New York Times - Ships and Shipping

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

On transatlantic "Queen Mary 2", echoes of the past

File photo of people watching the Cunard's ocean liner Queen Mary 2 arriving in Sydney
File photo of people watching the Cunard's ocean liner Queen Mary 2 arriving in Sydney (DANIEL MUNOZ, REUTERS / September 5, 2012)

ABOARD RMS QUEEN MARY (Reuters) - The first time Edward Harris crossed the Atlantic on a liner named "Queen Mary", he was a young man travelling in the lowest "steerage" class emigrating to America.

Half a century on, Harris - now 77 and recently retired as the owner of a U.S.-based travel business - is on his seventh such voyage, having developed something of a taste for sea crossings between his birthplace in England and adopted home.

More than twice the size of the original "Queen Mary" - launched 1936, retired 1967, now a floating Los Angeles hotel - the modern "Queen Mary 2" has a very different feel from those early trans-Atlantic liners, perhaps closer to the modern cruise ships that ply the Caribbean and elsewhere, stopping at ports along the way.

The wooden deckchairs that line the promenade deck beneath the lifeboats may be the most potent physical reminder of what life was like aboard the QM2's predecessors. But the sense of separation from the outside world that comes with seven days at sea between Southampton and New York remains largely the same.

"I love it," Harris told Reuters four days into an August voyage. "You can't get phone calls, you get into a rhythm. It's a great feeling, even on a completely different ship."

After an annual world cruise to Australia between January and March, the Cunard-owned QM2 spends most of the rest of the year on the last scheduled transatlantic passenger schedule as what one crewmember called "the world's poshest ferry service".

Certainly, some aboard - including this reporter, paralysed from the shoulders down and headed to the United States for an assignment in Washington with a bulky electric wheelchair and some unpleasant memories from flying - are using her as just that.

But for the majority of the roughly 2600 passengers aboard, many on their second, third or fourth trip, the appeal is the voyage itself.

In their 20th-century heyday, the liners carried all levels of society, from great celebrities to those like Harris who scraped together all they had to share a cabin with bunk beds. Sea crossings gradually gave way to air travel as transatlantic services increased after World War Two.

Passengers today are often older, with an average age sometimes well above 50. But - particularly in the summer - there are also younger couples and families, as well as the occasional backpacker.

On almost every voyage, the ship hosts a reunion of anyone aboard who sailed on the previous "Queen" liners. A dozen or so passengers - sometimes more than 20 - share reminiscences of stormy passages, shipboard dalliances and slipping crewmembers money for tours of the most exclusive first-class dining areas.

Others recall when the original "Queen Mary" and sister "Queen Elizabeth" were used as troop ships during World War Two, running a gauntlet of German air attacks and U-boats.

"Is it an anachronistic way to cross the Atlantic?" says Chris Wells, the current captain. "Perhaps. But it has a romance that you simply don't get with air travel."

The cheapest cabins aboard - inside double rooms with no view - can retail for under £700 per head, while more luxurious, larger and better located twin level or multiroom cabins can cost several times that. The price includes all on-board food and entertainment but not alcohol.

Cunard still offers two separate upper classes with separate dining and socializing spaces. But even those in the cheapest cabins have waiter-served three-course meals and a dress code that for several nights includes black tie.

Crossings in both directions, Cunard officials say, are almost invariably fully booked - leading some to ponder whether a second ship might one day be added to the route.


File photo of cruise liner Queen Mary 2 as it heads to Liverpool

When the New York- and London-listed cruise giant Carnival Corp bought the ageing Cunard line in 1998, the British firm - founded in 1840 and later merged with White Star, owners of the ill-fated "Titanic" - was widely seen in terminal decline.

Its flagship, the much-loved "Queen Elizabeth 2" (QE2), was approaching retirement and there were doubts a transatlantic liner could survive in the modern era.

Source: Chicago Tribune, USA.

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