Golden age glamour: Queen Mary 2 kicks it, old school
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ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2 -- "Rule Britannia" is blaring, the Statue of Liberty is waving farewell and Manhattan is a 180-degree panorama of sunlit glass and steel. As the world's largest ocean liner limbos under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, clearing the span by a few yards, the skyline recedes into a horizon of tiny golden blocks. On deck, the champagne corks are popping. Audibly.
OK. This trip is gonna be ... excessive.
Yes, the $800 million liner is really a floating 14-deck resort, with seven restaurants, 13 bars, a Canyon Ranch spa and a planetarium. Yes, it occasionally sails other seas. But please, don't call this a cruise.
Properly speaking (and aboard the British Cunard line, that's mandatory), this weeklong journey of 3,300 nautical miles between New York and Southampton is a crossing. More specifically, it's a grand wallow in British seafaring tradition, with a high gloss of "Downton Abbey" glamour and nearly as high a servant-to-guest ratio. A week aboard is not so much a trip to England as a time warp into the 1930s. The Queen Mary 2 may be barely a decade old, but she kicks it old school.
Item one: dressing for dinner. As the ship headed for the Labrador Current, my husband Jim and I primped for the first of the crossing's three formal evenings. Cunard had gently advised us that "medals and honors may be worn"; upon hearing this, our son James suggested that his father dust off his Great Race finishing medallion from 1994. Jim opted merely for a tux, but as we made our way along the breezy promenade deck, we saw a handful of gents sporting full regalia and navy-suited officers in gold epaulettes. In the Queens Room, ballroom dancers slowly tangoed and twirled. We felt like extras in a Rogers-Astaire movie.
Our sailing companions were mainly a mix of post-50ish Brits and Americans. Some brought their children, exquisitely clad in frilly dresses or small dinner jackets; others brought their dogs, equally pampered but much louder. (The latter were confined to kennels, while the youngsters frolicked in their own Play Zone with counselors.) The common denominator was a fascination with the trans-Atlantic experience: many beaming travelers mentioned their "bucket list." For others, the crossing had become an annual tradition. A number of passengers actually booked a round-trip voyage, luxuriating for a week, taking a few hours on land to see Manhattan or Stonehenge, and then hopping back on board to continue the fantasy of cream teas, evening concerts and breakfasts in bed.
"You, ladies and gentlemen, exist in a bubble," Capt. Chris Wells advised us, in a plummy accent straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. "The real world isn't like this." We were beginning to figure that out.ship
On a mid-June crossing, seas and skies were calm, not balmy. The north Atlantic palette, echoed in the ship's decor, was a blend of silver and navy. Although the long north Atlantic twilight lingered past the dinner hour, stiff breezes off the bow kept the temperatures in the 60s. We took refuge in a hot tub on a high, sheltered promenade to enjoy the view of huge, creamy crests in the ship's wake. On the placid and sunlit evening that the ship reached the warmer Gulf Stream, pods of dolphins escorted us, leaping along the bow. When thick sea-level clouds descended, the ship's foghorn would sound: a deeply comforting bass note that reverberated for miles.
Despite the ship's conscious echoes of Titanic-era style -- the brass and mahogany grand lobby staircase is a ringer for the movie set -- the ship is fully 21st century. Four diesel generators power its electric motors. Capt. Wells described its hull as "an arrow," reaching its widest point a full third of the way down its length. Those fine lines make its navigation smooth and speedy, maintaining an even speed of 21 knots per hour. By midweek, we were 700 miles south of Reykjavik, with nary an iceberg in sight.
Like many cruise lines, the Queen Mary 2 offers spacious upgrades, like our balconied suite, with exclusive dining options in Princess Grill and Queens Grill class. Its signature five-star restaurant is, appropriately, Todd English. The elegant dining choices provided us with a month's worth of meals, which we managed to consume in seven days.
Aside from never missing a meal, or perhaps as a result, we were succumbing to indolence. We'd read the list of daily activities, including lectures on Brit-centric topics such as Winston Churchill, and then yawn and return to staring at the sea.
"We should do something improving today," I suggested to Jim one morning (OK, early afternoon).
"Why?" he returned, eyes closed.
Good question. For this week, the journey was the destination. We opted for aimless diversions instead of activities. Climbing to the top deck, we searched the horizon for the occasional container ship. We watched an albatross follow in the ship's wake. We listened to the captain's disquisitions on radiant fog in his eight bells broadcasts. We tried an afternoon of aquatherapy, sort of a giant bubble bath with built-in waterfalls. We laughed at pub karaoke and heard straight-ahead jazz every night. We finished a few books on our balcony. We never made it to a movie, a class, or that planetarium. Just too busy.
By Saturday, we began to realize the truth of Capt. Wells' words: we were about to return to the real world, whether we liked it or not. Silently that evening, the ship angled into the British Channel, tying up at Southampton at dawn. In the drizzling morning, as we claimed our bags in a cavernous customs hall, we felt like we were being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Our sin? Sloth, maybe.
But what a way to go.
First Published July 22, 2012 12:00 am