These classic cruise liners still rule the waves

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The 'Queen Elizabeth' will be officially named tomorrow, but while the vessel is new, its spirit belongs to a long-gone age. Kate Simon reports

The wind is up in New York this evening.

A 50-knot gust is pinning the Queen Mary 2 to her berth. Now a couple of small tugs are trying to pull and push the 151,400-ton ocean liner free. It takes a good half-hour before she can put her nose into the wind, skim her red funnel beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and head out to sea.

The Cunard ship had arrived at Brooklyn Pier 12 the same morning. Within half a day it had disgorged passengers, taken on supplies, and refreshed its suites ready to return to Southampton with a new cargo of guests as well as some 400 souls making the round trip, content enough with just a day's shore leave in New York to stretch their sea legs. Cruises get some people like that.

A transatlantic voyage is just the thing for the hardcore cruiser. It takes seven nights for the Queen Mary 2 to cross from New York to Southampton (or vice versa). During that time, there's no respite from the tremble of the engines beneath your bed at night, or the roll of the waves that can make you totter like a drunk along the corridors. No solid ground to steady yourself on, not for a moment, not for a whole week. And there are no ports of call along the way, just an awful lot of thumb-twiddling hours to anticipate.

No problem. Ray Rouse, the avuncular entertainment director, has plenty of ideas to fill the time. We "Wake up with Ray" every morning. His half-hour show, broadcasting on a loop from 6am to 12 noon on the cabin telly, runs through what's on, interviewing the entertainers who have been hired for our fun and, this being classy Cunard, edification.

Ray tells us we can learn how to paint in watercolour, brush up our am-dram skills with a troupe from Rada, sing along to Bee Gees hits with the Groovy Choir, discover the secrets of the galaxy (in the only planetarium on the high seas) with the Royal Astronomical Society, appreciate the finer points of furniture design, or perfect the art of tying a square scarf with Gun, the ship's social hostess. Sometimes there's a famous speaker on board, a celebrity or politician. It's stellar stuff – Archbishop Desmond Tutu did the honours earlier this year.

There's dancing, gambling, films, quizzes, karaoke, shopping, board games, crosswords and puzzles, art auctions, computer classes, a spa and gym, or you can take a swim in the on-deck pools. If the breadth of choice leaves you breathless, just pull up a steamer chair and stare at the endless horizon.

Between times, there's eating. In this timeless zone, eating provides a handy way to measure out the day. No sooner is breakfast done than lunch beckons. High tea is just around the corner, followed quickly by dinner. I'm not sure if it's the swell of the ocean or the groan of my overfed stomach that has me tossing and turning in my bed by the third night of the voyage.

The liner's annual shopping list is gargantuan. It includes 249,000lb of potatoes, 8,000 industrial-sized bags of flour, the weight of 50 SUVs in pineapples, enough meat to feed Southampton for a whole year. And 1,350,000 tea bags. No need to pack the Tetley, then.

Everyone is free to dine in the vast self-service food hall, the Kings Court, but each passenger is also allocated a seat at a table in a restaurant according to the kind of cabin they've booked. Cunard is quick to dispel the notion that there's a bit of upstairs-downstairs going on here, but it's obvious that what differentiates the Britannia Restaurant from the Princess and Queen Grills is the price of your suite.

Yet the food is consistently good across all the restaurants – and the buzzy Britannia wins best atmosphere hands down. The only disappointment is Todd English, named after the celebrated American chef whom Cunard has chosen to run its top dining experience, a vital asset for any cruise line these days. Despite the efforts of the interior designers, the space feels soulless if undersubscribed, and the food isn't of a sufficiently higher standard to that offered in the other dining rooms to warrant paying the $30 supplement.

I like dining à la carte in the traditional crisp-linen comfort of the Princess Grill where our table has been reserved. Mum, who has joined me for this trip, prefers roaming, tray in hand, around the Kings Court buffets. It is the only cause of friction between us during the whole trip.

Aged 81, my mum seemed the perfect companion to take along on a sedate voyage of this kind. But while her peer group dominates the decks, it would be unfair to imply that the ship is populated only by old folk. There are plenty of my fellow fortysomethings on board and they are not all accompanying their mothers – they are here because they want to be.

Not for them the thrills and spills of the zip-lines and climbing walls offered by rival cruise lines, this lot craves dicky-bowed nights doing the cha cha cha to the big band in the ballroom. And they are practised on the dance floor, too – this is no fleeting trend inspired by Strictly. I am gauche by comparison: when one of the ship's professional dance escorts offers to mark my card, I mistake him for a waiter and order a gin and tonic. I don't know who is more humiliated. My mother is appalled.

Cunard will be hoping that these younger cruise fans (about 1.5 million British residents now take a cruise each year and the number continues to grow) will be tempted to book on to its new ship, the Queen Elizabeth, which will be launched by the Queen tomorrow in Southampton before setting sail on her maiden cruise around the world.

The new Queen Elizabeth is smaller than her six-year-old sister ship, Queen Mary 2: it's about 100 feet shorter at 964.5ft, with room for 552 fewer passengers, a total of 2,068 berths. And she doesn't have the Queen Mary 2's distinctive long bow, designed for scything the Atlantic waves.

But in most other respects, this third-generation Queen Elizabeth – the second largest "Cunarder" ever built – will offer a similar experience to her sisters Mary and Victoria. Beyond the gangplank (which these days is more like the air-bridge to a plane), passengers will find a familiar Art Deco-inspired scene of glossy light woods, highly polished brass and marble, and carpets that some, like me, might appreciate more for the pile than the pattern.

New offerings will include the first spa at sea to feature Remède products, and shopping from retail names never available before on a ship – Fortnum & Mason, Hackett, Harris Tweed and Anya Hindmarch are all signed up. But the most impressive addition is the 5.6m-high marquetry screen by David Linley, which is the centrepiece of the Grand Lobby. It depicts the original Queen Elizabeth, which entered service in 1936, using nine wood veneers, including Indian ebony and American walnut. You don't have to be a royalist to admire the craftsmanship on show.

Such extravagant references to yesteryear underline what this cruise line is all about. Any of the top-class rivals can compete with Cunard's contemporary facilities, but none of them have its history. Step on to a red-and-black liveried Cunard liner and the price of your ticket includes the illusion of being transported to a golden age of travel when film stars and heads of state still walked the decks and flirted over dinner.

That era may be long gone, but the new Queen Elizabeth will ensure its spirit lives on.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Kate Simon was a guest of Cunard (0845 0710 300; cunard.co.uk), which offers transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York on the Queen Mary 2 from £899, including a one-way flight. Queen Elizabeth offers voyages from £499 per person. She travelled to New York with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which offers return fares from £355.

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