CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews

Cunard Line QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 by Ben Lyons Transatlantic Crossing December 12, 1999

Below is my QE2 essay for the 12/12 Transatlantic crossing-- what a way to end a century of crossings. I say essay because its much longer than a normal travel review would be, but then again, there is a different aim here.

Thanks again to Tom Cassidy and to Pisa Brothers for their work in organizing it, and thanks especially to all those great friends onboard who truly made the trip.

Fighting and pushing our way forward on Boat Deck, we safely arrived at the stairs leading up to the forward facing deck on Sun Deck. A sign that read, "Danger: No Entry High Winds" blocked our way. Nonetheless, after a quick huddle all four of us decided to climb over the sign and brave the winds that awaited us.


At the top of the stairs, we were instantly battered with gusts well over 60 knots. Leaning far into the wind, we stumbled and trudged our way to the railing, which our fingers gripped with great relief. We pulled ourselves to the centerline of the ship and dared to open our teared up eyes. There, in the tiny space between the pulled down wool cap and the tightly zipped-up jacket, was the sight we came to see. The great bow of the Queen Elizabeth 2 stretched before us, slicing through lumpy seas without any hesitation as a bright moon created a dancing and jumping path ahead for the ship to follow. Barely able to control ourselves, we jumped in the air to see how far the wind would carry us and we tried to sit down with the wind supporting us. With shouts of joy and uncontrollable laughter at the effects of the wind, we came as close to pure joy as possible, out in the North Atlantic in December on a real liner, going 27 knots bound for New York.

More than anything, it is that moment that encapsulates what made this last crossing of the 20th century so special. With great friends all over the ship, we enjoyed the traditional elements of a December crossing, from simple conversation to watching the sea. We forwent all of the frivolity that comes with some cruises and simply enjoyed as a group the basics of shipboard life in an atmosphere that was decidedly not a cruise.

We started our journey where so many crossings have truly begun--- at Waterloo Station. There, Ted gave Charlie and me a quick `archaeological' tour of the station as he described seeing this station for the first time when only steam locomotives were on the tracks, hissing and spitting for their ship-bound passengers. Almost immediately after London began to fall behind, a women next to us overheard our talking of QE2. She spoke fondly of her crossings years ago and clearly missed the fun they offered. Another man also interrupted us, asking for the ship's sailing time. This sailing seemed to excite and involve many, and with our spirits already soaring we couldn't have asked for a better start.

As we taxied in from Southampton Central Rail station, we could clearly see QE2's funnel far in the distance and Caronia shortly thereafter. Despite the small size of Cunard's entire fleet, they looked smart and proper in their livery. After a good look around QE2's smaller running mate and lunch onboard, we walked forward to the next berth and boarded QE2. With whitecaps plentiful on the Solent, QE2 had a slight list to port and we were hopeful that a rough crossing was in store. After our first tea in the Queens Room, truly symbolizing a return to QE2, we made our way forward on Boat Deck where a growing band of ship aficionados was already congregating. A 35 minute delay in sailing did not dampen our enthusiasm and as the whistle reverberated across the dark harbor, we bid farewell to the band playing on the pier, to the Caronia astern of us and to all of England. Staying on deck until we dropped the pilot, we raced back to One Deck aft to feel the intense vibration as QE2 `went through the gate' and picked up speed. We were underway, bound for New York.

Having traveled on the ship only 6 months before on a cruise, I was very curious to see if I would notice the difference between a cruise and a crossing on the same ship. I was relieved to say I did. On a cruise, the focus is on the next port, one's mind is always considering the next day and the next port you are going to visit. The ports give definition to the days. On a crossing, the focus is always your destination, New York or Southampton, and it's days away. This leads to a different frame of mind and consequently a different atmosphere. On the cold north Atlantic, the after decks are not covered by bathing suits and sun tan lotion. With no ports, you spend more time on the ship, getting to know both it and your fellow passengers better. A greater sense of camaraderie develops, I believe, on a crossing. Also, every night is formal, lending more to the traditional ambiance. Whether it be lingering longer over meals without the threat of having to get up early the next morning for a port or simply knowing more of the faces, the ship takes on a friendliness and level of intimacy that I believe is not found on a cruise. The QE2, with her many distinct public rooms for all types of moods, works very well as a liner where passengers do not get the chance to disembark for six days. She becomes your home on a crossing, and your fellow passengers your friends, more so than on a cruise.

From Five Deck on up, the ship looked in excellent condition. Four and Five Decks are now completely paneled in the passageways, making these once drab and run down decks look quite splendid now. The addition of the wood on the archways outside of the Queens Room also works wonders, giving definition to the interior promenade and making the space seem more distinct and separate from the rooms. The Queens Room itself benefits from the new paneling, but I was not won over with the new carpet and the high back chairs that run the perimeter. The same goes for the new teal colored carpet on Quarter and Upper decks that do, however, give the ship a more unified feel- still these colors never seemed to fit in, I felt and I preferred the bolder, simpler carpets The Mauretania has a new mural where the tropical scene depicting the Caronia used to be and the Caronia model has now been moved to the ship Caronia, replaced by a model of the Mauretania that used to be in the Officers Wardroom. A cheery and bright floral patter carpet is now used in the room, and once I got over the shock, I came to think it was an improvement. I think this room has never looked better and is extremely attractive, especially for the lowest grades onboard.

The biggest improvement in the ship, however, was in the Caronia restaurant. With its new paneling, chandeliers and furniture, the room does take on the British feel that was sought. Because of the two wings that extend aft of the entrance, the room is able to accommodate a fairly large number of people without seeming too large or too loud. From our table, all the way forward on the centerline, I could look aft through the entrance and see the beautiful model of the Mauretania, with portholes and deck lights blazing. It was a wonderfully appealing effect.

Any time a ship comes out of dry-dock, there are bound to be some problems and it should be taken as a given that the refit will not be 100% complete. However, while QE2 was certainly not 100% complete, she was about as complete as can be expected and any of the problems experienced are typical post refit problems, in my opinion, and will not continue to affect the ship. For the first two days, we heard many times, "Priority Two, Crystal Bar, port side" or some other location come over the loudspeaker as a pipe burst or a toilet flooded. However, the frequency dropped off sharply by the end of the 2nd day and I don't really remember hearing them the last few days. Some cabins had plumbing and/or heating troubles but almost all were fixed by late the first night. There were still several public bathrooms that were not working by New York and some of the D stairway elevators were not working, but their focus was the private accommodations first, and public accommodations second.

With the exploring of the ship done, I could begin to plan out my time. The next five days melted into one another, with the only way to distinguish between them being with whom we dined at lunch or dinner. We settled into a shipboard routine that became familiar almost immediately and we were kept busy all day doing basically nothing. The day started around 9AM in the Lido, where my mother and I normally ended up meeting Ted and Charlie for breakfast as we watched passengers desperately grab at sliding plates and listened for breaking crockery. With lectures starting normally at 1015, we had to start early on our arduous day. While I enjoyed Stephen Payne's and David Williams' lectures, the rest of the ship's scheduled ship lecturers were inaccurate and boring. Cunard should thank Ted, David Zeni and Nelson Arnstein from our group for volunteering their time to lecture, providing some of the best entertainment on the trip.

Because I had some free time after deciding not to attend some of the same lecturers again, I would either play Ping-Pong or negotiate my first turns on deck in the morning. My time on deck was always the highlight of the morning, and I believe this was the ship's true social scene. What a joy it was to watch people seated in the new wooden chairs aft on Boat Deck, all bundled up and protected from the wind, as they did their needlepoint or simply watched the massive wake frothing and boiling behind. There were also the couples, arm in arm, battling the wind going forward and being pushed all around by odd cross-breezes created by the davits. Minutes later, they would return again walking in the opposite direction, desperately trying not to go too fast with the wind offering a strong push from behind. All the way forward on Boat Deck could be found people simply feeling the ship rise and fall gently, looking out over the ocean and occasionally ducking behind the superstructure when a wall of spray would come. There were also those who carefully chose locations right aft of the davits, where they lay in the new wooden deck chairs with only their eyes exposed, trying to keep the pages from turning in the book they were reading. I always enjoyed watching people come from the inside to the open deck, pushing with all their might to open the door and the momentary shock in their eyes as they felt the wind tugging at every part of their body. Finally, a quick walk up to Sun Deck revealed a more peaceful scene, as a few rows of reserved deck chairs lay with pads and streamer rugs covering contented snoozing passengers.

For lunch, we almost always ate in the Caronia and enjoyed the opportunity to invite others to dine with us. Whether it be with Stephen Payne or other friends onboard, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we never left on time in order to get to the 2:30 events. Depending on whether one attended a lecture or not, one could have up to an hour and a half free before tea time. I always had grand notions of reading during this time, but ended up either running into someone to talk to or simply enjoying the wind and the spray too much to simply sit down and read. Perhaps the anticipation of the next event also kept me from being too content, for it was tea time at 4 sharp. Ted, Charlie, my mother, lurker Jon and son Alex and I always gathered at the same time for tea and reveled in finger sandwiches and the continual quest for more scones. Stretching the limits of the small table designed for only 4 tea sets, the six of us would form a large circle and discuss a wide variety of topics. With the sun normally going down around 4, we watched the transition from day to night as the harpist played in the background. We scanned the room brimming with waiters and passengers, all thoroughly happy. Not wanting this delight to end, we would not get up from our seats until 5:30 most days, with some of us refusing to leave until 6.

Soon enough, however, the inevitable cocktail hour (or two) would call us and we would retreat to our cabins to change. Happily, four nights onboard were formal, and just about every passenger heeded the dress code and would stay dressed throughout the night. What a joy it was to walk through the ship and see passengers in tuxedos sitting in the Chart Room, listening to the piano that once played on the Queen Mary. Part of what I love about formal ships is the contrast between this untamed ocean outside and the elegant world inside. Hence, I would always watch passengers with their elaborate dresses or suits teetering down the interior promenades, grasping onto their husband or wife for support as the ship took another roll.

We attended several cocktail parties throughout the trip and managed to enjoy every one of them. Part of what the QE2 does so well is seem `clubby' for all passengers and that was especially true on this crossing, where most of the passengers were not getting off in New York but instead continuing on to the Caribbean or even around the world. Hence, the ship had a social life all to its own that was not orchestrated by the Cruise Staff, but came about simply from all of the good friends onboard. Tom Cassidy also deserves tremendous credit for organizing no less than three parties on a six night crossing and for keeping all passengers under his charge happy. We even had a party, thrown by two new Listers, in a most unusual of spaces-the Princess Grill Bar on One Deck, which worked wonderfully.

I was also fortunate enough to be invited to the Captain's Quarters for his cocktail party, which had just the right amount of people--- his room felt lively but not crowded. With Capt. Warwick and Kim making the rounds and stopping for genuine conversations with all, we felt honored to be the guest in his private space, something which I do not see on any other cruise lines. On the last night, we attended the party in the Officer's Wardroom, with the ship's staff again extending a welcome onboard that one doesn't see on other lines. The QE2 allows an interested passenger to become much more attuned to the workings and goings on of the ship than most, because of the staff's willingness to talk and dine with passengers, and it does much to keep alive the feeling that every crossing is a grand event.

Dinner was, however, the grand event of the day. Never before have I been fortunate enough to have such a wonderful shipboard table, where everyone basically knew everyone from beforehand and were all great friends. Just having Ted, Charlie, Tom and my mother at the table would have made for great fun by itself. Having Capt. Warwick, Kim and Sam made this table one for the memoirs. With the captain and his wife joining us just about every night, there was no uncomfortable feeling of sitting with someone for one night only. By the end of trip, we had all developed an easy going familiarity at the table where everyone spoke an equal amount about all ranges of topics. Whether it be because of Kim's endless reservoir of fun, the Captain's deep passion for his ship and company or the sense of tradition and heritage that Sam brought as a third generation Warwick, our table was always among the last to leave and we left the Caronia feeling more charged and excited than when we entered hours beforehand.

With dinner concluded, there lay the tough choice of what to do next. Some nights, we opted for a quick drink in either the Yacht Club (up on the alcove, port side, tucked away behind the bar with the big windows) or in the Chart Room. A brisk walk always followed the drinks. Other nights, we opted for the walk right off the bat. We would quickly return to our cabins, gather our winter jacket, gloves and hat, and bundle up as we went to wait for everyone to gather at One Deck aft. With the sea in a frenzied state at the stern and the ship rumbling and bouncing beneath us, we would look up, past Quarter, Upper, Boat, Sun and Signal deck to the funnel, perfectly poised against the evening stars. Perhaps deriving some strength from how solid the funnel looked against the fierce winds, Ted Charlie and I then climbed to Boat Deck and began our walks.

With it now being 11PM or so, the decks were deserted save for us. Standing three abreast, we faithfully made our U shaped circuits of Boat Deck for at least 30 minutes, as we recapped tonight's dinner conversation or pondered the future of Cunard. Without the worries of running into others we knew, this was serious walking and we marked off each complete circuit with each of us touching the stairs leading to Sun Deck. Round and round we went, pounding our path on the Boat Deck while reacting to the winds and the lurching deck. Listening simultaneously to the wash of the wake and the exhaling funnel, we came as close as possible to feeling the soul of the ship and quintessence of a crossing.

Eventually though, it was time to come in even from the Boat Deck, and we always climbed down the decks to One Deck Aft again before entering inside to put away our jackets. Most of the time after that I would head to the Yacht Club for another hour or two. What was refreshing to me on this trip was the fairly wide variety of age groups onboard for a December crossing and I marveled again at how QE2 appeals to all. While the Yacht Club failed to develop a core group of regulars on this trip as it did in July, it was nonetheless a popular place for all ages and many hours were happily spent in here late at night, conversing with ship friends or talking with the Captain's son. It was always sad to go to bed and end one day onboard, but we seemed to always have the next day to look forward to.

On the last day, a few of us were again fortunate enough to have a visit to the bridge. Despite the unfortunate timing of interfering with tea time on our last day, we jumped at the opportunity. The 12 or so of us eagerly climbed the stairway leading to the bridge and quickly staked out our positions by the window, simply watching the bow in front of us. We spoke with the two officers on the watch for about 35 minutes and went out on the bridge wing, where facing aft we saw waves slapping against the hull and heard the wind whistling by.

Some of us went inside the bridge once again and looked at the chart, fearing the inevitable. The plotted positions for the last hours showed us approaching the Westbound Nantucket traffic separation scheme. Land, and New York, which once seemed so distant was racing towards our distant world at 30 MPH. An occasional ship crackled over the VHF and there was an air of anticipation about the bridge, as we all knew the days of being in the open ocean without any worries was coming to an end. For the officers, arrival checklists loomed, traffic would become frequent and more vigilance would be needed. For us, packing was calling and worries about how to get home suddenly popped into our mind. I went out to the wing one last time and watched as the sun dipped lower and lower, finally hiding behind some clouds near the horizon. Perched 95 feet above the water, away from the hull, I struggled to stand straight against the wind, which offered the QE2 no visible trouble. Passengers were walking on Boat Deck beneath us in their long, heavy coats while a few simply stood staring by the rail. All were having the same thought as the QE2 raced on with intent, impervious to both wind, waves and wishes (ours), with the horizon ever shortening. I glanced down at my watch and it was 450. Tea time was almost over. We raced back down to the Queens Room, eager to get our last taste of tea and scones. It was all we could to ward off the inevitable reality of disembarkation for one last time, as we hoped in the back of our minds that we would be lucky enough to experience again a trip so perfectly complete as this one had been.

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