Approaching the Queen Mary 2 from astern as she lay in her berth at Southampton, on the south coast of England, I was struck by her enormous beam and bulk. She towered 12 storeys above the wharf like a high-rise apartment block.
In the departure shed there was a great crowd. But in a surprisingly short time my daughter Sarah and I were boarding from the covered gangway. A security guard took our photos and gave us each a card that doubled as room key and credit card. No other currency is used on board.
For the next week, Sarah and I would be stepping up in social scale and back in time. The Queen Mary 2 is said to be the biggest Atlantic liner afloat and she is surely one of the most beautiful. Built to renew the memory of the original Queen Mary, now a floating hotel in California, she came into service in January 2004 as the flagship of the Cunard line.
Despite the ship’s youth and size, its ambience is all flapper-era elegance. The goal was to evoke what Cunard thinks of as the golden age of ocean travel, and the ship succeeds brilliantly at doing just that. In the two-storey-high Grand Lobby, we admired a huge bronze mural by sculptor John McKenna. Then we rode to our room in an elevator with frosted glass doors adorned with art deco patterns.
Our spacious stateroom purred of luxury and glowed in soft gold and burgundy tones with ebony accents. Twin beds, a walk-in closet, and a spacious bathroom were what you might expect of any luxury accommodation, but a wide balcony overlooking the waves provided indisputable evidence that, yes, we were aboard a great ship. Waiting for our bags, we admired a vase of red roses and a bowl of fruit as we sipped sparkling wine. “New York, here we come,” we told each other, as we looked forward to the crossing that lay ahead of us.
Soon we were on our way. The Channel was flat calm, as was the Atlantic when we reached it. In the ship’s elegant bars (14 of them), I found my favorite Plymouth gin, and an order for a French 75 cocktail presented no problem.
Next morning Sarah enjoyed a facial in the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, the ship’s branch of the famous U.S. beauty salon. First she was wrapped in towels and her face carefully washed. Then cream was massaged into her skin and steamed to increase the effect. I would have thought that by now she would have been done to a crisp, but the real business was just beginning. The masseuse began applying an eye mask and then a face mask, smoothing on goo with a paddle, like someone icing a cake. While it was drying, Sarah’s hands were massaged, then her feet and ankles. It was heaven, she said, when the mask was peeled away. She went and had her photo taken with a well-preserved Jane Russell, the former pin-up girl, who happened to be on board. After which, energized, she went dancing every night, most often in the domed Queens Room ballroom with a big band.
My own therapy consisted of taking long, luxurious showers and dining exceedingly well. Breakfasts were just my speed, from kippers to eggs Benedict with fragrant English tea. For lunch, I restrained myself to spa fare, such as an artichoke salad with Parmesan cheese or clear oxtail essence with sherry. Then at dinner I enjoyed the lavish choice of wines with, say, a tender duck à l’orange, all served with due ceremony by a dignfied waiter amid white napery and sparkling glass and silver.
Three of our six nights at sea demanded formal dress and the women blossomed like jungle flowers. Men were invited to wear medals, but when I acted on the invitation I was embarrassed to see that the captain wore the only other decorations. While a white-gloved waiter served lamb cutlets, pink and succulent, along with a fruity red Shiraz, I decided to lose the medals, but my hostess (I was with a small press group) forbade it. She liked the splash of color. Passengers kept saying, “You must have been in a lot of fights.” Only three were war medals, I said. “I got the others because I know disgusting things about cabinet ministers.”
Sarah and I explored the ship, marveling at the 10 restaurants and the two theatres — the plush 1,100-seat Royal Court, where members of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art performed Shakespeare, and Illuminations, where we watched a display in the only planetarium at sea. Outside the theatres, we browsed the upmarket shops, admiring, among other wares, a special display of Tanzanite gems, glowing dark blue. I borrowed a book from the ship’s 8,000-volume library and bought another on insects by one of the on-board lecturers, Dr. George McGavin, who autographed it for me.
We ran into heavy fog. Lying on my bed, I listened to the fog-horn that bellowed every two minutes, a pleasing melancholy in the sound. Then rough weather. The mighty ship responded with a gentle lift and lapse. When the sun came out, Sarah and I walked on deck. On the last morning we rose at four, breakfasted and went on deck to find the ship passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, as an angry sun rose on the towers of Manhattan. We felt like voyagers from a century ago.