Hey Manhattan....

Hey Manhattan….

Today being September 11th, there seems no better day to recall one of the most perennially magical and awe inspiring experiences that any traveller by sea can ever experience.

The approach to Manhattan.

Long before the completion of the World Trade Centre in 1973, New York was a city as uniquely wedded to the sea as, say, Venice. Manhattan was, and still is, a cluster of stupendous, dreaming spires, rising from the Hudson River. A shimmering, symmetrical confection of glass, steel and concrete that clawed at the sky, but one whose feet were, inevitably, always wet.

It was this unique communion with the sea that gives Manhattan its dramatic, almost mystical stance. And the only way to approach it- to truly get it- was by ocean liner.

Let’s first put this into context; we all know that air travel is mass transportation in this day and age. The jets won on speed, as they were always going to do.

Every few seconds of the day, a commercial jet airliner comes in to land at one of the city’s three principal airports- JFK, Newark and La Guardia- from all over the globe. Except for the pilot and the flight controller on the ground, nobody bats an eyelid at the sight.

Inside, the passengers see nothing but the back of the seat in front of them. The only thing they feel is that uniquely unsettling sensation in their ears as the plane descends, and then that sudden, abrupt thump as screaming rubber connects with cold concrete.

Close enough almost to touch...

Close enough almost to touch…

But arriving by ship? Oh lord, how very, very different…..

How often I stood on the little bit of waist below the bridge of the QE2, shivering in the pale light of dawn as the great ship edged into the sudden stillness of the Hudson at the end of a five day, often storm tossed crossing from Europe. Stood there, with the adrenaline running like tap water. For this was the moment of theatre that nobody wanted to miss; the ceremonial procession into Manhattan.

First came the tips of the World Trade Centre; splintering the horizon like twin, skeletal fingers as the first rays of dawn ghosted across the blackened canvas of the sky. A few lights twinkled, shimmering on the ink black river; a river so still and silent that it could have been made of glass.

That first contact was like a sucker punch; hugely emotional, a deep intake of breath. Here was the culmination of an epic adventure; the arrival in the New World, as generations of our forebears experienced it.

And now, as if pushed from below the sea by some gigantic, unseen hand, the whole of Manhattan rose from the river to starboard, a ragged forest of gleaming spires, squat, hulking office buildings and, looming above it all, the unmistakable twin spires of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. A twin pair of global icons, their facades dusted a shade of blush red as the rising sun sluggishly heaved its way towards a sky so still and silent that it might have been some painted canvas.

To port, the Statue Of Liberty was now in view; a deceptive, diminutive waif clad in copper, torch held aloft. Patient, pale and perennial.

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

History is etched into every fold of her gown. On a warm , spring morning in April of 1912, the same great lady waited patiently for the Titanic to sweep proudly past her, making the same, age old procession as we now undertook. She is still waiting to this day.

Meanwhile, the magnificent vision of Manhattan is now so close as to be almost overwhelming. And we are no longer alone, either.

A trio of Moran tug boats are now riding shotgun on the QE2, like three respectful ladies in waiting. They are there to swing us into Pier 90 when the moment is right.

Now we can see cars, looking like madly animated beetles as they scurry along Twelfth Avenue, their headlights making them resemble tiny glow worms. And we can see lines of them, coming down the canyons that have opened up between the ranks of serried skyscrapers that now loom almost above us.

What strikes you most is the silence; though the deck is crowded, there is almost a sense of reverential awe, one not dissimilar to the feeling of entering some huge, impassive cathedral. And, in a sense, that is exactly what we have just done.

The sudden, exultant boom of the QE2 siren shatters that mood as completely as a brick thrown though a window. It’s a thrilling, spine tingling sound that touches something deep and intangible in the soul. It echoes like fading fog down those same, long canyons. They seem almost close enough to touch now.

Then comes that sudden, abrupt stop. A sharp intake of breath, and then the slow, ponderously elegant swing into Pier 90. After what seems like a lifetime, the matchless, elegant beauty of QE2 kisses the pier in Manhattan. Gangways are down, and we are once again physically tethered to what someone once aptly called ‘the hard, clear vigour of New York’. It was never better put.

Journey done. But we have not merely entered a city. We have arrived. And how.

Almost there...

Almost there…

With thanks to both QE2 and the great city of New York for such a series of priceless, immortal memories. And also with deep respect and remembering the victims in New York and elsewhere of the appalling events of September 11th, 2001.


Such a familar sight....

Such a familar sight….

A ship. An ocean. A state of mind. Queen Elizabeth 2 on the North Atlantic. Nothing else mattered…..

The sea is a rolling grey mess, flecked with viciously flailing whitecaps. Looking down from the windows of the Golden Lion (or the Theatre Bar if your memory goes that far back) there is a broad swathe of boiling white, foam streaked ocean stretching back as far as the eye can see. Venture outside, and the cold slaps you with an icy swipe as you stand out by the pool, watching the wake stretching back to infinity.

There’s the gentle shudder of the decks under your feet, and the subtle pitch and roll of a real ship on a purposeful voyage; a true crossing. In other words, pure magic.

In the post war era, Cunard maintained a two ship service on the New York express run with the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. The advent of jet aircraft from the late fifties onwards effectively put that service to the sword. The result was that Cunard decided that one ship in future would service the Atlantic crossing, as well as working as a hopefully lucrative cruise ship in the off season.

That ship, of course, was QE2. She was built partly as a floating resort, capable of offering worldwide luxury cruises through the autumn and winter. But, every year from April through December, she would eschew that, and return to the five day shuttle runs between Europe and America that were her true heritage. For many, the Atlantic was where the Queen really came into her own.

Her hull was very strongly built; a necessity when coping with the most notorious and unpredictable stretch of water in the world. And she had to be fast- far faster than on languid Caribbean cruises. On crossings, QE2 could- and frequently did- hit thirty-two knots without killing herself.

That might not sound like much, but let’s put it in context. Nobody would blink twice at the sight of a cab passing the Empire State Building at thirty miles an hour. But imagine the Empire State Building itself, somehow uprooted from its base and barrelling along at the same speed, and you get some idea of the scope and power of the QE2. She was built to be fast and strong, and she needed both of those attributes in dealing with the Atlantic.

She was an extraordinary lady, and she certainly knew it. A diva, draped in epic moods and capable of equally epic mood swings. For so many years she was out there alone, maintaining the famous Cunard standards on that ancient route as, one by one, her competitors fell by the wayside, or were diverted to full time cruise service.

That fabulous bow

That fabulous bow

Time always seemed to be against her. ‘How long can she last?’ was an almost constant refrain, even in the early eighties. And yet, twenty six years later, the Yacht Club on QE2 was still serving up the best chocolate martinis afloat. The old girl was a real fighter; a true daughter of the Clyde. There was real steel beneath that subtle, sophisticated exterior.

And if ever a ship had heart and soul, it was surely the QE2. You sensed it when you walked into the Midships Lobby as you boarded her. There was something that hung in the air like static electricity; a sensation as intangible as it was undeniable. Only the Norway- her soul mate in so many ways- had anything remotely like it.

The old girl seemed to truly relish being out on the Atlantic, where she could pitch, shudder and roll to her heart’s content. And boy, did she ever.

Don’t get me wrong; the QE2 was wonderful as a cruise ship, pretty much regardless of where she went to. But out on the Atlantic, it was as if her true essence was totally unleashed. That was where those great engines really got into their stride. No one who ever crossed on her will forget the sensation of sitting by a window and watching the grey, foam flecked Atlantic boling along, while the gentle vibration made the ice in your drink tinkle subtly in the glass. Of such memories are legends made.

In the eighties, there would always be a full band on the Southampton quayside to serenade her and her passengers away. To my dying day, I will always remember the band of the Royal Marines, playing christmas carols on the pier as we swung loose, bound for New York on a bitterly cold December night. The sounds floating across that widening gap between ship and shore were so poignant, echoing in that sharp, clear air, that most of the huddled masses on deck that night simply forgot the cold. Our collective breath hung like Channel fog in the freezing night air.

Swinging out into the channel, speed increased. First and last nights were always classed as ‘informal’ dress nights which, for men, meant jackets and ties, with smart trouser suits or skirts for the ladies. The first night of any crossing always crackled with anticipation of the adventure ahead.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

For the rest of the voyage, it was invariably black tie for the men, and cocktail dresses for the ladies. And in no other setting was the dress code so rigorously adhered to, or just so absolutely damned right. Seeing everyone in their evening finery set a tone that everything that followed merely enhanced, from the subtle lighting to the pre dinner cocktail music. The tinkling baby grand and, of course, the fabulous, formal dining experience itself.

And that food was sublime, from first to last. It was delivered silver service, as it should be, and it fed both the man and his sense of inner contentment at the same time. While no two people ever have the same take on food- and there were always at least a handful of professional, platinum chip moaners on every crossing- I remember the QE2 dining experience as one of the greatest celebrations of food and, indeed, life, that I am ever likely to experience. It made for a longer, more languid and involved experience but, being out on the Atlantic, it wasn’t as if we had to be in a hurry to get off and go somewhere the next day.

It was an epic adventure. You had time to get to know people. The library was vast, and many comfy hours were spent there, sprawled out on a sofa. Lost both in a book, and on an ocean. There was time to enjoy afternoon tea, and a pre dinner cocktail. There were enrichment lectures, dance classes, and a vast, expansive spa complex, located on the lower decks of the ship. And, like millions of Atlantic passengers before us, we amused ourselves with each others’ company, and had enormous fun in doing so.

You could effectively forget about time outdoors, unless you hit a lucky summertime crossing. Atlantic storms tend to travel in four day cycles, and you were almost guaranteed to hit one. In spring and early summer, icebergs still loom across the waters of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Fortunately, radar and ample lifeboats make these potential ship killers- the true ‘Great Whites’ of the ocean- that much less of an occupational hazard.

The Queens Room

The Queens Room

The Atlantic is no respecter of egos; the Titanic found that out. It can make a ship perform that kind of gymnastics that Olga Korbut could only have dreamed of. It took a particular form of psychopath to enjoy the crossing, and yet we came back, year after year. It was like being a member of a secretive, elusive kind of sect.

For this was our ocean, and our ship. 99.999 per cent of the travelling public flew across the Atlantic. Pah. We few, in turn, remained in helpless, eternal thrall to our great lady and she, in turn, returned the compliment. When you boarded the old girl in either Southampton or New York, it always felt as if she smiled at you. It was a totally symbiotic relationship, that’s for sure. She knew her own, and you felt it everywhere on board.

The nights passed by in a whirl. We had after dinner floorshows, piano players, and live bands. There was a popular, full scale casino, and a disco that could, with the right crowd, rock through until the early morning hours, and very often did. With everyone still in evening wear, those nights had a sense of fine style and fun that I still cherish even now. I miss them so much.

You could have breakfast in bed, while you read the news digest that was delivered with it. You could drag out lunch over two hours, or enjoy live jazz with your fish and chips. On westbound crossings, days were always twenty five hours long, to compensate for the time difference between Europe and America. It meant that you arrived in New York without jet lag, but with your baggage.

Those were languid, lazy days, and yet paradoxically, they passed at a truly blistering pace. And at journey’s end, as the fabulous Manhattan skyline splintered the early morning dawn, you knew beyond a shred of doubt that you had completed a truly epic journey.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Regret hung in the air at the end of every crossing like lingering Atlantic fog. The carnival was over. But all that did was to fire you up all over again, and make you more determined to get back on that giddy, rock and rolling fairground ride that we called ‘the crossing’. Once QE2 got her silken claws into you, she never let you go.

But, let’s face it. It’s not as if you really wanted to, anyway….


The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

It towers a full one hundred and two storeys above the midtown Manhattan skyline, and it’s graceful, tapering spire is instantly recognised the whole world over. Sleek, serene, and strikingly simple, it’s hard to believe that the Empire State Building is now entering its ninth decade of life.

It was originally commissioned at the outset of the Great Depression. Standing at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th street, the steel frame was erected in an amazing six month stretch. It was meant to rival the nearby Chrysler Building, the world’s first skyscraper to exceed a thousand feet in height. Both buildings have become icons of both the city and, more specifically, of the Art Deco era that typified both buildings.

Opened in 1931, the building stood a full 1,250 feet in height. An additional, two hundred foot high radio mast is atop this. At one time, it was intended as a mooring mast for passenger airships, but the fiery demise of the Hindenburg at nearby Lakehurst in May of 1937 put an end to any such lofty notions.

Designed by the building form of Starrett and Eken, it was derisively nicknamed the ‘Empty State Building’ in its early years, when there was a glut of vacant office space across Manhattan as a whole. To create the illusion of full occupancy, all its lights were left on at night. This fooled few, but it did illuminate just how beautiful the building was, especially when seen from inbound liners arriving in the Hudson.

3,400 workers toiled to complete the project on time for it’s official opening on May 1st, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover inaugurated it via a button pressed in Washington, D.C. But it was not until 1950 would the giant complex even begin to earn a profit.

In a chilling presage of future events, the Empire State Building was rocked when a lost B25 Mitchell bomber slammed into it in thick fog on the morning of July 28th, 1945. The plane impacted on the north side, between the 79th and 80th floors. Despite the fourteen fatalities, the fire was extinguished within forty minutes, and the damage was subsequently repaired.

Ironically, all the lights on the upper level had been extinguished at the time; pilots approaching Manhattan had been warning about the dangers of just such a possible crash for months.

The Empire State Building remained the ‘queen’ of the famous Manhattan skyline until  the 1973 debut of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre at the bottom of Battery Park. The destruction of 9/11 gave the building back it’s number one position by default; one it maintained until the new Freedom Tower came on the scene.

Today, the Empire State Building remains a must see in New York, and the views from the observation deck on the 84th floor are arguably the best across midtown Manhattan. It has become as much a symbol of New York as the Statue of Liberty, or even Broadway.


Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun...

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun…

Sixteen coaches of gleaming gunmetal shimmering in the summer Toronto sun, the Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered into life, and began to slowly roll out of the city’s Union Station. Sprawled out in a huge, business class seat, I watched idly as downtown Toronto’s glittering, glass and steel skyline rolled slowly past my window. It was 8.30 in the morning, and some hot coffee went part of the way to reviving me after what had been a late night out.

Having always been a fan of long distance train travel, I leapt at the chance to do this thirteen hour rail journey; a sampler that will, hopefully anticipate a much bigger, coast to coast adventure in a year or so. I was curious to try and get a handle on the pros and cons of travelling on the much maligned Amtrak network. And the price- even for a huge, spacious business class seat with a spectacular amount of legroom- beat out the cost of flying by a good way. So, not being in a hurry, this seemed as good a chance as any to try the Amtrak experience.

I made a couple of basic, elementary mistakes. Firstly, the Maple Leaf Explorer is a single decker train, unlike much of the coast to coast rolling stock. There would be no dinner in the diner, or anything remotely finer for that matter. In retrospect, I should have stocked up with edible goodies while in Toronto. Ah well, too late now. You’re off…

Once we arrived at Niagara, everybody had to dismount the train for customs and immigration formalities at the U.S. border. This was less tedious than a One Direction megamix playing on a loop, but not by enough to make you want to keep on living, It took a full three quarters of an hour. Back in my seat, I was ridiculously relieved to feel the Maple Leaf Explorer resume it’s rhythmic progress towards New York.

By now, my finely honed, Clouseau-like sense of intuition had perceived that there would be no at seat food and drink service; something unthinkable on any long distance train in Europe. So, like any intrepid explorer with a hunger for more than just adventure, I set forth in search of food.

Comfort with a capital 'C'

Comfort with a capital ‘C’

The buffet car was not hard to find. My first clue was a conga line of waiting people that was slightly longer than a Bosnian refugee column. It seemed to stretch back to infinity, and it moved forward with all the speed and enthusiasm of the condemned line at the foot of an overworked guillotine.

My impatience turned to pity when I eventually got my turn. There was one poor guy behind the counter- one- serving up micro waved food, plus hot and cold drinks, for the literally hundreds of people on this run.  He moved behind that counter like a whirling dervish; serving up slices of anorexic, piping hot, cardboard pizza and things that looked like they might once have been sausage rolls. Choices were thin on the ground, and even thinner when they emerged from being microwaved. I managed to grab some cold snacks, and the last two small miniatures of Sutter Creek Zinfandel on the train. Major sustenance would have to await my arrival in New York, several hours hence.

Fortunately, a feast of a far more satisfying kind was being served up, just outside my window.  The Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered, rattled and moaned its way through the heartlands of upstate New York,  speeding through a lush, green spread of slow, gently rolling hills and meadows, where small villages peeped almost shyly into sight, before disappearing in a smeary blur behind us.

The train rolled past small trailer parks, where children played on swings and in makeshift paddling pools. We thundered past one horse towns so quiet that even the horse was taking the day off.  Rivers came and went like drum rolls; some of them tinted an amazing rust brown by the slowly setting sun up above.

There were short, abrupt stops. Familiar names came and went. Albany. Buffalo. Names familiar from American folklore. Then on, into the clamouring embrace of the rolling emerald carpet that framed the views from my window.

The views en route were real, old world Americana

The views en route were real, old world Americana

There were old, abandoned industrial buildings, with brickwork still bearing the ghostly outlines of their trade in the form of weathered paintwork, scarred by decades of neglect and apathy. Sadness and pride seemed to be etched into every brick.

The Zinfandel had combined with the splendid, surreal scenery to lull me into a kind of languid, mellow stupor. And that train seat was wickedly comfortable; easily the most commodious and accommodating I had ever sat in. It really did put most airline business class seats to shame. The hours rolled by steadily, easily. And suddenly….

Out of the window, a jagged series of unmistakable buildings clawed abruptly at a flaring, purple twilight, their lights like the glow of a swarm of fireflies. Manhattan. Proud, beautiful, and never more alluring than at that special, magical hour of dusk. The Maple Leaf Explorer slowed to a crawl, grinding almost painfully forward, before it finally slid almost reluctantly into the floodlit, artificially lit embrace of Penn Station, and shuddered to a final halt.

Off the train, and the exhilaration of being in New York blew away the cobwebs and ennui as completely as if they had never existed. Within an hour, I had checked in to my hotel, found a nearby diner, and initiated a full frontal assault on a steak about the size of Saipan. Nothing- and I mean nothing- ever tasted so good. New York. Summer in the city. Now a new phase in the adventure could unravel.

Hey, Manhattan....

Hey, Manhattan….

It was a while before I could reflect objectively on that rail journey. I’m glad I did it, and it was a definite appetiser for the coast to coast trip I mentioned at the start. The trains making that run are huge, double decker juggernauts, with couchettes, sleeping cabins, scenic cars, and a full bar and diner service.  It’s the taste of another adventure; one yet to be savoured, from sea to shining sea.