Narrated Audio Blog
Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.
After nearly two years of exploring the America's, it was time to move on. We hadn't seen everything by a long shot but there was more of the world to see. So we needed to get two people, two dogs and two bikes from the US to somewhere, anywhere in Europe.
We'd dreamed of taking the Cunard's Queen Mary II (QM2) cruise ship across the Atlantic since we first heard about it. We were already a fan of cruises having first experienced one for our honeymoon and then sailing on two others, each one just as good as the previous. Being dog lovers we were quick to research if dogs were ever welcome aboard but it was limited to just one ship on one particular transit, the QM2 from New York direct to Southampton (and occasionally on to Hamburg).
The QM2 had 12 kennels on board and availability was competitive. We booked Weeti in 12 months in advance as was suggested on Cunard's official website, but even then it was too late and we were placed on a waiting list. Luckily it didn't take long to be allocated a place. Then when we picked up Shadow in Colombia we quickly got ourselves on the waiting list again but were sure we'd miss out and have to fly her separately. Again an allocation came up this time within weeks. We never found out why the cancellations were made but would suggest to anyone interested to persist.
It was interesting to note that the passenger luggage allowance was unlimited provided each piece was no more than 20kg. We seriously considered breaking the bikes down into 20kg sections and taking them with us, but we assumed this would probably end badly and the bikes would be stuck in the US. The next best option was to send them in a container with Schumacher Cargo Logistics which turned out to be a seamless process (see blog here). Hopefully getting the dogs ready for the QM2 would be as easy.
Cunard runs a very professional kennel program. They step you through the hoops required to get your dog ready for entry into the UK and will not let you board unless everything is in order, this is to avoid stressful and unnecessary quarantining on arrival. The requirements for a cat or dog to enter the UK from the US mainland are as follows:
We needed to be able to answer 'yes' to all these in order to be allowed aboard. The only exception to the rule (the above list) for the cruise is that arrival on board the ship is considered arrival on UK territory. This means that the Tapeworm must be administered 24 hours to 5 days before boarding the ship. Cunard's kept in close contact with each pet owner to ensure each of the above requirements were fulfilled i.e. they held our hand throughout the whole process so no mistakes were made. Most of these requirements we had already met, dropping in to various veterinary clinics while travelling around the US. But still the days leading up to the cruise were very busy as Janell was back and forth between local vet and State vet to get the Tapeworm treatment and obtain the Official Veterinary Health Certificate (9 page document that can have no errors or omissions). At this point in time we didn't have the EU Pets Passport which would have made the process so much easier.
We spent Christmas and New Years with Leah and Jim in upstate New York. They very kindly offered to drive us and our luggage to the Ferry terminal and see us off. It was about a two hour drive and we kicked off the road trip with some delicious local coffees. Both Janell's cousins in the US had become so important to us, Kim in San Diego and Leah and Jim in New York. Realising that we were really leaving this time and not knowing when we would see them again made the trip quite emotional. Unfortunately the ferry terminal wasn't well set up for emotional farewells, it was fairly quick. So quick in fact that we forgot to take the girls for a walk before checking in.
We were allocated a boarding time to keep things civil. A staff member met us as soon as we entered the terminal and our paperwork was checked against each of the girls microchips. Everything was in order so we proceeded to check in our bags. Shortly after we were introduced to the Kennel Master who escorted us to the kennels where the girls would spend the next 7 nights. We assumed we'd be taken through a service route but no, Weeti and Shadow received the royal treatment entering with all the other passengers, being ferried along red carpets and up the guest elevators to deck 12 where the kennels were located. As soon as we stepped out of the elevator Shadow disgraced herself by pooping on the lovely red carpet in the lobby. Janell was mortified but the Kennel Master didn't batter an eyelid, rather simply pulled a rubber glove out of his pocket, picked it up and placed a coaster over the spot. He then radioed for someone to come and clean the carpet. Exactly the kind of professionalism and discretion you'd expect on a cruise ship bearing the name of a monarch.
The kennels were not quite the luxury pet accommodation we had expected. But we were assured that at the next refit the kennels were being fully renovated with an increase in capacity and a larger play area. We wouldn't benefit from this but were pleased that dogs on future voyages would.
We booked two of the small kennels, ours were side by side and they had a separator between which had been removed, so our girls were essentially in the one big kennel. This was perfect for us as they had each other the whole time but if we had asked they would certainly have put the separator back in place.
The Kennel Master took care of all feeding and medications. Prior to boarding all owners were emailed an extensive menu of different dog foods to pick from but if you had a specific request they would do their best to order it for you or find something very similar. As for medications, that was the responsibility of the owner to provide along with the instructions for when and how much to give.
The Kennel Master would arrive beforehand and have all the dogs out of their kennels waiting for their owners. Owners could only visit the kennels within set visitor times. These were as follows:
It was January in the North Atlantic and the walk to the kennels was via an external door accessible only after crossing a 20m stretch of open deck where the temperature was below freezing. To make things worse, there was also no ducted heating within the kennels. However, the Kennel Master placed portable heaters throughout and blankets were made available in the seating area so everyone was comfortable. Still, no one ventured up to the kennels without a heavy jacket, gloves and beanie. Although not ideal the issues were known and being addressed and it was expected that the kennels would be far more pleasant after the refit.
We never missed a visit, we couldn't because every time we arrived at the outdoor entrance gate on the deck Shadow would be waiting. She was the only dog standing out in the cold, windy, wet and often dark conditions waiting for her mummy to arrive. Weeti on the other hand would be guarding the food pile just in case. All dogs had to venture outside at some point to use the loo, a small patch of synthetic grass placed on the deck and a dummy fire hydrant. All poops and wee's were quickly attended to by the Kennel Master.
On arrival to our room, we found a bottle of champagne and two glasses with a note saying 'with the captains compliments'. We had a basic interior cabin, which was perfectly sufficient, we didn't intend on spending too much time there anyway. Dress on board was very formal, during the informal days men were still required to wear a shirt and trousers but could relax the tie and on formal nights it was black tie. Not really the kind of clothes adventure riders carry in their panniers. Stu had picked up a few items of clothing from consignment shops in California and borrowed from Janell's family prior to boarding but he was still missing a few small items including trousers and a bow tie. Luckily these items could be hired on board. As for ladies formal wear, well we just had to be prepared. Janell was also able to borrow a few dresses and so she had no trouble looking the part.
Outside of the kennel visiting ours we participated in a healthy balance on board activities. We frequented the gym, attended the pub quiz, watched the various shows and went to any activity that offered free drinks. The jewellery shop had a promotion where free champagne was offered for guests willing to view their merchandise and of course we were willing to walk through and have a look even though we certainly weren't in the position to buy. Janell prefers motorbikes to diamonds any day.
Another function that offered free drinks was the captain's cocktail party. We got dressed up and headed to the ballroom. We shook hands with the captain as we walked in and a waiter quickly attended to us to make sure we had a drink in our hands. We didn't know anyone else and so from fear of being stuck talking to Stu for the duration of the event Janell quickly got talking to a nearby couple who also seemed to be in attendance alone. Tony and Lynda were seasoned travellers on Cunard ships and great company at the cocktail party. Tony was a retired Aeronautical Engineer and fascinated to learn that we were both engineers. Lynda was a nurse who had recently sold her laser treatment clinic and getting used to the idea of retirement. Tony had wanted to speak to the ships engineering officer and learning that Stu was an ex-Naval Engineering Officer had the perfect excuse to bring him over. We learnt all about the ship's propulsion system which consisted of 21.5MW electric pods capable of 360˚ manoeuvering.
During our conversations with Tony and Lynda they invited us to stay on their farm with them while in the UK. They insisted that staying for a few months and using it as a base to see the country would be mutually beneficial as they were often away and needed someone to watch their property. We actually had no plans for what we'd do once we arrived in England and so were very grateful for this offer. We explained that our bikes were on route from the US and would take a while and once they arrived would need a bit of work before we would be ready to continue our travels and that we had intended to use this time to find jobs to make some money. We said this could be for as long as 6 months but they didn't mind the timeframe.
We thought it was a lovely offer but didn't think it would eventuate. Towards the end of the cruise Tony found us at dinner and assured us that it was not just a passing comment and wanted to meet for a drink to discuss further. So the evening before we disembarked we met in one of the bars and got to know each other a little better. It just so happened that it was both Janell and Lynda's birthday that night. We had bought a bottle of wine and didn't want to make a fuss but somehow it all came out in conversation. Both Janell and Lynda had received birthday cakes at the same evening dinner sitting with staff celebratory singing but just not realised who the other was for. Anyway, we were all comfortable chatting away and made plans for us to move in within two weeks. We've said it before but It really is amazing the people you meet while travelling especially when you put yourself out there.
We arrived in Southampton early in the morning. Our baggage had been collected through the night and we just had to make our way to the kennels to collect Weeti and Shadow and then walk down to the terminal and baggage claim. The Kennel Master asked if anyone wanted to take any of the remaining dog food, it would otherwise be thrown out as the next trip was a three month world voyage where the kennels would be used for storage only and the space was needed. There was a huge amount of food, both wet and dry in every variety. Some of the other passengers took a few cans or a small bag but not us, we took as much as we could carry, trays of canned food and the biggest bags of the dry stuff. To our distress there was still plenty left to be thrown out. We really didn't understand why it couldn't be saved for a later voyage but weren't complaining.
We had a slight hiccup at baggage claim. Our bag wasn't there. It wasn't a hugely complicated system, cabins were divided into colour groups and given tags to match and place on their luggage before it was collected. Then at baggage claim the luggage was waiting separated into their zones. But there are only so many colours, so although the number of bags we had to search through was reduced it was still a large number and because our bag wasn't where it should have been we needed to search through all the remaining sections. As the hall started to empty it became obvious that our bag was not there. We did find a very similar bag and could only assume the owner of that bag had taken ours. Cunard's staff took our details and promised to contact us when they found the bag. Later that day we got a phone call telling us the bag had been located and they would drop it off to us anywhere in the country. We were still nearby and so received it that evening and we not at all put out but rather happy with the quick response.
We would recommend the QM2 any day. In terms of cost it was comparable to flying the route with dogs and so much more pleasant. Hopefully one day we'll be able to do it again. Until then, our adventures in Europe were about to commence.
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