I recently completed a round trip voyage from New York City to the Southern Caribbean and Central America on the QE2. Unlike those slab-sided floating hotel barges called cruise ships, the QE2 is a real ship. She has a long knife-edge bow, which flares to the main deck and a rounded stern. Her bow slices through the sea rather than shouldering it aside as do the rounded bow ships. Thus she pierces waves rather than bouncing off them and shuddering to a stop. Her upper decks are built with step backs in wedding cake fashion thus decreasing weight overhanging the bow and stern and reducing pitching. Her flared bow and rounded stern limit the pitching and her beam and stabilizers limit the rolling. Despite 70 mile per hour headwinds while sailing the Atlantic back to New York, I never felt her roll more than 3 degrees. She was by far the most comfortable riding ship I have ever been aboard.
However, her great size is also one of her limitations. Because she has a beam of 148 feet and a draft of 33 feet, many ports cannot handle her. St. Thomas was created by and for the cruise industry; yet we had to anchor out and tender in, because the pier could not handle us. We were scheduled to dock in Port Moin in Costa Rica, but because there was a slight swell, we were at risk of hitting the channel bottom and thus could not dock. The swell also prevented our tendering and thus we had to skip our scheduled visit. Because no other port in the vicinity of our scheduled itinerary could accommodate the Queen, we basically had to spend an extra day at sea.
The ship is rated to carry 2,600 passengers with 1,250 crew. Yet it never felt crowded because the ship is so large. That is it never felt crowded until it came time to disembark for tours. We would assemble in huge indeterminable lines waiting to get off. Its large size also meant that one had to frequently walk nearly a quarter of a mile to get from one part of the ship to another, a hardship for many of the elderly passengers.
Speaking of elderly passengers, this was definitely the oldest crowd I have ever sailed with. I would guess the mean age was 75. We all know that the elderly have trouble hearing. Maybe that is why they turned the volume up so loud in all the showrooms and elevators. I literally had to cover my ears when riding the elevator, to withstand the floor announcements.
One presumes that the after hours disco was designed to attract a younger crowd, whom one would think had adequate hearing, yet even here the amplification was so painful that I could not stay and dance.
On most ships, the show dancers and singers appear to have graduated from Miss Portabello's School of Tap and Dance for Precocious Children from Pocatello, Idaho. However the QM2's performers have been recruited from conservatories from all over the world. They are, without a doubt, the most talented and skilled performers I have seen at sea. More importantly, the productions numbers have been designed to showcase the talent. The Russians were allowed to do kazatskis and leaps, the Argentineans tangos; the Spaniards Flamenco; the Americans tap and the English ballet. The singers could sing arias as well as belt show tunes. Truly it was Broadway quality entertainment.
For such a large ship, there was a surprising lack of things to do. The lounges on most ships have different themes at night, such as Latin, Country and Western, Jazz, Ballads and American Classics. However, the QM2's lounges featured the same three pianists who rotated between them every hour, so all basically played the same music, none of which was conducive to dancing. There was a formal dance orchestra who played the Queens Room, but the most adventurous they got was a fox trot.
During days at sea, fascinating lectures by gifted speakers were offered. On our trip we had lectures by English theater critics and biographers and a news producer from New York One, all of whom were quite enjoyable to listen to. However, only one such lecture per day was given. There were also arts and crafts and computer classes offered as well as the usual games of trivial pursuit. Thank God the QM2 has the largest library afloat. You do a lot of resting and reading on this ship.
The weight training and aerobic exercise room has the finest equipment and was never crowded, as the average passenger would have a heart attack after schlepping the quarter mile to the forward hinterlands of deck 8. Unfortunately, it was not possible to take a shower, steam or sauna after workouts, because the only such facilities are located in the Canyon Ranch Spa, which charges $30.00 for a day pass.
The Queen Mary 2 is the only ship which has a planetarium, which to me, as an amateur astronomer, was a great disappointment. It has become very difficult to observe the sky from land secondary to light pollution. So I was looking forward to exploring the night sky from the dark ocean. However, cruise ships tend to be lit up like a Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the forward observation deck was encased in plastic wind panels, which distorted the view of the sky. The planetarium itself was used to show 20 minute Nova style space movies and was not used for the purpose for which a planetarium is designed, that is to teach the constellations and motion of heavenly bodies in order to understand what one sees at night.
The Classless Society
Cunard is the only line left which still separates its passengers into first, second and third class based upon the cabin rented. The only areas off limit to us in steerage were a lounge, the dining rooms and one sunbathing deck. However, we could stare down upon the upper-class from our vantage point on deck 8 and saw that they look no different from us in their bathing suits. In addition, their dining room was on deck 7 and ours on deck 3, a far more comfortable place to dine.
The service on the QM2 is certainly a lot more formal (some would say stuffy) than on other cruise ships. However, I would say the personnel were friendly but reserved. The staff smiled and was gracious. They were attentive to our individual needs but did not become part of our lives. We exchanged no baby pictures and addresses, as I have done on other ships.
We had one of the balcony cabins built into the hull. There had been many complaints on the web about these balconies, as they do not permit a view of the sea when sitting. In reality, they are approximately a four foot high by eight foot long cutout in the steel hull with the bottom of the porthole approximately 40 inches above the deck. One can stand at the rail and have an unimpeded view. When sitting, your view is limited to the sky.
However, I found these balconies delightful. They are by far the largest I have ever had at sea and measured approximately ten feet by six feet of usable space. There was room for full lounge chairs, which could be placed perpendicular to the rail offering one the sounds and smells and fresh air of the open sea without the lack of privacy found in the more open balconies of the upper decks. One could galavant naked with impunity in these recessed balconies, an act which would be unbecoming in an upper class berth. And I bet a lot more babies were conceived while standing at the rail enjoying the moonlight reflecting off the ocean, than were in the penthouses above.
The cabins themselves were quite comfortable and adequate. The beds were comfortable and the duvets scrumptious. But forget visions of wood paneling as all the built-ins were constructed from Formica. Whether this is to accommodate safety regulations limiting the use of flammable materials or because Cunard decided to skimp on money, I can't say. However the workmanship was top notch and the overall effect visually pleasing. I don't know if wood burns more easily than does Formica, but plastic laminates give off far more toxic fumes.
I saved my comments about the food for last because it was the most disappointing part of the trip. The appetizers, soups and desserts were all excellent, but the entrees were repetitive and uninspired. They must have served rack of lamb five nights out of the twelve days of our trip. There was not a piece of fish on the ship that could be found that was not seriously overcooked. While they did serve fish with fish knives, a serrated knife would have been a better implement.
One of the newer trends found on cruise ships is alternative dining, in which each night you choose which restaurant to attend and what time to go, sort of like dining out in New York. However, one of the attractions of cruising that I find delightful is the sitting at a large table with strangers. This gives you the opportunity to meet many different people and I have always found it to be one of the special delights of cruising. At my table on this trip, were an eclectic mix of my family consisting of myself, my wife and a five year old; a 60 year old bleached blond gay couple from California and a God-fearing black Baptist couple from Long Island, he a retired New York City police officer and she a retired school teacher. This made for some fascinating conversation and an enjoyable dinnertime experience, which would have never happened at an alternative restaurant.
One night we did try Lotus, the Asian themed alternative restaurant, which offers a 12 course tasting menu. In reality, it was too bland and Frenchified for my taste, offering none of the savory flavors of Asian cooking. Those who attended the Carvery and Todd English (the prestigious haute cuisine restaurant) all reported the food was no different from that of the main dining rooms and certainly not worth the $30 per person surcharge. All in all, most were disappointed in the food. At least, thank God, they did not parade around with the baked Alaska.
As an overworked, overachieving New Yorker, I find cruising to be an effortless recuperative vacation. Just show up at the door and everything is done for you. Kind of like the old Catskill Borscht Belt, but with better taste. Go to the Caribbean to rest and recuperate and enjoy the sandy beaches and warm tropical waters. Do a little swimming, snorkeling and golf. Frankly, all the Caribbean islands are pretty much the same, so I prefer to go to those with good economies and no poverty so I am not constantly assaulted by the locals trying to sell me something I neither want nor need. Unfortunately, the very places I like to visit are hideously expensive and the hotel rooms usually are musty with mildew.
That is why I like cruising. Both accommodations and the food are better and you certainly get a lot more value for your money. You get to see new sights every day without pack or unpacking; they just move your hotel for you while you party and sleep at night.
Many of the cruise lines have recognized that huge numbers of their passengers come from New York and so they have been basing more and more ships in City. The savings in airfare make up for the extra travel days. Besides, on this type of vacation you are really not in a hurry to get anywhere because it is the cruise itself which is the vacation. To accommodate the growing trend in cruises embarking from New York City, Carnival Corporation is building a new port in Red Hook, Brooklyn and Royal Caribbean has built Port Liberty in New Jersey. Cunard has created the Queen Mary 2, the first ship built to be an ocean liner in the last 25 years. It sails from the Hudson River piers.
The Queen Mary 2, recapitulating the Cunard heritage of great ocean liners, tends to be a bit more formal than other cruise ships. They have frequent dress up nights, including formal nights, masked balls and costume balls. Frankly, I go on vacation to rest and getting dressed in a Tuxedo is not my idea of rest, but then I was never a party animal. However, my five year old son loves to get dressed up; he is the only five year old I know who insists on wearing his clip-on tie to kindergarten, which he usually attaches to his t-shirt. So he was just thrilled at the opportunity to wear his Spiderman costume to the masked ball and his pirate outfit to the Caribbean ball. I was perfectly content to appear in torn jeans and a t-shirt as a deck hand.