Elegance on the high seas

Temple couple sails on the Queen Mary 2

World travelers Bob and Linda Bilec took a step back in time to an era of elegance and sophistication on the high seas when they boarded the Queen Mary 2 last October.

They sailed to Southampton, England, to visit their daughter, Jennifer, and her family for the Christmas holidays.

As they stood on the deck of the QM2, they watched the skyline of New York City fade into the background. For Bob, it was the realization of how small Manhattan Island really is, a mere 22.82 square miles of land inhabited by 16.36 million people.

For Linda, it was watching the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island shrink in size as the boat pulled away from New York Harbor. She said she couldn’t help but think of all the people who immigrated to the United Sates on a ship, seeing Lady Liberty for the first time, and hoping for a better life.

The Bilecs are residents of the world. They have traveled and lived all over the globe for pleasure and work. But this was their first transatlantic crossing on an ocean liner. So when Jennifer asked her parents to spend the holidays in England, Bob knew right away that they didn’t want to fly.

“I wanted to take the Queen Mary,” he said. “I wanted the experience of sailing on the boat.”

They started planning for their trip a year in advance, watching fares and looking for the best and most economic time to travel. They even downloaded a schematic of the ship’s decks to find the right mid-ship state room to help mitigate the potential for seasickness.

While Bob wanted a themed crossing, Linda said she looked forward to the elegance of a bygone era of dining and dancing the night away in the ship’s formal restaurant — a stark contrast from the downhill skier and outdoor enthusiast she is.

“I was really excited about the dancing,” Linda said, admitting that she and Bob took private foxtrot and waltz lessons before they sailed.

“I was thinking about ‘Titanic,’ the movie,” Bob said. “I looked at the staircase, the chandelier — it’s all very elegant.”

Their search led them to Road Scholar, a nonprofit organization that offers educational and adventure tours, domestic and abroad, with an intellectual twist for seniors 50 and older. Not only did Road Scholar have a trip planned for Southampton with a murder-mystery theme, and four nights in London, it also included return airfare to Austin for both of them.

The RMS Queen Mary 2 is a transatlantic ocean liner and not a cruise ship so the crowds are not as big (around 4,000 people including staff and passengers). There is a strict set of guidelines, including casual and formal dress codes. On formal nights, men must wear a tuxedo and women must wear a gown or after-five dress.

“If you want to enjoy the experience, get a tuxedo and (for the ladies) a formal dress,” Bob said. “You can pick up deals at thrift stores and discount stores.”

Bob found a designer tuxedo jacket and pants in a thrift store. After adding a white tuxedo shirt, tie and cuff links, he had a tux for under $100. Linda, a former costume designer, picked up a basic black dress at a discount store and embellished it with sequins across the neckline. With a change of accessories and jewelry, she was able to make the dress look different for each of the formal evenings.

“All the women have on a black dress and (they) drip in pearls, every pearl they own. They wear lots of pearls,” Linda said, smiling her smile that never seems to fade.

The passage took seven days and followed the same route as the Titanic, in reverse, when it sailed from Southampton on April 12, 1912, on its way to New York, a destination cut short by a collision with an iceberg.

“I actually looked for icebergs,” Linda said. “There were none.”

The weather cooperated the whole way — sunny skies, calm blue waters and smooth sailing. When it was time to retire for the evening, they chose an inside cabin, above the water line but with no portholes to look out onto the sea.

“We wanted the experience of sailing on the boat,” Bob said. “When you are sleeping, you don’t need an outside window. When you look out the window, all you see is ocean.”

“The views didn’t change for seven days,” Linda added.

Although jet lag is often a problem when flying through time zones, Bob said sailing on the ship wasn’t so hard to deal with because time advances one hour every day. By the time they reached Southampton, they were adjusted to the time change.

“It takes two or three days to recover from jet lag,” Linda added.

Where Canada and America meet

Linda Bilec was born in Colorado, grew up in Michigan, and attended college in Utah, before transferring to Lake Superior State College (now University) in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., on the border of Canada.

An avid downhill skier, during winter Linda spent as much time on the Michigan slopes as she could, either skiing by herself or coaching a high school ski team during her college years.

Sault Ste. Marie was less than 200 miles from the town of White River, Ontario, Canada, where her aunt had a summer vacation trailer park. White River was also Bob’s hometown. He and his twin brother, Michael, are known to be the first set of twins ever born in this small town of about 1,000 people. He also has three older siblings.

“The population hasn’t changed in 40 years,” said Bob, a U.S. citizen since 2009.

White River is also known as the coldest spot in Canada. Bob recalls one morning when he looked out the window of his home and the thermometer read -68 Fahrenheit. Summer temps can reach as high as 75, but the season only lasts four weeks.

Summers in White River were short and recreation was scarce. For fun teens would cruise the parking lots of businesses, listening to their music, looking to see what was going on in their small town where the sun didn’t set until after 10 p.m. One summer evening while Linda and her cousins were working at her aunt’s trailer park, Bob and his friends drove through the lot. Bob was in the back seat. Linda saw the boys in the car and intercepted their fun. “I threw them out of the park. I made them leave,” she said.

While Linda didn’t see Bob tucked away in the back, he saw her.

The next day Linda took a break from work to walk over to the service station where her car was towed after it ran out of oil. Bob was up on a scaffold at the service station painting a sign that read, “White River, the Coldest Spot in Canada.” Linda didn’t notice Bob, but he noticed her as soon as she walked by. He remembered her from the trailer park. Calling down to her he asked, “Hey, do you want to go to a party?”

She looked up and said, “Yes.” Later that evening, Bob walked over to her aunt’s house to pick her up for their date. They walked back to his family’s home for the party, but his parents were not there and as it turned out, the party was intended just for two. His parents returned home, interrupting their first date, but that didn’t stop the young couple from spending time together that summer.

When the season ended, Linda started classes at Lake Superior State College in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Bob headed to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Though 400 miles apart, their romance ensued and they traveled by bus back and forth between colleges to see each other, splitting the fare.

Linda graduated from Lake Superior State College in 1972 with a B.A. in English and emigrated to Thunder Bay as a “landed immigrant” to be near Bob. She took a job as a porter at a psychiatric hospital for two years before entering Lakehead University to earn her B.A. in English, so she could teach.

On one of her days off from the hospital in 1975, they married.

Both graduated from Lakehead University in 1976 and moved to Alberta, Canada, where Bob pursued his MSc in chemical engineering while Linda taught school. Following graduation, Bob was hired by Exxon Mobile and the couple stayed in Alberta for eight years until Bob’s job transferred him to Toronto for two years, then New Jersey for one year before he was transferred to Spain. That is where their life of travel really began.

Opportunities to explore

Travel is definitely in Bob and Linda’s DNA. Over the years, they’ve traveled extensively as a couple to China, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and the southernmost point of Chile, where they sailed around Cape Horn. As a family living in Spain, they traveled extensively throughout the European continent.

Moving around the world with two children was challenging but Linda always made it an adventure. She got Jennifer into kids’ acting and their son, Chris, continued hockey.

In Spain, they visited the beaches often and traveled around the country, learning the history. Christopher and Jennifer played soccer in the courtyard of a 12th or 13th century castle, and on a side trip to Greece one of Bob’s most memorable moments was when the children ran across the finish line at the original stadium in Olympia, where the first Olympic Games were held.

The family also skied downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria, the children learning from their mother who has been skiing since she was 12. “Linda did an excellent job of moving, leaving family and friends,” Bob said. “She would always find something the children could do in their new home that they couldn’t do in their previous home.”

When their assignment in Europe ended in 1989, the family returned to Ontario, Canada, where Bob continued his career with Exxon. In 1992, Exxon Mobil transferred Bob back to New Jersey. During that same period, Linda entered Rutger’s University where she earned her law degree and served as Deputy Attorney General for the State of New Jersey. Bob retired in 2006, after a career working in the oil and gas industries at refineries around the world. They stayed in New Jersey until 2012. When Linda retired from her job and they moved to Texas.

But of all their travel adventures, except for their latest trip on the Queen Mary 2, most trips come in second to Linda’s love of Disney World. She’s been 14 times, including a side trip to Paris Disneyland on their recent trip to England, with their daughter and grandson.

Bob said traveling has expanded his horizons and made him more understanding of people. He said it has given him a new world view and a new appreciation of how others live.

“Travel has enriched my life. It has given me a new perspective,” Bob said.

“You learn tolerance, understanding and not to be so judgmental,” Linda added.

Catherine Hosman is editor of Tex Appeal Magazine. Contact her at editor@texappealmag.com or 254-501-7511.