IT ISN’T often you can say you really enjoyed travelling from A to B. Whether it’s by air, road or rail there are delays, stress and the inevitability of being crammed into a seat for hours on end.
But there is a way to avoid all that.
I’ve just arrived in New York after a full night’s sleep in a bed that wasn’t just flat, it was king-size. The food on the way was exquisite and rivalled that found in the best city centre 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 fun they were having. The best part? It only costs £499.
There is a catch. I didn’t travel to New York on a private plane but on the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner and it took seven nights to get here. Unlike most cruises, which stop off at ports of call on their way to a destination, the QM2 spends most of the year travelling directly between New York and Southampton. It’s the only cruise liner making scheduled transatlantic crossings and the tremendous sense of occasion on board reflects this exclusivity.
It begins as the QM2 leaves from Southampton. It seems like most of the 3,000 passengers are gathered on the top deck, sipping champagne with the QM2’s famous red and black funnel towering over. Her 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.
The smell of polished decking is thick in the air and, adding to the sense of adventure, people packed into local ferries wave and cheer as the QM2 sets sail.
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 nigh-mythical group of tourists which buys jewellery in the Swarovski store, clothing from the Hermès outlet and sundries from the on-board Harrods concession. However, it’s the most unusual facilities which best convey the scale of the 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 as far as the eye can see, with an abundance of cream carpets and beech walls. It all sparkles.
There is an aura of Vegas glitz throughout the QM2, with huge statues of Greek gods straddling the planetarium entrance and two outdoor glass lifts rising up the side of the ship. If you’ve ever felt queasy about using the glass lift on the exterior of a building, it’s best to avoid these as all there is between you and the Atlantic is what seems like a particularly thin pane of glass.
Sadly, there are very few public areas on the QM2 where guests can see from one side of the ship to the other and the consequence of the lack of wide open spaces is that it can be tough to remember your way around. An exception is the QM2’s flagship 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 eatery, which serves thousands of people every day, will serve top-quality food for seven nights in a row. The menu changes daily yet still manages to serve fresh fruit seven nights into the crossing.
All the food and drink, except for alcohol, is included in the price, you can even get room service and relax in bed all day, should the notion strike you. The mid-range cabins are like rooms in a deluxe hotel and are kitted out with 21st-century touches. There are UK sockets in cabins and wi-fi available throughout the ship. It is even possible to use mobile phones but remember the bill – text messages alone cost around £1 to send and calls to UK landlines are around £1.75 per minute. In-cabin television shows the latest movies and live US channels. However, this is nothing on the view from the ship that awaits you every day.
Through a glass-walled balcony in your cabin you get an uninterrupted vista of the ocean. Staring out into the horizon while listening to the waves crashing against the ship is mesmerising. Adding to this hypnotic effect is the fact that the QM2 is equipped with hi-tech stabilising equipment, which means that 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 “white horses”.
Another welcome bonus is that during five of the nights on the way to New York, clocks are set back an hour to compensate for America being five hours behind the UK. It means you get an extra hour in bed almost every day, which is easy to get used to.
The bulk of the crowd onboard are silver haired Americans but there is also a large number of younger couples and the good price is undoubtedly a factor in this.
Unlike airline seats, which get more expensive as the departure date approaches, QM2 tickets fall in price as it is less likely that people will book a seven-day journey on spec. A few days before the departure date, QM2 cabin rates often drop to recession-busting levels of below £500 per person, including return airfare. Standard rates start at £999, which would be reasonable for the seven nights of accommodation, never mind the food and drink. There aren’t many five-star hotels which offer that kind of value but this experience isn’t just for those on a budget.
Moulin Rouge movie director Baz Luhrmann, Star Wars star Carrie Fisher and actor John Cleese have all given talks on QM2 crossings and hosted drinks with the passengers. Seeing stars aboard makes the experience seem even more like a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Scottish racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart is a regular guest on the liner and describes it as “very spoiling, but most relaxing”. He adds that “the accommodation onboard the Queen Mary 2 is probably the finest of any ship in the world. The absence of jetlag is an extra bonus and since it takes six days and seven nights to complete the crossing, the time change is looked after in a very comfortable way.”
One of the most unique onboard features is an ingenious tiered swimming pool. It has a natural wave-like motion because water picks up even the slightest movement 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.
For something a little less active, try sitting in the hot tub watching the seascape through the glass canopy. It couldn’t be more different to being squeezed into an airline seat. If you’ve ever felt like you needed a holiday to recover from tiredness due to a transatlantic flight then the QM2 could get quite addictive.
Compared to the QM2, the plane seems so old-fashioned.
Advertised fares on the QM2 start at £999 per person, tel: 0843 374 2224 or visit www.cunard.co.uk