Long Live The Queens

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Years ago I acquired a wonderful piece of memorabilia, an invitation to the September 26, 1934, launch of a ship known as No. 534, with Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary in attendance. The vessel’s name was a closely guarded secret until the Queen smashed a wine bottle against its hull, thus christening the Queen Mary . I was decades late for that ceremony, nor did I get another chance when the present British monarch christened the second Cunarder of that name on January 8, 2004.

But because the World Ship Society, an organization of ship lovers that I belong to, was alert to another historic opportunity, I was able to take part in a memorable sighting. On April 22 of last year the Queen Mary 2 arrived in New York Harbor on its maiden transatlantic voyage from Southampton. Three days of festivities ensued. Then, on April 25, its glorious older sister, the Queen Elizabeth 2 , appeared. In service since 1969, she was still sleek but appeared oddly shrunken next to her outsized companion. Until a Royal Caribbean behemoth comes along later this year, the QM2 holds title as the largest ship ever built, nearly four football fields long and soaring 200 feet above the waterline. The original Queen s, the most popular and profitable ships on the North Atlantic run, had last appeared together in the early days of World War II, and now these two would be sailing out in tandem, possibly for the only time.

Because of a thicket of security concerns, the usual gathering of small vessels that would accompany such a departure was cleared from the harbor, leaving it mostly to police boats and helicopters. But the World Ship people and one or two other groups had managed to charter a few commuter ferries and Circle Line boats, providing an amazing vantage from which to chart the liners’ progress from their berths down the Hudson, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and toward the waiting Atlantic. It was a cold, gray evening, and bundled up on the deck of the ferry John Stevens , the lit-up city a fantasy stage set, I could almost imagine that this was the start of my own transatlantic journey.

As the giant glowing vision moved out (pausing near the bridge to wait for her sister, who was suffering a delay), people on my ferry conducted envious cell-phone calls with friends aboard. And when both ships sailed into the distance, the New York skyline itself seemed diminished, something I would not have thought possible. I’d never made it aboard the first Queen Mary , but I knew I had to be on this one. That same night a little boy who had watched from the shore was interviewed on television. “Would you like to go on it?” the reporter asked. “Yes, very much.” “What do you think it would be like?” “Paradise. Living the life,” the child said.

Since the cruise-ship population is expanding these days and because people aren’t so eager to fly to distant ports, many lines that have ignored New York’s piers for years, except for summer runs to Bermuda and fall trips to New England, are returning here and to other East Coast ports. Norwegian Cruise Line now has a year-round itinerary to the Bahamas, soon to be joined by Princess, and the QM2 will become a regular presence, offering 26 transatlantic voyages, as well as a series of cruises. Starting next spring, many of these ships, the QM2 included, will depart from a newly refurbished terminal in Brooklyn’s Red Hook. So book now if you want to be able to experience the classic, unequaled Manhattan departure.

Checking the QM2 ’s calendar, I spotted an eight-day roundtrip from New York that, thanks to the ship’s superior speed of 25 knots (it can reach 29 if necessary), would bring it deep into the Caribbean, stopping at St. Thomas, St. Kitts, and St. Martin. It wasn’t the ports that appealed but the chance to have four full days at sea—two in each direction—making this a sort of hybrid cruise-crossing. After all, the ship’s transatlantic run takes only six days, and it easily could be done in five.

On an unexpectedly freezing day in early March, and after a five-minute cab ride from my home, I arrived at Pier 90 knowing from having read many grumpy accounts on the Internet that I would be in for a long wait. You can see why a new terminal is in the works; Manhattan’s piers may resonate with history, but their waiting rooms hold no charm.

The shifting, restless crowd of 2,600 passengers, a full house, could not help being diverted by the close-up view of the ship. It filled the terminal windows, blotting out any sign of city or sky.