The open sea.

The open sea has long signified freedom — and modern cruise ships embrace that sense of liberation.

In light of the Covid-19 situation, the recommendations and activities mentioned in this article are for the purpose of possible future cruise holidays. Please always refer to local government health advisories for travel.

For much of human history, the ocean was a fearsome place and sea voyages were a danger to be avoided. Sailing did not become a sport until Charles II popularised yachting in the 17th century. Even the craft that helped young aristocrats enjoy the “grand tour” of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were dark, cramped and basic.

The idea of taking a voyage for the journey as well as the destination remained alien until the 19th century. “The first purpose-built cruise ship was a ship called St. Sunniva,” explains Australian maritime historian Chris Frame. “She was built in 1887, right at the dawn of passenger shipping. And what really sets her apart is that she was built to offer pleasure voyages, rather than line voyages.”

While small and cramped compared to modern-day cruise ships — the St. Sunniva was around one-fifth as long as Cunard’s Queen Mary 2— the ship captured the public imagination. “She was a topic of interest when she used to pull into ports,” Frame explains. “There are historical photographs with crowds of people standing there watching this ship, these people who were travelling for fun. Because for most people at the time, the question was: ‘Why would anybody do that? We’ve just had to go through rough seas and storms to immigrate.’”

In the aftermath of World War I, ocean liners began to offer a tourist class. Then, in the 1950s, a new generation of spacious, purpose-built cruise ships appeared. “Cunard used the phrase ‘Getting there is half the fun!’” says Frame.

“Ships like Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth came into their own with shopping promenades and cinemas, and basically passengers never looked back.” - Chris Frame

A sense of space.

For all its historic dangers, the open sea has long been associated with freedom. For centuries, young men would run away to sea to discover the world. During the 19th century, poems and songs celebrated the sheer liberation of heading out into the blue, while popular artists depicted seafarers free atop the ocean wave.

And the idea of sailing to freedom struck a chord in countries with a history of migration. “Cruising tapped into this image of romance and freedom and letting go,” says Frame. “Many people have a heritage that dates back to travelling over the ocean to a new life, to a new world, to discover something new. And it just clicked.”

The design and architecture of contemporary cruise ships is tailored to capture that feeling of liberation. “The Cunard ships have wide open spaces on the decks,” says Frame. “The high ceilings give a sense of airiness. The dining rooms on all three ships are multi-storey and that’s a signature space. When you walk into the ship, all three have this grand lobby that’s on multiple levels but not cluttered.”

Wide open decks, large windows, balconies and sweeping ocean views combine to create a sense of space and connection to the sea. “From the very moment you walk on board, you feel like the confines of land living and city living have been removed and you’ve got more freedom, more space,” Frame says. “The ship itself helps to facilitate that.”

To free the mind.

It’s small wonder, given the deep emotional connection the ocean sparks, that many experienced cruisers find sea days a highlight of their journey. Even in port, Cunard ships offer a wealth of activities and food and drink options. But, at sea, the experience really comes into its own, with activities from fencing to flower arranging to informative lectures.

“Cruising has the added bonus of bringing one to the proverbial ‘middle of nowhere’,” notes travel writer Carole Rosenblat, owner of Drop Me Anywhere tours for women. “Looking out onto nothing but water allows you to hand over control: you can’t drive anywhere and you have nowhere you need to be. This allows you to do things you wouldn’t normally do at home.”

On voyages with long periods on the open ocean, such as the Transatlantic Crossing, a sense of camaraderie builds. “Multiple sea days one after another change the dynamics on the ship, and it really does become a world unto its own,” says Frame. “It’s away from the normality of life on land and so the ship itself becomes the hub, the home, the world — and people really relax into this experience of ship life.”

With that relaxation comes an increased openness, a social liberation. “People meet new people. They start to mingle more, they start to communicate better,” says Frame. “People have more stories to tell about their experience at dinner and the conversations flow and the whole thing just starts to buzz.”

It’s not a vision of the sea that the early migrants to Australia could have envisaged. Yet it’s a direct line to the “life on the ocean wave” 19th-century poets celebrated — and one that’s still relevant in our 21st-century world.

This article was produced for Cunard by BBC StoryWorks, the commercial content division of BBC Global News.

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