Even though, thanks to a southwesterly wind, it is warmer on the signal deck of the Queen Elizabeth 2 than anyone has any right to expect in November, there is a distinct nip in the air. Passengers repose on lounge chairs, cocooned in jaunty navy blue wool blankets by the red-cheeked steward. It is stylish to read Jane Austen, wearing gloves.
It is difficult, however, to do anything with terrific concentration on a ship. An occasional paragraph of ''Persuasion'' suffices; the rest of the time is spent watching the narrow trail of steam flow, mathematically straight, across the gray sky, and waiting for the steward to bring around the fruitcake tray.
''It is food one thinks of more than anything abroad,'' said Virginia Woolf, and that is doubly true for the seagoing passenger. But working against the almost relentless succession of meals is the fact that, when the passenger heads from New York to Southampton, as I did, he experiences that unique shipboard phenomenon, the 23-hour day. The result of this is that many people who usually fade after dinner become positively gregarious after midnight, while breakfast, an ample meal in the British tradition, seems to recede rapidly into the small hours of the morning.
The first thing to do if planning to sail on the QE2 is to purchase John Maxtone-Grahame's ''The Only Way to Cross'' (New York, Macmillan, $13.95). It provides the sort of background information that will dazzle tablemates at dinner. For instance, Mr. Maxtone-Grahame informs us that Cunard's original success, back in the mid-19th century, was due to its being the first line to adhere to strict schedules, owing to its government contract to deliver the mail.
More important, this volume will give the passenger a sense of how his experience relates to that of travelers who have crossed the Atlantic before him. It is interesting to consider, comfortably ensconced in a cozy stateroom, that Charles Dickens, a passenger on the first Cunard ship, the less spacious Britannia, described his cabin as an ''utterly impractical, thoroughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box.'' The dining room of the Britannia, he declared , was ''a hearse with windows.''
Mr. Maxtone-Grahame adds his own vivid description of traveling by ship in this period: ''If the ship rolled suddenly, full plates tended to slip into the lap and children whose feet could not reach the floor disappeared under the table.'' Food ''was usually cold and sometimes wet. . . . The captain ate with his saloon passengers, seated at the head of the table and more often than not serving the food.''
This was of course before the Golden Age of liners, in the early to middle 20 th century, when the Queen Mary carried a plaque to a Lord Burghley, an Olympic runner who completed a quarter-mile circuit in less than 60 seconds in full evening dress. The image of a cruise at that time was of aristocrats wearing paper hats at fancy dress balls, in rooms lined with mahogany and brass and crowned with many-tiered chandeliers.
Nowadays, fire regulations and a taste for purer lines and democracy dictate a more restrained decor, and the QE2 inside is like nothing so much as a very comfortable, modern hotel, albeit one ripping across the ocean at 30 miles an hour. Although in the evenings people in evening dress are abundant, the old absurdity and high spirits seem to be absent.
But the potential is definitely there. My most vivid recollection of the trip is of an energetic midnight game of paddle tennis, in which both players were clad in flowing, floor-length, formal gowns.
But modern decor or no, the sensitive issue of first class-vs.-transatlantic does rear its ancient head. The main distinction seems to be in the dining rooms - the food is more expensive in first class, and first-class passengers are spared the rigidity of two seatings at dinner. First-class passengers also tend to be a little more formally dressed. (The invaluable Mr. Maxtone-Grahame mentions that in the old days, the main weapon for first class-crashers was the possession of a black tie.) The lounges are classified as first class or transatlantic, but it's rather difficult, without asking, to discover which is which.
In fact, just learning your way about the ship takes at least several days; its 13 decks and 8 staircases and 13 elevators that don't go to every floor reminded me of a giant game of chutes and ladders.
One of my many tours about the ship brought me down to the bountiful kitchen of head chef John Bainbridge, and his 137 underlings.For chef Bainbridge, the world is a giant larder. ''We buy all our beef in America; all our lamb in England . . . veal in France . . . condiments in Britain. Vegetables anywhere, '' he said. Fish, alas, must be frozen. ''You go round the world and try to buy 600 pounds of fresh fish . . . ,'' he said with an expression on his round pleasant face that plainly said that this was foolishness. ''If you order fresh fish and you aren't sure of your supplier, you get fish as hard as a rock that's been frozen six months.''
One of the pleasures of a first-class ticket on the QE2 is ordering off the menu. Our group, for instance, had caviar every single night (the average total consumption for the ship is 20 pounds of caviar a day). But even this is fairly commonplace. ''We carry a lot of stuff that's not on the menu - we don't have to refuse people very often,'' chef Bainbridge says.
Mr. Bainbridge has worked for Cunard for 43 years, serving on 12 ships. The food has changed since then - meals, he said, have become shorter and earlier, with fewer courses. ''Even if people are going nowhere they're still in a hurry, '' he said. Once, traveling by cruise ship was, quite literally, ''the only way to cross.'' Now, to help passengers justify the time and expense of going by ship, there are all sorts of activities on board - makeup demonstrations, putting competitions, backgammon, dancing and yoga lessons, and so on. But for me, the most satisfying part was just being on the ship, feeling the steady, comforting thrum of the engine through the soles of the feet, viewing the iron-green water pouring steadily past the window, and experiencing the strange emotions produced by isolation in the middle of the ocean combined with protection in what one passenger described as ''a very padded environment.''
The hardest thing to get used to after getting off the ship is that your whims are no longer of interest to anyone. On our voyage, there were just over 1 ,000 passengers but 959 crew, only a small percentage of whom were actually involved in running the ship. It came to seem natural that a steward (mine was a sardonically eyebrowed Scot named Leslie) would be there if needed.
And it is rare for an adult to feel that he is accomplishing something by doing nothing, that no one wants him on the phone - or can reach him if he does, except by the most flatteringly strenuous exertion.
Practical details: The transatlantic crossing, according to Cunard president Ralph Bahna, has ''kids, dogs, jet-setters, everybody''; and the ship is well prepared for all of the above. A sunny children's room with its own movie theater looked very adequate. I had wondered at the enormous closet, like a room in itself, in my cabin; this I was told can contain a small cot for a child. The kennel, containing two dogs and a cat on our trip, had 35 cages; outside was a special enclosed deck just for animals to run about in.
My cabin (grade D) could not have been more attractive or comfortable; it was large and nicely furnished, and had a sitting as well as sleeping area and two portholes to peer out of. I ate in the Princess Grill, which I recommend because it's the smallest and most intimate of the dining areas. Grade D cabins begin at 725. (All prices are per person, double occupancy, and include return air fare.)