February 9, 2013

WHAT IS IT ABOUT SHIPS AND TRAINS?:

Seven Days on the Queen Mary 2 (DWIGHT GARNER, February 8, 2013, NY Times)


If travel makes you a bit reckless and sharpens your senses, being aboard the Queen Mary 2 in winter doubles this sense of intoxication. The churning ocean, splashing up the sides of the elegant dining room's windows, two feet from your bottle of white Burgundy and your tuna tartare, flips the switch on your survival instincts. You find yourself ravenous: eating a bit more; planning to stay out a bit later; dwelling a bit more upon sex.

What is it about ships (and trains and planes) and sex?  [...]

A crossing on the Queen Mary 2 is the sort of thing people put on their bucket lists. More than a few passengers on our crossing seemed perilously close to kicking that bucket. The QM2's dance club pulled a frantic young crowd after midnight. But the average age on our crossing, I'd guess, was well over 60. There was an abundance of wheelchairs, walkers and canes, so many that if everyone had tossed theirs overboard at once they would have created an artificial reef.

People do die on passenger ships. While I was on a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship (these tours cost $120, and tickets are scarce), a medical officer displayed a small morgue, with metal drawers for four bodies. If more space is required, he said, smiling, there is always the ice cream freezer.

The demographics for cruise ships have always skewed old. Who else has the time to spend eight days crossing an ocean in January? By focusing so exclusively on the retired leisure class, though, the virtues of crossing are being lost on a younger generation.

You do begin to forgive the Queen Mary 2 its dowdy sensibilities. It is, you realize, nothing less than a floating distillation of English inclinations and values, a watertight container of cask-aged nostalgia. It has been built for survival, not speed. It is a place to have kippers for breakfast, clear marmite soup for lunch, well-brewed English tea in the afternoon and a pint of lager in the early evening. You are notified that "military or award decorations may be worn on formal nights." You may even stumble upon a group singalong -- one that I found absurdly moving -- of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." (This is a Scottish song, but let it go.)

A cynic will point out that the QM2, launched in 2004, was actually built in France. This person might also note that the ship's registry, in 2011, was switched to Bermuda, ending 171 years of British registry for Cunard ships. He or she will disclose that since 1998 Cunard has been a subsidiary of the Carnival Corporation, and that the Queen Mary 2's crew is international. You must maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of these unpleasant facts.

The Queen Mary 2 and her smaller sister ships, the Queen Victoria (launched in 2007) and the Queen Elizabeth (2010), travel almost everywhere there is water: the Far East, Central America, Scandinavia and Iceland, Australia and the Pacific islands, Africa, the Middle East. You can also book a world tour that will keep you in caviar -- Cunard is said to be among the world's largest single buyers -- for three months.

A trans-Atlantic crossing, however, is at the beating heart of Cunard's lingering gravitas. In winter, this is a relatively affordable passage to make: our tickets were a total of about $1,500, though alcohol, spa treatments, Internet and other things can easily cause this figure to double. The QM2 may no longer be the longest, tallest and widest passenger ship extant, but it is still the largest ocean liner -- sailing point-to-point, as in across the Atlantic, as opposed to a cruise ship, which makes a loop that finishes where it started -- ever built. It's the only ocean liner in regular service between Southampton and New York.

A crossing is an interior as much as exterior voyage. Sepia-tinted photographs on the QM2 walls depict the actors, writers, politicians, aristocrats and playboys who crossed regularly during Cunard's Champagne-soaked heyday, before the jet age robbed ocean liners of their reason for being. You recall Cunard's wartime service. Winston Churchill observed that the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth helped shorten World War II by at least one year, such were their troop-carrying capacities.

There's a strong temptation, during your first few days aboard the QM2, to scramble about frantically, trying to sample everything. It takes a few days to realize that the real pleasures of a winter crossing are deliberate ones. First of all there is the Bergmanesque beauty of the ocean, more entrancing to fixate upon than a fire.

You will find yourself devouring many books, because you're mostly unplugged. (Internet service on the QM2 is slow and extortionately expensive.) You will mostly ignore world events, because the small newspaper the ship prints and distributes each morning, culled from wire service reports, is as upbeat and inane as an issue of USA Today edited by cocker spaniels.

Cree spent many of her daytime hours walking the ship's promenade deck (three times around is about a mile) or soaking and reading in the Canyon Ranch Spa. I read, wrote a book review, and spent a fair amount of time in the late afternoons in an outdoor hot tub on Deck 8 with a commanding view over the aft.

It was cold out there, sometimes snowing, so these hot tubs were nearly always empty. The first evening I soaked there, alone in the gloaming, a pint of dry British cider at hand, watching the sky darken and the ship's wake spread out, I was keenly aware that this was perhaps among the top 200 moments of my life.

Thank God I had no cell service; I would have tweeted about it. I spied a smaller ship in the distance, and a snippet from Auden came to mind: "You were a great Cunarder, I / Was only a fishing smack."
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Posted by at February 9, 2013 7:25 AM
  
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