Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2

Opportunities for Observation
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 17 2010 7:05 AM

Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2

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Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. Click image to launch slide show.

After several days at sea, we settled into a routine. (We spent most of the early days getting lost in various stairwells, squinting at maps, and marveling at our swimming options.) We were entitled to three meals a day in the Britannia, but rather than subject our son to that many opportunities for intense squirming, we fell into the habit of eating breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria where we had gathered for the emergency drill on our first day.

We were not the only people with this idea. As any parent knows, it's much easier to feed a 3-year-old a quick sandwich or and cereal from a buffet that includes fruit, pastries, and more hot options than you could possibly sample in six days at sea than it is to force him into a four-course meal.

But the cafeteria was not patronized only by families, so it was also, as a friend of mine used to say about certain kinds of parties, good ethnography. There, milling around the banquets and tables laden with danishes and cold cuts and salads and tiny little jars of jam and honey, was a perfect cross-section of Queen Mary 2 passengers in their natural habitat. Their two main attributes were a) being British, which made sense given our port of departure and b) an abundance of navy-and-white striped "sailor" tops which, though disappointing in its unimaginativeness, also made sense, since the Queen Mary 2 herself was insanely self-referential, filled with murals, sculptures, paintings, photographs, and histories of cruise liners everywhere you looked.

There were many grandparents who wanted to coo over and pet our son; some other families with young children and a few with teenagers who, in the time-honored tradition of adolescents on vacation with their parents, looked as though they might be contemplating jumping overboard; a smattering of honeymooners; and one forbidding Swiss family whose members, even in the oatmeal line, were as perfectly turned out in their shorts and sneakers as they would be for a formal ball.

In the morning especially, surrounded by English muffins and pancakes and cubed melon, drowsily pondering the marvel that was a whole series of decorative birds of prey sculpted from butter, I could never tell who belonged to which class. We all waited with our trays in a state of utopian integration. The only sure-fire way of detecting even nationality was to examine the contents of passengers' mugs: Americans and Europeans generally had coffee, and the Brits, true to stereotype in the most charming way possible, had tea every single time. (As I learned from one of the historical panels hanging all over the ship, noting the differences between Americans and Brits is a long-standing pastime on Cunard ships. In 1896, a lady's maid traveling with her employers on the Campania remarked in her journal, "Got up this morning shortly after 7 and went to put out our chairs: could hardly get a place, these Americans are so cheeky. I have no chance at all: they would shove your chairs away if you didn't watch them.")

After breakfast each day, we deposited our child in the care of the cadre of British nannies who ruled over the Kids Zone and turned our attention to exploring. We checked out the planetarium, pondered the nautical fact of the day (example: "Cut and Run: If a captain of a smaller ship encountered a larger enemy ship, he might decide that discretion is the better part of valour, and so he would order the crew to cut the lashing on all the sails and run away before the wind"), and invariably skipped the morning lectures, which had titles like "In War and Peace—Lloyd George & Churchill" and "The Floating Palaces: The Great Atlantic Liners."

In the gift shop, we pondered an endless array of QM2 merchandise, and one day I eavesdropped as a passenger who looked to be in his 50s told the salesclerk about his love of the ship. "I have the photo collection of her through the years and the video of her making and maiden voyage to Fort Lauderdale," he said, his eyes shining. "It reminds me of watching my little girl grow up."

After these adventures, we would collect our son for lunch, eat our sandwiches (and hope for a sighting of the Swiss family yet again), and then spend the afternoons swimming and lounging before taking him to the early kids dinner and returning him to the Kids Zone so we could eat yet another four-course meal in peace.

On our third day at sea (dress code, formal; sunset, 10:12 p.m.) the great event—the Royal Event, to use Cunard's phrase—was the Black and White Ball, to be held from 9:45 to just past midnight, including a presentation by the ship's Dance Sports Team at 11. After finishing our dinner, we stopped for a drink at the champagne bar and then headed to the Queen's Room to check out the scene. There, in the semi-darkness, accompanied by the Queen's Room Orchestra, were the QM2 passengers at their finest. And though the sight was a bit on the cheesy side, it was also unexpectedly affecting. There were fathers dancing with their young daughters, one college-aged grandson taking his nana around the floor in a neat foxtrot, and scores of older couples reliving their heydays. The big band tunes, Glenn Miller's and Benny Goodman's best, carried us over the ocean and we danced that night until the Kids Zone closed.

Click here to view a slide show about traveling on the Queen Mary 2.

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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.