Travel on the Last Trans-Atlantic Liner Requires the Expenditure of Time


July 07, 1991|By RICHARD O'MARA

ABOARD THE QE II. — Aboard the QE II.--A gull drifts in the slipstream behind the funnel, now and then raising a languorous wing. The bird picked up the ship as it was pushed by a fat tug into the Hudson's current and pointed toward the sea. The ruined West Side of lower Manhattan glides by. Perhaps the bird has found the way out of this urban misery and would go all the way to Europe. They have been known to.

The departure of an ocean liner like the Queen Elizabeth II is no the dockside festivity it once was when people traveled this way for serious purposes. There was a meaning to those celebrations; they harkened to the days when travel by ship across the North Atlantic was perilous and often marked the last time one might see or touch the loved one. Only about a hundred people waved from the quay at those aboard the QEII in late June. There were no streamers and no brass bands.

* The Queen is not a Love Boat given entirely over to frivolou uses. Though she does jaunts among the islands and into other vacation areas around the globe, she remains the only trans-Atlantic liner operating today; probably she is the last of her kind, and maybe for that reason there is an obvious affection for her on all levels.

A New York port policeman, asked the whereabouts of Cunard' flagship, brightens and says: "The Queen? Ah, there's no one like her." He points down to Berth 3, where she sits waiting to get under way, 67,000 tons of white and black steel and teak wood, piled 13 stories high.

Who sails on the QEII these days? Why? What do they d aboard?

Taking the last question first, the list of activities, innocent an exotic, seems endless. You can swim (in three pools), play basketball or racquetball, drive or putt a golf ball, you can go to the movies, see a song and dance show, watch television. You can play bingo, bet on a horse, hear a lecture on how to manage your money or make up your face.

You can buy jewelry or virtually anything else that is expensive i not useful. You can shop in Harrod's, get a massage, learn to dance, win at dice or lose at cards, drink and eat until you have no more capacity for it.

Eating, in fact, and the consequences of doing too much of it, i the commonest subject of conversation heard in the airy white arcades, and various lounges, grills and elegant dining rooms of the QEII.

"I've got to be careful with all the food," says a woman wit bluish-white hair and a red face waddling through the casino, her voice suggesting a suspicion that the cooks (there are 100 of them) are laying coronary traps at every meal.

Who sails on the QEII? Many who have done so before. Th repeat passengers range upward from 20 per cent each voyage.

"Easily 30 per cent have been aboard before," says Morte Mathiesen, surveying the tables in the Columbia dining room. He is a young Norwegian and the ship's hotel manager; he sees to the provision of all the pleasures the Queen has to offer.

Many of the passengers on the Queen are elderly. They have th time, the money and the strongest desire to avoid the bumps and hassles that are so much a part of modern air travel. But there are many children aboard, as well as young and middle-aged couples still building careers.

Among the repeat passengers is a retired English businessma willing to offer his opinion of the experience if not his name for publication. He has crossed seven times, and was aboard this ship's predecessor. He finds the QEII lacking by comparison with the first Queen. "The grand stairways. The wood paneling. The chandeliers. There's none of that here. It's all plastic!"

It isn't all plastic, of course, and he is not so filled with nostalgi regret as his words might suggest, else he wouldn't keep coming back. He still believes it is the only way to cross.

He is the perfect Englishman, pink-faced, handsome an white-haired, polite almost to a fault, faintly diffident. He spends much of his time watching the sea change its color and texture and mood, and from every vantage point aboard. He seems to know that that is the true reward of voyaging rather than the gaming tables, the late-night shows and other entertainments put on to divert the passengers from dwelling on the sometimes unsettling fact that they are encompassed every mile of the way by a cold and immense sea.

There are many like him, people who might have been mor comfortable living their lives back when the words "the only way to cross" were literally true, not merely an expression of preference.

The clear and deep pleasure they all take from this experienc naturally raises the question: What killed the trans-Atlantic liners? The answer of course is the jet. Before 1958, most travelers to and from Europe went by boat. Two years later, with intercontinental jet service firmly established, 70 per cent were flying. John Maxtone-Graham, a nautical historian, wrote of the great liners that they had become "white elephants almost overnight."

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