Transatlantic Travel: a review of Cunard's Queen Mary 2 / by Rachel Nordgren

Transatlantic Travel: a review of Cunard's Queen Mary 2
From personal experience, I now realise that staggering round a transatlantic liner in a dinner jacket with a martini is the normal, rational, reasonable way to cross the Atlantic. Heading for an airport and strapping yourself to a flimsy aluminium tube is an unfortunate and eccentric aberration.
— Mark Smith, from the travel blog The Man in Seat Sixty-One

Inevitably, one of the first questions a European asks us when they see us with Banjo is, “How did he do on the flight over here?” To which we respond, “Actually, we took a ship!”

I had read one too many horror stories about dogs in the cargo holds of planes, we knew it would be so much less stressful for Banjo (and for us), and traveling by ship with a dog ended up being just a few hundred dollars more expensive (we booked during a sale) than flying.

So we figured, why not?

Transatlantic travel by ship is, without a doubt in my mind, the classiest way to go between the States and Europe. There’s something quite elegant about setting sail aboard a majestic vessel, feeling the steady thrum of the massive engines as they propel you into the arms of a new adventure, watching the sky and sea steadily slip by day after day.

Embarking on a “crossing” feels thoroughly glamorous and sophisticated. Even if that sensation is merely the product of cultural nostalgia, years of clever marketing, and our collective tendency to romanticize the Titanic…spending seven days traversing the Atlantic aboard a 151,400 ton marvel of human engineering and ingenuity is still pretty damn cool.

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Before the advent of air travel in the 1950’s, a ship was the only way to get across the Atlantic Ocean. Which means that, for Hans and I, the journey from New York to Southampton felt like a sort of reverse-immigration. Our ancestors sailed into the New York harbor, and a couple hundred years later we were sailing out. We waved goodbye to the Statue of Liberty and watched it fade into the distance, a mirrored reflection of how our forbearers came to the New World.

We were talking with a friend about air travel vs. ocean travel, and while flying is definitely faster (although we did switch time zones one at a time on the ship, helping to avoid the dreaded jet lag) and can be cheaper, it can also feel a bit, well, “abnormal.”

Don’t get me wrong, that can be pretty great. It is amazing that human innovation has advanced to the point that you can get almost anywhere on the globe in less than 24 hours. But traveling by boat allows for a bit of margin, a sense of breathing room that allows you to mentally process your journey at a more natural pace. I for one am looking forward to that processing time when we head back to the States at the end of the year.

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I ought to clarify something: the Queen Mary 2 is an ocean liner, not a cruise ship. The QM2’s hull is constructed with 40% more steel than a cruise ship, has four stabilizers that are each roughly the weight of the US Space Shuttle “Endeavor” (most ships only have two), and was designed with the strength and speed necessary to take on the North Atlantic.

She eats cruise ships for breakfast.

Also? On a transatlantic crossing, you’re not stopping off at lots of exotic locations like you might on a cruise. There are two ports of call: New York and Southampton. That’s it. Your exotic views include water, more water, occasionally some dolphins, and then for a change of scenery there’s some more water.

Personally, we loved it. Even though we sailed in November, the sea was mostly calm and we spent lots of time out on deck, albeit somewhat bundled up. In our modern age of constant connectivity, it was actually refreshing to feel so isolated for a week.

The Queen Mary 2 travels the same Southampton to New York route as the ocean liners of the gone-by golden age of transatlantic travel, and it also sails in the same “lanes” as massive cargo boats. While onboard, your range of visibility is only about 12-13 miles (which is basically nothing in the North Atlantic), so even though you can go days without seeing another ship, the reality is that you’re not totally stranded. The bridge, of course, can “see” for hundreds of miles around with their fancy-pants navigational instruments.

It is almost impossible to be bored on the QM2. There are fifteen restaurants and bars, 24/7 room service, five swimming pools and a smattering of hot tubs, a ballroom, a spa, a theatre, a gorgeous library, and the first planetarium at sea. There are theatre productions and musicals, insightful daily lectures, movie screenings, an art gallery, and a mini shopping mall. You can go to a class for just about everything: fitness, ballroom dancing, how to use Facebook, watercolor painting.

The great English entertainer, Beatrice Lillie, once asked a crew member aboard the original Queen Mary, "When does this place get there?” The ship truly does feel like a floating city. There’s even a glossy, bright red post box in one of the main atriums.

Even though we were staying in the lowest category of stateroom (an interior berth on one of the higher decks), our whole experience aboard the QM2 still felt luxurious. We ate like kings, dining on a scrumptious five-course dinner every night in the gleaming Britannia Restaurant whilst being serenaded by a harpist, utterly immaculate settings on the crisp white linen clad tables. High tea is served daily to the tune of a string quartet in the Queen’s ballroom, complete with enough polished silver and tiny delicacies to give the Ritz a run for its money.

Fun fact: the annual tea consumption aboard the QM2 would fill an Olympic size swimming pool.

As I was reading reviews about the Queen Mary 2, I came across two schools of thought. The majority of people raved about their experience, singing the praises of the ship, the food, the crew, the on-board activities. On the other hand, there were some folks who I could almost see looking down their noses at the rest of us through the Internet, complaining that “the whole thing has gone to the dogs since they let the riff-raff in.”

Here’s what I think: if you can find something to grumble about after crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, you are likely either a massive jerk, or you are a crew member who has had to put up with the massive jerks with a smile on your face.

We have officially booked our return crossing from Southampton to New York for December 2018, and all three of us are really looking forward to it. Well, Banjo would be, except his concept of time is rather limited.

Find out more about Cunard's Queen Mary 2 right here.

Have you ever considered traveling by ship? Why or why not?

Image sources here and here.