Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 13, 2017

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The Cunard experience

A repositioning cruise offers a chance to enjoy a luxe liner on a budget

As a young boy in dreary post-war England, I loved to sit with my father on Southampton’s Town Pier, watching the great passenger liners come and go: Cunard’s iconic Queen Mary, once more in her true colours after years of wartime camouflage, the rival French Line’s elegant Île de France, the elderly Aquitania that my father had once served on, as well as liners bound for the Orient and South Africa.

Listening to my father’s tales of his life at sea, I journeyed to faraway ports in my imagination, dreaming of the day when I might see them for myself. Little wonder that when my brother and I emigrated to Canada years later it was by ship from Southampton.

Since then I have crossed the Atlantic many times, but always belted into a metal tube 10,000 metres above the earth, trying to eat congealed pasta with a plastic fork. It seemed about time to make a return visit the way I had come. But to keep the family ghosts happy it would have to be on a Cunarder.

As luck would have it, some old friends had booked passage on a re-positioning voyage of Cunard’s Queen Victoria from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton. We decided to join them. The ship would have completed its cruise season in the Caribbean and southern oceans and was heading to Europe for the northern summer. So what if I had to pack a tie? It would be worth it.

Re-positioning cruises embark and disembark at different ports, often on different continents. That means a one-way air ticket home, so such cruises are usually discounted. By their nature, repositioning cruises are usually 10 days or more in length and involve more time at sea; a bonus for those who don’t necessarily want to be continually visiting ports of call.

Those four days at sea between Bermuda and the Azores were a big attraction: lazing in bed followed by a leisurely breakfast, walking brisk laps around the promenade deck, taking in a lecture or curling up in a quiet corner with a good book until it was time for lunch — just like the old days when ocean travel was quite literally “the only way to cross.”

And nobody does this better than Cunard. Their ships have been crossing the Atlantic for 170 years since Nova Scotia-born Samuel Cunard began the first trans-Atlantic mail service in 1840. Cunard’s Laconia also made the first world journey by passenger ship in 1922. The trip took 130 days and 300 of the 450 passengers were millionaires.

Today the Queen Victoria has seven restaurants, thirteen bars, three swimming pools, a ballroom, a library and map room, and a theatre which has the only private boxes at sea.

Old School Glamour

Over afternoon tea in his quarters, I asked Captain Christopher Rynd, captain of the Queen Victoria, what in his view gave Cunard its enviable cachet. He talked about the difference between cruise ships and the passenger liner experience, admitting that the distinction was debatable. “One definition of a liner is a ship on a fixed route,” he said. “From A to B and back to A again, like the old Atlantic liners.”

Captain Rynd went on to say: “Today the liner experience is something that is uniquely Cunard — the experience you have onboard a trans-Atlantic or long voyage. So whether it’s the Queen Mary 2 or the Queen Victoria, the lifestyle you have here harkens back to the great and glorious days of ocean liner travel.” Cunard is the only cruise line to sail regularly scheduled transatlantic service year-round aboard the Queen Mary 2, which also boasts the first planetarium at sea.

The captain added: “Cunard is a lot about tradition. This is a company that has kept its history.” And that’s certainly evident in the public areas of the Queen Victoria. Large paintings of historic Cunard liners grace the walls and models of former ships and memorabilia are contained in display cases. There’s even a small museum on the line’s history.

In stairways and lobbies hang old black-and-white photos of famous passengers aboard earlier Queens: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Marlene Dietrich, Leslie Howard, Elizabeth Taylor. Today, of course, they would travel by private jet, but in the heyday of ocean travel they added their glamour and celebrity to the ships they sailed on.

Before leaving Captain Rynd, he showed me the ship’s bridge. With only three or four crew in evidence I remarked that it looked like the most peaceful place on the ship. “That’s as it should be,” he said.

We called at six ports on the way to Southampton but the most memorable for me was our entry into Cobh in southern Ireland. My father was born in a tiny cottage on the edge of the sea at Aghada on the shore of this magnificent natural harbour. The last time I had entered it by ship was as a small boy standing beside him.

We passed the lighthouse at Roches Point and swung west towards Cobh a tantalizing moment before Aghada came into view. Suddenly the harbour’s fire boat was accompanying us sending up columns of water in welcome. The spire of St. Colman’s Cathedral rose above the serried rows of vividly painted houses cascading down the steep hillside of the harbour and we eased into our berth in the centre of town. It was a day of cousins, fish and chips and Guinness, Irish coffee and happy memories.

A Titanic farewell

The send-off from Cobh later in the day was unlike any other. It was 99 years to the day that the Titanic left the same harbour — but fortunately the band on shore was playing “Anchors Aweigh” rather than “Nearer My God to Thee” as crowds on shore waved to us.

The answering echoes of the ship’s horn died away in the sharp air of early evening and, as we headed out past Spike Island, it occurred to me that this is something the Irish do. It’s part of their psyche. Countless ships left from this same port when the potato famine of the late 1840s sparked the biggest emigration in Irish history. The waving people on the quay in those days even held what was called “an emigrants wake,” in the near certainty that departing friends and relations would never see Ireland again.

The final arrival in Southampton in a chilly pre-dawn was something of an anti-climax. I searched the skyline for something I recognized. The pier where I had sat with my father was long gone and only the familiar white tower of the Guildhall stood out in my memory. We stayed long enough in the city to visit my parent’s grave but didn’t linger, leaving the next day for Winchester where I had gone to school.

The Queen Victoria would not spend long in its home port either. Just time enough to re-stock and take on passengers for its first European cruise of the new season. I’m frankly not a fan of big cruise ships — this was only the third such cruise I had made — but there does seem to be something special about Cunard.

Certainly many of their passengers think so. For example, I was astonished at how many people I met on board had been on all three of the Queens and also how loyal they were to them. Some liked Cunard’s strong British signature; one passenger comparing Princess Line ships to Cunard compared it as Las Vegas versus the West End (of London).

Others who had sailed with other shipping lines preferred Cunard, even though it is the most formal — I’ve never seen so many tuxedos in my life. But, as one guest said to me: “If you don’t like formality, don’t travel on Cunard.”

So I packed my dark suit and tie away until the next time, put on my jeans and steeled myself for the crush of travellers at Heathrow Airport on a holiday weekend. I thought of all those great meals with attentive white-gloved service aboard the Queen Victoria and fastened my seat belt, readying myself for the dinner tray to come. Pass me a plastic fork, please. It’s pasta.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

Showing 1 comments

  1. On October 17, 2011, robert turgeon said:
    very interesting

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