Cruising Cunard: Cross the Atlantic, and the dance floor, like royalty

8 years ago

At more than 1,100 feet long and 23 stories tall, she seemed impossible to miss. Yet the cabdriver couldn’t find the Queen.

“Over there,” I said, pointing at the unmistakable shape. “Head for that.”

In the distance, the Queen Mary 2 floated on the harbor’s edge like Godzilla’s bath toy. The ocean liner’s Legolike stack of decks and red funnel rose high above the jagged skyline of shipyard cranes and scraggly trees. The driver pulled into the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and started snapping photos while I fumbled with my luggage. As I dragged my bags to the check-in counter, I saw him angling for a panoramic.

The Queen Mary 2, the eldest of the three Cunard sisters, has that effect on her subjects. Look into my dark blue hull, she seems to coo. We obey and fall under her spell. Her powers are so mesmerising, in fact, that in early May more than 2,400 land dwellers were willing to forgo birds, butterflies, streets and solid ground to cross the Atlantic on Cunard’s flagship.

We would spend the week sailing to Southampton, with no stops to stretch her anchor or our legs.

Hop on in New York, hop off in England.

This year marks a big birthday for Cunard – 175 years. The cruise line, which is celebrating with special events and sailings, has lived a long and theatrical life. The company started as an oceangoing postal service between Great Britain and North America, and it later transported emigrants to the New World. It survived two world wars, including several battlefield casualties (a U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania; the Germans air-bombed the Lancastria) and the deployment of the Queen Mary, which Hitler reportedly put a bounty on. Several of its vessels have earned the Blue Riband for the fastest passage across the Atlantic, and many have carried history’s most elegant and illustrious passengers, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Mark Twain and countless royals and sultans.

Even today, when cruisewear often refers to elastic waistbands and white sneakers, Cunard has maintained a high level of class and style. All three ships – queens Victoria, Elizabeth and Mary 2 – uphold the tradition of formal nights and masquerade balls. On casual evenings, the suggested dress code is jacket for men and cocktail attire or “stylish separates” for women. And after 6 pm, tsk-tsk to those wearing shorts and blue denim.

On the spring cruise aboard the QM2, the sun warmed pink faces, bare forearms and a handful of bathing suit-clad bodies. The mood was garden party, without the grass. Bartenders poured glasses of champagne. The band – Vibz – played pop-lite standards against the competing shores of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

At about 5 pm, the ship started to creak and tremble to life. Crew members handed out small US flags that we waved with the zeal of paradegoers. Even the Brits switched sides. I found an opening along the rail with a clear view of the Statue of Liberty. She raised her torch, and I responded with a flap of the Stars and Stripes.


Farewell, sweet land. Image: Andrea Sachs

The first night in the Britannia dining room felt like college orientation. Awkward but also exciting because of the unknown: friendships to forge, adventures to embrace, lobster specials to order.

Before the appetisers had even arrived, most of us – strangers united by assigned seating – had covered the vital statistics. At my round table: Juan, Fort Lauderdale, veteran cruiser with 132 sailings, including 20 trans-Atlantics. Sheri, Los Angeles, bound for a road trip in Germany. Nick and Therese, Melbourne, bicycling and camping around Europe for several months. Empty seat, awaiting perhaps the arrival of a dashing man stroking a Persian cat. As I said, the unknown.

Juan, who has traversed the ocean four times (about 12,640 nautical miles) with Cunard, was the sage at dinner. We peppered him with etiquette questions, such as how “formal” were formal nights (tuxedos and ball gowns are common) and how much we should tip (give an extra US$20 (NZ$32) for exceptional service). I asked him how he handles a week at sea, of day after day of waves and blank horizons.

“You sleep as late as you want, and don’t worry about anything,” he said. “Eat, drink and don’t schedule.”

I listened to his advice but wasn’t going to necessarily heed it. My holy scripture was the pages-long Daily Programme that appeared outside my cabin door each night. I circled and starred activities stretching from morning to night. I had to make some hard choices: line dance class or art deco lecture at 11 am? And I had remember to wipe noon off my schedule.

Every day, the ship jumped ahead an hour.

On the first morning at sea, I had planned to arrive early for beginner’s bridge class. However, my inside cabin (today’s version of steerage class) lacked windows, which meant no natural light and no sense of time. I found a clock on the ship’s TV station but no alarm. My iPhone was roaming in its own make-believe time zone. I was trapped in perma-twilight.

When I finally showed up, most of the tables were filled with predominantly older players dressed in country-club attire. I found an open seat with a bubbly couple from Charleston and a soft-spoken guy from Brooklyn. Deborah, the instructor, introduced the game with a description that seemed to also define the Cunard trans-Atlantic passenger.

“Welcome to the exciting world of bridge,” she said. “It’s an exclusive club of players who are highly intelligent and courageous.”

After an hour of learning the basics, our quartet promised that we’d stick together for the entire week of lessons. We also decided that on our final night, we would consecrate our graduation with a proper match, even if we had to peek at our notes. Midweek, however, the game plan changed when the New Yorker dropped out. I nominated Sheri from my dining room table to join our team. Her one requirement: We would have to wrap it up before the variety show at 6 pm Sheri was an adherent of the Daily Programme, as well.

After bridge, I typically attended the ballroom dance class taught by Volodymyr and Nadiya, a dashing duo with accents as kicky as their steps. The pair taught a different style each day (waltz, samba, quickstep, etc.), crucial preparation for the evening dances and balls.

The formal balls are a signature trait of Cunard, a 14-carat link to the golden age of cruising. After dinner, the Queen Room Orchestra would lift people to their feet and set them spinning on the dance floor. Male hosts trawled the perimeter for single women seeking partners. Many of the prom-dateless ladies were travelling with female friends or had married men who trip over the light fantastic.

Cunard is one of the few cruise lines to still employ dance hosts. Image: Andrea Sachs

Cunard is one of the few cruise lines to still employ dance hosts, a volunteer corps of typically retired men with Astaire flair. A crew member introduced the six gentlemen and their resumes. There was a former police constable from England who enjoyed the foxtrot and a Mississippi petroleum industry employee who favoured Latin dances. Also in the mix: a US Navy man from Washington who would hopefully steer me safely across the sea of parquet. I sampled several of the hosts, including John, a design engineer who resembled Elvis Costello.

“You’re built like a dancer,” he told me. “You have it in you.”

While still in motion, he taught me the side step, which sustained us for the remainder of the song. When the music ended, he deposited me back where he found me – in a chair next to Sheri. With so many waiting ladies, he could only offer one ride per customer.

During class, I often paired up with an off-duty dance host named Steven, who was sailing with his mother. The Englishman had a wrestler’s build and the sharp tongue of an exacting teacher.

“If I step on your toe, it’s your fault,” he told me as we practiced the box waltz.

“Are you going to patent the hop-hop?” he asked me during the quick step, which I interpreted as a pogo-stick bounce.

“Are we having a domestic?” he inquired after I accidentally kicked his foot.

However, he sometimes lapsed into sweetness, likely inspired by our dreamy surroundings.

“I’m the frame,” he said, “and you’re the picture, the beauty.”

As soon as class ended, Prince Steven would flee like Cinderella to attend to his mother, and I would turn back into a clunky pumpkin.

With the flurry of lectures, lessons and shows, I tended to forget where I was (adult camp or early retirement). Every day at noon, the captain would remind me: speck on ocean.

After a crew member rang the Eight Bells, a maritime tradition that also signalled the time change, Capt. Christopher Wells would address the passengers over the PA system. In his lilting English accent, he shared details about our location and weather. Early in the trip, he mentioned a tropical depression in Florida, but allayed fears: “We’ll race it across the Atlantic, but we’ll be faster.”

A few days later, he turned poetic: “The Atlantic is looking like the Atlantic with the overall colour of gray – gray sky, gray sea.” He warned us of rolling seas and, toward the end of the week, encouraged us to enjoy “a bit of sunshine that is actually quite unexpected.” He also coloured the empty canvas with shades of land. Somewhere out there was Nantucket, Newfoundland, the Azores and the sea-cucumber-strewn Porcupine Abyssal Plain, about 450 miles off Ireland’s coast. His typically chipper tone fell an octave only once.

“One hundred and three years ago, the Titanic hit an iceberg,” he said solemnly. “We will pass her final resting place at about 9 pm”

That evening, when the ship was about 10 miles south of the wreckage, I stepped into the dark night. I peered over the railing at an ocean as deep and unfathomable as a black hole. A burst of wind felt like a cold hand pushing against my back. I whispered a little eulogy for the victims, and then went inside for a cup of tea and a cookie.

The Queen Mary is the Marcia to the Queen Mary 2’s Jan.

The junior vessel, which launched in 2004, can’t seem to escape the older sibling’s shadow. During her time (1936-67), the Queen Mary was known as the tallest, largest, longest and most glamorous ship on the water. Despite the sibling rivalry, the QM2 does her best to carry on the family name as the only ocean liner in the Cunard clan. (Oh the disgrace! The Queen Mary is now a floating hotel in Long Beach, California.)

“We are the link between the Old World and the New World,” Wells said during the captain’s cocktail party. “You become part of the history and the tradition.”

To rouse the past, informational placards appeared in public spaces throughout the ship. The pithy history lessons covered a wide range of topics, such as the seagoing animals and celebrities, the signature red funnel design, the galley supplies and the division of classes.

At a Queen Mary reunion, about 10 people sat in a circle of chairs and shared their recollections of the grande dame. A woman passed around a menu (sampling: fried smelt, spiced ham, vanilla ice cream) and a booklet listing the passengers on her December 1962 voyage. In tidy handwriting, she had written the European home towns beside several names.

Barry and Lynne Robins, a brother and sister living in New York, sailed from London when they were 11 and 5, respectively. The children and their mother were joining their father in New York, who had left England earlier to seek a better life for his family. Their mother was seasick and stayed in her cabin, leaving the kids unsupervised. The two rascals turned the ship into their playground. On one occasion, they opened a door to an upper deck and were nearly sucked out to sea. Scary, but fun, so they did it again.

“This is true ocean travel. This not a hotel on the water,” Barry said, his voice cracking with emotion. “The elegance, the history – nothing is understated.”

Barry showed the group a black-and-white photo of the siblings on the Queen Mary. Then he presented another picture snapped 51 years later on the Queen Mary 2. Different ships and circumstances but same expressions of wonder and delight.

The captain issued me an order.

“There is a difference between cruising and an ocean crossing,” he said over proper afternoon tea. “You need to experience this and learn to slow down.”

Over a full spread of scones, jam and clotted cream, Wells helped me better understand the two types of sailing. (Note: The king of cruising, Carnival, has owned Cunard since 1998.)

The Queen Mary 2 was built for the slaps and kicks of the Atlantic, he explained. The combination of hull design, power and gross tonnage allow the ship to finesse the waves like a dolphin. The svelte ship rocks and pitches less than hulking cruise ships.

“Our bread and butter is crossing the Atlantic,” he said. “It’s not about sunshine and looking at palm trees. The journey itself is the destination.”

He told me to go outside and connect with the sea to better understand his point.

I did as I was told. I settled into a wooden chaise and watched the ocean. I paid attention to its subtly changing colours and symphony of sounds. I stopped searching for shapes in the distance and relaxed my gaze. Before I knew it, the sea and sky had turned darker, with more black than blue. I checked the time and bolted up: I had to go dress for dinner.


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