Diary of an Accidental Transatlantic Cruiser

Cruise journals are usually penned by obsessives or skeptics. But for one fluke passenger, a journey on the last remaining ocean liner during the Queen’s Jubilee was full of surprises.

Being a weak swimmer, weak of digestion, and also frankly spiritually weak, I initially resisted the idea of boarding a giant ship that would take the Titanic’s route from England to the U.S. Eating ship food, risking illness at sea, staring into the abyss of the ocean for seven days, potentially drowning in a tragic accident—no thank you. But my partner pointed out that by the time we had figured out our schedules for a family visit to London, ship passage back to the States was looking similar to flight prices, and would include a week’s worth of food and amenities. He promised that it was a quiet trip with very few activities and absolutely no water slides—a calming experience after a stressful year.

And so this is how I found myself boarding the Queen Mary 2 (the ship) in Southampton, England this May, the same week that Queen Elizabeth (the person) celebrated her 75th year of royal rule.

By now, the figure of the person that goes on a cruise despite "hating cruises" and writes about it is as ubiquitous as that of the perennial cruise lover. As its fans will remind you, the QM2 is not a mere ‘cruise ship,’ but rather the world’s last operational ocean liner. She is specifically built to withstand rough voyages across the open ocean at considerable speed relative to size, unlike cruise ships, which often sail more slowly along coastlines from port to port. As a liner, the ship is built in the image of her foremothers—including the RMS Mauretania and RMS Queen Mary, commuter ships regularly making the crossing between England and New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of which were ultimately used as troopships in World War II.  

That history made me curious, as did the ship’s evergreen role in American cinema (despite its English origins). In 1966’s Assault on a Queen, one Frank Sinatra uses all his acting skills to lead a group of thieves scheming to complete a heist on board the RMS Queen Mary (the QM2’s predecessor). In the 2020 film Let Them All Talk, Meryl Streep plays a novelist who cannot fly and therefore must take the QM2 to an awards ceremony in London along with her editor, nephew and old friends (dark comedy ensues). And most importantly, the opening wedding scene of 1998’s The Parent Trap was highly Cunard centric: set on the Queen Elizabeth and filmed on the RMS Queen Mary.

More recently, during the pandemic, cruising became emblematic of the worst kind of traveling decision, with ships popping up as floating COVID-19 incubators. Yet with everyone required to be vaccinated and present a negative test just prior to boarding, no stops on the way to New York, and the option to quarantine in my stateroom, the risks seemed to me about the same as they had been in London, where I’d just visited museums and restaurants without guarantees of the vaccination or testing status of anyone else.

And so we walked up a gangplank on Sunday afternoon.

Monday

8 am: Wake in the dark after a full night’s sleep—we boarded late yesterday afternoon and have already unpacked. Open the blackout curtains to the bright light and the open ocean. There are many types of rooms on the ship, from ones with no windows, to partial views on a lower deck, to full views on a higher deck, all the way to fancy ‘princess and queen’ staterooms and duplex suites at a much, much higher price point. We decided to get a "Britannia Club" which I’d describe as the upper ‘economy plus’ of staterooms. The room is twice the size of my (very small) bedroom in Boston with a bigger bed, bathroom, and more closet space. The far wall is simply floor to ceiling glass doors leading out onto a glass-fronted balcony with an uninterrupted view of the water. The combination of exposure to the open ocean and enclosure in this cubby is really surprisingly pleasant. I feel secure.

I make an espresso in the room’s little coffee maker, then get back into bed and continue to read the book I brought with me: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. The book is terrifying, but it’s nice to look out at the ocean every few pages to remind myself of the true terror, which at this point is deceptively calm. I intuit that I should be learning something from looking at the ocean so much, though I’m not sure what—the passage of time is relentless? We are all one in the great current of Being? Something something chaos? Hopefully it comes to me soon.

8:30 am: In the midst of these thoughts I look at my husband, who is happily reading a book called The Man with No Face which he pulled from the ship’s library. The QM2 has the largest library at sea, mostly bestsellers (such as the aforementioned book about the man who has no face). Hot tip: hit the library as soon as you board, so as to get the first pick of books, which seem to go quickly. I brought several of my own too. If you want to read and write for seven days straight, this is your ship.

1 pm: Head to the games corridor on the second deck. In a single line are several square green felt-top tables, each surrounded by four cream colored chairs and positioned right up against the ship’s giant riveted windows. These tables are the closest you can get to sea level as a guest on the ship, and the waves are rolling and dynamic so close up. I learn how to play Scrabble at the ripe age of 34, and quickly lose to my husband five times in a row—please note that this is because I am Mesmerized By The Ocean, not because I am Bad at Words.

9 pm: Hit up the slot machines in the ship’s tiny and strangely out of place ‘casino.’ Meet a lovely older woman who tells us she tries to be on a cruise ship the majority of the year and has been all over the world. She mentions she will likely die on such a cruise, and soon. We agree that dying on this ship wouldn’t be the worst thing. She’s got six free drink tickets because she’s been playing the slots a while tonight, and offers us drinks on her tab. We talk about arranging a behind the scenes poker game on the ship—she’s done it before, low buy-ins and a lot of fun. I invite her to drinks with us in the next few days. We wait for three days, but she never calls.

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Tuesday

8:30 am: We decide to forgo room service breakfast and check out the Kings Court buffet, the most casual dining option onboard. There, I eat an entire plate of baked beans with a single piece of toast for breakfast in five minutes flat, all while repeating the words ROLL THAT BEAUTIFUL BEAN FOOTAGE like the man in that Bush’s Baked Beans commercial.  

9 am: Recline with our books on an outer deck with wooden chaise and a clear view of the ocean, which sparkles today.

10:30 am: Trivia break at the Carinthia coffee lounge. A couple sitting across from us isn’t playing but does commiserate with us as we stumble miserably through the questions ourselves. They watch as I draw multiple hexagons and octagons in an effort to determine the shape of a stop sign from memory (question 2). None of the drawings look anything like a stop sign, but the couple are gracious enough to not mention it. Thanks, new friends! Talk of pervasive internet problems filters through from other tables—many have been unable to connect and are shocked there is no high speed internet in the middle of the ocean, as promised by the marketing materials. If they had read cruisecritic.com and all the message board reviews before getting on they’d know the internet on this ship is its worst feature.     

11 am: Head to the very top deck where the outdoor sports are. Several pairs of guests are playing shuffleboard in the open sun, others are playing with their dogs who’ve been let out of the kennels (pets are welcome on this journey), and one guest is practicing handstands in front of their phone camera. I sit on a bench and begin a stretching regimen, feeling right at home. The smoke stack is in direct view and the sun lights everything up so beautifully—with shifts in clouds through the day, there are many moods to experience on board. I feel warmed to the bones and happy to be alive. Walking back to my room, there is more talk of the internet. I thank God that I cannot access Twitter or my email.

3 pm: It’s warm and sunny enough to try the outdoor pool. It’s positioned at the back of the ship, so you can sit in a hot tub and watch the wake. We don’t get in, but we do drink mojitos, and—you guessed it—read our books.

10 pm: A comedian who is advertised as having his "own show on the BBC" performs. The theater on the ship is gorgeous—two tiered seating full of red velvet banquettes, no bad view. I am excited to experience entertainment that is not a book. He makes a joke about the ship’s internet. I fall asleep during his set and am glad we are seated far from the stage and out of the comedian’s view; I don’t think my ego would survive being roasted at sea. My husband reminds me that in three days time I will have to attend a variety show full of musical theater classics in the same space. A single tear falls from my eye.

Walking back to my room, I hear more internet complaints…I consider simply jumping off the ship to escape the discourse.

Wednesday

12 pm: Lunch at the ship’s restaurant, where each "Britannia Club" stateroom (or group of guests traveling together) is assigned a table for the duration of the voyage—that way your table is available whenever you choose to come for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The fanciest rooms eat in their own separate "Queen" and "Princess" restaurants. The regular Britannia restaurant, where the majority of guests eat, is a grand Art Deco style room with high ceilings and colored glass ceiling and wall mosaics, but has set dinner times—if you’re a 6:30 table, you’ve got to show up at 6:30. 

Our own table in the "Britannia Club" restaurant is near the kitchen doors and the area where the wine glasses are stored. It’s not the most coveted table—the window seats looking right onto the waves are. But we love it. The location allows us to quickly make acquaintances with the staff and spend some time chatting. Between these conversations and others across the ship, I start to learn that labor conditions on the QM2 vary greatly depending on staff tier and type of work, and that Covid has radically changed the nature of ship work across the industry.

2 pm: Tentatively venture to the ship’s gym, which is well-stocked with machines and weights. I do a little cardio on the rowing machine to avoid seasickness on a treadmill, then lift weights alongside several strong-looking men. I feel accomplished. We did it, boys! Many other guests are walking around the open deck outside the gym to get their steps in. Walking back to my room, I hear more internet complaints…I consider simply jumping off the ship to escape the discourse.

3 pm: We have booked a two hour slot in the spa’s hydrotherapy area. This involves a pool full of different jets and bubbles to massage away our worries, as well as a few sauna rooms. We soak, remarking repeatedly that "we feel so relaxed," a comment I’m sure the other guests loved to hear so many times.

7 pm: Dinner back at our table. This is the most old-fashioned and luxurious feeling part of the trip. White tablecloths, silver table settings, and small white flowers in a tiny silver vase. The chairs are blue velvet and look lovely against the faux dark wood paneling and the sea. The sommelier speaks Tamil (my language) and gives us great tips on ordering wine.

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Thursday

3:30 pm: It’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee or maybe her birthday, and there is much made of it. Good for her I guess! The second floor is blocked off for a ‘street party’ afternoon tea dotted with ice sculptures. I am reminded this is an extremely British ship. I stay in my room and nap for two hours.  

6 pm: Take a super hot shower (the water pressure isn’t great, but the temperature control is perfect). Then it’s time to get dressed for the night while a Spanish dubbed version of Dear Evan Hansen plays on our stateroom TV. Just like the film’s titular character, I wear a full face of makeup to mask the ravages of time. Pre-dinner cocktail at the Commodore Club, located on an upper deck at the front of the ship, a bar with an incredible view where it seems impossible to not sway and wobble along with the waves.

8 pm: Attend the best performance we’ll see all week: Roy G Hemmings, formerly of The Drifters. I realize I chatted with him days ago out on the deck. He performs with two backup singers who are also wonderful. 10/10, would see again and will definitely buy this man’s album.

11:30 pm: In my Cunard (TM) robe and slippers, I look out onto the ocean which is completely dark on this moonless night. The waves are now about three to four meters from trough to peak and the wind is roaring. There are whitecaps dotting the water close enough to be lit up by the ship, but the further out to the horizon I look, I can’t see the difference between sky and sea. At midnight, the Captain says, we will sail almost directly above the wreckage of the Titanic—this doesn’t happen on every voyage, as the ship’s exact route across the North Atlantic is determined by weather conditions. You might think floating above the Titanic’s remains on a pitch black night would scare me. But while the Queen Mary 2 is the world’s last operational ocean liner, it is of course nothing like the Titanic, in that the biggest problem facing its guests seems to be WiFi.

Friday

2 pm: Get a massage at the onboard spa. "Why are you on this ship? Aren’t you kind of young for this? It’s so quiet," a spa staff member asks. "Yes," I reply. 

9 pm: Everyone is dressed in 1920s style formalwear, and there is a live band—formal ballroom dancing has been happening every night. We pop into the Queens Room to watch guests foxtrot to a crooner singing "My Baby Takes the Morning Train," and though we’d avoided ballroom up until this very moment of our lives, we both express regret that we can’t participate when we see how fun it actually looks. We head up to the top deck to watch the sunset over the ocean.

Saturday

10 am: After breakfast we take a walk around the promenade deck. Two guests are staring eagerly into the distance of the water. I follow their gaze to see a group of dolphins following the ship very closely. I scream with excitement, scaring my husband.  

We are a little under 200 miles to the island of Nantucket. Tomorrow we dock in New York, where we’ll sail under the Verrazano Bridge before sunrise. We’ve gained an hour almost every night, so waking up early won’t be a problem. For the first time, as the saying goes, I don’t need a vacation from my vacation.  

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