QE2 - Properly Crossing The Atlantic
A long story of a transatlantic cruise on board the magnificent Queen Elizabeth 2
In some ways I felt a bit of a fraud.
It was only exceptional circumstances that led me to be able to savour the delights of crossing the Atlantic the 'proper way'. Sure I could afford it if I really wanted to, provided a few other luxuries were forsaken. And I had previously figured that one day I might part with the thousands needed to make the trip. But I would probably be a lot older. Much like the other guests queued in the bleak warehouse that Cunard seemed fit to welcome their clients onto the most sought after ship in the cruise business.
The few tri-colour balloons did nothing to enhance the surroundings and the shabby makeshift desks that processed us out of America seemed cheap and tatty. It was the last I would see of cheap and tatty for the next six days.
I had an opportunity to live on board the magnificent Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner for a week at a fraction of the normal cost and snapped at the chance with immense enthusiasm.
I would travel the four thousand miles from New York to her home town of Southampton living the millionaire dream
It was close to the first anniversary of September 11th so the 1,791 spaces were only occupied by about 1,600 guests. I studied these travelling companions as I stood patiently in the line awaiting my chance to be photographed for the on-board ID card. I thought I had come to the wrong place, convinced I had accidentally stumbled on a SAGA holiday outing. The average age, as confirmed later, was 65. Some of them were lying.
The waiting photographer hurriedly set up each couple and took his shot. Standing next to an endorsed rubber ring with the backdrop of the warehouse and the next impatient passengers I instantly vowed not to purchase that picture and slipped quickly on board.
When boarding, at a proper terminal that is, one enters the ship in the room they appropriately call amidships. It's like a hotel lobby without the ceiling height, a circular arrangement of comfy looking sofas surrounded by hand painted murals depicting the major events of Cunard's illustrious past. A small sign prompted me to play hunt the cabin. A task that I am sure some of the American guests were still carrying out on the fifth day.
The cabin search took me to three deck. To the uninitiated this is the highest row of portholes on the black bit. To the initiated this meant dining in the 'Caronia' restaurant.
Although initially opting for nearly the cheapest of cabins I had already been upgraded twice, firstly out of the 'Mauritania' restaurant, then, on boarding I received a pleasant surprise that I was up another deck.
The brochure suggested that cabin 3113 should be hosting a 'Princess Grille' passenger but I was still allocated the 'Caronia'. I wasn't about to complain. My few hundred pounds had secured me in a cabin some would pay ten times the amount for. And anyway, the standard tipping rate was higher in the 'Grilles'.
The restaurants on board are the first introduction to the quaint class divisions that the QE2 still proudly hangs on to.
The basic cabins and lower decks eat in the 'Mauritania'. Not that this is a problem. The 'Mauritania' resembles a five star restaurant and all guests eat the same food anyway. The other restaurants and grilles only provide fancier plates, presentation and fawning.
The next 'class up' eats in the 'Caronia' and as an occupant for a week I can declare that I wouldn't mind if I never ate better in my entire life.
For those on the higher decks, the ones with white painted exterior walls, the 'Britannia', 'Princess' and 'Queens' Grilles await.
Entrance to the esteemed 'Queens Grille' is subtly through the 'Queens Grille Lounge', discouraging the general hoy-poli from gracing the presence of on-board rock stars, captains of industry and those rich bastards secretly treating their lovers to a week or two of luxurious shagging.
You might like to note at this point how the company trades on it's glorious past. The names of the old White Star Liners, which merged with Samuel Cunard's own vessels are bandied about with great enthusiasm. 'Mauritania', 'Britannia' and 'Caronia' proudly adorn the restaurants and all around the ship you discover maritime heritage artifacts from the most famous liners ever to grace the Atlantic.
Although I couldn't locate the Titanic bar ("Ice with that, sir?").
Mind you the careful marketing of the past is unsurprising. Even the vessel proudly claims to be a Cunard when in reality it is now owned and operated by Carnival Corporation. I think they are wise to keep the name Cunard. More class. More style.
Things move surprisingly quickly on board. I expected a lot of hanging about and gentle moseying along the Hudson out of New York harbour. But the ship was built for speed and designed to cross the Atlantic in a shade over three and a half days. The six day trip taking the northerly route up the east coast of North America past the Coast of Maine and Newfoundland, before heading east to the UK was designed to allow those on board more than a couple of days living it up but the docking and maneuvering was well rehearsed and efficient.
Typically the ship would berth in the early morning and set sail before sundown. Considering the enormous tally of items to do in this time, including cabin swapping, provision loading and static maintenance we should all hail those individuals who organise the turnaround. My guess is that they train with Ferrari's Formula One wheel changing teams.
Mind you a cynic suggested that the daytime turnaround is due to the high cost of overnight berthing in New York or Southampton. Just pity the poor traveller who gets only six or seven hours to see New York. However, two to three is quite enough for Southampton.
We were scheduled to leave at 16.15. Unfortunately, this was the time that Herr Capitain decided all the new passengers on board had to prove they could master their safety equipment and get to their muster stations.
I wanted to stand proudly at the head of the vessel and watch the magnificent splendour of New York's skyline drift away but was stuck at the muster point wearing a hideous shade of orange and sniggering at the Americans who couldn't work out how to get in a lifejacket. It only had one entrance as far as I could see.
At least they had found the muster station, some were still playing hunt the cabin.
And as a minor comfort the muster station for all cabins around 3113 was the on-board pub.
It only took a couple of minutes to de-robe the orange lifesaver and return it to my room then hare up to the observation platform. I got a front row view. Don't be impressed, I only had to beat a few pensioners. Some didn't reach the front until we were in the Gulf of Maine.
Not that we were at the true front of the ship, or the bow to you hearty sea dogs. There was no imitating Kate Winslett in the film Titanic.
The front deck area was off limits to the passengers, crew only down there. Passengers had to slum it in the rear. On the teak covered multi-decks with the pool, hot tubs and no chance of a freak wave giving an impromptu shower. An interesting place to spot the well heeled Atlantic traveller. They are the ones sunbathing fully clad and wearing sunglasses.
I'm sure that by the end of the six days aboard I spotted quite a few pale faces with shiny brown noses.
The other, braver souls sat imperiously in the hot tubs. Quite impressive until their last minute dash to recover the towel and dry themselves before the Atlantic chill took its toll.
Then there were the swimmers. Hardy individuals moved to try to swim in a heaving lake of semi-warmed seawater. At least you have been warned. I thought it freshwater until my first and, I might add, only open mouthed dive.
I returned to 3113. My home for the next week. A pleasant room of similar quality to a 4 star hotel.
The cabin itself was quite long, if not wide, with twin portholes at one end. The main sleeping area was separated from the bathroom by a walk in wardrobe. I walked straight back out again and only went back to use the fridge or safe.
There was enough accommodation in the main wardrobes for my light travelling. If my wife was a normal woman and not a mannequin for Levi Strauss I'm sure we could have made more use of the third room. In any event, the beds were single but well sized and placed together, the linen crisp, fresh and white and the bathroom well stocked. Ben saw to that.
Ben was (and probably still is I would wager) a small, cheerful man ready to dive into my room whenever it was vacated. Not that this was a problem as he was the assigned cabin steward. Had he not have been I would have been less impressed with his eagerness to be there when I wasn't.
He ensured that the bathroom was cleaned and restocked, the vacuuming done and the bed turned down at the right time. He even supplied champagne and strawberries on arrival, fresh fruit daily and left a small chocolate at night. Although I think everyone on board benefited from this and it wasn't just my friendly deportment.
I introduced myself as Vince and he duly ignored that by referring to my surname for the rest of the journey. His strict training didn't allow for such personal contact.
Such was Ben's efficiency I wondered what else the private Butler's did for the penthouse suites. I mused, perhaps they didn't turn the bed down, instead accepting it into their hearts and cuddling it all night.
Ben even secured a mock credit card to allow me to operate the safe. A rather pointless design which needed a credit card to swipe it shut. As there was no cash transactions on board, apart from the casino, the best place to keep the credit card was inside the safe. I wish I had remembered to bring the Harrods card to waltz around with. Or even the Texaco fuel card.
The fridge was much simpler, needing only a short tug to get at the contents. Trouble is there were none. No mini bar drinks or bars of chocolate. Room service would have to cater for such urgent necessities, if you couldn't wait the long thirty minutes to the next scheduled meal.
Meals. Eating. That's what transatlantic cruising is all about. And boy do they do this well. You have to be prepared to dress well to eat at dinner so judicious use of a tuxedo will be balanced with a smart suit, unless your great grandfather was clearly very wealthy in which case you need to buy a second hand corduroy suit then sleep rough in it for a month beforehand, it seems.
Not having a tux didn't prevent me from eating on the more formal nights as the dark suit blended well, but I'll get one the next time I go. And you could wear pretty much what you wanted for breakfast and lunch. Although Ian Thorpe may have had to change out of his daywear.
The first meal of the day was breakfast. Served in your room or in your restaurant it was a grand affair.
Like all meals the finely dressed waiters personal to the few tables around you presented a leather bound menu. A touch pompous for two Weetabix and toast perhaps but suited to the five course selection you could have.
And the service wasn't any less proper because of the time of day. The napkin was laid politely on your knees and one didn't need more than a nod to accept the grinding of black pepper onto the meal. The waiters even knew not to offer it on the Cornflakes. Real class.
And the food was superb. The omelettes were light and tasty, the mushrooms tasted organic (without the hideous manure twang) and the bacon was served thick and tender, unless the crispy old dried Canadian version was requested.
The only strange item was the oatmeal substitute which resembled wallpaper paste. To look at, that is. Funnily enough, I never tried hanging paper with it. Felt it wasn't the time or the place.
Breakfast usually finished around ten, if you started early at around eight thirty, so it was a long and arduous wait until lunch, at midday.
Again the leather clad menus were offered but this time there were about six courses, if you felt so inclined. The future shape of my stomach demanded I take just two so I generally opted for the starter or soup course followed by a main meal. I'm not that into puddings and cakes.
I paraphrase when describing the selections, the soup could typically be a coconut and lime consommé with a fruits of the sea filo pastry ball, or something like that. Well to be honest, nothing like that. If I were a sous chef I'd be well and truly sued. But the geniuses in the ample kitchens knew what they were doing and accordingly worked their magic to produce the some of the best food I have eaten.
Lunch typically finished around two so it was quite a wait until the evening dinner served from around six-forty-five. One might get peckish so the crew rallied around at four thirty to present afternoon tea. This, I liked. It's the Englishman in me.
We all took our places in the 'Queen's Room'. She wasn't present herself, only her bust, but she would not have felt uncomfortable.
We sat awaiting the stroke of four-thirty when all the waiters, dressed princely in their full whites, emerged brandishing silver salvers ready to take an order for tea or coffee. Immediately, following these were the next wave, offering finely crafted, crustless sandwiches. The final onslaught offered cakes and pastries. The enemy was defeated. We all sat about trying to digest the food in time to get dressed for dinner at seven.
Dinner was the most formal meal of the day. The head waiters would unveil the gold plaque announcing that Gentlemen must wear jackets. No mention was made of trousers but I didn't push the point.
Our two waiters, Majic, a charming and professional man from Gdansk, in Poland, near to where 1983 Nobel prize winning Lech Walesa famously toppled their government and Majic's efficient assistant Anders, a polite and helpful Croatian, made a special effort to ensure our needs were well catered for.
The usual placing of napkins and pouring of iced water were carried out, one on the knees, the other into the sparkling crystal glass (most times the napkin was the one that went over the knees). Then the menus were offered, presenting another mouth watering feast to savour select and gobble up.
Do order the fish if you go. My wife did and Anders immediately offered to squeeze her lemon. At first I thought it may have been an unprofessional approach and prepared to hit him, but he pricked his fork into the lemon segment, used another to hook out all those irritating pips then with a dexterity which would have made a card shark gasp, gently squeezed the juice into a spoon. With two forks and a spoon, he carefully pressurised the segment into releasing its contents without squirting it all over the table. And he only had two hands. I felt like applauding.
Of course all this high-foluting doesn't suit everybody all the time. If you want a quicker feed or can't be arsed to change out of those baggy shorts for dinner you could always dine in the Lido.
This was the sixth restaurant and had that noisy tray clanging feel of a summer camp. It was too casual for my liking and the self service seemed far too manual. Our money was paying for the fancy restaurants so it was dumb to eat in the cafe.
But that didn't put off many, it was always busy. I guess many of them were the Americans, having spent all morning trying to find the pool area they didn't want to risk having to find their cabins again to change and then their restaurant. They might miss an important meal and at a rough guess I would say seventy percent were anorexic. That is, if you define anorexic as standing in front of a mirror and thinking you are fat.
I wasn't a big fan of this place, except when they held the midnight feasts there.
The midnight feast was a semi-misnomer. True, it could be a feast, and fairly unwanted at that time of day. But starting at eleven-thirty was hardly midnight. I think the guests may have gotten too hungry if they left it until actually midnight.
But even if you were thinking of sleeping on anything other than your back you had to go just for the spectacle. I'm not mentioning the magnificent ice and butter carvings (not together, I add) nor the spread of fresh salmon, crab and lobster. Nor even the wide range of cakes, pasties, breads and chocolates. No, the sight of one hundred chubby, sequined clad ladies elbowing each other out of the way to reach that last strawberry. Well, they hadn't eaten much I suspect.
Despite all this gastronomy there were a couple of hours free to wander the liner.
For the more adventurous it was advised that five laps around the decks equated to a mile. This route was charmingly called the jogging track, although really it was the only way around.
Not that many jogged. A quarter never ventured on deck, a quarter were frankly the wrong shape for such activity, a quarter too old and the rest were probably eating. The only jogging I saw all week was the races from the lounge to the Lido at eleven twenty-five.
The other problem was that the front section of the ship was off limits to anyone wishing to maintain some sort of hairstyle. Twenty six knot winds in the mid-Atlantic can be very strong. Expect to walk at an angle of about forty-five degrees.
Other deck sports included a golfing net. A pity really as I was expecting to fire a few out to sea, straight off the deck. I guess the environmentalists have had their say and fear the Atlantic is being undermined by small white balls.
Another option is soft tennis or basketball. Equipment was supplied although I only saw one hoop. And it was far too high. Frankly, I'm not the right height for this game, being less than seven foot three. I did have a quick go at deck quoits though. Well you have to whilst on board, don't you?
If you didn't want to brave the bracing winds outside there was plenty to amuse inside.
The theatre was used for the guest speakers and ours included Elaine Stritch, of West End stage fame and a retired Concorde pilot giving an interesting, illustrated talk about flying the most beautiful of aircraft at twice the speed of sound. One American woman asked why it was that when she was on board she couldn't hear the sonic boom. Mind you, on deck mid-Atlantic, I heard it pass overhead on one occasion.
The theatre also doubled as the cinema, where the latest releases were played using full surround sound equipment. It was like being at the movies. In a rocking chair.
But that's the nature of being aboard. Even walking the aisles one tends to adopt the on-board swagger, moving along but gently veering from side to side. By the end of the trip you have learnt how to judge your own jaunt to nicely coordinate with the sway of the person approaching. At first there is just a lot of incompetent leaping from side to side at the last minute followed by the "Sorry. That's OK" exchange.
If you feel up to it you are welcomed at one of the many on-board classes and talks. I noticed things ranging from computer lessons to needlework.
Card games were popular and everyone had a quick go at the on-board jigsaw. Pity all that was left was that complex bit of grass with all the bits looking just the same. I wondered how many people had actually stopped and checked a few pieces then trotted off muttering that they could have helped if only someone had not stolen that clear white piece in the middle of the thatched house.
A regular feature each morning was the art auction.
Conducted by two professional auctioneers who spent their evenings in the pub and got increasingly friendlier with the audience as the cruise went on.
Most sales were described as lithographs or serigraphs, often of a limited number with the artist's hand signature. Many looked like they had been brought from Athena. Except you don't find may hand signed Picassos in Athena.
The auctions were light hearted and fair. There wasn't many on board prepared to pay $25,000 for the Chagalls or Picassos but a few of us brought minor pieces. Personally, I invested in an Astahov original. Whoever he is. At least he made sure all the numbers were fully covered by the paint.
The auctioneer typically gave a detailed and loving three minute pitch on each piece. By the time they had finished I wondered why they were selling them at all and not adopting the work as one of the family.
All the frames were delightfully matched to the piece and glazing was included. The shipping (a suitable term given the circumstances) prices were reasonable and they even offered to provide an independent valuation for insurance purposes. All one had to do was bid.
They would always start reasonably high, to see if they could feed the idea of spending a fortune. "What will someone offer for this fine Norman Rockwell?" they would ask. "$20,000". Silence. "Ten?" they proposed tentatively. Still silence. Not even the faint sound of a nose scratch. "Five?". The audience front row tended to look around at this point to see if others were awake. Or had left the room. Then a tentative finger would be raised.
The skilled auctioneer would pounce on this communication. "Is that a thousand to start me off?". "A hundred." would be the reply and after strenuouse effort the Rockwell would remain unsold.
Not that everything went unsold. Fairly brisk business was made when the pieces were punted around the one to three hundred dollar mark and the audience lapped up the original Disney cartoons. Even if the prices were a bit Goofy.
Not all of the daily activities were quite so sedantary.
I joined 'Cruise Host' Thomas on one of his historic talks. Thomas was an interesting, ebullient character who seemed to work hard all week. His enthusiasm was tested by the itinerary he kept.
I was never sure of his native country. At first I had assumed he was Scandinavian, the name suited and his strong accent seemed to fit. But then I saw he was holding elementary French speaking lessons on another day. On another he was listed as your German host Thomas, holding elementary German lessons. My wife had none of this and categorically said he was Spanish.
Whatever his background he knew a lot about Cunard and held a highly entertaining talk whilst whisking his crowd through the ship.
About thirty had gathered initially at the designated meeting point but I reckon only twenty-five made it to the first point of call in amidships to see him start the talk. He would enthuse about the humble beginnings of Samuel Cunard whilst colourfully reliving the past.
After a few minutes he would say that we should all turn round to see the next exhibit and when you did there he was again, continuing the fascinating story and highlighting all the interesting artefacts on board. This was to continue throughout the guided tour, so I did eventually wonder whether there was more than one Thomas anyway.
His tour took us through quite a few areas of the ship and as we went to each level the crowd size visibly diminished. Not that they were bored by the talk, you couldn't be, it's just that at their age, climbing and descending all those staircases takes its toll.
There were only seven of us at the end. And that included all the Thomases.
Thomas did recount a few stories of old including the Royal visits on board and the other famous passengers.
He also said that the passengers were known for trying to steal things from the liners of the past and in some cases actually tried to disembark with some furniture. Although I did not witness this spectacle some people did appear to be keeping to this tradition. How else could the missing white jigsaw piece be explained?
All in all I had a wonderful experience on board and although I have tweaked the nose of some of the traditions my overriding memories will be good and I will return.
The crew, ably led by the captain, did us all proud and I thank them all.
And just to put some icing on the cake, halfway across we had an announcement that the ship had passed her five millionth mile, so we all got a certificate. A piece of maritime memorabilia to remind us of the journey. It made me feel a proper transatlantic traveller.
No longer a fraud.
Author: Vince Poynter
Version 5.034 8 Dec 2017
First Published: Version 1.00 Oct 2003 and reproduced here, unedited
Images and links added in Version 5.034 8 Dec 2017