A special guest at the first-ever Literature Festival at Sea, author and journalist Rachel Johnson reports back on the seven-day transatlantic crossing on board Cunard’s iconic Queen Mary 2.

In an ideal world, would you prefer to return to the UK from New York in an aluminium tube at 600 miles an hour and emerge jet-lagged and dehydrated eight hours later, or would you – given the choice – prefer to take seven long leisurely days and stroll rested off a magnificent ocean liner, having perambulated the teak decks, partaken of four exquisite meals a day, perused several books, and ‘up-skilled’ your bridge, ballroom dancing, shuffleboard, deck quoits, paddle tennis (the activities are too numerous to mention) almost every yard of the way?

I know what I’d choose, every time.

I’d been in New York, and was – bless the Times and the Cheltenham Literature Festival as well as my host Cunard – one of the many guest authors ie performing fleas for the inaugural ‘literary cruise’ on board Queen Mary 2 that steamed out of Brooklyn one afternoon in November (with a Champagne ‘sail-away’ party) and docked serenely in Southampton one week later.Literature-Festival-at-Sea-Rachel-Johnson

Allow me to describe the trip which, for once, gives that over-used word ‘journey’ real ballast and serious heft. A stately transatlantic crossing is indeed a journey whether you have calm weather or sea-legs or not (turns out, I enjoyed the blessing of both).

I was travelling with a plus-one who happened to be my current husband, a salty sea-dog in his mid-sixties who turned out to be perfectly tooled for this trip: he learnt ballroom dancing as a child, he shoots, he plays cards, but above all he knows how to chat ad nauseam, play bridge, and take his drink. As such he was hand-made to be a companion on a week-long sea voyage and frankly I should rent him out for those who don’t want to make the long trip completely solo. (All offers considered!)

My husband and I had a cabin with a balcony on deck five. Now, the upper classes on deck 12 might swank around in their suites with loungers, their Nespresso machines, their walk-in wardrobes, their butler service but I was a kid in a candy shop in my basic ‘stateroom’.

The balcony was dug into the hull, which had a large rectangular aperture in it so our view of the sea was constant but the wonderful thing about this sea is this: it’s like staring at your newborn baby’s face or into a log fire. Constantly fascinating and constantly changing.

There were twin beds (to my slight displeasure my husband ordered them on day two of the sail to convert it into a double), an ensuite bathroom with a shower: all ship-shape and Bristol fashion, all spotlessly hospital-cornered. A large flat screen TV and a sofa, and a desk with old-fashioned writing paper completed our amenities.

I can honestly say I have never been so toddler-excited by my accommodations since I went on a night train from Brussels all the way to the Alps for classes de neige with the European School aged seven and three quarters.

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A sumptuous stateroom on board Queen Mary 2

Thanks to the famed Cunard mattresses and linen, and the almost imperceptible slight cradling motion of the ship, everyone on board slept like babies. RMS QM2 is broad of beam (45m) not to mention 345m long and the captain tends to use the four 5m stabilisers that act like an aircraft’s wing so it was like being on board a Rolls Royce: so quiet and smooth all I could hear at night was my husband’s snoring.

I was lucky ie pushy enough to demand a tour of the bridge and the galley from the ‘hotel manager’ David Shepherd so I could see all the thousands of legs paddling underneath the surface to make the crossing so uneventful in terms of maritime disasters and such a luxurious glide.

On the first point, the captain rings a bell and horn at noon and gives a daily bulletin to which passengers give their rapt attention. I was sitting in the library one day opposite Mariella Frostrup, who once famously dated George Clooney, as the captain told us over the intercom we were hard by the Atlantic location most struck by a nor’easter in 1991, where a buoy off the coast of Nova Scotia reported a wave height of 30m, the highest ever recorded in the province’s offshore waters.

Mariella continued typing on her laptop as the captain continued, ‘in the middle of the storm, the fishing vessel Andrea Gail sank, killing her crew of six and inspiring the book and movie The Perfect Storm starring dishy screen heartthrob George Clooney’. I carried on staring at Mariella Frostrup. By this stage the whole library was staring at Mariella Frostrup. But no. Nothing. Not a flicker.

Anyway, the bridge is manned – as you would imagine – round the clock by two officers. I had by this stage imbibed a certain amount about the ship’s tech spec as well as navigation information, so I lobbed the bridge my expert question.

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Special guests at the Literature Festival at Sea gather in the ship’s lobby

“Would our 30m steel hull also crack open like an egg if we hit an iceberg?”

“Yes,” was the short answer.

The longer answer was it won’t happen: the nightwatchmen of HMS Titanic were probably asleep on the job, he said, while the bridge officers on HMS Queen Mary 2 have four-hour watch shifts as well as state-of-the-art sonar, echo sounders fore and aft, and six radar scanners as well as AIS (automatic identification system of other vessels) to keep everyone safe and sound.

Every time the ship passes the spot where HMS Titanic sank, a bell is rung (as long as this station of the cross of commercial shipping occurs during the day and not 3am in the morning – to wake several thousand people as the ship passed even over this historic watery grave would not necessarily be that popular).

As for the galley: you pass through the double doors to the backstage of the whole performance and soon discover that the main artery of the vessel is a long passage that bisects the ship, called Burma Road (this is a tradition in all ships) off which the rest of the operations branch.

The superb stainless steel kitchen is manned by 85 crack members of the utility team led by executive chef, Klaus Kremer, who together produce 15,000 meals a day of exceptional quality (in the cold rooms I inspected tins of fresh Sevruga caviar, parmesan, fresh herbs, boxes of melons and pineapples). I saw my lamb shanks and roast pork for that evening’s dinner slowly roasting in steam ovens. Mmm.

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Cunard’s much-loved afternoon tea

I cannot pass over a daily highlight of the crossing. If only there had been an Iris Murdoch on board to compose a novel in homage to the daily production of dainty finger sandwiches, cakes and tarts, and the piece to resistance, the home-baked scones with cream and jam (fights almost broke out below decks as passengers fought over which should go on first). Oh yes. Queen Mary 2 is all about The Tea, The Tea.

Afternoon Tea in the Queens Room and the Queens Grill Lounge are so popular that by three o’clock, long queues are forming by scone fanciers desperate to get a prime table to clap in the procession of pastry-chefs who march in, with silver teapots on salvers, followed by trays and trays of girdle-busting sweet delights.

The pastry chefs produce 700 English scones a day, washed down with 6,000 cups of tea, many of them consumed by this happy passenger.

I could go on, but the steam whistle has sounded.

Reader, I loved Queen Mary 2 so much I would marry her if I could (these days, anything is possible).

The Literature Festival at Sea is run in partnership with Cunard and The Cheltenham Literature Festival, The Times and The Sunday Times. It returns from 1 to 8 December 2020, featuring special guests Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, among others. Visit cunard.com to find out more.