Crossing the Atlantic, cruising in unaccustomed style on Queen Mary 2

Dancing in the Queen's Room of Queen Mary 2
Dancing in the Queen’s Room of Queen Mary 2

For 12 July nights at sea, on a grand ocean liner crossing the Atlantic between England and New York, we dressed for dinner.

That is, we dressed not as formally as the rich folks on TV’s Downton Abbey from the early 20th century, but we were decked out in plenty of formality and pomp for the 21st century. Not one of the 12 evenings was listed as “casual.”

Explained a British passenger on the ship, the Queen Mary 2: “This is a crossing, not a cruise.”

Vacationers who prefer not to stand out like driftwood in a sea of elegant penguins will want to know the difference before booking a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

In the waters between Europe and North America, cruises are relatively frequent occurrences twice a year, in spring and fall as ships make repositioning voyages. From September through November, ships move west from their summer season itineraries to warmer winter climes in the Caribbean. Next spring, many ships will head back east, most of them to the Mediterranean region.

Repositioning is different from a crossing

These transatlantic repositioning cruises seldom are fully booked. They tend to draw passengers with plenty of time on their hands who are lured by bargain rates as low as $70-$100 a night and lazy sea days, as many as seven or eight.

You don’t see much in the way of fancy clothes on these laid back, casual cruises — emphasis on the word “casual.”

Conversely, sea days on a Queen Mary 2 crossing of a week or more are as close as you’ll get to a formal affair. The crossing is a grand voyage with proper afternoon teas, dressy dinners and evening balls in the style of last century’s golden age of travel, when movie stars, business elite and the moneyed set laughed, ate and danced their way between continents.

Britannia Dining Room, where a majority of passengers on Queen Mary 2 eat their dinner
Britannia Dining Room, where a majority of passengers on Queen Mary 2 eat their dinner

Even in the Britannia Dining Room, which served me and the majority of the ship’s passengers who were lodging in the least expensive of Cunard Line’s cabins, ladies are met at the door each evening by formally clad waiters who escort them to their well-set tables.

“First-timers should be prepared for the formality,” said Robert Howie, hotel director on Queen Mary 2. “Our regular guests keep coming back because they don’t get many opportunities at home to dress up and socialize among like-minded people.”

Formality is embraced by most passengers, who toss off their daytime casual clothes as the hour of 6 p.m. approaches. The ship’s male passengers, a majority of them from the United Kingdom, always wear, at the minimum, a jacket during the evenings, whether they are in a bar, in the dining rooms or on deck for a party around the pools. With today’s reduced luggage allowances on airlines, most women do not wear ball gowns.

Seldom will you see T-shirts and flip-flops after 6 p.m., except in the cafeteria or the Winter Garden, which are the lone public spaces reserved for such casualness. Even there, that level of casualness does not include shorts and blue or worn denim (for men and women), sandals or sleeveless tops (for men). After 6 p.m., “They are not considered appropriate within the ship,” said a note from Cunard.

I suspect no one cares what you wear in your own cabin, where you could consume dinner from room service in your underwear.

Last of the great Ocean liners

The 2,600-passenger Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s flagship, is (probably) the last of the great ocean liners (too expensive to replace), and is the only ship to cross the North Atlantic on a regular scheduled itinerary from spring deep into fall.

The voyage consumes about a week, occasionally adding some extra days for port stops on either end of its basic route between Southampton, south of London, and New York. My cruise stopped in Liverpool, Halifax and Boston.

Fireworks in Boston for Queen Mary 2 passengers, to celebrate Cunard's 175 years as the leader in transatlantic voyages
Fireworks in Boston for Queen Mary 2 passengers, to celebrate Cunard’s 175 years as the leader in transatlantic voyages

A crossing on Queen Mary 2 in the North Atlantic is a reminder of successful and failed crossings from the past 175 years as ships brought thousands of immigrants from east to west to start new lives and moved thousands of troops west to east to help end world wars.

A great success story, Cunard operated the first regularly scheduled passenger ship between England and North America — the Britannia in 1840 — and now it operates the last.

Failures at sea are remembered as well in the often tempestuous North Atlantic.

The ship’s horn blasted a memorial note as we passed less than two miles from the hulk of the Titanic, which lies on the ocean floor. The Titanic was not a Cunard ship, though a Cunard ship, the Carpathia, heroically rushed through icy waters to rescue the 705 Titanic passengers who were lucky enough to survive that 1912 disaster.

Our moment of reflection over the Titanic reminded me that in the North Atlantic, today as in 1912, you place your life in the hands of seamen and the officers who are trained to protect your safety … and that you are at the mercy of nature, no matter how fancy the duds you are wearing.

TRANSATLANTIC VOYAGES

Crossings: Rates vary on Queen Mary 2 crossings, depending on cabins (top end Queen’s Grill and Princess Grill stateroom passengers have their own dining rooms, lounge and sundeck) and time of year. Printed rates start at about $800 per person, though I saw a $600 fare advertised by a travel agent. Cunard Line (cunard.com) also operates Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. These two ships tend to be slightly less formal than Queen Mary 2, especially when they cruise in warmer climates.

Cruises: If you are looking for a bargain repositioning cruise, here are a few in October, from Barcelona to Fort Lauderdale, that were listed in August by travel agents: Emerald Princess, 14 nights on Oct. 3, starting at $1,199; Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, 12 nights on Oct. 25, starting at $992; and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Equinox, 13 nights on Oct. 27, starting at $929. Prices on these cruises may vary by a few hundred dollars, depending on what is included, but all of these offer rates that start at less than $100 a night, per person.

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published regularly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise  He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com 

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