The British couple — she in a long black dress, he in a traditional tux — leaned against the elevator's polished wood paneling as they headed back to their cabin after an evening performance in the main showroom. Embarrassed at my casual clothes and running shoes, I stammered, "We decided not to dress up and went to the buffet instead of the main dining room."
"Lucky you," she said. "There are 46 more formal nights for us."
"You're on the entire world cruise?" I asked.
They were — all 103 days of it. We were not.
Of the 2,500 passengers who boarded the QM2 in January 2011 in Southampton, England; New York; or Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; only 530 were making the entire voyage — from Great Britain or the United States to Barbados, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa, Australia, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, India, Dubai, Egypt, Italy, Monte Carlo and back home.
The rest of us signed up for shorter legs, or segments, of the big cruise. About 1,700 of us were sailing to Cape Town, South Africa, with port calls in Barbados; Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Montevideo, Uruguay, before seven nights at sea to South Africa.
Deals had lured us. Big ones.
My husband, Keith, and I paid $1,699 each — less than $75 a day — for 23 days to Cape Town in a 174-square-foot inside (read: windowless) stateroom. Early booking brochure rates were $6,000 a person. I found my deal almost five months earlier through email notifications I'd signed up for on Cunard.com, websites of other lines and cruisecritic.com for the Jan. 13 departure date. I never saw a lower rate.
FOR THE RECORD:
Departure date: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly stated in the previous paragragh that the departure date was Jan. 31.
Cunard launched its first world cruise in 1922. Now at least seven other lines — Holland America, Princess, Costa, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Silversea — also sail the globe or undertake what they call grand voyages.
Ray Rouse, Cunard's entertainment director on the QM2 who began his sailing career in the early 1970s with Holland America, recalls that world cruises in those days were always full. Discounts and segments weren't on the radar.
But with consolidation of cruise lines in the 1990s and a plethora of new ships, the lines had to get creative. Cruise line representatives I spoke with said as many as 30% of passengers on a world cruise are "all arounders."
"They want to get away for the winter, said Bruce Good, director of public relations for the upscale Seabourn line, "and [they] see a real value in world cruising as opposed to taking a condo or keeping a winter home."
Some guests are booking segments in nonconsecutive order, said Brad Ball, a spokesman for Silversea. For example, someone might book 16 days from Fort Lauderdale to Rio de Janeiro, then spend more time in Brazil before flying to Cape Town to re-board, he said.
Younger cruisers also are joining regulars, who usually are retirees 60 and older, Ball said. "With BlackBerrys, iPads and iPhones, working professionals no longer have to be tied to an office," he added.
Life aboard world cruises, typically from January to April, has changed just as radically. Wealthy older women cruisers often booked a second cabin for their clothes and tried to one-up each other by tossing elaborate private parties, a cruise director once told me. Bridge players were as likely to stay aboard playing cards as to tour the port cities, even the exotic ones.
Our cruise? Passengers filled the planetarium for the frequent programs; they watched movies and then discussed them with the movie's producer; they listened to lectures on South African politics. Pub quizzes were noisy competitions. There were acting and dancing classes. Sometimes it was hard to find a recumbent bike in the huge gym because of those interested in keeping "cruise creep" off their waistlines. Still others grabbed spaces in Apple computer classes, so popular that the early arrivals grabbed all the space.
Classes can be a big enticement on any line. Crystal, for example, is known for its array of inventive courses and guest speakers. Baseball great Hank Aaron and Ken Walsh, White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, are among Crystal's speakers.
Most ships invite experts on the history and culture of the countries visited, but some also include celebrities to interest "mature" passengers. Silversea's personalities this season include broadcaster Hugh Downs and humorist author Bill Bryson; Seabourn's list includes composer Marvin Hamlisch, former Florida governor and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and CNN's United Nations correspondent Richard Roth.
Today's cruisers may like the nostalgia, but they also want the conveniences of 21st century life. Virtually all ships have wireless Internet and cellular phone service, but Internet reception can be sketchy and costly. I bought a 16-hour Internet package for $187.50. Three days before disembarkation, 10 minutes remained. I signed up for more.
We were so into relaxing that it was a week before my husband and I ate in the Britannia, the two-story dining room where most passengers dine, usually dressed up.
The first week, we chose casual dinners in the Italian, Asian or Carvery restaurants; one provided a free buffet every night, the others charged $10 for excellent service and food. There also were cooking lessons with dinner included, and the celebrity chef Todd English restaurant — $10 for lunch, $20 for dinner — where suit and tie were apropos at night. All of these events, attractions and such are available to every passenger.
It is only in dining that Cunard still has a caste system. On our cruise, 320 higher-paying passengers occupying the larger staterooms and the suites ate in one of two separate but adjacent dining rooms — the Queen's Grill and the Princess Grill — with a common lounge that is anything but; it's off-limits to everyone else.
Doing laps around deck 7, I peeked in the windows of both and saw orchids on the table and silver service plates under silver-rimmed china. In the cocktail lounge, formally dressed passengers leaned back in upholstered chairs and sipped drinks while nibbling on fancy hors d'oeuvres.
But Grill passengers often leave their cushy dining rooms to eat with us regular folk at breakfast and lunch buffets.
The laundry rooms (the detergent is free) also are great equalizers. Even Grill passengers have to wait for their dryer cycles to finish.
In the end, all of us — even the great unwashed — benefited from the QM2's offerings, whether we were on for 23 days or 103 days. Each of us was challenged to find our own shipboard rhythm. Eight books, many naps and a host of activities later, I'm happy to report we found the beat.