TRAVEL

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - KAREN BOWERMAN

OUT on deck, below the bright red fun­nel of the Queen Mary 2, Coco, dressed in a white waist­coat, is host­ing a cham­pagne re­cep­tion. I’m here as his VIP guest, at a rather un­usual party.

Coco is a cof­fee-coloured Mal­tese Yorkie, trav­el­ling in lu­di­crous lux­ury with his ca­nine com­pan­ions Jack, Molly and Buster, plus Ali Bey, a mys­ti­cal, green-eyed cat. They’ve all em­barked on a cruise from Southamp­ton to New York.

The whip­pet, chi­huahua and bull­dog are re­turn­ing to the US to live. Coco is sim­ply on hol­i­day; the QM2 is his favourite ship, and this is his 25th cross­ing.

“He’s hap­pier here than at home. He sleeps well, eats well and never gets bored,” his Croa­t­ian owner, Ivana, wear­ing an offthe-shoul­der playsuit and golden boots, says.

The Yorkie has two at­ten­tive ken­nel mas­ters, a play­room and a 19th-cen­tury lamp-post from out­side the Cu­nard build­ing in Liver­pool; his Amer­i­can friends en­joy the fa­mil­iar­ity of a fire hy­drant. These are dogs, and a cat, that know how to sail in style.

Of course, Coco’s not alone in host­ing cham­pagne re­cep­tions dur­ing our seven-day voy­age. The cap­tain does too, and since this is the first trip since the QM2 en­joyed a multi-mil­lion pound re­fit, there’s lots to cel­e­brate.

I ar­rive in Southamp­ton to be wel­comed by a brass band and bell­boys in scar­let tu­nics with bright gold but­tons. There’s a sense of ex­cite­ment, al­though many pas­sen­gers have trav­elled be­fore.

“She’s just so glo­ri­ously English, so su­per nice,” a Texan en­thuses. He tells me he “sails with the Queen” ev­ery year, pre­fer­ring “the wild winds of the At­lantic” to the sum­mer heat at home.

“Frankly, I just come for the mu­sic,” his friend con­fides. “You get rock ’n’ roll on Amer­i­can cruise ships. Cu­nard has clas­si­cal, and it’s lovely.”

Guests han­ker, it seems, to recre­ate the glory days of cruis­ing: to dine on lob­ster served by wait­ers with red roses in their but­ton holes; to stare at the ocean from wooden sun loungers stamped with the Cu­nard crest; and to with­draw to the wal­nut-shelved li­brary to whis­per over heavy books of maps and an­cient art.

I step into a world of Art Deco grandeur, where stair­cases have whim­si­cal ban­is­ters and mir­rored lifts are en­graved with fronds. Lalique-style vases, em­bossed with twirling mer­maids, adorn the Veuve Clic­quot lounge, and elfin stat­ues – with neat fringes and lean limbs – strike ex­otic poses around the pool.

By day, it’s country-club ca­sual, but ev­ery­one dresses up at night: “Af­ter 6pm, blue denim is not con­sid­ered ap­pro­pri­ate,” the ship’s pro­gramme ad­vises. One even­ing, I find my­self scur­ry­ing into a lift af­ter mis­tak­ing the time. A fel­low pas­sen­ger jumps in too. It’s 6.05pm and cou­ples in cock­tail dresses and din­ner jack­ets are gath­er­ing in the grand lobby.

As the lift doors close, I catch the crunch of ice in a cock­tail shaker, a burst of laugh­ter and, through a large port hole, the swell of the sea. It’s very Great Gatsby, al­though for us rene­gades in shorts, it’s more like Cin­derella at mid­night, only in re­verse.

At first, I won­der how I’m go­ing to fill my days. I’m on a voy­age not a cruise, so there are no ports for sight­see­ing along the way.

I spend my first morn­ing com­pul­sively cir­cling ac­tiv­i­ties in the daily pro­gramme. I toy with fenc­ing. Be­neath heraldic ban­ners in the Queens Room, Her Majesty looks down on a mot­ley group with mesh­cov­ered faces and quiv­er­ing foils.

“Come on, lunge! Lunge!” Neil, the in­struc­tor, ex­horts.

It seems far too en­er­getic for me. I con­sider flower ar­rang­ing, but al­low my­self to be con­vinced by a stranger, as is the way here, that what I’d re­ally en­joy is Be­gin­ners’ Cha Cha. Our teach­ers, Dan and

Olena, have lithe bod­ies and plenty of poise; we, their pupils, have nei­ther. I chant “one, two, cha-cha-cha” for the next half-hour and suc­ceed in link­ing four ba­sic moves to­gether. Then the ship rolls and I trip over my feet.

For en­ter­tain­ment of a more se­date kind, I head to the plan­e­tar­ium – the only one at sea. I watch Cos­mic Col­li­sions on a big screen, tilt­ing my chair back as if I’m an as­tro­naut shoot­ing, very com­fort­ably, into space.

A burn­ing, bub­bling sun spins over­head. Hot on its heels is a me­te­orite which Robert Red­ford ad­vises is head­ing to Earth. He warns of im­pend­ing in­cin­er­a­tion but his voice is so smooth and sul­try that no­body seems that both­ered.

THE next day, at noon, an­other voice ad­dresses us from the bridge.“Ladies and gen­tle­men, this is our fourth day in the mid­dle of nowhere,” the cap­tain says.

It’s driz­zling, but I feel the need to ex­pe­ri­ence that At­lantic breeze the Texan spoke about. I cross a de­serted deck, spat­tered with sea spray, to a hot tub of my own. Ste­wards are wip­ing down sun loungers and fold­ing away tow­els.

The jacuzzi emits a bub­bly snore and the grey At­lantic whooshes in re­ply. For the first time in my life, con­fronted by the vast­ness of the ocean, I no longer see the hori­zon as the edge of the world as I know it. I ac­cept that the sea stretches far be­yond.

On day five, the sun comes out. Bright blue waves wash against the hull as if it’s a mas­sive, bril­liantly white shore.

As I en­joy break­fast on my bal­cony, I pick up the daily pro­gramme. It ad­vises, once again, that our lo­ca­tion is sim­ply “At Sea”. There is some­thing re­as­sur­ingly fa­mil­iar about it.

Later, I spot a plane, the only one, and imag­ine it land­ing in New York in hours. I re­alise I’m con­tent not to be do­ing the same. I re­turn the daily bul­letin to my tray with­out cir­cling a thing.

On deck, I pass a cou­ple I reg­u­larly meet. He’s im­mersed in an­other hard­back; she’s fin­ish­ing her cross-stitch. It cov­ers her lap and is trans­form­ing into a beau­ti­ful ta­pes­try. We ex­change cus­tom­ary smiles.

On the last even­ing, I bid farewell to Coco. As I chat to Ivana, I spot, with quiet ex­cite­ment, a bird, swoop­ing over the sea. I think of Noah, and the dove that brought him the olive branch; land can’t be far away.

At dawn the next morn­ing, the top deck’s crowded. Be­yond the QM2’s colour­ful flags, a woman is rais­ing a torch. Be­yond her is a mass of sky scrap­ers; the sun glints play­fully in be­tween.

As we dock in New York, I re­mem­ber how me­thod­i­cally I packed for this trip; there was the di­ary to write, mag­a­zines to flick through and nov­els to read.

In the end, I sought none of these. It’s as if seven empty days have been swal­lowed up, gen­tly and glo­ri­ously, by the sea.

Cu­nard’s cross­ing from Southamp­ton to New York on board the Queen Mary 2 ef­fort­lessly recre­ates the golden age of cruis­ing

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