We’re a family of four consisting of me, DH, DD16 and DD12. Prior to this trip, we’d taken 13 family cruises, including 3 European cruises. The vast majority of our cruises have been on Princess and Celebrity. For years we had wanted to try a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2. We decided to take the June 1 eastbound crossing, and to bookend the trip with 4 nights in Manhattan and 6 nights in London. We knew that June 1 would be earlier than most kids and teens would be out of school, but the date was the only one that worked out on our schedule. The trip culminated 18 months of planning by DH, including the accumulation of lots of frequent flier points and converting other points to subsidize our hotel stays. DH just loves this type of planning and gets all the credit for the logistical success of our trip.
PRE-CRUISE VISIT TO NEW YORK: We stayed at the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Terminal where we had two connecting rooms. This proved to be a very convenient location. We had taken the family to Manhattan in 2010, when we did many of the “must do” first time visitor experiences, like Top of the Rock, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Met, carriage ride in Central Park, etc. This time we took a more leisurely pace and tried to spend more time soaking in the big city ambiance. One fun thing we did was taking the self guided audio tour of Grand Central Terminal, which was educational and entertaining. We also went to the new 9/11 memorial, toured the Frick Collection, and went to the MOMA and the Natural History Museum. We also spent a fair amount of time wandering through Central Park, and walking down Fifth Avenue. We took the girls to see “Peter and the Star-Catcher” which was totally hilarious. The girls and I managed to get in a little shopping as well. We got around through a combination of walking, subway and taxis.
EMBARKATION/CABIN/SAILAWAY: Finally Saturday, June 1 dawned and it was time to board the ship. Embarkation went smoothly. We boarded the ship by about 2:00 pm. We had Cabin 4195 (a BD balcony cabin in the aft starboard section of Deck 4), and 4197 (an ID inside cabin directly across the hall) for the girls. The only negative thing I would say about our cabins is that the girls’ inside cabin got a fair amount of noise from the Queen’s Room at night. I was glad we had picked a sheltered balcony. We were blessed with placid weather for this crossing, and I enjoyed walking out on the balcony to look at the ocean. On the other hand, I didn’t feel bad about not having one of the higher up glass-fronted balconies, since it wasn’t warm enough to linger on the balcony and there wasn’t much to see except endless ocean.
The passenger mix seemed to be mostly Americans and British plus a large contingent of Germans. The ship was continuing to Hamburg after Southampton. Everyone from crew to fellow passengers seemed quite pleasant and friendly. I was struck by how many people said they are afraid to fly and that’s why they booked the crossing. We also met several who were onboard for 30 days, continuing to Hamburg and then the Norwegian Fjords, followed by the westbound crossing.
Sailaway from NY was fun, despite the heat and humidity. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty and then under the Verrazano Bridge. Passing under the Verrazano Bridge was much more impressive than I expected. Thanks to the tips we’ve read from the regulars on the Cunard board, we stood up on the top deck near the funnel. It almost seems as if you could reach up and touch the bridge, and you’d swear the mast is going to hit the bridge, but of course it doesn’t. We dragged our 16 year old DD up on deck with us. She came with much rolling of the eyes and lack of enthusiasm. But even she was excited the moment the bridge went over our heads. Next we went to the sailaway party by the aft pools. It was a bit warm and humid but a fun sailaway party with live music (with the band Vibz) and lots of good cheer.
After sailaway we explored the ship. This included a visit to The Zone, which is where the kid and teen program is based. The Zone is located on Deck 6 aft. I’ll talk more about this later when I address kids and teens. There isn’t much physical space allocated to the Zone. But the big shock was finding out that they were grouping ages 8-17 together for this cruise. They told us that there were 80 kids and teens onboard, including 37 from ages 0-7, 27 from ages 8-12 and 16 from ages 13-17. With only 16 teens onboard, I suppose I can understand why they didn’t bother to organize any activities for them. But it would’ve been nice to schedule one teen meet and greet on the first day. Instead, they operated as though the teens would show up to do arts and crafts and scavenger hunts with the 8-12 crowd. On the Cunard board, I posted a copy of the schedule for the week which shows the activities.
DINING IN BRITANNIA: After unpacking and exploring the ship, it was finally time for our late seating in the Britannia Dining Room. We had requested and received a table for 4. We had Table 114, which was located next to another 4-top by the window. The window table remained empty for the first 3 nights of the cruise, and after that a couple was seated there. Our waiter Michael was just wonderful, as was his assistant John Paul. Our DD’s both have food allergies, so every night Luis, the Food & Beverage Manager, would visit us with the next day’s lunch and dinner menus so that the girls could pre-order their food. The 16 year old is also a vegetarian, but she didn’t seem to have trouble finding a variety of items to order. Prior to our cruise, we had read some negative reviews of the food and service in Britannia. We found the service to be excellent and can’t say enough good things about Michael and Luis especially. As for the food, it was certainly very acceptable (is that damning with faint praise?). Having been on 13+ cruises, we have calibrated our expectations. We recognize that the food is mass produced and cannot be compared to a made to order dinner in a 4 star restaurant. We find there are always some items that exceed expectations and some that disappoint. We certainly found more to like than to dislike. I would single out the salads for praise simply because I have found salads to be a weak point on Princess and Celebrity. DH would probably single out the desserts for praise.
By coincidence, two friends of ours from Phoenix (B & R) were also booked on this cruise. After dinner we met them for drinks in the Commodore Club. B & R were full of hilarious stories and gossip about people they had met at the Friends of Dorothy gathering and their tablemates at their table for 10. All in all our first day on the QM2 was a huge success.
WHAT DO YOU DO ON ALL THOSE SEA DAYS, ANYWAY? In the months leading up to our trip, we were repeatedly asked what we were going to do all week. Many of our friends seemed quite certain that we would be bored to tears. Even fellow cruise enthusiasts seemed puzzled by the idea of 7 days at sea. Well there is no shortage of things to do on the QM2. Cunard regulars can skip this part since you know very well what there is to do onboard. This is for other newbies who wonder how you spend your time during on a transatlantic. Here’s a sampling of some of what we did.
On Sunday morning we went to trivia in the Golden Lion Pub, where we only managed to get 11 out of 20 right, a poor showing compared to what we’re used to. Then I went to Illuminations (the planetarium) to listen to a lecture by one of the guest speakers. His name was Dr. Allan Hamilton and he’s a neurology professor/physician from the University of Arizona. He’s a consultant for Grey’s Anatomy and gave a very entertaining lecture about the history of medical TV dramas. The title was, “From Dr. Kildare to Dr. House – The Changing Faces of American Healthcare as Seen Through TV Medical Drama.” He started in 1952 and went up to the present. He was a very good speaker and had lots of good video clips to illustrate his points about how the portrayal of doctors on TV has changed. His recurring theme was the “brilliant but arrogant” neurosurgeon character as well as doctors in general. Fun and entertaining.
After lunch we went back to Illuminations to see an Imax-style film about “breakthroughs in our quest to know the Cosmos.” Illuminations is a very interesting venue. In addition to having reclining chairs and a planetarium screen on the ceiling, it is also used as a multipurpose venue for lectures accompanied by powerpoint or video presentations. I actually liked it better than the Royal Court Theatre.
Mid-afternoon we tried out the Afternoon Tea in the Queen’s Room. Of course we weren’t in the least bit hungry, but we couldn’t resist trying out the experience. Tea was very enjoyable and we repeated the experience several times during the week. A couple of times we grabbed tea in the King’s Court as well. We couldn’t get enough of those yummy scones.
Interspersed in our week’s activites was an ongoing exploration of the ship, which was an adventure itself. There are all sorts of interesting little spots to discover, such as the location of the “extra” set of propellers. The Cunard board was very helpful in telling us what to look for, such as the bridge viewing area.
Sunday was the first formal night and all four of us dressed. DH wore his black suit, white shirt and silver tie. I wore a full length black dress and the girls wore their usual “prom” style shorter dresses that they’re worn on our other cruises. After dinner we went to the Queen’s Room to experience some of the Black & White Ball. At the girls’ urging, DH and I actually took a brief spin on the dance floor.
On Monday we had what I think of as a classic day on the QM2. At 11 am we attended a lecture on “Our Place in the Universe” presented by a fellow with the Royal Astronomical Society. The lectures are generally given in Illuminations, which is the planetarium. After lunch, we went to the Royal Court Theatre to see the RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) present a condensed version of Much Ado About Nothing. Immediately after Much Ado, we dashed back to Illuminations, this time to hear keynote speaker Nigel West on “Snow: The Welsh Spy Who Started the Double-Cross System.” West is described as a military historian specializing in security and intelligence issues. West gave a total of four lectures during the week, and we made it to three of them.
Monday night was another formal night, so once again we dressed up. We took the girls and met B & R at the Commodore’s Cocktail Party. The Commodore himself wasn’t there. We were told that he was needed on the Bridge due to the intense fog. So we shook the hand of the Hotel Director instead. He gave a welcome speech during which he mentioned that the passenger mix consists of 40% Americans, 25% British, 15% Germans, about 8% Canadians, some Australians and the rest coming from an assortment of countries. All the announcements were in English and German, and there were German books in the bookstore, plus a German speaking concierge on duty by the purser’s desk at all times.
After dinner, we went to the Royal Court Theatre to hear Dale Kristien. She played Christine Daae for 3 years in the original Broadway run of Phantom of the Opera. She sang a selection of songs from Phantom, Evita, Cats and other shows. She was every bit as good as you would expect from someone who won that role on Broadway.
On Tuesday morning we went back to hear Dr. Hamilton speak about horses: “Prey Mind, Predator Mind: A Scientific Look at How Horses Can Teach Us to Change Our Perspective on Life.”
We had the pub lunch in the Golden Lion Pub. We each had the fish and chips and shared a Chicken Tikka Masala. We were starting to be concerned about whether the girls were keeping themselves entertained. So, in the afternoon, we persuaded the girls to attend the Watercolour Art Class. You pay $35 for the supplies (unless you bring your own), and you can attend daily thereafter. The lesson is the same in the morning and afternoon, with a different lesson every day. This was a big success and the girls went back every day for the rest of the crossing.
While the girls were doing their art lessons, we went back for yet another lecture. Nigel West, the security expert, lectured on “Chinese Intelligence: Espionage and the Middle Kingdom.” Quite an interesting lecture. DH and I then zipped over to the buffet for the King’s Court version of the afternoon tea.
The rest of the crossing became a blur of activities. We attended more lectures and performances. RADA gave performances of Arabian Nights and Pride and Prejudice. We went to the Royal Ascot Ball and watched the parade of colorful, clever hats. We enjoyed jazz in the Chart Room. We explored the library and bookstore. I would say that we never tired of exploring the ship.
A GREAT DINNER AT TODD ENGLISH: On Wednesday night DH and I had dinner at Todd English with B & R. We have been enjoyed specialty restaurants on other lines, especially the Crown Grill on the Princess ships, and Murano and Tuscan Grille on Celebrity. Todd English is priced a la carte. We thought our dinner was excellent and I would rate it as our top cruise ship specialty restaurant experience. The service was excellent as well, and we were the last people to leave the restaurant.
GUEST RELATIONS SENDS A NOTE: On Wednesday, I was surprised to find a note from Guest Relations at our door. I was even more surprised to read the note and find out that our credit card company had declined our charges that day! Guest Relations said that it was not uncommon for this to happen because the charges originate from Miami, FL, and can sometimes trigger a fraud alert. They said that they would place a free call for us to our bank so that we could straighten it out. It turned out that our bank had in fact detected fraudulent charges on our card. We had left New York on June 1, but someone was using our credit card number to run up fraudulent charges in New Jersey while we were onboard. We still had our cards in our possession, so I can only surmise that someone stole our card number while we were in New York. Kudos to Chase Bank for detecting this and for having replacement credit cards waiting for us by the time we got to our hotel in London at the end of the cruise. And thanks to Cunard for being helpful and understanding about the situation, until we could get it straightened out.
DRESS CODE: I know this is a touchy subject so I will try to tread carefully. Shortly before our crossing, Cunard changed the dress code to formal and informal instead of the prior 3 tiered system. I know that many Cunard loyalists are dismayed by that change. Personally, it was a relief to us because it simplified the packing and planning process. DH chose to forego a tuxedo, but took his black suit, plus a sport coat and an assortment of dress trousers, dress shirts and ties. I packed three long, formal dresses (not ball gowns) and two cocktail type dresses. The girls each had two above the knee “prom” type dresses plus some everyday dresses. We all brought casual day wear. On the formal nights, most men wore tuxes but there were enough in suits that DH felt quite comfortable in his black suit. On informal nights, the men of course all wore jackets, but we saw a pretty even breakdown of ties versus no ties. The ladies were dressed quite nicely on informal nights, many in cocktail dresses. I really didn’t see anyone dressed casually in Britannia on informal nights. On a smart casual night on Princess or Celebrity, I would feel perfectly comfortable wearing capri pants and a cotton top, but on Cunard I felt that I needed to step it up a notch and wear a cocktail dress.
KIDS AND TEENS: Early in this review I mentioned our disappointment that the youth program combined ages 8-17. Our DD’s have cruised on Celebrity and Princess , so they don’t expect to find rock climbing walls or waterslides on their cruises. But I have never encountered a program that combined such a wide range of ages into one group. Typically our teen daughter would go to the teen meet and greet, make a few friends, and meet up with those teens throughout the cruise to get snacks, play games, etc. But no self respecting teen is going to attend events with 8 year olds! Our 12 year old enjoyed some of the activities, especially the scavenger/trivia hunts. But I thought there wasn’t even a token effort to address teenagers. Fortunately, our DD’s enjoy dressing up, going to tea, getting their photos taken endlessly, exploring the ship, watching the RADA productions and the planetarium show. The watercolor art class was a total lifesaver for them. If you take your teens on the QM2, don’t expect the youth staff to entertain them. There’s plenty to do and they’ll have a good time if they like to hang out with their families or if they enjoy the adult activities offered. We ran into another family with a 15 year old son, and he seemed to entertain himself playing bridge.
DISEMBARKATION AND POST-CRUISE: Because we were on Deck 4, we were among the last to disembark. We had pre-arranged a transfer to London with Southampton Taxis. Once in London, we spend 6 nights at the Andaz Liverpool Street (using Hyatt points). The Andaz seems to cater primarily to American business people, but it worked out well for us. We had a great time in London. We had been there in 2009, so this was a chance to explore further and do things we had missed on our prior visit. We especially enjoyed our tour of the Houses of Parliament and our visit to Greenwich and the Royal Observatory. We saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Globe Theatre and ran into another family from the QM2. We also saw the new production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” which was in previews at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. We revisited the London Eye, British Museum, St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey.
OVERALL OPINION AND COMPARISON TO CELEBRITY/PRINCESS: We came away with the opinion that the QM2 is a unique and wonderful ship. It’s hard to imagine doing a transatlantic cruise on any other ship. There’s just so much to do and explore, and your fellow passengers are obviously well read, well traveled people. This ship was built for crossings, and we assume that crossings are what it does best. By this I mean an emphasis on indoor public assembly spaces and enough space for the ship to feel uncrowded, as well as an emphasis on on-board activities that appeal to a cultured clientele. We think these advantages would diminish on a port-intensive cruise, especially for itineraries that emphasize sunshine. We also prefer the availability of open seating options on Princess and Celebrity. Cunard only offers the open seating option in Britannia Club and the Grills, which are much more expensive. On our last cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette, we booked Aqua Class and enjoyed dining in Blu, a smaller venue with excellent service and open seating. We also like the variety of alternative dining options on the Celebrity Solstice-class ships. For a port intensive cruise, we would also prefer the more relaxed dress code found on Princess and Celebrity where you can wear smart casual attire to the specialty restaurants. Our next cruise destination will probably be a Baltic cruise in summer of 2015. Much as we enjoyed the QM2, I think we will prefer Celebrity or Princess for a Baltic cruise. But I’m sure we will return someday to do another crossing on the magnificent QM2.