“Isn’t this EXXX-CITING?” exclaims the sophisticated British woman standing behind me in the queue. We are about to embark onto Her Majesty Queen Mary 2 to traverse 3632 nautical miles from the port of Southampton, England to her berth in Brooklyn, NY.
I couldn’t agree more. I am experiencing my own anticipatory jolt as I ascend the multi-level gangway to be welcomed onboard by a committee of nautically-clad officers from the ship’s “Company”. As I officially step foot on level 3 of the ship (please, not a boat – she is a ship!) and start to consider the indulgences awaiting me, I find myself in the Godiva Café. Oh! An entire café devoted to chocolate. And espresso drinks with chocolate. And espresso drinks with alcohol and chocolate. This bodes very well indeed.
In truth, I am not an OTO (one time only). I was fortunate to have been invited by a fellow travel addict, aka Dad, to sail last year when QM2 journeyed from the UK to NY via a special stop in Nova Scotia. We feted the 150th anniversary of Canada, and specifically Nova Scotia, the birthplace of Samuel Cunard, founder of the line of ships which include the QM2, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Victoria. That was an unforgettable experience. Picture port and starboard balconies filled with passengers of many nationalities, energetically waving Canadian flags as our ship makes a slow full turn in the harbor and halts in front of the maritime museum. Loud blasts are sounded from QM2’s horn, a fire boat produces impressive
watersprays, Theodore Tugboat strides alongside us, and then we spot the throngs of locals who’ve come to welcome us and wish us well on the final leg of our journey.
Kilted Scotsmen work their bagpipes, a cannon fires in rapid succession and..what is THAT? Ahh… the faint notes of O Canada being played by a local band on shore. The unexpected emotion of that moment is difficult to describe. I was stunned by this spontaneous and active display of kinship among strangers as well as the patriotism which felt celebratory and universal, not one-sided. For that brief spell, we transcended politics, ethnic differences, angst. Unforgettable.
But this year, it’s a straight shot. 7 days at sea. Lazy man’s jetlag salve as we push back our clocks by merely one hour on 5 of our 7 nights to align with EDT.
One quickly falls into the onboard rhythm which is punctuated by mealtimes. In fact, everything else seems to just fill in the gaps between breakfast, donut “hour” (10-12pm), elevenses, and lunch to afternoon tea (yes, the real deal with proper tea in proper china cups, scones, clotted cream, berry jam, crustless sandwiches, pastries),
cocktail hour, dinner, and the late night buffet which beckons until 2am. You are, however, on your own with just room service to fuel you between 2 and 5:30am.
There are 146 chefs creating tempting delights in an array of venues. Our favorite is the Carinthia Lounge which has a European café feel and serves light bites, cocktails and espresso drinks. It also features live music multiple times daily, including late afternoon when the tall, serious pianist will play Bach. For a more casual option, the King’s Court buffet – which I nicknamed The Trough – provides seemingly limitless options.
Stretching nearly the full length of the ship, The Trough features a one-time-per-sailing Chocolate and Ice Buffet replete with splendid ice carvings, chocolate fountains, homemade truffles, and a gaggle of other chocolaty treats.
Those with food sensitivities will find plenty of options. My dad suggested that the Gluten-Free section should be renamed the Glutton-Free section, until I pointed out that based on the consumption taking place, it probably wouldn’t attract many visitors.
In the main Britannia restaurant, 2400 multi-course meals are served nightly over the course of two seatings – at either 6pm or 8:30pm.
90 dozen eggs are cracked each morning for breakfast alone. Apparently, we consume 135 gallons of cream daily. There is always food on board for at least 21 days and as long as we are 12 miles away from the nearest port, the leftovers can be pureed and “fed” to the ocean.
Speaking of ports, there are none between England and the U.S. on this journey, so it is with extra interest that we await the daily noontime Ringing of the Ship’s Bell. At this point, our Captain regales us with interesting details about the general area where we are sailing, how far we are from the nearest land mass, our speed in knots, nautical miles sailed/remaining and the weather forecast. This is how we learn about Sable Island, where a colony of feral dark horses roam under protected status, since their original introduction here in the late 1700’s. And about the Flemish Cap – which is neither Flemish, nor apparel for the head – but a unique oceanic area where warm and cool waters mingle to create an exceptionally robust set of fishing grounds. Then there was the day we learned that we were going to be sailing a mere 230 miles from the Titanic’s final resting place. I think that sent many of us to the Chart Room Bar for liquid sustenance.
During the seven day cruise, we will dress for 4 “smart attire” dinners and 3 “gala formal” meals. Gala nights give permission for passengers to don their most elegant apparel and given the clientele on board, this will include Scots in full national regalia, Brits in formal military uniforms, and lavishly-masked ladies and gentlemen (on Masquerade Ball night).
My most memorable bites served were (surprise – desserts!) – Baked Alaska and a sublime Grand Marnier souffle, the center of which is gently deflated, tableside, to make way for the introduction of a hot, creamy vanilla sauce.
As it’s my second round on board, I’m more familiar with some of the essential info. Don’t think you can avoid the mandatory safety exercise, the Muster Drill, because they WILL hunt you down, reprimand you, and require you to miss out on a yoga class to attend the make-up session.
The library on Deck 8 is well-stocked, offers daily brainteasers, and has lovely chairs to sink in and relax, read, or enjoy the view. But not when the gale force is 6+; given its forward location, this results in a bumper-car-tummy-itis.
Dinnertime (the seating other than yours) typically provides the best opportunity to nab a coveted washer or dryer. (I could write a whole post on Onboard Laundry Wars and the self-appointed Laundry Police; if you want to experience the height of tension on ship, it’ll be towards the end of the cruise when 2300 people want clean clothes.)
The cappuccino is free in the Britannia but costs $4.20 everywhere else. The tea is free everywhere but not in the Golden Lion Pub, which, by the by, is an excellent alternative to more standard dining options. Particularly if you want to veer into something truly British such as the Steak and Guinness Mushroom Suet Pudding, the Cumberland Sausage with Bubble and Squeak, the Ploughman’s, Fish and Chips, or the Cottage Pie topped with Double Gloucester Cheese and a Herb Crumb.
The Pub is also home to thrice daily Trivia Contests. This is one of the opportunities for us Type A’s to freely be, well, Type A. It’s absolutely essential to align yourself with a strong team, starting Day 1. Ideally you want a mix of Brits and non-Brits on your team because many of the questions will be unanswerable by “the Others”. In this case of this sailing, a Scot would’ve come in handy as several questions, selected by our Scottish hostess, Paige, were blatantly out of our team’s league. What’s a SPURTLE? (a wooden Scottish kitchen tool, dating from the fifteenth century, that is used to stir porridge, soups, stews and broths). Neeps and Tatties are foods of what country? (how did we miss this one? Scotland! It’s an accompaniment to haggis – turnips/swedes and potatoes.) Withered apples used for making cider are known as what? (SCRUMPY! – which was not one of the 7 dwarves, per another question). Who was the first person to be referred to as The Thinking Man’s Crumpet? (Joan Bakewell.) Who wrote A Scot’s Quair? (sounds like Choir when spoken aloud, not that this helped us at all…anyway, it was Lewis Grassic Gibbon, if you want to know. Seems like Gibbon might have written Caps for Sale, but I digress…)
Advice for your QM2 packing list — a highlighter. This is indispensable for identifying which of the myriad of daily activities beckon. Ginger is also a must; I take the candied slices as well as the individually wrapped hard candies; this is your go-to for choppy seas and any kind of digestive assistance. Also, while it may seem obvious, don’t forget your trainers (aka sneakers or “running shoes” for us Californians). If you are used to being outdoors frequently, you might experience a touch of CAS – Caged Animal Syndrome- a condition that appears without warning when you haven’t had fresh air or been able to exercise out of doors. Deck 7 is where you want to be to address this ailment. Three circular jaunts (why yes, you are literally going around in circles) on the ship’s perimeter will get you 1.1 miles AND a free, moisturizing facial treatment from the sea air.
I believe the impact of the gale force winds should be good for another couple hundred extra calories
burned. And despite seven days with only watery vistas on both port and starboard, if, while marching along Deck 7, you look carefully, you will see interesting sights. For example, the European men who actually manage to pull off wearing RED trousers or shorts and still look chic.
The two loooong-haired, elderly spinster sisters straight out of a Victorian movie who have journeyed onboard for multiple years (but not as many as the couple who were featured/celebrated for having travelled with Cunard on 17 Around the World cruises for a total of over 3200 nights on ship). And the 3 Mennonite couples, in traditional attire, strolling outside the buffet; I never spotted them on Gala nights, but I admit to harboring (no pun intended) a curiosity about their chosen Formal Wear. Perhaps the best sighting was at dawn one morning as I was “lapping” on Deck 7; I was rewarded with the sighting of a pod of long-finned, black pilot whales.
Finally, get out of your comfort zone and talk to strangers. Because really, there are no strangers when you’re all jumbled together for 7 days on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Spontaneous conversation with a lovely Irish couple garnered me insider info about where to spend time (and eat!) on our upcoming trip to Dublin. Another incredibly warm twosome, who hail from the Isle of Jersey (atop my daughter’s Bucket List for the Gerald Durrell Zoo) wasted no time extending an invitation to visit and stay with them there!
In turn, I’ve provided useful information to non-Americans and first time QM2 cruisers as well. Most of their inquiries center around what to do while in New York City, but equally important is how to optimize our sail into the port of Brooklyn. You want to arise early to travel under the Verrazano Bridge at 4:45am. The port side is the place to be; it affords the prime viewing spot for Lady Liberty at approximately 5:15am.
Regarding, the highly-anticipated chocolate and ice sculpture buffet, it is announced for 11:30am-2:30pm, but you want to be there at 11:20 because I promise you, the locust-impersonators will descend and obliterate it ALL – the chocolate cake pops, tartes, torts, cakes, fondue, truffles, brownies, cupcakes, mousses, puddings, terrines, and parfaits – in no time flat. Trying to consume all of this on Chocolate/Ice Buffet Day is a rookie mistake! (How else will you have room for afternoon tea with the scones, lamingtons, flapjacks, millionaire bars, cheesecake, bakewell and banoffee tarts, cookies,
profiteroles, fruit tarts, Battenberg slices, lemon mallows, gold dusted choux buns, and Paris Brests — misspelled on one sign as “Paris Breasts”.) You want to assemble a small (or large) plate with your favorite temptations and then deftly tuck that away in your cabin’s fridge for access over the next few days whenever you’re feeling a bit peckish.
The good news is that there are some culinary offerings that you will be able to reject without needing to invoke your willpower. These include Kippers, Kedgeree (cooked, flaked fish, boiled rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder, butter or cream, and occasionally raisins), and the ultimate marketing ploy “Haggis Bonbons.” The rather wobbly Mushy Peas Terrine and aforementioned Suet Pudding might also be easy to wave on by.
In the comparatively brief timeframes when you are not eating, there are plenty of activities. In addition to necessary laps on Deck 7, those Trivia contests are great for socialization and intellectual stimulation.
There are also darts, bingo, “Silly Putting”, paddle tennis, bridge, baggo, blackjack, quoits, dancing, lectures by expert guest speakers (I enjoyed a talk by a Harvard Med School
trained neurosurgeon about the spiritual impact of medicine), singalongs, a full array of daily musical offerings, a planetarium,
movies, flower arranging, watercolors, needlework and knitting, lessons on using your ipad, story-writing, fruit and vegetable carving, a galley tour, affiliation social hours, religious services, gemstone seminars, an art gallery, many fitness and health classes (eg, “Today -Acupuncture Open Clinic with Tongue Analysis!”), a Canyon Ranch Spa, signature cocktail tastings, evening entertainment (ventriloquism, anyone?), and shopping. The $10 fashion event, featuring evening bags, scarves, jewelry sets, belts, and wallets is a sure-fire dopamine booster after being at sea for many days.
In the end, there are many fine moments on board. Among them, the adventure, the culinary offerings, the electronics detox, the British-ness of it all, winning at Trivia, and special time with my beloved dad. But perhaps the greatest moment was sailing into New York at dawn on that August morning. Here is what I wrote as I sat pensively in the Carinthia Lounge, having just docked in Brooklyn after 7 days at sea:
“3:45am, the local pilot ship is awaiting our vessel and leads us through Ambrose Channel, the main shipping path for New York. It’s now 4:45am and still dark. We glide under the Verrazano bridge.
Manhattan sleeps in the distance.
And there is Lady Liberty, steady and strong, raising her torch.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(And for a moment, I am overcome with emotion, as I feel just a bit of what both maternal and paternal grandparents must have felt, as they sailed into these very waters from Berlin and from Vienna, exactly 80 years ago. For me, it will be a fun few days in New York with friends and family. For them, the start of a new life in a very foreign place. I imagine their hopes and dreams and relief and fears, what they left behind, and the requirement to accept the unexpected.)
“QM2 completes a 180 turn in the harbor (no easy feat). The excitement of the passengers who have just
witnessed Manhattan for the very first time. A building’s spire appears through cloudy cover; it’s truncated by grey-white billows. The light slowly emerging, kissing the sleek steel skyscrapers. In a moment, the city is suffused in light. This scene may unfold every morning but today it belongs to us as we quietly glide into the harbor. The massive hive of human activity seems to be still.”
In a matter of hours, I will no longer be a passenger on the QM2. I will be one of 8.5 million people in steamy New York. I will enjoy great Greek food, the Central Park zoo, shopping for spices in Little India, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and excellent oat milk cappuccinos. But a part of me will still be on board Her Majesty QM2, sailing into New York harbor, my European ancestors by my side.
Grand Marnier Souffles
This recipe has been revised slightly from one that appeared in the New York Times; original authors were Pierre Franey and Bryan Miller. The souffles are gluten-free and can easily be made dairy-free if you substitute margarine, oil, or cooking spray for the butter.
- 1 tablespoon butter at at room temperature. You can substitute margarine or coconut oil or cooking spray. I like butter best.
- ½ cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 5 eggs, separated
- ⅓ cup grated orange rind
- 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (you can substitute Cointreau or other orange liqueur)
- 3/4 tsp orange extract (optional)
- Preheat oven to 4oo degrees.
- Use the butter to grease four 1-cup souffle dishes. Sprinkle a total of 1 tablespoon of sugar over the insides of the 4 souffle dishes.
- Place the egg yolks in a bowl and add 1/2 cup sugar, the orange rind and the Grand Marnier. add orange extract if using. Beat briskly until well blended.
- In a large, deep bowl, beat the egg whites (with hand held beater or KitchenAid) until just turning stiff, but don’t overbeat beyond this point. Toward the end, beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.
- Fold the whites carefully into the egg and orange mixture. Divide equal portions of the mixture in the prepared souffle dishes.
- Put the dishes on a baking sheet, and place in the pre-heated oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes, and serve immediately. (If the tops start to brown too soon, quickly cover with some foil and finish baking.)
Note: just out of curiosity, I tested delaying baking the souffle mixture and am pleased to report that it lasted about an hour in the fridge before baking – no detrimental effects noted. That said, it’s always better to bake these right away.