I finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 last December, but my trip really began back in September 1980, which is when I first heard about the Martini Test. My beautiful college friend Corinne would book a transatlantic crossing during her summer vacations; on the first night of each voyage, she'd sneak out of her tiny windowless cabin up to the fanciest bar on board and test the bartender to see if he remembered how she liked her martinis. He always did. Or maybe my journey really started in November 1920, when my grandfather immigrated to this countrypacked, along with 2,500 other steerage passengers, into the bottom decks of the old Holland America Line's Rotterdam; the experience was so terrible that he vowed he'd return only in first-class. Eventually, he did, and would later beguile me with tales of the sybaritic excess of shipboard life. ("Three kinds of bacon!" my grandfather, who never ate bacon, would marvel.) Twenty years? Eighty years? However you figure it, it took me a long time to see if those stories could be true.
They were, as I found out during the QE2's final transatlantic crossing of 2000. (When it's not making the six-day passage between New York City and Southampton, England, the ship undertakes cruises in other parts of the world, lasting from a few days to several months.) I'm not claiming that the glory days of ocean travel are back, although Cunard's decision to build a 150,000-ton behemoth called the Queen Mary 2, to debut in 2003, suggests that things may be looking up. No: I'm the first to admit that all the memorabilia of the Golden Age that you keep running into on board the QE2 can invite some unkind comparisons. The decor, which consists of blandly inoffensive furniture and "tastefully" muted colors and fabrics, reminds you of nothing so much as one of the nicer Marriotts.
But if not everything about the Queen can compare to her illustrious predecessors, there are many things about traveling aboard a great liner that haven't been eroded by time and are well worth sampling, even for jaded travelers. Is there great dining? Yes. Perfect service? Undoubtedly. But the best thing about life aboard ship is, still, that it virtually forces on you the one thing that you can never get enough of on dry land: Time.