It isn’t often that you see people genuinely enjoying travelling from A to B when they are going on holiday. Being crammed like sardines into airline seats and made to suffer in-flight food doesn’t offer much to smile about. It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when journeys were more leisurely and getting there really was half the fun. If you’ve ever wished you lived in an era when people enjoyed the experience of travelling, you don’t need a time machine, just book a cruise.
I’ve just arrived in New York after a full night of sleep in a bed that isn’t only flat, it’s a king size double. The food on the way was exquisite and rivalled that found in the best fine dining restaurants I’ve ever been to. Yesterday after dinner I soaked in a hot tub as we approached New York and throughout the journey other passengers could be heard saying how much they were enjoying it. The best part? It only cost Dh3,450 (£599).
There is a catch, of course. I didn’t travel to New York on a state-of-the-art private plane but instead on the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner and it took seven nights getting here.
Unlike most cruises, which stop off at ports of call on their way to a destination, QM2 spends most of the year travelling between New York and Southampton in England.
It begins as the QM2 pulls out of Southampton. It seems like most of the 3,000 guests are gathered on the top deck sipping champagne with the QM2’s famous red and black funnel towering over. Its horn bellows as we leave the port behind us and over the loudspeaker a maritime historian talks about the history of the port and the liner.
After the festivities it’s hard to resist the urge to explore. There are ten restaurants, seven bars, five swimming pools, a ballroom, a nightclub and the obligatory costly boutiques aimed at that almost mythical group of tourists which buys jewellery in the Swarovski store, clothing from the Hermes outlet and sundries from the on-board Harrods concession. However, it’s the most unusual facilities that best convey the scale of QM2.
There’s a full-size theatre, a ballroom, a two-floor spa, a cheesy casino complete with table games and even a planetarium featuring dramatic shows narrated by Harrison Ford. Corridors stretch literally as far as the eye can see with an abundance of cream carpets and beech walls. It all looks sparkling clean.
The ship’s interior has been designed to evoke the heyday of English high society as seen through a Hollywood lens. It has a stately winter garden which is home everyday to afternoon tea served by white-gloved waiters. With a fresco of palms on the ceiling and a mini waterfall at the back, the winter garden has a highbrow atmosphere and also hosts networking shindigs such as the captain’s cocktails.
It is a reminder of cruising’s traditions but the strongest sense of this heritage is found in the lobby. An old-fashioned ship’s bell hangs underneath a giant brass relief of QM2 and in the afternoon a choir sits next to stunning floral displays singing It’s a wonderful world.
Despite being a cavernous cruise liner there are very few public areas on the QM2 where guests can see from one side of the ship to the other. However, the consequence of the lack of wide open spaces is that it can be tough to remember your way around.
One exception is the QM2’s main restaurant the Britannia. This is a two-storey Art Deco affair which spans the entire width of the ship. There aren’t many other destinations where you can be sure that one restaurant, which serves thousands of people every night, will serve top quality food for seven nights in a row. That’s not all. The presentation on the plates is ornate, the menu changes every night and somehow it still manages to serve fresh fruit seven nights into the crossing.
Dining is an event in itself. Black tie is required on some nights and a live classical band plays in the background at the Britannia. The pomp and circumstance is spread thick with the ship’s 150 chefs parading through the Britannia on the final night of the crossing.
All the food and drink, except for alcohol, is included in the price so you can even get room service and relax in bed all day. The mid-range cabins look no different to rooms in a deluxe hotel aside from a slightly cramped bathroom which lacks a bath. They are kitted out with 21st century touches including some of the last things you expect to find available in the middle of the Atlantic.
Wireless Internet is available throughout the ship and it is even possible to use mobile phones. This isn’t for anyone on a budget though with text messages alone costing around Dh5.75 (£1) to send and calls to UK mobiles at around Dh10 (£1.75) per minute. The in-cabin television shows the latest movies and live US channels. But this is nothing on the view from the ship that awaits you every day.
Through a glass-walled balcony you get an uninterrupted vista of the ocean from your cabin. Unlike the view from a plane, where there are few reference points, there’s a real feeling of travelling to a destination as the waves race by. If you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of a whale or dolphins though the most I saw was a school of fish leaping from the water.
At night, there’s a wonderfully clear view of the stars as the lack of light pollution from buildings or cars gives the darkest sky you are ever likely to see.
The real highlight though is the sea itself. It is mesmerising staring out into the horizon whilst listening to the waves crashing against the ship. Adding to this hypnotic effect is the fact that the liner is equipped with high-tech stabilising equipment and there is so little sensation of movement that it often seems as if your eyes are deceiving you on looking out and seeing the spray from the ship. The highlight of the onboard activities is an ingenious tiered swimming pool. It has a natural wave-like motion because water picks up even the slightest movements of the ship. Its stepped sides mean that, instead of spilling onto the deck, water from the wave motion flows into the upper tier before cascading back down like a waterfall.
The bulk of the crowd onboard are silver haired Americans but there are also a large number of younger couples and the price is undoubtedly a factor in this.
Unlike airline seats, which get more expensive as the departure date approaches, the QM2 tickets fall in price as it is far less likely that people will book a seven-night journey on spec. It can lead to recession-busting rates of below Dh2,900 (£500) per person including return airfare. Standard rates start at Dh5,750 (£999) which would be reasonable for the seven nights of accommodation on its own, let alone the food and drink as well.
One reason why the QM2 is popular with big spenders is the subtle separation between them and the masses. There are restaurants exclusively for guests of the suites and by giving 24 hours notice, the kitchens will cook anything they choose. Guests of the suites also get access to private decks, private whirlpools and exclusive lounges. The top penthouses even come complete with private elevator access and personal butlers.
Testimony to how enjoyable it is being on the QM2, the length of its transatlantic crossings was increased from six to seven nights last year after surveys showed that guests thought they were too short.
The only downside with being in such a haven of tranquillity is that it makes it harder to stomach the idea of cramming yourself into an airline seat whilst picking at the in-flight food on the way back. Compared to the QM2, the plane ironically seems so old-fashioned.