Crossing the Atlantic in a variety of styles
Sunday, September 24, 2006
By Fran Golden
ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2 -- My relatives came over in steerage generations ago, but for my first trans-Atlantic voyage I packed my fanciest clothes and headed to London and then south to Southampton, U.K., to cross the Atlantic on this hugely fabulous Cunard Line ship to New York. I felt downright royal.
There is something about a crossing: a tradition to uphold, conquering the Atlantic. And it just has to be on every experienced traveler's must-do list.
Yet I boarded the Queen Mary 2 with some trepidation. Would I be bored with six days at sea? Would I get seasick? Would we encounter icebergs or rogue waves?
Still, I decided to go for it.
The Queen Mary 2, as befits her ocean liner status, is not your typical cruise ship.
For one, the $800 million vessel, owned by Carnival Corp., is really, really big, one of the largest ships in the world at 151,400 gross tons, nearly four football fields in length and with a passenger capacity that tops 3,000. She has a hard hull to deal with the sometimes-rough Atlantic (she is the only cruise ship to cross it on a regular schedule) and offers more activities than anyone could possibly imagine doing in six days -- including lectures hosted by Oxford University, acting classes with graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and shows in the ship's planetarium.
But the biggest difference is her old-fashioned ocean liner class system. Guests are assigned dining rooms based on their cabin status.
My friend Kim and I were in a Princess Suite, which meant a nice-sized cabin with private balcony and chilled champagne awaiting our arrival. It also meant we dined in the Princess Grill, a nice restaurant where the waitstaff was perfectly versed in pampering (including finishing some dishes like excellent steaks and lamb chops tableside).
In fact, our entire experience on the Queen Mary 2 involved fine service and pampering.
Above us were Queens Suites, with Queens guests dining in the Queens Grill, similar to our Princess venue but with the added advantage of hot and cold running luxuries, including caviar.
Below us were the normal passengers, dining in Britannia, a perfectly nice, large, two-story dining room with a Titanic ambiance.
We decided it was worth it to upgrade to Princess if you can, if for no other reason than to feel a tad superior to the masses.
Given the sense of history that a crossing inspires, Kim and I were a little surprised to hear a Caribbean band playing "Hot, Hot, Hot" at the sailaway. And that the crowd, the vast majority British and American (the Brits outnumbering Americans by a few hundred) was, well, a little cruise ship-y.
We wanted Elizabeth Taylor dressed in a little black dress and pearls, holding a white poodle (there is such a photo on display on the ship), not people in shorts and jeans doing a conga line. We did spy one person at the sailaway in a cocktail dress; we weren't, however, sure whether it was a man or woman.
It did in fact turn out that the overall atmosphere on the Queen Mary 2 was not as formal as we had anticipated. And this was something some passengers complained about and others seemed to rejoice in (like the folks in the pub who showed up in casual attire even on the three formal nights).
The reality is you could find fancy if you wanted it, especially in the Queen's Room, the ship's ballroom, where ballgowns and tuxes were on full display -- and man, could these people dance. The ship's big band playing, we even observed a pair of kids, the young man in a white tux, his tiny partner in a long black dress with black gloves, impressively waltzing across the dance floor.
At the captain's cocktail party for Princess and Queen guests, one well-dressed couple (from England but transplanted to the United States) complained to Kim and me that the shipboard ambiance was not as luxurious as they anticipated. Sipping on free champagne, they then went on to complain how Americans are butchering the English language. OK, whatever.
Kim and I quickly established our favorite shipboard spots from the long list of lounges and bars and entertainment venues.
Topping the list was the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, where (for a fee) guests can soak in the warm bubbling waters of the Thalassotherapy Pool. So relaxing was the experience, I was practically hallucinating (or maybe it was all the Dramamine I took as protection against slightly rocky seas; although for all but one day of the trip the Atlantic was pretty darn smooth).
The spa also has a whirlpool, fantastic aroma steamroom and herbal sauna. And in between visits to these, you can scoop ice from a fountain and -- if you are like me -- when no one else is looking, pretend to be Kim Bassinger in "9 1/2 Weeks."
Another favorite spot was the Golden Lion pub, where you can chow down on excellent fish and chips washed down with beer on tap while you watch sporting events on the TV screens or passengers playing darts. We happened to be onboard during the World Cup and moaned and groaned with a sizable crowd when England lost its final match. One man sat at the bar, tears rolling down his cheeks.
The pub is also the ship's nighttime karaoke venue, where Ken from the U.K. did a decent "Summertime Blues" with a strong British accent, and one girl butchered Roberta Flack so badly she was "killing us softly" with her voice.
The G32 disco, where one "Graham Cracker" was the not-very-exciting DJ, attracted the vessel's small late-night party crowd. The casino -- with its Monte Carlo-ish card room and Carnival Cruise-ish slots area, also had attendees in the wee hours.
The top dining venue, the Queens Grill not withstanding, is celebrity chef Todd English's self-named restaurant, Moroccan-inspired in decor and serving such Todd treats as "potato love letters" (creamy potato and truffle-filled ravioli: scrumptious) and a warm, melting chocolate cake. (There is a $30 per person charge for dining here at dinner, $20 at lunch).
Rather than stay inside and do the machines in the well-equipped gym, I decided to walk off calories on the Promenade Deck, where one lap around the ship equals a third of a mile. On several days I braved winds and ocean spray, but I set my goal at 2.2 miles a day and stuck to it (on the one day when rain and winds closed the deck, I devised a route inside the ship).
On one of my walks, I kept passing a man with binoculars looking out to sea and finally asked what he was looking at. "Anything," he replied. And then he pointed to a cargo ship in the distance. We had not seen land for five days. And we were somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland. It was not until later that I realized our conversation took place near the site of the Titantic's sinking.
The last day of our trans-Atlantic cruise was truly memorable. Folks got up at 4:15 a.m. (or just stayed up all night) to see the ship enter the waters of New York. At about 4:30 a.m., the ship sailed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, so close that those on top felt they could practically jump up and touch it. Then Manhattan came into view. And there she was: Lady Liberty standing proudly before us just as the sun began to rise.
My grandparents or their parents saw this view. I felt lucky to be seeing it while wearing a plush bathrobe provided by this luxury liner, on which I was treated like a princess.
%%bodyend%%The Queen Mary 2 makes six-day trans-Atlantic crossings to and from New York from May to November (Note: The seas tend to be rougher toward the end of the season). Rates are from $1,419 to $4,459 for Britannia cabins, $4,999 to $7,309 for Princess Suites and $7,379 to $37,159 for Queen Suites. The ship also sails in Europe, the Caribbean, Canada/New England and South America, and will make her first World Cruise in 2007.
The Queen Mary 2 makes six-day trans-Atlantic crossings to and from New York from May to November (Note: The seas tend to be rougher toward the end of the season). Rates are from $1,419 to $4,459 for Britannia cabins, $4,999 to $7,309 for Princess Suites and $7,379 to $37,159 for Queen Suites. The ship also sails in Europe, the Caribbean, Canada/New England and South America, and will make her first World Cruise in 2007.
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