Queen of the Atlantic

There's a world -- or at least an ocean -- of diffeence between a crossing and a cruise. While passengers on a cruise may embark on a somewhat frenetic search for fun, their transatlantic counterparts enjoy a different social environment. Though passengers on a crossing partake of a full array of activities, the identity of the ship dominates their travel experience. No profits mitigate the mood of a majestic ocean liner on a transatlantic crossing.

Unfortunately, a transatlantic crossing on a lap-of-luxury liner -- one the onlym way to go to Europe -- has almost, though not quite, become a privilege of the past. The Cunard line's elegant flagship Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2 as he is universally known, is now the only ship crossing the Atlantic on a full-season, regularly scheduled basis. She began her 11th year of transatlantic service on April 1, with the first of the 23 transatlantic crossings that ar interspersed with cruises until Dec. 16. Cunard has plied the Atlantic with prestige and punctuality for 140 years; it is the company that provided the first transatlantic service and will, in all probability, be the one that provides the last.

It is on a transatlantic crossing that QE2 is most thoroughly appreciated. Her vital statistics are startling: 1,815 passengers; 1,000 crew; 67,107 tons; horsepower 110,000; length 963 feet and breadth 105 feet; 13 decks; 24 elevators. Facilities fore and aft include 4 restaurants, 5 night clubs, a 530 -seat theater, 4 swimming pools, shopping arcade, sauna, library, lounges large and small, and almost an acre of open deck. On transalantic passages, with no ports of call to distract, there are five full days to discover her charms.

In these days of sophisticated air- and spacecraft, being shipboard in the mid-Atlantic is a romantic anomaly. Though traveling transatlantic by ship today requires determination because of the limited opportunities to do so, air/sea arrangements between British Airways and Cunard make QE2 travel easy and reasonably economical. Included in the price of every ticket is an air allowance equivalent to the full economy air fare between the passenger's hometown and London -- in addition, of course, to transatlantic transportation, meals (three marvelous main ones daily, lighter ones in between, and 24-hour stateroom service), and all entertainment.

A popularity priced QE2 travel option is "European Weekender," an eight-day fly/sail vacation with a weekend in London or Paris. There's also the first class all the way "Best of Britain," which features QE2, the British Airways Concorde, and two weeks of chauffeured sightseeing and luxury accommodations at the Ritz Hotel in London. With any of the convenient air/sea connections one can sample many travel experiences in a short span of time.

The ship seems smaller when docked than it later does at sea. Perhaps this is due to the bustle of baggage and passengers anxious to accustom themselves to new surroundings. Getting lost aboard QE2 is a reality, but one most passengers don't mind -- once they can find their cabin and dining room. Being lost mid-Atlantic on what is virtually a floating city does, after all, have a certain distinction.

On transatlantic crossings QE2 reverts to the class differentiation that once characterized all travel by ship. Nevertheless, there are few obvious off-limit areas for transatlantic class (tourist) passengers and separation is mostly by subtle suggestion, such as differently colored carpets. Since most common rooms and entertainment facilities aboard are shared, the only meaningful difference between classes is in stateroom accommodations, all of which have private facilities, and dining room designation. Since the time spent in staterooms other than for sleep is usually minimal and since food is excellent in any of the QE2 restaurants, it's basically being on board that counts. The least expensive accommodations are always sold out first.

QE2 dining rooms are surprisingly intimate, considering that the main transatlantic and first-class ones seat 890 and 790, respectively. Gracious, unhurried dining is the rule, even in transatlantic class where there are two sittings for each meal. A wide selection of food is offered on menus printed for each meal. First-passengers can specially order, in advance, almost anything. One finds oneself yielding to temptation: frogs' legs, beef Wellington, cherries jubilee.

Service may not be the obsequious sort of the 1930s. But, unless you were intimately associated with travel in that era, what you'll get on board QE2 today is probably the most attentive you've ever received. Both at table, during the four-course -- more, if you can manage -- meals, and in one's stateroom, at whatever hour you descend from the disco and want a snack or beverage, one is properly pampered.

The future for QE2 comes down to economics: The prognosis is encouraging. Since her maiden voyage in 1969, she has been a testament to technology; the advanced design of her power plant has given her a jump on other ships in this expensive energy environment. QE2's three boilers, which give her the power to carry as many passengers at the same speed that Cunard's larger, late Queen Mary needed 24 to do, have just been replaced in 40 days of drydock. The ship is in as good condition now mechanically as when she first sailed. QE2's life expectancy is approximately 20 years, another decade to go. Then, QE2 may have to abdicate the Atlantic and the other high seas.

Ninety percent of the transatlantic passengers are American, though the British officers and crew produce an appealing culturally mixed atmosphere. Repeat passengers are the bread and butter of any business, no less so for Cunard's crossings and cruises. Well over 50 percent are aboard QE2 for at least a second time. One woman I spoke with was on her 59th voyage. Though they require more fuel than cruises, crossings on the QE2 will continue to be a Cunard tradition as long as passengers are willing to pay for the privilege of sailing transatlantic.

If you'd like to sail transatlantic but can't decide in which direction to go , keep this in mind. Due to the time difference between England and the US, the ship's clocks are changed an hour each day during a crossing. This results in days of only 23 hours for those sailing eastward to London, but benefits passengers bound for New York with 25-hour days.

Years ago, Cunard coined the slogan, "Getting there is half the fun." In 1980 , on selected paired transatlantic crossings, the "turnaround" trip on QE2 is free. Two "halves" make a whole prestigious package aboard the Atlantic's last liner.

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