A friend who crossed the Atlantic every year from girlhood until her 80s once said to me: ‘It never matters how old I actually am: I always feel exactly half my age when I arrive in New York.’ For this to work, the journey as much as the arrival matters.
Although I have gone to New York dozens of times, only last year did I for the first time make the journey by ocean. The increasing misery of air travel and the decision that the Atlantic should at some point be understood in its proper context were two drivers. As was the promise of poor internet access on board. I crossed on the Queen Mary 2.
From the moment you arrive at the dock in Southampton you get a whiff of the age of the great liners. ‘Travelling light, Sir,’ said a porter as he put my sole suitcase onto his trolley. I have never taken so much luggage anywhere. Aside from the usual basics, you need to take black tie for the three ‘formal evenings’.
You realise the porters are needed once you see the average age of the voyagers. Aside from the young models on board for the fashion shows and the singers and dancers there for the nightly entertainment in the ship’s theatre, I was the youngest person on board. This was flattering most of the time and only enraging at buffets. Even before the ship pulled off it occurred to me that it was filled with lotus-eaters. There is always food within reach and all other help at hand. On deck, blankets are brought to you to protect against ›the wind. As we set off I began eyeing the dock and then the lifeboats covetously.
But you can get into on-board life. My cabin was comfortable and deco with a private balcony. And the days are so filled with meals and receptions that I barely made it through the two slim novels I had taken with me and opened not one of the great tomes I had packed. There are several swimming pools, a library, lectures and endless things like bridge classes if you find the time. The restaurants include a near-permanent buffet, the attractive and more formal Britannia dining room and (because in the egalitarian age we cannot call anything ‘First Class’) a couple of other dining rooms preserved for the elect who have paid more.
Even in these restaurants the food has a consistent theme. You might define it as ‘mass luxury’. There is an emphasis on luxury products — lobster, fine beef etc. — but none of it is of the quality of a good restaurant in London or New York. Given the chefs have to provide for more than 2,500 passengers for every meal, the fact that the air of the hotplate is over everything is forgivable. Apart from at invitation cocktail receptions, alcohol is always extra. But the price is not extortionate, it is delivered promptly everywhere and there is nothing to prevent you bringing bottles for your cabin on board.
The seas were disappointingly perfect. Being an almost deliriously happy sailor, I always hope for bad weather at sea. Only on one day did the waves get going a little. But what a day it was. The sea-level corridors have huge windows and I sat watching the Atlantic swell from morning to sundown. That evening I went to the show (a medley of songs from Broadway) in the theatre and watched from the gallery. Some people were nodding from side to side, but everyone was rolling backwards and forwards. It was the only show I managed to watch all through, staying in the hope that a dancing boy or girl would fall off stage. That disappointment was made up for on Sunday morning in the same theatre when the Captain led the ship’s service. The head of entertainment read a lesson and then we fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition: singing the hymn ‘For Those In Peril On the Sea’.
If you travel from Southampton to New York, all the time differences are in your favour. The other way around must feel like falling downhill. But this way life is as it should be. You retire ever so slightly drunk, see the announcement that you can put your watch back an hour and then decide how to spend the extra time. There is a nightclub but nobody goes. There is also a casino and a pub with karaoke. Earlier in the evening there are live band nights at which Cunard employees waltz widows around the floor.
In certain ways, the ship is a test of decency. Most challenging are the ‘formal evenings’. Seeing everyone trying to be glamorous caused me an undeniable sinking feeling, then a swell of species-contempt. Eventually I felt a surge of forgiveness and even something like love. Most of these people have paid for a treat and are hopeful of a good time in a way that echoes a more glamorous age. And there is an undeniable camaraderie on board, even among the English. A talented young pianist gave recitals in the afternoon on several days and these were an oasis for a portion of us. He played serious music including some surprisingly challenging works. Another audience member in the CD queue afterwards summed it up. ‘It’s such a relief. They seem to think we can’t cope with anything longer than a few minutes on this ship.’ Indeed. Dumbing-down is even a mid-Atlantic problem.
Apart from the bad weather day my highlight came halfway out when I spotted a shoal of porpoises making their way among the waves. Having not seen another ship or creature for days, I found myself slightly moist-eyed and muttering, ‘What are you doing out here?’ They had better reason to ask the same question. For our part we arrived into New York early in the morning. You have to rise very early to see the Statue of Liberty as you come in, but most people came onto deck in their bath robes and saw it as we floated around in the harbour waiting to dock. I’m not sure that by then I didn’t feel about twice my age. But what an ocean to cross. And what a way to travel. Not always. But once in every lifetime at least.
An Oceanview room costs from £949 per person for seven nights, including flights; cunard.co.uk