A gray December sky provided the backdrop for the beginning of what was to be a great experience. A trip across the formidable December North Atlantic on that sole keeper of the flame for all great ships that sailed this path before her. Of course, I am speaking of the one and only Queen Elizabeth 2.
This journey began with another historic mode of transport -- a train ride through the English countryside on the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Steeped in its own history, what better way to compliment a classic sea voyage. The first-class Pullman dining cars are like a page from an Agatha Christie novel. Rich with inlaid wood , plush carpets, and comfortable wingback chairs. Watching the quaint villages and farms roll by made me think of days when this type of travel was the norm, not the exception. A more relaxed time, indeed.
We arrived at Southampton at about 3:30 Sunday afternoon. We disembarked the train and walked directly into the Queen Elizabeth II terminal (I assume named for the Monarch, hence the II). Within minutes we were registered and escorted by a Steward to our stateroom.
Our home for the next six nights, the mighty Queen Elizabeth 2, was docked in front of her smaller sister, the recently rechristened Caronia. Both ships spent the previous month in dry dock being extensively refitted. They looked beautiful in their new paint. Cunard reached back into it's own history, and painted each ship in the original Cunard livery of a Federal Grey ( a kind of flat black) hull, white superstructure, and the classic Cunard red-orange and black funnel. QE2 looks almost new again. Her hull once again smooth.
As we made our way to our stateroom, I noticed passageways had new, plush carpeting. It appeared to be Axminster carpeting, in deep and vibrant shades of blue, gold, and burgundy, with intricate geometric patterns and borders of solid color. In addition, Four and Five Decks have new light wood wainscoting on passageway walls.
Our Caronia class accommodation on Three Deck was redecorated with new carpeting, drapes, furniture, and bedding. Shades of medium blue and cream dominate the decor and compliment the honey-colored wood wall covering. The style is traditional, elegant, and subdued. A full bath, trimmed in marble, completed the stateroom. In the usual QE2 fashion, beds were each fitted with down comforters and down pillows.
As I strolled the ship, I noticed several changes in public areas. Our Restaurant, the Caronia, was completely redesigned and redecorated during the latest refit. The room is absolutely stunning. It features a new entrance with curved balustrade and twin staircases that descend into the room. The walls feature mahogany wainscoting and brass light sconces. Ceilings are done with crisscrossing mahogany beams separating recessed white sections that feature crystal light fixtures that spread out in an almost floral design on the ceiling. The carpeting is a plush pattern in shades of rust and brown. Mahogany finished chairs with a sort of velvet fabric in rust complete the room. A vast improvement over the previous decor in this room.
The Mauretania Restaurant has new carpeting and drapes, in brighter shades of teal. Also, the entrance to the restaurant from the Crystal Bar was redone. The doorways are now flanked with faux columns, giving the entrance a more stately appearance.
The other area that I noticed had many changes was the Queens Room. This room is used for afternoon tea, cocktail parties, and evening dancing to a live orchestra. The lighter-colored wood accents have been replaced with dark mahogany. The built-in planters that separated the various sections were replaced with built-in seating, trimmed in mahogany. The furniture is all new, featuring low and high-back upholstered tub chairs in solid shades of royal blue and gold. The new carpeting is also done in these colors. The design of the end walls was reworked in mahogany, with the bronze statue of H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II featured more prominently than before.
Our departure from Southampton was more solemn than those I experienced from New York. A dockside brass band played Christmas carols and then British themes as the tugs prepared to pull QE2 from her birth. People crowded the decks. QE2's sister, Caronia, gave us a farewell blast of her horn. We quietly slipped away from the dockside. It was charming. Heading for the English channel, we were about to experience what must be considered the consummate sea voyage -- a "crossing," a Line voyage on a purpose-built ocean liner. An ocean liner which later showed her proud lineage by taming a rough North Atlantic sea, at times with Force 8 winds and rolling seas, at speeds of 25 to 29 knots. No other passenger ship today can make such a claim.
I had sailed on QE2 before, and had crossed the Atlantic by ship before, but this was the first time I crossed on QE2. The ship and its passengers seemed to assume a rhythm that doesn't exist in the "cruise" experience. The focus was very much the ship, with our destination, New York, seeming so far off in the future. There was a feeling of calm, comfort, and confidence in the journey. The slow rising and settling of the massive hull through the seas was accompanied by an almost soothing creaking of bulkheads. In this service, all of the elements of the ship work in harmony to transport its passengers from one continent to the other, with pace and grace.
QE2 is a wonder of engineering. At times there were rough seas, but always there was the feeling that the ship was completely capable for this service. We seemed to be compelled to tune the TV to the "view from the bridge" to witness yet another wave breaking over QE2's raked prow. Or to monitor our course and speed on the televised GPS information. For me, the ultimate was to lean over the stern rail and see the Atlantic being churned furiously by the twin screws. That is when you really understand the awesome power of this ship.
In spite of the complex machinery working to transport us at 28 knots, shipboard life assumed an unhurried state. Strolling the teak decks; attending a lecture on Maritime history; pausing to hear the Captain's noon report; taking afternoon tea; lingering for hours over dinner each evening, sharing cocktails with friends while listening to Cole Porter or Gershwin played on a grand piano that once graced the Queen Mary. These simple pleasures took on an almost surreal feeling. QE2 was in her element. It is so hard to describe the feeling, but having crossed on another ship, a former liner, I can only say that QE2 is really the remaining quintessential "ocean liner." She captures the grand experience of this stately and historic mode of travel. To all those who have cruised on QE2, but never crossed, I say that you should experience the difference.
Arrival in New York was almost magical, as usual. Hundreds of people huddled on deck, shivering in the cold, waiting to see the Statue of Liberty and lights of Manhattan. A red sunrise was breaking through the cloud cover over midtown. The tugs scurried to greet us as we headed up the Hudson River. A fire boat gave us a grand salute of water from its hoses. A fitting end to a great journey and a charming welcome to this grand ship.
I can hardly wait to sail on her again.