“My love of the sea amounted to passionate worship. I should like to sail on and on for ever and never touch land again.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
Oceanliners were the main mode of transatlantic crossings in the XIXth and XXth centuries, until the year 1958, when the first passenger airplane crossed the ocean. They carried first class leisure as well as business travelers, millions of Old World immigrants searching for a new life in America and thousands of soldiers during WWI and WWII. In some cases: heartbroken daughters or those with inappropriate engagements were “packed off in the hope that sea breezes, seasickness and a sojourn with a relative abroad, will do the trick.”
Queen Mary 2, the largest oceanliner ever built, was completed in Saint-Nazaire, France, on December 22, 2003. While a vision of an American, Micky Arison, she was designed by a British naval architect, Stephen Payne. Her length is 345.3 meters; her capacity is 2,620 passangers and 1,238 officers, crew and staff. In her first ten years, Queen Mary 2 completed 420 voyages, including 200 transatlantic crossings. The Cunard flag has flown over 236 ships since July 4th,1840. At present, even though Cunard has been purchased by Carnival Cruise Lines, it retains its British heritage. Both crew and passengers reflect a global trend: they represent over sixty countries.
My husband Peter and I are celebrating our fifth anniversary of meeting onboard Queen Mary 2. This is a Christmas voyage, round trip sailing from Brooklyn to several Caribbean islands. Here I solely describe life onboard the ship. The scenic islands deserve their own separate story.
The First Christmas celebrated on a Cunard ship, was aboard Britannia, in 1840. This year marks its 175th anniversary. The ship’s long, majestic contour and an impressive size evoke instant admiration. Upon entering Queen Mary, the feeling of nostalgia is overwhelming, as though time stood still. The interior is art deco and the ship is steeped in British traditions. As we step aboard, we are greeted by elegantly dressed Bell Boys. The figures of Toady, Ratty, Piglet and Badger are proudly standing in front of one of several Christmas trees adorning the ship. Singers from New York City are caroling; their repertoire ranging from madrigals to contemporary English, French and American compositions.
Cunard ships always offered a wide range of entertainment. In 1922, Dr. James Naismith, an inventor of basketball, described the following games available onboard deck: ‘tennis, shuffle board, quoits, bean bags, and box ball with two sticks. Activities as quoted from a 1964 diary of Denny Bind Beattie Jr, an American enthusiast of liners: ‘daily quizzes delivered to your staterooms with morning paper, prizes, deck hikes, squaredancing, table tennis tournaments, health and beauty culture classes, dancing classes, live music concerts at tea, gymkhanas, bingo, songfest, preteen costume parade, bridge and canasta tournaments, grand high tea for preteens, concert of sacred music.’ Some activities changed, while others remained the same.
Each day we are awakened by the voice of Captain Wells’ morning announcement detailing our present port of call. At one of the noon bridge announcements, he let us know we will be crossing the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, of over 8,000 meters, at the Puerto Rico Trench later that evening.
A wonderful and truly relaxing experience onboard Queen Mary 2 is its spa. A three day pass includes a soak in a large whirlpool with strong waterjets, great for a back massage; eucalyptus aromatheraphy, Swedish sauna and herbal steam room adorned with green mosaic tiles. The adjacent ‘quiet room’ is located along the deck. Guests relax sipping fresh juices and herbal teas, while observing, through a one way window, the ocean or passengers promenading around the deck.
A wide range of talks are offered. We listened to the story of Anastasia Romanoff and the new clues as to the identity of Jack the Ripper, presented by forensic DNA specialist, Dr. Hal Tinberg, followed by a talk on the Civil War, by historian Dr. Bruce Chadwick. Steve Rivellino, a Broadway producer, gave the ‘behind the scenes’ insights of show production, described Bob Fosse’s life story and took us on a journey of the turbulent romance of Marylin Monroe and Arthur Miller.
The Planetarium, which also doubles as a cinema, presented a show, narrated by Robert Redford, entitled “Cosmic Collisions”, showing the birth and continuing rebirth of stars and planets, including the formation of the Earth.
One of our favorite pastimes is the festive Afternoon Tea, which takes place in the Queens Room. Tables are set with white tableclothes and elegant china. The formally dressed, white gloved waiters serve tea in silver pots. “This traditional tea is a blend of the finest Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas.” Other choices include: Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Scones with clotted cream, strawberry jam and a variety of finger sandwiches are prepared to perfection onboard. Our waiter, a Granadian, has been with Queen Mary 2 for three years. He follows family tradition, as his father had been a chef on Queen Elizabeth 2 for 27 years. String quartet, harpist or an orchestra add to the overall ambiance. From time to time, the dance floor, largest at sea, opens up to graceful dancers.
Classical music lingers in every corner of the ship, from the elegant Chart Room through the lobby, restaurant Britannia, Queens Room, to the exquisite Commodore Club on the ninth floor. We enjoy a glass of wine at the Chart Room, while listening to a Latvian Jazz Trio; lovely string quartet The Sunrise Strings, featuring musicians from Ukraine and Moldova or a charming Bulgarian harpist Yoana Shirkova. Ballroom dance lessons are offered on sea days.
Evenings onboard are memorable: delicious meals followed by variety shows and dancing. Most passengers take their dinners at the Britannia Restaurant, a three story salon adorned with a stained glass ceiling and grand stairway. Over a thousand guests are expected for each of the two seatings. Each course offers great variations, a far cry from the 1800’s, when: ‘The staple was salted meat and fish together with dry or dried goods; fresh meat ran out after the third day at sea, though fresh milk was plentiful courtesy of the unfortunate cow slung in its hammock on the deck.’ Fresh eggs were supplied by several chicken. In addition three cats lived onboard to ‘deal with the vermin’.
Our Christmas dinner menu featured, among other delights: Sage and Parsley Scotch Egg with Piccalilli Purée, Chilled Vichyssoise, Chives and Créme Fraiche, Wild Mushroom and Spinach Pithivier with Celeriac and Walnuts, Roast Black Feathered Norfolk Turkey with Sage and Chestnut Staffing and Christmas Crème Brulée with Vanilla Kipfle. Needless to say, I acquired quite a few vocabulary words, which I will be delighted to use at my New Jersey dinner table. Breakfasts and lunches offer an extraordinary food variety as well.
We leave our table just in time to participate in daily trivia at the Golden Lion Pub. Questions vary from fairly easy: the capital city of Bulgaria; more complex: how many first moves are there in a game of chess; to almost impossible: how many films did John Wayne make.
Following the Trivia, we walk along high end shops on a stylish ‘5th Avenue’ Deck 3 to the theater. My favorite shows included Royal Cunard singers and dancers, presenting Broadway pieces, along with a British multiinstrumentalist, to two fantastic vocalists: Lovena Fox and Philippa Healey.
It is now time for a true ball. Queen Mary 2 is renowed for its formal dancing. We have five balls on our twelve day voyage: 175 Anniversary Ball, Christmas Ball, Masquerade Ball, New Years Eve Ball and Buccaneer Ball. The ship undergoes a metamorphosis in the evenings, when the ladies look stunning in their gowns and gentlemen shine in black or white tuxedos. Ship photographers are busy taking memorable portraits as the passengers elegantly stroll by towards the Queens room. Soon the dance floor fills up with charming dancers. Even on so called ‘informal’ dinner nights, men are required to wear a jacket and women cocktail dresses or pant suits. Jeans and shorts are not allowed after six o’clock, which enhances the elegance of the ship.
Passengers, crew and their stories are the true gem of the Queen Mary 2. At our dinner table we had the pleasure of getting to know a creative mathematics professor, surprising us daily with magic tricks and sporting a silver sequin vest for New Years Eve, a charming psychologist with such positive energy that no one would believe she was a Holocaust survivor, a lovely Canadian attorney, who has travelled the world, moving 23 times in 34 years and a stylish Moroccan-German woman, who owns a restaurant in a museum near Hamburg.
Besides the dinner table guests, we met a potpourri of people, including a jeweler, whom Ghadaffi offered a job in Libya sometime ago, quadrupling his British salary and offering a penthouse and four flights to the UK annualy, a designer of the Elizabeth Taylor-Burton diamond, an interpretor from Brooklyn family courts, and a Canadian Catholic school teacher. Many passengers have travelled the world and enjoyed sharing their stories.
There are several places on Queen Mary 2 worth a visit: a library, one of the largest at sea, bookstore, art gallery, Todd English Restaurant, Sir Samuel’s Cafe and the Churchill cigar bar. Most of the ship is wheelchair accessible. My favorite is Veuve Clicquot, a charming champagne bar, first established in France in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot. Its walls are adorned with lifesize black and white paintings of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Marylin Monroe, all reminiscent of time past. Historic scenes can be traced through posters and art throughout the ship. Veuve Cliquot is named after Barbe Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who took over her husband’s business in 1805. In 1810, she created the first recorded vintage champagne in the region. She also invented the first riddling table enabling production of crystal clear wine.
Christmas Day is a delight for children and adults alike. Santa Claus, enthusiastically followed by the youngsters through the length of the ship walks triumphantly into the Queens room. Here, gifts are presented to each child according to age and a festive photograph is taken. Children’s reactions are priceless. Meanwhile, in the theater, Captain Christopher Wells leads a Christmas service consisting of readings, performed by him and several members of the ship’s crew and carols with audience participation. It is followed by the Queen’s speech in the Golden Lion Pub. Protestant and Jewish services are also offered throughout the voyage. New Years Eve is greeted with a New Years Eve ball in the balloon decorated Queens Room. For those who wish to retire early, a British celebration takes place in the Golden Lion Pub, to the accompaniment of traditional English songs.
Some sort of vigorous physical activity is crucial in balancing out the ‘colosal’ calorie intake. I choose walking around deck seven, taking in the fresh air and breathtaking views of the ocean. More ambitious passengers engage in jogging or, like Peter, going to the gym instead.
Cabins are elegantly appointed, with spacious closets, a little different than those on Britannia in 1842. In Charles Dickens’ words: the cabin reminded him of ‘a profoundly preposterous box’ into which he had ‘as much chance of getting his wife’s luggage as persuading a giraffe into a flower pot.’ Samuel Cunard was ‘an austere man accustomed to the rigours of Canadian winters and his notion of comfort did not accord with urban softies.’ His ships were known for their practicality and safety rather than frivolity and decorum.
Peter initally arrived in America from England onboard Cunard’s Caronia (II), providing him with a most memorable voyage symbolizing the beginning of a new life. We should also remember another important Cunard vessel, Carpathia, which rescued 705 passengers from the Titanic. I hope the highlights above will inspire you to sail on Queen Mary 2 and to experience life onboard one of the great ocealiners.
About the Author
Agnieszka loves exploring global cultures and expressing her passion through writing and painting. She was born in Poland and grew up in Libya, Tunisia and Italy. She is fascinated by connections among people based on art, music, food, fashion and history. “Wherever you go, go with all your heart” Confucius. “It is better to travel well than to arrive” Buddha. My website: http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/agnieszka-gerwel.html