Crossing the Atlantic in style on the QM2

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Robert Friedman

The Queen Mary 2 departs for the seven-day trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to Southampton, England. It is the only passenger ship that still makes regularly scheduled crossings between the major world ports.
Photo courtesy of Cunard

Aboard the Queen Mary 2, Roger McGuinn, former leadman of the Byrds, sings a shanty of tough and tender times at sea. Then we adjourn to the ship’s ballroom for a white-gloved serving of afternoon tea, finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream, while a young woman with long tresses strums the harp.

It’s a small part of another day aboard the Cunard line’s 14-deck, 1,130-foot long, 148,528-ton flagship during an eight-night, seven-day transatlantic crossing from New York to Southampton, England. The QM2 is the only passenger liner that still makes regularly scheduled crossings, from May to January.

Departing at 5 p.m. from a new pier in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn (today’s humongous cruise ships no longer fit comfortably beside the Manhattan docks), the liner carried a near-capacity 2,382 passengers and a crew of some 1,200 — a 1-to-2 crew-to-passenger ratio.

This wasn’t my first Atlantic crossing, but it was for Donna, my companion, and I could glimpse in her eyes the awesome wonder of an initial crossing.

Since it was summer, the sea was mostly calm, but the wind still whipped up little sudsy caps as we cut through the true blue, and a huge reddish-copper sheet draped at least one sunset sky.

There were sunny days and foggy days, rainy days and windy days, as the ship sailed on with just a slight rumbling sway beneath our feet.  

A winter crossing could be a bit rockier. Still, a New York Times article noted that the North Atlantic’s “heaving beauty is mesmerizing. It’s a volcano of sorts.” 

While there were some young families aboard, seniors predominated on our crossing. Some had to traverse the decks and enter the dining areas, bars and theaters using walkers or in wheelchairs. But they all seemed to get around.

Donna and I prefer being devoured by a good book, watching movies and just walking, rather than heavy socializing. We had plenty of opportunities for those pastimes. The QM2 library is the largest at sea (over 8,000 books) and the ship’s Illuminations Theater not only shows movies afternoons and evenings, but also houses the world’s only floating planetarium.

We rounded the promenade deck every morning after breakfast three times, equal to about a mile — and took long treks to find our way around the ship’s 14 decks. We also lounged on padded deck chairs, taking in the sun when it shone and the salty smell of the wind off the sea while reading our books

Activity bonanza

But other onboard activities were so varied and numerous, you just had to attend at least a few.

For Donna, daily watercolor painting classes returned her to a love of making art that had been interrupted over the years for life’s mundane necessities, like making a living and raising a family.

I actually found myself Lindy hopping part of one night away to “In the Mood” and other swing classics, played by the ship’s big band in the Queen’s Room, which the QM2 says has the largest dance floor in what is, of course, the biggest ballroom at sea.

And still the activities — more classic folk-rock music by McGuinn; Q&A sessions with former Star Trek helmsman George Takei; a one-hour breeze-through of Hamlet by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; jazz sessions by Julliard School faculty and students; lectures on the lives and times of Hollywood icons Cary Grant, Judy Garland and Bette Davis, with snippets from their films; cornball show-biz revues; a sublimely silly parade of female passengers in their best, and worst, hats for the Royal Ascot Ball — and on and on till the midnight hour nightly.

Bars galore, five swimming pools, a health spa, hot tubs, a casino, and all sorts of meet-up groups — coffee klatches for lone travelers; Alcoholics Anonymous gatherings; get-togethers of Friends of Dorothy LGBT (supposedly named after gay idol Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz).

Some 30 passengers, all male, were shooting the breeze and downing cocktails at one very informal Friends of Dorothy meeting. Paul, an apparently successful middle-aged businessman from Palm Springs, Calif., said he frequently takes cruises and ocean crossings with his husband. He said that several women have attended the once semi-secret, now-ubiquitous Friends of Dorothy get-togethers on most of these cruises.

Paul introduced me to his husband Phil, also a prosperous looking near-senior, “We’ve been together 24 years,” said Paul, “and last year, finally, we were allowed to get married.”  

Dining choices abound


Most Queen Mary 2 passengers dine in the multi-level Britanna Restaurant, where dinner entrees include roast duck à l’orange and broiled lobster tail, shrimp & scallop feuillantine.
Photo courtesy of Cunard

While relatively few of the Downton Abbey crowd had exclusive rights to a couple of fancy dining rooms, the vast majority of passengers dined in the double-deck Britannia Restaurant, where the waiters snapped napkins onto your lap as soon as you were seated.

There were also specialty restaurants (all Asian, all Indian, all Italian, one operated by celeb chef Todd English) for an extra $10 to $30 per meal. You had to buy your own wine, and you could order it at the table or press the “wine line” button on your cabin phone and discuss your choice with a sommelier.  

The food and the service were mostly first-class. There were two dinner sittings, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Donna and I chose the later one. We appeared in the Britannia mostly only for dinner, since we got up too late for the restaurant’s breakfast, which ended at 9:30 a.m. Turning ahead the clock by one hour at noon on five days also messed with meal hours.

But no problem. If you missed a Britannia meal, the Kings Court, a busy cafeteria, served breakfast from 4 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. You did suffer the indignity of having to tote your tray to a table. Lunch could also be picked up there until 3:30 p.m., just about when tea time kicked in at the Queen’s Room.

Whenever you entered a dining area, a bottle of Purell was at the door, and in the first two or three days, an attendant gave your hands an extra spritz. That was to keep at bay the feared, highly contagious norovirus that has spread among cruise passengers on several recent, highly publicized occasions.     

When Jack and Sylvia, our dinner companions from Sarasota, Fla., found out that Donna and I were from the D.C.-area, much political talk followed. It was lefties (us) against righties (them).

Jack, a Dick Cheney lookalike, jokingly dubbed us “limousine liberals” (my 1995 Toyota Camry would be thrilled by the upgrade), and we pronounced Sylvia and Jack to the right of Rush Limbaugh.

But guess what? We actually got along, laughing a lot during meals and finding deeper truths about one another than the political corners we often push one another into.

Note to Congress: It’s not that difficult. All you have to do is eat, drink and laugh together as you glimpse the sea sweeping by through the bay windows.

At one lunch, we met Tony, a middle-aged Londoner, who told us with a Michael Caine accent that he was now spending much of his time attending lectures and enrolling in classes. “I just finished studying about 19th century British colonialism in Southeast Asia,” he said proudly.

When I told him I had lived in Puerto Rico, and that many people there believe the island is a U.S. colony, Tony responded: “Six a one, ‘alf dozen of the other.” 

The large majority of the passengers were Brits and Americans, but there were also hundreds of Germans aboard, since the QM2 docked at Hamburg after its stop at Southampton. While most of the Brits and Germans were going home after touring the U.S., for many of the Americans, the crossing was the first leg of a European visit.

Our tablemates were sailing to Hamburg, where they would rent a car, drive to Switzerland, then to France and possibly Venice. “Time is not of the essence,” said Jack, who just turned 70. “What’s most important is relaxing and enjoying ourselves while we travel.” 

A relative bargain

Donna and I, both members of the shrinking middle class, didn’t have to go into hock to make the trip. I found a great deal less than three weeks before the ship sailed — $699 for each of us — less than $100 a day for transportation to Europe, an inside “stateroom,” entertainment (except for drinks), and food, food and food. There were even free launderettes on the cabin decks.

Donna and I were ready for a vacation and, remembering the good old days on ocean liners, I looked up online “transatlantic crossings.” The bargain fare was offered by Vacations to Go, a Houston-based travel agency. A couple of e-mails and we were set to go. For another $40 per passenger, we booked with the agency bus fare from Southampton to London, a two-hour ride. The bus was waiting at the dock.

Our 157-square-foot QM2 cabin was the least expensive type on the liner, whose other accommodations with balconies and even duplex suites could range into the thousands of dollars per passenger.

We had a double bed, work table, TV, telephone, small fridge, and ample closet space, already stocked with bathrobes and slippers. Not too much drawer space. Bathroom and shower, of course. For seven days, it was cozy and livable, especially if you didn’t pack too much, which you shouldn’t.

Figuring out the attire

For the men, a suit and a sports jacket should do, along with everyday wear, depending on the season. Since most of the trip is through the North Atlantic, a sweater and windbreaker are advisable, even in high summer.

For women — well, how dressy do you want to get in the evenings?  The QM2’s suggested dress code is probably the most formal at sea. It is dressier than a cruise in, say, the Caribbean.

During the day, people were in casual clothes, including jeans and shorts. But at 6 p.m., the dress code kicked in. While there were no fashion police around to cite you for being under-dressed, most of the passengers got spiffed up for dinner.

How veddy British was the trip? Well, there were four formal dress nights on our eight-night crossing, meaning floor-length or cocktail dresses for the women and either tux or dark suit-and-tie for the men. On the other nights, guys had to wear jackets but could go tieless. If you wanted to go tieless and jacketless on any night, you had to dine cafeteria-style.

Just about all of the room stewards and much of the restaurant staff were from the Philippines. Jose, our cabin guy, said we should call him Joe. Juan, one of our waiters, introduced himself as Johnny.

Internet service was available for passengers in a computer lounge. It was pretty pricey. There were time plans ranging from $47.95 for 120 minutes to $167.95 for 480 minutes. You could also pay as you go, 75 cents a minute, which may be OK if you just want to say a quick hello to the family.

But if you can’t remain Internet free for the week (unfortunately, who can?) I suggest the 120-minute plan. We paid as we went, and didn’t seem to be on line that long, but wound up with a $70 bill. 

I was able to receive and make calls on my smartphone for $2.49 a minute.

When you get the feeling, as you will at times, that you are in a floating luxury resort, find a quiet place on a forward deck where you can smell the ocean, feel the wind on your face, and view the parting waves, the flaking whitecaps, the endless sea. You’ll get a sense of the journey — one of life’s pleasures, unavailable on today’s cramped, time-warping jet flights.

Currently, the lowest price listed on Cunard’s website for the crossing is $999 for an inside cabin. (Last-minute specials like ours may be available if you wait until shortly before sailing and search online.)

For reservations and more information from Cunard, call 1-800-728-6273 or see www.cunard.com.