I'm lying on a plush reclining armchair in total darkness staring up at a million needle-sharp stars as they move inexorably across the heavens. Above me, a projected image on the domed ceiling zooms in to the surface of Mars.
I share this auditorium with 200 other passengers on a state-of-the-art superliner and this new planetarium is the first of its kind at sea.
"Getting there is half the fun" was Cunard's slogan in the cruising heyday of the 1920s. It's equally true today, when you can experience the extraordinary Cunard heritage in a modern cruiseliner like the grande dame, Queen Mary 2 - or QM2 as it's affectionately called. The voyage is not so much about the destination now as about self-fulfilment - and I'm not referring to the sumptuous meals that are continuously available on board.
The three stylish sisters of the Cunard Line fleet, queens Mary, Victoria and Elizabeth, have gone beyond the traditional cruise mode of ports, parties, pleasures and pampering, and have introduced personal enrichment programmes called Cunard Insights.
I'm delighted to find a selection of interesting lecturers, historians, doctors, artists and authors on board who are more than willing to enlighten me about their various disciplines. The lectures will nicely balance out the Arcadian simplicity of shipboard life; playing quoits, paddle tennis, shuffleboard and other happy-camper Hi-de-Hi activities, along with the time-honoured daily round of fine dining.
Cunard Line has a distinguished tradition of historic "firsts", beginning with the first regularly scheduled transatlantic mail service. It also completed the first World Voyage (Laconia, 1922) and had the first bathrooms, library, electric lighting and en suites at sea.
On QM2, Cunard also offers the largest ballroom at sea, which boasts crystal chandeliers and sweeping views from both sides of the ship. An added attraction for the single ladies on board is the suave, fleet-footed Gentlemen Hosts, enjoying a discounted cruise in return for their courtly impressions of Fred Astaire in the Queen's Ballroom.
But I'm focused on serious learning endeavours - although sustenance is needed to both sit through the lectures and commute between them down corridors that appear to disappear into infinity, on a ship that is almost the length of four Eden Park football fields and 23 storeys high.
From my first waking moments every day, the breakfast bar beckons with its sumptuous scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and fluffy blueberry pancakes drizzled in maple syrup. Late-morning academic activity is reluctantly abandoned once I catch a whiff of freshly baked pizza and pasta emanating from the Kings Court Buffet lunch venue.
After a fascinating stint in the planetarium, I come back to earth for Devonshire tea, beautifully served by white-gloved waiters.
Meantime, the Afternoon Trivia session is under way in "Quizzical Corner", conducted by several of the 100 entertainment staff who all seem devoted to keeping me far from the merest twinge of boredom. This mental stimulation is vital in the late afternoon at sea to guard against the inevitable onset of post-prandial drowsiness.
Believe me, this can easily happen when you traverse Deck 7. Here you witness a veritable sea of traditional teak deckchairs occupied by tanned bodies sleeping, reading and sipping cocktails to the sound of soothing music, the mesmerising swish of waves against the hull and the fresh, salty tang of the ocean.
Exercising your mind at this critical time of the day is important. Firstly, to ensure you remain composed in the face of rising excitement as you contemplate the evening menus graced with succulent lobster, herb-crusted kingfish steaks and ludicrously tender chateaubriand. Secondly, to enable you to make what is far and away the most taxing decision of the entire voyage, namely: "What mains course am I going to choose tonight and what dessert do I want to follow?"
One day I decide to up the ante and enjoy the quintessentially British experience of a champagne afternoon tea in the Winter Garden. Yes, the finest liner on the seven seas has a garden, so guests don't feel too far removed from the familiar terrestrial realm. The combination of Veuve Clicquot style and Twinings quality proves too much for my delicate constitution and I take a nap in my stateroom.
Before I can attend the watercolour art class, the wine-tasting seminar, the Texas hold 'em tournament or the roulette induction class in the casino, my last night aboard arrives like a thief in the night.
I've loved my days at sea on the QM2 for their learning potential, amazing decor, fabulous meals and White Star service. The ship definitely has the X-factor.
I resign myself to the fact that I'm leaving in the morning and lie back in the swirling spa pool under the stars of the real Milky Way, with a flute of France's finest, and toast the queen - the queen of the seas, Queen Mary 2.
- Paul Rush sailed on the QM2 courtesy of Cunard Line.