Crossing the Pond – Then and Now

Queen Mary2 is the way to go – in stylish splendour

If your travel memories reach back to the days before the first jumbo jets took to the skies, you may have some fond – and some not-so-fond – memories of travelling to Europe by ship. I know I do.

For me, as a starry-eyed teenager, my first “crossing the pond” was nine days aboard a 27-year old, oil-fired steam turbine Cunard ship, Ascania II. It was an experience I won’t ever forget.

But neither is the recent trip from Southampton to New York that my husband and I took on a sumptuous marine monarch, the far-bigger, far-faster Queen Mary 2.

Going back in time, I can still pull up statistics. At 14,400 tons, the Ascania measured 838 feet long, 65 feet wide, sometimes reached 15 knots an hour and could accommodate 700 passengers in first and tourist class.

By mind-boggling contrast, QM2, when commissioned in 2004, was the largest (151,400 tons), longest (1,132 feet), widest (135 feet), tallest (236 feet) and most expensive ($800 million) ship ever to sail the high seas. With a cruising speed of 25 knots, she handles the UK to US trip in six days.

On the other hand, departing from Montreal in those friendly days, when security was looser than it is now, thrilled me to goose bumps. Amid a great frenzy of excitement, friends and family crowded into our tiny stateroom bearing flowers and chocolates until the “all ashore that’s going ashore” announcement boomed over the PA system. For them, I remember thinking how easy and what fun it would be just to forget to leave and stowaway. But what really happened was that all the well-wishers congregated dockside, while we hung over the deck railing looking at an exuberant crowd waving of tiny flags with boisterous shouts of ‘bon voyage’.

My memories also include a stateroom with skinny upper and lower berths, a porthole that didn’t open and a bathroom so small you had to go outside to change your mind.

Dining room tables had drop down sides that hinged up in case of rough seas. Once we left the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they were never down. Stabilizers were unknown back then. Only the hardiest made it to every meal or kept every meal in place. We clamoured up narrow stairwells – but only so far. With the typical British class divisions of the day, first class decks and public rooms were off limits to us ‘tourist class’ passengers.
Then there was the thrill of a teenage, shipboard romance.

It wasn’t a grand, elegant experience to compare to the golden age of travel of the 20s and 30s, but it was a civilized, relaxing and enjoyable way to get from A to B. And decidedly British.

Today, four decades into the jet age, the Queen Mary 2 puts a modern spin on the golden age of luxury travel, blending early-20th century style with all the 21st century conveniences passengers now expect.

Arriving at the Southampton dockside terminal, for the one-way trip from Britain to America, everything, including security measures, was calm, orderly and efficient. We gazed in awe at the most imposing passenger ship one could ever imagine. The only thing it seemed to have in common with the Ascania was the unmistakable Cunard red funnel.

The 1300-crew members who come from some 40 different countries lend a distinct international flair. But the overall ambiance is still British. The majority of the passengers on our sailing were from UK and North America, with a smattering from many countries all around the world.

With 2600 passengers, I wondered if we would feel the crush of too many people vying for attractions or activities. Quite the contrary. One off the ship’s true luxuries is the spaciousness of the public areas – both indoor and out. This grand lady boasts a very grand lobby with broad, sweeping staircases and marble columns. There are expansive promenades, a two-story theatre, state-of-the-art spa and sports facilities, the only sea-borne planetarium, a large internet centre and no fewer than 10 dining venues. The only time we felt crowded was at high tea, a stately ritual served by white gloved waiters to the accompaniment of a string quartet in the ‘largest ballroom at sea’. The room was filled to capacity every afternoon.

Each day, we discovered new places to explore. Our favourites? Deck 7 Promenade that circles the entire ship, provides beautiful sea views and a mile-long walk or jog, every three laps. The massage table at the sumptuous Canyon Ranch Spa. The library with its 6,000 books and adjoining bookshop. One day for lunch, the Golden Lion Pub, for a pint or two and jolly good pub grub. The Chart Room for its roominess, large ocean view windows and live jazz. For a pre dinner drink, it was a toss up between the intimate Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar and the dark panelled piano bar in the Commodore Club with its dramatic views over the bow. Or, on formal nights, dancing to the 12-piece orchestra in the Queen’s Room ballroom. This magnificent room, with a high, arched ceiling and sparkling crystal chandeliers, is dedicated to Queen Mary. It runs the full width of the ship. And, on the last morning, while sailing into the New York harbour, Deck 11, just below the bridge – the best spot to marvel at the Statue of Liberty and the city’s remarkable skyline.

Like all Cunard vessels, but far more subtly segregated than the Ascania, QM2 offers different categories of accommodation, which determine where you dine. Britannia, the main dining room, serves dinner in two assigned seatings to most passengers. There are two separate, smaller dining rooms that are allocated for passengers travelling in Princess and Queens Grill Suites. Here the menus are similar to the Britannia but with à la carte options. Other than the Grill dining rooms and their concierge lounge, all rooms are open to all passengers.

As you might expect on such a luxurious liner, an impressive 78% of accommodations are outside cabins. The majority of these feature spacious private balconies.

Our Princess Grill stateroom was decorated in a contemporary style with simple lines, light blond woods and lovely fabrics in muted shades of cream and celadon green. All very understated, all very restful and appealing. It easily accommodated a king size bed, a sofa, a writing desk and a high fidelity T.V. and entertainment system. The walk-in-closet had enough storage space to hold a fashionista’s wardrobe for an around-the-world cruise and the huge bathroom with tub and shower came with all the amenities that you would expect to find in a five-star hotel. Floor to ceiling sliding glass doors opened onto our own balcony outfitted with two deck chairs and a little table.

Pets also get the royal treatment. According to the company’s archives, three cats vacationed on the maiden voyage of Cunard’s first crossing. Over the years many ships have pampered a number of high profile pets including Rin Tin Tin and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s beloved pooch. QM2’s kennel and outdoor walking area can house a dozen dogs and cats that are under the full-time care of a kennel master. On our sailing, two dogs returning to the United States after living abroad for three years were lapping it up. Their owner chose to sail home rather than subject the dogs to the confinement of a transcontinental flight.

Had we been travelling with our grandchildren, they too would have been well looked after and entertained in the youth program which operates from 9 am to noon, 2 to 5 pm and 8 pm to midnight. There are even British-trained nannies on staff to care for infants.

Food, glorious food
I remember dining on the Ascania as non-stop and rather stodgy. After a full English breakfast, consommé was brought to your deck chair mid morning. A three-course lunch followed, then scones with jam and clotted cream for afternoon tea, with meat and overcooked vegetables at dinner. And don’t forget the midnight buffet. All guaranteed to constrict arteries and waistbands in equal measure.

With ten restaurants, QM2 has something to satisfy all tastes. Executive chef Klaus Kremer says that British passengers prefer fish and beef; Americans, turkey. But whatever the nationality, food consumption drops off between 15 to 20% after the second day. Gaining weight is no longer a given. Besides, there’s a gym.

In the stunning three-story Britannia restaurant a lighted dome arcs over the space that is rimmed by three tiers of balconies. For anyone wanting to make the ultimate grand entrance, there’s a sweeping double staircase.

The Princess and Queens Grill dining rooms have ocean view windows and single seating. Wherever we ate we were wowed by Cunard’s exceptional White Star Service.

Among the choices were the King’s Court buffet area offered a whopping assortment of breakfast and lunch options. There was Italian fare at La Piazza, sushi at lotus and burgers and fries at Chef’s Galley.

As a special treat, we had reservations one night at the Todd English restaurant. When Cunard asked the Boston restaurateur and one of America’s celebrity chefs, if he’d be interested in opening the first private restaurant on any ocean liner, he jumped at the chance. His menu offers small plates for noshing as well as traditional five course meals, all with a Mediterranean flair and well worth the $30 surcharge.

Activities and attractions

With ‘101 suggestions for Things to do Aboard,” to steer us, we could have filled every day and still not have done everything. But part of the special-ness of a transatlantic voyage is to stretch out and do nothing more than marvel at the seemingly endless expanse of water. We filled the days and evenings with a little of each.

Pouring over the brochure in the planning stage made us realize this wouldn’t be an ordinary cruise. We have always welcomed an excuse to dress up for a special gala evening, and the brochure emphasized formal attire for three nights. After all, men in tuxedos and women in elegant dresses and sparkly jewellery go a long way to recapturing the romance of a by-gone era.

At one of the formal evenings, we joined Commodore Bernard (“just call me Bernie”) Warner at his elegant round table for 12. Because he is the most senior captain in the Cunard fleet, he carries the line’s top title, Commodore.

We asked about the difference between a cruise ship and a liner. “There is a distinct difference,” he told us. The Queen Mary 2, like the Queen Elizabeth 2 before her, is an ocean liner, not a cruise ship. She makes regular crossings year round, primarily between the UK and US. She has a long, slender, heavy steel hull and a sharp prow both designed to weather the storms that the North Atlantic is capable of dishing up.”

He told us that in 1840, when Canadian Samuel Cunard secured the contract to carry the Royal Mail back and forth across the Atlantic, the initial vessel was a paddle-wheeled steamer, the Britannia.

It’s hard to imagine what that crossing was like. Personally, I’d prefer to savour the fond memories of the Ascania and the even fonder ones of the Queen Mary 2.

50Plus May 2008