Cruise Critic’s Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown took a transatlantic voyage last week on Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2. This is her third and final dispatch from the high seas. Read the first and second posts.
When Cunard Line debuted Queen Mary 2 in 2004, it was a ship of many firsts. Among the distinctions: At the time, the largest ever built (it’s since been surpassed by Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Freedom classes, and Norwegian’s Epic), the only ship with its own planetarium, and the 21st century’s first (and sole) ocean liner.
Now, nearly a decade later (Cunard will officially celebrate the ship’s 10th birthday in May 2014), we were curious to see how well it has aged. On one of its trademark Atlantic crossings, we had eight solid days at sea to rediscover Queen Mary 2. Bottom line? It’s still amazing. And it holds its own. Here are our hits, misses and things I found that were just so-so.
Onboard events and activities. To paraphrase a fellow passenger, if you find yourself bored – day or night – on Queen Mary 2, it’s your own fault. Whether sailing on a sea day-intensive crossing or a cruise with a good mix of ports of call, the ship offers activities by well-known partner organizations such as the Julliard School of Jazz, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (a superb post-lunch performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III one day was one of many memorable moments). Cunard’s Insights Programme features dynamic speakers on topics ranging from maritime history to urban architecture, as well as famous authors (including Carrie Fisher, Margaret Atwood and Bill Bryson).
At night, highlights include two gala balls (one’s got a black and white theme, the other’s a masked dance – bring your own or pick one up in the gift shop), music and dance shows, and vocalists . In G32, the ship’s hopping disco, great dance tunes were played by a Caribbean band, not just a DJ spinning discs. The planetarium, with its 30 minute presentations (narrated by the likes of Tom Hanks), is pretty nifty. And of course, you can partake in more traditional cruise fare, like ballroom dancing, afternoon trivia, a movie theater, computer lessons, cooking demonstrations, and the like.
Itinerary. Most of Queen Mary 2’s crossings are seven nights long – ours was one of two this year to run eight nights – and there was something exhilarating about being out at sea without another ship in sight for days at a time. (The good weather we had, with plenty of sunshine and fairly calm seas, was a major bonus as well).
Formal ambience. In an era in which a dress code of “country club casual” has replaced tuxes and ball gowns on most cruise lines, Cunard’s adherence to formal nights (we had four on the eight-night trip) adds a fission to evenings. Passengers really did dress up (maitre ‘d’s have the right to enforce the dress code; those who want to be more casual are relegated to the Kings Court buffet and Winter Garden bar).
Service: Good but different. Onboard, service was almost always excellent – thorough, well trained, efficient – even though style is a bit more reserved, and a bit less warm-and-fuzzy, than on many American lines. Crew, which represent many nationalities, don’t wear their country-of-origin on their nametags; adding that could help instigate conversation more easily.
Todd English. This alternative restaurant, helmed by Boston’s Todd English, has been a Queen Mary 2 institution since the ship’s debut and it’s only gotten better. The restaurant is open for lunch on sea days and every night for dinner, and the Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and service, was superb at every meal we tried. Instead of paying a set service charge to dine here, you pay a’la carte prices for appetizers, entrees and desserts (our $17 tab at one two-course lunch wound up being close to what a typical service fee would be for alternative restaurant). One big tip: At lunch it was easy enough to snag a last minute table, but book ahead for dinner. This joint is popular, for good reason.
The Spa. Queen Mary 2 was the first cruise ship to partner with America’s famous Canyon Ranch spa (most other ships hire spa companies like Steiner and Harding Bros. to run these operations) and it, like Todd English, has gotten better with time. The range of treatments is vast (listing some 24 different types of massage, for one), and includes facials, body wraps, a new series of foot-care options, and a beautiful salon with nail and hair care. With the purchase of a treatment, you get free use, for the day, of the Canyon Ranch’s Thermal Suite, with its 30 x 15 ft. Thalassotherapy pool, waterfall, herbal and Finnish saunas, and aromatic steam (you can also purchase a daily pass). One important note: In some cases cruise line spas have gotten a bad reputation for too aggressive pitches of their health and beauty products; there was, blissfully, no such effort made on Queen Mary 2.
Sundeck. The good news: We loved the variety of pool areas on Queen Mary 2, and even on sunny sea days, there was always an empty chaise lounge somewhere. In addition to a cascading tier of pools along the ship’s aft (each offering a great view of the sea), there’s an indoor/outdoor pool whose glass roof can open in good weather. The bad news: Closer to the front of the ship, there’s what seems like acres of empty deck – the wind can be very strong here and it’s not safe to put out chaise lounges; there’s an entire pool forward that rarely is even used.
Library and bookshop. The library, no question, is beautiful on Queen Mary 2. Mahogany bookcases, a wide category of tomes, cozy settees for lounging and small desks set alongside windows, for writing letters (letters!), all make this an inviting place to be. But I was glad I’d had the foresight to load up my Kindle before the trip. Surprisingly, the book selection is tired; it could be time for the ship to make a shopping expedition! On the other hand, the adjacent bookshop, with its terrific selection of books on maritime history (many featuring Queen Mary 2) and even shelves of newer titles, fiction to biography, that you can buy, is an absolute highlight on the ship.
King’s Court. The ship’s buffet venue needs a redesign. It’s chaotic and complicated to navigate, the food selection was pretty mundane, and the atmosphere was bland and uninspiring. Cunard has tried to alleviate congestion by equipping the four food station areas with exactly the same range of choices. which contributes to its rather lackluster variety. Kudos are deserved for the Chef’s Galley nook, which spotlights healthy fare at breakfast, burgers and sandwiches prepared a’la minute at lunch and a pizza and pasta station. And on most nights, one corner of the buffet was carved out as a casual “alternative” restaurant (Lotus, Italian, and Coriander for Indian were the possibilities). There’s a $10 fee for this dinner venue.
Table assignments. Cunard has made an effort to offer more flexibility. Breakfast and lunch in Britannia, its main venue, is open seating, and there are a fair amount of tables for two and four if passengers don’t wish to dine with strangers. Dinner is still operated at a set-time and set-tablemate scenario, though passengers who book the slightly more expensive Britannia Club Category can come and go as they wish. Weirdly, the posher restaurants (Queens and Princess Grills) for suite passengers have less flexibility; you’re assigned to the same table and tablemates for breakfast, lunch and dinner, though you can dine at any time the restaurant is open.
Television programming. While of course few of us go on a cruise to sit in our cabins and watch television, it’s nice to know you can curl up with a good movie or TV program. The system on Queen Mary 2 was pretty antiquated (the fairly new addition of flat screen televisions is appreciated, but they were rather small). Aside from news channels from the U.S. and England, selections were generally quite tired, there is no “on demand” option, and without an interactive feature, you need to book reservations for restaurants, spa and shore excursions the old-fashioned way.