I was ready for a break. My New York City apartment had been without gas for a week, and 12-hour workdays were taking their toll. The thought of checking out on a transatlantic crossing with no set plans, slow Wi-Fi, and almost nonexistent cell service sounded like a brilliant solution to all my problems.
And so, last September, I found myself in Southampton, England, ready to board the Queen Mary 2 on a weeklong voyage back to my home city. The liner is run by Cunard — the company that wrote the book on transatlantic travel — and my mother had recently sailed on the ship, raving afterward about days spent reading detective novels in the library and visits to the only planetarium at sea. Though I had never been on a cruise before, I figured there was a first time for everything. Being stuck at sea, without any specific ports to visit, would give me plenty of time to recharge. And maybe it would even stoke my creative juices: in 2016, Ed Sheeran wrote part of his latest album while holed up in a cabin on the QM2.
As soon as I set foot on the enormous ship, I headed to my cabin on Deck 6. It was larger than I had imagined, with
a king bed, a desk, a love seat, a coffee table, and a balcony large enough for two chaises. Instead of joining the crowd outdoors as the liner embarked at sunset, I opened a bottle of chilled champagne and sipped a glass while we made our way past turreted castles and the Isle of Wight. I spent the rest of the evening drinking tea, dipping crunchy British cookies into it, and reading a newspaper I'd brought from London cover to cover. The unplugging from real life that usually takes at least a few days on a land vacation happened in a matter of hours.
The weather was consistently sunny, with a bracing, salty wind. On my second day, I decided to get my bearings and went outside to walk three laps around the ship (helpfully marked as 1.1 miles). The endless expanse of ocean and its steady waves were hypnotic and observing them was entertaining, just like watching a campfire crackle.
I started the trip with the idea that I would cloister myself from other people, or at least keep my interactions with others to a minimum. The reality? I was at sea with 2,600 strangers: sometimes, I ended up talking to folks — and actually enjoyed doing so. The other passengers were universally friendly, and often fascinating. On the second night, at a black-and-white ball, where women wore evening gowns and men tuxes, I met an octogenarian gay couple over drinks. Dean, who sat closest to me, explained that they knew all the bartenders by name because they had sailed on the QM2 at least a dozen times, always bringing 11 suitcases. "Tuxedos," he explained, "take up a lot of space." Before retiring, he had been the manager of the Continental Hyatt House on the Sunset Strip in L.A. when it was called the Riot House and frequented by traveling bands. "Rock stars are like toddlers," he said, before ordering his fourth gimlet.
I'm not sure what I was expecting — maybe something out of Cinderella, or Jane Austen — but the ball was a fairly tame affair. I did learn that Cunard is one of the few cruise lines to still employ Gentlemen Hosts, suave and well-preserved middle-aged men who get a small stipend and free travel in exchange for dancing with solo female travelers. I was so paranoid one would take pity on me and try to teach me to waltz that I left early.
Besides, sleeping had become my favorite activity. The gentle rock of the ship made for possibly the best rest I've had in my adult life. By mid-crossing, I had not only lost track of what day it was, but my only contact with the outside world was the newsletter delivered to my room each night listing the next day's activities (fencing, watercolors, flower arranging), which came paired with a square of chocolate.
And then, I began to really go outside of my introverted comfort zone, and do things like join a group of fellow New Yorkers for high tea in the Queens Room, where we feasted on scones with clotted cream and jam, tiny berry-cake confections, and cucumber sandwiches.
I took advantage of another invite and went to the Grills Lounge, usually reserved for VIP guests, and had a Kir Royale with a former sketch comedian from TV who told me I was "huggable."
Still, I loved my newfound ritual of having lunch alone at the Golden Lion pub, sitting on a chesterfield sofa surrounded by photos of the royal family: Princess Diana and Princes William and Harry circa the mid 1990s; Princess Margaret in an evening gown looking a little naughty. One day, the couples sitting next to me were swapping stories of crazy nights in London, but stopped talking when the captain and chief navigator came on the loudspeaker to share wild geological factoids about underwater mountain ranges we were passing over. Part of the joy of cruising was finding these pockets of fun in odd places: the Dixieland concert I wandered into while searching for a cappuccino; the charming Polish instructor of the indoor cycling class who made frequent dad-style jokes about burning calories.
On my last night, I set the alarm for 4:45 a.m. so I could watch our arrival in New York Harbor. I made my way to the
top deck and joined a few hundred of my fellow passengers. The city glittered around us, and we were all a little awestruck at seeing land for the first time after a week of endless Atlantic blue. I was a little sad that the cruise was over — the sign of any successful trip. And I was also the best-rested I've ever been, which felt like the greatest luxury I could imagine. Seven night sailings from $1,299.