It all began because of my older brother Ed’s desire to visit England being thwarted by his fear of flying. It is one of those conundrums of which novels are written—a strong desire being canceled out by an insurmountable roadblock.
Until the 1960s, traveling across the North Atlantic by ship was still a primary form of transportation, but as airfare became cheaper and our demands for instant gratification became greater, the week-long journeys that our ancestors and countless celebrities took almost disappeared. Passenger vessels were minimalized into being mainly Caribbean love boats.
Today, only Cunard line’s magnificent Queen Mary II, launched in 2004, still has regularly scheduled crossings — 26 of them in season. It is large, longer than three football fields and wider than one, and luxurious in the manner of the vessels of sailing’s golden era. Most of the Queen’s crossings are quick turnarounds—arriving one morning and departing that evening—but this year my brothers Ed, Dave, and I spotted one voyage that continued after England to Germany and Norway, which would give us a week in England before re-boarding for New York.
And so our game was afoot.
Boarding the Queen in Brooklyn on a Tuesday afternoon involved nothing more than the normal standing in line and security checks before we were taken to our cabin. Although a basic, tourist-level lodging on the fourth deck, it had a private balcony and was large enough to fit three big guys and our luggage with reasonable comfort. I’ve stayed in smaller hotel rooms in New York.
Our punctual 5pm departure was as beautiful and glamorous as you can get. Many of the more than 2,500 passengers roamed the upper decks with cameras and video recorders, taking in the impressive views of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, whose lower deck was not that much higher than the Queen’s flapping flags as we passed underneath it.
The grandeur of Queen Mary 2, and, as it turned out, of the crossing itself, was exhibited at dinner that evening in the Britannia restaurant. Many ships categorize their passengers according to where they eat, so on the QM 2, first class dines in one of two Grills, while tourist class eats in the Britannia.
But what tourist class! Our first night out, we were barely out of sight of Fire Island when the three of us, in suits and ties, were shown to our first-seating table, where we were joined by two German ladies. One was a neurosurgeon, and the other the actress Hansi Jochmann, who, among other accomplishments, dubs some of Jodie Foster’s movies into German.
Dressing for dinner is part of the culture of the Queen. If you want to eat in the formal restaurants—and most passengers do—men must wear suits or tuxes on formal nights, coats and ties for semi-formal evenings, and jackets for elegant casual. The food matches the glitter of the guests, and service is quick and impeccable. There is one crew member for every two guests (although some of them, instead of serving us, must be steering the ship!).
Ed, who, in addition to not flying, is vegetarian, had plenty of choices on the menu. Additionally, each lunch and dinner in the restaurants has Canyon Ranch selections inspired by the Canyon Ranch Spa on board. The restaurants are also open for lunch, and at least one of its four casual, buffet-style cafes is open 24 hours. Finally, there is a by-reservation-only restaurant, the Todd English. To do all this food and beverage service, there are 150 chefs and 30 sommeliers. (Food is included in the price; alcohol is extra, but reasonably priced.)
That first evening I had a mousse of river trout with Waldorf salad and crème fraiche, followed by a just-right sirloin with a mushroom-and-peppercorn sauce served with string beans and parmesan potatoes pont neuf (parmesan steak fries), splitting a bottle of 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape with my brothers. I chose assorted ice creams for dessert followed by a double espresso. Then we retired to one of the bars.
But what do you do, besides eat and drink, during five full days and six nights at sea with no ports between New York and Southampton?
After a buffet breakfast, I am off to the bookstore and library, which has a comfortable reading room overlooking the bow of the ship. There are hundreds of books, so I choose one by a familiar poet I want to re-read. Meanwhile, my brothers are listening to a lecture on new media by a former New York Times reporter, while fellow passengers are exercising in the large gym, getting a sauna at the spa, playing tennis on the top deck, taking one of dozens of classes, playing bridge or bingo, or shopping at one of a half-dozen luxe shops (from Hermes to Ralph Lauren to H. Stern).
After lunch, there are still more choices: rolling the dice at the ship’s casino, playing trivia quizzes in one of several bars, watching a cooking demonstration, sunning at the pool, reading in a deck chair, attending a wine tasting, or lounging at the Veuve Cliquot wine bar.
After dinner (there are 6pm and 8:30pm seatings), there are concerts, nightclub acts, and dances if you want to be in a crowd, or a moonlit walk around the deck, if you don”t. There are movies and cable TV in the rooms, and wi-fi is available for a reasonable price.
Gradually, you get into the rhythm of the cruise—the slight swaying of the boat, the fact that you are in a closed society with no stops and seldom even the sight of another ship, the changing of the clock one hour back each night as you work your way through the time zones. Passing through English Customs even takes place on board before you disembark.
Arrival at Southampton is early in the morning after passage up an extended inlet. An hour after docking, we are ashore.
Our plan is to see the lovely southern English countryside in May, from Oxford to the castles and cathedrals around Hereford to Stonehenge, and a brief foray into Wales to see Dylan Thomas” cottage and grave—while driving on the wrong side of the road. It is a marvelous introduction to England for Ed, with plenty of leisure hours at local pubs.
A week later, on a Monday afternoon, we re-board the Queen for the voyage back to New York—a day and night longer due to east-flowing currents and time zone changes.
One highlight of the trip back was an afternoon session where the Squeeze’s Chris Difford (on board to teach a week-long songwriting class) interviewed the Who’s Roger Daltrey, who sang several songs with a decent backup band.
The other was our table guests, a very dapper 90-year man from Boston, a just-retired school-teaching couple living on the isle of Arran in the Scottish Hebrides, and a couple from Leeds, in their 30s and on their first real vacation away from the kids. We all had stories to tell.
And gradually we complete our double-crossing of the Atlantic, a time zone a day until the following Tuesday, when we see the Jersey shore ahead, lights twinkling as dawn approaches, welcoming us back to America.