Atlantic crossings didn't end with the 'Titanic'

There are still stylish ways to make the trip between Britain and America. And you even avoid jet lag.
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The Independent Travel
AS A CHILLY dawn broke over the Manhattan skyline we could just see the light shining in the torch of the Statue of Liberty. In almost complete silence, we approached the mouth of the Hudson River as the sky began to turn orange and then pink behind the giant twin towers of the World Trade Centre. I had visited New York many times before but never like this.

I had joined that small and elite group of people who have both the time and the money to shun sterile air travel and cross the Atlantic in traditional style from Southampton to New York in a leisurely five days. There is no jet lag, as the five hour time difference is accounted for by putting the clocks back each night, which proves a great bonus for late night revellers.

If it had not have for the daily newspaper summaries faxed to the ship by satellite links and the BBC World Service news bulletins broadcast in the cabins, it would soon have become all too easy to forget that there was a real world out there somewhere. Apart from a rare sighting of a giant container ship, the only company we had on the 3,000 mile crossing were sea birds and the occasional school of dolphins.

Which is why Cunard Line has tried to create a resort village atmosphere within the flagship of the British Merchant Navy. There is a gallery of shops selling everything from designer dresses to toothpaste, six restaurants, bars, theatres, the world's biggest floating library, a well equipped hospital and even a dental surgery.

With my every need taken care of by the ship's 1,000-strong crew, there was soon a real danger of becoming institutionalised. After a couple of days at sea there rarely seemed time to fit much in between a constant stream of extended meals. The phrase "meal break" began to take on a whole new meaning when it actually referred to those precious moments between meals.

Breakfast is available from 6am, followed by morning coffee, five-course lunches, full afternoon tea and a six course dinner. I watched in disbelief on the first night at sea as scores of passengers formed an orderly queue at the Lido Restaurant for the day's final feeding frenzy which starts at 11.30 pm and takes the form of a lavish buffet supper serving everything from hot roast beef to endless high-cholesterol puddings.

Just in case anyone gets a little peckish during the gaps between meals, there is all-day room service and the tuck shop does a roaring trade in chocolate bars and savoury snacks.

Although the QE2 is sold as a one-class ship, where you eat depends on how much you pay for your cabin. As a general rule, the higher the deck you choose, the bigger and more expensive your cabin is likely to be.

The top echelon eat in the select Queens Grill, the next tier are invited to eat in either the Britannia or the Princess Grills while the vast majority (around 1,200 of the 1,500 passenger capacity) sit in either the Coronia or Mauretania restaurants where the service is friendly and familiar rather than polished. In these 600-seat restaurants, the food is plentiful and varied without any pretensions of being billed as gourmet cuisine.

Surprisingly, the alternative self-service Lido and Pavilion restaurants, which appear to have been designed to recreate the relaxed Formica cafeteria atmosphere of modern cross-Channel ferries, were always packed with people seeking a break from the more formal dining areas.

Black tie and cocktail dresses are expected on three nights during the crossing in the main restaurants. Perhaps because all meals are included in the fares, most people seem determined to get their money's worth. The consumption figures are mind boggling.

In a typical day, the QE2 will use 2,500 tea bags, 3,200 eggs, 30 kilos of smoked salmon and 116 pounds of fresh lobster. Over 200 bottles of champagne are drunk daily and over the year, the ship claims to be the world's largest consumer of caviar.

To fill in the gaps between meals, there are purpose-built ladies and men's hairdressing salons, a huge spa and massage centre and a gym and aerobics centre complete with indoor swimming pool. On deck there is a second small pool, two Jacuzzis and the usual selection of deck games, including a golf practice net.

But the QE2 is no ordinary cruise ship. She was built 30 years ago as a robust 70,000-ton ocean-going liner capable of withstanding the violent storms which can sometimes occur on the North Atlantic crossing. Her steel hull is almost double the thickness of more modern vessels and the top speed of 32.5 knots is still faster than any other passenger ship operating today. Yet she is slim enough to be able to transit both the Panama and Suez canals, which many modern cruise ships are unable to do.

Described by her officers as the greyhound of the seas, the QE2 is also among the most stable of today's passenger ships with a draught of 33 feet, which is handy if there is a big swell outside just when you are trying to make an impression on the disco dance floor or keep your nerve at the roulette table in the ship's casino. She is also the only ship to have been awarded five stars by the RAC.

In the past 30 years, the ship has sailed more than 4 million miles and over pounds 300m has been spent on engine refits and upgrades (10 times its original cost). Yet in some ways, the ship refuses to be dragged into the Nineties. The furnishings, carpets and decor are still very much in the style of the Seventies and there is a constant whiff of cigarette smoke throughout the public areas and restaurants. There are no non-smoking cabins available and only the theatre/cinema has been designated as an enclosed smoke-free zone.

Not that this bothers the majority of passengers who tend to be rather elegant chain- smoking senior citizens who would look more at home with a cigarette holder than a filter tip. There are literally hundreds of rich widows who regard the ship as their second home and some have clocked up more than 1,000 days on board during various voyages.

A team of immaculately dressed gentlemen hosts are on hand to dance with these ladies and Cunard's marketing team ensures that their repeat passengers get special recognition with privileges including an invitation to the Captain's cocktail party and long service badges which are graded into various tiers culminating in silver and gold. There is even one gentlemanly crew member whose sole job is to cosset these passengers by tucking blankets around them in their chairs when they venture on deck. At times the boat deck can bear a strong resemblance to the seafront at Eastbourne.

But it would be unfair to describe the QE2 as a floating nursing home, since there is a constant schedule of activities to suit many different age and interest groups. These range from basic computer skills classes in a specially equipped computer learning centre, to art appreciation groups and couples massage sessions.

The North Atlantic is not noted for its fine weather conditions so sunbathing opportunities are quite limited on most crossings and most activities are focused inside. There are table tennis matches, aerobics sessions, dance classes, bridge parties and golf lessons. There was even a "Cellulite Seminar" on one afternoon.

I managed to avoid the daily bingo sessions and the afternoon napkin folding classes and I decided I wouldn't be able to contribute a great deal to the grannies' sherry get togethers to which the official ship's programme urged participants to bring along photographs to share.

On every voyage, a different well-known personality or author gives a series of lectures in the main theatre; the cinema has a good selection of the latest releases, and the live entertainment on my crossing ranged from classical piano concerts to Sixties rock group Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders who now wear cowboy hats to cover up their bald patches.

There are also lively karaoke sessions in the Golden Lion pub after dinner and a traditional jazz band turns up in various bars throughout the day. A live band plays pop music in the Yacht Club every evening and the club stays open as a discotheque until the early hours.

Whatever your own personal tastes and preferences, the QE2 is so big that it is easy to find a quiet corner to escape to. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be another ship built like the QE2, so crossing the Atlantic in such grand style may soon become a thing of the past. If you have the time, grab the opportunity and sail across just once for the experience... if only to impress your grandchildren.

QE2 fact file

The QE2 will recommence sailings from Southampton to New York on 15 April with regular departures throughout the year.

Fares start from pounds 1,400 for a basic inside cabin on deck five and including a one-way economy return flight. There are also promotional fares enabling passengers to cross the Atlantic both ways on the QE2 from pounds 1,650 or to travel one-way on Concorde at supplements from pounds 317 to pounds 830, depending on the class of cabin booked.

A package combining one-way by sea with a stay at New York's prestigious Waldorf Astoria Hotel and return by Concorde is available from pounds 2,510. Passengers can choose to travel from London to meet the ship at Southampton on board the Venice Simplon-OrientExpress train for a supplement of pounds 130.

For more information and reservations call Cunard on 01703 716500 or fax 01703 634500.

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