QM2 Cruise: A Walk On The Decks With Bill Bryson
One of the joys of cruising is meeting people you're unlikely to come across in everyday life. Not just passengers but noteworthy speakers, too.
Classicists, archaeologists, military historians, botanists, art historians and theologians elevate itineraries on smaller ships, while larger lines such as P&O and Princess Cruises use celebrity chefs, broadcasters, authors and former politicians to entertain and mingle with passengers in circumstances that wouldn't arise ashore.
When else might you bump into Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Julian Lloyd Webber in the corridor, or cocktail bar – or celebrity author Bill Bryson on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as she sails out of New York.
I spotted the bearded and bespectacled author at the ship's champagne sailaway. On board this voyage from New York to Quebec to talk about his epic hike along the Appalachian Trail he, like us, was enjoying Manhattan's diminishing skyline; its tapering towers bathed in celestial autumn sunlight.
The cruise got off to an eventful start. Dining in the Princess Grill that evening, I'd just taken delivery of a gumbo prawn ceviche when a call went out for any card-carrying blood donors to make themselves known at reception.
Then came a late-night announcement: attempts were being made to airlift a passenger off the ship. The ship's social hostess (a tad bristly for someone with that title) remained tight-lipped when I asked next morning if the patient had made it to safety, but in the deck nine passenger laundry room one of the resident RADA performers broke off from her lines to say that a rescue by helicopter in rain and fog was attempted three times and almost abandoned, before a fourth, successful attempt.
Fall hues were high on my bucket list and the leitmotif fishing harbours, historic seaports and scarlet-tipped lighthouses that garland this stretch of Atlantic coast would all be "firsts".
At anchor in Newport, Rhode Island, my dad and I arrived at gangway level, to a bit of a hoo-ha. Here, passengers were queuing to board tender boats ashore.
Newport, once the principal anchorage for the Atlantic Fleet, doesn't so much showcase Gilded Age exuberance as yank her skirts up and flaunt it. The town's seaside mansions – the summer "cottages" of the Astors, Fords and Vanderbilts (the latter is dubbed the Downton of America) – and handsome historic centre, reek of old money. But the trophy find we stumbled on by accident was down by the wharf.
A former racing schooner and transatlantic race winner, the Coronet circumnavigated the globe as one of the first US-registered yachts to round Cape Horn. We found her magnificent skeletal hull at the International Yacht Restoration School – open to visitors, with viewing galleries to boot.
The Man Of The Cruise
Having arranged to meet Bryson for a drink the following evening, we swapped notes. He told us he used his time on board to disconnect, and work uninterrupted.
I recounted our adventures in Newport. Having eschewed the organised excursion, dad and I had embarked on our own voyeuristic clifftop walk, disregarding a sign 10 minutes in that warned that due to "essential maintenance" we should steer clear of the path skirting those iconic waterfront lawns. Dad was wary. "It's just a few displaced stones," I urged, stepping over some red tape.
Bryson was shocked at this civil disobedience. "They wouldn't have arrested you but they would have made you feel as small as they could," he scolded. I reminded him of a travel book I'd once read where the author (one B Bryson) set off for a stroll in Sydney and went "bush" for hours, trespassing across several private gardens as he desperately tried to find his way home.
"But I was being chased by a man-eating dog and was genuinely bloody terrified," he said.
While we were inciting the wrath of US officialdom, he'd probably been penning the first chapter of The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island, out next month.
Bryson would present three Insight Lectures during the cruise, each followed by a book signing. Fellow on-board speakers included White House speaker Colonel Stephen Bauer and former British diplomat Sir Alan Collins. I can't tell you if they got as many belly laughs as Bryson, but I'd wager they didn't.
Passengers packed the Royal Court Theatre for "A Walk in the Woods and other Misadventures". "It was the first time I could remember laughing out loud while reading a book," says producer Robert Redford, who bought the film rights and cast himself as protagonist in the eponymous film.
Bryson went on to describe the Appalachian Trail (AT), which stretches 3,508 arduous kilometres from Maine to Georgia, as "truly formidable". "Once you start it just doesn't let up. I've never been so cold and stiff and sore and filthy and wet and miserable and wretched and lost as I was on the Appalachian Trail," he said, in one breath. "And those were the good days."
He also described his time on a section of one of the world's longest continuously marked footpaths as: "inexpressibly wonderful". For someone with anorak-ish tendencies, he is, perhaps surprisingly, as entertaining at the lectern as he is on paper.
And so they came - from Solihull, Orlando, Newcastle, Nebraska and Preston - laden with books for him to sign.
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Bill: "Where's home for you?" Passenger: "Wolverhampton."
Bill: "You have the nicest Wolverhampton accent I have heard."
Passenger: "Just write it to Ellen, 21 years again, Vancouver."
Passenger: "All right, leftie? My dad rode in a chauffeured car with [Charles] Lindbergh."
Bill: "Well how about that?" "I've got some facts for you about 1927," proffered a man with a Geordie accent (Bryson's lecture also touched on the Bryson's bestseller One Summer: America 1927. "It was the last time Newcastle United won the league and it was the year Newkie Brown was first brewed."
"Well how about that?" said Bill, more enthusiastically than before.
Passenger: "Hey Bill - nice review in the Washington Post. My daughter would like you to go to Antarctica and write a book."
Passenger: "We're from Lancashire. Sorry."
Bill: "Don't apologise!" Passenger: "Can I shake your hand, sir? My dad has all of your books."
Handing him a copy of One Summer: America, 1927 a woman praised his "incredible research". Another asked: "Do you have any facts about Delaware?" "No, I'm afraid it's the great void in my life."
I was observing from a nearby reading table, with his wife, Cynthia. Passenger to Bryson's wife: "Is that your husband? Wow, I haven't been paying attention. I read about that book in The New York Times. I should line up too."
Time Enjoyed Whether On Board Or Ashore
Our time on board passed in a blur of Wedgwood china and Waterford crystal (The Grills dining experience), "bedtime" and "ghost stories" (nightly performances by RADA actors) and Cosmic Collisions (at the Planetarium). Dad gravitated to the lounge with its harpist, I to the extensive library, with its windows out to sea.
Ashore, we toured independently - on foot (St John; Halifax), by public transport (the Metro in Boston) or on bicycles (Bar Harbor, Maine). I liked the latter, immediately. "Welcome QM2 Passengers on your visit to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park," read the front page of the Mount Desert Islander.
If the "AT" is relatively unknown to British travellers, Acadia - which encompasses almost 20,234 hectares of mountain, forest and rock-bound shore - is equally unsung.
I asked the friendly assistant in Acadia Bike & Canoe if fall, conspicuous only by its absence, was likely to put in a show any time soon. The prognosis wasn't good. "Yeah, we're kinda bummed," she said. "We had a wet spring and some bad storms."
Win some; lose some.
Armed with the hire shop's handy map, dad and I cycled along Park Loop Road to join one of the park's car-free carriage roads (thanks, Mr Rockefeller), cycling as far as Eagle Lake along a wide, groomed and empty path that smelt curiously and deliciously of pine and toffee apple. Out there somewhere was Cadillac Mountain, the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard.
Our penultimate port of call, Halifax, brought the midnight-evacuation story to a fortunate conclusion. The evacuee, according to my seat neighbour at a watering hole on the wharf, had been airlifted to a hospital in the city where a Haligonian, whose blood group had matched that of the passenger, had saved the day.
On our final evening, we met the Brysons in the ship's Commodore Club. The following morning we would sail along the St Lawrence into Quebec. He told us about the time he was evacuated from Fiji when civil war broke out ("I was hauled up a chute by my belt like a sack of potatoes") and I showed him my photo of a solitary, spindly red tree, taken in St John.
"Leaf peeping is always a challenge, as it's so variable," he said. "If you are in a position to come at short notice, do so." Then, as he is wont to do, Bryson veered off topic to one of his current passions - the plight of the moose.
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This article was written by Teresa Machan from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.