At the cost of nearly a billion dollars and with enough anticipation to launch a thousand vessels, the Queen Mary 2 is finally ready to set sail. Guy Trebay gets an inside look.
Coliena Rentmeester

She was wearing what looked like a top hat, in a failed effort to compensate for the wild imbalance in their heights. Even so, at five feet five inches, my grandmother stood more than a foot shorter than her husband, the hat barely bringing her level with his collarbone. My elegant and absurdly tall grandfather had on a double-breasted wool overcoat in a luxuriant blue that one never encounters nowadays. His suit was bespoke and so were his shoes, fine clothes being among several weaknesses that also included women married to other men.

The two of them were standing at the rail of an ocean liner and tossing colored streamers to those of us below. They were en route to France. To see them off, there had been a farewell party in their stateroom, which was filled with flowers, laughter, and hampers of waxy fruit encased in cellophane. There had been champagne for the adults and Shirley Temples for my sister and me, and although it was winter and frigid at the Hudson River pier, the giddy excitement of the leave-taking provided all the warmth required to fuel the memory of an event that absolutely never occurred.

Shrinks would call the phenomenon I'm invoking "screen memory," something confabulated by the subconscious from elements of both the longed for and the real. I find the phrase seductive, not least because it sounds so cinematic:memory's home movie, each scene cued up as needed or at will. On my screen, a happy group of people is bidding farewell to a suave, if distant, couple as tugboats invisibly maneuver the behemoth they have boarded away into the dark.

The facts as I know them are a lot more prosaic, my grandfather dying when I was an infant, and my grandmother living on long enough to marry twice more. I am not certain that the two ever traveled together on an ocean liner, although I have a black-and-white photograph of them aboard a ship and dressed as I have described. Certainly she made a number of voyages during her 92 years, some with her second husband and some with the man's brother, her third. I saw her off on a few of those journeys and there was always fruit and drink in the stateroom, although by the 1960's, streamers would have been considered environmentally iffy and probably also, by the kid I was then, very uncool.

Screen memories were much on my mind on a cold, rainy night in January as the Queen Mary 2 pushed off from the dock in Southampton, England. The ship was on a shakedown cruise bound for nowhere and, at the same time, setting compass for a well-charted realm of memory.

The two-day outing I had joined was a trial run for the maiden voyage of the Cunard Line's new $800 million vessel, which at 1,132 feet long and 237 feet tall is the largest, most costly, and, unquestionably, the most optimistically conceived civilian ship in the world. A few days later, the queen of England was expected to arrive at the famous port to smash a safety-scored bottle of Veuve Clicquot against the ship's hull and utter some blandly regal benediction on the vessel, which happens to be named not for her grandmother but for another ship.

As I saw it, the clock would briefly turn back at that instant to the days when more people crossed the Atlantic by sea than by air, to a time (the 1950's) before jet travel made the 12 Cunard Line ships, then carrying a third of all passengers across the Atlantic, redundant and faintly sad.

Despite everything that has occurred in the meantime, there is a strong collective investment in the glory days of ocean travel. The anachronistic glamour that still clings to such famous passengers as Greta Garbo and Cary Grant, who routinely crossed the Big Pond on ocean liners, is available, too, in a way, to anyone who ever dreamed of putting on evening clothes to dine at the captain's side.

Remnant glamour was clearly what the Cunard Line was banking on when it commissioned a vessel evocative of an era that may not be entirely passé; early reports suggest that the strategy works. Eighteen months before the Queen Mary 2 had even left the French shipyard where it was constructed, all of its staterooms were booked.

"Ocean travel is still romantic, I believe," said Pamela Conover, president of the Cunard Line, on the second of two days spent bobbing in the English Channel, the liner thronged with excited families and friends of the companies that own or built it. "During the golden age of ocean travel, in the thirties, this was the only way to get to the United States from Europe. We're the one line that has continued to do the crossing. All along we've believed that a classic luxury travel experience would appeal to a lot of different people."

That faith was strong enough for the Carnival Corporation, which purchased Cunard from the Norwegian shipbuilder Kvaerner in 1998, to gamble that the global appetite for ocean cruises would boom again as economies recovered and the fear of possible terrorist attacks diminished. Undeterred by earnings losses attributable to the war in Iraq and by what analysts called a glut in the market, Cunard pressed on with the construction of a ship that is bigger and heavier than a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier, although fitted out less ominously, it is nice to report.

The differences are a pleasure to enumerate. There is, for a start, the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, a first at sea. There is a planetarium, another oceangoing novelty, its daily shows on Martian canals and supernovas narrated by an actor whose résumé must carry a special notation reading: Voice of God. There is a 1,100-seat theater; a library paneled in burled walnut and stocked with a selection of books that suggests a belief on Cunard's part that its clients can read without moving their lips; an indoor swimming pool with a retractable glass roof; a classic promenade deck roughly a third of a mile in circumference and lined with teak deck chairs, lacking only a Jane Russell or a Marilyn Monroe buried to her cleavage beneath lap rugs to complete the overall period effect.

More central to what Conover might call the target demographicis a Canyon Ranch SpaClub occupying 20,000 square feet on decks seven and eight, where 51 therapists and practitioners offer services culled from a menu of globalized pampering: Thai massage as well as shiatsu, Finnish sauna and thalassotherapy. Arriving at Southampton tensed from last-minute flight cancellations, and beginning to ache with what a fellow passenger ominously predicted would be "the cold," I booked myself a Swedish massage. That it failed to stave off the shivering and hacking of the next five days was no fault of the young South African masseur, who was gentle and thorough about his job. At the very least, he provided me with a window of relief, and that, too, is part of the strategy behind the liaison between Cunard and the people who run the celebrated high-end spa. "A lot of our clients would not take time off to spend a weekend pampering themselves," Conover said. "Here," she added, "you have six days to fit it all in."

At the time when my grandparents traveled, there was very little to do on a ship. Happily for them (and less so, I suppose, for their partners), they were high-stakes bridge players who did not go out of their way to advertise their mastery in advance. Beyond cards, activities on board were limited to quoits or shuffleboard or, for the enterprising, shipboard romance. Naturally there was dining, a ritual activity whose importance aboard a ship bears only the sketchiest relationship to sustenance.

It will surprise no one to learn that the Queen Mary 2 is equipped with the usual array of restaurants, segregated according to stateroom category and oriented to the industry-certified formula that suggests cruise travelers are satisfied in proportion to how often and how much they are fed. Not for nothing does a small souvenir book about the new ocean liner project an annual consumption of lobster equal to the annual catch from three Maine fishing boats constantly patrolling their pots. The figure cited is 62,426 pounds. Pass the digestifs.

In a vague attempt to tweak the cliché of cruise ships as nautical feedlots, Cunard has added to its list of dining rooms a Mediterranean-fusion restaurant named for Todd English, its celebrity chef. This proved so popular on my two-day cruise that the maître d' laughed when I called for a booking. By coincidence, a cancellation came in as I sat having a glass of white Burgundy at the tapas bar that evening. So I am able to say that I have sampled English's golden beet carpaccio with warm Roquefort drizzle, white balsamic syrup, and walnut tuile, a dish far lighter and tastier than it sounds. I also ate a roast chicken that came blanketed in a similar sauce of verbiage, but alas was no better than banquet fare.

"People expect fine dining from Cunard, and that's part of their vacation decision-making," Conover told me. It would be part of mine, too, were I to learn that Cunard has also hired the French chef Daniel Boulud as an advisor in all the QM2 culinary ventures except Todd English's restaurant. Boulud, the proprietor of New York's DB Bistro Moderne, Café Boulud, and the four-star restaurant Daniel, is a chef of sound Gallic instincts, one unlikely to be daunted either by hype or by the challenge of hoisting shipboard cooking out of the realm of steam-table cuisine.

"Will it ever be four-star?" Boulud asked when we talked one afternoon at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, where he was fresh from a haircut and manicure. "Maybe not," he said with a shrug. All the same, the chef, who was accompanied on board by his parents, Marie and Julien, had set himself the task of recasting the conventions of ocean liner cooking, whose formulas are built on lobster claws, beef medallions, and the low-grade theater of a sauce-painted plate.

"Originally, Cunard came to me and wanted some of my recipes," Boulud said. "But that didn't make any sense, since it is not so much about having my cooking as bringing ideas to the chef." The best recipe in the world is worthless, he said, without qualified hands to carry it off. The chef then illustrated his approach by critiquing a soup he had ordered the previous night.

"It was watermelon and cucumber soup, garnished with almonds, but they used almond powder," as a shortcut for real nutmeat minced fine, Boulud explained. The result was a mealy mistake. "The point is that menus can be simpler, flavor can be deeper and more intense. I would not be here if I did not feel that something real could be achieved." According to Boulud, the goal is simple: "Provide more taste and less fuss."

That would not be a bad mission statement for the Cunard Line's entire new enterprise, which, like many of the services in the so-called luxury market, occasionally runs the risk of shortchanging those who buy into the ballyhoo. Advance press on the Queen Mary 2 encouraged passengers to expect the ambience of a fine European hotel, although in reality, the ship's Grand Lobby more closely resembles a Las Vegas wedding mill. The clunky disco, G32, is like the set from a cut-rate Bond film. And the waiting-room air of the ship's public areas is in no way diminished by the thickets of plastic greenery and the generic "art" on the walls. The widespread use of energy-saving lightbulbs is undoubtedly an environmentally sound idea. It does, however, have the effect of shocking a guest when he looks in the mirror and sees the face of someone apparently undermedicated with Dramamine.

Thirty years ago, the death of ocean travel was broadly prophesied. On board the Queen Elizabeth 2—the ship that the Queen Mary 2 will soon replace on the transatlantic route—it was possible, at one point, to find oneself "the only person at afternoon tea," as the New York Times remarked. Yet it seemed increasingly plausible, as I threaded the maze from one of the liner's 13 decks to the next and observed baby-boomer passengers queuing up for spa treatments or promenading in their evening clothes for dinner at Britannia, that a shipping line begun in 1839 as a carrier for the Royal Mail might still succeed in reviving the luster of an ocean passage. I had my doubts when I set out that a new era of ocean travel was upon us, or that the Carnival Corporation would ever recoup its $800 million investment in the Queen Mary 2. Yet I came away with a different understanding. People who journey aboard luxury liners invariably do so anticipating some form of emotional transport, the memories-in-formation that brochures rhapsodize about. That the ship would soon set sail from Southampton to Fort Lauderdale and then on to other destinations seemed somehow incidental. Few passengers aboard the Queen Mary 2 are likely to be preoccupied with getting from one place to the next.

Queen Mary 2, 800/728-6273;; from $1,619 per person, double, for the six-day Atlantic crossing, including one-way return airfare.

GUY TREBAY is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.