Transatlantic cruises: The Queen and I

Even after more than 150 crossings, Douglas Ward feels a thrill of anticipation as he boards the Queen Mary 2 for a voyage to New York. But can the largest ocean liner ever built match the style and glamour of its majestic predecessor?


It was July 1965 when I boarded the original Queen Elizabeth as the fresh-faced leader of a jazz band for my first transatlantic crossing. Some 46 years may have passed, but as my wife and I drove to Southampton’s Ocean Terminal last month for my 157th crossing, I still felt the same thrill at the prospect of embarking on an ocean liner – and sailing in grand style. The journey may now be a more leisurely seven nights rather than the five of yesteryear to save on fuel, but the voyage from the Old World to the New remains special.

The 2,620-passenger RMS Queen Mary 2, launched in 2004, is still the largest ocean liner (as opposed to cruise ship) ever built, and a destination in its own right. Measuring 148,000 gross tons, it dwarves its smaller half-sisters Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria at 90,000 tons – not to mention the ill-fated Titanic at a comparative lightweight 46,000 tons. At 1,132 feet, it is as long as 36 double-decker buses, has a top speed of 30 knots and is the only ship to be officially licensed to carry the British Royal Mail, hence the correct title of RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Queen Mary 2.

Sailing on a real ocean liner like this is the only way to cross the Atlantic. Why? Because the weather can prove unpredictable at times, and you need a ship with a purpose-designed thick hull that can withstand the pressures of stormy seas.

Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria are both designed for warm-weather cruising, and in their interior decor there is a nod to former Cunard ocean liners. They are also slower, and have more compact cabins than QM2, but each has its own character.

There are some other “normal” cruise ships that offer a transatlantic cruise twice each year, when repositioning between winter cruises in the Caribbean and summer cruising in Europe (typically in May and October). However, they usually take the southern route – from embarkation ports such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, San Juan, Antigua and Barbados – whereas the Queen Mary 2 sails from New York, taking the northern and most direct route.

The days spent at sea give passengers time to enjoy the ship’s overt Britishness, the maritime history and traditions, such as the ship’s whistle at noon (which can be heard up to 10 miles away), and the white-glove afternoon-tea service. Refreshingly – in my opinion – you dress for dinner, a Cunard tradition mostly lost on land.

The days at sea allow you to adjust to the time difference, too. Savvy travellers go from Southampton to New York, gaining an hour each day, while those sailing from New York to Southampton lose one (westward gain, eastward pain). When you fly, by contrast, jet lag slaps you in the face all in one go.

Transatlantic crossings are voyages, not cruises, and their passenger lists tend to be a mixed salad bowl of nationalities. It was no different when we stepped aboard in late June.

On our first night, a family at an adjacent Princess Grill table consisted of eight-year-old Andrew and his parents, Lauren (Italian) and George (Colombian). It was Andrew’s first transatlantic crossing by ship and he was looking forward to his adventure, to spending time in the Play Zone – with its abundant toys, games and activities organised by the specially trained staff – and to returning to New York, his birthplace. Cautious at first, we were all soon exchanging stories and travel experiences.

Transatlantic crossings are about life at a slower, grander, stress-free pace. The plus points include premium mattresses, high-quality bed linens and good cabin soundproofing, while the double-height main hallways and wide stairways provide grandeur. You can also take as much luggage as you want on board, even dogs and cats.

The 12 kennels are overseen by a full-time kennel master whose responsibilities include feeding, walking and cleaning the animals. An adjacent walking area (indoors and out) means owners can spend time with their pets. On our crossing, six dogs and two cats were being given the royal treatment.

QM2 is also as serene as a Bentley, with no vibration, even when at maximum speed of 30 knots or in poor weather .

The ship has fine furnishings, Art Deco paintings, chandeliers, richly coloured carpets (all 280,000 square yards of them) and upholstery, dark-wood finishes, sweeping staircases and fresh floral arrangements. Finding your way around is made easy by four major stairways that run vertically through the ship, each with a differently coloured carpet. There’s always a cosy chair to curl up on to read or stare out across the high seas, and if the weather’s decent, you can take a swim or a stroll outside.

During our regular walks around the wide outdoor promenade deck, we noticed fellow travellers of every socio-economic type: couples holding hands, parents walking their children in a backpack or with baby strollers, young solo travellers welded to their headphones, wheelchair occupants rolling along – even people we thought we knew.

Although senior management tries hard to retain its maritime heritage, Cunard itself is in fact little more than a brand and logo within the giant Miami-based Carnival Corporation. Some American touches prevail, such as the accent of the voices that announce deck numbers in the lifts and that feature on the in-cabin telephone message service. American bingo is played, in which numbers go only to 75 – instead of the 99 in British bingo.

On formal nights, trestle tables are placed outside the shops and piled with tacky items typical of market stalls: unbecoming of an ocean liner, but it’s one of the drawbacks of being owned by a giant corporation. Fortunately, the ship is large enough to ensure that you can avoid these areas.

Payments are made in dollars, not pounds; something feels wrong about ordering a drink charged in dollars aboard a “British” ship. Worse is the 15 per cent automatic “gratuity”, with room on the bill for “an additional gratuity”.

Our weather was mixed – a little sunshine (when the open decks fill with sporting types), a little rain, and a couple of misty days when the foghorn would sound every few minutes. But it just wouldn’t be British if one didn’t complain about the climate.

The classes

There are two ways to travel aboard QM2: in Grill Class (well-appointed, spacious suites) or in Britannia Class (basic, compact accommodation). At embarkation in Southampton, Grill-Class passengers board faster and are escorted to their suite, while Britannia-Class passengers are assigned a boarding number and wait in the terminal lounge for their number to be called before being pointed in the right direction – no Cunard-advertised “White-Star” service here, then.

Occupants of Grill-Class accommodation get extra perks, such as a choice of nine pillow types, invitations to special cocktail parties, a private concierge lounge, private lounge/bar, priority reservations for spa treatments and other niceties (pay more, get more). Queens-Grill (the premium class) occupants also have butlers.


The problem is, even in seven days, there’s simply not enough time to take part in all the things on offer, so you should plan your day after looking at the daily programme, deciding what to experience between meals.

A popular lecture series brings film and TV stars, authors and political commentators on board. Fine performances of Shakespeare are presented in the Royal Theatre or Illuminations, in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), with large-scale productions and international cabaret acts.

The ship boasts a cinema where we enjoyed our first 3D film, a superb Royal Opera House production of Carmen. The 20-minute shows, narrated by Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, created in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, are superb – but there are just 120 special reclining seats, so you need to book early.

Don’t miss Maritime Quest, a 50-panel wall display about Cunard’s 171-year history and the film stars that have graced its decks (think Elizabeth Taylor and Charlie Chaplin). Audio sets are provided for self-guided tours.

Also well patronised is the Canyon Ranch Spa. Prices are high, but the treatments, including use of a large AquaSpa pool, steam room, sauna and relaxation area, are first-class and popular (book from home online). Spa staff also run exercise classes and the gymnasium.

The most used and valued venue is the library, which holds some 9,000 books in several different languages in its 132 cabinets, plus a book shop.

QM2 is good for families with children, too. They make new friends, learn crafts, go on scavenger hunts, have pizza-and-pyjama parties, visit the bridge and even watch the chefs prepare food. After-hours babysitting is also available for a fee.

When the weather is good, passengers flock outdoors to take advantage of the swimming and sports facilities or simply to top up their tan on deck.


For the best cuisine, it is worth booking accommodation that gives you more intimate Grill-Class dining rather than the larger Britannia Restaurant, which, although handsome, is a glorified banquet room. But the food and service are acceptable, and most passengers we spoke to were quite satisfied.

Grill-Class (Queen’s Grill, Princess Grill) passengers have access to smaller, more intimate restaurants, with gourmet food and superior service, including table-side carving, flambé desserts and cheese trolleys.

You can also eat informally in the King’s Court, a huge self-service buffet venue that could only have been designed and laid out by someone with absolutely no feel for the sea and ships.

No matter, each evening decorative panels slice the huge area into four venues. Three are self-service, with themed cuisine: La Piazza (Italian), Lotus (Asian), The Carvery (roast meats), and Chef’s Galley, where passengers watch their meals prepared to order. All have an evening “dining” charge.

There’s also Todd English: the feted chef’s Mediterranean cuisine is heavily accented with herbs and spices from the Middle East (think grilled calamari with ginger-flavoured crème fraîche).

The lively and noisy Golden Lion pub offers classic British lunchtime favourites such as fish and chips, bangers and mash, cottage pie, curry and ploughman’s lunch. Next door is the more upmarket Champagne Bar, which is buzzing each evening.

The arrival

After seven nights of nothing but ocean, it’s a thrill to see the New York skyline at dawn. Gliding serenely past the Statue of Liberty (if you are in a port-side cabin) and the restored Ellis Island (immigrant-processing centre of yesteryear) in the early-morning light, you will see Manhattan looming into view after the ship passes under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge linking Brooklyn to Staten Island. Arriving into Southampton on the reverse trip just doesn’t have the same cachet.

Your luggage will be ready and waiting for you in the terminal in colour-coded batches – far more user-friendly than at most airports.

Customs inspection happens in the terminal (it used to be during the crossing), and is conducted in an orderly, if noisy, fashion. It comes as a rude awakening after you have been cosseted in the arms of QM2. Were it not for one of the world’s great cities being at our disposal, I might be tempted to turn around and head back on board for crossing number 158.

Gearbest TS - BT35A08 Bluetooth 3.0 Car Audio Music Receiver with Handsfree Function Mic
TS - BT35A08 Bluetooth 3.0 Car Audio Music Receiver with Handsfree Function Mic only $2.99