By Eric Vohr, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:32 PM EDT, July 16, 2013
In an era when time is money, and cellphones, computers and jammed schedules keep us ridiculously busy day and night, why would one spend seven days traveling to England when a plane can get you there in seven hours?
The answer is simple: There's no more luxurious way to cross the Atlantic Ocean than on the Queen Mary 2.
In essence, this is the cruise of cruises, and not just in name alone. The QM2 is a beautifully crafted ship in the tradition of the grand dames of the sea. It's also the only ship that offers such regular trans-Atlantic crossings, between New York City and Southampton, England.
Other cruise ships make discounted seasonal trans-Atlantic trips to reposition themselves for high-traffic areas at the right time of year, but crossing the Atlantic is what this queen was designed to do. As such, this behemoth ocean liner is built to much higher standards than many cruise ships.
Chief QM2 architect Stephen M. Payne said the ship, launched in 2004, cost about 40 percent more to build than the standard cruise ship of similar size because the vessel has to withstand wicked water in the North Atlantic.
There's something historically romantic about crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner. And hats off to Cunard for keeping this service alive and well. Even though jets are now the vehicles of choice for most trans-Atlantic travelers, there's something to be said for stepping back and taking the long way across. And it can be done with just a week's vacation.
But what do you do with seven days at sea? You probably wouldn't ask that question if you were going to a tourist city. Well, with 12 restaurants and cafes, 13 bars and lounges, four pools, five sun decks, the largest library at sea, an Internet center, art gallery, gift shops, gym, golf simulator, paddle ball court, beauty salon, casino, ballroom, two theaters, a planetarium and the full-service Canyon Ranch Spa, this is your tourist city. The real question is, how will you fit it all in?
And that doesn't include all the other activities available for guests, such as performances by string quartets, rock bands, DJs, singers, pianists, harpists and jazz trios; symposiums delivered by professionals on topics such as international espionage and the benefits of acupuncture; and other types of entertainment, including movies, plays and full-blown musicals.
My first full day on ship began on the previous evening, when I hung my little card on the door with my choices for "breakfast in bed." As the sun rose and illuminated my cozy cabin, I enjoyed breakfast on the balcony and listened to the sea gently wash along the ship's 1,132-foot hull. I glanced over the day's activity schedule.
After breakfast, I enjoyed a lecture by maritime historian Bill Miller on the world's most fabulous ocean liners, then took a jog around the ship's Outdoor Promenade. The Queen Mary 2 is the largest ocean liner in the world, so it takes only three laps to get in a mile. After my run, I pumped some iron in the gym and took a relaxing eucalyptus steam at the Canyon Ranch Spa. Then it was up to Deck 13 for a dip in the Pavilion Pool and a 30-minute tanning session on one of the ship's elegant varnished wood deck chairs. Now I was ready for lunch.
Though you have many choices for eating aboard, this is not a floating Golden Corral. The QM2 is a civilized affair. I chose a casual meal in the King's Court, which has a fantastic salad bar.
After lunch I took a tour called Behind the Scenes, where you get to see how the ship works. Then I stopped by the library, picked up Lee Child's latest novel and relaxed alongside the Terrace Pool. As the sun started to dip, I headed back to my room, showered, slipped into my evening wear and joined some new friends for cocktails on the balcony of their stateroom. After solving a few of the world's problems while drinking chilled vodka martinis in the setting sun's glow, we headed to the Britannia Restaurant for a formal dinner.
The night's entertainment included a musical in the ship's beautiful Royal Court Theatre and a black and white ball in the luxurious Queen's Room.
This is just one of countless daily programs one can assemble on this voyage. But no matter how you choose to pass the days, you won't be bored. In fact, it's often nice to retreat to the peace and solitude of your private balcony and simply gaze out to sea.
Though it's the journey that makes the QM2 so unique, it's also a vacation with a destination, so you can extend your trip by spending a little time in England upon arrival, if you're heading east. I like Cornwall and Devon. Both are just a few hours' drive from Southampton.
In Cornwall I recommend checking out Padstow. This fishing village is home to Rick Stein's famous Seafood Restaurant, which is a must on any Cornwall excursion. In Devon, Torquay (aka the British Riviera) has a rich assortment of quaint historic B&Bs and large 19th-century seaside hotels.
You can rent a car at the ship terminal, and when you return to Southampton, a short train ride will whisk you back to London, where you can take the more common route back across "the pond": a plane. Though the airlines will deliver you in a mere fraction of the time it took to sail across, be prepared for all that implies: waiting in a long check-in line; being scanned at security, etc.
Then again, you could just hop right back on the QM2 and do the cruise all over again. This time you'll get to enjoy the things you missed the first time.
If you go
The QM2 has six levels of cabins, with the lowest fare starting at $1,199 double occupancy for an inside cabin. Highest is $26,908 per person. Meals are included; restaurant options are according to fare level. 800-728-6273, cunard.co.uk/cruise-ships/queen-mary-2.
Extending your trip
Where to stay in Torquay: The Osborne Hotel (http://www.osborne-torquay.co.uk/) for high end; The Grand Hotel (thegrandhoteltorquay.co.uk) and The Walnut Lodge (walnutlodgetorquay.co.uk/hotel.asp) for midrange.
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