The Thrill of an Off-Season Transatlantic Cruise, Rough Seas and All

Late fall and winter sailings across the Atlantic on Cunard line’s classic “Queen Mary 2” ocean liner can bring unpredictable weather. For enthusiasts, that’s part of the appeal.

Queen Mary 2 ocean liner exterior view middle of the Atlantic

For some, crossing the Atlantic via cruise ship represents a way to connect with history and with the vast open sea.

Photo by Jonathan Atkin/Cunard

Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Reverend John Hartnett, a retired Episcopal priest from Bethany, Connecticut, took advantage of the relative calm after days of stormy seas to go for a swim in the outdoor pool on Cunard line’s 2,705-passenger Queen Mary 2 ocean liner.

He had the swimming pool entirely to himself, as temperatures were in the 40s, not factoring in the windchill of the sea breeze.

“Outside was the cold air and the heated water and the sun and the rocking boat and the wind,” Hartnett, 71, says. “It was my favorite part of the whole voyage.”

Hartnett was one of my fellow passengers on a November crossing from Southampton, United Kingdom, to New York City, during which we had encountered severe gale force winds reaching up to 49 knots, caused by a storm that the ship headed south to avoid.

Hartnett was unbothered. Feeling the waves was one reason that he and his wife, Susan, had come on board for a round-trip sailing from New York, with time in Europe in between.

“I wanted the experience of being in the ocean,” he says. “If I wanted an easy trip, I would have flown. I wanted the full experience of weather and thinking of what it was like crossing the ocean for hundreds of years.”

The 151,000-ton Queen Mary 2 is the only passenger cruise ship in the world that sails regularly scheduled transatlantic cruises, crossing between Southampton and Brooklyn in seven nights.

The idea behind Queen Mary 2 is it’s built to handle this kind of weather. It can take everything the weather throws at it and keep on going.

On summer sailings, barring any storms, the Atlantic can be as calm as a lake, as I have previously experienced. Sailings in November and December attract cruisers eager to witness some sea action. The ship later takes a winter break, doing its annual multi-month world cruise.

“I’ve always found appealing that it can be fierce and raging outside, and inside it’s warm and cozy and the jazz band is playing,” says cruise historian and writer Aaron Saunders, who had treated himself to this crossing as a 40th birthday present. “The idea behind Queen Mary 2 is it’s built to handle this kind of weather. It can take everything the weather throws at it and keep on going.”

The Queen Mary 2, or QM2 as it’s often called, is a large ship—having broken the world’s largest passenger ship record (which has since been surpassed several times) when it was christened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. It was built with a reinforced steel hull, four stabilizers that smooth the ride, and engines that can easily do 28 knots, or 32 miles per hour (the average speed for a cruise ship is approximately 20 knots, or 23 miles per hour).

As someone who suffers from seasickness, I had some trepidation in taking a November transatlantic cruise, while my husband, who would gladly stand on deck amid 40-foot waves if allowed, was gleeful about the prospect of some turbulence.

With the help of prescription motion sickness medication, a Transdermal Scopolamine patch behind my ear, and a little Dramamine, I got through the several stormy days drowsy but without ever even missing a meal.

There are downsides to what the ship’s captain described as “boisterous” seas. At times during our sailing the outdoor decks, including the teak promenade that you can walk or jog three times around for a mile of exercise, were closed.

Those hitting the large dance floor in the ship’s impressively elegant, high-ceilinged Queens Room ballroom occasionally had to be careful about how they placed their feet. Even when slow dancing to Elvis’ s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” played by a talented St. Lucian dance band in the G32 nightclub, I found myself clinging to my husband and thankful I hadn’t packed higher heels.

Occasionally, you’d hear a glass falling off a table and smashing. At one point the divider between our stateroom veranda and the next came loose and was banging against our glass door until it was repaired by crew members.

Hotel director David Shepherd said that room service increased dramatically on our cruise when some of the 2,205 mostly British, American, and European guests on board stayed in their room during rocky stretches. But for the majority, the action is a draw.

“If you get the bouncy weather, it’s a bonus,” Shepherd says. “And people love sitting at the windows, looking outside at the waves crashing up.”

Is seven days at sea even enough?

A singer performs in the Royal Court Theatre on the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner

Ballroom dancing, bridge, theater shows, live music, and lectures are among the activities available on Queen Mary 2 sailings.

Courtesy of Cunard

A question I get from friends when I mention a transatlantic sailing on the QM2, which I had done twice before in calmer seas, is, “What’s there to do with a whole week at sea?”

My answer, “What’s there not to do?”

The daily activity roster is packed. On one day, I counted 60 activities available before 7 p.m., not including beauty and wellness seminars and massages and other treatments at the spa, where a heated thalassotherapy pool is a prime attraction.

There is purposely something for everyone on board, from the smattering of families to the larger swath of passengers who fall into the more general category of 55-plus travelers.

Our Veterans Day sailing was offered in collaboration with the Greatest Generations Foundation, an organization that helps combat veterans return to battlegrounds and memorials. Hosting presentations on life, death, and heroism were 18 veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. A rapt audience packed the ship’s Royal Court Theatre daily to hear all they had to say.

Beyond the veteran-themed programming, the standard daily insights and enrichment offerings featured a marine scientist talking about subjects such as fish with jaws that hinge and animals that produce light; a military historian on the British defeat of the Zulu Nation; and a forensic medical examiner telling the real story of the Elephant Man.

There’s a long lineup of classes for everything from ballroom dancing to bridge. Contests included trivia, darts competitions in the Golden Lion Pub, and blackjack tournaments in the casino. Or you could while away hours watching movies such as Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker in the theater or Back to the Future in your stateroom.

I packed a Kindle loaded with books I’ve wanted to read, but there was also the option of heading to the ship’s bow for a hugely impressive ocean-view library stocked with more than 9,000 tomes.

At night, you could catch show productions in the theater, with singers and dancers performing Broadway tunes, comedian sets, or an impressive array of live music, including a folk duo and harpist. The Royal Shakespeare Company, which produces shows for QM2 based on excerpts from Shakespeare plays and acting workshops (the actors also host informal events where they perform their favorite sonnets and speeches and answer audience questions), doesn’t perform during the off-season sailings but will return in the spring after the world cruise.

The ship’s most iconic entertainment is ballroom dancing, on full display especially on two gala nights—the Black and White Ball and the Masquerade Ball. Those who don’t want to dress up can stick to the ship’s more casual eateries and lounges. Those who do, put on a show in their tuxes and gowns. Passengers who know how to ballroom dance take to the dance floor to show off their waltz, rumba, and cha-cha moves to a crowd of onlookers. My husband and I reserved our dancing for the nightclub, where there was less public scrutiny.

Each evening, when we finally returned to our stateroom, we wondered where the day (and evening) had gone.

The different classes of service

Passengers dining in the Britannia Restaurant won't be disappointed.

Passengers dining in the Britannia Restaurant are treated to a feast for the senses.

Photo by Shutterstock

When you book the QM2 you choose a class of service, and your level of accommodation determines where you dine. Hotel director Shepherd compares it to choosing a seat on a transatlantic flight—whether you want to fly coach, premium economy, business class, or first class. “It has a lot to do with space,” he says.

Guests in entry-level Britannia cabins are assigned to the ship’s main dining room, a glamorous, two-deck affair with a grand staircase, art deco–inspired decor, and impressive menus that might feature chicken leek terrine or Asian-style tuna tartare followed by rosemary and garlic grilled lamb cutlets or rainbow trout amandine for dinner. Breakfast might be eggs Benedict, avocado toast, or a full English spread, and for lunch a Thai curry or chicken cacciatore. Britannia Club balcony accommodations come with slightly upgraded dining in an exclusive restaurant.

Our Princess Grill accommodations consisted of a spacious stateroom with a sitting area and veranda, a walk-in closet, and a bathroom with a tub, as well as a reserved dining table in an intimate restaurant exclusively for the 150 Princess Grill guests on board. In addition to entrées like chateaubriand and particularly good vegetarian options, such as zucchini and sweet potato noodles in a creamy, coconut milk herb sauce, we could request tableside-finished dishes such as Dover sole meunière, rack of lamb, or roast duck à l’orange.

Top-tier Queens Grill guests stay in lavish suites with butler service and dine in a separate restaurant where they can order anything their heart desires. “There’s not a lot we don’t carry on board,” says Shepherd. “There’s a huge list of ingredients we carry exclusively for Queens Grill guests. That’s what makes that so special. If they want fresh lobster, they get fresh lobster.”

Both Princess and Queens guests have exclusive access to a private Grills Lounge with a terrace, where you might take your afternoon tea or sip martinis at night while mingling with other elite guests.

While the ship operates with a casual dress code by day and “smart attire” most nights, most Grill guests interpret this as collared shirts by day and jackets for men at dinner. During one lunch, I felt some looks when I went into the Princess Grill restaurant wearing more casual leggings.

A floating piece of history

On a transatlantic sailing with Cunard, guests become part of a decades-long legacy of cruises that cross the pond.

On a transatlantic sailing with Cunard, guests become part of a decades-long legacy of cruises that cross the pond.

Courtesy of Cunard

When you sail on the QM2, there is a sense you are part of a long-standing tradition of crossings—Cunard’s first transatlantic cruise was 180 years ago.

During our sailing, the ship passed about 46 miles from the final resting place of the Titanic, a moment to pause in remembrance if you were awake at 3 a.m.

I wanted the experience of being in the ocean. If I wanted an easy trip, I would have flown.

Some of us, like me, come on board keenly aware that our immigrant families traveled across the Atlantic in steerage, fleeing oppression. I got up early as we neared Brooklyn so as not to miss first sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which my ancestors saw more than 110 years ago. If this is important to you, book accommodations on the portside of the ship on westbound voyages, which also has the advantage of additional sunshine on clear days if your cabin has a window or veranda.

Hartnett, who has done a half-dozen crossings on the QM2, says when on board he reflects on time and place.

“The first time we did this I thought we’d see ships every day and we saw ships the first and last day,” he says. “I was impressed how big the ocean is.”

On the November crossing, he was thinking about his father and his father’s peers, who shipped out to Iceland in a convoy during World War II.

“Think of what it would be like on a much smaller ship in much worse circumstances and much worse weather with the possibility of being torpedoed,” he says. “This is a little bit of a pilgrimage in solidarity with them.”

Fran Golden covers cruises for AFAR.
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