I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Europe in 1991, one combining both extremes of transportation; The QEII and the Concorde. Actually the trip would involve many forms of transportation including the infamous taxicabs in London, a rental car and the Boat Train.
It was September, and we had booked the luxury trip of a lifetime, crossing the Atlantic by flight on the Concorde from New York to London, then back again aboard the QEII. The excitement for us had been building for months, as we planned our trip.
All told we planned for a month away on the Continent. For one fare we were given the flight on the Concorde (at an amazingly low add-on price of $200 per person because we would be taking the QEII in the opposite direction), a week’s stay (including a welcome cocktail party) at the Ritz Hotel in London, the Boat Train ticket and the Transatlantic crossing home in First Class aboard the QEII. In-between the flight and the cruise home we would be renting a car and driving to the French Riviera.
We flew to New York the day before the Concorde flight, and stayed at The Plaza Hotel. We wanted to make sure there would be plenty of time, in case of some unforeseen snafu with our flight from LA. No such thing happened, luckily. We checked in and marveled at how small the hotel room was. And noisy. Beautifully decorated, but still so small. Oh well, it was only for one night, so we went downstairs and had a drink at the Oak Bar.
Bright and early the next morning we were on our way to the airport. Once there we were directed to the British Airline Terminal and the special check-in for the Concorde. Everything was so different than when you fly a normal airplane; a lovely lounge only for passengers of the Concorde was set up with a breakfast bar, fresh squeezed juice and a wide choice of fresh pastries, breads, jams, cheeses and hot coffee or tea. As I remember, we both only had fresh juice and coffee. The glass terminal revealed the Concorde parked just outside and one by one as people took notice they made their way to the closest window to ooh and ahhh over the sleek form, and note, with amazement just how small it was (granted it held only about 100 people) still, the idea of us flying at supersonic speed in this little “toy” plane across the Atlantic in something like three and a half hours was thrilling.
The view from the lounge.
Soon we were on our way, little packets of Concorde stationary, leather luggage tags, and a pen were tucked into the compartments in the seat backs and we were told to buckle up and get ready for take-off. The force of the engines as full thrust lifted us up quickly, almost in a vertical line until we reached the altitude for cruising. No sooner had the plane straightened out than the hostesses began passing out Mimosas or any other cocktail you wanted. Along with it were canapés, all on real china set down on a small tablecloth on each of our tray tables. What followed was a five-course meal, during which time the Captain announced we had reached the incredible speed of Mach II. Applause rang out as we could see the speed on a red-lighted board on the cabin wall.
It seemed like we had barely finished our meal when the Captain announced we were on our decent to London. By then we had gotten acquainted with two other couples who would also be going back on the QEII, and staying at the Ritz.
I have to say my husband seemed to be affected much more than I was by the quick time change in two days, eight hours. I was far too excited and up each morning raring to go. He slept nearly twenty-four hours straight, while I explored the hotel and surrounding Picadilly.
Our hotel suite at the Ritz
Finally he felt rested and hired a car and driver to take us into the countryside for some sightseeing. We had been to London before, but since he had broken his ankle on the first night of our first trip, we saw nothing but Big Ben through our hotel room, and hospitals. This time we would get to take advantage of our week there. We loved the countryside and our driver took us to a small, charming castle called Hever Castle. Everything was in smaller scale than most. It was the second childhood home to Ann Boylen,
Hever Castle as seen by us.
After our week there we left a large suitcase containing our formalwear with the concierge, saying we would be back to stay with them after our driving trip, and off we went.
It was a glorious drive, we stopped where we wanted to, and found accommodations to be easily gotten along the way. We had reserved rooms in Cannes, and of course in Monte Carlo, but besides those we stopped in out of the way spots.
Awaiting a Nicoise Salad on the French Riviera
I will admit I was ready when our two weeks were up, eager to return to the Ritz for another two nights before taking the boat train to the Queen Elizabeth II. The day before we left the Ritz my husband and I decided we must have the formal Tea at the Ritz, so we dressed appropriately, I remember wearing a silver-grey St. John knit suit, matching pumps and bag, and off white tinted stockings with pearls and entered the beautiful room full of mostly English people celebrating birthdays or other occasions. It was expensive even then, so you knew how special it was. As we sat there and I tried to figure out all of the finger sandwiches and various scones, clotted cream and jams a very proper looking gentleman came over to our table; “Excuse me, but I wanted to say how lovely your wife looks. It is so refreshing to see an American woman dressing properly.” He made my day.
The next morning we had our breakfast and as my husband made preparations for the luggage and a cab to take us to the train station, we noticed some commotion and just entering the hotel was Benjamin Netanyahu. He smiled, nodded and said “Hello” as though he knew us. He did not, but I can say it made my husband’s day.
Finally we arrived at the train station and were aboard the train to Southampton to begin our grand voyage.
My husband on the boat train.
The British still employ the “class system” aboard their ships, and because this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip we wanted a cabin allowing us access to anywhere on the ship. Only three type rooms would afford us this opportunity and we chose a B cabin, the lowest end of the upper class.
Boarding the QEII literally took my breath away. I had no idea a ship could embody such luxury. There were white gloved attendants standing around with trays of champagne, smiling and eager to thrust one into an empty hand. Another attendant asked for our cabin number and asked us to follow him, he would get us there.
On the upper deck
Our cabin was spacious, and the bathroom had a marble sink, a huge mirror hung over it, and it was equipped with a shower/tub and a toilet. More than adequate, more than I had expected. The only other ship I had made a crossing on was from Athens, Greece to NY in the winter of 1958 aboard the USS Excaliber. It was decidedly not a luxury liner.
We settled into our cabin quickly, it was a five night crossing, and the first and last night were casual attire, but the three in the middle were all formal or semi-formal. Our dining room would be the Queens Grill, along with the other First Class passengers. It also had it’s own cocktail lounge, where we would arrive a half an hour before our single-seating eight o’clock dinnertime. There we could survey the other passengers we would be dining with. For someone like me who was unaccustomed to such treatment, this was a scene out of a movie; designer ball gowns, jewels that were not fake, and an air of sophistication that seemed palpable, if not comfortable to me.
Once escorted to our table we were delighted to find the two other couples we had met aboard the Concorde were seated at our table. They were a couple from Dallas, and the others from back East. We came to know the man from back East as "Lucky", he had survived three plane crashes!
Each night we all would order Caviar, and we each received a full oz. with seconds available. I had never experienced this sort of decadence, and have not since. Their American company and sense of humor was welcome, and it seemed our table, out of all of them, laughed and enjoyed ourselves far past the hour most left. We did not see one show!
Our dinner table, Lucky was the man seated.
On night number two was the Captain’s Dinner and we received an invitation to his cocktail party beforehand. I was so excited. Because it was a formal night I looked forward to wearing my designer black lace dress, the one I had chosen at the Holly Harp boutique on Sunset Strip. I even had black lace shoes to wear with it. To get ready I sat on the floor using the coffee table to hold my makeup mirror, all so I could watch the wonderful documentary about the Titanic and her survivors. I was enthralled. While my husband dressed he asked, “Do you hear water running?”
“I do.” I got up to go see what he had left on in the bathroom. I found nothing. “Honey, it sounds like the neighbor’s shower is on.” And with that I went back to finish dressing.
When it was time to go I opened our cabin door and my eyes widened as fear and panic struck me...water was gushing down from the ceiling of the hallway, cabin stewards were running, water came rushing into our cabin, and I could feel it running through my new lace shoes. I slammed the door shut and ran to the bed grabbing a bedspread to shove under the door to stop the water. I followed it with towels I scooped from the bath. We stared at each other, both of us thinking seriously of a scenario not unlike the documentary we had been so engrossed in only moments previously.
Where I envisioned myself in a black gown that night.
The phone rang. “Hello.” My husband answered. “Yes...uh-huh, okay. Thank you.”
Apparently we would not be drowning this night or forced into the freezing night waters, it was merely a water pipe which had burst on our floor, and it would be about 45 more minutes until we could escape...uh...leave our cabin. We missed the Captain’s cocktail party, but had a wonderful story to tell at dinner, complete with my now squishing shoes. When we returned to the cabin we found a small plate with a sliced apple and a note saying, “Please accept our apology for the inconvenience.” That was it? We both thought this was the most disappointing aspect of the entire trip.
The sea was rough, but we moved along at quite a clip, and soon enough it was time to rise so we could watch as we pulled into NY Harbor at sunrise and catch sight of the Statue of Liberty.
Approaching The Lady
It was a moving sight for all aboard, and I noticed more than a few wet eyes. When we disembarked we took a cab to the Hotel Pierre for an additional three days. At the check-in I stood behind Karl Lagerfield, seeing his graying, impeccable ponytail and thought with a chuckle...yes, we have arrived.