Many years ago, during a vacation in New York, my wife and I made our way to one of the Hudson River piers and plunked down $2 each, I think it was, for the privilege of boarding a big ocean liner.
Memory tells me the ship was the France, and that the token fee paid by visitors went to a seamen's fund of some kind.
Whatever the case, it was on that day a dream began forming in my mind _ a dream of one day crossing the Atlantic luxury-style, as opposed to Navy-style, my only previous experience.
The day was a long time coming. But finally, last summer, that dream came true, and I must have been as excited as a 5-year-old on Christmas morning when we boarded the QE2 in Southhampton, England, destination New York.
We were not put off by the horror stories we had read a few months earlier about troubles aboard the QE2. And we need not have been. For by the time we began our voyage, all problems had been solved and the crossing was everything we had hoped for.
Our stateroom, although not first class, was deluxe. The decor was tasteful, the beds comfortable, the shower hot with plenty of force. Our cabin steward, a young woman from Ireland, pampered us from the beginning. We could hardly leave the stateroom without returning to find the ice bucket refilled. And once she learned I was fond of bananas, they appeared like magic each morning.
Our first QE2 meal _ we chose lamb chops as our entree _ was a tip-off as to the wide variety of foods we would be offered. The menus may have been more exotic than normal, for each cruise has a theme, and for ours it was "A French Culinary Summit."
Fortunately for us, the menu was translated into English. Otherwise we might never have identified some of our choices _ for example, cream of fennel soup infused with sea urchin. Not a good choice, I might say, but a new tasting experience.
Despite the impeccable service, even the QE2 does not always achieve perfection, and my wife complained about her tough filet the first night. The maitre d' appeared almost immediately, offering to replace it. She demurred, but for each meal thereafter, the maitre d' appeared at my wife's side to inquire quietly if everything was satisfactory. (And after that, it was.)
Before that first QE2 dinner, we sat down in the Chart Room to have a drink. At my left, I could look out on the Atlantic as the ship glided smoothly along; on my right was a harpist making music as only a harpist can, as elegantly dressed people passed by our table. I could only look at my wife and comment, "Isn't it fun to imagine that you're rich?"
That was only the first of five wonderful days and evenings. The choices of activity aboard were mind-boggling. There were aerobics, bingo, wine tasting, talent competitions, computer classes, movies (in the ship's theater or on the stateroom television set), arts and crafts, cooking demonstrations, bridge lectures, shuffleboard and golf putting tournaments, dancing classes, Ping-Pong _ the list goes on and on.
Among the celebrities aboard was actor Ned Beatty, who was interviewed in the ship's theater one afternoon by the QE2's social host for all interested.
There was even a huge jigsaw puzzle, challenging all passersby _ it was about 80 percent completed by the time we reached New York. And there was a running track, exercise equipment, two swimming pools, spa, a well-stocked library _ and shopping (Harrod's was among the shops on board).
Each morning we found under our door the Daily Programme, listing the ship's schedule for that particular day, and a four-page sheet highlighting the news of the world.
The captain, in his inimitable British way, kept us apprised of our progress daily, coming on the public address system at noon to tell us how far we had traveled, our speed, sea conditions, etc. "Visibility is not terribly clever today," he reported at one point. At another, he let us know when we would be at the approximate location where the Titanic sank in 1912.
Of course, one of the pleasures of such a trip is meeting new people and we had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with several of the 1,900 passengers and 1,105 crew members aboard, including the family of one of the ship's engineers. The mother and two children frequently travel along so the family can be together. In fact, the mother told us, their first child spent more time during the first five years of his life aboard ship than on land. And it has been only recently, she said, that the children have begun to realize that "everyone doesn't live this way."
Each evening there was a wide variety of entertainment choices _ a revue in the Grand lounge, dancing in the Queen's Room, other musical entertainment in the Yacht Club and the Golden Lion Pub. And, of course, the ever-present casino.
Many people think of the QE2 as a floating hotel for AARP members, and there were many seniors aboard. But there also was a sizable contingent of young families and young singles. About 25 percent of the passengers were French, and all public address announcements were made in English, French and German.
The turn-around time in New York was eight hours, and we met several people who were turning around and going back to Southhampton on the QE2. All had planned carefully how they would spend the eight hours in New York. The engineer's wife and children were heading for Toys "R" Us where, she said, toys are less costly than in Britain.
As we approached New York City at about daybreak and the Statue of Liberty came into view, we could appreciate the captain's comment that there is no docking thrill that equals the New York experience.
On the night before we reached New York, I asked my wife, if she had the option, whether she would stay aboard and return to Southhampton. There was no hesitation before she answered yes.
We recently met a woman in St. Petersburg who, this month, began a round-the-world cruise on the QE2.
We are envious.
QE II WORLD CRUISE SEGMENTS
Feb. 5 to 17 (12 days) _ Hong Kong to Sydney; from $4,920 to $20,840
Feb. 5 to March 14 (38 days) _ Hong Kong to Mombasa; from $12,520 to $65,400
Feb. 17 to March 2 (15 days) _ Sydney to Singapore; from $6,160 to $27,650
Feb. 17 to March 14 (26 days) _ Sydney to Mombasa; from $8,850 to $44,010
Feb. 17 to March 20 (32 days) _ Sydney to Cape Town; from $10,370 to $55,330
March 3 to 27 (24 days) _ Singapore to Rio de Janeiro; from $8,360 to $42,090
March 8 to 18 (10 days) _ Bombay to Durban; from $4,960 to $19,280
March 14 to April 6 (25 days) _ Mombasa to Ft. Lauderdale; from $8,470 to $43,260
March 14 to 26 (13 days) _ Mombasa to Rio de Janeiro; from $5,360 to $22,780
March 27 to April 6 (10 days) _ Rio de Janeiro to Ft. Lauderdale; from $4,040 to $19,800
March 27 to April 8 (12 days) _ Rio de Janeiro to New York: from $4,040 to $19,800
If you go . . .
The QE2 has a complicated fare structure, depending on time of year and choice of cabin.
A one-way transatlantic crossing in low season can cost as little as $1,420 per person, double occupancy, for accommodations on the lowest deck with an inside cabin, upper and lower beds and shower (no tub), or as much as $39,080 in peak season for the Queen Mary/Queen Elizabeth luxury suites, for a maximum of four persons. Peak prices apply from mid-June through September, the lowest fares in April, early May and mid-December.
Port and handling charges (about $185) are added to the fare.
We purchased a package that included the cruise with an outside cabin, air fare from New York to London, port taxes, hotel accommodations in London for seven days and travel insurance. The price was $2,692 per person.
For information, call 1-800-5CUNARD.