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Sailing on the QE2 was an adventure for Mihir Bose, but for many of the other passengers, it was a way of life

SINCE the day my father took me to the Victoria Docks in Bombay, to bid goodbye to an uncle taking the ship to London, I had been fascinated by sea travel. I had longed to sail the Atlantic, and now I was at Southampton, waiting to board the QE2. But why were her flags flying at half-mast? Had the captain died? Was the voyage off?

The mystery was soon solved: we were sailing on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. An airline or a railway company would have gone out of its way to avoid any mention of such a coincidence. Not so the Cunard Line.

Throughout the voyage, one of the television channels in my cabin continuously showed a documentary on the disaster. A survivor, who had been only a year old at the time, talked of the father who had seen her and her mother to safety only to die himself on the ship.

On the quarterdeck, on a map showing the progress of our own ship, there was even a marker where the Titanic had sunk. The night before we reached that area, the captain said that weather would prevent our getting close to the icebergs, and apologised. As we all breathed in sharply, he smiled as if to suggest that what an iceberg did to the Titanic could never happen to the QE2.

This was not mere cockiness. The ocean liners of pre-war days were built for speed. The lounges and stairways of the QE2 are plastered with posters recalling a sort of Formula One championship, each ship boasting how much more quickly it crossed the Atlantic than its rivals. The Titanic sank because it took risks trying to go faster.

The QE2, on the other hand, has been deliberately slowed down: the crossing that took five nights before the war now takes six, giving passengers more time to enjoy what is, for some, a very plush retirement home.

Those of us who had boarded in Southampton felt like characters joining the final act of a well-established drama. Most of the other passengers had been on the ship for months. Many had already crossed the Atlantic once, then been round the world and were now on their way back, with some barely stopping in New York before going on another cruise in the West Indies. What was for me an adventure was for them a way of life.

I asked an elderly woman from New York how long she had been on the ship. She gave me a withering look. “Young man,” she said, “I have seen off eight captains on this ship.”

The captain may be master of his vessel, but not even he can enter the Queen’s Grill Lounge without permission.

The lounge and the Queen’s Grill restaurant are for the exclusive use of those who pay £16,000 for grand suites such as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. These consist of a bedroom with balcony, dining area and raised lounge leading out to a conservatory and private area, with a superb view of the forward part of the ship.

On the QE2, where you eat is determined by how much you pay for your accommodation. I ate at the Princess Grill on the quarterdeck. There were four other restaurants, all making families out of strangers. By our fifth day, the atmosphere was more English country house than cruise ship.

On the last night, in the yacht club, I met Peter Maciejeweski, a retired salesman from Arizona whose job as a gentleman host was to dance with the single ladies. If he was fit at 62, the ladies in their 70s and 80s with whom he did the foxtrot and the cha-cha-cha were even sprightlier. Peter, who danced for nine days and rested every 10th, had seen the world, met women of wealth and experience and made lots of friends. But the fantasy of romance had eluded him.

My own fantasy was fully realised. We had been told we must be on the bridge by 5am if we were to savour the first sight of the New World. As I woke and looked out and saw what looked like a million little lights. After seven days of nothing but water, the first hint of land made me feel like a 15th-century explorer.

As the light brightened, the familiar landmarks from an unfamiliar setting came into view: first the Statue of Liberty and then, as the tiny tugs guided this huge ship into dock, the skyline of Manhattan. A couple of hours later we were on New York soil. The driver who took us into town wondered where we had come from. When we told him, he could hardly believe it. “That boat!” he said. “People still travel that way?”

      

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