Crossing the pond
by Doug Yochim
Sequins and black bow ties, passengers in glamorous evening wear strolling the teak Promenade Deck after dinner. White gloves and chefs' top hats, ruby-red port and silver tableware, ice sculptures and caviar, afternoon tea on damask and fine bone china, orchestras in the afternoon, and piano players in the bar – images of a period when time wasn’t so precious, when crossing the Atlantic was measured in days, not hours, and when the journey, not the destination, was the important thing.
Fortunately, those days are not completely over. The last of the great trans-Atlantic liners is still afloat and thanks to a recent $18-million refurbishment, Cunard's renowned flagship, Queen Elizabeth 2, is even better than ever.
We were lucky enough to see just how magnificently the grand old dame of the seas has replenished her colours when we boarded her last December for one of the world's most memorable voyages – the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean – a journey of some significance, billed as it was as the "last crossing of the century".
Celebrating the the theme of "The History of Transatlantic Oceanliner Travel of the 20th Century" we found ourselves in the midst of lecturers expert in the history of oceanliners of the last 100 years, authors and historians all willing to share their memories and knowledge, members of the Steamship Historical Society, and even passengers who had cruised the Atlantic so many times, we might have felt like trespassers at an exclusive club. One passenger we met had been on board the Queen Elizabeth 2 more than 65 times in her 33-year history. And this won't be his last journey either, he promised us. Nor will it be our last cruise across "the pond". For obvious reasons.
The high level of service and pampering that entices you to take a second journey begins the moment you leave London.
The checking-in procedure at the Cunard terminal at London's Victoria Station is swift and uncomplicated. Our luggage taken care of, tagged and ready to be delivered directly to our cabin on the ship, all we had to do was board the motor coach, settle back, and enjoy the 3-hour journey through the green countryside of Southern England all the way to the historic Southampton docks, our port of departure.
Boarding at Southampton was equally efficient. After only moments, anticipation growing and butterflies beginning to do battle below our diaphragms, we found ourselves walking along the carpeted corridor lined with posters of the many liners that have sailed from this famous port and then, finally, there she was.
One of the greatest liners of the century. The majestic Queen Elizabeth 2. A wall of bright white, studded with portholes and long oval windows, matt black to the waterline, and right above us, so high we had to bend backwards to see, the upper decks of handrails, lifeboats and that famous red and black funnel.
And then the final leg of our journey aboard – up the covered gangplank and into the Midships Lounge complete with burled wood, and leather covered furnishings. We had arrived.
With a taste of the level of efficiency you know you're going to come to expect every moment of the next six days, it is no surprise to be greeted with the style and elegance reminiscent of the past the moment you set foot aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2.
From the Grand Lounge and the Queens Room to the renowned restaurants and the Golden Lion Pub, there are new furnishings – rich leather finishes, mahogany panelling, crystal chandeliers, etched-glass doors, and intricately-detailed archways – throughout the famous liner.
The Queens Room boasts new furniture and a striking new royal blue carpeting interwoven with gold Tudor roses. The walls have been repanelled in mahogany, and the famed bust of HM the Queen has been relocated to the most prominent position within the room.
The Casino, where we were to drop a few pounds – the sterling variety, alas, not the weight we were to gain at the dinner table – features new gaming tables, leather stools, carpets and dramatic granite entrance way.
The departure from Southampton, befitting the occasion, was a grand affair. Standing on the boat deck, port side, wrapped up against the blustery weather, we listened to he band playing Christmas Carols and watched the casting off of the lines in preparation for departure. As the tugs eased the Queen Elizabeth 2 from the Cunard docks, a cacophony of ship whistles, celebration and farewell, congratulations and "bon voyage" – including that of the Caronia, another Cunard vessel – resounded about us. We were on our way.
The ship headed down the Solent, gliding smoothly past the Isle of Wight, out into the English Channel and towards the Atlantic, a departure route taken by so many great liners of yesteryear. As we headed further into the Channel, watching the last of the twinkling lights of England diminish from our view, we could feel the swells beginning to pick up...
Given this was the North Atlantic in December, some of the passengers were a little concerned about the weather - and true to our expectation, the seas were rough. (So much so, in fact, we diverted south from our original course, to within 300 nautical miles of the Azores to avoid some very rough seas.) But this is all part of the experience, and good humour makes it an occasion. Many was the luncheon we enjoyed, watching the great waves break over the rails, with roars of "that was a good one" as the ship rocked through the peaks and troughs of the angry sea.
But this is the 20th century, or at least it was...and with modern innovations a vessel like the Queen Elizabeth 2 is well equipped to deal with the North Atlantic. And, of course, with the simple expedience of pill if you felt yourself falling prey to the dreaded mal-der-mare, there is absolutely no reason why you should miss a moment of the journey. Quite simply, there is too much to enjoy.
The dining room for the voyage is matched by the accommodation you select, each stateroom/cabin is paired with an elegant sea-view restaurant. We dined at the Mauretania Restaurant and enjoyed the finest of Cunard's legendary cuisine offerings. The service too, is impeccable.
The first night, for example, when ordering the cheese platter, I mentioned my preference for Stilton, Camembert and Edam cheeses. Every night, after that, without having to ask, I was presented with the same selection every time I ordered cheese.
When you're not being pampered in the dining rooms, or the more casual Lido, or enjoying cocktails in any of the lounges and bars - not to forget the Golden Lion Pub, which though not particularly reminiscent of the golden era of cruising, is another example of the typically British style of the Cunard Line – there is plenty to do.
The pace for the 6 days aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 is leisurely and entirely in keeping with the theme of yesteryear when time had a different pace.
We attended lectures related to oceanliners of the last 100 years that sailed the Atlantic, enjoyed piano recitals, cabaret entertainment, shared a few hours playing bridge, learnt a thing or two in computer instruction and generally relaxed with our new found friends and shared travel experiences with fellow passengers. When there was time to spare, we explored the ship, visited the shops (including The Queen Elizabeth 2's very own Harrods – the London-based luxury department store) on the Royal Promenade, on Boat Deck, perused the shelves of the ship's library, wrote a few postcards, and generally wondered how we'd ever manage to slip back into real life after 6 days of this luxury.
As the days rolled along we attended a few private parties, some held in the lounges, some with Captain Warwick in attendance and even with new acquaintances in a Penthouse on Sun Deck.We revelled in High Tea in the Queens Room each afternoon at four and relaxed on the new classic, teak steamer chairs on the boat deck and mentally prepare ourselves for another sumptuous dinner that night.
All the time, there was this surreal sense of having stepped back in time. And always that wish that this time aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 would never never end - but alas, as good things must come to an end, a mere 6 days later....New York – the Statue of Liberty, the skyline of lower Manhattan, and a fireboat greeting us with water spewing from its many nozzles, like a giant white peacock showing off its plumage. A fitting end to an elegant, classic, once-in-a-lifetime experience of the "Golden Age of Liners".
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