London - The ship towers to the height of a 23-storey building. It has a bridge wider than two cricket pitches, a hull longer than 41 London buses, and carries 2 400 passengers. Until I tried it, a voyage on Queen Mary 2 would have been my idea of hell.
Like many people, I have always despised giant cruise ships as floating care homes with casinos.
But then I was invited to lecture on QM2, and in late January, still pretty apprehensive, my wife Penny and I boarded the ship at Durban.
Twenty days later, when we got off in Sydney, I sobbed down the gangway. I had loved every minute of it. I would travel anywhere on that 151 400-ton behemoth — wonderfully comfortable, totally relaxing, impeccably run. My smart friends can sneer as much as they like: I am unrepentant.
Like millions of other people around the world, I have become a cruise addict.
The romance of the endless ocean is a cliché, but like most clichés it means something. Morning after morning, we awoke to gaze out upon a horizon that remained sublimely empty and serene around the clock. We adopted an almost unchanging routine.
After breakfast I wrote or lectured through the morning, while Penny attended a watercolour painting class. She warmed immediately to the teacher, Sasha from Anglesey, and found the experience among the most rewarding of the trip. She also joined an afternoon iPad class teaching technophobes to master tablet computers. At noon we speed-marched two miles around the deck, to justify lunch. Then we slept or swam or worked until it was time for another speed-march, or more rations.
Since the QM2, which made its maiden voyage in 2004, is almost three times the size of the old Queen Mary of the Thirties, the sense of living in a town rather than on a boat is all the stronger.
But one of many nice surprises was that it proved easy to be alone, or almost so, on the upper decks. During our evening yomps, one-third of a mile each lap, we often paused on the big stern deck, with scarcely another passenger in sight, gazing fascinated at the ship’s seething wake, stretching out far behind us beneath the sunset. Sometimes we also lingered on the windy foredeck, which by an inspired stroke of design is adorned with the great gleaming silver-steel twists of the ship’s spare propeller blades, dubbed “the commodore’s cufflinks”.
Almost half a century ago, as a very young journalist, I travelled to New York on the old Queen Mary, then pretty long in the tooth, but still almost as magnificent to my wondering eyes as its captain, a character enchantingly named Treasure Jones. By that date, 1965, everybody who wanted to pretend to be anybody jetted across the Atlantic rather than waste five days at sea.
But I loved the great ship’s elegance and whisperingly gracious service. I even managed to lunch in its smartest restaurant, the Verandah Grill, with the only star aboard, Millicent Martin from the TV satire That Was The Week That Was, everybody’s pin-up.
My only previous experience of cruising was rather different — aboard P&O’s Canberra under the auspices of Margaret Thatcher and the Royal Navy, en-route to the South Atlantic in 1982 after Argentina invaded the Falklands. Every scrap of culinary talent in the crew abandoned the ship at Southampton when they heard she was going to war.
Their replacements steered 3 Commando Brigade to the Falklands in good shape, but so vile was Canberra’s food that after six weeks afloat we welcomed the switch to dried Arctic rations once we waded ashore.
When the shooting stopped, I hitched a ride home in an RAF Hercules rather than endure another fortnight as a prisoner of war aboard the old tub. That experience convinced me that I am not one of nature’s doughty British tars.
But QM2 has reconverted me — or, some would say, institutionalised me as it does almost every cruise passenger. It is infinitely seductive living in a cash-free world where one can buy anything from a postcard to a Pimm’s — or, God help us, casino gaming chips — merely by flashing a ship’s identity card. It is so restful to abandon all thought, decisions and choices, except whether to have sole grilled or meuniere.
My fellow-lecturer was the great Sir Jackie Stewart, who had signed up for six weeks at sea with his wife Helen, and secured the ship’s smartest suite, which made our cabin, hitherto apparently so spacious, feel like a matchbox.
One night we dined with the Stewarts in their quarters, an experience which caused Penny to ask crossly why I have frittered away my life being a writer, and failed to become Formula One World Champion.
What I know about motor racing can be written on a postage stamp, but the Stewarts were such good fun, Jackie’s energy and enthusiasm at 74 so infectious, that we enjoyed ourselves hugely in their company, though I balked at joining him with a personal trainer in the gym.
Then there was the food. Ah yes, the food. The mind boggled at the thousands of tons of beef and sole, pork and scallops, pancake mix and halibut, turkey and stuffing, with which storerooms groaned beneath our feet.
Each year QM2 consumes 1.35 million teabags, 38 000lb of smoked salmon, nearly two million eggs, 7 000 boxes of strawberries and 230 000 bottles of wine, not all of them drunk by the Hastingses.
Each day we basked in meals I would have been happy to get in any London hotel or restaurant. We gorged on chateaubriand, savoured every salad dressing, gobbled crepes suzettes. I accused the captain, Kevin Oprey, of sadism: he lavished this daily Everest of calories on us, when almost every one of his passengers needed a diet confined to yogurt and Ryvita. But then, stuffing from dawn to dusk is a vital part of what cruising is about.
Captain Oprey is a delightful cove who is mad on sailing and lives beside the Hamble in Hampshire with his wife Cheryl, who travels with him on QM2.
Now 61, he comes from the old tradition of British seafarers, and indeed is perhaps one of the last of them. His father and grandfather spent their lives at sea. He himself never wanted to do anything else.
He spent years as a cadet, working with cargo ships’ bosuns learning his trade, before becoming an officer and then a skipper. He laments the fact that a new British generation does not want to follow the same career path. Most of his officers are from Britain, but more than a few abandon the sea once they get married.
As for the crew, almost to a man and woman they come from India and the Philippines. No young Scouser or Geordie, however desperate for a job, would think of accepting the relentlessly hard-working, ill-paid life of a seaman or waiter aboard such a ship.
But Oprey and his officers sustain a pleasing veneer of Britishness around the ship. They exude charm and competence.
After a week or two at sea, like everybody else, we became so set in our ways that I whimpered in protest against going ashore.
At Port Louis on Mauritius, we spent a joyless hour in quayside shops, then scuttled gratefully back aboard.
Ten days later on the west coast of Australia, we enjoyed a few hours in Perth, having lunch at a restaurant stunningly situated on a hill above the city. But I could not help muttering grumpily that the food was not as nice as on the boat.
At Melbourne, Penny went shopping all day, but I simply took a tram ride into town for a couple of hours, to visit the city’s art gallery. Cruising is not about seeing foreign parts — you will learn more about abroad by watching Michael Palin on the telly at home.
The boarding and landing routine for ships’ passengers is infinitely more relaxed than the horrors of airports.
At Sydney, our final destination, we strolled ashore without queueing, after simply surrendering our QM2 identity cards, and found our luggage waiting in the terminal, ready piled on a trolley. Ten minutes later, we were drinking coffee in the hotel beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Next time — and I am determined that there will be a next time — I shall fork out whatever it takes to get a bigger cabin, so we can occupy it together without feeling crowded.
Penny hugely enjoyed her painting, but said she was frightened of turning into a turnip if she lived an utterly unchanging daily routine for much longer. She would also have liked to see more blue sky and fewer windy days, though I pointed out that compared with Britain last month, this ocean was a millpond.
Cruising is not real life, of course. It is for those who want to experience a zero-gravity, zero-challenge illusion of foreign travel, a band which now includes me.
In younger days, I loved driving 4x4s across African deserts, sleeping in hammocks in Asian jungles, scaling mountains and braving shellfire.
Nowadays, instead, I am ready to embrace the soft life, which cruising offers in spades. I understand, as I could never have done two or three decades ago, how nice it is to wake up in the morning without wondering how many fences one must jump — figuratively — before bedtime.
I did not merely like QM2, I fell in love with her. I am already leafing through 2015’s brochures, and telling Penny that she is going to love her next round of watercolour classes.
As for me, I am buying a yachting cap, and starting to sing sea shanties. - Daily Mail