Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
You may be facing some unpredictable weather, but there’s something romantic and adventurous about this classic ocean voyage.
This should be one of life’s essential travel experiences. Crossing the 3,000 miles (4,800km) of the North Atlantic by ship is a great way to avoid the hassles of airports. I have done it 158 times and always enjoy it immensely - and unlike flying, there’s no jet lag. Yet the days when ships were built specifically for crossings are almost gone. The only one offering a regularly scheduled service is Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 (QM2), built with a thick hull designed to survive the worst weather the North Atlantic has to offer.
It’s a leisurely seven-day voyage, on five of which the clocks will be advanced (eastbound) or put back (westbound) by one hour. You can take as many bags as you want, and even your pets - QM2’s 12 kennels are overseen by a full-time kennel master, and there is an outdoor walking area. Book well in advance, if you want to travel with your dog, however, as there are limited numbers.
The 2,620 passenger QM2 is the largest ocean liner ever built, and a destination on its own. New in 2004, it measures 148,528 gross tons. It has a wide walk-around promenade deck outdoors, and its forward section is under cover from the weather or wind (three times around is 6,102 ft/1,860 m, or 1.1 miles/1.6km).
By comparison, QM2’s smaller half-sisters Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria both measure about 90,000 gross tons. The QE2, which was retired in 2008, measured 70,327 gross tons - the ill-fated Titanic was a mere 46,328 gross tons. The difference is that QM2 is a real, thick-hulled ocean liner, designed to withstand the pressures of the North Atlantic and its unpredictable weather.
The North Atlantic can be as smooth as glass or as rough as old boots, although in my experience it’s rare for the weather to be bad for an entire crossing. But when it is a bit choppy, its heavy beauty really is mesmerizing - never, ever boring. However, make sure you always use the handrails when you move around, and use the elevators rather than the stairs.
When the ship is under way at high speed (above 25 knots - about 30 land miles per hour) on a windy day, a cabin balcony is pretty useless, and the promenade deck is a challenging place to be - if you can even get outside, that is! Sometimes, visibility is low (think pea soup fog), and you’ll hear the ship’s horn - a powerful, haunting sound - bellowing every two minutes.
If you can, book a balcony cabin on the port side on westbound crossings, and on the starboard side on eastbound crossings - if the weather is kind and the sun is shining, you’ll be in the sun this way.
Queen Mary 2 leaving New York City.
During the crossing
Once Queen Mary 2 has left port, and settled down at sea on the second day, the natural rhythm of life slows down, and you begin to understand that time spent at sea, with few distractions, is special indeed, and completely different from any ‘normal’ cruise. It allows you some well-earned ‘me’ time - to pamper yourself in the Canyon Ranch Spa, to attend a lecture by a well-known author or other personality, or simply to relax and read a book from the superb library on board. Cunard has a list of ‘101 Things To Do On A Queen Mary 2 Transatlantic Crossing’ - just in case you really do want to be active.
Apart from distinguished guest speakers, QM2 has a wide variety of leisure facilities, including a superb planetarium (several different shows, for which you’ll need to make a reservation) and a 1,094-seat theater. There are acting classes, bridge (the card-playing kind) groups, big-band-style dance sessions, movies, exercise, cooking, and computer classes, so you’ll never be bored in mid-ocean. There are now usually three formal (tuxedo) nights and four informal nights during a 7-night crossing, when elegance prevails. The gentlemen dance hosts are always kept busy by the number of solo female passengers who love to go dancing.
One of its most used facilities is the ship’s outstanding library and bookshop - it offers over 8,000 books in 132 cabinets that have to be locked by hand - central locking was never part of the ocean liner setup - in several languages and staffed by full-time librarians from maritime library specialists Ocean Books. The bookstore not only sells books, but also Cunard memorabilia and souvenirs.
There’s always a cozy chair to curl up on to read, or just admire the sea, and, if the weather’s decent, you can even swim outside; this, however, tends to be rare -except in the height of summer - because of the ship’s speed and wind speed.
One of the classic things to do is enjoy the typically British afternoon teatime, complete with cakes, scones, pastries, and finger sandwiches - all served by a rather hurried white-gloved staff - together with tea, and accompanied by live, light classical music.
The problem is that you’ll find there simply isn’t enough time to do everything, and there’s no way you’ll ever get bored aboard this ship - the archetypal ocean liner.
You can also get married in mid-Atlantic during a crossing. Cunard Line started its now immensely popular ‘Weddings At Sea’ program in 2012. The first couple to be married by the ship’s captain was Dr. William DeLuca (from the US) and Kelly Lewis (from the UK). They couldn’t decide whether to marry in the UK or the US, so they chose halfway between the two (it was their first crossing, and, indeed, their first-ever vacation at sea). The couple chose Cunard Line because of the company’s ‘distinguished history of transatlantic crossings.’ Note that only one wedding per day can be arranged, with a time of 11am or 3:30pm. Ceremonies take place only on days at sea, and every detail is planned by an onboard wedding coordinator. The cost starts at $2,500.
A memorable arrival
The day before you arrive in New York, Southampton, or (occasionally) in Hamburg, Germany, the disembarkation procedures will arrive in your suite or cabin. If you are in a hurry to disembark, you can opt to carry your own bags by registering for ‘Express Disembarkation.’
Arriving in New York is one of cruising’s iconic experiences, but you’ll need to be up early. You’ll see the lights of Long Island on your starboard side at about 4:30am, while the Verrazzano Narrows suspension bridge, at the entrance to New York harbor, will be dead ahead. QM2 usually passes the State of Liberty at about 6am - when a cabin with a balcony on the port side will give you the best views - and then makes a right turn opposite the statue towards the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. On the occasions when the ship berths at Pier 90 in Manhattan at the Passenger Terminal, it will turn left towards the Hudson River - you’ll get the best views of the Manhattan skyline at this point from a cabin with balcony on the starboard side. Arrival always creates a sense of anticipation of what lies ahead, and the feeling that, after a week of being cosseted, you will be thrust back into the fast lane with full force.
Leaving New York/arriving in Southampton
If you sail from Red Hook Point in Brooklyn, the last thing you’ll notice before entering the ship is the overhead banner that declares: ‘Leaving Brooklyn? Fuhgeddaboudit!’ And that, dear reader, is precisely what a transatlantic crossing will have you do.
For arrival in Southampton, QM2 will usually round the Isle of Wight at about 4:30am, and be berthed alongside in Southampton by about 6:30am. Immigration is upon arrival in either New York or Southampton.
Other cruise ships crossing the Atlantic are really little more than repositioning cruises - a way of moving ships that cruise the Mediterranean in summer to the Caribbean in winter, and vice versa, usually in spring and fall. Most of these ships cross the Atlantic using the sunny southern route, departing from southern ports such as Fort Lauderdale, San Juan, or Barbados, and ending the journey in Lisbon, Genoa, or Copenhagen via the Azores or the Canary Islands, off the coast of northern Africa.
These repositioning trips take longer - between eight and 12 days - but they do offer an alternative way of experiencing the romance and adventure of a crossing - with a number of sea days for total relaxation. Note that when the weather is not so good, the outdoor swimming pools will probably be out of use on repositioning crossings.