The last place on earth I thought I’d ever want to be was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
This was back in October 1992, when I was still skeptical about cruising. My parents had asked me to join their seafaring getaway (in part so I could schlep their bags), but I was sure I’d get seasick and even more certain I’d be bored — trapped in a floating hotel with nothing to do, no peers and too much to eat.
Still, off we went, flying on the now defunct, superfast Concorde from New York City to London to board Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 — 70,000 tons and nearly the length of three football fields — in Southampton, England, for a six-night voyage back to New York.
To my surprise, the instant the ship let loose the lines that tied it to the pier, I felt all my worries loosen, as well. I’d soon understand why, for so many travelers, this voyage is a kind of fantasy fulfilled — and why a crossing on Cunard was in Patricia Schultz’s book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
I crossed “the pond” five more times on the QE2 before the ship went out of service in 2008, and I have crossed on Cunard’s larger, grander replacement, the Queen Mary 2, 15 times since that ship debuted in 2004. Clearly, I’m addicted. But I find each time I make the crossing, it feels different. I’ve sailed in calm seas and fierce storms; stayed in tiny rabbit-warren inside cabins and spacious balcony accommodations; experienced vivacious tablemates, including a couple from Scotland who have become dear friends, and some quiet companions.
On some trips, I did little more than read, nap and dine, while I made others a nonstop, seven-day frenzy of activities, including everything from lectures (one featured the late, legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld; another, former New Yorker editor Tina Brown) to country line dancing with a British twist.
Yet, changes on the ship and differences in my experiences notwithstanding over these past 25-plus years, each Cunard crossing has offered the same comforting mix of new-age technology (Wi-Fi, of course) and old-world elegance (some crew members today wear fezlike red hats and red jackets with gold trim, plus white gloves). The combination is what you might expect from a 178-year-old British institution now owned by the very American Carnival Corp.
Passengers, for the most part, get into the spirit of the iconic crossing. Day wear is casual, but evenings are a weeklong dress up party: On three nights, guests are asked to don formal gowns and tuxedos. And even on informal nights, a jacket is required for men. If a red-carpet look is not for you, you may eat dinner in your khakis and jacket (“cocktail dress or stylish separates for ladies”) in the Kings Court food hall — but I never do. Entering the dining room like Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember never gets old for me. Grant, in fact, sailed on the QE2, as did Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope and Debbie Reynolds, among other notables.
The experience, however, is not just for the rich or famous.
As on most ships, fare for the week’s passage is based on the size of your cabin and the season; on the lower end, you might pay around $1,200 a person for a tiny inside room in late spring, while on the same journey, big spenders will shell out many thousands more for an enormous suite with a personal butler. The price also determines where you eat, with those paying the least gathered in two sittings in the spectacularly grand Britannia dining room. The bigger spenders are split among three smaller, more exclusive rooms: the Britannia Club, the Princess Grill and, at the pinnacle, the exclusive Queens Grill, where ordering off menu is encouraged and the food and service are perfection (or so I have been told by other passengers — it’s a bit out of my price range). Still, you’ll find good service, fine food and the same dress codes in all four dining rooms.
The approximately 2,700 passengers I join for each crossing are always a mixed-age and international crowd, from European couples with small children to retired American CEOs to the occasional rock star (Rod Stewart, for one).
Because there are no ports of call on this sail, and the ship is at sea for seven days, it’s not about touring new places. Rather, the ocean liner itself is the destination — offering, among other diversions, a golf simulator, paddle tennis courts, five swimming pools, a 3-D cinema, yoga and dance classes, acting workshops and a nightclub with 1970s and ’80s theme parties.
I can honestly say I’ve never been bored. On recent trips I saw a fashion show from designer Julien Macdonald (part of the annual Transatlantic Fashion Week), attended a lecture on the state of the news media by Tina Brown, visited the Canyon Ranch spa and did lots of strolling on the wide teak promenade that encircles the ship (three times around is a mile).
Why do I keep going back? To join the queue at the Queens Room for afternoon tea and fresh-baked scones, served by waiters in white gloves while a string quartet plays. To treat myself to some perfectly fried fish-and-chips in the consummately British Golden Lion pub or have a lighter meal in the gorgeously remodeled Carinthia Lounge — one result of the ocean liner’s stunning $132 million “remastering,” completed in 2016. And to recreate that feeling of freedom I first had in 1992 when the QE2 left land and my problems behind. Which is why I’m already booked for another visit to one of my favorite places on earth.
Ship: Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, 1,130 feet long, 2,695 passengers maximum
Itinerary: 7 nights, from New York City to Southampton, England (or reverse)
Price: Fares for a westbound passage in May/June start at $1,199 per person, double occupancy; the more popular eastbound route starts at $1,299.
First Timers Guide
1. The Queen Mary 2 is big (and quirky) enough to get lost in. Study the deck plans, and don’t hesitate to ask directions or risk never finding the disco or the planetarium. Yes, there is a planetarium.
2. Once aboard, quickly reserve the “Behind the Scenes Tour,” a fascinating look at how the ship works, from the engine room to the massive food-storage areas. The tour is offered once per crossing and is limited to 16 people. Even at $120 per person, it sells out fast.
3. The Queen Mary 2 provides eastbound and westbound sailings, and each has its advantages. Eastbound, you lose one hour on five different days, but you arrive in Britain without jet lag. Westbound, you’ll get five 25-hour days and that magical entrance into New York harbor.
4. Learn the lingo: You’re on an “ocean liner,” not a “cruise ship,” and you’re making a “crossing,” not taking a “cruise.”
5. If you’re into putting on the Ritz, bring a tux or a gown, or take it down a notch with a suit or cocktail dress. Most of the voyage, you’ll want casual wear (such as khakis for men and dress-up-or-down black pants for women) and comfy shoes. And bring a jacket or wrap for warmth. Even in the summer, the North Atlantic can be blustery outside, and the air-conditioning can be chilly inside.