ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2
Playwright John Guare settles in on the stage of Illuminations, Deck 3, forward, preparing to deliver a lecture titled "How to Read a Play." He wears a bow tie and small round glasses. A simple podium separates him from a rapt audience; a glass of water jiggles on a bar stool. He has a pile of notes and a voice that belongs on Broadway, even though he makes his living writing dialogue for others.
He steadies himself a few times as the stage slightly tips side to side, a reminder that we are at sea. We haven't seen land in a day and won't for another five as the Queen Mary 2 sails toward Southampton, England. Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves, talks and answers questions for about an hour. As his talk concludes, Guare, perhaps unknowingly, becomes part of the literary tradition on the majestic ocean liners that have sailed under the Cunard name.
Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne before him made the trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to England, or vice versa, to lecture, sign books and relax. In subsequent days, I see Guare around the ship walking arm in arm with his wife, fixing a cup of tea in the King's Court buffet. He passes on the sea of desserts; I do not.
Elegance is relative from decade to decade, but this queen would blow away the great writers of the past with its luxurious trappings, not the least of which is the curved, elegant staircase in the grand lobby. Queen Mary 2 continues the legacy of its predecessors, the Queen Elizabeth 2 (now slated to become a floating hotel in Dubai), and the Britannia and the Mauretania.
From bow to stern, the massive Queen Mary 2, for a time the largest passenger ship afloat, is more like a five-star resort than a party boat at sea. Sure, you cradle a citrus bellini as a Caribbean band curiously bangs the steel drums at the New York sail away, even though a gin and tonic and Frank Sinatra would be so much more appropriate.
Or perhaps a spot of tea and a string quartet. The Queen Mary 2 is nothing if not very British, even though it is American owned and French built.
This ship follows a different course
There are two things you need to get straight about sailing from New York to England on the Queen Mary 2, and if you don't know them before you embark, someone is likely to point them out on board. The voyage is not a cruise; it's a crossing. Queen Mary 2 is not a cruise ship; it's an ocean liner. The difference is more than semantics and maritime technicalities, though difficult to classify. Six days at sea, with no ports of call or shore excursions to break up the journey, leaves plenty of time to explore the ship, think about those who have crossed before and contemplate your place in the universe.
You can do this from a wooden steamer lounge deckside or on your ninth lap around the walking track (three laps equal a mile). I prefer the balcony of my stateroom or the hydra pool in the spa. Did I mention the fluffy robe? The art deco decor does much to emphasis Cunard's storied past, with history lessons in the form of newspaper clippings, old photos and text made into wall panels in many passages.
The ship itself, launched in 2004 and carrying a maximum 2,620 passengers, is black and white with the trademark red funnel. Unlike many passenger ships these days, Queen Mary 2 still looks like a ship with a deep bow that helps stabilize it in rough seas. Many of the new behemoths look like top-heavy boxes.
The funnel provides excitement at every crossing because it clears the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn by just 14 feet. As we sail from New York, past Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty, some of us actually duck when the ship gets to the bridge.
If you've cruised before, you'll notice other differences, some subtle. For instance, the familiar bing-bong of the public address system only chimes once a day. Commodore Bernard Warner, a British commander right out of central casting, comes on each day at noon to report on the weather and other pertinent information about the sailing. He also gives the time, which is important since the clocks move ahead one hour each morning so we are on British time (five hours ahead of the East Coast) when we arrive in Southampton.
I like not being reminded that a bingo game is starting or that voyage specialists are on board to talk about upcoming cruises. Or that photos can be viewed in the gallery or that the spa is open until 8 p.m. All this information is in the daily "programme" delivered to my room the night before.
That's where I learn that actors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts will be giving poetry readings and performing abridged versions of Romeo and Juliet and Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood.
I make a mental bing-bong of the times and places.
Feeding 2,600 passengers, every day
I am on the ship for the Sept. 8 crossing as part of a press group that's being schooled in the finer points of Queen Mary 2 cuisine. Each morning, we meet with Cunard's executive chef Jean-Marie Zimmermann for a session in one of the ship's kitchens. He shows us how to make sugar baskets (I fail) and a lower-fat boeuf bourguignon and leads a tour down to the belly of the beast where the provisions are kept. Will we really drink all that wine by the time we get to England? Yes, he says, if they ordered correctly.
A 200-plus kitchen team aboard the Queen Mary 2 prepares about 16,000 meals a day for passengers and crew. There are 15 bars and restaurants, with cuisine such as contemporary American fusion, Italian, Indian, Asian, British and French, among others. At the Chef's Galley, patrons watch a chef make their multicourse meal, with big overhead mirrors giving everyone a good view. It's a nod to our obsession with cooking shows.
The human machine that makes all this food is amazing. I will never quibble about cruise ship food again after seeing the orderly chaos in the kitchen at 6:30 p.m. for the Britannia, the ship's opulent main dining room. I spy nothing under heat lamps and it is far cleaner than my own kitchen. Stocks are made from scratch and even a garbanzo bean dish starts with dried, not canned, beans.
Kitchen tours, though not as extensive as the access we were afforded, are available to all passengers.
Zimmermann is on board for our pleasure, because most of his time these days involves administration and developing menus for the Queen Elizabeth, which launches in fall 2010. On Sunday morning, we meet in the galley for Boston chef Todd English's eponymous on-board restaurant and Zimmermann prepares his version of steak au poivre and deep-fried spicy lobster bites. We feel a bit sorry for the people in the buffet, but only for a minute.
Fall in love with the formality
Though the Queen Mary 2 has facilities and programs for children, there are few on board this crossing; school is in session. The crowd is decidedly older, and passengers have brought some gorgeous duds for the three formal nights. Another evening is semiformal and two are "elegant casual." No jeans or shorts in the restaurants; one buffet is designated come-as-you-are each night.
On the evening I feel queasy, we postpone dinner in the elegant Todd English and eat a light meal in the designated slacker dining room. It is fun to watch the fancy folk walk by but I feel fashion pangs knowing that I won't wear all my best outfits. I am mollified on the elevator ride back to our room when a tuxedoed passenger tells me he feels like a penguin. He wishes he were in cozy cotton.
The Black and White Ball on Day 2 is well attended, with tuxedos and decolletage in abundance. The Ascot hat competition two nights later gets enough takers to give the audience a show, and everyone enjoys the dance demonstration by Petre and Roxana. They give ballroom dance lessons each day at noon. I somehow miss every one.
I am, however, smitten by the young actors with the gorgeous British accents at the poetry readings. One night the poems focus on home and travel and the mostly British audience nods knowingly at favorites by Thomas and John Betjeman. On another night, a harpist accompanies the readings of love poems, including Shakespeare sonnets. I float from the Winter Garden back to Deck 10 with W.H. Auden's O Tell Me the Truth About Love (made popular in the movie Four Weddings and Funeral) in my head.
One afternoon we eat fish and chips in the Golden Lion Pub; another evening we sit with Commodore Warner at the head table in the three-deck Britannia. Behind us is a huge tapestry of Queen Mary 2 as the ship sailed into New York for the first time. I overhear more than one passenger noting it looks like the Titanic. No icebergs this time of year, Warner tells us.
That doesn't mean there isn't some natural phenomenon to behold. One afternoon, right outside our stateroom, the end of a double rainbow plunges into the North Atlantic.
There's no pot of gold, but we feel darn lucky.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-0886.