On a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles last spring, I set out to do something relatively few people have done — I set out to cross the Pacific Ocean by boat. I know what you're thinking: Lots of people ply the Pacific by ship. Sailors in the Navy, for instance. Or the deckhands — lonely souls, all of them — who man the container ships that plod back and forth between China and L.A., delivering flat-screen TVs, jeans, and innumerable cheaply manufactured widgets. But hardly anybody else can be bothered.
Let's face it: Crossing the Pacific Ocean hasn't been trendy since the 16th century, when explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake made it famous. But the planet's largest geographical feature never caught on with travelers, not the way traversing the Atlantic did. And yet, if you look hard enough, you can find a handful of ocean liners — maybe three a year — that make the trip. I booked my ticket. The ship was big and white. It's called the Crystal Symphony.
I'd never been on a cruise before, and was taken with the idea of spending days on end aboard a multi-ton vessel designed from keel to funnel (that's what nautical types call that big chimney) with the pursuit of pleasure in mind. Which is why, right after I crossed the Pacific, I planned to cross the planet's other big ocean, the Atlantic.
Consider the geography involved. Both cruises add up to some 12,000 miles — roughly half the planet. Half the planet, I would like to add, that no one is spending much time seeing. People have this funny habit of visiting everything but the oceans — the deserts, the forests, the jungles, the lakes, the mountains, the rivers, the cities. So one day I decided: It's high time I saw the ocean — really saw the ocean.
Here is what I can tell you: It is vast. It is impersonal. It is wavy like you can't imagine, except for those rare moments when, miraculously, it lies still. On a bright afternoon two thousand miles south of Alaska, it looked like a magnificent indigo pile rug. A day later, under a sky blotched with clouds, it resembled the hide of a huge slumbering animal, heaving up and down as it breathed. Two days before we hit Hawaii, it struck me that an ocean swell is the ultimate in existentialism: unremitting and blind. The waves marched across the horizon like Victorian factory workers. Their movement was both vigorous and futile — as if to say, "What else you gonna do out here?"
And then, a few hundred miles later, their outlook on life changed. The waves were hulking, irritated, and crested with foam, appearing an awful lot like a bunch of young goons headed to a fight. I made a mental note: Do nothing to upset the waves. And as though to stress the point, the nose of the vessel nodded up and down in exaggerated, practically patronizing concurrence.
I can gaze at water for hours. And when you stand on the deck of a 51,000-ton luxury liner, you notice the following: When the hull plunges into the ocean after being raised by a swell, it drags down a big pocket of air that explodes into billions of tiny bubbles which get caught in a slow-motion journey to the surface. To serious seafarers, this phenomenon has a name: spume. A trail of spume stretched out behind the ship for miles. It was frothy and turquoise and had the look of a rare substance. As I stared at it, I had a fantasy of collecting it in buckets — like a grape picker in Burgundy — and then selling it in fancy boutiques all over town. But as I emerged from my dream state, I realized that those little bubbles would pop and all that would be left would be salt water. To enjoy the wonders of spume, you have to be on the ocean.
The precise moment of departure wasn't something I'd thought about even once, but it turned out to be quietly thrilling. I was seated in a roomy lounge at the front of the Crystal Symphony called the Palm Court, about to tuck into a scone piled with whipped cream and strawberries. There was movement, but it was movement unlike any I'd ever known. The transition from rest to motion was borderless. The swish of the two eighteen-foot propellers left not a ripple in the milky tea in my cup. The land outside began to go by.
I walked out on deck. We were making our way down a channel leading to the open sea. On one side, a crane was carefully dismantling a stack of containers on board the Xin Yan Tian, a cargo ship from Shanghai. On the other, more cranes and what looked like an oil refinery, punctuated by the odd palm tree. The Symphony, immaculate and white, must have seemed to the other boats like a fat cat in a leisure suit.
An hour later, the continent of North America had all but receded. Los Angeles and its 5.5 million automobiles — 5 million of them stuck in traffic — had been reduced to an absurd concept just over the horizon. Ahead of us, the ocean was empty as far as the eye could see. We were traveling twenty 22 miles per hour, headed for China, with nothing to do.
That's not quite true. There was lots to do. I could go to the gym or for a swim. I could take a line-dancing lesson, bid on a painting at auction, nurse a cappuccino next to the two-story fountain in the main "plaza," go to a movie, play a hand of blackjack or bridge. Where does a person start?
I started by standing on deck and staring over the side. For a long time, I was stricken by a fear of going overboard. The Pacific Ocean is an awfully big place to go for a swim. You would be nothing — a bobbing head between the waves, a tiny pinprick of individuality in a literal sea of gray. But as I stared, the sun came out and I inhaled the warm, salty breeze. Eventually, I no longer pictured myself swimming helplessly as the ship sailed away. Instead, I noticed the spume.
From this, I progressed to wandering the halls. Halls that were surprisingly empty. Crystal bills itself as a six-star cruise line, and that sixth star is due to the fact that no one ever has to line up for anything. If you want to take the galley tour, take it. No employee will greet you ten minutes beforehand to say, "I'm sorry, sir, but the tour is full." Similarly, if you become seized with the desire to soak in the hot tub, well, climb on in, because there will be room. There are no queues in front of the dining room at 6:30 p.m.; there is always an available Lifecycle in the gym; and the elevator doors never open to reveal a compartment too crowded for one more. Simply put, on Crystal the ratio of ship to passenger is a lot higher than on other vessels. There is an unintended consequence to this: Even when the Symphony is full, it feels half empty. You can stand in a hallway for minutes and not see another soul. This, you might say, is the price of luxury.
Then there is the actual price of luxury, namely, what the cruise costs. In this case it was a bargain: $3,635 for 17 days. The voyage from Los Angeles to Hong Kong is what's known in the industry as a repositioning cruise. This is what happens when a cruise line needs to get a ship from one continent to another. The ticket is a good deal, but the trip is not without its drawbacks. It offers hardly anything in the way of ports of call — our single stop was Honolulu, and only for a day. The median age shoots up; I was one of a handful of non-grayhairs. And more than one seasoned cruiser warned me that it's difficult to secure decent entertainment for a 17-day itinerary. (On day 12, I took in a magic show that included shadow puppets set to music and realized that the warnings were accurate.)
The first organized activity I participated in was a shave — the best of my life. My face radiating smoothness, I sauntered into the casino, lost $40 at blackjack, returned to my cabin and donned my swimsuit, and rode the elevator to the sixth floor. The pool area was a study in relaxation: Couples reclined in chaise longues on the teak deck, reading Tami Hoag novels and contemplating a plunge in the pool.
Before long, a rhythm took hold, one as lulling and constant as the ocean swells — and centered around eating. I'd wake up, have breakfast, play bridge or do Pilates or go to a wine tasting. Then it was time for lunch. After lunch I'd do something else, and before I knew it, it was time for dinner. After dinner I'd hit a show, maybe cap the evening with a drink at the nightclub Luxe. Soon enough it was time for bed — that period of prolonged rest that allows the staff to prepare the breakfast buffet.
What no one could see coming — not me, not my mother, not even my high school guidance counselor — is that I would turn out to be a sucker for the lectures. There were four a day, and I enjoyed them all. I was riveted during the one on diamonds (did you know that in Mumbai, the industry employs no fewer than 750,000 people?). I was transfixed by the one on gas turbines (the world's smallest is two inches in diameter and produces seven pounds of thrust). And my attention did not waver once during the series on American foreign policy, delivered by Edward Peck, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
The best lecture wasn't actually a lecture. It was the kitchen tour. It had all the informative horsepower of a lecture, but instead of sitting there passively you get to walk through a stainless steel wonderland while being privy to some mind-blowing stats. In the course of a single day, the Symphony goes through one ton of vegetables. During dinner alone, it takes 22 individuals to transfer the prepared food from the pots and pans onto plates. The meat freezer, which can hold up to 2,000 pounds, is large enough to play tennis in. On this never-ending expanse of seawater, perhaps the most precious commodity is fresh water: The galley uses 100 tons a day. And over the course of the cruise, the 966 passengers consume some 1,600 pounds of iceberg lettuce. That works out to 1.7 pounds per person — I'm quite sure someone else ate my share.
The scale of culinary activity may suggest that the Crystal Symphony is a kind of floating smorgasbord, but it's much more than that. The ship has all the earthly delights and amenities a person could hope for — from a small hospital and a library to a business center and a putting green — in the place you'd least expect to find them: the middle of the ocean.
To conquer the sea, we build ships that look and feel like land. Indeed, the Symphony seems to be in a state of denial over the fact that it's on the water at all. Everywhere there are ornamental flourishes reminiscent of place. The Italian restaurant has barbershop poles made famous by Venice. The Asian restaurant sports Chinese scrolls. And the Crystal Plaza — site of the two-story fountain — flaunts Corinthian columns (along with smoked-crystal sconces and a piano made of Plexiglas). The designers have succeeded wildly: It's only from the exterior that the Symphony actually looks like a ship. But when it comes to smoked crystal, polished brass, and mirrored surfaces, more isn't always more. With its relentless ornamentation, themed rooms, and unending schedule of activities — cards, bingo, handwriting analysis — the Symphony feels at times like a suburban fantasy of the afterlife.
The result was that despite being on the ocean, I found myself craving it. When one of the staff told me of a disastrous Antarctic cruise, during which a wave crashed through one of the windows and drenched passengers in their beds with frigid water, I kind of wished the same would happen to me. Each morning, the captain would come on the loudspeaker to tell us the day's forecast and our present depth, and I would be seized by thoughts of what lay suspended between the hull and the earth's crust so many miles below. Were there schools of tuna? Blue whales? Swordfish?
The food was beginning to get to me. There was a lot of it — fish, lamb, lobster, pork, and steak at breakfast, lunch, and dinner — but every dish tended to taste the same. Sauces were either too salty, too sweet, or both. At an event called the Gala Buffet, which seemed like an informal eating contest, there were seven food sculptures on display, including a chocolate pirate and a parrot made of butter. I counted almost a hundred separate dishes, not one of which I would describe as delicious. I looked out at the ocean and fantasized about the crew throwing lines baited with mackerel off the stern and hauling in big tuna, and of one of the Filipino crew slicing into its smooth hide to reveal delicious dark-red flesh. That night at dinner, I ordered grouper. During the galley tour, the chef had boasted that all the fish served on board was fresh. He assured us that seafood could last up to six days in a cold fridge. That's just how it tasted.
On day 13, the sea delivered. We were somewhere north of the Mariana Islands, eating breakfast in the Lido Café, when the German man who conducted the seminar on diamonds yelled, "Look! A ship!" Amazingly, this was our first such sighting, aside from a smattering of fishing vessels and private yachts near Honolulu. I walked to the bow, where I was joined by a man named Bob. Bob and I spent the next several hours looking, wishing we had binoculars. "It's an oil tanker," Bob said, "on its way from the Persian Gulf to Asia. Probably Japan." Here was a glimpse of globalism's circulatory system, conveying the blood that keeps the world economy alive and kicking.
An hour later, the ship had disappeared over the horizon. We still stood there, now watching a seabird hovering near the Symphony's bridge and scanning the ocean below. More birds appeared and took similar positions near the bow. They were gannets, white and black, like seagulls but with much more style. Every now and again, one would spot a flying fish skipping over the surface. At this, the bird would turn 90 degrees in a fraction of a second and accelerate toward the water. Sometimes, the gannets would snatch the flying fish while they were in midair. Other times, they would tuck back their wings, bring their legs up landing-gear style, and torpedo beak-first into the sea at full speed. Even from several hundred yards away, you could see the trail of spume left as the birds knifed through the water. Seconds later, they would break the surface quite a distance from where they'd entered and bob like rubber duckies while they swallowed their lunch. The fish never had a chance.
Pacific means peaceful, and it was so dubbed by the first European ever to sail it, Ferdinand Magellan. (Magellan's flagship, the Trinidad, was 1/450th the size of the Crystal Symphony; it did not have an indoor pool.) It seemed pacific to me, too: There were perhaps ten minutes of rain during the 17-day voyage, and even though the waves occasionally struck me as big, the North Atlantic taught me that they were anything but.
The North Atlantic is what you would call a friendly place. When I boarded Cunard's Queen Mary 2 in Southampton on a blustery day in late May, the wind up on the bow deck was strong enough to give anyone who didn't cover his ears a pounding headache. We all stood there, waving at the group of well-wishers back on the pier, until the wind forced us inside, where everybody headed straight for the bar.
For the next six days, the wind would not stop howling. At one point, it made an eerie whistling noise as the ship sounded its basso foghorn and plowed through fog as thick as wallpaper paste. The wind relented only when we crossed beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and chugged into New York Harbor. It was what you'd call a steady breeze.
The route out of England is pleasingly rife with geography. You begin by navigating your way down a tongue of salt water dotted with sailboats, yachts, and ferries known as Southampton Water. Then you hit the English Channel and turn right for America. That evening, as I sat down to dinner in the spacious dining room, there was a speck of land visible in the far distance. It was the western tip of Cornwall.
Whereas the Crystal Symphony serves about 500 meals at a typical seating, the QM2 serves 1,200. There are 1,250 staff, as many as 2,592 passengers, nine bars, and ten restaurants. On the fifth floor, there's a warehouse-like area where workers ferry entire pallets of supplies — celery, toilet paper, soap, Bordeaux — on forklifts. When it was christened five years ago, the QM2 was the longest, widest, tallest ocean liner ever built; to this day, it is still the heaviest. At $900 million, the cost of building it equals the yearly economic output of Grenada and Vanuatu combined.
That's a lot of money for a nearly extinct form of transportation. There was a time, it's true, when virtually every newcomer to North America — save the ancient natives who wandered across the land bridge from Kamchatka — arrived by boat: the passengers aboard the Mayflower, the throngs of newcomers who were processed at Ellis Island, and my father, to name just a few. In the first part of the last century, it all culminated in an era considered the golden age of ocean liners, when the gilded set booked passage aboard a Cunard or White Star vessel bound for America. They wore tuxedos, and they paid through the nose.
But then commercial airliners began taking to the skies between Europe and North America, and almost overnight the age of the ocean liner — which, in truth, had been in decline for a few decades — came to an abrupt end. The idea of traversing the Atlantic by ship is as outmoded today as crossing the Rockies in a covered wagon, a quaint relic of a bygone era. A berth on the QM2 costs twice as much as an airline ticket and takes roughly 20 times as long. Like fountain pens and watches that need to be wound, the ocean liner would have no business in the here and now were it not imbued with so much romanticism.
There's a lot to be said for romanticism. And there's a lot of romanticism to be found on the QM2. It's hard to take ten steps without being confronted with some misty-eyed depiction of Cunard's storied past. There are oil paintings of the Caronia and the original Queen Mary sailing during the heady blue-sky moments of yestercentury. Adorning the walls on deck five are ancient menus. (They served calf's brains and roast Long Island duckling for a dinner on July 5, 1953; it is my belief that passengers had higher culinary standards half a century ago.) All over the ship, you find bits of Cunard trivia and photo after black-and-white photo of fabulously dressed celebrities from days gone by, including Cary Grant, David Niven, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It is impossible to visit deck five without concluding that back then all men were well versed in the art of tying one's own bow tie.
Accordingly, every second night or so, we passengers — the male ones, at least — donned tuxedos and headed to the dining room for dinner. (The folks who paid more got to eat in an exclusive dining room known as the Princess Grill.) Afterward, we would retire to the Royal Court Theatre, or dance to big band music from an actual eight-piece big band in the Queen's Room.
It's all a finely orchestrated charade. Celebrities may have sailed Cunard ships across the Atlantic a hundred years ago and dressed in tuxedos, but now they fly in Gulf Streams and wear $500 jeans. I'd wager that you could count on one hand the number of guests who tie their own bow tie today. But movies and TV shows are also make-believe. So are expensive dive watches worn by nondivers, and SUVs that never leave the city. If you look closely at the Art Deco wall moldings on the QM2, you can see that they aren't made of plaster and appear to be some kind of preformed plastic. But that's only if you look very closely. The point is, it doesn't feel make-believe.
Take the following typical day: I was traveling with my brother, and after breakfast we visited the Illuminations Theatre to take in a lecture on the Concorde — another bygone mode of luxurious transatlantic transportation. For lunch, we headed to the pub, where we ordered fish-and-chips and pints of ale and settled in for a long and hilarious afternoon of darts (and more ale). That evening the attire was formal, and we had dinner at the Todd English restaurant, where I had the best meal I have ever eaten while not on land. Following dessert, we took in an Alan Ayckbourn play. The cast consisted of actual working actors from London's Royal Court Theatre, and the level of talent was starkly superior to that of the B-list entertainers who usually wash up on the cruise ship circuit. And then it was time for one last game of darts.
That day, you'll notice, was spent almost entirely indoors. And that's because it was freezing and windy outside — not what you would call prime tanning weather, unless windburn qualifies as a tan. But the truth is that the positively English weather made the ship feel that much more cozy. It's thrilling, in fact, to stand in a pub and hit a triple twenty, take a sip of ale, and then look out the window at the North Atlantic, dark green and roiling, its waves crested with spume.
Every cruise must come to an end, and it's the ending that sets apart the transoceanic sailing from all others. On most cruises, you return after your week at sea to the same place you started out (usually Florida), at which point the whole thing feels like it took place in your head. Planting your feet on a different continent after days and days at sea is considerably more memorable.
The evening before docking in Hong Kong, we spent the night slowly navigating past a series of illuminated buoys. By first light, we were in our berth and the harbor was already alive with ferries shuttling back and forth. Across the water stood Hong Kong's gleaming towers of commerce. Next to us, a little motorized junk was tootling around the harbor. It would stop and the driver would extend a fishing net into the water and pick up bits of trash. I walked off the ship onto Chinese soil, took a taxi to my hotel, and then went out for dim sum.
As we approached New York, the QM2's funnel looked like it was going to bring down the Verrazano-Narrows. But it cleared the bridge with all of nine feet to spare. The vessel turned its nose to the right and all of New York lay in front of us — Manhattan dead ahead, New Jersey to port, and Brooklyn to starboard. I nodded hello to Lady Liberty.
When I stepped onto land after so many days at sea, it didn't feel like land at all. It felt like the ocean, as the ground seemed to rise up under a relentless swell and then sink down again, dropping me so suddenly that I actually stumbled. The wave wasn't big — maybe 15 feet. After crossing this planet's two biggest oceans, I knew it was nothing I couldn't handle.