My husband, Gary, is a lawyer. I am a novelist. I wanted to visit the south of England and Germany to do research for a five-book series about World War 2. But neither of us wanted to fly, though we lived in Tucson, Arizona. We thought it was hopeless until we heard about the Queen Mary 2 in September of 2010. "Wow!" I thought. "A real ocean liner. Not a bathtub like so many other ships. And she sails back and forth from New York to Southampton and Hamburg all summer long. I've got a choice of dates." We almost made it in the summer of 2011. But we were determined to take the trip in 2012 and bought the tickets in late April.
We drove across the country to Brooklyn, which was the New York port of the QM2. Fortunately we discovered the Comfort Inn Brooklyn Cruise Terminal where we spent the night before boarding the ship. It was brand new, very clean, and we could get anything we needed delivered to the room at a moment's notice. We'd left our camera battery plugged into the wall in the Best Western in Harrisburg. So we called the RDS delivery service and had them pick up a battery charger and deliver it to our room that afternoon. There weren't any restaurants nearby. But that wasn't a problem either. We had dinner delivered by Mark's Pizzeria in just 35 minutes. For $47.55 we feasted on more spaghetti than a roomful of people could have eaten along with home baked bread, Caesar salads with dressing, and Cokes, too. It arrived hot. It was one of the best meals of the whole 76-day trip and one of the most economical, honestly.
The next day the Comfort Inn offered to drive us to the ship. There were several other groups of tourists spending the night before the cruise there, too. But we had to park our car in the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal for the next month for about $500.00, payable when we picked up the car. So we opted for a printed sheet of instructions about how to get to the ship instead. The directions didn't seem to be very good. We ended up following a taxi cab in the end.
Boarding the ship turned out to be one of the worst moments of the entire trip. I didn't know TSA would be there. And since we've never flown during the TSA era, we weren't all that familiar with what was expected. I set the machine off. The attendant approached me with a wand. I put up my hands to deflect him, saying he needed to give me a chance to determine what set the machine off first. He accused me of hitting him in a loud, rude voice, which was ridiculous. I ended up taking off my shoes and my hat, both of which had metal. At last we climbed the stairs to the boarding ramps, which were crowded. It was a 96 degree day. We could feel the A/C from the ship reaching us by the time we got to the second of the two glass-enclosed ramps.
We entered the ship on deck 3. All we had to do was climb one flight of stairs to our cabin, 4072. There was a bank of elevators, of course. But we'd had bad experiences in those in the past and tended to avoid them. The first thing we thought of was lunch. That was being served on deck 7 in the King's Court, the self-serve buffet restaurant with which we were to become very familiar especially on the return voyage when we had a cabin on deck 8. Today they were serving Italian food. They varied among Italian, Asian, and English. We were able to call my parents on our cell phone. They still operated in the harbor.
We returned to our cabin started to unpack in the deluxe A3 sheltered balcony room (the lowest of the passenger decks), only to be interrupted at about 3:00PM by Captain Christopher Wells telling us to report to deck 7 for the muster drill.
Bringing our lifejackets with us we climbed three more flights of stairs with decorative landings complete with colorful paintings on the walls which distracted us and almost made us late. It was entertaining to snap photos of all three of us wearing orange lifejackets. It looked so funny.
The Sailaway Party was underway. Music played outside our cabin room and filled the ship as we cut loose and started to sail out of New York Harbor under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. This was a real photo op. We snapped away, taking photos of everything from our car sitting in the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal Parking Lot to the other ships and boats in the harbor. The best photo was when we actually crossed under the magnificent bridge.
Next it was time to dress for dinner. We had a reserved table for 3 in the Britannia Dining Room on deck 2, convenient to our 4072 room. The roast beef was delicious but the wait staff was hard to communicate with and very busy so it was hard to get their attention. Whenever the Captain came on the loud speaker with an announcement the wait staff seemed to ignore him and try to talk over him, which I found very annoying. This was one of the few dining venues on the ship where everything was included in the bill except bottled water. Even here they charged extra for that as we came to discover on our 9-day journey across the North Atlantic.
After dinner it was off to the Royal Court Theater, also on deck 2, so again the location was very convenient. The entertainment director conducted the Welcome Aboard Show musical review. He asked who was here for the first time. We three raised our hands. It amazed us that we were in a distinct minority. Most of the passengers had sailed before! At least we found "our seats" in the back to the far left of the auditorium on the lower deck in the back row right by the glass statue. Every time we came here we always sat there during the voyage to Hamburg. They weren't formally reserved, but they always seemed to be available.
The show wasn't all that original, but at least it was distracting and helped pass the time.
The next morning, July 7, was our first full day at sea. We discovered how conveniently close Sir Samuel's was. All we had to do was go down the hallway, turn right, then right again almost right away. Sir Samuel's was almost right at the bottom of the steps on deck 3. We linked up with the waiter with the sardonic sense of humor who was always to serve us on this voyage. We were to come here every morning for breakfast until the day of our arrival in Hamburg when it was closed. The tea service here was much better than in the Britannia Dining Room or the King's Court self-serve. For breakfast we always ordered Danish. But here we were charged extra for the tea. We put it on our shipboard account by heading down to the Purser's Office on deck 2, the bottom passenger deck, standing in line, and handing them cash. For the duration of our voyage everything we bought aboard the ship was automatically charged to this account including internet service and drinks --- also anything bought in the Royal Arcade shopping mall on deck 3.
After that we lined up for immigration on deck 3. We showed the British our passports and room cards. German immigration collected our passports to give back in a few days. Then it was off to Illuminations, the only planetarium at sea that doubled as a lecture hall, to listen to a 10:30 presentation about Christopher Columbus.
We reported back to our cabin to sign up for the Internet. I bought 260 minutes for $89.95. This turned out to be a disaster. It ate up minutes and money during the entire voyage without delivering much service. In other words, it was hard to get online and stay online. And while you were attempting to get online, they were charging you. But how else were we to check our email?
They don't start serving lunch until 12:30PM. We returned to the Britannia Restaurant on deck 2 and ordered ravioli and tomato soup. Kenny went to meet the young adults at 12:30 on the third level, but no one else showed up except him. Probably no one else saw the announcement. But all during the rest of the voyage Kenny couldn't meet anyone in his age group that wasn't working on the ship.
We paid an afternoon visit to the Bookshop next to the library on deck 8. It was the only place aboard that sold postcards. I like to send them out, and I bought a supply for the rest of the voyage and beyond. Boy, was it expensive to post them at the Purser's Office!
For dinner we tried the Carvery on deck 7, part of the King's Court complex. It cost us an extra $30.00 cover charge for the privilege. At least Kenny was able to find Russians who had been hired to work there as waitresses. He conversed with them at dinner. He's a Russian translator, and they didn't speak much English, which was a problem if you had a request beyond ordering directly from the menu. Of course with Kenny there we could communicate with them. Most passengers could not. At least they were more polite than the staff on deck 2. They didn't interrupt your conversation at dinner. They didn't interrupt the captain's announcements either.
By the time we returned to the room the stewardess had delivered the program of events for the next day. She put it in your "mailbox" right beside your room door on the wall. Throughout the voyage this was Cunard's method of communicating with your through written correspondence. Most of the time they were prompt. Sometimes we had to call the Purser's Office --- the equivalent of the front desk at a first-class hotel --- and nag them. The room phone had a button for purser's office along with a button to summon the steward or stewardess.
The next morning at breakfast in the Britannia restaurant the lady at the table next to us was complaining about the ship's vibrations. One of our areas of concern before we sailed was seasickness. While nobody seemed to get seasick, there was the problem of the vibrations which was something none of us expected. It was like being on a train or a bus driving over a rough patch of road. The ship's engines always caused it to vibrate. When we were sailing through the North Sea at only 14 or 15 knots, we hardly noticed it because we weren't going that fast. But the captain was trying to make up time due to a delay when we were sailing out of New York Harbor. You could always see water in a glass sloshing about if ever so slightly. If you left your watch on a dresser top, it would make noise at night time. We nicknamed the lobby leading up to the entrance to the Britannia Restaurant on deck 2, "vibration alley". That was the worst place on the ship for feeling it. Sometimes I would change chairs at a restaurant because of it. Just moving one chair over could make a big difference. It was best to have a fan on at night time in your cabin to help drown out the noise.
At the Royal Court Theater, the singer during the Classical Concerts in the afternoon once complained that she was feeling unsteady in her heels. That was not the vibrations but the ship's roll through the ocean. I noticed it, too, from time to time on the voyage to Europe. You would be standing there in the Royal Arcade looking at merchandise. Suddenly you had to brace yourself on your feet, feeling you might get knocked over. Sometimes you would end up moving forward on your tip-toes. This effect could be much worse on the return voyage to New York when we were sailing against the prevailing winds which tended to howl past your window at night and rattle the glass, keeping you awake in the worst weather. Fortunately we were sailing in July and didn't have too much of that.
I can't finish my review of this voyage without mentioning RADA. Those dramatic performers from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts performed two outstanding entertainments. The first was the Canterbury Tales on the afternoon of our second day aboard. It was a comic adaption of the Geoffrey Chaucer tale in modern English instead of Middle English. Both bawdy and full of action, it certainly kept your mind off the ship's vibrations. The costumes and stage props were so authentic and well-done that I couldn't resist taking video shorts for private use only. A little later in the voyage they performed Richard III, the Shakespeare history play about the monarch whose remains have just been discovered in England. It was the best Shakespeare performance I've ever seen anywhere and worth the cost of the voyage alone.
On the more practical side we tried to do laundry every day. The laundry room on the Queen Mary 2 is way too small. They only have one per deck for all the passengers. My husband picked up the laundry after breakfast and took me along this time. You couldn't edge your way into the tiny space on deck 4 no matter what. You had to keep saying, "Excuse me, excuse me!" One British lady said she was going to dry her clothes on her balcony instead of waiting for a dryer. I can see why. They should have provided at least two laundry rooms, one on port and one on starboard. The day before disembarkation in Southampton you couldn't get near the machines. The British were hogging them --- and understandably so.
Also I don't want to end without a word about what kept me sane during the voyage --- the Mayfair Gift Shops in the Royal Arcade on deck 3, which was open until 9:00PM and which I visited every night before we went back to our cabin after dinner. It wasn't very extensive in terms of number or variety of shops. But we were able to buy my husband a new watch. I got a World Explorer leather wallet with a map design, which if one of my favorite trip souvenirs. I thought it was unfortunate that what I bought was limited to what I could carry. They told me that they couldn't mail packages to other people as gifts or even back to my house. They claimed that they used to be able to do this but couldn't do it now. Later on Facebook a Brit tried to explain to me that this inability had something to do with the ship not being registered in England anymore and being registered in Bermuda instead. I never could get it, but then I'm only an American.
The zultanite exhibition on deck 3 in the fine jewelry store had adults, especially women and their husbands, gathered around a computer screen where the swarthy dark man in charge was playing an advertising video. At the same time he was allowing women to try on the zultanite rings. People became more and more mesmerized by this rare stone being offered here as an exclusive. I thought it was at best funny and at worst banal.
And by the way, my husband had a memorable experience with the athletic program. I must not forget to mention that. When Gary went up to Deck 13 it was very foggy. The foghorn was blasting his ears off every couple of minutes in the middle of the North Atlantic. He was looking for the cricket match. He couldn't find anybody up there. Then a 16-year-old kid showed up. Gary was dressed in long pants and a jacket. This guy had a gym suit on. He was from Northern Germany. His father was an officer in the German navy who had been stationed in the States for a year. Hagan said that the only cricket he'd ever played was the day before. After they waited a few more minutes, the athletic director and one British gentleman show up. It wasn't like real cricket. They were inside a cage used for playing tennis. The rules weren't like real cricket. Each person got two turns. Gary went first. Hagan went 2nd. British guy went 3rd. Gary kept score. In the end the British guy won. Hagan was 2nd. Gary was 3rd although he did score.
Who would have thought you could play cricket aboard an ocean liner?
On July 13 we took a shore excursion when in port in Southampton before continuing on that evening towards Hamburg. We boarded a small yellow bus that took us to Stonehenge, Salisbury, and the New Forest National Park. The bus was certainly not what we expected. Everyone was literally crammed in. There was no bathroom available on the bus. But there was a comfort stop in Salisbury. It rained at Stonehenge. It was good that we brought umbrellas and bought black rain ponchos aboard the ship. We were among the only passengers who remained dry.
But despite the inconveniences, this was the most Gothic country on earth. I marveled at gorse bushes hugging the ground and yellow eyes peering out at you from behind every tree. We had to proceed slowly at times. Wild ponies crossed the road along with cows. In the distance you could see ancient burial mounds near the fanciful stone plinths of Stonehenge. When visiting the Gothic Salisbury Cathedral you could imagine yourself back in the Middle Ages. It turned to be my favorite part of the trip.
It was a remarkable experience but perhaps not as luxurious as it's made out to be in the Cunard ads. The QM2 Transatlantic Voyage is CROWDED. My son and I were waiting on level three for my husband to walk down the main staircase in the atrium to the pursuer's desk to mail postcards at 11:00AM when a gentleman asked us if we were using the chairs in front of us. We said no and stepped aside a few yards to stand somewhere else. There is also a sense of competition to get seats. It seems to be easy to get a table at Sir Samuel's at breakfast, but lunch is iffy. Sometimes we had to wait to grab a table. It was hard to inch your way into the Golden Lion Pub. They were broadcasting Wimbledon on the big screen TV. There wasn't even standing room. And to attend the astronomical shows in the observatory, Illuminations, you needed tickets. You didn't have to pay for them, but you wouldn't get in otherwise. We attended a lecture about spies on Sunday. We had to sit on a sofa in the very back of the auditorium near the door. From this seat you couldn't even see the speaker.
When it came time to disembark we started to pack up our luggage and try to do laundry the day before arriving in Hamburg. We decided to do the self-disembarkation first thing in the morning. It wasn't at all convenient that they didn't offer you porter service to help you with your suitcases. Gary and Kenny used the elevators and met me on deck 3. We exited down two ramps open to the sky into the brand new Hamburg Hafen City Cruise Terminal. The attendants there helped to show us the way. They were very polite and formed a distinct contrast to the rude TSA man in the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. I bought postcards in the little cafe there and used euros for the first time before heading for the taxi stand outside. We had arrived in Hamburg. Time to go to the airport to pick up our Ford Mondeo and head off for a ten-day driving tour of Austria and Germany before returning to Hamburg to board the QM2 on July 25 for the voyage back to America.
In summary our first transatlantic voyage had its ups and downs. But it was the only way to get to Europe without flying. It certainly taught you a lot about the North Atlantic. The 12 noon captain's reports every day kept you informed about the weather at sea and the geography, too, such as the North Atlantic Ridge. At one point we actually saw a whale! They also kept you informed about historical highlights. They told you how far away you were from the place where the Titanic went down. 2012 was the 100th anniversary year of that tragedy.
But the service aboard the only ocean liner afloat was not as good as we expected. They have hired too many people who don't understand English well enough to communicate effectively with you.