The buzz around the cruise industry in recent years has centered on unexpected features like robot bartendersonboard breweries and simulated skydiving — or hot destinations such as China and Cuba.

But for Cunard, a 176-year-old cruise line famous for its timeless transatlantic crossings, what’s new is also a nod to history.

Executives use terms like “heritage,” “legacy” and “tradition” when they talk about the three-ship line, even though the current vessels launched between 2004 and 2010. Formal nights and dress codes are common, historic photos adorn the walls, and shuffleboard awaits on the deck.

But the operator isn’t looking to drift into musty-old-history territory. While robots mixing drinks might draw headlines, Cunard believes there’s room for a few icons — albeit with modern sensibilities.

“So many things that we are doing have a clear foot in paying tribute to our history but also are extraordinarily current in what you would expect in hospitality and the cruise industry today,” Richard Meadows, Cunard’s president for North America, told Skift.

The UK-based line, part of cruise giant Carnival Corp., showed off its recently renovated Queen Mary 2 at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal earlier this month. It was the 2,961-passenger vessel’s first appearance at its North American home port since the upgrades.

Remastered Ship

The $132 million refit was so extensive — more cabins including rooms for single travelers, redesigned suites and restaurants, new restaurants and lounges, and additional kennels for traveling pets — that Cunard has dubbed it a “remastering.”

Cunard did extensive guest research to decide what to keep, toss, and radically change. The formerly cramped and congested buffet area has been expanded and given a sleek facelift; a quiet area previously meant to resemble a “grand conservatory” with flowers and a waterfall has been repurposed as a chic lounge offering drinks and light snacks all day.

Passengers sailing alone now have 15 rooms designed for solo travelers, and there are 20 more balcony staterooms than before.

New carpets are patterned after those found on the original Queen Mary, which launched in 1934. Art Deco touches can be found throughout the ship, and staterooms are decorated with specially commissioned photos of the Cunard buildings in Liverpool and New York.

“For us, it’s about how do we innovate authentically, and we believe we’ve done that with this remastering,” Meadows said.

There’s a touch of humor in the updates as well. A New York City fire hydrant was stationed in the area where dogs and cats can stay during a crossing, which added 12 kennels for a total of 22. And a lamp post installed in the area comes from a site near the company’s Liverpool building and dates back to its opening 100 years ago.

“In true Cunard tradition, even our canine passengers can now enjoy more expanded facilities,” Capt. Christoper Wells said during a ceremony on the ship.

History of Innovation

Cunard CEO David Noyes points out that the line has been an innovator from the beginning, offering the first scheduled passenger service across the Atlantic. Over its history, Cunard pioneered the use of navigational lights on ships; the use of electric lights; the introduction of suites, children’s playrooms, and libraries.

And the Queen Mary 2 debuted with the largest library at sea, the only planetarium on a cruise ship, and the largest dance floor, he said.

The ships — Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth are the sisters — specialize in British service: proper tea, grand dinners, unassuming formality.

“That doesn’t appeal to everybody,” Noyes said. “If somebody wants to have a holiday rock climbing, they’re not going to do that on Cunard.”

Because the ships are larger — and carry more passengers — than most luxury brands, Cunard uses the phrase “luxury on a grand scale.”

“What we mean by that is for some of today’s travelers who are looking for a luxury experience, part of what they’re looking for is time, space, and then they’re also looking for an elevated level of service delivered with a particular style and panache,” Noyes said.

Cunard is not, however, priced in the luxury category: An inside cabin starts around $1,000 a person for a seven-night crossing, and alcoholic drinks, specialty restaurants, tips, and other fees cost extra.

Crossing As a Gateway Cruise

The ships sail typical itineraries in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, but also full-world voyages that last 120 days or longer.

Queen Mary 2 takes weeklong trips across the Atlantic on a regular basis between spring and early winter. As a true ocean liner, the ship is designed for those crossings: A longer, narrower, and thicker hull helps it sail comfortably in any weather.

Meadows said more than half of Cunard cruisers have sailed on the line before, but those who are first-timers typically come for the transatlantic voyage.

“It’s something they’ve thought about for years, a special occasion or milestone,” he said.

He and just about everyone else interviewed for this story also used another common phrase in travel: bucket list.

“For many, traveling across the ocean on this ship is somethign they’ve come to love and to rely upon,” said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., during the onboard ceremony. “I know an ocean crossing on the QM2 is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. More than any of our other ships, she has her loyal fans that return to her.”

Marni Becker, director of cruise sales for Protravel International, uses the same term when she describes the product to clients.

“It’s a niche market,” she said. “It really is that bucket list item.”

Future of Cunard

The largest source of passengers for Cunard ships come from the UK, followed by North America and Northern Europe. Executives did not say what the average age of the cruise line’s guests are, but the bells and whistles that mass-market cruise lines employ to bring in a new generation of millennial cruisers are largely absent.

Wi-Fi is available on ships, but the website warns that “you won’t get the superfast speeds you’re used to at home.”

Noyes said speedy Internet is a challenge, especially when a ship is crossing the Atlantic, but also thinks the clientele isn’t terribly bothered by that.

“We find it gives the right level of connection because a lot of the people who sail on Queen Mary, they want to have a break,” he said. “They want to be connected, but they’re not going to spend all their time online.”

Meadows, who is also president of the luxury Seabourn line, said he thinks Cunard has the potential to grow. Carnival Corp. doesn’t typically reveal details on bookings for specific brands, but a spokeswoman for the line said in an email that the remastering of the Queen Mary 2 had sparked an increase in demand.

“While there are no new ships currently planned, the fact remains that there are more and more people who are looking for diverse luxury experiences in travel,” Meadows said. “And if you think about just the sheer number of people who want to touch a little bit of history, not just Boomers but also millennials and other generations, a crossing experience, a Cunard experience, is a wonderful way to be able to experience that in a very current way today.”

Photo Credit: Cunard's Queen Mary 2 arrived at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal earlier this month after a $132 million refit. Diane Bondareff / Associated Press Images for Cunard