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God Save the Queen

After an $18 million refurbishment the QE2 is ready for the new millennium. But thankfully, some aspects of shipboard life haven't changed.

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 country—packed, 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.

Not that Cunard doesn't try to fill it for you. As I perused the Daily Programme that was slipped under my door early every morning, it became immediately clear that someone had worked overtime to come up with pleasant-sounding activities to fill the long days at sea. And yet the real pleasure was the knowledge—accompanied by an obscure thrill left over from childhood sick days and snow days—that I could just ignore it all. And so I had a splendid time not hearing the lectures about the history of ocean liners in the ship's theater; not seeing Demi Moore in Passion of Mind; not listening to Malachy McCourt tell us everything we wanted to know about life with the McCourts (as if we could wan to know more); not learning how to S-T-R-E-T-C-H and Relax with Dave (whoever Dave is); not finding out how to master the art of cross-stitching; and not shopping at Harrod's or Bally on the Boat Deck.

I never even managed to read the suitcase full of books I brought—bad news, when you happen to be a book critic. Ah, well. Sailing on the French Line's deco masterpiece, the Normandie, in the summer of 1935, the author and statesman Harold Nicolson complained of not being able to focus on his reading. "There is something about a boat which upsets one's brain." I'll say.

But if the brain is upset, the stomach is anything but. Cunard recently completed an $18 million refurbishment of the QE2's seven onboard dining rooms, but it wisely chose not to lay a finger on the kitchen, which, under the management of its longtime chef, Karl Winkler, is absolutely extraordinary. Forget the vast Day-Glo smorgasbords that make dining on board other ships feel like being trapped in a floating T.G.I. Friday's. Winkler's menus—they change every day—brilliantly fuse the Edwardian excess typical of the great old liners with more contemporary flavors and accents. From the corned boiled ox tongue (at lunch, natch) and the whole quail stuffed with herbs and goose liver mousse to the tortillas filled with chicken tikka masala, here was tremendous range and inventiveness without fussiness or strain.

The same pleasant tension between lavishness and restraint was evident in the presentation, which was striking without any vertigo-inducing architectural pretensions. And it was evident in the service, too, which was superbly attentive without being intrusive. (Meals are included in the cost of the passage; alcohol isn't, although the prices of drinks and wine are so surprisingly reasonable—usually no more than $5 a glass—that I hardly noticed.)

When you book your tickets, you can choose whether you'd like to eat at your own table or with strangers. Either way, you'll get to enjoy another great aspect of life at sea. Aboard the QE2 may be the last place on earth where people are expected to dress for dinner almost every night: black tie for the men, evening dresses for ladies. (There's a tuxedo rental store on the Boat Deck, just in case.) Judging from the enthusiastic displays of serious jewels and silk waistcoats and taffeta that I saw, no one seems to mind. And why should they? After all, people-watching is something else that's remained blissfully unchanged since the glory days. Writing aboard the Normandie in the late 1930s, Ludwig Bemelmans, the painter and illustrator who created Madeline, singled out two types of passenger for special mention: the faded obstreperous aristocrat ("a dark fortress of a woman") of obscure European provenance and the glamorous young mystery woman whose spectacular outfits become the subject of shipwide comment. "The entrances to dinner," he wrote, "reminded me of Easter at [Radio City] Music Hall."

You can still find both types aboard the QE2. On the afternoon we boarded at Southampton, I had to go down to the Purser's Office, where a vaguely Central European lady was being rather operatic after learning that her seven Vuitton trunks wouldn't appear in her cabin till six. "But what time is dinner?" she wailed, as her hairdo crackled threateningly.

"Not till eight, Madam."

"Eight! Eight?!" An oath. "But how do you expect me to dress in only two hours?!"

And we had our glamorous young mystery woman, too. Renee (we met on the second day, as I was looking for the movie theater and she was looking for a diamond earring) swept into the Queens Grill restaurant on the first night out wearing a bronze satin strapless ballgown; from then on, each evening became a torment of anticipation as the entire room waited for her to make her entrance—to see what she was wearing. This was also true at breakfast, lunch, and at the various cocktail parties that were constantly being given by different officers. (At these affairs, you wait in line to be presented to the hosts; the presenting is done by a stoutly elegant lady who, with the weary good manners of a minor royal, would ask your name so she could announce you. I barely managed to resist the fleeting impulse to have myself introduced as Professor Henry Higgins.)

And so it went, day after day. Frivolous? Sure. Mindless? Absolutely. Wasteful? Mm-hm. After six days of this, you begin to feel like you're living in a guiltily inconsequential dream. And, in a way, you are: As in a dream, time on board a great ship becomes elastic, stretched out like the ocean itself. September 1980. November 1920. December 2000. It all begins, deliciously, to blur. In the old days of steamship travel, rival ships would try to outdo each other in speed; however luxurious the trip was, the point, back then, was to get there. Now, it's all too easy to get there. For each day you spend aboard the Queen, you'd only have to spend an hour on a 747 to get across the ocean. Of course the plane gets there first, but who's the real winner? As my friend Corinne knew, there are other tests besides speed.

Published March 2001
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