Thank you for reading.
It has been a great journey in great company.
The QE2 and all of you.
I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second,
“May God bless her and all who sail in her.”
Queen Elizabeth II, 20 September 1967
You asked what a trip aboard QE2, the “grande dame” of liners, was really like, so I thought I’d sit down and put some thoughts on paper. Forgive the tardiness of this letter. I needed some distance between me and the ship to put it all into perspective.
Day one: The alarm buzzed at 6:45 a.m. and … just kidding! But I do want to give you a bit of background. We boarded QE2 on Oct.16, the start of what was to be her “Farewell Trans-Atlantic Crossing” from New York City to Southampton, England. For me, this would be the return journey my grandparents had begun more than 80 years before. On Sept. 30, 1921, four members of my family left their Welsh valley for a one-way ticket to America. One of them, just 3½ years old at the time, was my father. Another legendary liner, Aquitania, carried them safely into New York Harbor and to a new life. I never did ask my father if he had any memory of it.
Despite my own sentimental notions and the lure of QE2, I must admit that I was apprehensive about spending six days and five nights afloat, captive inside a steel hull. The claustrophobia set in as soon as we embarked. Everything looked so, well, airtight. And dispensers of antibacterial soap were everywhere. “Never touch the railings!” one American warned me. I told my son, Tâm, “Don’t put your hands in your mouth for the entire trip!” Funny how the fear of germs can wipe out any notion of luxury.
I wasn’t prepared for my first impressions, either. I had read that QE2 had been updated a few times since 1967, and while any ’60s interior looked positively modern today, the ship was awash in a wave of ’80s mauve and teal, without any particular style or glamour. But a big surprise was just around the corner. A few weeks before sailing, my husband had created an Internet blog about the crossing. It was chock-full of ocean liner history and imagery, and someone in Cunard’s PR office was impressed enough to bump us all the way up to Signal Deck, otherwise known as first class. Goodbye, antibacterial; hello, goose down!
Now, Signal Deck was entirely gold and white, like a grandmother’s French provincial bedroom. The stateroom was gold, too, but with black accents. Not opulent, but classic, with a private deck and three chairs. The sliding-glass door could be opened any time of day or night; no fear of claustrophobia here. Within minutes, Tâm began to jump up and down on the double beds and wave the two plastic Union Jacks he received at embarkation. I let him jump just long enough to take a photo. He can show it to his children someday: “Here’s Daddy being goofy on a famous old ocean liner!”
Midway down the hall on this lofty deck was a tiny stainless steel galley. This was the purser station, and the staff was properly aproned in black and white, straight out of an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre.” The galley smelled slightly of coffee and chocolate, a hint of things to come. Then just before getting under way, as they say, a perky purser with an elfin face appeared in the doorway: “After you’ve unpacked, just leave your cases where they are, and when you return from dinner they’ll have magically disappeared!” Sweet. It might be best to stop right here and tell you that my favorite British expression in the world is “to be looked after.” Sailing on QE2 is, as you might expect, the ultimate being-looked-after experience. The difference between supreme service and basic, this trip taught me, is not the amount of time spent taking care of you, it’s the special way it’s done that makes you feel as if you were the only one to have ever been cared for on the ship, the only one to have slept in the bed, the only one to have had an egg white for breakfast, the only one to have had hot Belgian cocoa brought to your room at midnight. Oh, and by the way, in the ’70s, one of our pursers used to serve the crooner Dean Martin and his family hot chocolate every night. “They were ever so lovely,” she said.
So, how did we spend our days? Let’s just say they were full of shuffleboard games on a very windy deck, liner-paraphernalia shopping, yummy food, wonderful readings in the library and very British “Enrichment Lecture Programs” in the theater, on topics such as “Famous QE2 Celebrity Guests” and “The Diana I Remember and What Really Happened.” But I would rather tell you about the moments when, little by little, I fell in love with QE2. The first one happened on the third day at about 5 o’clock, when we sailed over Titanic’s resting place. We all looked down and, of course, didn’t see anything, but we felt as if we had.
The second was on the very last day, when Queen Mary 2, which had been sailing in tandem with QE2, left us to follow another course. Each ship shot a series of hornblasts to form a nautical last goodbye. QE2’s blast sounded hoarser, more elegant, as if the sound had come from a loving mother’s voice before slipping off to tend her garden, while her teen daughter jets off to party at Piccadilly Circus.
While these group events were lovely, mistyeyed affairs, there was one more private experience that trumped all others. For the first two days onboard, Tâm had avoided “the nursery.” Having attended U.K. schools, he was aware that in the British definition, a nursery doesn’t just mean a place for the diapered, crib-bound crowd – but nevertheless he avoided this children’s space like the plague. And it didn’t help that the previous day I had read in the literature that there was a “youth chill-out” room on the ship, only to learn that it had been closed for this trip, being the last go and all, and with so few children aboard. His hope of countless shipboard hours of Wii activity was gone, not to mention that the rite of passage to these “youth activities” began at age 8 – exactly the age he had just become. So, all in all, he was, in a word he loves to say, glum. Then, during dinner on the third night, between the salad and the entree, he agreed that I could escort him up to the Sun Deck and to the dreaded nursery. Too many hours of adult pursuits had beaten him down. The nursery entrance was charmingly placed between the QE2 kennels and the off-limits area where the officers live. When the door opened I couldn’t believe my eyes. This part of the ship had obviously never been touched. It appeared to be a perfectly preserved play area from the early years. The sea-life paintings on the wall were a bit yellowed, and the walls were festooned with dusty British flags. For Tâm it was a trip down memory lane, and a replica of his old play-group schoolroom in Wales. The little plastic cars you
ride in, the sandbox, the puzzles, the snack table – everything was there. He stepped on a skateboard and realized he didn’t need to push. QE2 whizzed him from starboard to port side like magic! He was hooked. I signed him in. The two child-minders said they’d “look after him” and to enjoy the evening. It’s noteworthy to say that the North Atlantic is not a body of water for pleasure-cruisers. It had been rough seas all day and increasingly so during the night. When I lived in the U.K., I learned about wind speed while listening to the midnight sea forecasts on Irish radio. I knew gale force 8 was close to 50 mph. This particular night, QE2 was listing quite a bit from side to side, as only she could do. The newer liners are fitted with large stabilizers for a smoother ride. Still, as we wobbled up to collect Tâm from the nursery, I was thinking how cozy the ship felt – and suddenly realized there was no place I would rather be. From a bird’s-eye view, we were just a pinpoint of light in this vast ocean. Insignificant. It was awe-inspiring to have this feeling of utter and complete safety in such a situation, especially when everything had seemed so very foreign at the start. The grand QE2 was no longer a ship to me; she was a humble home that I had the honor of sharing. We rang the nursery bell, and the child-minder greeted us in a whisper. A slumbering baby was just being lifted from her crib by her ship’s officer father. And then I spotted Tâm, still wearing his tie, jacket and vest, snuggled in one of the vintage Naugahyde bean bags. Next to him was a young girl in a pink, petticoated party dress. The remake of “The Parent Trap” (Remember how the parents fell in love on the QE2?) was playing in the old VHS player. No plasma here, just a box-style, 19-inch set.
The remainder of our evenings ended like this one, calm and secure. And soon the time came for us to disembark. As is tradition, the crew docks QE2 in Southampton during the wee hours, and when you awake, you find you’re not moving anymore. But your body still feels like it is. A nice take-away from the journey of a lifetime.
Deborah Withey was the former deputy managing editor for presentation and joint ventures at The Virginian-Pilot. She now lives and works from her studio in Wales, United Kingdom. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org