Fit for a queen – luxury ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2

Ted Kreiter

New York is sweltering.

Traffic is at a standstill near 12th Avenue and 57th Street, and perspiring cabbies are climbing out of theri cars to find out what’s wrong. But down the entrance ramp, inside the New York City Passenger Ship Terminal, all is cool and calm. A live string trio is playing softly as dapper attendants in white uniforms check passports and collect tickets.

Ourside, the Queen Elizabeth 2 awaits. Her black hull extends almost a fifth of a mile; her white decks rise 13 stories. A single door leads inside. In a circular lounge carpeted in blue, a blonde pianist plays popular tunes on a white baby grand.

Passengers arrive in couples and small groups, some in suits, others in casual wear, some in cutoffs and Hawaiian shirts. Small babies have been outfitted in sailor suits and hats. No one is quite certain what to wear to a transatlantic crossing.

The glitter of diamonds and the flash of mink are missing these days. So are the festive crowds shouting “Bon voyage.” But anticipation is high, as passengers pass through a metal detector, then make their way up the gangplank.

At 4 p.m. sharp, with all passengers aboard, the great liner backs from her berth and turns slowly down the Hudson.

High on the Promenade Deck, video cameras whir. Yachtsmen wave from the waters below. Cars on bridges seem to slow as the ship passes underneath. The staten Island ferry chugs by in the opposite direction.

Soon, Manhattan’s skycrapers have faded in the distance. The crew sets the speed at 28.5 knots and turns northward toward the Grand Banks.

Southampton is five days away.

On the quarterdeck in the spacious Queens Room, white-gloved waiters are already serving afternoon tea. To the tune of the piano’s “Tea for Two,” and under the watchful gaze of a bust of Her Majesty, they circulate among groupings of leather-covered chairs offering petite cucumber sandwiches and other delicacies from silver trays. This is followed by a wave of luscious desserts including teacakes and fruit tarts. The ritual is enacted every day at 3:30 p.m., inside the ship and on open decks. Gallons of tea will be sipped. With 50,000 bags in storage, there will be no storage.

Below deck, passengers are still puzzling out the maze of passages and stairways. A map is essential for finding one’s way to the four swimming pools, five Jacuzzis, two gymnasium/spas, two beauty shops, eight bars, and four restaurants–or to the shopping mall, synagogue, computer learning center, nursery, kennel, casino, hospital, bank, and 6,000-book library, among other possible destinations located somewhere on board. You can trust dumb luck to find them, but wear walking shoes anyway.

Stewards may be of some assistance. Each of the 966 staterooms is overseen by a steward and stewardess. My stewardess’s name is Jeanne, and she’s as Irish as she looks–the spitting image of Rose from “Up-stairs Downstairs.” “You have a very nice cabin, sir,” she tells me. Fortunately, it is also easy to find, just down the hall from the Harrods shop.

On the dressing stand in front of the portholes is a copy of the four-page QE2 Daily Programme, which offers the first glimpse of this crossing’s entertainment: a dance company, a showband, a song stylist, a magician act, a jazz ensemble, a champion ballroom dancing team. No groups like the Moscow State Conservatorie or Los Angeles Philharmonic on this voyage, but there are the latest-run films–two each day in the 530-seat theater, and more on the cabin television–enough, James A. Michener has said, to practically pay the price of the transatlantic fare.

At 7:30 p.m. and not a moment too soon, the dining begins. Passengers get their first gander at the extensive dinner menu. Entrees this night range from Lobster Thermidor to reindeer meat, with a choice of sinful desserts. Cuisine is continental and very British with generous ladles of sauces and puddlings. for the strong-willed, a small box on the lefthand page offers “slim” choices selected by the Golden Door Spa.

Despite the enormous selection, one diner decides to order “off” the menu, a luxury extended to first-class passengers. She asks for an exotic-sounding seafood dish of which the maitre d’ has apparently never heard. “Would you spell that, madame?” he asks, his face going momentarily blank, and hurries away. when he returns, he is smiling. The chef will of course oblige.

By dinner’s end we are well into evening, and it is later than we think: The ship’s clocks have been set forward an hour upon leaving New York. From now on, clocks will advance one hour every other day at 4:00 a.m., pushing the Columbia Restaurant’s misnamed “Midnight Snack” into a near collision course with early “Continental Breakfast” in the Lido Club. Fortunately, there are ample options for morning meals, allowing time for sleeping to the pleasant rocking of the ship. Thanks to 15-foot stabilizers in the QE2’s hull, today’s passengers get a smoother ride than travelers of by-gone days.

Day two, Saturday, brings sunny weather. By midafternoon, leeward decks are broiling. A Yuppie couple has staked claim to chairs near the starboard rail, where they will remain–seemingly glued fast–throughout the voyage. Youngsters have commandeered the baseketball and paddleball courts on the sports deck. A middle-aged gentleman is duffing at the golf tee. All the while, health spa regulars, fresh from their body-fat tests, are putting in their appointed miles around the deck. They can’t completely circle the ship; a sign marked “Danger High Winds” blocks passage to the bridge.

In the theater, Dr. Henry Berk, M.D., is lecturing on “How to Curtail Sea Air from Shrinking Your Clothing.” In the nearby theater bar, graphoanalyst Alice Walsh discourses on “The Write Stuff.” And in the grand lounge, Maureen Ryan, the ship’s social directress, instructs the Ladies’ Club in the art of scarf tying. “Don’t forget to bring a scarf!” the Daily Programme cautions.

Elsewhere, bridge enthusiasts have invaded the cardroom on the quarterdeck. Other passengers lounge in the library, browsing through appropriate books such as Olympic & Titanic by John Maxtone-Graham, The Atlantic Liners by Frederick Edmonds, and Flagships of the Line by Milton H. Watson.

In public spaces, enormous vintage oil paintings evoke memories of grand old ships of the line from the glory days of transatlantic crossing. Here is the Mauretania (1906), sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania and holder for 22 years of the Blue Riband for the transatlantic speed record (the elaborate tourist-class Mauretania Restaurant on board is named after her); the Aquitania (1914) that steamed unscathed during two world wars; the Queen Elizabeth (1938), the largest passenger ship ever built, and the most famous; and her sister ship the Queen Mary (now a California hotel). The QE2 is the last in the line, and the only luxury liner still making the Atlantic crossing on a regular basis.

“We are a monopoly in the North Atlantic,” explains the QE2’s master, Robin Woodall, who at six-foot-three is England’s tallest ship captain. The largely unflappable captain admits to being nervous only once, when queen Elizabeth came aboard to dine in his cabin.

“The QE2 is the fastest ship in the North Atlantic and the only ship designed expressly for the crossing,” the captain tells us. in his cabin, he switches on a video of the QE2 plowing through 40-fot waves under galeforce winds. The North Atlantic can be “a terrible, terrible place,” he says. “Of course, this ship can take anything the sea can throw at her. The only thing I worry about is a passenger possibly falling and getting hurt.” Right now, the weather is fine, but out here, the captain says, “everything can change in a matter of a few hours.” He has taken the precaution of pushing the ship ahead of schedule, just in case there is a “setback”–such as “an engine going out”–later on.

Sunday, the air turns chill as we pass close to the ice fields. Passengers on deck wrap up in thick, blue QE2 blankets. Stewards break out the hot bouillon. In the Grand Lunge, the dance class is attacking the rhumba. Over the speakers comes an announcement: “At 10:00 a.m. we will be passing near the site of the Titanic disaster, approximately 20 miles off the starboard side.”

Soon, however, the balmy weather returns in force to remain for the rest of the voyage. After several days, an amazed steward on the helicopter deck, staring worriedly at the cloudless horizon, is heard repeating to himself, “It just can’t be like this; it just can’t be like this.” Nearby, a young dean from an American college, who brought his computer along intending to get some work done, relaxes in a private-rental deck chair. “There are just too many interesting things to do here,” he complains.

As the voyage nears an end, activity seems to intesify. Devotees of the giant jigsaw puzzle on the quarterdeck by “D” stairway push for completion. Qoits players hold their championship matches on deck. The Golden Door Spa present its awards for mileage on board. British tea specialist Jane Pettigrew delivers her final lecture, “A Perfect Afternoon Tea.”

At 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, astrologist Elizabeth Garrity gives last-minute “Mini-readings” in the Grand Lounge aft. Suddenly, an explosion, like cannon fire, breaks the relative calm, followed by another blast a short time later. A voice over the speacker matter-of-factly announces that the Concorde aircraft has passed overhead. England can’t be far. Midmorning, a hazy shoreline materializes. It is the coast of Cornwall. We are entering the Channel. High winds churned up by a North Sea storm catch passengers off guard on the now open bridge. They go scurrying for shelter. Calmness returns later in the day as we round the Isle of Wight. A group of French passengers linger in their swimsuits on the Sports Deck, soaking up the final rays.

At 5 p.m. passengers line the rails as we enter a gray Southampton harbor. Passengers wave and shout to relatives on the dock as the pilot eases us up to the terminal. The ship’s movement comes to a halt. Voyage #792 Transatlantic Eastbound is over. Everyone heads inside to gather hand luggage and find a seat in a lounge. They will have to wait from 1 1/2 to 2 hours to disembark, but after five days and nights of life at a civilized pace, no one is in hurry to say “cheerio.”

The QE2 will make 27 transtlantic crossings this year, 13 eastbound and 14 westbound, between New York and Southampton. Starting rates range from $1,795 to $2,380 per person, double, including complimentary return airfare between London and any of 77 North American cities. For more information, call Cunard at 800-221-4770.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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