I may have been a dubious first-time cruiser, but my hesitation was nothing when compared to that of my boyfriend, Richard.
His lifetime possessions consist mainly of books and a collection of various-sized hiking rucksacks – all of which can all fit into about 15 boxes. In short, if I’m the glamping type, he’s the pitch-your-own-tent camping type.
Yet somehow I manage to drag him into a cheap menswear formal wear rental shop on Charing Cross Road in London, where I’m based as a correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
I’d done so after he resisted the expectation that when one goes on a Cunard cruise between London and New York, one goes classy.
“I’m not wearing a tux,” comes the immediate retort, when I inform him of our planned luxurious and indulgent seven-night late autumn cruise aboard Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s flagship.
Richard’s resistance posed a bit of a problem. Part of Cunard’s venerable British brand, which can be traced to 1839 (Samuel Cunard was awarded the first British transatlantic steamship mail contract) is the dressing-up aspect.
That means tuxedo and all with a themed “gala night” held every three or four nights sailing.
Eventually the stalemate ends less than 24 hours before boarding with Richard set to don his first tuxedo. This better be worth it, I mutter, stress levels rising.
While no-one is actually obliged to dress up onboard a Cunard ship, as there are more casual venues where you can eat and hang out on the designated gala nights, it’s obvious that most passengers relish the opportunity to let their frocks hit the ground and to twist a bow-tie into shape.
I have little idea about what to expect and quite honestly if you had asked me 12 months ago if I’d go on a cruise, I would have flatly rejected the idea. But I fear we would feel like killjoys and out of place against the luxurious art deco gold and red interiors in QM2’s public areas if we don’t dress up.
For our trans-Atlantic cruise, we’ve chosen our ship well. The 345-metre-long QM2, with her nostalgic white and navy colour scheme, is Cunard’s custom-built cruise liner designed specifically for the rough Atlantic crossing towards the Big Apple.
As we clink champagne glasses on the stern deck and watch our departure point, Southampton, England, become a distant cluster of twinkling lights, you surely couldn’t find a couple more perplexed than us that we’d opted for sailing the waves instead of surfing the clouds.
That we could choose to set aside the time to voyage seven days when a seven-hour flight could do the same job, did feel wonderfully romantic and indulgent, particularly when combined with other attractions, such as an opportunity to completely switch off (wi-fi access can be purchased if you really need it).
For this cruise, we’ve booked the stately Queens Grill suite category of onboard accommodation and dining with our voyage destined to be awash with exclusive fine dining and champagne from start to finish.
It’s not long before this amuse bouche of a cruise reveals itself, quite simply, a hoot and a hugely sociable affair. From the start, we’re constantly surprised by the diversity in views, backgrounds and nationalities of the passengers we meet.
Of course, the other advantage of going on a cruise liner as large as Queen Mary 2 with room for 2620 passengers, is that, should you so choose, there is also plenty of space to avoid anyone with whom you don’t want to speak.
Yet, believe it or not, we never suffer such a need because we actually like everyone we meet. By chance we meet a delightful Scottish couple, begin chatting and end up sharing two bottles of Laurent-Perrier champagne, each of us dressed in our finest, Richard’s rented tux included.
While there’s a certain elegance attached to the evenings aboard QM2, as everyone promenades about the red-carpeted lobbies in their gowns and suits, Cunard is by no means stuffy.
In fact, if anything, the line could probably insist on being a little more rigorous adherence to dress code.
Our more casual days at sea begin with breakfast, either at the sizeable King’s Court buffet which caters to every dietary requirement or regime possible, or a more formal set menu in the more intimate Britannia room.
On one typical day of our cruise, we take a stroll around one of the outdoor decks, clocking up the kilometres and bravely bracing the winds whipping across us at a rate of 50 knots an hour.
On the lower decks, you could spend hours sitting inside by the windows watching waves that seem the size of mountains splitting into the sky, casting their white spray and slapping against the windows as though they were trying to enter.
At this height, just slightly above the level of the sea on the QM2, the waves are awe-inspiring and a reminder that the best show in town is always Mother Nature.
It all dispels my assumption that at sea there’s nothing to see, but every morning brings about a different view of the ocean due to the way the sun or clouds cover it. The colours of the water can be brilliant blue or foreboding grey.
After our windswept stroll, we change and whip to the elaborate onboard gym. It’s divided into three rooms and equipped with TechnoGym cross trainers, exercise bikes, rowers and treadmills as well as machine weights, a rack and plenty of free weights.
A shower is followed by lunch and then we decide between reading, games, a movie, or afternoon tea and trivia before getting ready for dinner, then onto a bar for drinks, some more trivia or a show, before collapsing on our turned-down bed.
We read the thoughtfully curated country-specific news bulletins (Australian for me, British for Richard) and view the televised in-suite map to see how much closer we are to RMS Titanic’s resting place.
We soon realise that aboard the QM2 we’re doing many of the things that neither of us have the time to do back home, such as watching a film, going to a show, or just sitting by a window and playing cards.
Eventually, the most magical part of our itinerary eventuates. It’s the seemingly forbidding 4am wake-up as the QM2 sail past Manhattan and into New York in the pre-dawn darkness.
It is worth the early start even if, as we head out onto the exposed deck, we’re dressed in essential thermals and in all the layers we’d brought in anticipation of the late autumn conditions in New York – a stark contrast to our evening wear.
It is freezing as it is beautiful as we crane our necks as the QM2 passes under the Verrazano-Narrows suspension bridge. But the most breathtaking of all is our sail past the Statue of Liberty.
She glows an illuminated iridescent green and we decide that there is no more majestic way to witness her than in the early morning darkness.
On finally reaching New York, I recall how I was slightly worried I may find seven days at sea boring. But I never feel that way, particularly in the excitement of the seas at their roughest and with the theatre shows, lectures and films all having to be cancelled.
I recall, too, how one of the Cunard crew had asked us on our first night, “would you cruise again?” and I’d been unable to answer honestly. But now the answer comes far more easily in the form of “a hundred per cent”.
I note, too, that Richard’s refrain has morphed from “I’m not wearing a tux” to “when are we going on a cruise again?” I reply: “Well if we’re going to add cruising to our travel mix you’ll need to buy not rent a tux this time.”
Latika Bourke cruised aboard Queen Mary 2 at her own expense.
A seven-night cruise aboard Cunard Queen Mary 2 between Southampton and New York starts from $2598 for a standard Britannia stateroom. Check the websites for departure dates and availability for 2024. See cunard.com
Air New Zealand operates flights from Auckland to New York. See airnewzealand.co.nz
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