There is no hope of taking a ship across the Atlantic. I must fly. I spend a few more days in London before my flight to New York, and am pleasantly surprised by the cruise company’s response to the fiasco.
High Street of Heathrow
For the first few days after the incident, I feel like the world is painted in gray scale. I’m shuttled from one drab business hotel to the next, all perfectly comfortable and undoubtedly expensive, yet with none of the character and excitement that I’ve grown accustomed to on my long journey. Cunard has provided Alan and me with an open tab for dining, so we take our meals at the hotel restaurants. It’s hardly a replacement for luxury cruise fare, but it fills our bellies. I use the hotel gym every day to blow off steam. These are the first hotels I’ve stayed at that are nice enough to even have gyms.
Alan and I explore the Heathrow neighbourhood on foot before his flight. There are lots of hotels, and not much else. Even the nearest movie theatre is many kilometers away. We find High Street, which is the usual name in UK towns for the street with shops and restaurants. There are a few convenience stores, an appliance repair shop, and an ill-looking pub, but nothing that warrants a closer look. There’s nowhere else to walk to, so we return to the hotel and surf the net.
Alan flies out the same afternoon. Upon hearing his story, the British Airways agent instantly upgrades him to business class—a nice surprise. I, on the other hand, move to a hotel in central London to await my fate.
London in Limbo
I spend the next two days in London, trying to figure out what to do next. Cunard has put me up in a hotel near Hyde Park, a part of the city I have never seen, so at least I have tourism as a distraction. I spend my first evening wandering through the 625-acre park, taking in the peaceful gardens and monumental statuary. Cheerful people relax in the open fields, and cyclists peddle along the paths as they commute home from work. Kensington Palace, the famous childhood home of Queen Victoria and, much later, the adult home of Princess Diana, stands at one end of the park. The oblong pond known as The Serpentine divides the park through the middle, offering refuge for geese and ducks.
The following day I take a trip out to Hampton Court, the magnificent royal palace first used by the Tudor king Henry VIII, and subsequently by such infamous monarchs as Elizabeth I and William of Orange, among others. Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public, and ever since it has been a magnificent attraction open to everyone, great and low.
There are many things to see in the palace—too many for one day. This is especially true this year, the 500-year anniversary of its construction. While I’m taking a rest in Henry VIII’s great dining hall, I am surprised to hear human voices in song heading towards me. A half-dozen courtiers, all in splendid dress, walk slowly through the room, singing a beautiful period song. It’s one of the many small theatrical performances that take place periodically throughout the palace. They create a rich, immersive experience, and guests are encouraged to gather around and experience them as if truly present. In these very halls, Henry VIII’s wife Jane Seymour gave birth to his first male heir, and then she promptly died of complications from childbirth. In the nearby council chambers, I witness a very tense and personal encounter between Elizabeth I and Sir James Melville, envoy from Scotland, focused on the qualities of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
I tour as much of Hampton Court as I can in one day. The kitchens are particularly interesting, as they detail the enormous logistical challenge of providing hot, decadent meals to hundreds of royals, courtiers, and other important people each day. To make it feel more real, a man in costume roasts meat over a fire, and loaves of fresh bread are stacked on a table in one corner. The authorities even went so far as to commission an 800-piece set of pewter tableware, which presently sits in racks in the storeroom, just as it would have for the Tudors 500 years ago.
I leave Hampton Court with a much better perspective of my own current difficulties. Kitchen servants could go a lifetime without ever seeing the grand halls they serviced, barely 50 meters away. Wives were beheaded for not producing sons, sons were disowned for not being to the queens’ taste, queens and servants alike suffered from terrible infections and ailments, today easily cured. Almost nobody traveled anywhere at all.
Am I still upset about what happened? Sure I am. But it’s time to stop disasterbating and get on with the trip, now that I’ve been awakened to the blessing that my life is richer that that of a king.
That afternoon, I receive a final phone call from Cunard to discuss what they can do for me. Besides a full refund, they offer me a business class flight to New York, as well as accommodation and meals in Manhattan until the day the ship was supposed to arrive. I think this is quite fair—it gets me to my intended destination and allows me to spend a few extra days sightseeing, all at no cost to me. But it is what they tell me next that makes me realize what good customer service is all about (and I paraphrase):
“We’ve read your blog, and we are truly sorry that you are now unable to fulfill your goal of traveling around the world without using an airplane. We are particularly sorry that you didn’t get to experience the luxury of the Queen Mary 2, and the historic context relevant to your journey.”
An apology: always good. She continues:
“We would like to offer you a complementary transatlantic crossing for you and a guest, so that you can complete the final segment of your around-the-world trip at a later date.”
Truly? I’m impressed. Such compensation—business-class flight, city hotels, free cruise for two—is undoubtedly costly, and it tells me that Cunard really does care about my life-long dream to circumnavigate the world without using an airplane. I will never be able to claim that I did it all in one go. But in a year or two, when I can find the time, I will have a second chance to board the Queen Mary 2 at Southampton and sail to America, and thus achieve symbolic completion of my journey.