By Joe Alexander
After decades of spending Thanksgiving in America, I decided it was time to create a memorable moment for my family and have our turkey on the high seas. The Empire State Building was lit red to commemorate the occasion when three majestic ocean liners, Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2, gathered in New York harbor before sailing past the Statute of Liberty under a dazzling fireworks display. This unique event is called a Cunard Royal Rendezvous. I decided to choose one Queen on which to make the most iconic of all sea faring trips, a transatlantic voyage over the holidays.
I chose to cross the pond on Queen Mary 2, who sails proudly as the flagship of Cunard Line, because she is the longest, tallest, widest, the most luxurious ocean liner ever built. Her 30-knot speed allows her to leave lesser ships in her wake. Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II christened this floating palace named after her grandmother in 2004 proclaiming, “I name this ship Queen Mary 2. May God bless her and all who sail on her” before she broke a bottle of champagne over the bow. Her maiden voyage was from Southampton, England to America and it was this itinerary that I decided to retrace after the Titanic sank amidst the same waters in 1912. The difference between a cruise and a voyage is that the latter takes you from one place to another with no stops. It is on these blissful days when you see nothing but the drama of rolling waves and black nights filled with constellations of stars, made all the more brilliant by the absence of civilization; that is the stuff of dreams, romance and memories.
An extensive roster of royalty and luminaries have traveled on Samuel Cunard’s ships since he founded his legendary fleet in 1840, from H.R.H Princess Diana of Wales, Prince Charles, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Sultan of Johor, King Hussein of Jordan, Queen Marie of Romania and the Shah of Persia. Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Robert F. Kennedy have also all strolled Cunard’s hallowed halls. Hollywood royalty, including Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, Noël Coward, Bing Crosby and Elizabeth Taylor, who spent four of her eight honeymoons on the high seas, two with Richard Burton, were also Cunarders. Silver screen goddess Marlene Dietrich was a frequent passenger, famous for never being seen at breakfast and rarely at lunch but she never failed to make a dramatic entrance at dinner.
Ship side, we were greeted by a quartet of red-jacketed bellhops, their gold buttons gleaming and their traditional caps strapped on snuggly. As we embarked, White Star Service Bellmen picked up our Louis Vuitton trunks and we were escorted over the gangplank, through the Grand Lobby, where live music played in the background, and into our glamorous stateroom that was ritzier than the Ritz. We were in the Queens Grill Suites, which is limited to 192 guests out of the 2,620 on board. Our personal butler and steward, who were on call 24/7, greeted us in our spacious suite that was comprised of sitting and dinning areas, a bar, a bedroom, two bathrooms and a walk-in closet. The Pièce de résistance was our private balcony, which ran the length of our rooms, giving us a sea view from everywhere but the bathtub. It was all terribly POSH, which translates to Port Out Starboard Home, meaning our cabins were always sunny.
The staff unpacked us while we explored the ship that has five outdoor and indoor swimming pools, seven jacuzzis, a Canyon Ranch SpaClub, a gigantic movie theater that also houses the only planetarium at sea, a showroom that features elaborate musicals, multiple gourmet restaurants, including one by Todd English, several tea rooms, a Veuve Cliquot Champagne bar, a ballroom with a 12-piece orchestra, a disco, a gym with a killer view of the horizon and games galore including golf, shuffle board, ping pong, paddle tennis, darts, backgammon, bingo, bridge and way too many other activities to list here. Additionally, the QM2 boasts the largest library at sea with breathtaking ocean panoramas, an hourly schedule of guest lectures by famous authors, actors, poets and scientists, not to mention classical concerts, piano and harp recitals, Shakespeare performances by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and an endless list of fitness classes including yoga, stretch and circuit training to choose from. There is also a fully equipped casino; professional gamblers and tricksters used to be a hazard of life at sea. In 1842, the writer Charles Dickens warned a fellow passenger on Cunard’s Britannia that there was a “card shark” on board; today there are spotters to keep things honest. Daily laps around the deck, three times equaling one mile, leisurely naps in a deckchair under a blue and black plaid wool blanket from Scotland and a nightcap in the Commodore Club are de rigueur. Naturally, you can bring your four-legged best friends who can enjoy play dates with other pampered pooches on their very own poop deck; did I just write that?
Cary Grant called the original Queen Mary “the eighth wonder of the world” and met one of his five wives at one of the ship’s black tie dinner dances. My favorite anecdotes are about cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein, who tossed her 20-carat diamond earrings out of the porthole of her cabin because she forgot that she had hidden them in the tissue box that she was discarding, and screen queen Greta Garbo, who crisscrossed the Atlantic regularly during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s but insisted on traveling incognito; not only did she sail under an alias, she disembarked disguised as a stewardess. The QM2 raced around the world in 81 days for the first time in 2007. Other VIPs who have been seduced by the many charms of the QM2 include President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, Donald Trump, Katie Couric, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Uma Thurman, George Lucas, Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz and Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in the movie “The Queen” in 2006 and inscribed a painting of the QM2 in the ship’s casino, “From one Queen to another.”
There are three black tie nights out of seven, so bring your best bib and tucker, gowns and jewels. Dinner at the Captain’s Table in the Britannia Restaurant is still a highly sought after honor. It was over Oysters Rockefeller, Chateaubriand, Baked Alaska and several glasses of Cristal that Captain Kevin Oprey regaled us with stories about life at sea. If you want to spend quality time with your family, mingle and mix or just want to be “left alone” like Greta Garbo, I highly recommend a transatlantic voyage on board the greatest ocean liner on earth, the incomparable Queen Mary 2. •