It has been a long time away from home at this point. For more than a month we have toured large swaths of North America; seeing friends old and new, catching up with every corner of our families. Surprisingly (to us, at least) we had not burned out on traveling. Long time readers may recognize a familiar thread in many of our trip recaps along the lines of “welp, this was fun but the last few days felt like a chore and we just wanted to be home.” There was none of that so far, on what had already been the longest trip we’ve been on since we retired to The Continent. (You can hear the “but” coming, can’t you?) But, we weren’t done yet. We had decided to punctuate this whole expedition with a fancy-pants cruise across the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary 2. So, how was that?
In short, it was “fine.” Not a sarcastic “fine”, a legitimate C+/B-, had a fine time. Let’s dig, shall we? When we left off last time, we had gone to sleep in a holding position due to some technical difficulties with the Queen Mary (QM2). We awoke to a ship on the move, pushing north with the American coast barely in sight. That would last for a day or so until we turned east and made for Southampton – our final destination. We actually had to look out the window to see that we were moving; under normal circumstances there was barely any motion at all, and neither of us ever had even a hint of seasickness (yay!). As we made our way east it turned out that we were racing a pretty serious storm system, causing the captain to pick up the pace to run ahead of choppy seas. We still got a little taste of it, with a couple days in which holding onto the ubiquitous handrails was necessary. For our European friends, you may remember really windy days in the middle of October that were so severe that everyone received emergency SMS on their phones about it. That’s what we were staying ahead of, and it had the serendipitious effect of making up any time we lost from the technical snafu on day 1. That’s the nuts and bolts of the route, but what about the cruising experience itself?
The QM2 is basically a very nice hotel on “wheels”, that does a pretty good job in most ways of minimizing the hotel-y feel of things. You don’t feel like you’re in a palace or anything, you’re definitely on hotel furniture in hotel accomodations, just in the middle of the ocean. That said, nothing ever felt cheap or looked like they were cutting corners. We were never uncomfortable. Dining was similar – they’re serving food at the scale of a major convention center, but have worked very hard to minimize the cattle-call nature of dinner and it mostly worked out. Likewise the quality of the food – it’s certainly better than average and was sort of like being at a nice wedding. There would be two or three options for your dinner entree and it was nicely prepared, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a tailored meal in a restaurant. Dinner was the only meal they have to be so regimented with the schedule (two seatings a night, go to your assigned table please) while breakfast and lunch were lightly-enough attended that you could be flexible in timing and where you sat. There were a couple of “restaurants” as well, which you could make a reservation at and pay a surcharge, and those had more robust menus and less banquet-style seating, but in most other ways the “hotel” vibe was still strong. Wait – did we say supplement? Ah yes, paying for things.
Our floating hotel was actually a floating all-inclusive type thing. (By the way, a lot of this is old hat if you’ve ever been on a cruise of any sort before, but it was all news to us!) Everything was included except for beverages, plus as we said above there were some “luxe” dining options that would tag you for an extra $30 or so. Were those options nice? Sure. Did we do it twice? No. So take that for what you will. If you weren’t in the mood to see other people, room service was also included for most things? Did John ever say “what the hell!” and have an ice cream sundae just show up? Maaaaaaaybe. On top of all this there’s a buffet/cafeteria setup that was open pretty much constantly, and then there were several “bars” – we’re still in hotel land, but they dress up different rooms like an English pub and a wine bar and a jazz joint etc… Speaking of bars, beverages past water were a separate charge but were actually not obscenely overpriced. There were “drinks packages” you could add to your bill to get all of your beverages “free” (aka included in the package) but we did the math and quickly concluded that we’d die of alcohol poisoning if we tried to get our money’s worth out of those packages; either there are more inveterate alcoholics on that ship than we realized, or some people just don’t want to have to think about prices. Oooookay.
So, food, got it. What do you do with your time, though? Unlike most cruises, we had no ports-of-call along the route, so there’s no “leave the ship for a day of zip lining before sailing to the next overgrown village” to break things up. Instead, they have a vast smorgasbord of activities to take part in. Watercolor lessons, play-writing workshops, concerts, lectures on diverse topics like astronomy or the wives of Henry VIII of England, dancing lessons in various styles… the list goes on. The trick is, there can be two or three such activities going on at any time, but in order to try and have topics of interest for all people it is a wild patchwork quilt of a schedule. There were a couple of days where we looked at the coming itinerary and thought “my goodness how will we do everything that we want?!” and even split up to cover more bases. But, there were also a couple days where absolutely nothing looked interesting to us, and we were left with a vast ocean and an equally vast swath of empty time on our schedules. You just never knew.
If nothing appealed to you on the calendar, they had some lovely spots to sit by windows and watch the world go by, and there was even a pretty substantial library tucked away with (we’re told) some 10,000 volumes in the catalog. Numerous music groups (a folk duo, a couple of jazz combos, a harpist) rotated through different parts of the ship; you could easily pass the time amiably, if aimlessly, at any point. And so, when you get down to the question of “how was it?” it boils down to “how many offerings were coincidentally things that you were interested in?” We had a fair number, so we had a fair time. It may be that our tiredness for travel was finally kicking in, but we just never fell in love with the whole affair – we’re glad we did it, but odds are low that we’d do it again.
Oh! There’s a casino. Sorry; neither of us are into that, so it was a complete blank in our memories until just this moment. At least it was quiet; you never walked anywhere on the ship and heard the characteristic blaring, jangly sounds of the classic casino floor.
Disembarking in Southamption was an incredibly smooth affair – one of the things we did admire about the cruise was the efficiency that had been baked into so many processes that could have been tedious grinds. We had a very specific window of time to leave (something like 8:06; you get the idea), at which time we walked right out and down to a bus that, when it filled up with the pre-assigned passengers, scooted down the highway to Heathrow airport. (They had a customs and immigration official who makes the journey specifically so they can process all of our traveling documents during the week of travel; another civilized touch.) We did our usual maneuver of having a hotel room booked at the hotel so that there was all the time in the world for something to go wrong without us missing our flight. Sure enough, our last little jog – the flight from London to Porto and then home with Orlando – was as smooth as a train on greased rails. That’s a thing, right? Anyway. Thousands of miles, hundreds of meals, dozens of friends and family seen, and finally – home.