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I have an early memory of seeing my uncle Lord Ashcombe take one of the royal liners when I was about six years old. I went to Southampton, England, to see him off to America. He was in a top hat. There were travelers piling in with their Louis Vuitton trunks and porters helping them and an endless stream of people doffing caps. I remember it being incredibly grand and glamorous—all these beautiful women followed by their handmaidens—but more than anything, the sheer immensity of it all. The ship was the biggest thing I’d seen in my whole life, as big as the Titanic in my imagination.
Therefore when my nephew Tom and I were given the chance to travel on the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth 2’s successor, I had certain expectations. I’ll be honest: I’d never done a “commercial cruise.” But I’d wanted to. I don’t know if my nephew knows this, but on his mother’s side, there’s some famous nautical ancestry, including the Little Admiral, Sir Henry Keppel, who in the 19th century suppressed piracy in Malaya. Earlier than that there were the other Keppel sea dogs who famously blockaded Havana. No seawater in my veins, though; I’ve owned two boats and sunk both of them. One of them, The Gin Pahit, went down somewhere off Nusa Tenggara; the other, The Camping Loo, I lost in a hurricane in the Solomon Islands.
I didn’t tell Tom any of this when we set off from Southampton in April—that he was traveling with a Jonah. He didn’t give me the chance. He was too busy telling me that during our transatlantic crossing, I was to call him “Nephew Tom.” He’d call me “Uncle Mark.” We were sharing a cabin; he didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.
I was hoping for royal treatment, thinking we’d be swept aboard with a lot of people in uniform saluting us and whistling, with a personal welcome from the captain. Not a bit of it. Then there was the issue of our cabin. Despite being told ahead of time that we’d be in a Queens Grill Suite, I held out hope of being put in the Balmoral Suite—the palatial duplex, the best of them all. Instead, in our suite, the twin beds were positioned so close, Uncle Mark and Nephew Tom could fall asleep while holding each other’s hand. As for wardrobe space, Tom was horrified by the amount of clothes I’d brought. He kept saying I took longer to dress than his wife, and she’s a fashion editor. But I wanted to look right for the occasion: deck shoes, a dinner jacket, suits. I stuffed that suitcase for a proper sea voyage. Imagine my surprise, then, when the crew didn’t even unpack my bags for me.
Tom Parker Bowles
This is a bloody box,” my uncle growled, his voice crackling with indignation. He shook his head and took two steps out onto the balcony, where he lit a restorative cigarette. “I’ve had parrots with bigger beds than this,” he shouted from outside. “How do I get hold of the captain?”
I didn’t dare tell him that Captain Kevin Oprey had rather more urgent matters to attend to. Like steering 151,000 tons of oceangoing liner out of Southampton and into the North Atlantic. But Mark had other ideas. He stubbed out his cigarette, strode back inside and picked up the phone. “Hello?” he boomed. “Yes, could I speak to the captain?” Pause. “Oh, right. Sorry.” He slammed down the phone. “So you didn’t get through?” I asked. “No. Wrong bloody number. That was the health club.” Oh, dear. We’d been on the Queen Mary 2 for exactly ten minutes. The next 10,080 could be trying. To say the very least.
Okay, so our “suite” wasn’t exactly Cleopatra’s boudoir. But there was a good bath, two decent beds (albeit rather too comfortably together), a television and a sofa. Plus Henry, possibly the finest butler an at-sea pair could ask for. Mark was still rumbling at a low level, so I dragged him out to the nearest drink. We wandered the decks, passing hot tubs and tennis courts, dog kennels and endless bars. Even Mark was impressed by the sheer scale of the ship. It’s vast and monolithic yet somehow familiar, too. An hour on board and you feel as if you’ve known her forever.
Not that Mark would admit to anything approaching respect. He carried on about how he thought the Terrace Pool was ten meters long, not ten feet. His use of “colorful” adjectives makes Bluebeard’s language seem like the ministrations of Mother Teresa. But I know my uncle well. Behind all the stubbled bluster and nicotine-stained outrage is a man who loves an adventure of any kind. “Well, this is our view for the next seven days,” he said, pointing his glass of whiskey at the sea-soaked horizon. Then he grinned. “I’ve been on worse boats. Did I tell you about the time we were shipwrecked off Sumatra? Dear God.” He smiled again, took another sip of his whiskey, and we strolled down the deck for dinner.
The difference between an ocean liner and a cruise ship is that a liner can do the North Atlantic run. It’s got to be a big ship, a strong ship, and the Queen Mary 2 is the most powerful of the lot. A mother of a vessel. She’s taking on the North Atlantic, that huge, angry, gray-metal sea with vast freak waves. But on our voyage, it was like a millpond—neither a ripple nor an iceberg in sight. It was even kind of spooky. We went within 100 miles of where the Titanic sank and where The Perfect Storm took place. Nothing. I didn’t even see any wildlife, except for a sparrow. I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself obsessed with the sparrow—the way it rode the boat all the way from Southampton to New York. Then there were the dogs. We were sailing up near Newfoundland, and the fog came down. I couldn’t see farther than a few feet. I could hear the ship’s bell ringing. And then the weirdest thing happened: I could hear dogs barking. Not little lapdogs but the howl of Baskerville hounds.
My grandmother had a butler called Mr. Pescud. Every morning he used to come in, open my curtains and say, “Come on, Mr. Mark. Shake a leg.” Henry was our personal butler on the Queen Mary 2, and he said exactly the same thing as Mr. Pescud. What confused me was the fact that Henry looked after about 20 other people, which isn’t what I call a butler. Still, service was charming—exceptional, without exception—and Henry was the best of them all. He was constantly trying to pep us up to do things. He’d show us the program of onboard activities—four pages of small print: Bridge classes. Pub-time melodies. Goalie workshops.
I signed up for a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship, which I thought might be interesting. It turned out to be three long hours and dominated by an engineer from Liverpool who wanted to talk turbines. I asked to visit the mortuary, but no one would let me in. I tried to get into the “Friends of Bill” AA session. When that didn’t work either (I’m not an alcoholic), I went to the library. With 9,000 volumes, it was supposed to be the biggest library at sea. Except neither my books nor Tom’s were there. So that pissed me off.
Tom spent his time differently. He’d sit in front of the television watching our journey; the maps were like the ones you get on an airplane. He also went to the casino, which wasn’t a huge success. We both went to the nightclub and also entered a Ping-Pong competition. I met Tom in the semis and beat him. Then I was beaten by a German in the finals and was absolutely furious. I’m convinced he cheated.
I can’t remember on what days what happened exactly. It all seems to merge into one. But I remember the occasion we were walking around the boat—lost, as usual, because it is enormous—when we came across this pretty girl taking official portraits. So we started to pose. It got rather out of hand, which is why Tom went to find her the next day to apologize. She said it was the best fun she’d ever had. Then we got a bill for $200.
In the end I suppose our only successful activity was the power-walking. We agreed to do 15 laps of that boat every day. Three laps equal 1.1 miles. So work that out. It’s a bit like doing a Grand Prix. You have two sides, the port and the starboard, which are the straights, and then the two corners, the chicanes, which is where things got crowded. It was fine for Tom because, unlike me, he doesn’t have replaced hips. I, on the other hand, got infuriated: The other passengers were so large, I couldn’t get past them as I watched him speed through like he was the Formula 1 Red Bull car. Still, it saved our figures in the end, this power-walking. Because even if I don’t give a damn about high gastronomy, I’ll admit the food was impressive: the Queens Grill—we ate there the whole time—and a really fancy restaurant called Todd English. There was one dish I couldn’t believe: Todd’s Truffled Potato Love Letters—burro fuso, Parmesan and Madeira glaze. I read it as Tom’s Truffled Potato Love Letters.
Tom Parker Bowles
Three days in and we’d settled into a routine. Of sorts. I always woke first, shaken from my bed by Mark’s snores, which resemble the death throes of a mortally wounded bull elephant. I wandered out onto the balcony to gaze at the sea. I spent quite a lot of time gazing at the sea. Not contemplating mortality or other such nonsense. Rather staring blankly at its ever-changing hues. On some days it was a brilliant azure, more suited to the Mediterranean than the mid-Atlantic. Others, it was the dullest of gunmetal grays, the waves dirty and glum. I looked in vain for the back of a whale, the fin of a shark, anything to break the surface. But there was nothing. Mark claimed he saw a pod of dolphins. In fact, he swore blind. But then Mark does swear a lot.
Around 7 a.m. he’d awake, like the Kraken, and wander about the room naked and curse the Internet connection. And the discombobulating nature of Atlantic crossings. He was in the middle of putting together some vast charity shindig in New York, so he’d spend hours hunched over our desk, bellowing orders down the phone while trying to access his “top secret” e-mail account. “Daniel Craig’s got one,” he told me by way of justification. But I bet Daniel Craig doesn’t forget his password, I noted, which unleashed another filthy torrent of abuse. Mark does not like technology. The feeling, I know, is mutual.
The boredom had kicked in. Our daily routine remained the same: 15 laps of the boat at fast walking pace each morning. Mark was not shy in giving his views on the other guests, especially when they were octogenarian Germans who innocently blocked his path. We discussed family. And fortunes. And women. And lost family fortunes. In fact, that was our favorite topic: errant uncles who lost vast chunks of London, and grand titles disappearing off to distant (and, in our view, deeply undeserving) cousins. But it was my favorite part of the day. Mark is a mesmerizing storyteller and, like all great travel writers, entirely unafraid of a little healthy “embellishment.”
I loved the mornings on board: With the air so pure and fresh, it seemed to cleanse the soul. The walks ended with breakfast—a serious feast with lamb cutlets, steak, kippers, eggs Benedict and good coffee. Mark, though, had little interest in the food. He barely glanced at the beautiful menu, instead opting for some dreary form of rabbit food or fruit.
I, on the other hand, was in heaven. The Queens Grill serves up splendid food. Nothing too mucked about. Okay, there might have been the odd foam or paragraph of flowery language, but I don’t think I had a bad bite. Seriously, the steaks, sea bass, caviar and crêpes Suzette (prepared tableside, naturellement) were every bit the equal of London’s and New York’s finest. This was proper eating, with proper service, too. Not that it mattered to Mark. “What are you having?” he’d ask at every lunch. I would launch into an impassioned debate as to the merits of the beef Wellington, say, over some exquisitely spiced Sri Lankan fish curry. His eyes would glaze over, and he’d order the chicken Caesar salad. Every bloody time.
Mark is at his happiest when he thinks he might be ill. I returned to the room one day to find him in the very highest of spirits. “I think I’ve got something wrong with my chest,” he announced, hardly able to conceal his glee. “So I’ve made an appointment with the doctor. I may be some time.” A few hours later, he waltzed back into the room. “Upper respiratory infection,” he crowed, holding antibiotics and painkillers aloft. “The doctor was amazing. If you’re going to get ill, I suggest you do it here. Plus, she was hot.” He was genuinely thrilled. He then disappeared into a closet that would make even Liberace grin: ten pairs of deck shoes, seven suits, three tuxedos, ten seersucker jackets and a whole drawerful of belts. I’m pretty sure I saw a pair of tails in there, too. Of course, the wardrobe was all moot: He wore the same jacket every damned day.
My uncle is a man who crosses continents on elephants or private jets. He’s not very good at the in-between. And despite the Queen Mary 2’s putting on enough activities to train a small army (albeit in scarf tying, jewelry making and sequence dancing), we became more and more bored. I couldn’t fault the service. It was flawless, everywhere. And genuine, too, not that fixed-grin nonsense that so often is the norm. I spent many merry hours in the Canyon Ranch SpaClub sweating away in the sauna as we sliced through the waves. Mark talked endlessly about his two planned workouts a day in the gym and how he was going to whip me into shape. The nearest he ever got, though, was peering through the window. And commenting upon the ladies within.
Halfway through the trip, we hit the fog, deep and thick and viscous. The only noise was the foghorn cutting through the gloom with a low, sonorous moan. Not unlike Mark on the line once again to the QM2’s peerless technical support team. But when Bill Gates wasn’t being slandered, we continued to talk, Mark telling endless tales of shipwrecked yachts, amorous cannibals and difficult sisters. And, of course, the vanished family fortunes. We plotted and schemed, over red wine and whiskey, to refill the coffers. But still, we were infected with ennui. This wasn’t the fault of the Queen Mary 2. If you want to cross the Atlantic in true style, then this is the boat for you (especially in the Queens Grill). For those of a calm, patient disposition, it would be bliss.
But that, I’m afraid, doesn’t describe us. We felt trapped in that beautifully gilded birdcage. By the end, we were both gazing over the horizon, willing land to appear. When it did, though, and we heard the first tinkle of the buoy’s bell and the first cackle of a seagull, we were not as thrilled as we initially imagined. Sure, arriving in New York was spectacular, barely scraping under the bridge. And that first sight of the predawn skyline was inspiring. “The Statue of Liberty,” Mark said as we passed by. “Not about the Americans, but us. It means we’re free.”
Still, as we disembarked and sped through customs (two minutes and we were into Brooklyn), we looked back at the old girl. We’d survived it (as if a week of untrammeled luxury were really such an ordeal). As Mark pulled on his dark glasses and slipped again into his city face, he stole a last glance at the Queen Mary 2. And for one brief second, I swear I saw a tear.
It was about 5:30 in the morning when the city eventually came into view. Tom had run away—gone right up to the top of the boat to see us going under the Verrazano Bridge, which the ship cleared by about two feet. I had a moment of peace all to myself, sailing under a crescent moon with a pink sky coming up. We passed the Statue of Liberty, which people compare to seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time. Not for me, but still I felt a huge surge of relief.
I remember Conrad writing about it, how after you’ve been at sea for a long time, there’s this sudden moment when you can smell land. After seven days and six nights, I could most definitely smell the dinner I was going to have when I got off the ship—with Joan Rivers at Joe Allen. And the lunch Tom was going to treat me to at his favorite restaurant, Minetta Tavern. Even though I’d been cooped up with family for a week—something I’ve never done in my travels—I was still looking forward to that lunch. Tom had turned out to be the most amiable of companions. I’d go anywhere with him, except, probably, on another transatlantic voyage, because I’d rather roll about the Solomon Islands. I like the idea of my grandfather’s crossing aboard a royal liner such as this, but for my part, I prefer being uncomfortable on the water. Still, it’s an iconic thing to do. And now I’ve done it; I’m a “Cunarder.” So is Nephew Tom. As to the people who’ve done it more than 30 times—I salute them.
The next eastbound transatlantic passage on the Queen Mary 2 departs May 16. The seven-day crossing starts at $1,200 a person (for those looking to leave from the UK, the next westbound departure is May 9); 800-728-6273; cunard.com.