“Since the discovery of America by Columbus, nothing has occurred of so much importance to the new world as navigating the Atlantic by steamers.”
I may not have the maritime chops of shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, who uttered those words in 1840 as he was set to launch the first regular transatlantic passenger service, but I can’t help but
concur with his sentiment—albeit with a 21st century twist: Since flying has become impossible, nothing has occurred of so much importance in my life as my discovery of the Queen Mary 2.
I stopped flying in this country in 2010 because of the odious practices of the TSA. Suddenly, my life of travel was over. I lamented never seeing Europe again. And I made an assumption I bet many people make: ocean liners are only for the wealthy. I had romantic notions of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in “An Affair to Remember” and thought such a glamorous experience wasn’t for the likes of me.
Boy, was I wrong. Depending on the time of year and location of your cabin, you can do a 7-day crossing on Cunard’s QM2 from New York to Southampton, all meals (excluding alcohol) and entertainment included, for anywhere from $800 to $20,000. We sprang for a private glassed-in balcony for $1,500. Though since you have the run of the ship, you could be just as happy with an interior stateroom for half the price.
At the pier in Brooklyn, the QM2 fills the skyline. Imagine the Empire State Building laid on its side yet still towering. My husband and I drop off our luggage with a porter at the curb and go inside, where security is a breeze. After we get our pictures taken and are handed our Cunard i.d.-slash-credit card (how you pay for
extras on board), we’re given a number, like you’d get at a deli counter. Since we got there early, we’re No. 25, which puts us well ahead of the 2,500 or so passengers still to come.
We pass into the huge hangar that serves as a waiting area, where it already feels like a party. I chat with several people who’ve done this crossing umpteen times. That’s one thing you quickly learn about the QM2: it’s not a cruise, it’s a crossing. No half-naked, sunburned bathers doing belly-flops in the pool or getting drunk and vomiting over the side. This is a Queen, after all, and people respect her.
Each time a number is called, people clap and cheer, and watch as passengers pass through a big door. On the other side, we head straight for the escalator, above which is written: “Leaving Brooklyn? Fuhgeddaboudit!” Then we climb a few ramps, glancing down at the vertiginous views below, until we pass through the longed-for portal. A phalanx of smartly dressed Cunard employees greets us. We’re on the ship.
Tim is desperate to watch the World Cup, so after dropping our stuff in our stateroom, he hightails it to the Golden Lion Pub and I stay behind to unpack. To my delight, I see Phillip, our cabin steward from last year. Miraculously, he’s taking care of us again this year. He’s a sweetheart and, like all of the ship’s employees, works his rump off.
Soon it’s time to dress for dinner. Tonight is “informal,” but that just means not black tie. There’s a strict dress code in the Britannia, the soaring, wood-burnished, main restaurant. Three of the seven nights are formal—gown and tux—though you can always go to the Kings Court on Deck 7 if you’re not in the mood for formality. But before dinner, there’s one big event: the sail-away.
On this brilliant, sunny day, the outside decks are filled with passengers and crew. A group from St. Lucia called Extasea is jamming beside the pool aft on Deck 8, people are dancing and waiters are handing out glasses of champagne while the ship powers away from New York harbor at 25 knots (about 30 mph). As the Manhattan skyline recedes and we pass the Statue of Liberty, the sky suddenly blackens. It starts to rain. Most people head inside, but those of us who know what’s coming wouldn’t miss this for the world: the moment the red funnel of the mammoth ship passes under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with, seemingly, only inches to spare. Actually it looks like it’s going to crash into the bridge, which accounts for our thrilled screams and squeals.
Though I bring a book on the QM2, I rarely read it. There’s so much to do. My favorite activity each day is attending the lectures—on art, literature, design, architecture, aviation, you name it—in Illuminations, the golden auditorium. This time the standout is the charming, impeccably dressed Giancarlo Impiglia, whose paintings reminiscent of Art Deco adorn several staircases on the ship. If you’re otherwise inclined, there are also trivia games, gambling, computer classes, dance lessons, designer shops, a gym, spa, library and planetarium.
But the pièce de résistance is the Hollywood stardust provided by film director Wes Anderson, actress Tilda Swinton, actor Jason Schwartzman and producer Roman Coppola—who were a post-booking
surprise on this now “celebrity” cruise (not to be confused with a Celebrity Cruise.)
“I invited myself,” says Anderson before the screening of “Moonrise Kingdom.” “I’ve always wanted to sail on the QM2. Then I asked if I could invite my friends.” He and his team introduce his movies, including his latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in general mingle with the hoi polloi. Well, not quite. Swinton made it clear this was a private vacation, so I don’t get to ask about her living-art exhibit at MOMA (where she napped in a glass box while onlookers gawked and giggled), nor her formidable fashion sense—especially the sky-high, sparkly green shoes she’s wearing one night. They’re like the Ruby Slippers, only emerald.
I run into the entourage (they travel in a pack) on my way to the Royal Court Theatre. Wes Anderson smiles and gallantly holds the door open for me. “Be cool,” I tell myself. I simply nod and say “thank you.” Of course now I’m kicking myself for not having barged into their filmic retinue just a bit more. After all, they saw that my hand was the first that shot up that morning at the panel discussion, where I was sitting right smack in front of them, and that the otherwise capable moderator never called on me because I wasn’t near one of the microphones on the aisle. Exasperated, I had finally stood up with, “I don’t need a microphone; I can project!”
I also spend my days walking around the promenade on Deck 7, splurging on champagne and caviar in the supremely elegant Veuve Clicquot Lounge and occasionally popping into the Golden Lion to witness the mayhem when somebody scores a goal in the World Cup. Every evening I look forward to dinner at our window-side table in the Britannia, where the food is out of this world and we can watch the endless ocean as we eat. I love getting all dolled up and sashaying to the Grand Lobby down the long, luxurious corridors, bounded by enormous brass bas reliefs depicting the four seasons and verre églomisé panels
depicting the four elements.
One night, we’re invited to sit at the Captain’s Table. Kevin Oprey is as dashing as you’d expect of a British sea captain. He tells us the QM2 is such a feat of modern engineering, she almost steers herself. Though in a gale, it’s all hands on deck—rather, on the bridge, where he and his officers control the computerized navigation system.
And, oh, the music! In the Chart Room, an ensemble of musicians from Juilliard plays the hell out of jazz standards. One night when they’re particularly rambunctious, somebody grabs my hand and I find myself swept up in a conga line. In the Queens Room, the orchestra plays everything from big band to disco, while couples swirl on the dance floor. Since I love to waltz, I ask one of the male dance hosts to take me on. His name is Bob Wall; he’s a retired Air Force pilot and a perfect gentleman. Later that week he’ll spin me expertly in the Hustle. And in the swanky Commodore Club, where a superb pianist named Campbell Simpson does boogie-woogie Bach as well as Harold Arlen, a couple of us sing along to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Arrival at Southampton, in the quiet, early dark of morning, is magical, as the tiny lights of the coast begin to appear, then grow more abundant, until the ship slowly slides up to the pier. True to Capt. Oprey’s words, the QM2 can practically turn on a dime, so she needs no tugboats to pull her into port. Along with hundreds of other people above and below, we stand on our balcony and watch the dock workers getting ready to receive her. For them, this is routine. But for us, it’s an awakening from a dream, one to which we know we’ll return again and again, for as long as the Queen reigns.