Not a particularly hospitable environment for a cruise ship.
But, then, we weren't on one. In fact, you rarely hear the word on the Queen Mary 2. This isn't a cruise, it's a crossing, a passage or a voyage. And this isn't a cruise ship, it's an ocean liner.
Looks and handles like one, too. It's not one of those bulbous, flat-bottomed beasts that waddles around the bathtub waters of the Caribbean. Instead, it has a tapered stern, 32 feet of draft and a severe, soaring prow that resembles a cleaver _ and has a similar effect on seas. The ship was carving through these furious waters with barely a shudder.
The Queen Mary 2, which made its maiden voyage for Cunard Line one year ago this month, is the longest, tallest, heftiest passenger vessel afloat _ nearly the length of four football fields, as tall as a 23-story building and more than three times the bulk of the Titanic.
Our Atlantic crossing in November offered a link to the golden age of travel, before a 1960s surge in jet service enabled travelers to zip across the ocean crammed together in a fuselage, clad in sweat suits and subsisting
We did, too. And as we glided up the Hudson River at dawn on a Saturday morning, we regretted that our journey from Southampton, England, to New York had ONLY required five-plus days.
``I think Cunard Line has re-created an unbelievable era of art deco and the euphoria of trans-Atlantic travel,'' said cruise director Brian Price, who began his career in 1963 as a purser's clerk on the first Queen Mary.
The Queen Mary 2's public rooms are lavish, from the three-deck-tall Britannia Restaurant, with its skylight dome, to the 10,500-square-foot Queens Room _ the largest ballroom at sea. Cabins are stylish and comfortable, and some of the high-end ones downright opulent. Contemporary impressionist and modernist art is displayed at every turn.
Food and drink is sumptuous, with Sevruga caviar, chateaubriand and lobster served in the main dining room _ done surprisingly well, given the banquet format _ and alternative choices ranging from the stylings of Boston celebrity chef Todd English to an Asian tasting menu. An entire bar, meanwhile, is devoted to the bottlings of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. And formal tea is presented by white-gloved servers every afternoon, accompanied by live music.
Against such a backdrop, it only seems fitting that the dress code is formal for three of your six nights at sea.
But all of this isn't the sole province of luxury travelers. The ship will make 26 Atlantic crossings between April and November this year (an equal number of westbound and eastbound trips) before paying a visit to the West Coast in early 2006. With an early booking through Cunard, an inside cabin can be had for $1,500 per person, an ocean view for $2,200, a balcony for $2,500. (Travel agents and Internet booking sites can often book lower fares.)
The QM2 distinguishes itself from conventional cruises in the diversions it offers. No blender drinks in pink plastic souvenir glasses. No hairy chest contests. The offerings are _ there's no other way to say it _ refined.
On our trip, professors from Oxford University were on hand to give lectures on subjects ranging from British antiquity to art history to the emergence of jazz in America. Students from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art conducted acting workshops by day and performed scenes from the plays of Shakespeare and Chekhov by night _ the latter were worthy of London's West End.
A string quartet presented a recital of Mozart and Strauss. A wine seminar provided contrasting sips of Old World France with New World Napa. Museum displays tracked the history of ocean voyages, including the sad fate of the Titanic. And the ship's library held 8,155 volumes.
``This is for the trans-Atlantic purist,'' said hotel manager David Stephenson. ``The lecture on Stonehenge was absolutely packed _ 600 people. (We know, we were among them to hear Dr. Gary Lock of Oxford.) And the RADA workshops, well, it's not exactly Royal Caribbean's rock-climbing wall.''
There is ample time to enjoy these offerings, because the ocean crossing means five straight days at sea. It might take a little time for veteran cruisers to adjust to a routine that doesn't involve scurrying daily into a touristy port, but we found the pace to be gloriously restful.
The Queen Mary 2 maintains another tie to a bygone era of ocean journeys by offering three classes of travel _ a condition that would be unthinkable on most cruise ships.
There is a separate dining room and lounge for the passengers who have booked the most lavish accommodations (private elevators, too), and still another dining room for those who book junior suites.
We'd heard about some of the high-end staterooms, and were keen for a glimpse into one (along with everyone else on board), but Cunard officials were not about to disturb the high-rolling occupants with a stampede of looky-loos. So you'll have to use your imagination: The Grand Duplex has 2,249 square feet of space spread over two stories, with marble baths, separate whirlpool tub, an oversize balcony and private exercise equipment.
But life in third class wasn't akin to steerage. Far from it. Our stateroom, though the second-smallest on the ship at 248 square feet, was extremely comfortable, with a queen-size bed, love seat, desk and floor-to-ceiling glass exterior wall, with a door that opened onto an 8-foot-deep balcony (large enough to accommodate two loungers). The bathroom, with a shower but no tub, proved perfectly adequate _ especially with its array of fine Canyon Ranch toiletries.
The room was all light colors, with fine-grained blond wood and a white comforter on the bed. There was luggage storage space beneath the bed, built-in drawers for clothes, and spacious closets _ essential for hanging up all of those formal garments you were compelled to bring along.
The TV had an extensive music entertainment program (the soft jazz of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, Broadway show tunes, classical adagios), along with a channel devoted to information from the bridge, including a chart showing the ship's exact location.
We weren't allowed into the Queens Grill (first class) or the Princess Grill (second), but weren't exactly suffering in the Britannia Restaurant, with its formally dressed servers, Wedgwood china and Waterford crystal.
I've always found cruise ship dining to be more miss than hit, since the galley can rarely cook items to order _ much like a hotel banquet or a wedding reception (700 entrees out the door ... at once!). But that wasn't the case here. Dishes were superbly prepared, with no shortcuts on ambition: parsley-and-citrus-coated lemon sole, chateaubriand (prepared exactly to order), herb-crusted lamb rack, broiled lobster tail.
Our only complaint was that although the wine selection was extensive, pleasantly global and remarkably reasonable, the service was chronically overwhelmed. Our first night, we ordered a pinot noir that would pair nicely with our appetizer and main course, but it didn't arrive until we'd finished the first course. On subsequent nights, our white wine would be kept in an ice bucket several paces off, but rarely did anyone come around to refill our glasses, a problem I ultimately remedied by retrieving the bottle and setting it on the table.
Neither did the ship have a list of wines by the glass. In any dining venue. We felt sorry for an Australian woman at our table who was traveling alone. When she inquired about a glass of wine, the sommelier said, ``Red wine, we have merlot, pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Do you want to hear the white wines?'' Sorry, I need more than that _ country, label, price.
A staffer told me privately that the absence of a by-the-glass wine list was a Cunard decision; the line wants the servers to push bottles of wine instead.
But at least the bottle prices are reasonable. Having just been murdered by the markups in Dublin and London, we were thrilled to find reputable wines from California and Australia in the high $20s and low $30s.
The QM2 has the requisite _ and hugely popular _ buffet spread for breakfast and lunch, but we preferred the refinement of the Britannia room for both meals. And for alternative dining, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner and an ordinary lunch at Todd English (there is a supplemental charge for each), as well as a delightful Asian tasting menu of a dozen courses at Lotus.
Other choices include an Italian-themed restaurant, a carvery and the Chef's Galley, a small dining room from which patrons can observe chefs at work from behind glass (a supplemental fee is charged for this).
When we returned home from this trip, a lot of people wondered what we did with ourselves during a solid week at sea. Five-plus days without a port call or a shore excursion?
But we were busier than we thought we'd be, and left many things undone.
We never got to the planetarium film, because it booked up quickly and always seemed to be scheduled during lunchtime. There was a running bridge tournament, and also window tables where people hunched over games such as Monopoly, backgammon and chess, but we never paused to try our hand at anything. The golf putting contest on the Sun Deck looked like fun, especially when the ship was gently rolling and pitching in 20-foot swells. Churchill's Cigar Lounge was richly fragrant, and would have been an ideal spot to light up an Arturo Fuente and order a snifter of cognac. And we never once set foot in the casino _ which undoubtedly would have felt like Monte Carlo in a James Bond novel with us attired in tuxedo and gown.
But in the course of the week, a favorite undertaking was ... nothing. The Promenade Deck was lined with wooden steamer chairs, with soft pads and wool blankets. Early in the voyage, when sunlight occasionally poked through the cloud cover and before the wind and swells kicked up, this was the place to be, alternately reading a novel and dozing off in an afternoon nap.
There was a breeze at the rail. The water shot past below as we plowed along at 26 knots.
At these moments, it was comforting to think that the legacy of the great liners was safeguarded so impressively on this memorable ocean cru ... uh, crossing.
-Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681, firstname.lastname@example.org