There was a full moon on Wednesday 8th of March when I moved into the Alto-Eco Hotel on Bourke Street, across from Spenser Street Station, sorry, Southern Cross Station, in Melbourne, Australia. The Southern Cross, a pattern of stars, is not a sight often seen when living in the city. The street lights, the haze of traffic and being in the great indoors prevent seeing even the brightest stars, and very often, even the light of the silvery moon. And of course, that Southern constellation would not be possible to see in the Northern Hemisphere at all. But you can see the train station any time you like, if you’re in Melbourne. Which I was. And I had to get to Sydney to board my ship.
The next day, Thursday 9th March, was my first official day of travel. As usual, two questions, ‘Why do I have so much luggage?’ And, ‘Why is the train so full?’ Two big blokes, packs, bags, and me, all squished into our Daysitter cabin.
Survived, and arrived for a few days to visit wonderful friends and think another common question, ‘How can Sydney be so beautiful?
As I made my way by train across Sydney Harbour Bridge, I caught a glimpse of the Queen Mary 2 floating in the middle of bright blue waters. Immediately recognisable, a pyramid cake topped with the Cunard red funnel, her white stack of decks curved up elegantly, and the dark navy keel smoothly concave down to the red plimsoll line. She was waiting to dock at the Ocean terminal, proudly showing off to Sydney’s ocean-loving populace, half-way through the Centenary World Cruise 2023.
On 12th March, I would be joining her company of nearly two and a half thousand ‘guests’ on a Centennial World Voyage. When I arrived at the wharf, weighed down with two packs and a rolling suitcase, I was transfixed by the great height of the ship. It’s not possible to see the beginning and end of her length while standing, human-size, at dock height. She was daunting. Scary. Beautiful. What the heck was I doing? Commuting to the UK, of course.
Turned out I was one of the later arrivals and marched through what could have been queues, but knowing no different, and having no staff left to welcome me, I remained ignorant. I handed over the suitcase to underlings and climbed the escalator. We’d been sternly informed we must present a photo of a negative RAT taken within 24 hours, showing the time and date.
This duly accomplished, the security staff informed me they’d had to institute this system due to some folk bringing their actual test, naked and unbound, spittle there for all to see and breathe. Poor security staff. After passport control, (yes, leaving on the NZ, traveling on the UK), more staff waved me onboard the second Queen Mary. I had no idea where I was.
My first impression of the Grand Lobby was that it was just like an Australian RSL (Returned and Services Leagues Club). Big, glitzy, curving staircase, showy floral edifice lit by cheesy pink and lime green spots. I had a cabin number, two backpacks and I asked the wrong staff member where to find my room. He must have been new himself, for he shrugged and directed me to the purser’s office. Like hotel reception, here was my first taste of cruise queues, and I listened to the pokies and the self-playing piano in the centre of the glittering cavern while I stood patiently. It wasn’t long before I became dispirited and turned to chat to my companions. The lady I spoke to swayed a little as she told me she couldn’t remember where her last stop was. She knew she’d started in Southampton but she couldn’t remember where she’d gone after that. She would have got out if she could have but she hated flying so much she just couldn’t. She thought she could but she couldn’t, so she had to stay on for another six weeks. She hated it. I found out she was one of over a thousand people already at home in the floating hotel, some having started in New York, some in Southampton. Other folk in the line could remember they’d been in Brisbane before Sydney, and Darwin before that, and they asked if I was newly arrived. As I had my luggage with me, I assumed they were fairly alert, and asked if they could tell me how to find my room.
Well, they said, you should have asked sooner if that’s all you want! You’re on level two now, the lifts are over there, and just go up to Deck 6 and follow the signs on the walls. Just like a hotel. Easily done.
My cabin was at the end of the corridor, with a sheltered balcony. That means if you sit down you can’t see over the railing but if there’s a wind blasting you can get a breath of fresh air. The room had everything I needed: bathroom, bed, desk, tea and coffee making facilities. Right now, harbour views, close to the Bridge, and I was near a swimming pool!
A card on the bed requested my presence at the Britannia Restaurant on level 3 at 6pm. A brief flurry of unpacking, quick donning of my professional English teacher-on-duty costume, before joining a stream of smartly-dressed humans heading towards staircase B.
When my computer found out I’d booked a sea voyage, I was rewarded by some handy YouTube videos giving me advise on solo cruising. I did take one piece of advice – when travelling alone – book the biggest possible table so that you’ll be able to chat to different people rather than be stuck with just one. Imagine. For six weeks. Be like being married. Phew. Possible disaster averted.
When you enter the giant glittering cavern that is the Britannia Restaurant, you are welcomed by a battalion of perfectly presented waiters in smooth black suits. After a short screen search by the Head Waiter, ever polite and smiling, one waiter peels off the disciplined line and sees you personally to your table, in my case, very far away, up on the mezzanine, beside large windows and by the circular door going to the kitchens. I was greeted by a circle of smiling faces. Once seated by yet another smiling waiter, napkin flapped out over my lap, I discovered all but one of my tablemates was retired, and all were habitual travellers. Two had had previous World Cruises booked but were stymied by the pandemic. Now they were relieved to be here, and the bantering began.
Sydney harbour glinted in the sunshine as the first of my awkward dietary requirement discussions ensued. Suffice to say, most food on board involves some kind of cow secretion and Special Diets are complicated.
I don’t want to go into it. Food was eaten.
After dinner, it was time to leave. The sun went down, the Harbour lit up, folk crowded beside the rails with glasses full, binoculars within grasp to glimpse friends and relatives on shore, calls on phones and shouts as Sydney Harbour presented the Opera House and Bridge in full glamour. Families waved their mobile phone torches on shore and were answered by nans and grandads on board.
Tugs hovered around the Queen Mary 2 manoeuvring around ferries and smaller boats and out towards the Heads. Mild weather kept people chatting by the railings even as we came into open sea and deep night. I looked back toward South Head: Watsons Bay, Vaucluse, Dover Heights and Bondi, suburbs I once knew, slipping into darkness, and the lights signifying the coast of NSW eventually disappeared. We were at sea.
Woke early, no land in sight, and began the ritual march around Deck 7 – the Promenade Deck. Noticed, as I was smiling and nodding at fellow ‘guests’, that I was going in the opposite direction. Bah. I was travelling clockwise. Takes three turns to do a kilometre. Not going to tell you about miles. Get over it.
Went to Meditation and which evolved into a basic Stretch class, included in cost of fare, presented by Gym Guy. Not quite what I’d expected – would be the last. Asked him if it were possible to borrow a yoga mat for my room? No. Only enough for gym and classes. The next class, Yoga, would cost extra money which I figured was too much. I’d already decided I’d paid enough for this commute from Oz to UK. So, how much?
Together with insurance packages and shore experiences, my total fare from Sydney to Southampton (6 weeks in a floating hotel) wouldn’t give me much change from Australian $20,000 (about £10,000). You can get cheaper fares but I wanted the balcony for six weeks. You probably have a car. I don’t. I bought a cruise. Or rather, a commute. I was going to the UK and as you know, I don’t like to fly.
Can you afford the time? I could. I had a project to work on at my desk, I had no pressing engagements and, really, it was equivalent to walking the Camino de Santiago – all I had to do was fall into line with the Deck 7 pilgrims going widdershins. Never, I tell you, never. (Well, once or twice if the sun was on the wrong side … ) I’m a clockwise gal.
Breakfast entailed an introduction to the Kings Court Buffet System. This is a confusing beige world of chefs under pressure preparing and serving a wide array of consumables. I’m guessing it was self-serve before Covid. My embarrassing Special Diet requirements finally led me to a separate Chef’s Galley where all the plant-based, gluten-free, FODMAP weirdos could have some sense of belonging. It was also relatively quiet. My happy place.
It is possible to enjoy breakfast in your own cabin or in your assigned restaurant, in my case the Britannia, where you are seated with new people and, again, must have the awkward Special Dietary conversation. I learned it was much easier to see smiling chef William Angel for a dose of porridge and some basic Filipino lessons.
The wait staff are everywhere, (and from everywhere: Filipino, South African, Ghanian, Zambean, Italian, Serbian … ) smiling, obeisant, bowing to Sir or Madam whatever the request, whatever the accent.
Breakfast accomplished; my next major quest was the search for a power adaptor. Of course, my Australian electrics did not fit the British standard plug. The ship shops are primarily duty free, selling booze and shiny glamour handbags or jewellery boutiques although there is a small ‘Everyday’ section where you can buy tee-shirts, key rings and crisps. Not power adaptors. The bookshop is next to the library on Deck 8, but they sold out of adaptors months ago.
The library is charming, wooden, glass-fronted shelves – deep comfy seats to sink into – right at the front of the ship with large windows. QM2 has an extensive splash zone at the prow – she’s designed for big Atlantic waters necessitating space and fencing when she breaks through heavy waves so the ‘guests’ don’t get washed away, but that does mean you can’t get much closer than aprox 70 metres to the bow.
Back to the purser’s officer to make further enquiries about the adaptor. Such helpful people, these pursers. She reached out, took my phone and cable, and told me to come back later. I would have to buy one when we reached our first port. The next day. (Charging the phone didn’t cost me any extra money.)
Given my morning routine on the container ships, I marched up to find ‘Guests’ are not permitted on the bridge unless you pay extra for a rare tour, but you are allowed to watch the mysterious workers glide through their navigations and raise their bins to the horizon through a Bridge Observation Window. Informative posters name the equipment while celebratory plaques and awards hang around the area. Take no photos. No questions. No knocking on the glass. No distractions. A bit like the gorilla enclosure, really.
Next stop was the Observation Deck – a semi-enclosed veranda wrapped around the Adriatic Room at the front of Deck 11. The Adriatic Room is the special club of the Round the World Voyagers – those who had already been on board for two months – natives of NY or UK –they’d already visited Lisbon, Greece, the Suez Canal, Egypt, Thailand and Darwin. Some of the travellers could remember and loved every minute of the shore experiences and ship life. So Swaying Woman was the exception.
The Observation Deck was closed due to high winds as we proceeded south down the coast of New South Wales (stupid name – nothing like Wales – time to change that one). Didn’t seem that blustery to me but I suppose there was a bit of a roll. Back down to the cabin, popped on the togs and went out to join the sun worshippers on Deck 6. But the sun had gone. Hopped in the bubble bath (jacuzzi). The only other fellow in there seemed to have been there for hours. The air was mild, and the water was warm, and the blue horizon was steady. The pale turquoise water in the pool was not. It sloshed one way and then the other and then gurgled out through the pipes in a friendly manner. Beach towels are supplied and often replenished by deck crew.
It was not only my phone that lost power by this point. After a quick shower I took to my bed for a rest. Lethargy overcame me. I missed lunch. I woke to the alarm I’d set for dinner. I felt good. On the way to the restaurant, I noticed a young couple dressed like movie stars, he in black tie and she in sparkly angel with full make-up. Uh oh! It was the Black and White Gala night! I turned and ran back to my cabin and sat panting on the bed. Yes, there was the invitation I’d ignored, thinking a 6pm dinner wouldn’t be part of the hoo haah gala – frocks, orchestra, ballroom dancing, elegance … ‘Guests’ apparently love the Gala nights – seems there’s one a week. I believe there are folk who book an inside cabin just for their wardrobe and changing room. The hairdressers and make-up artists do a roaring trade, as do the photographers. I went in search of my alternative eating zone – but it was no longer there – that’s only for breakfast – the Kings Court buffet offered me a baked spud and salad. They’d already run out of fruit salad. Or maybe they would replenish later. I made do.
There was much to learn on the QM2.
Day three was a Most Exciting Day as it was our first Port. Melbourne. Now you may ask why I could not have begun my voyage from Melbourne. I know I did. However, that is Cunard’s way and it may also be the way of the Australian Border Force for all I know. There will be Gala Nights and there will only be certain ports to begin and end your section of travel. As far as I know, this World Centenary Cruise went Southampton to Sydney, Sydney to Fremantle and Fremantle to CapeTown, Capetown to Southampton. I could land in Melbourne, but I could not go through passport control. There you go. I got to be on a crowded train for hours! Yaaay!
I woke at 03:30 – engines slowed – bright security lights to port – I could only see the pilot’s boat if I leaned out over the railing in an uncomfortable manner. I assumed the pilot climbed up a ladder. There are ports where the pilot gets dropped from a helicopter – Melbourne isn’t one of them. Couldn’t sleep again so went for a mysterious middle of the night wander in a ghost ship.
Little bit scary but fun as I inspected the beautiful prints on Deck 11, the paintings along corridors and in stairwells can be fantastic. Cunard has a reputation for their art collection. I explored the sporting area on Deck 13 and found that seeing stars was problematic due to the artificial lighting. You can imagine why the ship would need lighting around any railing area, I suppose.
I found a screen showing where we were in the Deck 12 Pool Room (of course, I found out later, every screen on board has that channel, all the channels, why even the tv in my own cabin that I’d covered up with a scarf!) I made it back to bed for an hour before my alarm woke me at 06:30 to watch the docking.
Very satisfying sunrise and gentle approach into Melbourne, not the most glamorous of ports, is it?
I was really anticipating seeing my beloved son, Felix, in Melbourne, but worried about the phone charge running out again before we could speak. I was late getting off the ship as I didn’t realise we had to queue to scan our voyage cards before leaving. See? The cruise queues. We meet again.
My dreams of casual coffee were dashed as I marched urgently along the Port Melbourne bike path as the 109 trams were incapacitated. Two hours late I met Felix, drank coffee, and charged the phone. And we made plans which included buying a phone adapter!
Melbourne passed in a haze of ticking off Things To Do, fare-welling son, and then back on board for more cruise queues.
This is how to meet people on a cruise. Stand in lines. I discovered quite a few other Melbourne locals who had returned home to finish their cleaning/organising tasks! And the relief at a decent cup of coffee! More on that next time …
And so we left Melbourne. The voyage has begun.
I don’t know how he managed to find container ships after the pandemic – his persistence is extraordinary!