First, let’s talk about what there wasn’t.
There was no passenger wearing a yachting cap and a double-breasted blue blazer with brass buttons.
There was no passenger list. (It would have been as large as a phone book.)
There was no Boat Train.
There was no bouillon at 11:00 AM.
There was no one muffled up in furs and plaid steamer rugs on a deck chair.
There was no one who said “No one ever dresses the first night out” . . . not even Etiquetteer.
There was no bugler!
What was there instead? A Perfectly Proper crossing on Cunard’s flagship liner Queen Mary II from Southampton to New York - not quite like the old days, but ideally adapted to the needs of 21st-century travelers while celebrating the traditions of the legendary liners.
In the old days, there would be a Boat Train from Victoria Station down to Southampton for passengers and their mountains of baggage. Now Cunard offers a motorcoach (from another part of Victoria Station) which has the advantage of being able to drive right up to the ship. The romance of train travel has been sacrificed to convenience, but frankly, it was the correct move to make.
For the uninitiated, a crossing dffers from a cruise in that one crosses the Atlantic Ocean from one point to another without scenic detours. A crossing is the last relic of pre-airplane travel by ship, when one traveled to get someplace and not just for pleasure. Now, travelers do cross just for pleasure, so the swift crossing has given way to a leisurely voyage of one week*.
In practice, a transatlantic crossing differs very little from a cruise. Activities and classes abound, from bridge lessons and dance classes to trivia contests in the pub. Shipboard entertainment runs the gamut, from lectures on Atlantic pirates in history to high-energy violinists and close-harmony quartets to the English National Ballet (!). Justly famous for its galas, Cunard schedules fully 50% of the nights at sea as black tie.
The pinnacle of all this, of course, for true traditionalists, would be the daily service of afternoon tea in the Queen’s Room, with live musical accompaniment. Cunard’s famous afternoon tea, with flocks of waiters moving from table to table with teapots, and then sandwiches (yes, cucumber sandwiches! Also smoked salmon, also egg, also . . . beetroot . . . ), and then tiny pastries, and then the eagerly expected scones with clotted cream and jam. The elegance of the occasion is marred only by the scrum of passengers “eager to get a good seat.”
For Etiquetteer that usually means a table alone. Cunard will actually allow single parties to sit by themselves (except at dinner). And that’s fine for breakfast and luncheon, but it is just a bit too exclusive (not to say ostentatious) for a single traveler to commandeer sole use of a tea table when so many others have to wait. Over the course of the voyage Etiquetteer welcomed and was welcomed by couples who were just as happy to be on board and also had something to contribute to the conversation.
And let’s face it, conversation with strangers is going to be a big part of any voyage. Food is just an excuse for conversation; come to the table prepared to talk, and listen. Etiquetteer had the unexpected delight of traveling with a Gal Pal from Days Gone By, by happy coincidence booked on the same crossing. This put Etiquetteer in the traditional role of Hot Walker, and provided a helpful conversation starter.
WHAT TO WEAR
Now let’s face it: This Sort of Voyage exists for Those Who Love to Dress Up. The advance materials sent by Cunard go into great detail about what is meant by “black tie” and what is meant by “smart attire.” Guidance on luggage specifies that passengers may bring as much luggage as can fit in your stateroom, but Etiquetteer really does recommend traveling simply rather than spaciously. What’s most important is that you enter into this in a Perfectly Proper spirit of fun. Believe that it’s fun to dress up, and it will be! After 6:00 PM, especially in the first half of the voyage, it’s enjoyable to see how everyone appears for the evening meal. If you can’t enter into this in the proper spirit, you may confine yourself to the buffet.
Of course there’s no Dress Code Enforcement Officer rushing about handing out violations. And that’s a good thing. But Etiquetteer did witness - how to say this? - some moments of carelessness. The fashion of the Untucked Shirt has no place among tuxedos. A ball gown with a bib of diamonds looks out of place on a “smart attire” night when the other ladies are dressed informally. A debate about the formality of seersucker left Etiquetteer at a loss, when advocating for a Perfectly Proper position - that seersucker is not a fabric for formal occasions - would have appeared to embarrass the charming gentleman who chose to wear it instead of a tuxedo**.
On the last gala night, Etiquetteer ended up chatting with two gentlemen dressed in lederhosen. Apparently they’d received a couple Raised Eyebrows for appearing in costume, and had enlisted the aid of a European crew member to justify wearing them for formal occasions. Etiquetteer murmured sympathetically, but took note that neither of these Distinctive Gentleman was actually from Bavaria or Austria. It’s perhaps a wee bit disingenuous to think that most other passengers wouldn’t consider that fancy dress***.
One gentleman who did make a splash throughout the voyage wore suits and matching accessories, including elaborate jewels, in vivid monochromes. While conforming with the letter of the dress code, his own spirit flew widely within the rainbow! His appearance was eagerly anticipated everywhere.
Etiquetteer’s black tie put him in the position of Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s amusing novel Love in a Cold Climate. “ . . . with many groans, he had squeezed himself into the knee breeches of his youth, now so perilously tight that he hardly dared sit down, but stood like a stork beside Aunt Sadie’s chair . . .” Etiquetteer’s 2019 waistline put up a good fight against Etiquetteer’s 2000 tuxedo trousers (which had already been let out as much as possible). This resulted in behavior associated with corsets: a glassy stare, languid walk, and vigilant posture. Alas, that didn’t keep Etiquetteer from enjoying the sumptuous meals.
But on the last gala night, Etiquetteer managed a sort of reprieve. The theme was Roaring Twenties, and Etiquetteer’s new peacock waistcoat - how to say this? - concealed a multitude of sins. This gala was enjoyed in a State of Reduced Constraint.
The most deshabillé moment of the voyage was the pre-dawn gathering to witness the ship clearing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. About 200 passengers gathered on the top deck after 4:00 AM for this exciting event, at least a dozen in bathrobes - and it was not always clear if there was anything underneath them but the passenger.
Etiquetteer attended a wine pairing luncheon in the Verandah Steakhouse (if this was the Titanic, the Verandah Steakhouse would have been the à la carte restaurant run by Ritz) of four courses with eight (!) wines. The sommelier, equally at home with words as well as wines, had clearly developed an obvious following among frequent travelers not only for his flawless pairings, but for the witty way he shared information about them.
Etiquetteer also indulged in, of all things, an acupuncture massage in the Canyon Ranch Spa. An acupuncture novice, Etiquetteer took note of how some needles were completely without feeling, while one or two others provided a pronounced pinch. While Etiquetteer is not prone to seasickness, it was interesting while lying on one side on a massage table to feel the motion of the ship.
Entertainment-wise, musicians seemed to be playing constantly all over the ship, whether at scheduled times in the many lounges or giving performances in one of the theatres. The headline act for this crossing was, of all things, stars of the English National Ballet. Ballet dancing on a moving ocean liner?! Yes indeed! Etiquetteer made it only to a Q&A with one of the dancers (the ship’s entertainment director is a skilled interviewer, and James Streeter, the soloist, a dancer of engaging and articulate humility) and the Company’s final performance. This consisted of a candy-box of pas de deux both classical and modern - and well worth the trip all by itself.
A Cruel Person Etiquetteer once knew said “You only tip if you’re goin’ back!” This is not only Not Perfectly Proper, it is Very Bad and Wrong. The Deity of Your Choice will correct this in a process called Karma which will leave Tipping Scofflaws basted with flaming coals by devils in the afterlife. If you’re going to sail on a Big Ship, accept in advance, and in your heart, that There Will Be Tipping.
Possibly to minimize the impact of Tipping Scofflaws, cruise lines implemented automatic charges to onboard passenger accounts and then distributed among the crew. Cruise Critic researched policies at a variety of cruise lines. Frommer’s offers helpful information on cruise line tipping. Cunard explains their policy beautifully. So in theory that should take care of everything.
But all sorts of opportunities are provided to tip the crew; Cunard’s own guidelines conclude “Naturally, you are free to tip any member of the crew over and above these amounts, at your discretion.” And Etiquetteer does advise this, especially if a crew member has performed a special service or gone out of his/her way to assist you. Etiquetteer’s steward, for instance, was johnny-on-the-spot with a pair of scissors when needed - more than once. The wine steward’s recommendation to attend the wine tasting luncheon led to one of the best experiences on shipboard.
There is an additional way to acknowledge good service (that does not replace tipping), at least on Cunard ships, by leaving what Etiquetteer will call “love notes.” The purser’s desk can supply pre-printed cards for the purpose, which you may sign or keep anonymous. Be sure to include the name of crew member and their function and be specific about how they made your voyage better. Since it is so often easier to complain than compliment, Etiquetteer encourages passengers to take the time to share something nice. It makes a difference.
Etiquetteer could not recommend a transatlantic crossing more highly to those who value Tradition, Formality, Fun, and Perfect Propriety. This crossing turned out to be the perfect combination of them all.
*The record for a crossing was set by SS United States in 1952: three days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes.
**To Etiquetteer’s surprise, Gentleman’s Gazette uncovered a Perfectly Proper seersucker tuxedo, but you’ll observe that it’s solid black, not the usual pastel-and-white stripe. Their report continues that seersucker dinner jackets first became fashionable in the early 1960s, and cite Joseph Cotten’s seersucker evening jacket from Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte as an example.
***Besides, there are all kinds of rules about how to wear die Tracht with Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer gathers that it shouldn’t be approached casually.