Legendary QE2 makes last ocean crossings

Freelancer Suzanne Lavenas spent a week crossing the Atlantic during the final transatlantic season of the Queen Elizabeth 2. Her report follows:

t's big, but other passenger ships are bigger. It's elegant, but so are other vessels. The food is exquisite and the service is impeccable, but these elements can be matched on other ships. What makes the Queen Elizabeth 2 unique is its style -- and its history.

And sad to say, this is to be the venerable ocean liner's last transatlantic season. A few months after the QE2 makes its last ocean crossing in December, the newly commissioned Queen Mary 2 will take over, offering the only scheduled transatlantic service from New York to Southampton, England.

The QE2 is not -- repeat, not -- going into mothballs. This fabled ship still will ply the oceans, concentrating on Europe cruising and its 110-day round-the-world trip.

The Queen Elizabeth 2, long the flagship of the Cunard fleet, is sailing its final transatlantic season. The QE2 and transatlantic travel go together like caviar and toast, or at least they have since the liner was introduced in 1969. An Atlantic crossing concentrates the traveler on the ship rather than on the destinations. Life at sea becomes an end in itself.

On a recent crossing, we left New York bathed in a light fog. We didn't see land again until the ship made an unaccustomed stop at Cherbourg in Normandy, before turning north to Southampton, its home port.

The mood on this almost-last trip of its kind was far from solemn. The repeat travelers intended to keep on cruising on the QE2 -- after they've sampled the QM2. The first-timers seized the rapidly vanishing opportunity for a romantic transatlantic voyage they had heard about for much of their lives.

Some of the passengers were long-time devotees, including the Long Island couple who had sailed on this ship a staggering 40 times.

More typical was Gordon Wise, a Texas attorney on his third crossing. He had a conference to attend in Britain, but he also wanted to see the landing beaches of Normandy, a side trip from Cherbourg.

Wise reeled off a list of reasons for embarking on a leisurely voyage instead of the quicker and cheaper plane ride: For one thing, he welcomed the chance to live a life that harks back to days gone by.

Above all, he was attracted to the formality.

Four of the seven nights aboard were designated as formal, and men wore dinner jackets while the women flaunted a variety of elegant dresses whose length depended on age and nationality. There was nary a pantsuit or sports jacket in sight.

In fact, dressing up was so popular that many people did it every night.

Other passengers remarked on the serenity and the slower pace. "It gives me time to decompress," said one, a banker.

A further attraction was the international cast of passengers. Only about half were American.

"Selling the QE2 is selling a dream," said William Brown, whose company, Platinum Seminars, teaches agents how to do exactly that.

"The QE2 is an ocean liner, not a cruise ship," he said. "It's more intellectual, classier."

Despite the designer clothes and jewels, the QE2 experience is pretty relaxed. There are no announcements over the loudspeaker, and there is no enforced fun. For three days, we enjoyed balmy weather more associated with the Mediterranean than the Atlantic in May, and you could find folks in their deck chairs nibbling scones and sipping Earl Gray tea as if they were at London's Connaught Hotel.

To most people, a luxury liner means lavish meals, spa treatments and Broadway-style shows. The QE2 is no exception.

In the spa, passengers could enjoy a range of treatments, from aromatherapy to thalassotherapy, seaweed and detoxifying treatments.

But guest speakers brought a more serious side to the ship.

On this sailing, mystery novelist and lawyer Linda Fairstein talked about writing, crime and New York.

An intrepid husband-and-wife team recounted their hair-raising trek across the Antarctic, and a Concorde pilot described his adventures in the air, including the time his plane lost half its tail.

By now you may have figured out the theme for this sailing: "Exploration and Discovery." Each QE2 crossing keeps to a particular theme, ranging from rock 'n' roll to movies to a murder-mystery cruise.

Many passengers also found food for the mind in the library and bookshop, which were full of volumes on ships and the sea, poetry and philosophy as well as the latest bestsellers.

In the dining rooms, there was fabulous food for the body. For breakfast there were creamy shirred eggs topped with caviar. It was a dish rich enough for the ruler of Bahrain, and it kept me going -- until noon, that is. At lunch I tucked into a perfectly prepared mixed grill with beef and pork mignon, lamb cutlet, bacon and tomato.

For dinner I went a little over the top with game terrine for a starter and a main course of colonial lamb curry. It had just enough bite to display authenticity but still be nonthreatening to Western taste buds. The menu also featured Continental dishes, such as duck l'orange and rack of lamb.

And if you weren't pleased with that day's five or six selections and five courses, there was always the a la carte menu. An excellent vegetarian main course, such as corn and spinach fritters on sauteed bok choy, was offered at every meal, as was a spa menu.

As on the famous ocean liners of the past, passengers are assigned a dining room according to class of cabin. I had a Queens Grill cabin and ate at the top level, but the quality of the other four restaurants was just as high. The single seating encouraged diners to relax and have a leisurely meal.

There were fewer choices at the Caronia and the Mauretania, the only restaurant to require two seatings instead of one. The casual Lido buffet was a haven for those who wanted to forego formality.

Except for the dining room tiers, everything else on the ship was open to all cabin designations: the lively casino, the Yacht Club dance floor and the Golden Lion Pub.

At the end of a long day, I happily retreated to my stateroom, which was almost as big as a New York studio apartment. Three windows and two dressing areas complemented the standard cabin accouterments. I sat back in my chair and imagined myself on a round-the-world journey. There certainly was enough room for 110 days' worth of clothes.

The remaining crossings scheduled for this farewell transatlantic season are: eastbound, June 25 to July 1, July 22 to 28, Aug. 17 to 23, Sept 1 to 7, Sept. 25 to Oct. 1 and Oct. 19 to 25; westbound, June 19 to 25, July 16 to 22, Aug. 11 to 17, Aug. 26 to Sept. 1, Sept. 19 to 25, Oct. 1 to 7, Oct. 19 to 25. All are for seven days.

The distinguished Queen will sail in tandem with the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Southampton on April 25, 2004. The ships will be docked in the Port of New York together -- the first time two "Queens" have been in port together since the 1940s, Cunard Line said.

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For more details on this article, see Cunard guests can pair final QE2, Concorde crossings with packages.

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