Having been on QM2 twice before, the main reason for taking this trip was to familiarize myself with the differences between cruising vs. crossing; of which there are many. Being a fanatic for ocean liners in general, this was a fantastic opportunity to experience first hand what 'crossing the pond' is all about. I must admit, I was in my element.
I flew Continental from Cincinnati to Newark on 10.20, sailed from New York to Southampton (arriving on the 26th), stayed two nights in London, and then flew back to Cincinnati on the Delta non-stop from Gatwick. While in London, I stayed at the Comfort Inn Hyde Park.
Upon landing in Newark, I was met by a good friend from Lakehurst, John Geary, and, because the flight arrived at 855am, we had some time to kill before heading to the ship. We went to the South Street Seaport area, which is located near the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan. For those who have never been to the Seaport, it is a very charming area complete with museums, galleries, shops and restaurants. After having breakfast at the Seaport Cafe, we visited the Walter Lord Gallery (dedicated to the great ocean liners of the past) and then headed to the pier at about 1230pm.
One of my favorite moments of any sailing is when the ship first comes into view....especially in New York. Heading north along the West Side Highway towards the mid-town piers, a hazy QM2 could be seen towering over everything in sight. At 1132ft. long, she actually juts out into the Hudson, past the end of the pier. She's only 117ft. shorter than the Empire State Building is tall and is wider than the Panama Canal. Without doubt, she's the most impressive passenger liner I've ever seen. We finally got to the pier at about 130pm (traffic was a nightmare) and were happy to see that CARNIVAL LEGEND was also in port. John decided to park on top of the pier ($22!) and he and I walked around the parking lot taking photos of both ships. I thought it was strange that they allowed him to park and walk around; especially since he wasn't sailing. I noticed that on both QM2 and CARNIVAL LEGEND, huge banners were hanging from their railings that read, "Security Warning, Keep 50 Metres Away". Also, on QM2's aft docking bridge, an armed police officer stood next to a huge, round radar detection device.
The mid-town piers are in horrible shape. I've been sailing from NYC for over twenty years now and, apart from looking worse, nothing has changed. The last time they were upgraded was in the '70's. Next year, Carnival Corp. will be moving Carnival, Cunard and Princess ships to a new Brooklyn facility,...there's a bit of a scuffle over that one. I will say that the embarkation process was absolutely painless. From the time John and I entered the pier, said our goodbyes, and I boarded the ship, only about twenty minutes had passed.
Upon boarding, I was asked if I needed help finding my cabin (this was a first; I guess since I was carrying all my luggage, I looked desperate)...but I declined; I knew exactly where I was going. The last two times on QM2 I stayed in an inside cabin; this time, I was given a category B3, a premium in-hull balcony stateroom. These rooms are about 263sq. ft. including the balcony, which is basically a solid steel wall with a hole cut out of it. This has it's pros and cons. First, during a crossing, if it's windy or raining, you can still go out on the balcony and be protected from the elements; not so if you are staying in one of the more expensive, glass balconies. The major downfall is when you are relaxing in the provided deck chairs, it's impossible to look out and see the ocean. Personally, I loved the in-hull balcony; I may feel different if I was cruising through the Caribbean.
Right away, I noticed the heavy smell of cigarette smoke. At first, I was afraid that Amex had put me in a room with a smoker (my bunkie hadn't arrived yet), but, luckily, that wasn't the case. When my roomie finally showed up, he smelled the smoke and thought the same thing. We solved the problem by leaving the balcony door ajar all the time (hearing the sound of the ocean every night was fantastic...).
There is plenty of storage space that includes two closets, five shelves and eight drawers. This includes night stands, make up table, etc. There is an in-room safe, a hair dryer, and a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks and water. There was also a small sofa bed that could accommodate two additional passengers. Among it's many features, the interactive television allows passengers to check their account, plan shore excursions (a bit tough on a transatlantic crossing!), order room service or wine, and report things like burned out bulbs, toilet or shower trouble, broken drawers, etc. It also allows you to send and receive emails using the provided wireless keyboard, located in the make up table top drawer. During the trip, I sent three emails and received one and was charged $1.50 each to my on board account. I felt this charge to be reasonable. The keyboard was a bit of a pain as it didn't pick up all the key strokes unless I was sitting directly in front of the TV. No big deal.
The bathroom is pretty typical as far as most cruise ships are concerned. The size is about average and it has all the basics. There was a problem with the shower during the first two days of the trip. There was hardly any cold water.....it was like it was stuck on "lava". We reported it through the television and then, after a follow up trip to the Purser's office the next morning, it was fixed.
All in all, the room was great and extremely comfortable. The quality of the mattress and linens are incredible; I hadn't slept that good since the last time I was on QM2.
I'll go record here saying that I think QM2 is currently the greatest ship in the world; but she is not for everyone. You'll not find "Mr. Legs" or beer drinking contests by the pool. Folks don't file in line on the outer decks to join in on the chicken dance (thank goodness for that!). Instead, there is a sophisticated and yet unpretentious feeling on board QM2. Personally, this is the thing I like best about the ship. That's not to say that there aren't places on board for folks to let their hair down. In the evenings, The Golden Lion Pub was always hosting sing-a-longs and Karaoke; and the ship's disco, G32, stayed rockin' until the wee hours of the night. Still, there was always a sense of protocol that I felt on board QM2; an intangible that sets her apart from every other ship; except, perhaps, QE2.
Much has been written and read about QM2's public rooms. I'll not go into every detail regarding color schemes, layouts etc. Instead, I'll just say the QM2's public rooms are beautifully decorated, well maintained, and almost never congested.
Our group dined in the Britannia Restaurant located on decks two and three. This beautiful room is the perfect interpretation of what a modern day ocean liner should be like. Retro Deco in design, the room runs the width of the ship's hull and is three decks high. Although our table was located on deck two, I couldn't resist entering on deck three and gliding down the room's grand staircase. What terrific fun.
Food in Britannia was very, very good; excellent to be exact. Cold dishes always arrived cold, hot dishes were always hot. Soups were outstanding as were the cuts of beef. Not being a seafood lover, I'll just say that the lobster tails received high marks from those in the group who ordered it (especially the guy who ate three of them...geez). I did have the grilled shrimp one night and it was very good. I was thrilled to see iced pats of butter instead of those dreadful foil-wrapped things (ala NCL) where the butter always ends up all over my hands. The same goes for the morning jelly,...it was served in small, individual glass jars; none of those plastic peel back things one would get at a Big Boy restaurant...or, again, on NCL.
I am ashamed to say that I can't remember our waiter and his assistant's names. They were extremely pleasant and nothing was too much to ask. I will, however, never forget Simon, our head waiter. An extremely laid back almost lethargic man from South Africa, Simon went well beyond the call of duty for us...many times.
Most mornings and afternoons (and, huh, at 2am), I ate in the King's Court, QM2's version of a Lido restaurant. As I mentioned, the room is extremely confusing and has, thankfully, gone through a refit. It's divided into stations that highlight several different cuisines including Asian, Italian, a carvery, and what is known as The Chef's Galley. At night, during dinner hours, the complex is transformed into alternative dining venues. Partitions are put up, table cloths are placed on the tables and table service is provided. In The Chef's Galley, reservations are required and there is a $35 per person fee; which seems a bit high until you find out that your food is made in front of you by a celebrity chef.
Food in King's Court was very good. Breakfast was basically the same everyday and included the standards of eggs, bacon, etc. What was different was the addition of traditional British fare like kippers and fried tomatoes. The lunch menu changed daily...I was pleased to see several Indian dishes. The curried rice and chicken were fantastic. The only thing that fell short was the pizza, which was pretty much cardboard with sauce, a few toppings and cheese.
One of my favorite places to have lunch was at the Golden Lion Pub. While they offered steak and mushroom pie, and bangers and mash, I always chose the fish and chips...excellent. The pub food is served until 2pm and the place gets packed. I learned quickly to go after the lunch hour rush; usually around 130 or so.
In the afternoon, high tea was served in the Queen's Room and in King's Court. I had read that Cunard was going back to the tradition of serving tea on the promenade deck outside but, I never saw it. I always had tea in the Queen's Room. The scones, pastries, and sandwiches were excellent. I remember the last time on the ship, the scones already had the clotted cream and jam on them,....which is a big no-no. Now, they serve the scones with the cream and jam on the side; the way it should be.
Throughout QM2, service was nearly flawless. The dining room staff, the wait staff in all of the lounges, gift shop personnel, the folks at the purser's desk, almost everywhere, folks were eager to help and always had a smile on their face. That is, except for the gentlemen in the ship's book shop. This man never smiled once. He had the most serious look on his face that NEVER strayed. When people would go up to pay for something, he always said the same thing, "Cabin number?"............."Thank you". He didn't even look up. For some reason, he had a chip on his shoulder....
A few words about Beth, our room attendant. First off, she did an excellent job keeping the room tidy. She also had a great personality. Whenever she would see me, she would ask how I was doing. I always said the same thing, "Dandy". After a while she started saying, "How are you.....I know, I know, dandy, right?". She actually saved me on the second day of the trip. When I first got on board in New York, I gave her all my suits, shirts, and pants to be pressed (no more ironing on cruises for me!) and I marked the form for next day service. The next day, at about 615pm, I asked Beth when my clothes would be delivered and she said, "Tomorrow". Oh no! It was formal night and I had nothing to wear. I told her that I really needed them and she ran straight away to the laundry, waited for them to press everything and, in about 45 minutes, came back with my clothes. Perfect, except they charged me an additional $26 for same day service,....that made my laundry about $78!! I went to the Purser's office and they straightened the whole thing out and took the $26 off my account.
I don't care for Las Vegas style production shows. I usually go into the showroom just to see what the girls are wearing and then leave after about five minutes. I can't really comment on if they were good or not. The Jazz trio in the Chart Room was very good and the pianist in the Commodore Club, Campbell Simpson, was absolutely amazing. I'm not big on Karaoke or sing-alongs but, folks seemed to be having a good time in the pub.
We did attend a performance by members of RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was very funny but, not nearly as funny as the two passengers sitting in front of us in the Royal Theatre. They were, I assume, husband and wife and she proceeded to fold her husband's underwear while waiting for the show to start,....now that's entertainment!
I didn't attend any of the Oxford University lectures but my roomie did and he was very impressed.
I only attended one of the short films in the ship's planetarium. While it seemed very good, I'm ashamed to say that I did manage to catch about a five minute cat nap. Only 150 people can see the show at a time. All the seats in the room are gold except for the seats located under the projection dome, which are red. The best seats are of course the ones towards the middle.
After dinner, most evenings, we went to the Queen's Room to hear the big band music and, on two nights, to check out the Black and White and Ascot Balls. During the B&W Ball, the room is decorated in, well, black and white. It was all very formal looking,...very sophisticated. The Ascot Ball was great. A few dozen ladies sporting their handmade hats pranced around the dance floor and folks voted for the best one by applauding. One of the ladies in our group won (she was wearing a crown that was made out of paper) and received a bottle of champagne.
Once music in the Queen's Room would die down, we would head to the ship's disco, G32 (named after QM2's shipyard hull number), to listen to the band and have a few drinks. The band was very good, although they played the same thing night after night. It actually got rather old after a while.
Crossing vs. Cruising
Undoubtedly, this was my favorite voyage to date. I learned that, on a crossing, the days go by at a snail's pace. Because there's no stops, there's no time constraints as far as getting ashore and back on the ship again. I certainly didn't miss returning to the ship after a long, sweaty day in port only to have to rush to get ready for dinner. I didn't miss those annoying lectures about which shops in port give the best deals on t-shirts and booze. And I loved not having to deal with obnoxious cab drivers and offers to have my hair braided. There were plenty of things to do but, it wasn't like I felt like I missed something if I didn't do them. My time was pretty much my own and, aside from the 'occasional' meal, I spent the day sleeping, reading, walking, shopping, meeting people, and taking photos.
I also learned that QM2's officer's use TITANIC's position as a turning point to head north towards England. We actually sailed directly over the wreck and I stepped outside and took a few photos,...don't ask why; it's not like I could see anything. I guess just knowing that we were in the spot where the ship sank gave me reason enough. I have to admit, it was a bit eerie.
Disembarkation and London
Three days into the crossing, passengers were requested to stop in the Britannia Dining Room, with their passports, for immigration purposes. They actually cleared everyone on board well before the end of the trip so, when we walked off the ship in Southampton, we walked right through the pier and onto the waiting buses. It was very smooth.
The bus ride from Southampton to London takes about an hour and a half. Looking back, I wish I had stayed one night in Southampton and only one night in London. The motorcoach dropped us off at Victoria Station (at this point, I was with Lisa, a lady from our group who, oddly enough, was staying at the same hotel I was). We shared the cab fare to the Comfort Inn Hyde Park, which was about 15GBP. My room at the hotel was slightly bigger than the size of the single twin bed and smaller than ANY cruise ship cabin I have ever stayed in. Aside from the carpet, the room was very clean and the bed was very comfortable. At 35GBP a night, I couldn't complain. It's not a place I would take my family but, it was cheap, clean and in a great area.
The next two days consisted of walking, shopping, walking, eating, and walking. We did have the good fortune to actually see the Queen pass by in her motorcade....she was in the back seat, wearing a giant hat, and giving that famous wave.
A word of caution: Never use or suggest that anyone use Hotelink, a transfer company whose services can be set up at various hotels in London. I had a 1015am flight out of Gatwick, they were suppose to be at the hotel at 630am and didn't arrive until twenty past seven. And then, the driver stopped at three other hotels to pick up more passengers (all of whom were honked off because he was late). In the end, I arrived at the gate at 915am.
All in all, this was an amazing trip; a trip that everyone should experience at least once. Out of 37 cruises (make that 36 cruises and now one crossing), this was the best. Not only in terms of a fantastic ship but also because of the relaxed itinerary. There's something so sophisticated about crossing the ocean in such style....it's something that being sealed in a steal tube and shot across the sky will never match. When it's all said and done, there's times in life when making the journey is just as important as the destination itself. As far as QM2 is concerned, she's both journey and destination.
In my element indeed....