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On the Queen Mary 2: An essential lifetime trip
TRAVEL Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jeff Guaracino

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A transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) is a voyage, not a cruise. She is an ocean liner, not a cruise ship. Cunard ships draws international world travelers, not tourists. You know what to expect on a cruise, but Cunard is not a cruise company. These are just a few of the many differences that you will find when sailing this royal liner.

For hundreds of years, humans have been traveling across the Atlantic Ocean between the continents. A relative few thousand people a year travel aboard the QM2. She is a large elegant ship with an extraordinary art collection, abundant space for relaxation, a variety of spaces for entertainment and fine dining.

At an average speed of 20 knots, a transatlantic voyage takes seven nights. Roughly 2,400 people are on this late August voyage. The QM2, a Vista-class ship that Cunard operates, could easily hold twice as many passengers; however, it was designed for ultimate passenger comfort. With a vast amount of space dedicated to the passengers, there were always plenty of teak deck chairs around the many pools.

Among the many nice surprises on this trip was the large number of LGBT passengers on this voyage. My travel partner, Ed Salvato, editor-in-chief of Man About World, and I met a Broadway star, Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers, an insurance-company president, owners of a public relations firm and retirees. Interestingly, among the youngest of the gay travelers were some gay professionals who bid on this trip at a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser in San Francisco. Not only did Cunard support our community, it attracted a young group of new travelers who, in turn, invited other friends to join them.

Taking an eastward passage journey with limited access to the Internet and no mobile cell-phone service could seem daunting at first. Would it be possible to disconnect from the modern world to steep oneself in Old World luxury and tradition? The answer is "yes." What I found on this trip was that people rediscovered the art of conversation. Dinner tables were filled with laughter and thoughtful conversations and not the distractions of modern life.

Friends of Dorothy: LGBT meetings

Unlike other cruise lines—like Royal Caribbean—that no longer publish Friends of Dorothy (FOD) meetings in their daily programs, Cunard steps it up a notch. Every evening at 5 p.m., the FODs meet in the Commodore Lounge. The first night we met about six fellow travelers—mostly men and one single lesbian named Lois. By the second night, there were 22 men, but no Lois. Interestingly, there appeared to be many more gay couples that never attended with FOD meetings but nonetheless were on board with us.

What to pack

Nights aboard the QM2 are more formal than other cruises but they are way more fun, too. From formal balls to semi-formal nights, the ship's passengers are dressed as elegantly as this ship.

Here are some tips to lighten your luggage. Pack one tuxedo, one black suit, one sports coat and one pair of slacks. Depending on the time of year, pack a sweater or a light jacket. Leave the jeans at home.

Queen and Princess grills

Cruise lines notoriously offer small cabins to maximize space. Not here. Most of the cabins have balconies and there are a few inside cabins. Aboard the QM2, even modest accommodations will feel like pampering.

It pays to upgrade to the Queen or Princess Grill suites. These cabins feature wide balconies with teak deck furniture. The Grill cabins offer ample space, including a generous walk-in closet and plenty of drawers and storage. The large bathroom includes a powerful shower and a wide sink. The beds are very comfortable, with silky white liens.

The Queens Grill cabins range in size and amenities, with some having large decks overlooking the back pool. Queens and Princess Grill guests have a private dining area; priority embarkment and debarkation areas; and private spaces throughout the ship, including a Grills lounge, Grills concierge and private Grills pool deck. As a Grill guest, one is also invited to special parties with the captain, and there are complimentary sparkling wine and fruit in the guest's cabin.

For those traveling with friends, a great insider tip is to reserve cabins next door to each other. There are privacy dividers on the deck between the cabins that can be opened during the day. Opening the divider between the decks will provide an extraordinary double-wide deck with private access between rooms without going into the hallway. Mr. Salvato and I threw an afternoon BYOB gay soiree on our adjoining deck with 14 guests. It was a smart way to get to know a few of our fellow travelers better.

White-glove service

Among the true standouts of this journey was the Cunard professional staff and the hallmark white glove service. Throughout the ship, guests are called by their formal names. Good morning, Mr. Guaracino. You don't want to carry your own luggage to the airport? Cunard will ship it (for a fee). You'd like a wine recommendation for your Todd English meal? Cunard can do that too. Want your favorite dessert? Not a problem. One thing Cunard staff don't do is harass you to buy a drink. I've been on many cruise lines were all you hear is buy a drink, buy a drink. The crew is attentive and not pushy.

So much to do, day and night

I have to admit I was afraid I would die of boredom on this voyage across the sea. Seven nights and eight days make for a long time for any one trip, especially a non-stop voyage.

There were daily fascinating lectures on astronomy, royalty and world affairs. There were demonstrations, behind-the-scenes tours and lots of activities such as stargazing, reading, meditation and live music. The QM2 even has a planetarium (although it was not working on this voyage). Nightly entertainment aboard the QM2 is serious business. While some liners skimp on quality entertainment, Cunard programs the ship flawlessly. Nightly, there are formal dances in the ballrooms, entertainer and a nightclub.

The Canyon Ranch Spa is among the world's finest spas. The gym is complimentary. There are daily classes, including spinning, stretching and yoga. The spa services are extraordinary. There are signature Canyon Ranch spa massages, manicures and pedicures but also acupuncture massage and Thai massage.

Fine dining is found throughout the ship. Among the true highlights is a visit to Todd English, the famed chef and restaurateur. Meals here are culinary journeys with interesting menus in a gorgeous space that encourages one to linger.

Great deals

If you go, it pays to plan early. Sign up for direct mail and Cunard specials online, as there are many affordable deals and upgrades. Check out .

British Airlines offers non-stop service between Philadelphia, Chicago and London. Don't ruin a trip by flying coach. Splurge for business class; with a business-class ticket, you can enjoy the lounge.

Ultimately, a QM2 transatlantic voyage is an essential trip of a lifetime.

Jeff Guaracino is the author of Gay and Lesbian Tourism: The Essential Guide for Marketing. He is also vice-chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.

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