This venerable shipping company, which bears a name that echoes its early days of Transatlantic travel, has a long maritime history. Words: Maggy Oehlbeck.

The name Cunard is the most famous in Transatlantic shipping history, denoting glamour, grandeur and romance. Most Australians know the reputation for excellence of ships such as Queen Mary, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth – and they know the Cunard livery: black hull, white superstructure, red funnel, sleek profile.

For more than 170 years, Cunard Line has captured the imagination of millions. Who can forget the day when Queen Mary 2 (QM2) made her inaugural visit to Australian shores? Thousands of spectators crowded every possible vantage point, bringing Sydney to a halt. There were similar scenes when Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) came to town. The much-loved liner made 24 visits to Australia during an illustrious 40-year career, before leaving the fleet in 2008 to make way for the new Queen Elizabeth.

An often-recounted story about Micky Arison, CEO of Carnival Corporation, has it that when sailing in to Halifax, Nova Scotia (Cunard’s original home port) aboard QE2, Arison observed crowds of people lining the shores, cheering, waving and honking car horns, and asked what the fuss was about. He was told, “The Queen has come to town”. From that moment, it is said, Arison gave his backing to one of the most ambitious shipbuilding projects ever contemplated: the greatest ocean liner the world had ever seen. The result was QM2 (2004), followed by Queen Victoria (2007) and Queen Elizabeth (2010).

In February 2011, Cunard again brings royalty to our doorstep. Australians will have a rare opportunity to cruise on the new Queen Elizabeth and flagship QM2. Guests can join Queen Elizabeth on the seven-night Sydney to Fremantle sector of her inaugural 103-day odyssey. Those wishing to experience the grandeur of QM2 can embark in Fremantle on February 17 for a five-night voyage, via Adelaide, to Sydney, where the two Queens will meet on Sydney Harbour this February 22.

When QM2 returns to the northern hemisphere, she will make more Transatlantic crossings than ever before, sailing 25 traditional voyages between New York and Southampton, 10 seven-night voyages and six new ‘Trans-Canada’ crossings that feature the spectacular scenery of Canada, as well as the Transatlantic voyage. In 2012, she will return to the Southern Hemisphere for her circumnavigation of Australia.

The genealogy of the Cunard Queens dates back to 1839, when Canadian businessman Samuel Cunard had visions of an ‘ocean railway’ across the North Atlantic. He won the tender to provide a safe and speedy mail service between Britain and North America. The company was called the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, or Cunard in the vernacular.

The first Atlantic crossing between Halifax and Liverpool was made by the paddle-steamer Britannia. The Halifax Recorder described the vessel as being “long and narrow and there seems to be a felicitous combination of grandeur, elegance, speed and durability in her construction and material”. Britannia carried 115 first-class passengers, 89 crew, 600 tons of coal, the Atlantic mail, chickens, a cow to provide fresh milk, and three cats.

Over the years, Cunard ships progressed from paddle-wheeler and sail to steam and then to diesel. There have been plenty of ‘firsts’ in Cunard history, including the introduction of green (starboard), red (portside) and white (masthead) signal lights (1848); a children’s playroom (1852); bathrooms (1870); refrigeration (1893); and wireless at sea (1901).

During the line’s 170 years, it has been involved in many historic events. In 1912, Carpathia answered the call of the ill-fated Titanic and rescued 720 survivors; in 1915 Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat, resulting in huge loss of life. Cunard carried more than one million troops in World War I, while Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth carried more than 1.5 million troops during World War II.

But just what is it like to sail on one of these queens of the seas? The holy grail for a true voyager is undeniably the classic crossing between Southampton and New York. Few travel experiences equal a Transatlantic voyage for nostalgia, romance and a generous dose of luxury. Many adore the spectacle of big seas and big skies from the comfort of a deckchair on the Promenade Deck. Others power-walk the deck, or retreat indoors to the library (Queen Elizabeth), the Canyon Ranch Spa (QM2), a favourite bar, or a classic afternoon tea with all the trimmings, including white-gloved attendants. Some choose to catch a fabulous live show and, of course, sample the fine cuisine. You don’t have to take a Transatlantic cruise to enjoy privileges such as these. They are available on all cruises on Cunard Queens.

On QM2, you can hardly ignore the vast mural of Samuel Cunard and his Britannia. The mural is the beginning of the largest permanent exhibition on an ocean liner, the ‘Maritime Quest’, which traces Cunard history through black-and-white photographs. This rogues’ gallery of film stars, diplomats, dukes and dogs (the Windsors are depicted with their dogs) is spread over several decks and will take you a few hours to view.

Queen Elizabeth is the second-largest Cunard liner ever built. Named after the first Queen Elizabeth, one of Cunard’s greatest ships, she retains much of the décor and style of her predecessor, including such activities of the era as country-house parties, Ivor Novello-type piano evenings, and dancing, from ballroom to jitterbug and jive.

The rendezvous of these magnificent Cunarders in Sydney Harbour has now become a tradition. When Queen Elizabeth and QM2 meet, the response du jour can only be “Long live the Queens”. (or call 13 24 41 for reservations within Australia.)