A royal rendezvous
Finding a single and interesting partner can be difficult enough in your 20s, even though the odds work in your favour. I imagine it doesn't get any easier as you get older. If you're above 50, single, have a sense of wanderlust and are looking to fall in love, then a few weeks at sea on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth may be just what the doctor should order.
I've been told that cruising is a safe and comfortable way to see the world, and Cunard cruises are particularly popular with solo female travellers. And even though the average age group is allegedly above 70, I'm excited to see what all the fuss is about.
My earliest memory of being on a ship was at age 5. I was violently ill. It's no surprise then that, even more than two decades later, I'm a little apprehensive as we board. We're in Samoa, ready for the three-day sea voyage back to Auckland on the Queen Elizabeth.
Sea legs at the ready, my travel companion and I navigate the enormous ship's slightly claustrophobic corridors to settle into our much-too-small cabin rooms. That's where the claustrophobia ends, though. It's easy to get lost in this 90,000-tonne luxury liner. At 294 metres long she is just over twice the length of a rugby field and almost as long as Auckland's Sky Tower is tall.
The ship's interiors effortlessly combine the historical elegance of the 1930s with modern comfort. There are 1046 staterooms, a theatre, two swimming pools, a spa, a gym, a two-storey library, more than 10 restaurants, shops, pubs and clubs on this 90,000 tonne luxury liner. That seems sufficient for the 2092 passengers and 996 crew on board.
Loneliness is not an option
We set sail in a few hours, at 6pm, giving us just enough time to explore a little before dinner. There's a games deck with paddle tennis, bowls and croquet. It's empty now, as most passengers seem to have gone onshore.
There seems to be no shortage of activities on board, including everything from insightful lectures, yoga and dance classes to trivia nights, karaoke, knitting groups, AA group meetings and even lesbian/gay groups.
Solo travellers meet a few times a week, too, with many making lifelong "cruising friends". Like 70-year-old Marianne, who lives in Cannes for six months of the year. For the other six months she cruises. She travels the world solo, making friends, enjoying the occasional romantic tryst and making memories she won't soon forget. "There's so much to do, and so many new people to meet that I never get bored. When you're at sea for that length of time, you tend to find kindred souls amongst fellow travellers," she says as she deftly deals cards at the bridge tournament.
I'll have a spot of tea, please
Exhausted from the ship's mild rocking sensation, we go in search of sustenance. Dining on board the Queen Elizabeth is an elegant affair, and the strict dress codes range from elegant casual to semi-formal and formal. Dinner tonight is at the Britannia Restaurant, a two-tiered art deco dining room at the stern of the vessel. The dress code is elegant casual, which just means no jeans or shorts. Bound by slightly stricter rules, men still need to wear dinner jackets.
Adrian, our sommelier, is from Croatia and very particular about the wines we should choose to accompany our meal. The menu is carefully created by German executive chef Klaus Kremer, and designed to please all 23 nationalities aboard. The food is impeccable, as is the service.
It's hard to fathom the amount of work that goes into feeding more than 2000 passengers daily. The kitchen is run with military precision. Meals are brought out like clockwork and every plate is perfectly presented.
According to Chef Kremer, on a 14-day voyage passengers are served 90,000 meals. They will consume approximately 70 tons of fruit and vegetables, 18 tons of meat, 12 tons of poultry, 20 tons of seafood, 30 tons of cheese, 11,200 scones. 70, 000 cups of tea, 4000 pints of beer and 5250 bottles of wine. This equates to more than a million pieces of china and glass for the crew to clean. While I've been told working on a cruise ship is the cheapest way to travel the world, I'm not sure I'd want to be cleaning my way across it.
Open 24 hours a day, the Lido offers casual, buffet-style dining for those times when you don't want to make the effort to dress up. For a traditional English pub lunch, try the Golden Lion. The food may not be as fancy, but sometimes it's a relief not to have to fuss about everything.
Wherever you choose to dine, however, you will have the pleasure of being attended to by young, charming sommeliers who really know their wine, and attentive waiters, most of whom tend to be eastern European and easy on the eyes.
If you continue to dine at the same restaurant, and are assigned a table, then you may end up with the same waiter each night, which allows you to get to know them quite well. As Jurico, a Croatian waiter at the Britannia puts it, "by the end of the cruise we've spent so much time together that we're like family".
Dancing on the high seas
Not wanting to return to our cabins early on the first night, we check out the Yacht Club, where D J Mark Sunshine is supposed to be spinning some sweet tunes till "late". We're the only two there. So we settle in and make friends with the 32-year-old bartender, Boris from Bosnia. It's become awfully apparent that we're the youngest on board and that 70-year-olds don't like to party (unless it's Abba night).
Little did we know we'd just chosen the wrong venue for the night. It was all happening at the Queen's Room - the place to be for a night of passionate dance. At 6pm every night the entire ship seems to transform. Linen shorts and jandals are traded for pearls, chiffon ball gowns and tuxedos.
Professional dancers or gentlemen hosts, as they're called on board, glide through the crowd on the lookout for any single women seated nearby. These dapper, silver-haired gentleman will ask you to dance, and it doesn't matter if you have two left feet, since they are trained in almost every dance form and will always take the lead.
Whether it's a waltz, a foxtrot, the cha cha or even a tango, for those five minutes while you're twirled around the grand ballroom, you'll feel like the only woman in the room.
That is, until he has to move on to his next partner. He's not allowed to lavish too much attention on one lady and will usually spread himself quite thin. There is a certain element of jealousy and competition among guests here, as single ladies vie for the attention of each host. But even here, the thrill of the chase still exists, and hearts still flutter at the promise of possible romance. Even though dance hosts are not allowed to have a relationship on board, they are fair game ashore. This alone can increase the popularity of cruising for the single ladies.
There are also themed balls every now and then, giving you the chance to don an Elizabethan ball gown, a slinky cocktail dress or even a sari during the Bollywood-themed night. It's a chance to slip into a new persona and channel new-found confidence that can sometimes only appear behind the anonymity of a Mardi Gras mask.
It's really just a lifestyle
The ship is like a floating city in a parallel universe. The world's problems just don't seem to exist here. There's no early morning traffic to deal with, or telemarketers or clients. But reality beckons, and as my voyage comes to an end, it's a surreal feeling to realise that I'll be back at work tomorrow.
On the QE, it's easy to fall in love . . . with the attention to detail, being waited on hand and foot and amazing scones. This ship exudes romance, with her sweeping staircases, crystal chandeliers, grand ballroom and art deco-inspired interiors. For Steven, a 69-year-old Irishman who's lost the love of his life because of commitment phobia, being on board is a way to meet interesting women around his age group. "I wouldn't get married, but I would like to meet a beautiful, intelligent woman I can enjoy some time with" he says.
And that's what cruises are about. Many travellers spend months at sea. Even if romance doesn't blossom, friendships are formed and lifetime bonds are forged. There is no doubt that this 294m-long luxury ocean liner is a great way to get away, indulge a little and maybe, just maybe, meet that special someone.
Trupti Biradar travelled courtesy of Cunard Cruise Line.
- © Fairfax NZ News