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Floating Worlds

The sea voyage is the most ancient venue of exploration. Until the mid-19th century, only dire necessity or foolhardy wanderlust prompted travelers to board cramped, leaky vessels for voyages of uncertain duration - and even more uncertain outcome. But once luxurious steamships replaced transatlantic paddle steamers, such greyhounds of the deep as the Lusitania and the Queen Mary made water travel safe and comfortable. So much so that the cruise holiday has come to be seen as little more than a self-indulgent, bland cocoon - an impression reinforced by the emergence of the cruise experience as a rite of passage from middle age to "maturity." Standard-issue cruises would seem to be the very antithesis of travel. But as authors Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker learned, in the case of the Queen Elizabeth II, known as the QE2, appearances can be deceptive.

Floating Worlds: Luxury, Ease, and Belonging Aboard the QE2
by Lena Lencek and Gideon Boske

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"How is it possible," we asked our cabby, "to lose a ship the size of the Queen Elizabeth 2?" We had flown 19 hours from San Francisco to Singapore to join the Queen for a three-week segment of the Millennial World Cruise. And here we were, thirty minutes before sail-away, still racing from dock to dock, searching for the streamlined, aristocratic profile of the QE2.

Suddenly, with literally minutes to go, the massive hull of the Queen Elizabeth 2 reared up in front of us. Way up high, on the top deck, tiny passengers vibrated to the "Island Sounds" of a shipboard band. Stewards in naval uniform sprang to attention: one shook our hands, another inquired about our trip, and a third ticked off our names from the passenger list. As we prepared to board, a photographer appeared and immortalized the moment. Flutes of champagne were pressed into our hands. Let the dolce vita begin!

Of all the exciting moments on a journey by sea, our favorites were departure and arrival. Land travel lacks that tingly feeling of anticipation that something grand is about to begin. On a world cruise, the thrills came at roughly three day intervals» which worked out nine ports in three weeks. With such a steady diet of treats, would we grow jaded?

QE2

No need to worry. Every landfall was an explosion of music, dance, and ritual. It got to the point where we felt like stars in a cinematic travelogue where each port had its musical theme:

There was the Zulu choir in Durban, South Africa, and a funky steel-drum band at Reunion. On Mauritius, we heard Buddhist prayer chants, and in Cochin, India, a bagpipe corps, resplendent in scarlet turbans and gold-chased uniforms.

Between ports, we moved in a world of plush carpets, varnished woods, gleaming brass, and sparkling crystal. Like a couple of shameless lottery winners, we rushed from indulgence to indulgence: Restaurants, spas, salons, boutiques. We loved the narcotizing vibration of the engines under foot and the vaguely unreal spring to the footing. We had a desperate urge to sleep just about anywhere and everywhere. Except the dance floor and those dreamy, late morning dance classes:

The dance instructor was a young man with the dark and dangerous looks of a Latin lover. But fortunately, he was British, so there was no danger of scandal, just the danger that we might be lured onto the dance floor.

Watching safely from the sidelines, one dancer in particular caught our fancy. She was Mary Grumbine, an East Coast lawyer on her first world cruise, and her tango was pure magic.

Grumbine: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be anywhere. So I dance. I've danced my way around the globe . . . almost. I started in New York City and now we're almost in Cape Town and I intend to continue to try to dance until I'm in New York again."

On the QE2, women are guaranteed dancing partners by the brilliant expedient of providing the professional services of "gentlemen hosts."

Beatrice: "They must be fifty, and they must be single. They must know how to dance. They must be gentlemen. And they ARE. Not only do they dance with all the single ladies, they also ride along with the various tours that the ship puts on and they sit with you at tea."

McDonald: "Well, that has to be something you like doing. You can't do it if it's not something you like doing. It can't be considered work."

Gentleman Host Ron McDonald is Professor of Economics Ronald McDonald in his terrestrial life.

McDonald: "We're not allowed to sit down, sometimes for an hour and a half-and some of the men who are older than I am - I'm 51, one of the younger ones - do find it difficult."

McDonald: "Usually I wait until I know what the dance is before I ask a lady to dance. Some of these ladies I dance with are 94 years old, and they will not be able to do a Viennese waltz. Another gentleman host says as long as you go out there and do something, it doesn't matter. But it matters to me."

Grumbine: "Dancing on an ocean liner-there's both a good and a bad. Because it's underneath the stars and the water and the moon so it has this feeling of romance which appeals to a lot of people. But the bad thing about it is that the ocean is not always calm so it takes a little more skill to avoid ending up on the floor when you're dancing."

Frankly, we were more interested in how, with all that romance sloshing around the dance floor, the gentlemen hosts maintained their impartiality. Cruise director Colin Parker filled us in:

Parker: "If dance hosts have fallen in love, we don't know about it, because they're not allowed to fall in love. They're not allowed to have any relationships with the ladies they dance with. You'd get tremendous jealousy."

And jealousy, we found out, could sink the ship. Because, if on land, it's a man's world, the QE2 is the ultimate mothership. Early one morning, the ship's Laundromat was jammed with a veritable gynocracy of alpha females. This was the inner sanctum of that elite group of passengers who make the QE2 their universe. If the computer lab was the bridge to shore, the Laundromat was the nerve center of shipboard gossip.

QE2

We've always been the sort of people who hate to be left out of anything. Even if this was our maiden voyage on the Queen, we still wanted into the "club" - that core group of three-hundred-some veterans of least twenty crossings. We wanted to know what kept these cosmopolitan, experienced travelers coming back, year after year after year. Cruise director Colin Parker:

Parker: "Here on the ship, it's secure - 104 days without security problems; no concerns about being mugged. You've got entertainment laid on. You've got your bridge laid on. You don't have to drink and drive. You can be stretched at home every night. It's up to you."

Surely there was more to it than just security and convenience. After all, for the price of a single circumnavigation, these repeaters could easily buy an entire condominium in Palm Beach.

Parker: "They say if you know somebody on a ship for two weeks, it's the same as knowing them on land for two months."

We decided to test Colin's theory. After a round of Trivial Pursuit, we struck up a conversation with Hilda, who took her first QE2 voyage with her husband in 1991.

Hilda: "And we just kept repeating and repeating and repeating. And in '98, four days after we returned from our world cruise, my husband had a heart attack and passed away. And I thought I might never go again, but I am glad I did, because there are so many friends aboard, and they all treat you with such love and devotion. It's just marvelous. I consider the Queen my second home in the winter. And I really love her."

A surprising number of the repeaters have actually made the QE2 their first home. Beatrice, who goes ashore only long enough to do her taxes and visit her children, books her cabin for 46 weeks out of every year.

Beatrice: "Looking into all the continued living places, I find this ship much to be preferred. There's so much to do here that we love. I see myself living in a little town of 2500 people including the crew. It goes tearing around the world. So I have the world here. I have it made. End of story."

So here they were, the Ancient Mariners of the World Cruise Club, perpetually circling the planet, in search of ever-new views from the same old windows. What mattered to them was continuity in change. And this is why they booked the same room, year after year.

For many passengers, of course, the QE2 world cruise is a not a habit, but the culmination of years of dreaming, saving, and planning. The regulars like to chuckle about one such traveler, an elderly gentleman who was clueless about shipside protocol. Associate Cruise Director Elaine McKay:

QE2

McKay: "His family had written to the captain and told him he was coming and very excited. And so they put him at the Captain's table. He was in the restaurant and enjoying his dinner, and the Captain came in and sat down. And the man got up and left. The maitre d' went after him and said, 'Excuse me, but why did you leave? Is there something wrong?' And the man said, 'I didn't save up all my life to dine with the crew!'"

We personally never did get to dine with the Captain. But we did get one step closer to becoming bona fide members of the World Cruising Fraternity.

Announcer: "Hear ye, Hear ye. My Lords. Ladies and Gentlemen-Welcome to the Court of King Neptune!"

A retinue of gorgeous mermaids and swashbuckling pirates spilled out on deck, followed by King Neptune, magisterial in seaweed green and flowing beard, and flanked by every ship dignitary from the Captain on down. The equatorial sun stood at high noon. Herded together in nothing but our swimsuits, we joined a dozen fellow "Cruise Virgins" in listening to the list of accusations leveled against us:

Announcer: "Standing in too many buffet lines. Having, as result, to buy nothing but elasticated clothing. Falling asleep anywhere at any time, particularly during the port lectures, and classical concerts! Also falling asleep with mouths agape. How do you all plead? Guilty? Or not guilty? You will be brought to the court at my left. And there, you will suffer the consequences."

And what might the consequences be, we wondered?

Announcer: "Given the freedom of the seas, it will be necessary for each and every one of you to KISS THE FISH! KISS THE FISH!"

QE2

Kiss the fish we did. It was a big, ugly bass, supported by two "pirates." And then, we were thrown into the pool.

Now you may laugh, but we swear that something strange happened to us in that instant between fish kissing and immersion. When we climbed out of the pool, we felt totally transformed.

It wasn't just the fact that Beatrice and Hilda and the dozen old timers we'd met were congratulating us and slapping us on our sunburned backs. We honestly couldn't imagine a life aside from the QE2 and these glorious new friends and geographic epiphanies that made the world our oyster, if only for a brief few weeks.

I'm Lena Lencek, with Gideon Bosker, on board the QE2.

 



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