As dusk descended and Manhattan lit up, the QM2 nosed out to begin her voyage of over 3,000 nautical miles to Southampton. Standing on the upper deck, champagne in hand and necks craning skywards, we passed beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – named after the Italian explorer who in 1524 became the first European to sight Manhattan and admire the bay’s “commodiousness and beauty”. The clearance between the bridge and the ship’s giant red and black funnel is a mere nine feet and for a few moments the passage looks physically impossible. So we gave a collective gasp of relief as, to a blast of the ship’s whistle that must have startled drivers on the bridge above, we glided safely underneath.
From the moment of boarding, you sense that the QM2 is about tradition. The pillared, double-tiered, candle-lit Britannia Restaurant deliberately recalls the great liners of a century ago. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet canoodling beneath its barrel vaulted stained glass ceiling. So it was apt that on our second night we passed 80 nautical miles south of the Titanic’s resting place in the chilly waters near the Grand Banks.
The QM2 is definitely for those who enjoy putting on the Ritz. Four of the seven evenings aboard were “formal” when those who wished – and nearly everyone did – put on evening dress. There were also two themed grand balls – a Black and White ball and an Ascot ball. Daytime classes help hone your waltzing and fox-trotting skills. I preferred to loll in one of the outdoor hot tubs and watch the clouds scud overhead. Even though it was November and mid-Atlantic, the air was warm and the seas calm.
Shipboard exhibits trace Cunard’s history from 1840 when Samuel Cunard established the first scheduled Atlantic steamship service. The early Cunarders took 13 days to cross and were far from luxurious. Charles Dickens who travelled aboard the Britannia in 1842 called his cabin “an utterly impracticable, throughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box”, moaning that only a coffin would be a smaller place to sleep and that he was “not ill, but going to be”. The display also conjures later more luxurious vessels like the original Queen Mary, which made her maiden voyage in 1936, a year which, I discovered, also saw the launch of Dom Perignon Champagne, Life Magazine and Mars Bars.
There’s plenty of information too for techies, such as the fact that building the QM2 took nearly 1,000 miles of welding. The most intriguing weld is of the two coins secured to the mast – a tradition dating from Roman times. The ship’s four pods – like enormous outboard motors – both propel and steer the ship and are the most powerful yet built. Two of them can turn through 360 degrees allowing the ship to manoeuvre into port without a flotilla of tugs. But I was most impressed to read that in a single year the QM2 gets through enough loo paper to wrap five times around the earth.
Other aspects of life board are high-tech too – like the delectable “molecular martini”, a concept developed by the ship’s mixologists. I watched mine being shaken and then iced with alcoholic foam. So is watching a film of the Royal Opera House performing Carmen in high-definition 3D in the cinema or lying back in the planetarium – the only one at sea – as planets roll above your head and narrator Harrison Ford huskily debates the possibility of life on Mars.
After the freneticism of New York, whether you’ve been rushing from shop to shop or from museum to art gallery, the planetarium is a great place to relax. So is the Royal Court Theatre where RADA graduates staged “Much Ado About Nothing” and scenes from the Canterbury Tales. For uber-chilling, the spa staff will cocoon you in organic seaweed or give you a “black olive and coffee firming polish” if you like such things. Other spa exotica include the Rasul Ceremony during which you and your partner smear each other with an array of nutrient muds from the geysers of Ephesus to the floodplains of the Indus. I just enjoyed lazing in the large bubbling aqua therapy pool.
Out on deck one morning, barking led me to the kennels where dogs were going walkies in a special enclosure. I was told it costs less for your pet to sail across the Atlantic than to fly. Cunard has always carried animals, though some worked their passage. On Dickens’s ship, guests were requested not to feed the vessel’s three cats lest they lost their taste for rats.
Food is a problem – it’s everywhere, all the time. No amount of hours pounding treadmills in the gym, walking the deck – three circuits equal 1.1 miles – or going to pilates classes is going to help the weak-willed. I decided not to worry on the basis that seven nights is only seven nights and I was at least getting some exercise walking to and from my stateroom. The long corridors seem to narrow into infinity and if you forget something you don’t return to your stateroom lightly.
Everything is big-scale. Visit the gleaming stainless steel world of the ship’s galleys and you’ll never complain about clearing up after a dinner party again. When the Britannia Restaurant, the ship’s biggest, is in full swing, staff handle up to 80,000 items of crockery, glass and silverware. Even servicing the smaller venues providing such grill rooms classics as Dover sole, lobster, duck a l’orange and crepes Suzette is an awesome logistical task. British law forbids weddings in “non-fixed” locations but before long the chefs may be coping with wedding receptions. Among the reasons for the QM2 soon re-registering from Southampton to Bermuda is to be able to hold such ceremonies.
Despite the comfort and luxury, the greatest magic is simply being at sea. There’s something quite emotional about the transatlantic crossing. I felt a lump in my throat when at around 4pm on the final day we sighted a green smudge of land – the Lizard – while the sinking sun glowed golden in our wake. As the first stars appeared, the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious emerged from the gathering darkness to sail alongside for a while and the two vessels saluted one another. QM2 definitely had the greater lung power – her whistle can be heard ten miles away. It was an atmospheric way to end what is still an iconic voyage.
Fares for a seven-night crossing on the Queen Mary 2 in 2012 start from £949 per person, including a flight to or from the ship. Various air/land/sea packages are also available. Details from www.cunard.co.uk or on 0845 356 5555.