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Geek overboard: Crossing the Atlantic on an old-school ship

CNET's Amanda Kooser relives the long-ago days of luxury ocean liner travel aboard the modern Queen Victoria, where white gloves meet Wi-Fi.

Queen Victoria funnel
Queen Victoria's funnel is painted in Cunard red and black. Amanda Kooser/CNET

During the past week, I: Checked out a mystery from a library. Soaked in a hot tub. Sipped afternoon tea delivered by white-gloved waiters. Drank a pint at the pub. Attended a lecture on the history of manned space flight. Learned the basics of foil fencing. And I did it all in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

I was on a floating anachronism, crossing the northern Atlantic on Cunard's Queen Victoria, a ship full of nearly 3,000 people, a city at sea. Don't call it a boat. Don't call it a cruise. Queen Victoria has wood bannisters, a three-story grand lobby, a two-story library, a line of shops, a casino and a large theater stocked with singers, dancers, musicians and a fascinating lineup of lecturers, including a space expert and a former UK policeman who once handled bodyguard duties for members of the royal family.

There are no wet T-shirt contests or yard-long daiquiris here. You dress up for dinner every night. An orchestra plays in a massive ballroom. Housekeeping makes up your bed twice a day.

Fencing duel
I took a stab at fencing on the Queen Victoria. Amanda Kooser/CNET

I'm in my late 30s, making me one of the younger people onboard a ship with a population made up mostly of UK and American travelers. It's part of the Cunard line, which this year is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Samuel Cunard, its founder, pioneered transatlantic passenger travel when he launched the Britannia from Britain to the US in 1840.

While Queen Victoria (first launched in 2007) is a purposeful throwback to the golden age of ocean liner travel (which hit its heyday in the early-to-mid 1900s with famous ships like Cunard's Mauretania and White Star Line's Titanic), it makes plenty of concessions to modernity. The toilets flush with a roaring vacuum suction sound. It runs under diesel-electric power with six engines. A video system in the galley allows the head chef to monitor the various kitchen stations.

There is Wi-Fi everywhere with Aruba hotspots on the ceilings, but it's nowhere near land speeds. The satellite connection runs about as fast as honey pouring from a jar. And that's on a good day. Sometimes the connection is too slow to be functional, a victim of a heavy user load or bad weather. Even at sea, everyone still wants to update their Facebook status.

The Internet is precious on the ocean. It costs 75 cents per minute, or bundled packages can be bought to save money. My stash of 240 minutes cost around $90 (about £59, AU$115). This constraint completely changes the way I function online. I don't spend frivolous minutes reading sports news or scrolling through all my friends' Facebook updates. I'm like a dagger. I strike quickly, uploading photos and answering emails with short replies, and then I log off to conserve my time.

Of course, this is assuming the Internet is actually functioning at any given moment. Mostly I'm paying to watch the loading circle spin around and around, only occasionally delivering a functioning website.

I spent one whole day off the Internet. I didn't check my email. I didn't look at Facebook. I didn't pop onto Twitter for a quick missive. That was probably the first day in a decade when I haven't been online at all. It felt freeing, like I was in tune with my voyage, a truer traveler back in time.

I took the ship to England for vacation because I'm fascinated with the history of travel (part one of this trip involved days on an Amtrak train) and how people got around before airplanes existed. They got around slowly. This particular transatlantic on the Queen Victoria involves eight nights at sea. We move at around 19 knots in speed, surrounded by the vast wavering blue of the ocean.

I saw a total of two freighter ships out the window during this time. A voyage like this impresses on you just how vast the spans of water that soak our globe are. But just when you think the ocean is emptiness, you see a pod of dolphins dipping out of the water, backs curved darkly against the white-tipped waves.

There are countless lectures, classical guitar performances, pub quizzes, dance lessons, movies and whiskey-tasting classes to keep me entertained onboard, but my favorite place on the ship is on deck 3, in the very back, looking down over the railing into the roiling path of water in our wake.

Here, the ship and the ocean meld with the sound of thunder, a roar of blue and foam. I don't think about the hundreds of emails waiting in my inbox. I don't contemplate my next Facebook update. It's just me, the sea, and 175 years of transportation history meeting in an azure moment beyond time.