Thirty-five years ago, I enjoyed what I thought was the thrill of a lifetime when I flew the Concorde from London to the U.S. and made the trip in four hours. We flew twice the speed of sound at 60,000 feet, about half-again as high as conventional aircraft fly. Looking up, even in daylight, I could see the darkness of space, and on the horizon, I could see the curvature of the earth. Champagne flowed freely on that supersonic transport (SST), and the food was as good as could be served from a tiny galley with nothing but a convection oven.
When my wife and I boarded the Queen Mary II in New York for a six-day/seven-night voyage to England recently, I realized just how much things have changed (or I have). As the Concorde was then, the QM2 today is a unique technological marvel. Billed as the biggest and best ocean liner ever built, the crown jewel of Cunard's fleet serves almost as an anti-SST, providing its passengers with plenty of room, plenty to do, plenty of time to do it, and every opportunity to skip it all and stare out at the sea.
Ironically, one of the most remarkable things I remember about the Concorde lounge at Heathrow back then was a single rotary telephone that sat on a table for use by waiting passengers. We could use it to call anywhere in the world, for free, which was quite a novelty then. In contrast, one of the things I was looking forward to most on my ocean voyage was to be disconnected from the rest of the world. Internet access was available, but it was the last thing I wanted, when I could be walking the deck, listening to live music, or visiting the planetarium.
Time Changes and Changing Times
Supersonic travel meant we would arrive in the U.S. earlier in the same day than our departure time had been. In contrast, traveling the opposite direction on the QM2, we set our clocks forward one hour every day at noon, gradually acclimating to the time-zone change. The unexpected effect was to push our meals closer together, making the journey even more about the food than I had anticipated.
Finishing breakfast by 9 a.m. meant that in three hours we had almost missed lunch. Shortly after lunch, it was tea-time, and our early-seating meant we would barely have enough post-scone time to change clothes for dinner. If hunger struck before bedtime, there were a variety of restaurant options and a lovely room-service menu. This 24-hour, more-than-you-can-eat array of food was all included in the cost of the crossing, so it was no surprise that the loose-fitting clothes I had packed became uncomfortably tight by the end of the week.
The food, while good, was not really the main attraction on the Queen Mary 2, any more than it was on the Concorde. The real draw for both, at least for me, turned out to be a reflection of the ages. In the 1970s (or was it my 20s?), it seemed that faster was always better, and time spent sitting was always time wasted. Today, the fact that the QM2 is the fastest passenger ship in the seas is hardly its claim to fame. Indeed, it was almost as if my ticket to ride came with permission to slow down.
Instead of marveling that the Earth was round as I had on the Concorde, I found myself staring across the flat ocean at the edge of the world and understanding how sailors of old could fear falling off. The historical displays onboard recalled the days when an ocean voyage was the only way to make a crossing, and the journey was fraught with dangers -- from icebergs to U-boats. On a more personal level, I marveled that my ancestors had braved this journey on much smaller ships nearly a hundred years earlier, without the luxury or the high-tech stabilizers. As I toasted them on my stateroom balcony, I hoped they would have considered my winter ride on the high seas as a fitting return on their investment in future generations.