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Cruising, Agatha Christie style

Lots of people die ironically nasty deaths in the bucolic English countryside, at least in the popular British TV series "Midsomer Murders" and in many of the much-loved 80-plus mystery novels of Dame Agatha Christie.

We know because we're addicted to murder and mayhem in the British Isles and have watched every episode of the 14-year run of the "Midsomer" series, and we have faithfully followed frumpy Miss Jane Marple and pompous Hercule Poirot, creatures of the Queen of Crime's fertile mind.

But our knowledge has been from afar, from 3,000 miles across the pond, so we decided the best way for a pair of rough-edged New Yorkers to ease their way into the criminal British mind-set was to plan a "surf and turf" vacation — cross the Atlantic aboard Cunard's quintessentially British Queen Mary 2 ocean liner, built in 2003, to prepare us for a drive along England's south coast. There we would pursue Christie's trail from Torquay in Devon, where she was born and lived in the years before she wrote voluminously, to the Burgh Island Hotel, a very posh Art Deco hotel off the tip of Bigbury-on-Sea. In that hotel she was inspired to write "Ten Little Indians," also known as "And Then There Were None."

Our choice of QM2 also was appropriate to the mood and time of Dame Agatha's books and life. The shy and ever-modest author was born at the end of the Victorian era in 1890 and grew to maturity in Edwardian times and the Jazz Age.

Crossing on the tastefully appointed flagship sets your clock back to a time of luxury and refined dining. On a QM2 trans-Atlantic, for example, formal wear is required four nights of seven. Indeed, the 2,620-passenger vessel feels like a well-to-do London estate where even the entertainment displays typical Anglican understatement. No Vegas revues or plumed dancers.

For example, after dinner one evening, about 50 guests were invited into the private Queens Grill Lounge for a harp recital and poetry readings. Lectures also are integral to the QM2 agenda. In one dubbed "Molecules of Murder," we learned that poisons were the weapons of choice prior to modern chemistry because they were undetectable.

Not that poison would necessarily transition to English food, but the bad rap the English get for their cooking was nowhere in evidence.

We had nothing to grumble about with the gourmet dining experience in either the Princess Grill, reserved for suite passengers, or in the Britannia, the main restaurant for all other passengers.

Ritual, too, plays its part. Each afternoon at 4, we splurged on scones and clotted cream at the line's white-gloved tea service, which offers 15 varieties of tea.

Then it was on to turf. Docking in Southampton, England, we rented a pint-size car and wended our way toward Torquay, one of three villages along the so-called English Riviera, a slip of coastline blessed with mild winters, gentle breezes and a rainbow of subtropical plants.

At Victorian Torquay, a shrine to the Queen of Crime, we stayed at the still elegant Grand Hotel just below Suite 216, where Agatha honeymooned with aviator husband Archie Christie on Christmas Day in 1914.

When visiting Christie's seaside honeymoon suite (only one room in her day), we had the sense of communing with the author. Indeed, walking along the same beach where Dame Agatha swam as a child only helped intensify her presence.

It was in Torquay that the novelist, on a bet with her sister, began her prodigious writing output, said Joan Nott, an intimate of Christie's daughter Rosalind and founder of the official Agatha Christie Mile Tour that guides visitors through the author's life in this beachside resort, something akin to Coney Island meets Monte Carlo.

At Torre Abbey, a medieval monastery built more than 900 years ago, we saw an assortment of poisonous plants used by the author in her novels — foxglove for digitalis, poppy for morphine, ornamental rhubarb for deadly oxalic acid.

Clues to Christie's personality abound in the author's lush 375-acre estate at Greenway in Brixham, which became the family's homestead with her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archeologist whose travels inspired such novels as "Death on the Nile."

Now part of the National Trust, the estate, a short drive from Torquay, has recently opened to the public.

Though Christie had amassed great wealth by the time she bought her estate in 1938, the house is quite modest. Her presence is made tangible by the upholstered chair in the library to which she retired daily after breakfast; it sits in the same spot.

The private tidal island of Burgh remains another Christie stop. A cloud-white Art Deco hotel sits just below a promontory separated from mainland Bigbury-on-Sea by a spit of beach.

Built by millionaire Archibald Nettlefold just before the Depression, the hotel served the likes of the Duke of Windsor and Noel Coward and continues to cater to the cricket crowd. Even if Christie had not written "Ten Little Indians" there, this place is period-piece perfect.

"You can feel the ghost of Poirot, the cigarette holders, the laughter," observed the hotel's longtime bartender Gary McBar. (Seriously, McBar.)

At first blush, our island mates appeared a bit frosty or, indeed, extremely proper, but after cocktails and dinner, a feisty Edinburgh judge peeled back the facade and tinkled the ivories till the wee hours, while we all sang vintage songs, the words of which hardly any of us remembered.

Agatha would find no mystery in our pleasures, and we'd gladly follow in her footsteps again.

ctc-travel@tribune.com

If you go

(Rates are in dollars but will vary with the rate of exchange, except for Cunard's quoted fares.)

The Queen Mary 2 regularly makes trans-Atlantic crossings from New York City to Southampton, England, and reverse with one-way fares, excluding air, starting at $1,000 per person for an inside cabin, double occupancy (cunard.com). Return by air from Heathrow not included.

To explore the English Riviera and Agatha Christie's haunts, consider a car rental, running about $350 for five days, including insurance at Thrifty Car Rental (thrifty.com).

For an extensive guide and overview of Dame Christie sites in Devon, including maps, visit tinyurl.com/2uwl75y.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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