When I was five, my parents took my sister, then eight, and me on a trip to France. It was 1961, and since my mother didn't like flying my parents decided to take a ship. We left New York one hazy afternoon in June on the small -- though it seemed plenty big to me -- French ship Le Flandre. Eight days later we landed in Le Havre.
Those eight days were a revelation. As a typical suburban Connecticut kid, I rarely ventured more than a two-square-mile radius from my house. My preferred cuisine: Frosted Flakes for breakfast and baloney sandwiches for lunch. Now I was on the open sea, bound for lands unknown. I'd dine on fresh croissants and prosciutto and melon for breakfast, veal scaloppini and petits pois for lunch. At night in the children's dining room, I'd dress up in a jacket and tie and eat the same fabulous meals as the grownups.
When we weren't à table, there wasn't a whole lot to do. I hardly remember seeing our parents on the crossing, especially in the evening, when they stayed out late dancing or taking a turn at the roulette wheel. So we whiled away the hours playing shuffleboard or running around the ship to hide from our babysitter, Mrs. Brown, whom our parents insisted on bringing along.
It was a long time ago, but I have never forgotten that trip. Last winter, as my son Nicholas approached his fifth birthday, I became fixated on taking my family on a transatlantic crossing. My wife, Julie, worried that the trip would be too expensive and too upscale for our tastes. She had a point: The glossy brochure for the Queen Mary 2, the only ship that still makes regular transatlantic crossings, features photos of silver-haired men in tuxedos and elegant women in evening gowns and jewels -- a different crowd than the folks we met on last summer's car-camping trip. But there was no deterring me. I wanted to know: Would the crossing hold the same thrill for Nicholas and Charlie, age 8, as it did for me?
In April we booked passage through our American Automobile Assn. travel agent for an early August sailing on the QM2. We reserved adjoining outside cabins, with balconies, that list for about $3,150 per person, including return airfare, though our travel agent got us about a 20% discount. A favorite family pastime last spring was logging on to cunard.com for a virtual tour. Charlie marveled that the ship, four football fields in length and with 14 decks, "is almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall!" The boys checked out the five swimming pools, four formal restaurants, Canyon Ranch Spa, 1,100-seat theater, and much more. We also decided we had to look the part. So off we went to the boys' department of Brooks Brothers for blue blazers, white khakis, and colorful ties. Julie and I upgraded our threads as well for the three formal dinners we'd be attending.
When the big day came, we pulled up to the New York City Passenger Ship Terminal, where West 54th Street meets the Hudson River. There she was: immense, hulking, towering, all black and white and gleaming. As passengers and porters bustled about, big cranes hoisted huge pallets of supplies. Although my mom and stepdad stopped by to bid us good-bye, the scene was nothing like my memory, when my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all crammed into our cabin to don paper hats and raise a glass. These days, for security reasons, visitors are not allowed onboard.
As the QM2 blasted its thundering whistle and started to edge away, Julie and I stretched out on deck chairs and sipped gin and tonics while the boys had seltzer with lime. The breeze picked up as we watched the Manhattan skyline slip past. By the time the ship was under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the four of us were seated in the Britannia Grill, a two-story dining room with a grand entrance down a pair of curving stairways.
Exhausted from the day's excitement, we made our way back to our adjoining cabins. Nicely designed, they were both compact and roomy-feeling, with plenty of closet space, a king-size bed for us, and twin beds for the boys. Each cabin also had a desk, a couch, a small balcony, and a bathroom. As the boys wrote in their journals, Julie and I cozied up with the next day's programs. I had planned to get a lot of reading done and wasn't much interested in the tango lessons, history lectures, computer classes, cooking courses, or planetarium shows. But there was plenty for the others to do.
The next morning, while Julie headed off to the spa, the boys and I trekked aft to what quickly became our favorite pool. Flanked by two hot tubs and a fabulous view of the churning wake, it was surrounded by a spacious sundeck with a bar. By lunchtime Charlie had a new friend named Blake.
In the afternoon we signed the boys into the Play Zone, where dozens of kids were having a wild game of Nerf ball. Here kids enjoy supervised play from morning until midnight, with the exception of two short breaks at mealtimes. The staff was great, organizing a treasure hunt and dreaming up all sorts of games with energy and enthusiasm. They needed both: Of the 2,600 passengers, about 350 were children.
Back at our room an envelope was waiting for us: Please join Blake and his family for a cocktail party in the Windsor Suite at 7:30. We were greeted at the door by Blake's gregarious father, a New York banker, the father's companion, Blake's courtly grandfather, his nanny, his French tutor, and assorted QM2 staff, who handed us champagne and hors d'oeuvres.
As guests discussed the good old days when ships were more intimate, I slipped away to inspect the Windsor Suite. It's a grand palace, with a foyer, kitchen, living room, and dining area, and a roomy teak-decked patio. A sweeping spiral staircase leads up to a bedroom with an ornate bathroom. According to the QM2 brochure, it goes for a mere $30,869 per person for the six-day crossing.
Plenty of people of more modest means were around, too. At night the theater was filled with retirees and families watching the fun, if sometimes hokey, mix of nightclub acts, comics, and Las Vegas-style revues. After the show many folks filed into the Queens Room, with its immense dance floor and orchestra.
But for us the best entertainment was the dining. We took most of our meals in the Brittania Grill. It serves breakfast and lunch and has two dinner seatings. On our first night Julie and I ordered salads and grilled salmon, while Charlie tried roasted strip loin and Nicholas went with spaghetti bolognese from the children's menu. For dessert Julie had Grand Marnier crème brûlée, while I chose apple strudel with brandy sauce. The boys happily dug into white chocolate-and-raspberry parfaits.
A MEMORABLE FEAST
After a few days of such excess, Julie and I started ordering from the Canyon Ranch Spa Menu -- lighter fare, with smaller portions. We saved our best meal for last: a sumptuous feast of lobster risotto for Julie and lamb for me at the intimate Todd English restaurant for a supplement of $30 per person.
Before we knew it, our six days were nearly over. The weather was turning chilly as we entered the English Channel. Charlie and Nicholas spotted a few birds, then a small fishing boat, and finally the southern coast of England. On our last afternoon, a glorious and breezy day, we found the remote deck where little-used shuffleboard courts await nostalgia buffs like me.
As we played our game, I thought about the ways a transatlantic crossing in 2005 has changed since my 1961 trip. Back then ships were a mode of transportation with some entertainment thrown in. Now a crossing is, in some ways, like any other cruise: a nonstop party. Yet aspects of the trip are no different than my youthful journey. It's still possible to dream away the hours contemplating the deep azure of the mid-Atlantic and gazing at the brilliant display of stars at night.
When our week-long vacation in France ended, we retraced in an eight-hour flight the route we had taken over water. Midway through, Nicholas looked down at the ocean below and said: "Planes are so boring. There we were on the waves. That was the best vacation of my whole life." At that moment I knew I had accomplished my mission.