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A Transatlantic Step Back in Time

By Josh Shanks

Josh Shanks is a traveler and horological journalist based in New York City. He serves as the managing editor of Watchonista.com. Shanks joined the world of watches after leaving a career in finance. Upon leaving his firm, he booked a one-way ticket to Switzerland to dive in to the watchmaking valleys. He took the slow route back to NYC via the Queen Mary 2. Which is where we pick up our story today.

Queen Mary 2

Jet airliners have made international travel so routine that sometimes it can be downright boring. As someone who flies as much as I do, I’ve long yearned for a method that’s a touch grander. Like an ocean liner, for example: a floating hotel that’s a world away from the cruise ships dominating the seas today. In their heyday, from the 1910s to the 1960s, rich and poor alike took to the seas in ocean liners. But unlike most modern cruise ships, an ocean liner had one purpose: to accommodate esteemed guests in the most luxurious ways imaginable.

But to quote Cole Porter: “times have changed.” For those of us with wanderlust in our souls who dream of a more sophisticated era, a languid journey crossing the ocean by ship is the ultimate dream.

A brief history lesson

Before the Jet Age, crossing the Atlantic via an ocean liner was the best way to visit our then-emerging nation. For centuries, carriers such as White Star, United States and Cunard Lines ferried passengers across the Atlantic. The most famous — even infamous — liner of them all was the RMS Titanic, which sank on a cold April night in 1912 while on its maiden voyage to New York City. White Star Line, Titanic’s owner, never recovered after the sinking. “Let that be a warning,” one might think. In today’s age, you wonder, could any company sustain a business model on this outmoded method of travel? Think again.

Cunard lines, established 1839 by Samuel Cunard, continues to run a scheduled passenger service between Southampton, England, and New York City. Its ships are some of the most legendary ever to set sail. Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Lusitania, and Mauretania (to which Kate Winslet’s character snidely compares the Titanic) were just some of the most famous ships to sail under the Cunard flag. Today, the company’s flagship is the Queen Mary 2. The QM2 operates six months out of the year on a world-cruise circuit, and the other six months on a scheduled transatlantic service. It was on this last ship that I would take one of the most memorable trips of my life.

My Journey

“When the sea is everywhere

from horizon to horizon ..

when the salt and blue

fill a circle of horizons ..

I swear again how I know

the sea is older than anything else

and the sea younger than anything else.” – Carl Sandberg

Like many frequent travelers, I’ve always maintained a bucket list of specific journeys I wanted to take. Over the last decade, I’ve checked many off: living in London, visiting Vietnam, playing poker in Macau and driving down US 1 from San Fran to L.A. However, having a day job made long trips nearly impossible to complete without burning up hard-earned vacation time. While I’d always dreamed of sailing across the Atlantic, an expedition of this magnitude never materialized. However, last November, courage got the best of me, and I left my job in finance to take stock of my life.

A stateroom aboard Queen Mary 2

At the time, I knew I wanted to take two to three months off to travel before starting a new gig. My first stop would be Switzerland, followed by Italy and then Great Britain. I booked plane tickets and hotel stays, and figured that would be that. A few days after booking airfare, a little bird in the back of my head started chirping. I realized that I suddenly found myself with something that until then I hadn’t had much of: time. Without a pressing need to return to work, there was no longer a rush to return to New York. My fingers, as if in concert with that little bird chirping its fool head off, opened a browser window and navigated to Cunard’s website.

The one thing I knew was that I needed to be home in time for the holidays. To my delight, there was a London to New York crossing aboard the Queen Mary 2 scheduled for Dec 15th. I promptly booked a balcony suite.

The Voyage

On the day of my departure, after a two-hour journey from London to Southampton, the sight of the great ship laid out in all her splendor at the Queen Elizabeth II Terminal was nothing short of breathtaking. It was at this same dock that Titanic, Britannic, Queen Mary 1, and Queen Elizabeth 2, took to the seas.

It brought to mind more dignified times when celebrities, politicians and immigrants flooded these docks to begin their trips to the New World. As I walked up the gangway to board the mighty liner, the first thing I noticed is that QM2 is not your typical cruise ship. In fact, the company prides itself on operating “Ocean Liners” instead of cruise ships. While Cunard may now be owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, there’s a distinct difference in the product offerings of the two companies. Cunard takes extraordinary steps to market its transatlantic sailings as crossings rather than cruises. This distinction applies to every aspect of the experience, and in a sense, my journey was as anti-cruise as they come.

The Art Deco-inspired staircase in the atrium of the QM2.

All Cunard ships maintain a strict dress code. T-shirts and flip flops are banned, replaced by tuxedos and formal gowns. All of Cunard’s Queens, of which the QM2 is the last, were outfitted in a manner that harkens back to the days of transatlantic grandeur. Everywhere I looked, I saw accents of rich woods, velvet curtains and beautiful chandeliers that look as though they were lifted straight from the galleys of the Titanic. The Art Deco-inspired staircase is nothing short of spectacular.

Upon entering my cabin, I was greeted with a lovely bottle of champagne. Next to it was a kind note from Captain Christopher Wells welcoming me aboard my second Cunard voyage (I’d previously sailed on the Queen Victoria to Turkey and Greece). Not a bad way to start.

Sailing away

We departed the Southampton berth that evening around 7:30 PM. Many of the 2,453 passengers lined the decks to bid farewell to “this sceptered isle” and their relatives on the ground. To get into the mood, I popped open the champagne and listened to Dean Martin. The QM2 lurched out of her berth and slowly chugged her way through the English Channel. Within an hour, the lights ashore were a distant memory, and soon we were turning 22 knots en route to Brooklyn.

Aboard the QM2, I received a daily itinerary full of activities, lectures and the dress code for that evening’s festivities. Casual nights, for example, meant: jacket required, tie optional. For formal nights, a suit or tuxedo was de rigueur. These rules were strictly enforced. Those who didn’t want to adhere to the dress code were restricted from the common areas of the ship and confined to their suites or the buffet. Needless to say, I was happy to channel my inner Dino and put on a tux when required.

Day-to-day life

The first night at sea, I was awakened at 3AM when I fell out of my bunk. I wasn’t used to the rough seas that the QM2 must battle as she makes her way across the North Atlantic. Forty- to fifty-foot swells battered the ship, and even with stabilization technology, I could still feel the heave-ho of the great ship. It would take me a few days to get my sea legs.

Each morning, we received a navigational announcement from Captain Wells. As it was winter in the North Atlantic, this journey would be particularly grueling. Thanks to the circadian rhythms of the ship, most of my days involved a nap, roused by the stampede of early diners outside of my stateroom.

Cunard prides itself on the educational experiences offered aboard. For each crossing, it handpicks lecturers of all backgrounds. I enjoyed talks on bank heists, the history of the Cunard’s Queens and notably the ever-expanding saga of the retired Queen Elizabeth 2, now currently awaiting her fate at a dock in Dubai.

Shanks with his Rolex BLNR GMT.

Midway through the crossing, I met a lovely British family. While we were lounging in the hot tub, they glimpsed the Rolex BLNR GMT on my wrist. With pride, they displayed Rolexes of their own. As a solo traveler, it was a delight to be adopted by this loving family. We sang Christmas carols together, and I even squired the daughters to the Captain’s Ball. In the Commodore Club, the resident pianist played Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart while we exchanged stories of our life ashore.

Dining experiences

Cunard sat me with other solo travelers at an eight-person table in the Britannia dining room. Our table was an eclectic mix of mostly elderly guests. Each evening I dined with a teacher from Mississippi, two Spanish ladies in their 70s, an established actor in his sixties from Wales, and the pièce de résistance, a certain Peer of the Realm who has forbidden me from sharing details of our conversations at Table 14. Trust me, we had some very memorable evenings at that table.

Brittania Restaurant

We delighted in each other’s company, and in the grandeur of a North Atlantic crossing. Each evening, we feasted on a diverse array of dishes. There was surf and turf, delectable lamb confit and some of the best scallops I’ve had — on land or sea.

Notably, Cunard is one of the only liners that lets customers bring their own wine on board. I brought multiple bottles of Bordeaux and Jura that I had acquired from my favorite London wine merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd. Each evening, the sommelier decanted one of my bottles and made ready the appropriate glassware.

Most nights after dinner, I explored the various nooks and crannies of the massive ship. This usually involved a nightcap in the Chart Room. Each evening, a five-piece band belted out swinging jazz tunes as guests danced the night away. Over a glass of Johnny Walker Blue, I struck up a conversation with nearly anyone. What were their reasons, I wanted to know, behind taking such a long journey? Everyone had a story to tell. Some hated flying. Others simply wanted to bask in the luxuries of a bygone era.

As the trip went on, I bonded with my tablemates. On formal night, I brought a bottle of 2003 Chateau Pontensac to share with the table, over an exquisite Peking duck. After dinner, we retired to the Chart Room to discuss politics and Hollywood.

A reflection on time

Unlike the waves, time feels flat at sea. You build an onboard routine. Morning coffee in the Kings Court buffet, followed by a light jog around the running track to fill an hour until lunch. Next, afternoon tea in the Winter Garden, and perhaps a pre-dinner cocktail in the Chart Room. Lazy days followed by long nights made for an experience to remember.

Every morning (except for one), the ships clocks were set back one hour to accommodate the time change between London and New York. I found myself waking earlier and earlier. By the third day, I was up at 8 AM.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the meaning of time and travel. The two are so intertwined, and neither can exist without the other. However, as my lazy days at sea grew longer, my internal dialog pushed me to disconnect from the outside world (the $1-per-minute internet helped).

All good things must come to an end

As we inched closer to the mainland, I somehow felt strange packing up my belongings. Was the trip finally over? Why am I not prepared to go to the airport? On the final day at sea, nearly all the inhabitants of the great ship awoke to witness our official entry into New York harbor. Because we were in low tide, this was the only opportunity to pass below the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The ship’s antennas narrowly missed the bridge by just a few feet. After docking, I made my way through the Brooklyn customs hall to the city that never sleeps. As the skyline of Manhattan grew larger and the great ship faded from view, I reflected on my voyage. This was a trip I’ll never forget and a reminder that, sometimes, it’s best to take the long way home.

For more information, visit cunard.com

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