Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2
One of Cunard's big selling points, in addition to luxury, is that its service and style are deeply and profoundly classic. There are constant references to things onboard—afternoon tea, after-dinner balls, dressing for dinner, the Hermès boutique—being "timeless." Near the elevator bank, a wall-covering featuring an enormous rendering of the ship includes a quotation from the London Times from the day after the QM2 was ordered in 2000: "She will be heir to all that has gone before, and will carry the grace and elegance of a byegone era into the future."
Along with all of this timelessness and good stuff from the past comes a caste system not dissimilar from the one that has been causing strife in England for far longer than Cunard Lines has existed (169 years). Of course, no one who has the time and money to spend six days and six nights sailing across the ocean is working-class, but from the moment you book your stateroom, you're categorized in a way that affects everything from the size of your bathroom to the restaurant you're assigned to. We fell into the group of people who were not receiving free "pre-prandial canapés" (which sounded suspiciously pornographic) in our room and who, on the spectrum of Cunard's "degrees of comfort and style ranging from pampered elegance to almost unimaginable luxury" settled—quite happily, I should add—for the former. If rock bottom is "pampered elegance," I'll take it.
Our designated restaurant was the Britannia, named for one of the first four ships in the Cunard fleet. The other three were the Acadia, the Caledonia, and the Columbia, and they were built when Samuel Cunard, a Nova Scotian businessman, won the contract with Queen Victoria to deliver the Royal Mail across the Atlantic for the first time. The Britannia's first journey, in February 1840, took a speedy 14 days and eight hours.
The Britannia restaurant, the least exclusive eatery onboard, bore less of this lofty heritage than its dining counterparts. (I was never able to confirm this suspicion since we were barred from even entering the other restaurants, which had royal names involving queens and princesses, clearly a step up from being named after a ship that was merely commissioned by a royal.) To begin with, it was gigantic; it was also smack in the middle of the most public section of the ship, as opposed to being tucked away in some exclusive, cozy corner. And yet Cunard wanted the Britannia's clientele, downtrodden masses that we were, to know that we, too, were special. "Make a grand descent into the Britannia restaurant," a plaque in the hallway read. "This magnificent two-tier salon soars three stories to an overhead light well. Classic columns accentuate the vertical grandeur. Her message is clear—Britannia does indeed rule the waves." (This last was a reference to the famous 18th-century patriotic British ditty with the refrain "Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!")
And the thing was, they were right. Though it seated more than 1,000 people at a time on its two plush-carpeted floors, the Britannia did, in fact, totally rule. The butter was pressed into little flower shapes, white tablecloths and silver were abundant, and we ordered off a four-course menu every night (appetizers, salads, entrees, and dessert). Only the wine was extra. The food was delicious, and the servers delivered thousands of meals a day with more élan than I would have thought possible. They brought us soba noodle salads and cod with mustard sauce and oak leaf salad with sherry vinaigrette, beef Wellington and warm apple strudel and cheese plates and lamb cutlets and duck breast and nougat glacé. When we really loved something, they brought us extra.
After feeding our son early and parking him at the "Kids Zone" (open until midnight expressly for parents who wanted to dawdle over their baked Alaska and espresso and possibly even catch the evening's entertainment without having the decadent, indulgent elegance of it all destroyed by the next generation), we dressed for dinner every night according to the prescribed attire. This ranged from elegant casual to semiformal to black tie and was printed in the Daily Programme along with trivia and history and a daily schedule so crammed with activities it made me dizzy.
All these things were, as promised, timeless. As was, in a less appealing prom-night kind of way, the occasional presence of a photographer who took shots of every dinner table—there's timeless and then there's tacky nostalgia. On the black-tie evenings, there were also photographers posted in the main hallways with backdrops of fake sunsets and ship railings taking posed shots of happy couples locked in fond embraces.
But as we unfurled ourselves on deck chairs on the Deck 7 promenade roughly midway through the trip, I realized that the timelessness around us was not entirely of the sort Cunard intended. The ship's staff was constantly trying to manufacture a certain sense of lost grandeur, but just by virtue of being at sea for six nights and six days, surrounded by nothing but water and existing nowhere other than a specific longitude and latitude, we were literally timeless. We had nowhere to be. None of the many activities, ranging from dance lessons to lectures to sushi demonstrations and art auctions were compulsory, and for the first time in years, we couldn't call each other on our cell phones to track each other's progress through the day. We made approximate plans to meet somewhere for lunch at noon or 1 o'clock and knew that we had all the time in the world to stand around and wait if the other person was late.
Even time itself was ever-shifting. On five of our six days at sea, we set our clocks back by one hour each night so that we would arrive in New York on Eastern Standard Time. As a result, we were never quite sure what time it was, and in the rare moments when we did know, it felt like a different time, anyway, since we were structureless—maybe Berlin time, which we had been accustomed to, or U.K. time, in which we had spent three days at a friend's house before boarding the ship. Every afternoon, a deck officer rang the ship's bell eight times to mark "the exact time of midday," but it seemed like a futile effort to connect us to the world on land. We soon learned to ignore it, because eight little rings did nothing to put a dent in the vastness of the ocean all around us and the ceaseless sliding by of the horizon.
Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her and Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid. She covers food for Bookforum and is currently at work on a book about the uses of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the 21st century, to be published in 2013.