Travelogue: A return trip to London by ocean liner

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This year’s stateroom.

If it comes to Edmonds versus New York – give me Edmonds every time!

I’ve been waiting to say that for several days.

Actually, I’m in mid-Atlantic, half way to Southampton aboard Queen Mary 2 on a trip that is going to take in London, the Faroe Islands, the Shetlands, Oban and Iona in western Scotland (Oban is the home of my favorite single malt…), then Salisbury and Bath, and finally a week in Ramsau am Dachstein in Austria, visiting the Slovene Ski Team. There will also be two more stops in London on the way through to visit friends or catch airplanes. In the Faroes, I’ll be joining my friend Nancy Dapper, who started the whole thing by asking me to join her on a knitting tour which begins for her in Iceland. She’ll do the knitting, I’ll survey the pubs. If she doesn’t end up throttling me before the trip is over, we contemplate a sheepdog contest in Yorkshire next year.

The trip began at 3:50 a.m. with the world’s fastest Airport Express driver. No traffic in Edmonds at that hour, and instead of Seattle traffic we had an almost open freeway, getting me to SeaTac in good time to check in and then wait two hours for my flight. Reaching the gate was greatly accelerated by my brand-new Nexus card, which includes Trusted Traveler status with TSA.

If you travel much, apply for a Nexus card. The card itself is only good in and out of Canada, where it allows you to use the fast lane at the border, but it also includes the TSA Trusted Traveler status, all for $50. It’s simple, if slow: You fill out a lengthy form online and wait for several months while you are cleared, and then you are given a range of days and times (in my case, two months later) to go in for an interview at Blaine or Boeing Field. My interview lasted about 10 minutes, and mostly consisted of instructions about how — and how not –- to use the Nexus card, then fingerprinting and a photograph. The card is mailed to you very quickly – and your status is henceforth automatically noted on your air tickets, saving the endless wait in the endless lines at the TSA checkpoint. For some reason, Nexus is not only the most comprehensive of the various programs offered by the government, but miraculously and oddly, the cheapest!

This is Part Two of a trip I took last year, which ended when I had to fly home with a foot injury. This year I decided to take full advantage of the various programs the Cunard offers when you book a cruise (note: QM2 is not a cruise ship: it is a liner, a distinction of which it is very proud and of which you are often reminded, in no uncertain terms). The Cunard experience included being met at Kennedy Airport and whisked to the selected hotel (at a special price), and then to the ship on the appointed day. The ride in from Kennedy was like attempting to drive to Seattle, but with someone else coping with the traffic. Cunard also offers buses from the ship to several destinations, including two in London –- so the whisking isn’t finished!

The Crown Plaza, Times Square: Nice rooms and staff, but an uninspiring restaurant and a loud and packed lobby like an upscale Black Hole of Calcutta. The whisking on the day of departure was traffic-bound and rather like Edmonds traffic, wholly at the mercy of the very slow driver ahead. Our driver, in the best New York style, played the horn with a gusto that could guarantee him a spot in any orchestra.

At the cruise ship terminal in Brooklyn, Cunard efficiency briefly took over: When you get your ticket, you are issued baggage tags indicating your stateroom. Baggage disappears from the bus or taxi, and miraculously appears in your stateroom, often before you reach it yourself. But actual check-in comes only at the end of a line that would make TSA proud. Once at the desk, you give Cunard your credit card and passport, you picture is taken, and you are handed an on-board ID card, which is your room key, ID card and on-board charge card, as well as indicating your lifeboat station. It’s then a rather long walk to the ramp up to the entry port –- but after that, it’s effortlessly done: Check out your room, unpack and wait for the obligatory lifeboat drill, watch the ship move off the pier, and then dinner. Our departure was delayed by a mere cruise ship blocking our channel, to our great indignation – we are, after all, a liner!

The Britannia dining room.

Dinner is the first event, in the magnificent Britannia dining room, three decks arranged around the central dining area, like the balconies in a theater, each with dining tables of all sizes. I am traveling with my friend Jeff Harris, also of Edmonds, so we chose to be assigned to a table for two. Dinner the first night is “informal,” meaning jackets are mandatory for gentlemen (ties optional), “stylish separates or equivalent” for ladies. Formal nights, of which there are three, require dinner jackets (tuxedo) or dark suit and tie, evening or cocktail dresses. Tables for all meals are graced with white linen and silver, and waiters dress in dark uniforms and white gloves. The three-course dinners are excellent, and the wine list is amazing (we passed on the $5,000-plus bottle of Petrus). Everything is included except alcoholic drinks, and there is no tipping unless you wish.

For anyone who wishes to dine less formally, there are several other very good restaurants, and for those wishing a very fine meal in the best French style, there is the Veranda restaurant on the Deck 8, with a magnificent view out over the bow. This costs an extra $40, and is well worth it. We dined there last night amuse bouche, starter (quails eggs on toast, with truffles), main course (Lobster Newburg), dessert. Tio Pepe before dinner, a 2011 Merusault with the lobster, a glass of Tokai (new to me, amazing) with dessert. An amazing meal.

Day Two: I managed three laps around the beautiful, scrubbed mahogany promenade deck, one-third of a mile per lap. The hundreds of deck chairs were empty, as we are in a dense, chilly fog. But nothing stops the morning stream of walkers and joggers, or the crowded gym at the forward end of the promenade deck, where Jeff has been putting in 5 km sessions on the rowing machine.

This morning’s other activity was booking next year’s crossing: By booking on board, you receive a nice discount and several other benefits. To my surprise, the deck 3 single staterooms, larger and with two portholes, are cheaper than the deck 2 stateroom I occupy. And already all booked for the Sept. 9, 2018 crossing!

Internet time is vastly expensive – around 45 cents a minute, depending on which plan you pick – so I am off-line, gloriously out of touch, and am now going to return to my Kindle and John Le Carré’s latest, A Legacy of Spies, which delightfully includes all the old names any Le Carré addict could wish: Alec Leamas (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Peter Guillam (now the main character), Fawn, various Whitehall “mandarins” and, of course, George Smiley. Next book: the Life of St. Columba, in preparation for Iona — but just now, Peter Guillam’s final appearance is calling.

It’s now our last day at sea; we arrive at Southampton at 6:30 tomorrow morning. Baggage goes out in the passage for pickup tonight as soon after 6 p.m. as possible, there’s an early breakfast from 6:30 a.m., and then we assemble in various assigned areas and wait to be called to disembark. I have booked a transfer bus for Jeff and me that leaves from the dock and delivers us to St. Pancras station, London, a short taxi ride from the flat we’re renting. All arranged by Cunard.

The view of the sea from the window.

The fog of the early part of the trip continued for several days and then gave way to a Force Seven blow, which kept things lively for two nights and one spectacular day, the sea slate-gray with huge curling rollers as far as the eye could see. There was motion to the ship, but very gentle; her stabilizers make any roll or pitch slow and graceful -– she is an amazing lady.

Today the sun was finally out, and we spotted another ship for the first time. I managed five morning laps, and it was magnificent: whitecaps to the horizon in sparkling sunshine. But tomorrow it ends, and then 10 days in London.

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement six years ago

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