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Nonstop Across the Pond

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2000


Cruising 2000
button Transatlantic Adventure
button Finding the Right Cruise
button Cruise Contacts

Traveling to London last summer, I flew. From Dulles on Virgin Atlantic, the trip took 7½ hours at an average speed of 535 mph. What sleep I got, crammed in coach (the seat was 15 inches wide with 31 inches between rows), was fitful. But it was quick. My jet lag lasted longer.

Coming home, I took a different route across the North Atlantic. As a passenger on Holland America’s MS Maasdam, our trip from the British port of Harwich to Boston took seven days. Our average speed was about 18.9 knots.

The concept of a transatlantic cruise, called a “crossing” by the cognoscenti, seems novel in an era in which travelers crave speed and efficiency. But cruise ships have been carrying passengers between the Old World and the New since the 1840s, when Samuel Cunard established regularly scheduled service across the Atlantic. Business boomed for nearly a century—the wealthy enjoyed luxurious accommodations for business or pleasure trips, and immigrants, on their way to a new life, endured lesser quarters below. The onset of the jet age, beginning when Pan Am launched transatlantic air service in 1958 (the first flight went from New York to Paris with a fuel stop in Gander), largely killed the transatlantic sailing. The ocean steamers were either retired to scrap or retooled as Caribbean pleasure cruisers.

Today, Atlantic crossings attract a mere 5 percent of all cruise voyages (the Caribbean accounts for half). Only Cunard’s QE2, which offers regularly scheduled crossings, is a genuine ocean liner, designed to navigate the rambunctious Atlantic with a huge rakish bow that cuts through rough water cleanly, a bridge area set way back to maximize air space and a swimming pool set in the interior of the vessel under the assumption that weather, more often than not, is stormy.

But there are other crossings, usually in spring and fall, when cruise ships are migrating from winter ports in the Caribbean to Europe and then back again. Some are all business, making the trip across the Atlantic in the minimum amount of time (six or seven days, depending on the ship, weather and destination). Others throw in a few extra ports—Madeira, the Azores, the Faroe Islands, Reykjavik—extending the trip to 10 days or more.

While these contemporary ships are designed more for the smooth waters of the Caribbean, they are still comfortable for Atlantic crossings, being equipped with motion stabilizers.

A little squirrelly about the idea of spending seven days in the North Atlantic, cut off from terrestrial life, I took one of the repositioning trips from London to Boston on the Maasdam, a six-year-old ship that had spent the summer cruising Scandinavia, Russia and the British Isles. Our voyage was a little unusual in that it was an express trip with no port stops (the Maasdam was being rushed back to the United States to replace a new ship that was late coming out of the shipyard), lasting seven days.

Sunday, Aug. 29, 2 p.m. Cast off mooring lines and sail down the River Stour, toward the North Sea.

From the dock at Harwich, a port outside London, the Maasdam looks big. At 55,451 tons and carrying 1,266, it’s got more girth—and fewer passengers—than the ill-fated Titanic. The prospect of seven straight days at sea without seeing a speck of land, coupled with too many viewings of “Titanic,” has left me a trifle anxious.

The crew here takes the pre-sail fire drill more seriously than I’ve seen. We’re commanded to don our life vests and report to Deck 5 well before the stevedores on the docks begin untying the anchor. The crew practices taking down two of the lifeboats and turning on the motors. Over the loudspeaker, a cruise director reading from a script stumbles a bit as he describes the amount of food and water that’s stowed on each lifeboat, how many people each holds and how the crew will abandon ship (in rafts). Perhaps this attention to detail is meant to be comforting.

As we set off into the English Channel, the sky is so murky we can’t see land. The haze means we miss seeing the white cliffs of Dover. In no hurry, I explore the 10 passenger decks. Aside from my well-equipped cabin with a balcony, VCR and mini-bathtub, the ship has basketball and paddle tennis courts, two pools (one with a retractable roof for inclement weather), a Broadway-style theater, a cinema, card room, library and six bars. This is a big-band-themed cruise, which means twice-daily performances by the Harry James Orchestra and lots of ballroom dancing. Six gentleman hosts are on board; these single men, age 50 to 65, get free passage in exchange for dancing with single ladies and being witty at dinner. They do have to follow rules. They can’t dance with any woman more than once during a particular gathering.

Monday, Aug. 30 Last night we passed through the North Sea and English Channel. At noon we sail into the Atlantic Ocean.

The sun is blazing and warm, though the air is nippy and it’s breezy up on the sports deck. It’s the ideal blend of heat and chill. You can wear a big, sloppy cotton sweater over shorts and feel perfectly comfortable. People are stretched out on lounge chairs reading paperbacks. There’s a long line at the grill for hamburgers and french fries. Two preteens are splashing in the pool—the only passengers under 30 I’ll see on this trip, where the crowd is largely retirement age. I play tennis with another passenger on the top deck paddle tennis court tucked beside the cosmetic smokestack. The court is covered with a net to prevent wayward balls from sailing over the rail.

Downstairs, on the lower promenade, where a cluster of three shops sells everything from Lladro ceramics to Holland America shot glasses, people are buying T-shirts and measuring gold links by the yard. On the adjacent deck, which extends entirely around the ship, a woman swaddled in a red tartan blanket, her head covered with a ball cap and a wool scarf wrapped around her face, is sleeping comfortably on an oak deck chair.

As with any cruise, the ship’s entertainment staff arranges activities to occupy passengers between meals. The difference here is that instead of the occasional sea day as repose between frantic missions in the ports of call, the entire cruise is a sea day extended over a week. It doesn’t take long to figure out how tedious it can be to spend seven days at sea doing the same stuff—30-minute fitness workouts (get your stamps and win prizes!), bridge lectures, art auctions, wine-tasting seminars and courses on table settings and napkin folding. Want something serious? The schedule features earnest, scholarly presentations by Albert Hughes, a Russian scholar. While obviously knowledgeable, his first talk, on Russia’s economic and social ills, is so boring I abandon him for “Dare to Change Your Hair.”

Most passengers I meet have “crossed” more than once. I encounter several people who’d flown into London the day we departed. The scenery outside the bus that transported them to the pier was their only taste of England.

Unhappily, there is practically no relevant information or entertainment about our journey across the Atlantic. How hard would it have been to find a couple of experts to talk about oceanography on one day, shipwrecks on another, marine life on a third? Occasionally, the ship’s newsletter writer provides a tidbit about our trip. Today we’re introduced to the concept of sea swells—that’s good, they’re all around us—but the specifics of how to measure them and how they’re formed on the North Atlantic are abandoned in favor of, oddly, details on swells in the North and South Pacific.

Tuesday, Aug. 31. From the Navigator, the ship’s daily newsletter: “At noon yesterday we entered the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic Ocean is the most traveled, and subsequently best known and most important of the three oceans in the world. The Pacific Ocean is the largest of the three oceans . . . the Indian Ocean is the smallest and warmest.”

We passed our last visible bit of land yesterday—Cornwall, on the southwestern coast of England. While the landscape of the sea and its changing faces in the sun and clouds is fascinating to me now, I wonder how long this will last. How many days can you watch this mobile desert without craving a patch of green, of firm ground, of a moment when the foundation does not buck and shy like a young horse? I envision myself on Day 4 desperate and crazed. Veteran crossers assure me I’ll be fine.

More worrisome is the real fear that the infamously rough North Atlantic seas will be too boisterous. That’s why I think that as long as the going’s smooth, I’m going to party. Unfortunately, once we slide past Ireland, Neptune begins taunting us. The water gets rough, and the Maasdam creaks and moans. The veteran transatlanticans watch smugly as we novices veer drunkenly to breakfast, without the benefit of having had a drink. The spaciness is caused in part by the sea and in part on Bonine, a disgusting, raspberry-flavored chewable pill (officially, meclazine hydrochloride antiemetic). A tip: It’s not supposed to work if you take it after you start to feel those really sharp pains in your middle that warn of nausea. But it does for me.

As the day wears on, the sea gets rougher. Despite stabilizers and modern technology, I can really feel the motion. Walking along the corridor to my cabin, I find myself walking uphill, and then suddenly my steps quicken as though I’ve crested and am descending. The challenge is more urgent for some. Walking along one corridor, an elderly woman inching forward with her walker suddenly pitches forward and falls. A steward and I gently lift her up by the armpits. Fortunately, she isn’t hurt. “Just my backside,” she grumbles.

Paper seasick bags appear at the elevators, hanging on railings in nifty, custom-designed steel containers. I ask a couple of officers with whom I share an elevator ride how rough it is, and three of them laugh, classifying it as a 3 out of 10, with 10 being the worst. No, says one wag, it’s a 1.

A member of the cruise staff isn’t so macho. Conditions are pretty bad, she says, noting that of her four transatlantic cruises, two were smooth and two were nightmares. Then she cancels the ladies’ Ping-Pong tournament because the rocking motions have emptied the aft pool all over the deck and it’s too slippery, not to mention blustery, to play. The wind keeps picking up, and volleyball is canceled. I go to a dance lesson in the Rembrandt Lounge, hoping to learn to waltz or tango or jitterbug, something that will go along with the really gorgeous big-band music from the ’30s and ’40s that the Harry James Orchestra is playing every day. But the passengers are learning how to “boot, scoot and boogie” to Shania Twain.

So I head for the promenade deck, don headphones and listen to the Cranberries as I power-walk a dozen orbits. On starboard side the raging sea is spuming mist onto the deck. I can taste the salt on my lips.

Wednesday, Sept. 1. From the Navigator: “During our Atlantic crossing we participate in a position reporting system. The purpose of a position reporting system is to monitor and inform authorities and other vessels of an emergency or distress at sea so that a response can be coordinated among those best able to help.”

Traveling east to west has a major advantage—the time change is gradual and in your favor, with the clocks set back an hour each on five nights of a seven-day trip. This means an extra hour’s sleep, but you do find yourself waking up early. This morning, despite retiring at midnight, I was wide awake at 5 a.m., though yesterday that would’ve been 6 a.m. and the day before 7 a.m.

According to the in-house “report from the deck” on my television, sea status has been upgraded (downgraded?) from rough to very rough (12- to 18-foot swells) and wind conditions from strong breeze to gale force (20.7 mph). The Bonine is starting to taste better. I’m feeling fine, but the ship is really rocking. At breakfast, tables are set as usual, but the dining room is nearly deserted, with the few patrons looking aggressively hale, as if to shout, “We’re tough enough!” Occasionally a tray clangs to the floor. Halfheartedly, I pick through my meal, heavier fare than usual because I’ve started fearing each meal will be my last should seasickness strike.

At 10:50 a.m., Capt. Jack van Coevorden gets on the loudspeaker and tells us that due to Tropical Storm Cindy, we will be detouring south, passing within 100 miles of it around 1 p.m. He suggests that, in the event conditions worsen, we should stow loose articles, wear flat-heeled shoes and avoid outside decks.

Indeed, the storm gets worse. At its peak, the sea rises to 20-foot swells and the wind was clocked at a Force 9 gale (between 47 to 54 mph, a tropical storm). At the daily performance of the Harry James Orchestra, I meet a retired doctor from Chicago and tell him how strange it feels to stagger around the ship as though I were drunk.

“Actually,” he replies, “the passengers who are drunk walk perfectly straight in a storm.” Then he buys me a vodka tonic, but the smell makes me feel sicker than the motion.

Thursday, Sept. 2. From the Navigator: “At sea we use the global navigation system . . . developed by NASA and consisting of 24 orbiting satellites.”

The seas are calm again. Passengers are reclaiming deck chairs, faces turned to pallid sun, bodies warmed by wool blankets and hot chocolate delivered by stewards.

Day 4: While not feeling as claustrophobic as I feared, I am—and this is a first for me on a cruise, though I’m used to traveling solo—feeling isolated from other cruisers. The Maasdam is well-equipped to entertain passengers, but few of the activities have brought people together. Shore excursions, where small groups of cruisers embark on port expeditions, are often a good way to get to know people beyond your assigned dining tablemates. For obvious reasons, that outlet doesn’t exist on this voyage.

I have no recollection of what I did this day. One of the downsides (upsides?) of this kind of transatlantic crossing is you can’t use memory of ports, which vary in scenery and activity, as a retrieval device. The days begin to melt together in their sameness.

Friday, Sept. 3. From the Navigator: “The bridge of the MS Maasdam is manned 24 hours a day.”

After dinner, I head to the Crow’s Nest bar on top of the ship. What late-night reveling there is occurs here. There I meet Clark Robertson, a self-described “comic juggler.” He’s one of the performers imported by Holland America to entertain us, and it is his first time on a cruise.

Unfortunately, his act was scheduled for Wednesday, the trip’s roughest night. While the crowd was smaller for his performance than for others on the cruise (many passengers, me among them, had felt too sick to sit up), he had that same joie de vivre as others of the cast-iron stomach variety. The only segment of his act that he had to forgo due to the extreme rolling and belching of the ship was the part in which he walks up a five-foot ladder—backward—while juggling.

Saturday, Sept. 4. From the Navigator: “Yesterday afternoon we completed our crossing via the Great Circle and started sailing along Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.”

Until now, I hadn’t spent much time shopping on the Maasdam—I’d done enough of that in London—but today’s “last day desperation sales” are too fascinating to ignore. A lot of the so-called “clearance sale” items had been brought on board during the ship’s summer ports. These included Copenhagen, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. A set of Russian nesting dolls, hand-painted and lacquered, is $250.

The biggest giggler is a Bill Clinton nesting doll. “Oh, there’s the Clinton family!” coos a shopper over my shoulder. It probably isn’t the family that Hillary had in mind. Twist off Bill’s head, and you get Monica Lewinsky, then Paula Jones, then Hillary and finally a saxophone. A bargain at $20, but there are few takers.

Ickier is a Russian-made T-shirt, modeled after rock concert shirts, that pictures an AK-47 and the slogan “World Massacre Tour.” Underneath is a list: Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War, Angola, Jugoslavia (sic), Gaza Strip, Chechnya, Laos and Nicaragua. It is marked down from $20 to $15. When one offended passenger protests to the shop manager, he apparently agrees.

“Throw that away,” he snaps.

Sunday, Sept. 5, Boston. No information on our destination, Boston, is provided in the Navigator.

The decks on the bow are thronged with passengers eager for the first glimpse of skyscraper. As we approach Boston, a native entertains us with descriptions of the scenery, from a shimmering Cape Cod to Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, America’s oldest working lighthouse. After we dock at Black Falcon Terminal, just across the harbor from the airport, there is the usual two-hour wait to debark. I end up in the Ocean Bar, where a woman, whose boyfriend had given her $100 and said, “Spend it,” is buying everyone drinks. We are joined at the bar by members of the ship’s entertainment staff; they are quickly informed by ship officials that as employees they can occupy tables, but not bar stools. We move en masse. The mood is the most lighthearted I’ve seen.

Weirdly, once I step off the ship that has held me captive for the past week, the entire crossing experience begins to fade quickly from my mind. One day melts into another, the only meaningful variations being the weather.

Then it occurs to me: The most enduring moments I’ve had on cruises have taken place not on board, but on land, in the ports. The ship is just a way of getting there.

Details: Planning a Transatlantic Cruise

These days, most transatlantic sailings are “repositioning cruises,” taken once each direction each year, as Caribbean ships are redeployed to Europe for the summer, or back to the Caribbean for winter. Prime seasons for these voyages are April through May and August through November.

These semiannual voyages are consistently among the best values in cruising, particularly when you compare costs with a ship’s typical European itinerary. Royal Caribbean, for instance, is offering cabins on a 14-night crossing from Miami to Barcelona on Splendour of the Seas that start at $1,302 per person, double occupancy. That works out to a per diem of about $93. On Splendour’s intra-European sailings, the daily fare rises to $133.

The Crown Princess, which makes the transatlantic trek with a 14-day Fort Lauderdale-to-Rome sailing, is $1,715 per person (cheapest outside cabin), a daily tariff of $123. Fares for the same cabin category on its first regular European sailing are $2,254 per person, or $188.50 a day.

For value seekers, a transatlantic cruise is the perfect way to check out a budget-busting line. The Seabourn Pride is featuring a 75-percent-off companion fare special on its 12-day Fort Lauderdale-to-Southampton cruise in April, which works out to a total of $4,481, double occupancy. That’s a per diem of about $187 per person. Quite a bargain, particularly when you consider that an 11-night Scandinavian voyage a few weeks later—same cabin category, same ship—is $7,010 per person, for a per diem of about $638.

In spring, ships cruise the South Atlantic; common pit stops include Bermuda, the Azores and Gibraltar. In fall, ships cross the North Atlantic (primarily to avoid hurricanes and tropical storms); on these trips, itineraries often include the Faroe Islands, Reykjavik and Nova Scotia. One downside to the fall crossings is that there’s always a chance the ship will run into rough seas, remnants of the hurricanes that struck further south.

Only Cunard Line’s QE2 offers regularly scheduled “line service” between Southampton and New York. It’s a six-day trip. The QE2 has recently added a few new pick-up and drop-off ports to its service (which may extend the trip by a day or two); these include Amsterdam, Cherbourg, Hamburg, Boston and Fort Lauderdale. QE2’s crossings start at about $2,300 for the six- or seven-day cruise.

To classify the transatlantic crossing as a growing trend in the cruise industry would be stretching it, though the burgeoning European summer season is resulting in more ships transferring across the Atlantic. However, in an interesting move, Cunard has announced plans to build the Queen Mary, the industry’s first designed-to-cross-oceans ship since the QE2 was launched 31 years ago. The Queen Mary is tentatively scheduled to begin regular crossings in 2003.

The only major mass-market cruise line that doesn’t offer transatlantic crossings is Carnival, which has no European itineraries (thus no reason to send its ships overseas).

Here’s a sampling of cruise lines making the transatlantic voyage this spring.

Regular Crossings

button The QE2’s regular crossings begin April 14 from Southampton, England, to New York (the first three months of the year are devoted to an around-the-world cruise). There will be 20 sailings this year, all of which have themes. Among them: “Gardens of Great Britain,” May 10-17, from New York/Boston to Southampton; “Food & Wine—Old & New Worlds,” May 29-June 5, from Southampton/Cherbourg to New York; “Floating Jazz Festival,” June 5-12, from New York/Boston to Southampton; “British Theater,” June 12-19, from Southampton/Amsterdam to New York; and “QE2 Goes to the Movies,” June 25-July 1, from Southampton to New York. Cruises are six or seven days.

Repositioning Trips

Most repositioning trips incorporate a handful of ports into their itineraries to make them more attractive to travelers (my crossing last fall on Holland America’s MS Maasdam did not include ports because the line was rushing the ship back to the United States to take over itineraries for the new Veendam, which was delayed in the shipyard). Among them:

button Holland America’s Maasdam sails on a 16-day Fort Lauderdale-to-Barcelona voyage. It leaves April 21, with stops in the Bahamas, Azores, Madeira, Casablanca, Cadiz, Malaga and Ibiza.

button Cunard’s Caronia (formerly the Vistafjord) crosses the Atlantic on a 21-day voyage, departing Fort Lauderdale April 27 and arriving in Southampton May 18, with stops in the Caribbean and Portugal.

button The Genoa-bound Costa Victoria departs Fort Lauderdale April 30 on a 14-night trip, stopping at Nassau, Tortola, Antigua, Madeira and Malaga.

button Holland America’s Rotterdam, an 11-day voyage from New York to Lisbon by way of Bermuda and the Azores, leaves April 25.

button If you’re thinking of a transatlantic crossing as simply a way to avoid that overnight flight to Europe—or you really just want the sea days—there’s one spring cruise that embellishes the journey by just a few days. Holland America’s Noordam departs April 12 on a 10-night Fort Lauderdale-to-Lisbon itinerary with stops in the Bahamas and the Azores.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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