‘Coming home’ is not normally the highlight of a holiday – especially after five glorious days in New York.
What could top a stay in one of the world’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities, with its dazzling sights, dizzying skyscrapers and fascinating people from a wide mix of countries? Certainly not hanging round an airport and shuffling on to a cramped plane for a long overnight flight with a big dose of jetlag to follow.
No, by far the most serene way to travel back from the Big Apple to Britain is by Cunard’s flagship Queen Mary 2, built specifically for that 3,600-mile, seven-day crossing.
Leaving Brooklyn to the strains of ‘New York, New York’ as you sip a welcome champagne and watch the Manhattan skyline slowly fade into the distance is the start of a voyage not only across the ocean but into the past – a time of impeccable waiter service, opulent furnishings, grand corridors, sweeping staircases and, above all, an unhurried pace away from most of the electronic buzz that increasingly dominates our lives.
Yet an unbroken week at sea, without the usual cruise distractions of ports and shore excursions – not even land – doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Far from it – we packed a selection of books and a Kindle but were far too busy to spend much time, as we had imagined beforehand, lazily reading in our spacious and comfortable room. For a start, it’s worth making the effort to get to breakfast, with a selection of eggs, omelettes, kippers, haddock, full English or all American. Then there’s often a lecture or two, a show at the planetarium – yes, there’s a planetarium – films, classes, quizzes, wine tastings, competitions, meetings and much more to choose from.
Just walking around the ship takes time, especially if you wander on to deck and gaze at the horizon, scanning the waves for wildlife. Inside, there are unexpected diversions – artwork, photographs, boards telling you about the ship and Cunard’s history – and often new rooms or spaces to relax in or explore. There is a huge library, where you can happily lose yourself for hours, and a well-stocked bookshop.
Of course, there is a spa, gym, casino, theatres, shops and ballrooms – even a nightclub for the young at heart. QM2 has refused to travel too far down the road of modern casual dress – most nights are black tie formal, even ‘informal’ still involves ‘gentlemen’ wearing a jacket. But, with plenty of time to get ready, dressing up can be satisfying and fun. And putting more effort into your attire has a, possibly surprising, side-effect – everyone seems to act with the manners and decorum of a bygone age.
Around us, the staff moved discreetly, picking up quickly our preferences and favourite dishes and interrupting only when necessary.
One night we abandoned our table in the Princess Grill to try the even more sophisticated dining at Todd English – a delicious succession of Mediterranean dishes in a top-end, intimate restaurant.
Of course, you normally want to be more relaxed during the day. Dressed in jeans, we often found ourselves having lunch at the Golden Lion pub where you can tuck in to such traditional British dishes as cottage pie, fish and chips, ploughman’s lunch, steak and mushroom pie – or chicken tikka masala – washed down with ales including Old Speckled Hen, London Pride, Old Thumper or Boddington’s. The only grating thing for me was the sports screens on the walls.
If, instead, you fancy a coffee and snack, Sir Samuel’s is open throughout the day or you can pop into the Kings Court buffet. Then, come night – and before or after dinner – there’s a selection of bars including Veuve Clicquot champagne, the Winter Garden, the Chart Room and – our favourite – the Commodore Club.
Almost every day at noon, the clocks moved forward an hour as we headed east. But we never met the high seas we expected. Our transatlantic crossing was calm, with the 151,000-tonne liner gliding through any heaving waves, though the weather was still too overcast to take advantage of the pools or cafe on deck.
For us, it was the ultimate pre-Christmas shopping trip – a first-class British Airways flight from Heathrow, five days at the luxurious New York Palace hotel close to all the Fifth Avenue stores, and no worries about how much pieces of extra luggage we had as we boarded the gigantic Queen Mary 2.
All too soon, it seemed, our transatlantic voyage was over and we were docking in Southampton, at a civilised hour; refreshed, free from jetlag and ready for the drive home, with tales to tell not just of the crazy modernity of the Big Apple but also an ocean full of memories of an elegant, timeless and traditional journey back.
For more details of transatlantic crossings on Queen Mary 2, please see the Cunard website.
Some of the other articles I have written about QM2 and transatlantic sailings: