Forecastle of Queen Mary 2 on a clear day in the Celtic Sea

The Atlantic Ocean, since the middle of the last millennium, has been the obstacle to clear during the largest and longest sustained migration of humans between continents in recorded history. In North America, the vast majority of residents have ancestors who have crossed an ocean (many of their own will; many others without that privilege) to get here.

With that in mind, it makes sense that a sizable number of travelers interested in heritage tourism—that is, tourism-themed on the traveler’s ancestral journeys or origins—would look upon an Atlantic crossing with interest.

Virtually all travelers between Europe and North America today undertake the journey by air, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the airline eclipsed the ocean liner as the largest nominal carrier of Transatlantic passenger traffic. Travel inspiration came in the form of the names of storied ocean liners: Queen Mary, Normandie, United States, Majestic, Aquitania.

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These crack liners were the pinnacle of luxury travel aspiration of their day, and like the airliners that followed them, they were progenitors of modern tourism, making intercontinental travel available to travelers of relatively modest means.

In the interest of following this heritage trail across the ocean, I recently embarked on Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 on a voyage from New York to Southampton, following in the footsteps of those first excited middle-class tourists to whom the shipping lines first began to heavily market towards after World War I.

Informing friends of my plans brought inevitable questions: How long does it take? Does it stop anywhere? What are you going to do with all that time? What is the ship like?

The ship, of course, is a beauty.

Queen Mary 2 is the world’s last and only purpose-built, operating ocean liner—which means that, as a ship distinct from cruise liners, she wins all the superlatives in her category by default. But, as I boarded at Brooklyn’s cruise terminal, with its spectacular views of Manhattan across the East River, I began to wonder just how similar today’s last remaining ocean liner crossings are to their forebears.

Speaking of Brooklyn, that’s already a difference. Transatlantic liners calling at New York had long had Hudson River moorings at North German Lloyd and Hamburg-America Line docked in Hoboken, on the other side of the Hudson. Queen Mary 2 has moored at Brooklyn since 2006, as the length of the ship is some 30 feet longer than the Hudson piers, and significant energy resources were needed to keep an exposed portion of the ship from drifting in the river current.

Another difference from the ocean liners of yore is the makeup of the ship’s payload. Although the ship is designated RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Queen Mary 2 like her predecessors, she incidentally and infrequently carries mail that isn’t posted onboard by passengers. 20th Century liners carried so much mail that there were often dedicated postal workers onboard to sort through it during the voyage.

The liners of yesteryear were also the primary methods of conveyance for express cargo shipments between the continents. Specimen cargo manifests from the lost liners Titanic and Lusitania, well-preserved through the settlement of insurance claims, indicate everything from peacock feathers to cheese to gloves and sewing notions traveled as cargo in the holds. Also carried in the holds was luggage “not wanted on voyage” (similar to checked luggage in aircraft holds today).

Today, all passenger baggage is delivered to staterooms by the end of the first evening, and there’s no cargo onboard that isn’t intended to be offered for consumption to passengers or crew during the voyage.

Also gone are the exhaustively separated classes of service. Crack liners of the 20th Century typically featured three classes: First, Second, and Third (some lines even delineated further between Third Class, which were private albeit shared cabins, and Steerage, or sex-segregated open dormitories).

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First Class was of course carefully curated opulence designed to transport the elite in the comforts to which they were accustomed; Second Class was the middle-class provenance of working professionals and the like, while Third Class was purpose-designed for immigrant traffic.

After the First World War, when new federal laws effectively curtailed mass immigration to the United States, Third Class was retrofitted as “Tourist Third Cabin”, offering a basic level of comfort at a low fare, allowing millions of Americans of modest means an affordable crossing for the first time.

Queen Mary 2 continues a tradition introduced on her predecessor Queen Elizabeth 2: all passengers, regardless of category, have the run of virtually all passenger areas on the ship; they simply dine separately. Passengers booking suites or mini-suites are considered “Grills” passengers, and they dine in the plush, single-seating Queen’s Grill or Princess Grill. They also have access to a dedicated Grills Lounge and outdoor Grills Terrace.

There were similarly no formal nights onboard ocean liners in the earlier parts of the century. (Queen Mary 2 has three formal nights during a weeklong crossing.) Aligned with the sartorial practices of the time, First Class passengers considered “formalwear” and eveningwear” to be synonymous.

It also wasn’t the custom to wear one’s finest clothes whilst onboard ship. First Class passengers of the age were accustomed to the rigors of the crossing—knowing full well that sea spray, funnel smoke and the wayward smoldering cinder could lay ruin to their fashion imports, they kept them safely packed away in their trunks.

Second Class was a more casual alternative, and frequently attracted passengers who could otherwise afford to travel First Class but wished to travel incognito or without mountains of luggage.

One tradition Cunard has kept up throughout the years is the ship’s choir. Comprised of passengers, there were daily rehearsals culminating in a performance in the Grand Lobby near the end of the voyage—a throwback to the scavenger hunts, talent variety shows, and other makeshift entertainments of earlier years when the ships dedicated far less onboard space to entertainment.

Queen Mary 2 today is built as an ocean liner with the amenities of a cruise ship, with theatre, cinema, onboard lectures, shops, bars, lounges, in-room televisions, bookshop, indoor/outdoor swimming pools and the largest library afloat. There’s even a specialty restaurant (an additional cover charge applies), which is a departure from Cunard’s practice.

The specialty restaurant was the hot onboard amenity at the turn of the century. The restaurant operated as a concession, and unlike the main dining room, its meals were not included in the fare (although on some lines passengers could apply to the purser for a modest rebate if they provided receipts that shown they had taken all their meals in the restaurant and not the dining room). Cunard (along with the French Line) generally eschewed this practice until the introduction of the original Queen Mary.

The seven-day crossing of the Queen Mary 2 is also a modern affectation. Liners had been making three and a half to four days by the 1930s; even the Queen Mary 2’s predecessor Queen Elizabeth 2 routinely crossed in less time, even though at the time of her launch the lion’s share of transatlantic traffic was already traveling by air.

The weeklong voyage length is designed for comfort and reliability; while Queen Mary 2 can make the crossing in much less time, a weeklong crossing leaves a margin for more comfortable speeds, particularly during inclement weather.

Another notable difference is the crew. Queen Mary 2 has a decidedly international crew complement, while earlier liners were primarily staffed by Britons who resided in or near Cunard’s British ports. Turnarounds between voyages that now take a few hours once required several days, and it was the custom for crews to sign on to each individual return crossing, while today’s crews live onboard for the duration of their contract period and return to their home country by air between contracts.

While the differences between the modern crossing and those of the past are numbered, the romantic allure of the Transatlantic crossing remains: the feeling of utter small-ness against the vast expanse of ocean and the same exciting promise of adventure that has drawn humans to cross oceans since they first dared to dream they could.

Accommodations were furnished by Cunard Line in preparation for this story.