- Historic Sites
A World In The Middle Of The Ocean
At their zenith the great transatlantic liners were lean runways for Schiaparelli dresses and Sulka dressing gowns, gorgeous stage sets for ship-to-shore gossip, bon mots, cocktail shakers, and dancing all night. It still can happen.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
The cabin classes carry over to the assigned dining rooms, which reflect different levels of detail in food and service—and in exclusivity, certainly. In the Queens Grill, where I took my meals, the cadre of waiters required about one day to learn specifically what I like and when (which no one has yet learned in my own household) and after that I barely had to speak to them at all if I didn’t want to, which is possibly the greatest luxury of all. Or it would have been, except that I learned, the second day, that at lunchtime a passenger can order anything in the world for dinner. On successive nights I asked the kitchen to re-create three of the best dishes I’d ever had in Europe: one Spanish, one Russian, one Swedish. And they did so, flawlessly.
Transatlantic liners are famous, above all else, for serving delicious dishes in vast quantities. They always served a lot of food, even in Steerage, but for years the overall quality didn’t vary enough from the fare that someone dismissed in 1908, only a little unfairly, as, “a shrine of Brussels sprouts and plain boiled potatoes.” Then, in the late 1920s, the French Line asserted itself with the Île de France , not a big ship or a fast one (the Normandie would be both, a few years later), but a “chichi” ship. For years liners had copied established styles in decoration. The Île de France was so crisply drawn in the Art Moderne style that on this side of the Atlantic, the Art Deco movement copied it . The ship featured an indoor promenade pretending to be a Parisian boulevard, and against that background it naturally had to serve gourmet cuisine. Other liners were obliged to keep up, proffering mountains of superb food. That’s still, on the QE2 , an incongruous enough idea to be enthralling: You can have practically all the caviar you want! In my case that happens to be none, but the thought is in the air.
I traveled to England on a jet plane, changing continents and having a nap, only to turn around and come back on an ocean liner.
The captain of the ship on the crossing, Keith Stanley, presided over a number of receptions, including one that I attended early in the crossing. He seemed a genial and alert man, with the direct manner of an executive rather than the bluff one would expect of a sea captain. I wondered who actually did get to sit at the captain’s table, and I found out the next day at lunch. Wearing a baseball hat and a sweatshirt, too disgraceful for the Queens Grill, I wandered down to a cafeteria known as the Lido and found I was inching along in the buffet line next to Captain and Mrs. Stanley. They were neither working the crowd nor actively inspecting the personnel; they seemed to be perusing the hot entrées. Without much suavité at all, I think I could have swept along with them to a table, leaving all the Lido to speculate who the (slovenly) dignitary was who got to sit at the captain’s table. But it was better by far to glimpse the city at sea as a village where a man can take some time off and have lunch with his wife. Later, at yet another reception, I spoke to Mrs. Stanley, who told me that her husband had been orphaned as a child and joined a merchant ship as a teenager. He became a captain before switching to a posting as a junior officer with the Cunard Line in the middle of his career, then worked his way up again to master the flagship, Queen Elizabeth 2 .
I was invited to visit the ship’s bridge at noon on the third day out. And I blame the spell of the vessel and the sublime selfishness that it instills for the fact that I was late, having opted to watch the end of an old movie before sauntering up, and up, to the bridge about eight minutes after the hour. “You could have blown the noon whistle,” one of the junior officers said. “It’s an honor.” From the philosophic point of view, the noon whistle, out in the middle of the ocean, could actually be at eight after. But the bridge was a serious place with plenty of other amusements. In the heyday of steamships British officers had the reputation of standing outside in the weather, rather than remaining behind windows, and the QE2 is designed for that proclivity, with “bridge wings” extending off the bridge on either side. The bridge itself is spacious, and the instrumentation surprisingly simple.
Because the date happened to be April 14, and because we were standing there scanning the North Atlantic Ocean, the conversation turned to icebergs.