I DO NOT KNOW why, but I have always wanted to cross the Atlantic on one of the great liners. And I wanted to do it first class. I wanted to trap-shoot off the fantail, dance the tango, eat lobser at every meal. Well, I crossed.
Crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2, 1981--first class, of course -- turned out to be a strange experience. It was wonderful. And it was boring.
That's not to say that crossing the Atlantic on this most magnificent of ships is not worth the price. It is worth every cent -- and it can cost many times the air fare. It is just that the doing is a lot more tedious than the dreaming.
I did taste something that will probably soon be part of the past. As Cunard says of the QE2, "She is the last bastion of a mode of travel and a way of life that, for most of the world, can only be experienced vicariously." Unfortunately, that's the only thing exciting about crossing: the knowledge that I have done it.
Now, I did not start out with any "Love Boat" fantasies. (I did have two dime-novel fantasies: that the ship would hit an iceberg and sink as I radioed the story to newspapers throughout the world; that some high roller in the casino would let me bring him luck and would give me all his winnings, which would happen to total $3.5 million.)
But I did cross in style. And that may have been a mistake.
When people in their early thirties have $5,000 to spend (plus the cost of clothes), they rarely seem to spend it on one week of almost total luxury. That's something their parents -- and grandparents -- do. But I felt I would probably cross on an ocean liner only once in my life, so I was determined to do it first class. And I planned to round out the week with a day or two in London, staying at the Ritz -- first class all the way.
On crossings, the QE2 has classes: "transatlantic" and first (on cruises she is a one-class vessel). Within first class are three subclasses based on your stateroom price that determine the restaurant you may eat in. Those paying least are limited to the Columbia Restaurant; pay a little more and you may also eat in the Princess Grill; pay the most and you may eat in those two or the Queen's Grill.
I paid the most (not all of my $5,000 vacation allotment, and not the very top-priced cabin available, but $3,763 -- plus a few room-service charges and tips -- for five nights aboard the ship, two nights at the Ritz and a British Airways ticket home). What I did not buy was exclusivity.
The QE2 is, in reality, a classless ship. Non-first-class passengers can go in any of the public rooms unchallenged. True, they cannot eat in the Queen's Grill, but I could not eat in their restaurant. It's simply a question of seating. The only indication of class I saw on the ship was a discreet sign at the entrance to the cocktail lounge for the Queen's Grill: "First Class Passengers Only."
When I was booking at the Cunard offices in New York, I asked if everyone on the ship would be over 60. The booking agent looked at me and said she would recommend the Columbia Restaurant. I tried to compromise with the Princess Grill, but got bumped up into the Queen's Grill -- something about my request for seating at a large table in the Princess Grill arriving too late.
I'm not sure that even traveling in steerage would have made much difference. According to the passenger photos posted outside the casino (shot at boarding in New York and for sale at $4 each), there weren't that many traveling alone, and except for a few children, there weren't that many young people. Taking the elevator up to the boarding level at the terminal, I looked at the other passengers and had this awful feeling that I would be crossing with a shipful of my parents. It was worse. It was crossing with my aunt.
Everybody was on their good behavior. Even the children didn't act up in public. Nobody at my table saw a drunken passenger. We were all dressed up in our Sunday best, parading our Sunday manners. And Sunday is the dullest day.
In fairness to Cunard and the QE2, let me say that there were certainly opportunities for a little Saturday Night Fever. Yes, there were men -- tall, distinguished, brilliant, obviously successful and unattached men. They were over 60. I couldn't handle that. I hid in my stateroom. At night I looked for opportunities to slip away before having to face that nightmare question, "Your cabin or mine?" Helen Gurley Brown will probably never speak to me again, but I was terrified that one of them would have a heart attack on me. I am just not That Cosmo Girl.
But if that was the worst part of the trip, one of the best was watching New York slip away as we sailed out of the harbor. Dressing for dinner that first night in a stateroom filled with long-stemmed red roses and orchids from thoughtful friends and relatives was the most exciting part of the trip.
A trip like this depends on whom you draw for dinner. At that point I had no idea whom I'd be seated with. All Cunard had asked me was what size table I preferred. Since most people book through a travel agent, Cunard was really seating us blind, and changing seats would be virtually impossible, Cunard officials said.
Reality was: a widow, a widower, an unattached man and a couple whose daughter graduated from college before I started. They all seemed to be retired, and they were all at least 30 years older than I am. The widower, who drove a Pierce Arrow when it was new, was probably 50 years older.
The evenings got dressier, but the excitement was over. I find making up a chore, and I enjoy it only when it's part of creating a fantasy. This was like having dinner with relatives; there was no point in being beautiful. It's not that the people were boring -- they weren't -- but polite strangers make polite conversation, and it wears thin, especially since we were together for five days.
Changing tables each day would help. Changing partners would increase the chances of finding a few winners. Open seating at breakfast would also go far to eliminate the absurdity of sitting alone at a table for six without even a newspaper to keep you company. But traditions do not die easy.
Boredom is the problem the ship, like the gods, must struggle against. Most of the time it is a vain struggle. In "Act One," Moss Hart wrote, "Boredom is the keynote of poverty . . . for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not of scene or of routine." Boredom is also the keynote of transatlantic crossings, and -- though there is a great deal of money aboard -- for much the same reason.
The scene is always the same, one wave after another. They do get bigger in mid-Atlantic (that was where I started asking God to cancel the iceberg), but if you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. Inside, you can walk around looking at the rooms and shops. But little changes. Nobody suddenly puts up a Burger King on the Boat Deck, the shop-window displays hardly change (a $10,000 gold and diamond bracelet did disappear from the jeweler's window, so perhaps someone was having a more exciting crossing than I).
The only interesting display was tucked forward of the Queen's Grill. A T-shirt proclaimed "I've Been on Top," but it pictured a double-deckered London bus.
There were activities: jogging and exercises (done without sweat or sound), a gym somewhere, swimming pools indoors and out, the casino (slot machines plus blackjack and roulette during specified afternoon and evening hours), table tennis, miniature golf, movies, a betting pool on the distance the ship traveled. And trap-shooting.
I had looked forward to trap-shooting. I had fantasized striding the deck with a gun under my arm, shouting "Pull!" from time to time. No way. First of all, you have to pay -- $2 for four shots. That irked me. (The ship also charges for a reserved deck chair, which I also found annoying.) You have to line up to wait your turn; first class buys no privilege. You have to stand inside metal partitions with the gun resting on a ledge. The attendant shouts "Pull!" I never bothered.
Those may sound like a lot of things to do, but not when you have five days to fill. And they were short days. I crossed from New York to Southampton, which meant losing an hour each morning. If I had crossed the other way, I would have had five more hours. I don't think I could have stood it. After the first day or two, the question stopped being "What will I do today?" and became "What the hell will I do today?"
What I did do was get up about 9 or 10 and eat a light breakfast in my room or in the Queen's Room. I'd dress and make up. Then I'd walk around the decks, then walk someplace and sit for 15 minutes, walk someplace else and sit for another 15 minutes, walk to a lecture -- Edwin Newman spoke about language and about the news business; Kevin Kline, who won a Tony for "The Pirates of Penzance," was interviewed -- and sit for 15 minutes. I couldn't sit for more than 15 minutes except at meals. Lunch would break up the day, and changing for lunch, which I did one day, used up even more time. Then more walking and sitting until tea in the Queen's Room.
A few more turns around the deck or a swim and it would be time to dress for dinner -- provided I did it very slowly. Dress is black tie for dinner three nights and "casual" dinners the first and last nights. But casual does not mean Big Mac casual. Though there is no dress code -- and certainly the crew would never say anything -- casual still seems to mean a dinner dress. In fact, jeans were a rarity at any time.
I was asked to cocktail parties the last three nights. They were not great parties. Dinner easily took close to two hours. Then into the casino to sit and gamble, or back to the Queen's Room to dance ($500 worth of Arthur Murray lessons went down the drain as I did some sort of two-step with men who danced like teen-agers looking for a free feel, and I never even heard a tango).
There were shows that were entertaining without being exciting, then a nightcap in the Q4 bar and back to bed. Sit and sleep, that was about it. My wood-paneled stateroom was nice, but not as spacious as I had expected, and was furnished functionally with two bureaus, a bed -- I got a three-quarter bed for my money -- two chairs and a table. There was no place to entertain and no way to look out the porthole from the bed. But it was pleasant. It was all unendingly pleasant.
The food was pleasant, too, as good as the food in many of the most famous New York restaurants. The nicest part was that there was no check (all food is included in the price). At my table, we ordered caviar with abandon whether or not it was on the menu. I had crayfish at several meals. As at any good restaurant, if the kitchen has it they'll serve it. And it was all very good, if uninspired.
The service throughout was excellent. It's one thing the British do well. The stewards and stewardesses were all prompt and attentive without being fawning -- and it came remarkably cheap. According to the way I and those at my table read Cunard's recommendations, the liner that charged me about $700 a day suggested $3 or $4 a day for both of two dining room stewards, the same for two bedroom stewards; the night steward, wine steward and dining room captain were at our discretion. Although we all cheated and added a bit, total tips didn't come to $100. In the bar, we tipped on the check, but the prices were too reasonable -- 50 cents for a Tab, $1.50 for a cognac -- for the tips to be generous.
But the service lacked the little touches that mark a truly great hotel. I like a rose or chocolate on my pillow. I like warmed towels. I like the towels and sheets changed each day whether or not they've been used. Nonetheless, the 24-hour availability of service was enough to spoil me.
As we approached Southampton, things got better. There was, first of all, scenery. We hadn't even seen a whale at sea. And there was something to do: last-minute packing (most of the luggage had been collected the night before). There was an early tea, and then the disembarking began.
This was dreadful. We were all lumped together. We in the three subclasses of first class had to wait with those from steerage.
And that seemed wrong. Cunard should have had separate facilities for each class, and the classes that paid most dearly should have the easiest exit. I was supposedly buying convenience, and Cunard instead sold me one of the greatest inconveniences -- waiting.
Collecting the luggage and a porter -- first class means never carrying your own luggage -- I headed for another fantasy: the boat train. It was now 7 p.m., and the boat train would not leave for 40 minutes and would not get into London until after 9. I hadn't eaten since tea at 3, and Cunard didn't feed us during the waiting period. Plus, the boat train turned out to be nothing more than a typical English train and, securely aboard, I voted to abolish it in favor of buses that could leave when full. Another fantasy down the drain.
Then came the Ritz. That was worth the trip. Because of Cunard discounts (it owns the hotel), two nights and three meals came to about $114; normally, my room alone would have cost that for one night.
The room was charming. The help was amusing (one porter answered the front desk phone "House of Corrections"). The location, in the heart of London, was perfect. After devouring a meal at the buffet the hotel had ready for Cunard guests, I walked through Picadilly for the sheer pleasure of it. .
London to me is an almost magical city. I never bother with museums or such, I just love walking the streets and looking in the shops. And the next day, that was all I did. I had dinner with a friend who told me about his transatlantic crossings. Somehow, they were memorable. It's all in the people you draw, and his were characters, according to a memory that had 20 years to embroider the facts. I wonder if, when I talk about this in years to come, my crossing won't have grown more interesting, the people more fascinating as the boredom recedes.
All fantasy, all luxury, came to an end with my flight home on British Airways. I had booked tourist. I always book tourist. Coming home on the Concorde had tempted me; coming home first class never occurred to me. It was a mistake.
This was a $600 seat -- booked because my QE2 fare included a $500 chit toward a British Airways seat. It seemed foolish not to take advantage of it. Normally I fly Laker because I don't mind the crowding for the lower price. I expected more with British Airways -- and didn't get it. It was unbearable.
Tourist has been re-configured to make it uncomforable even for me, and I am an average-sized woman. The woman sitting next to me was fat. Her arm was in my stomach most of the way home. I never asked her to move it because she would have had to ride with her arms over her head. It was a long, turbulent, unpleasant flight aggravated by Customs agents who insisted on taking one lady's entire suite of luggage apart.
As a final touch, I paid one more porter to take my bags a distance of no more than 100 yards. Traveling first class does that to you.
I'm glad I crossed on the QE2, and glad I crossed first class. But right now it seems to me that crossing itself is a tedious business; it's having crossed that's wonderful.