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Crossing the Atlantic onboard the QE2
By Benjamin Lyons

Waking an hour before sunrise, we watched the glittering lights of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge twinkling before us and listened to the sound of cars for the first time in six days. Soon, we moved to silently watch the Statue of Liberty glide by while an emotionally poignant Manhattan rose above the low clouds on an overcast October morning to greet us. With the passing streets dormant but still very urban at this hour, the QE2 headed upriver to complete her Transatlantic crossing and we onboard glumly started to think about having to hail a taxi on a Monday morning.

For the last 33 years, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has been providing regularly scheduled Transatlantic service, the last tangible link to when ocean liners provided the only means of transportation across the oceans. Having just completed her 773rd crossing, the ship has only 22 crossings left before being assigned to full time cruising and turning the Atlantic run over to the fourth Cunard ship to be called a Queen - the soon-to-be-completed Queen Mary 2.

For those who seek the most traditional and evocative experience, however, book a crossing in 2003 while the QE2 remains on the Atlantic. With time, the ship has come to define the North Atlantic experience and evolve into a happy, settled liner with an experienced and loyal crew. As wonderful as the QM2 will be with her balconied cabins, dramatic public rooms and absolutely immense size, she will be a very different ship, a 21st century product offering what will be a very different experience.

To cross on the QE2 from Southampton to New York or vice versa is not to cruise - traditionalists bristle at the term and rightly insist on calling it a crossing. The five days at sea blend indistinguishably into each other and melt off into the passing restless blue ocean. Without the daily intrusion of ports common on a cruise - if it's Monday it must be St. Lucia - passengers quickly settle into a comfortable rhythm as the ship develops an inner life and ambiance of its own that cruise ships simply lack.

Happily Cunard has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to keep QE2 fresh and modern, and passengers who worry about boredom soon find an abundance of activities to keep them occupied. Some attended scarf tying lessons and Bingo while others entered in sports competitions and dance lessons before indulging in the ship's excellent spa, complete with a Thallasotherapy pool.

A casino and numerous shops attracted a fair share of passengers, but so did the large library and bookshop - complete with the only professional librarians at sea. A few passengers always discover the ship's kennel, and on my trip, I was amused to discover one dog was being looked after not only by the QE2's kennel staff, but also by a professional dog handler who was employed by the owner to cross with the dog and help ease the pampered pet's transition.

The most popular activities, however, are the impressive line up of featured lecturers that can attract notables such as Monty Python's John Cleese, who lectured onboard in June on British comedy. Each crossing features a theme of lectures, and my recent crossing's theme was "Beyond the Human Limit", highlighted by simply riveting lectures by former hostage negotiator and hostage himself Terry Waite, as well as the first man to row across the Atlantic and an extreme sports doctor who accompanies expeditions to Antarctica and Mt. Everest. Coupled with an author and screenwriter as well as two lectures by a Concorde pilot, I sometimes spent three hours in a row listening to their talks.

At night, we could choose between a classical music concert in the Theatre or dancing in the ship's surprisingly active nightclub. Ballroom dancing is held nightly in the Queens Room, by far the largest dance floor at sea, and cabarets and comedy shows are held in the ship's Grand Lounge. (One common complaint about the QE2 is the ship's lack of a true show lounge, and the quality of the cabarets and dancing shows tends to be weak in comparison to other cruise lines.)

Swept up in a few lectures, afternoon tea, a pleasant conversation at a table by the window, and a whirl of cocktail parties, gourmet dinners and after dinner dancing, the days end up passing quickly and leave you wondering where the time has gone.

Ultimately, the best entertainment onboard a crossing is simply the joy of being at sea without worries of deadlines or time constraints. Passengers instinctively flock to the ship's traditional teak lined Boat Deck, and wrapping themselves in windbreakers, steadily march into the ship's strong winds on one side before turning around and being pushed from behind on the way back. It is a happy scene, an instantly formed community where passengers smile at one other while battling the buffeting winds.

Back aft by the pools, passengers sit and chat around tables while others study the ship's frothing and boiling wake as the ship powers across the Atlantic at 24 knots, an incomparable study of speed and power. On warmer days, passengers sunbathe or sit on traditional wooden deck chairs and attempt to read, although the mesmerizing swells racing past often attract more attention and soon lull one to sleep.

One of my favorite aspects of a crossing is the refreshing mix of passengers' nationalities and age. My last crossing had over 20 different nationalities onboard and Americans outnumbered the British by only 70. There were several families as well as younger couples, and in our mid-20s ourselves, my friend and I felt young, certainly, but hardly out of place. Impressively, 55 percent of the passengers onboard were repeaters, part of a fiercely loyal legion of passengers who insist there is no better seagoing experience than a QE2 crossing.

Once you've decided to cross on QE2, choose your cabin carefully as it determines which restaurant you will dine in, and passengers need to be fully informed of all the distinctions and variations in grade. While the basic menu tends to be fairly similar throughout all five restaurants onboard, the quality of the food and cabin size vary considerably. Also, no matter where you dine, the middle four nights will be formal for the entire evening, with most passengers donning tuxedos and sparkling evening gowns.

The cheapest cabins are assigned to the Mauretania Restaurant, offering two assigned seatings for dinner. Food and service favorably competes with the premium cruise lines, but Mauretania passengers expecting the absolute best at sea can be disappointed. Be warned in advance that the smallest inside cabins onboard QE2 are shockingly small-if you feel you might be claustrophobic, it is best to book at least one inside cabin grade higher or one of the ship's outside cabins. Despite the small cabin sizes, however, Mauretania passengers can still revel in the fact that they are getting the same facilities and options that passengers in the higher restaurants are getting but at a fraction of the cost. (Cunard was advertising starting fares of $999 including airfare this year.)

A step above is the Caronia Restaurant, which features single seating dining. Caronia cabins are substantially larger than those in the Mauretania, and the single seating in the restaurant does help to create a more leisurely and luxurious feel to the dining experience. If you are considering between Mauretania and Caronia and feel comfortable enough with the increase in money, the better dining experience in Caronia and the larger cabins make the upgrade well worth the money.

It is in the three Grill-class restaurants, however, that dining on the QE2 become a truly extraordinary event that rivals land based establishments. Here, the most experienced waiters and Matre'Ds have been serving for years, caviar is complimentary every night and the ambiance is exclusive and secluded.

Ordering off the menu is encouraged, and the Matre'D will even come around at lunch with the dinner menu to ensure it meets your satisfaction. Grill class passengers even have the exclusive use of the cozy Queens Grill Lounge that allows them to create an enclave seemingly separate from the entire rest of the ship.

In all the Grills, service is unobtrusive, low-key and simply flawless. While there is a Lido buffet option for all meals, the dining experience can be so wonderful and addictive that many end up eating every meal in the restaurant. Ultimately, those dining in the Grills have the best of both worlds - the facilities and entertainment options of a larger ship combined with the intimacy, personal service and quality of dining that can only be expected on the smaller, ultra-luxury cruise lines

The Princess and Britannia Grills are the ship's most intimate restaurants, holding only 100 passengers each. With each reached by their own staircase, these restaurants are clubby and very sophisticated and oftentimes the favorite of regular QE2 passengers simply because of their small size. The Queens Grill, certainly the most famous restaurant at sea, is twice as large and is the most exclusive venue on the ship. Queens Grill cabins are substantially larger, and include the evocative and spacious wood paneled cabins on One and Two Deck as well as the balconied, newer suites on top of the ship.

By the end of the crossing, most passengers realized the overall QE2 experience is one that is far more than the sum of the individual parts as they came to appreciate her unmistakable pedigree. Touring the onboard Heritage Trail, a museum-like collection of memorabilia spread throughout the ship, taught many the 162-year history of Cunard. Some realized that the teak promenade deck used by countless passengers for exercise was once used by British soldiers training on their way to the Falklands when the ship was a troopship in 1982.

While overlooking the strong bow stretching forward to the New World, passengers would speak of how the ship has withstood 95-foot waves and winter Atlantic storms that would have crippled other mere cruiseships. Or listening to an interview with the ship's proud Captain, whose father was the first Captain of the ship, they understood the true essence of the ship is not about caviar or champagne but tradition and aura.

In the middle of the crossing, days from both Southampton and New York, it becomes easy to get lost in time as you watch the stars or listen to the wind snaking furiously through the lifeboats overhead. With only a little imagination, you can easily picture yourself or others on the decks of the original Queen Elizabeth, racing to Europe 50 years ago for a summer holiday, and know that you, too, partook in a bit of history by crossing on the QE2.

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