There’s something about Mary 2
Atlantic Ocean


A young boy was in his bedroom when the old-fashioned postcard arrived. Adorning his walls was an image of Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘I’m the King of the World’ pose, and on his shelves was every book ever written on RMS Titanic.

The boy’s fathers were growing concerned that he should pick a healthier obsession – pyramids or dinosaurs or something, any subject other than the world’s most famous maritime tragedy turned pop-culture phenomenon, notably by James Cameron’s eponymous 1997 blockbuster movie. This postcard wasn’t going to help – a vintage advertisement depicting the outline of a ship with shadowy smokestacks sailing off into a dreamily romantic Art Deco-style sunset. The slogan? ‘Across the Ocean with Cunard.’

The postcard read something like this:

‘Dear Charles (and I don’t mean the recently ordained King Charles III on this overpriced postage stamp – you’re obviously way cooler).

‘Ahoy from the middle of the ocean. I am wearing a tuxedo as I write to you aboard the Queen Mary 2. It’s not a cruise, but a transatlantic crossing, on the last existing ocean liner. More importantly, the captain has announced that at around 10pm this evening we will be passing over the final resting place of RMS Titanic and of course I wanted you to be the first to know. Will send you this as soon as I reach Southampton. Love, Guncle Clarkie’

My nephew’s excited whoop could apparently be heard right down the block. 

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It’s a climate-change-hot New York City Thursday in July. I grab a car from Times Square, where no one can avoid the bombardment of headlines about the recent Titan submersible implosion. A shiver runs down my spine. Bad omen? I decide not to think about it.

“I wouldn’t want to miss the boat,” I accidentally say out loud.

“Ship,” says my driver, pointing to the harbour. “She’s a ship.”

Like Kate Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater before me (okay, more like Kathy Bates’s Molly Brown in truth – I’m middle-aged and pleased with myself because I’m carrying a surfeit of gala-wear), I step out of the car and look up.

What can compare with the sense of awe and childlike glee that accompanies your first glimpse of the Queen Mary 2? An old-school, luxury ocean liner, gracefully docked against the NYC skyline, she is reminiscent of a bygone era of optimistic industrialist power and opportunity. Her opulent style is evident in the sweeping staircases, grand ballroom and elegant promenade deck, and wraps itself around its well-heeled guests on its regular scheduled transatlantic crossings between New York and Southampton.

The QM2 is the largest passenger ship in history, carrying travellers who prefer not to fly, nautical enthusiasts who love being at sea, and people like me who adore experiential travel and enjoy taking their time. She’s a physical manifestation of the phrase ‘bon voyage’.

“I just want to enjoy the rest of my life,” explains an elderly but spry trans woman from San Diego, underlining what brings her aboard. Right now, I’m totally spacing out that there are so many queer people at the LGBTQ+ Happy Hour in the Chart Room bar. For a moment, ‘Queen Mary’ feels like a euphemism for a classy gay cruise.

“It’s not a cruise, dear,” the woman from San Diego corrects politely. She’s sitting in a handsome armchair with an epic view of the bow and the open ocean ahead. “It’s a crossing.”

Meanwhile, Sam, a musician from North Carolina who has to be in the UK for a performance, quips, “I’m a super-nervous flier and my doctor won’t prescribe me Xanax. But this turned out cheaper than the plane ticket and all meals are included”.

Embarrassingly, his enthusiasm is met with a yawn. And not because I’m bored. In fact, I’m incredibly overstimulated. But there are four diesel engines on the QM2, each 12.5m long and weighing 217 tons. They produce enough thrust to launch a jumbo jet. The quiet vibrations and the hum of the ship, combined with my surroundings’ extraordinary comfort, lull me to sleep everywhere I go.

LGBTQ+ Happy Hour is long over when a white-gloved hand gently shakes me from a doze. “Yeah right, Sam, this boat is a total score,” I agree, sitting up straight.

“It’s not a boat,” corrects the steward kindly. “It’s a ship.”

Perhaps it’s the old-world, neo-Gilded Age vibes, or the uniformed stewards who turn down your bed at night. Or perhaps it’s the free room service whenever you want, or the lectures, painting classes and ballet performances. The economic value of the five- to seven-day journey compared with international flights becomes very apparent the moment you step on board and is always a topic of conversation at dinner. Being a solo traveller who loves to gab with new people, I choose the ‘open’ seating option and eat at a different table every night.

“My husband and I have done this crossing many times now,” says Michael, who owns a business in London, but lives in Las Vegas and travels constantly back and forth. This is not uncommon – many QM2ers book numerous crossings years in advance.

“We prefer it because we can take the dogs if we want and there’s no jet lag,” he adds.

“Yeah, I could totally get into cruising,” I muse.

“It’s not a cruise,” everyone says in unison. “It’s a crossing!”

And while a trip on the Queen Mary 2 may not be a cruise, the ship’s lineage birthed cruising. Cunard is one of the oldest cruise brands, around since 1840. The first purpose-built cruise ship was launched in 1900 and stemmed from the idea that ocean lining is more than a mode of transport – it’s also an adventure. Cunard’s first Queen Mary, whose maiden voyage was in 1936, survived World War II and was so coveted and esteemed that she was neither scrapped nor recycled, but retired to Long Beach, California, and converted into a floating hotel.

What I enjoy most about everyone I meet onboard are the commonalities I discover across a diverse clientele. I had assumed all guests would be mostly older, white, American, straight couples. And although retirees do make up a large majority of the passengers, I was surprised to see so many young people, single travellers, families, nationalities, ethnicities and pets (to be clear: booking passage for dogs is very strict and they are kept in kennels, not in staterooms, with walks at allotted times). The QM2 is a multicultural maritime utopia, where everyone is united in the excitement of showing off their best tuxedos and ballgowns on Gala Evenings.

“There are three Gala Evenings, so I brought three different tuxedos,” I brag to Sam as we do a morning jog around the deck of the ship. The gym is – as you’d expect – state of the art, with plenty of treadmills, but there is something about running with a group on the deck in the misty mornings, in the middle of the Atlantic, that is particularly exhilarating. “You weren’t kidding when you said you were Molly Brown,” Sam huffs.

“The brochure said ‘dress to impress’,” I reply, “so… challenge accepted.”

“Assuming you don’t fall asleep, Molly.”

For a moment I consider tripping him up, but out of the fog comes another very big ship that seems to be travelling straight at us. On this transatlantic crossing, one often sees passing tankers laden with shipping containers, but this one is different. It’s quite oddly shaped with cranes on it. I think to myself that it’s possibly one of the returning support vehicles for the ill-fated submersible, and get the chills.

It turns out some people aren’t just nervous fliers, but nervous seafarers as well. When I fly, I have low-key anxiety about crashing. And when I’m on a boat, I often think about sinking. It isn’t rational, of course, as the QM2 has more safety features and protocols than NASA. And when the Titanic sank all those years ago, it was Cunard’s RMS Carpathia that rescued the survivors.

This ship has been engineered specifically to cross the Atlantic safely in the most violent weather (pro tip – eastbound crossings in summer tend to be the calmest). In fact, during a storm, Michael and his husband love to come to the Chart Room to take it all in. The QM2’s confidence at high seas is apparently fun to watch.

Perhaps it’s because the Titanic’s demise has made such an indelible imprint on the global imagination – eerily echoed right now by the Titan submersible tragedy – any transatlantic crossing can’t help but trigger associations of sinking. Even on the in-stateroom TV channel that displays the QM2’s location on a digital map, the only other dot on that map marks the wreck of the Titanic.

“Without question, the Titanic overshadows any other tale regarding any ocean liner,” says Jonathan Quayle, a nautical antiquities dealer and expert who lectures on the Queen Mary 2. “And while her story is both tragic and fascinating, far more joyous stories of countless other ships should be better remembered than they are.”

Jonathan speaks as part of Cunard Insights, the QM2’s enrichment programme, which offers talks and seminars by experts and historians. The programme strives to engage, educate and entertain… if, of course, the hum of the ship doesn’t rock you to sleep.

I dash back to my cabin to write the old-fashioned postcard I’ve bought with a certain young relative in mind. The water is flat calm, the air balmy with a spooky energy – I’m getting Bermuda Triangle vibes. Or maybe they are just the vibrations of the Queen Mary 2 insisting it’s nap time.

When I wake the next day, I’m still in my tux, drooling and with the postcard stuck to my forehead. I have texts from all my LGBTQ+ Happy Hour friends from the night before saying “Where are you?!” and “It’s time!”.

“Molly literally missed the boat,” I chuckle, rolling over and looking out at the open ocean. And then correct myself. “It’s not a boat. It’s a ship.”

Photography by Diane Bondareff, Christopher Ison, Mark Laing and courtesy of Cunard

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