By John and Sandra Nowlan
Cunard knows how to throw a party.
To celebrate 175 years of safe, reliable trans-Atlantic passenger service, the line decided to use its Queen Mary 2 flagship to re-create the original 1840 crossing with the same starting date and same route – Liverpool to Halifax and Boston. The crossing was filled with celebrations and special events to honor Sir Samuel Cunard and his vision of an “Ocean Railway” linking Britain and America with the first scheduled steamship service.
Cunard, already a successful entrepreneur and ship owner in his native Nova Scotia, won the contract from the British Admiralty to deliver the Royal Mail across the Atlantic. He commissioned four ships, the first of which was his flagship, the 207 foot wooden paddle wheeler, Britannia. It left Liverpool on July 4, 1840, with 63 passengers (including Cunard and his daughter) bound for Halifax. It took 12 1/2 days, a big improvement over the six to sevens weeks expected on a sailing ship.
Unlike Queen Mary 2, Britannia had few creature comforts as Samuel Cunard emphasized safety and seamanship, not luxury. The passenger cabins were just eight feet by six feet and contained twin bunks, a pitcher of water, a chamber pot and a candle for light. A cow was aboard for fresh milk and three cats kept the rats under control. Charles Dickens, the English novelist, sailed on Britannia to Halifax in 1842 and described his room as “a profoundly preposterous box.”
Both Dickens and Cunard would have been astonished by Queen Mary 2. Handling 2600 guests, it stretches almost four football fields in length and equals the height of a 23 story building. Britannia could fit comfortably into its main dining room. Queen Mary 2 cost a billion dollars to build and furnish.
Once aboard, the first impressions are of sheer size and glamour. Corridors on the passenger decks are as long as 36 London double-deckers. Exploring the thirteen decks and four staircases provide excellent exercise plus a history lesson with dozens of portraits of famous Cunard ships lining the walls as well as giant photos of celebrity guests (Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe).
Main Dining Room
A quick tour of the ship shows the care and imagination taken by the designers. Near the bow end we pass the library with its 8,000 volumes (the largest at sea), a well-stocked bookshop, two large, plush, fully-equipped theatres, one for complex production shows and concerts, the other housing a planetarium, the only one at sea. Towards the stern of the ship is the modern disco and the traditional Queen’s Room, the biggest ballroom at sea, and the venue for formal dances, afternoon tea and receptions. Nearby is an avenue of shops, the casino, numerous bars and lounges (including the Golden Lion serving traditional British pub fare) and the stylish three story atrium. The ship also has a kennel with a full time attendant to pamper traveling pets.
Big Band Dancing
The 175th anniversary celebrations started in Liverpool, the British home port for the Cunard Line until 1967. Even though Southampton is now the British base, Liverpool is considered the spiritual home of the company and the city went all out to celebrate Sir Samuel and his legacy (even though most Brits we met were unaware that Cunard was Canadian). The main event for all passengers on Queen Mary 2 was a two hour concert in the magnificent Liverpool Cathedral. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir were joined by the Band of the Welsh Guards and three British opera stars. Cunard reflections were read by some of the Coronation Street cast, retired Cunard officers and descendents of Sir Samuel including his great, great, great grandson. With stirring music and big screen visuals of Cunard ships in action in peace and war, it was an amazing and emotional concert.
More than 250,000 Liverpudlians lined the shores of the Mersey in the evening of July 4 to watch the fireworks as Queen Mary 2 sailed away to Halifax. It was also the first time in 50 years that a Cunard ship had left Liverpool to cross the Atlantic.
Queen Mary 2 is known for the quality of its speakers and on this 175th anniversary crossing we were informed and entertained every day by a variety of specialists with intimate knowledge of Cunard history. They included naval architect Stephen Payne, the designer of Queen Mary 2 and John Langley of Nova Scotia, Cunard historian and author of Steam Lion, the definitive biography of Samuel Cunard.
The five day crossing to Halifax also included a non-stop variety of other activities – art classes, computer lessons, classical concerts, Broadway-style shows, big band music for dancing, trivia and many more. As some guests told us, you need a vacation after all this activity!
In 1840, Britannia entered and left Halifax Harbour with little fanfare (it arrived two days earlier than expected). But this time organizers made a splash. A new waterfront development near the Cunard statue was named Samuel Cunard Quay. At noon the first annual Cunard Prize for Vision, Courage and Creativity was presented to a New Brunswick entrepreneur. At the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the newly restored Cunard Age of Steam exhibition opened to the public. And in the evening, the QM2 sail- away from Halifax towards Boston and New York included a parade of boats around the Harbour.
Britannia in Halifax 1840 - Painting by Robert Lloyd
Boston was the terminus of the first scheduled Atlantic crossing in 1840. On our visit, Cunard Line presented the community with an 11 foot ship model to be displayed in the city’s historic Cunard Building. The captain of Queen Mary 2, Kevin Oprey, was invited to toss the ceremonial first pitch at the Red Sox – Yankees game in the afternoon. He told us he was more comfortable throwing a cricket ball! As we left Boston, Cunard Line celebrated with a gala fireworks display in the harbor.
Afternoon tea, a British tradition
In New York, the current North American terminus for Cunard, a fire boat accompanied Queen Mary 2 as it slipped under the Verrazano Narrows bridge and into its familiar Brooklyn berth, directly across from a splendid view of Lower Manhattan. Captain Oprey rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange and in the evening the final official event of Cunard 175 took place. As QM2 idled near the Statue of Liberty, ready to return to England, a spectacular music and light show, using fifty special "Beam Effect" projectors set up along the ship’s promenade deck, lit up the sky over Manhattan.
Manhattan from QM2 in Brooklyn
Along with thousands of New Yorkers, we viewed the spectacle from Battery Park near the World Trade Center site. It was a fitting finale to 175 years of continuous trans-Atlantic passenger service and a tribute to the shipping pioneer who made it all possible, Samuel Cunard.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax. Their website is www.nowtravel.ca.