in hand.

“For no good reason that I can now think of,” he wrote, “I threw it out over the side, watched it hover for a moment in the air as it lost momentum and was caught by the wind, then saw it flutter and tumble into the swirl of water.”

Waugh added, “This gesture … has become oddly important to me.”

If travel makes you a bit reckless and sharpens your senses, being aboard the Queen Mary 2 in winter doubles this sense of intoxication. The churning ocean, splashing up the sides of the elegant dining room’s windows, two feet from your bottle of white burgundy and your tuna tartare, flips the switch on your survival instincts. You find yourself ravenous: eating a bit more; planning to stay out a bit later; dwelling a bit more upon sex.

What is it about ships (and trains and planes) and sex? We were left to ponder this question with fresh avidity after an unfamiliar QM2 waiter approached Cree early one afternoon while she was reading alone by a window in the ship’s pub.

This waiter, Cree reported later, was quite good looking, in a manner that resembled the actor Andy Garcia. He stood weirdly close.

He made small talk and ended by remarking, “If there’s anything I can do to make your trip more enjoyable, let me know.”

He walked away, then he strode back to Cree 15 seconds later and whispered, making eye contact, “Anything.”

This sotto voce invitation was a great gift to us — to Cree, to me, and to a friend, Will, who was traveling with us — because for the rest of the crossing we lasciviously uttered, at least hourly, what we decided should be the new Cunard motto: “Cunard. Anything.”

We boarded the QM2 at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook on a Thursday, for what would be a seven-night passage to Southampton. The liner can easily complete this voyage in six days, but it slows down, like a power ballad, to save fuel and to extend its passengers’ enjoyment.

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.

A crossing is an interior as much as exterior voyage. Sepia-tinted photographs on the QM2 walls depict the actors, writers, politicians, aristocrats and playboys who crossed regularly during Cunard’s Champagne-soaked heyday, before the jet age robbed ocean liners of their reason for being. You recall Cunard’s wartime service. Winston Churchill observed that the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth helped shorten World War II by at least one year, such were their troop-carrying capacities.

There’s a strong temptation, during your first few days aboard the QM2, to scramble about frantically, trying to sample everything. It takes a few days to realize that the real pleasures of a winter crossing are deliberate ones. First of all there is the Bergmanesque beauty of the ocean, more entrancing to fixate upon than a fire.

You will find yourself devouring many books, because you’re mostly unplugged. (Internet service on the QM2 is slow and extortionately expensive.)

Cree spent many of her daytime hours walking the ship’s promenade deck (three times around is about a mile) or soaking and reading in the Canyon Ranch Spa. I read, wrote and spent a fair amount of time in the late afternoons in an outdoor hot tub on Deck 8 with a commanding view over the aft.

It was cold out there, sometimes snowing, so these hot tubs were nearly always empty. The first evening I soaked there, alone in the gloaming, a pint of dry British cider at hand, watching the sky darken and the ship’s wake spread out, I was keenly aware that this was perhaps among the top 200 moments of my life.

On an eastward crossing in winter it’s hard not to dwell upon death. I don’t mean that I feared for our ship the fate of the Costa Concordia (rocks) or the Titanic (iceberg) or the Lusitania (U-boat) or the Edmund Fitzgerald (cornball ballad). I mean that the days are cruelly short and, to accommodate time zones, an hour is subtracted from the ship’s clock each day at noon. You can literally feel the time being drained from your allotment on Earth.

Meals, on this sped-up schedule, arrive more quickly than your appetites. Food is a big deal aboard ships, and the QM2 is no exception; there are many places to feed, from a groaning buffet to a pub that serves a sturdy ploughman’s lunch to a Todd English restaurant to 24-hour room service to two spots, the Princess Grill and the Queen’s Grill, available only to the ship’s higher-fare passengers.

I’d spent the previous six months losing 20 pounds. I gained nearly a third of that amount back while on the QM2, to my enraged vexation. I thought I was exercising restraint, but I suppose I have a hard time abstaining from crepes suzette and rashers of that salty English bacon. All-you-can-eat situations wreak havoc on the U.S. male psyche.

There are many bars aboard the QM2; we drank each night before dinner in the Commodore Club, below the ship’s bridge, where a whole wing of the cocktail menu is devoted to gin and tonics. We took breakfast, lunch and dinner in the ship’s largest restaurant, the Britannia, the cost of which was included in our passage.

The food in the Britannia, the occasional howler aside, was terrific, especially for an operation that turns out many thousands of meals a day. (I did long for the ship to throw a net into the ocean once in a while, for fresher fish.) Service was excellent, although waiters had that beatnik habit of removing plates before everyone at table was finished with their meal. The wine list was pleasantly esoteric and packed with inexpensive as well as dear bottles.

Location is everything wherever you go but especially in the Britannia. The center tables, far from the windows, make you feel you’re in a Friendly’s. The canniest move we made was to tip the maitre d’ handily on our first night, avoiding the bad table that was assigned us and ensuring, each evening, a dramatic window table.

We ate once in the Todd English Restaurant — you pay a supplement to dine there — where the food pops more than it does in the Britannia. But here you must survive near-toxic levels of smugness and pomposity. As soon as you notice that the appetizers include something called “Todd’s Truffled Potato Love Letters,” you know you are in for it, in a Nicholas Sparks kind of way.

I haven’t yet mentioned the casino (I lost $75 in two hours at the blackjack table) or the swimming pools or the gym or library or bookstore or the fact that the QM2’s waiters pull the corks on as many as 600 bottles of wine each day at sea. I haven’t mentioned the weird thrill of hearing the ship’s horn, a sound David Foster Wallace once likened to, on a different vessel, the “flatulence of the gods.” I haven’t mentioned that the first thing Cree did, when she got home, feeling guilty, was post Cunard a $20 check for that Champagne flute.

The Queen Mary 2 maintains the remnants of a class system. It has restaurants, lounges and elevators the herd cannot enter. You wonder: Is traveling on the QM2 really an upper-class thing to do, or is it a middle-class notion of an upper thing to do? You begin to suspect it’s the latter. You are far more likely to meet a salesman from Des Moines aboard the QM2 than a barrister, novelist, fashion designer or duke. Cunard pushes “luxury” as much as luxury.

It’s better to end with sex — or with human interaction, at any rate — than class. On our first day at sea, my friend Will attended a singles’ meet-up. (He has a beautiful girlfriend back home. I asked him to go for my article.) He reported the sad news: 60 or so women crowded this event, all of them over 65, yet there were only a handful of men.

He had also learned one of the open secrets of a certain tier of the cruise industry. Many of these men had been given free passage and meals; they were on board to host tables and dance with single women. On our final nights on the QM2, we’d see these women and their dance partners. They all looked as if they would make this crossing again in a heartbeat.

So would I.

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