WE THREE QUEENS

The Baltimore Sun

There's a certain stillness in the middle of the ocean.

It's January, and my wife and I are aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, in the company of numerous ship buffs and historians chronicling the ship's last world cruise. Sailing side by side with us is Cunard's newest ship, the Queen Victoria.

For a few hours about midway through the trans-Atlantic crossing, the ocean liner loses satellite contact with European news channels. No, the ship isn't lost at sea, not in this wireless age, and the televisions still show movies, lectures and the view from the bridge (the one the captain sees) accompanied by classical music.

These are the best hours of the voyage for me. A news junkie, I'm cut off from the frenetic world. I'm halfway there. Eastbound, I'm roughly three days out of New York, westbound, three days from Southampton, the storied British port that dispatched the Mayflower and the Titanic. I've got no news, no e-mail, no calls to return. Midway between continents, time seems suspended.

That wonderful sense of isolation can be felt on any cruise, on any vacation, for that matter. But with Cunard, long since the only line offering regular trans-Atlantic passenger service, the feeling is particularly intense.

For one thing, Cunard has been sailing since 1840, a lot of time to build tradition and get it right. The line has three ships, including Victoria, which was christened in December. The grande dame Queen Elizabeth 2 has crossed 804 times in her 40 years, logging 5.6 million miles. She is the last of the great ships built primarily for transportation. She rides deep in the sea and has survived 90-foot waves. But alas, she's been sold to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where next year she'll become a floating hotel.

The four-year-old Queen Mary 2, which will continue the crossing tradition after her sister's retirement, is twice as large as Queen Elizabeth 2 in tonnage and nearly as fast; she can do almost 30 knots. With 965 stateroom balconies (Elizabeth has only 33), Queen Mary 2 demonstrates how the utilitarian crossing, transporting people and their household goods (sometimes their entire households) from the U.S. to Europe or conversely, has morphed into a luxurious six-day cruise in the era of the six-hour jet crossing.

Having crossed on both Mary and Elizabeth, I can see the change.

The gym on the Queen Mary 2 is spacious, forward on Deck 7, offering splendid ocean views to those trying to work off the marvelous meals. On the Queen Elizabeth 2, you descend to a dank windowless room where equipment is crowded around a small pool in the depth of the ship. The Queen Elizabeth 2 has a baggage hold, a baggage master (the only one at sea) and voluminous storage space in her staterooms. Victoria, the newest Queen, has been criticized for a lack of cabin drawer space, a notable deficiency on a vessel that's currently on a 99-day Southampton-to-Southampton world cruise.

Still, Queen Victoria, which made her maiden Atlantic crossing in tandem with the Queen Elizabeth 2 last month, continues Cunard's traditions of civilized travel.

While passengers on each ship compared voyages by e-mail, there was much ado - fireworks, confetti, bands and those basso ship whistles that you feel in your depth - at both ends of the journey. Mary joined Victoria and Elizabeth for the voyage under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into New York Harbor.

That evening, we took a dinner cruise to watch the three ships depart New York, pausing side by side by side at the Statue of Liberty for another shower of fireworks while thousands of New Yorkers looked on from Lower Manhattan. This first and last gathering of the three Queens had been two years in the planning. It was a thrill.

Yes, a crossing these days is a cruise, but as practiced by Cunard, it isn't your ordinary cruise, and it certainly isn't for everyone. There are no rock-climbing walls here, no loud after-hours rock music. No "This is Thursday, so this must be Ocho Rios, Jamaica." There are few children. And even in summer, there's no skimpily clad bathers lounging for hours under a tropical sun. Bundling on a deck chair in an embroidered "steamer rug" is more like it, and a cup of bouillon rounds it off.

Cunard markets a crossing as "a most civilized adventure," and indeed it is. The Queens are the dressiest ships in the world. Most nights at sea are formal; the ships' daily newsletters warn that dress codes will be enforced after 6 p.m., though I never saw anyone taken to the brig for failure to wear a tux or an evening gown (which is why you need plenty of closet space). And on Elizabeth, which was built in the late 1960s as a true ocean liner, the stateroom you book determines where you dine, a vestige of the old "class" system. We ate at the Princess Grill, the only public room unchanged in several Queen Elizabeth 2 renovations over four decades.

The three Queens are also very British, another thing that might turn off Yankee cruisers. From the Wedgwood china, to afternoon high tea, to Cunard's "Royal Nights" formal balls, to Churchill's Cigar Bar, to rousing choruses of "Rule Britannia" on Victoria's maiden voyage, it's a Brit experience all the way and these days marketed heavily to Brits, many of whom on our January voyage were anxious to shop in New York, where the British pound beats the smithereens out of the dollar.

But not all of Cunard's fans are British. Beatrice Muller likes the Queen Elizabeth 2 a lot; so much so that the American widow has been living on the ship for eight years and now must decide where she will establish residency when Elizabeth retires in the late fall.

"I have 14 immediate servants and 1,010 staff members who are my family," says Muller, 88, who pays about $80,000 a year to live on the ship. "Why should I go home to a vacuum cleaner?"

Muller is leaning toward moving to the Queen Mary 2, which she calls the "last ocean liner in the world, after Elizabeth retires."

She worries about staff reductions and a decline in dining quality and writes letters of concern (which she says are answered) to Micky Arison, the billionaire head of Cunard's parent company, Carnival Corp. Carnival bought Cunard a decade ago and saved it from sinking financially. Traditionalists complained at the time that Carnival (the "Carnival carnivore," they called it) would devour the Cunard vessels and spit them up as the "fun ships" for which Carnival was famous, or, worse, as "love boats."

In fact, just the opposite happened. Carnival has steadfastly maintained the Cunard brand and traditions, making the Queens, if anything, even more British than they were a decade ago. And a new Queen Elizabeth, which won't be the QE3, is due to replace the Queen Elizabeth 2, thus assuring Cunard will have its niche in the Carnival array (which includes Holland America, Princess, Costa and Seabourn), at least through this decade.

All of that "Britishness" is just fine with Muller. She has two sons in their 50s who are happy with their mother's living arrangement. "If I run out of money," she says, "they'll keep me here to keep me out of their hair." (One son spends a month of the annual world cruise on board.)

Muller sleeps late, reads The New York Times (which the Queen Elizabeth 2 staff downloads just for her), plays bridge in the afternoon, has a cocktail before dinner at 8:30 p.m., then dances with the ship's "gentlemen hosts" - men whom the line engages to dance with the single women - until retiring for a good night's sleep in her home at sea.

It's a queen's life on a Queen.

IF YOU GO

QUEEN ELIZABETH 2

The QE2's final sailing to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, sold out in minutes. But she does have some attractive spring and summer cruises for those who want to bid adieu to the world's most famous passenger ship. The seven-day "Norwegian Wonders" cruise to Norway on June 25 starts at $1,922 per person for an inside cabin.

Queen Mary 2 and Trans-Atlantic crossings

Preferably, fly east and sail west. Why? You have a five-pack of 25-hour days as clocks are set back on five of the six mornings. Queen Mary 2 has several westbound crossings between Southampton, England, and New York, including June 26-July 2 and August 1-7, with fares starting at $1,445 for an inside cabin.

Getting there:

Cunard can arrange an air/sea package (including transfers) starting at $1,723 for an inside cabin. Or you can make your own arrangements. Numerous airlines fly from East Coast airports (including BWI Marshall) to London's Heathrow for one-way fares starting at about $400. Buses leave Heathrow's central bus station hourly for the two-hour trip to Southampton. The fare is about $54, with seniors deeply discounted.

Lodging:

Stay a night in Southampton to get over the jet lag and ready for the voyage. The city isn't a tourist Mecca, though it's close to such attractions as Winchester Cathedral and offers good, albeit expensive, shopping, a fine maritime museum and a monument on the site of the sailing of the Mayflower. The Hotel Ibis on West Quay Road (hotelibis.com) is clean and within view of your ship. At $126 a night for a double in a country where the dollar is taking a beating, it's a bargain. Ask for a room with a view of the docks, and, on checkout, use your credit card to pay in dollars, thus avoiding international transaction fees.

Information:

800-728-6273 or cunard.com

[MIKE BOWLER]

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