Few ships need as little introduction as QUEEN MARY 2. When she was introduced in 2004, she was the first new transatlantic ocean liner since QE2 in 1969, the first new Cunarder since Cunard Princess in 1976 and the largest, longest, widest, tallest and most expensive passenger ship ever built.
Today, QM2 has been sailing for over three years. Her tonnage has been slightly exceeded by Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, but she's still longer, wider, taller, and more expensive and will remain first in all those categories until that company's newest class of ship, code-named Genesis debuts in 2009 (and even that will be the same height - just slightly longer and much wider; it remains to be seen whether Genesis will end up costing more than QM2).
But superlatives aside, QM2 set off a storm of controversy upon her debut. Not since QE2 35 years before had a ship been so scrutinized by the traveling public, and like her predecessor, the reception wasn't always warm. Early passengers complained about food and service, about her size (too big), her dEcor (too modern or too traditional, depending on who you asked), her layout, and just about everything else. Perhaps most stinging was the allegation that she wasn't a "real liner" - there remain some people who are convinced that any ship where 80% of the cabins have balconies can't possibly an ocean liner.
I was there when QM2 arrived in New York for the first time in April 2004, her older running mate QE2 by her side. Since then I've visited her twice and known dozens of people who have sailed aboard. But it took me three years to actually take a voyage aboard QM2 - and a cruise no less.
The truth is, I was in no particular hurry to sail in QM2. It was something I wanted to do, and I figured I would sometime, but while I was (and am) determined to enjoy QE2 as much as possible before she goes, QM2 seemed to have little sense of urgency. She was, after all, a ship built to last 40 years...
Nevertheless, when a mailing from Cunard came offering very attractive fares a cruise leaving Ft. Lauderdale right when my parents and I would be visiting relatives in Florida, and returning back to New York a eight days later, there was no hesitation in booking the cruise. The attraction of a cruise that would eliminate the need for flying home was just too great to resist. It would also be an opportunity to introduce my mother to the joys of Cunard - my dad and I are both QE2 veterans but her Cunard experience was heretofore limited to a bon voyage party aboard QE2 in the '70s.
So on 2 April 2007 we made our way down to Port Everglades from my grandparents' house near Palm Beach - a well-worn route for us - and arrived around 2:30 PM at Terminal 21 where QM2 was berthed. It should come as no surprise that she looked utterly massive next to Holland America Line's handsome VOLENDAM and slightly less so next to Celebrity's rather less handsome CONSTELLATION. Still, I'd never seen her at Port Everglades before, and seeing QM2 someplace new is always an impressive sight. (Frankly, even seeing QM2 someplace old is always an impressive sight...)
We unloaded our copious luggage and then dad dropped mom and I off so he could go return the rental car. This would save us all having to drag our luggage to the port on the rental car shuttle. Unfortunately it took over an hour for him to return the car at the airport about five minutes away! (Why are rental-car companies always so inefficient?) Ominously, while mom and I waited in the lobby of the terminal - mercifully air-conditioned like everything else in hot, steamy Florida - we heard announcements from Cunard "apologizing for the delay" due to immigration problems with disembarking passengers. This was our first hint that it was not a good day for QM2...
When dad finally returned we breezed through security, before which we had to sign the usual form certifying that we had not experienced any gastrointestinal symptoms in the last two days, and then ascended to a departure hall. This cavernous space - the biggest of all Port Everglades' terminals - was packed from wall to wall with departing passengers. In front of the check-in desks stood one of the longest queues I've ever seen, and before it were hundreds of chairs full of people just waiting to be admitted onto the queue itself. A pleasant but rather overwhelmed Cunard rep directed us to a few open seats and I had the feeling we were going to be here for a very long time.
In reality, we only sat for about a half hour, and then stood for another half hour before checking in with a gentleman wearing a QM2 tie, a Princess Cruises lanyard and a name badge bearing the Seabourn logo! After having the requisite "please-leave-us-alone-we're-tired-and-want-to-go-aboard" photo snapped next to a life ring we strolled aboard, breathing a sign of relief that it hadn't been as bad as perhaps it looked. We've all been through more than a few embarkations and agreed that while we'd had better ones, we'd certainly had worse ones too. Later we learned that that morning, the US Immigration agents to clear the ship's 2,200 disembarking passengers from Southampton (another 450 or so stayed on) simply failed to show up. After a couple of hours they finally sent two agents. Yes, two! Given this mess I'm not sure what Cunard could have done to improve things, so I am more than willing to forgive them for the messy embarkation. All things considered I think they handled it fairly well.
Soon the boat drill - delayed half an hour because of the messy embarkation - was completed (always a breeze on P&O Princess ships as it's indoors) and we were sailing away from Port Everglades and off into the Caribbean. From then on things went quite smoothly. Our itinerary gave us two delightful days at sea at around 22 knots down to our first port of call, Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles.
I hear Bonaire is the place to be if you dive; I don't and neither do my parents, so in the absence of a shore excursion (many were cancelled and the rest were sold out) we just walked around and enjoyed the atmosphere. Less developed and less well known than other Dutch Caribbean islands like Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten, Bonaire is an underappreciated gem. Here you will not find fancy shops, huge resorts, trinket-selling vendors or a lot of tourists. In fact, non-divers won't find all that much here at all. What you will find is the little town of Kralendijk with its brightly colored, immaculately kept Dutch colonial architecture and a palm-lined promenade along the harbor where you can see the sailing yachts that come here from faraway places like Denmark, Germany and even New Zealand. If it strikes your fancy you can take a water taxi to the even tinier, uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire for a day at the beach, and of course those who dive or snorkel will be in heaven here. For us it was a nice day to just stroll around the town enjoying the weather and the atmosphere. Nevertheless, I felt a bit guilty about sailing here aboard such a huge ship - to put things in perspective, the population of Bonaire is less than four times the passenger and crew capacity of QM2!
Next up was the island of Grenada. Grenada is probably most remembered by many for the US invasion in 1983. In 2004 it again entered the news when Ivan, its first hurricane in 49 years, devastated the island and destroyed many of its building. Today Grenada is quickly recovering and is again welcoming tourists, but what makes it notable today is that unlike many of its neighbors, it has a significant industry other than tourism. Grenada has long been known as the Caribbean's "Isles of Spice" and indeed the spice industry remains a major part of the economy here.
QM2, like many larger ships, is too big to berth in Grenada so we anchored out in the harbor and would go ashore by tender. Unfortunately, in something of a repeat of our embarkation in Ft. Lauderdale, trouble with local authorities delayed the start of the tendering process. Despite this, shore excursion passengers, us included, were instructed to queue up at the originally appointed time. In hindsight, this was hardly the best plan - the resulting queue was ridiculously long as more and more people began to accumulate for subsequent tour departures while nobody was actually leaving. Nonetheless, after a quick hop ashore in the ship's modern, enclosed tender, passing the MSC OPERA (which barely fit at the island's smallish pier) we arrived in the cheerful capital of St. George's. Here our tour guide, an astonishingly knowledgeable middle-aged Grenadian woman whose knowledge of her island was infinitely greater than that of most of the guides one encounters in the Caribbean, met us. Our tour stopped at the Douglaston Spice Estate where our guide showed us the various spices harvested on the island, and then proceeded on to the highlight, the beautiful Grand Etang Lake in Grand Etang National Park. High in the mountains, this is the water-filled crater of an extinct volcano, surrounded by a lush rainforest, and is definitely not to be missed by any visitor to Grenada. On our way back we stopped at Annandale Falls (as our astute guide wryly said, "it's not Niagara Falls") and finally at the imposing Fort Frederick which affords a stunning panoramic view of St. George's and the famed Grand Anse Beach. At this point we were well and truly exhausted from the heat and humidity and elected to return to the ship. I was pleased to see crew members offering ice water as we waited for the tender - a nice touch that some cruise lines sadly omit. Grenada is certainly not a tourist and shopping Mecca as so many other islands are; I enjoyed its natural beauty and less-touristy atmosphere and hope it continues to succeed in its hurricane recovery.
Our last port of call was St. Kitts, properly called St. Christopher. Known as the "mother island of the West Indies", as it was the first British colony in the Caribbean, St. Kitts has moved in recent years from an economy based on sugar cane to one based on tourism. We docked at the brand-new, Carnival-funded Port Zante, a pier accompanied by a modern, characterless shopping center reminiscent of St. Thomas or any number of other islands. Fortunately St. Kitts has not yet lost its charm, as we found after driving to its capital, Basseterre, a cheerful small town with a tiny version of Piccadilly Circus. We then moved on to a former sugar cane plantation that's now a botanical garden batik factory, and then to (for me) the highlight of the island, the Brimstone Hill Fortress, a huge fort on a promontory on the island's coastline that offers a stunning view as well as historical exhibits about St. Kitts' history as Britain's home base in the Eastern Caribbean for over 300 years. St. Kitts as it is today is a beautiful and relaxing island but I fear that in 10 years it may not look any different from so many others that have been overrun with tourists and are crammed with shops selling jewelry and trinkets. I certainly hope the island manages to achieve success in the tourist industry without totally selling out to crass commercialism.
After St. Kitts we enjoyed another leisurely two days at sea, racing back to New York at about 27.5 knots, a feat that most modern ships could never hope to achieve. Our early arrival in Brooklyn was followed by a totally painless disembarkation procedure; we were happy to take advantage of Cunard's much-appreciated self-help disembarkation that lets passengers disembark as soon as the ship as cleared if they are willing to carry of their own luggage. We then breezed through the almost non-existent "US Citizens" immigration queue (certainly an advantage of being on a cruise ending in the US where 2/3 of the passengers are from other places) and after a short ride home that we were at our front door by 9 AM. The joys of not having to fly home are not to be underestimated!
It was certainly a very enjoyable cruise to some of the less-trafficked parts of the Caribbean. QM2 herself is - as the Grenada tendering experience demonstrated - not really ideal for cruising (though this owes largely to her size, and there are plenty of cruise ships that are almost as big) but her vast array of public areas, facilities and diversions are certainly ideal for voyages like this one with many sea days, as befits a ship designed to spend most of her time at sea on the North Atlantic. While I certainly would never choose her for a port-intensive itinerary I would be glad to do a crossing aboard, or another cruise like this with many sea days to enjoy the ship which, despite her huge capacity, has a wonderfully uncrowded feeling when at sea.
QM2 is obviously not the ship for you if you are looking for an intimate, personal experience (and as a fan of smaller ships myself, I certainly know the appeal there), but she offers the ultimate cruise experience for those who accept the large-ship paradigm.
As on QE2, on QM2 your main dining room is determined by cabin assignment. Passengers in standard inside, outside and balcony cabins are assigned to the Britannia Restaurant, a huge two-deck-high room on Decks 2 and 3 that offers dinner in two seatings and open seating for breakfast and lunch. A small number of balcony cabins are now assigned to the Britannia Club, a section of the room in the aft port corner, which offers breakfast, lunch and dinner at a single seating.
Mini-suites are assigned to the Princess Grill aft on Deck 7 and suites, penthouses and duplex apartments to the Queens Grill, also aft on Deck 7. Both restaurants offer single seating dining for all meals, and an additional à la carte menu (more elaborate in the Queens Grill). While pleasant, I find the Grills to be rather casual looking for formal dining rooms - they look more like stylish urban cafes than grand dining rooms aboard an ocean liner. This is in stark contrast to the monumentality of the Britannia Restaurant and indeed of most of the other public areas on board.
Our inside cabin entitled us to dine in the Britannia Restaurant, where we were assigned a round table for eight by a window - an ideal table assignment. Last year aboard QE2 my father and I experienced a bit of table assignment confusion and it seems we carried the curse with us to QM2 this year. Our initial dining companions were a very pleasant couple from Hampshire and their daughter and son-in-law who were now living in Trinidad where the son-in-law worked as a marine biologist. The second night, another couple turned up who had just been assigned our table, but as there was only one empty seat, they were turned away. On night three our original dining companions switched to early seating, as the "kids" were planning on doing a lot of diving in the islands that would require them to get up early. An equally enjoyable couple from Sussex and an apparently very wealthy elderly lady from Manhattan replaced them. The lady stayed for only one night - she seemed to enjoy having a different table each evening, and never repeated a single one - while the couple remained for three nights until some seats opened up at a table with friends of theirs. On night six two single ladies from Rhode Island and a single man from Westchester (New York) joined us, and to our utter astonishment they had been moved (or chose to move - I'm not sure) to a different table every night until then! They dined with us for the last three nights of the cruise. While all these people were very enjoyable dining companions, I must say having so many changes did disrupt the "flow" of things a bit. (Reading this I am sure some of you are getting the idea that we must be really unpleasant dining companions for so many people to have left us but really, it wasn't that way!) After a while it was like a running joke to see who would turn up for dinner. Looking around us there seemed to be an incredible amount of moving around going on in the dining room, far more than I can ever remember seeing on any other ship with fixed table assignments. While this is not the norm, it did change the atmosphere a bit and frankly, not for the better.
That aside, the dining experience was very enjoyable indeed, with food that was well above average in quality and a nice balance of traditional and "creative" dishes. My only criticism is that the menu descriptions were rather sparse, so often one had to ask questions to really know how a certain dish was prepared. Very often a menu description would not sound all that appealing but the dish itself would be excellent! Fortunately our steward was very knowledgeable and always happy to clarify things, and in the end I came away pleasantly surprised on many occasions with what I ate.
We also ate breakfast and lunch in the Britannia on most days and found the food and service to be very satisfactory on all occasions. Indeed, I would have been perfectly fine having all my meals in here. But QM2 offers a wide range of dining options, and it is certainly worth taking note of some of them.
The most popular alternative choice is the King's Court, the main casual buffet restaurant on the ship. Bizarrely located amidships on Deck 7, far away from the pool areas where one normally finds such places, this is a cavernous space that works fairly well but is utterly devoid of any atmosphere. Its only saving grace is a large number of bay windows looking out on the boat deck, which - if those tables are open - are very pleasant. Otherwise it is just a vast cafeteria that serves large numbers efficiently but in rather drab surroundings. Fortunately the food itself was fine - nothing special, but good enough, and an awful lot better than the dreadful buffets on many other ships - and certainly more than sufficient for a quick bite. I would never choose to eat here, though, if the dining room is an option - I usually wound up in the King's Court only if I ate breakfast or lunch too late to eat in the main dining room (e.g. breakfast at 10 or lunch at 2:30), or for an occasional out-of-hours snack. Otherwise the place holds little appeal for me, but obviously I'm in the minority considering just how many people always seem to be eating here.
One thing that is worth noting about the King's Court is that while the four sections each offer the same things for breakfast, at lunch there is different food in each one so it is worth taking your time to consider all the options rather than simply grabbing the first thing you see. Menus are helpfully posted outside each entrance outlining the offerings at all the sections, so it is easy to find what you want. The lunch offerings usually mirror the "themes" of each section; hence you'll find traditional fare at the Carvery, Italian-inspired stuff in La Piazza and Asian (and very good it is, too) at Lotus, while the Chef's Galley turns into a deli.
At night the four sections are divided up into separate alternative restaurants. The Carvery serves modern British food, the Lotus a variety of Asian cuisines, La Piazza serves Italian and the Chef's Galley - which requires a $20 surcharge - offers "theme nights" like Italian or Indian with the distinction that here, the chefs cook the entire meal in front of you and even offer tips on how to do it at home. (Having perused some of the menus, I would say the home-cooking aspect is only for the very ambitious!) We didn't try any of these for dinner but I've heard excellent things about the food; the Indian night at Chef's Galley garnered especially rave reviews and I was sorry to have missed it. Maybe next time!
Then there is the Golden Lion Pub down on Deck 2, where you can get a pub lunch featuring favorites like fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and mushroom pie and chicken korma. We tried this once and I was rather sorry it was at the end of the cruise or else I'd have returned! The room is a rather poor imitation of a pub but the food is quite tasty aside from the limp American fries that stand in for chips (why a supposedly "British" ship can't get chips right is beyond me).
For a more upscale experience there is Todd English, an alternative restaurant created by the Boston chef after whom it is named. This airy, modern room aft on Deck 8 offers creative, modern American cuisine with a Mediterranean accent. Lunch (on sea days only) costs $20; dinner is $30. I enjoyed a lunch of shaved pear and goat cheese salad, Boston style lobster salad on a croissant with homemade potato chips, and mandarin orange crème brûlee with fresh berries.
Sir Samuel's on Deck 3, a coffee bar by day, offers pastries for breakfast, sandwiches and other light entrees for lunch, and a selection of cakes in the afternoon. The Boardwalk Cafe near the Pavillion Pool on Deck 12 offers grilled items for lunch, and last but not least, a lavish afternoon tea is served every day in the Queens Room on Deck 3 (and, for Grill Class passengers, the Queens Grill Lounge on Deck 7) with fresh-baked scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream and a variety of tea sandwiches, pastries and cookies.
The vast QUEEN MARY 2 offers a public area for just about everyone's taste. As is the current fashion, most of the public rooms are located low in the ship to maximize the number of cabins with balconies. Down on Deck 2 is the Cunard Connexions conference and computer center, the stunning Illuminations auditorium and planetarium, the Royal Court theatre with excellent sightlines, the large but fairly restrained Empire Casino and the Golden Lion Pub, a haven of kitsch that could be in any chain hotel anywhere in the world.
On Deck 3 is the upper level of Illuminations and the Royal Court plus the Mayfair Shops featuring names like Hermes, the Veuve Cliquot Champagne Bar, Chart Room, Sir Samuel's coffee bar/wine bar, the Queens Room and the G32 nightclub. The Champagne Bar and Chart Room are adjacent spaces with elegant decor reminiscent of the Long Gallery on the original QUEEN MARY. Sir Samuel's, one of my favorite rooms on board, has sleek modern decor with dark-stained wood and glowing jewel tones, while the vast Queens Room returns to the Art Deco theme with a stage modeled on the Hollywood Bowl. High ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and a light, airy color scheme with blue, red and gold accents make this a truly grand space; at the center is one of the biggest dance floors at sea. Finally G32, named after the ship's hull number, is a dark, windowless space with a subtle "industrial" feel.
All the public areas on Decks 2 and 3 benefit from extra-high ceilings that provide a sense of space unheard of on smaller ships - one of the positive benefits of the ship's size. Some of the rooms have so much space they look empty even when full to capacity!
On Deck 7, in between the Canyon Ranch Spa forward and the King's Court further aft is the Winter Garden, complete with ersatz gates, street lamps, "wicker" furniture and a veritable jungle of fake greenery. Easily the worst decorated room on the ship, it seems deserted except for the inevitable art auctions where some of the "art" is as bad as the room!
On Deck 8 forward on the starboard side are the superb Library and Bookshop, with the largest selection of books on the seas. The only flaw in this dark-paneled, forward-facing area is that it's so full of shelves there is only room for a few comfortable chairs. Still, there are plenty of other places to take your books.
Forward on Deck 9 are the Commodore Club, Churchill's cigar lounge and the Boardroom. The forward-facing Commodore Club offers spectacular views (sadly, at night the window shades must be closed to avoid glare on the bridge above) and the room itself is a stunner with dark paneling and dark green and white furnishings. Behind the bar is a giant model of QM2 and at night soft purple lighting gives the room an ethereal glow.
In the aft port corner of the room is the Boardroom, an inexplicably named but pleasantly decorated sitting room, and its counterpart on the starboard side, Churchill's cigar lounge has the appropriate woody, leathery atmosphere for such a room.
Finally, tucked away all the way forward on Deck 11 is the Atlantic Room, a blandly decorated room furnished with card tables that has yet another spectacular forward facing view and is often used for private meetings.
Like most large ships, QM2 offers a wide array of accommodations. Our category D6 inside cabin, 4065, was about average-sized at 157 sq ft but well designed and pleasantly furnished with light wood cabinetry and gold and black soft furnishings. The bathroom - with real tile, unusual for a new ship - has a large shower stall but sadly, only a curtain rather than the door one might expect these days. The two lower beds, convertible to a double, are comfortable with fluffy duvet covers and the upper berths fold completely into the ceiling. Wardrobe space is adequate though not as ample as one might hope for. Of course there are the requisite safe, hairdryer and whatnot, and the color TV has an interactive system called QM2TV that offers e-mail, shore excursion booking and a host of other features - you can even order cabin service over the TV, though quite why anyone would want to do this is lost on me. (It strikes me as one of those features added "because we could".)
There are only a few outside cabins and by far the most common are balcony cabins which come in two flavors; those on the upper decks have smaller balconies with glass railings while the less-expensive cabins on the lower decks offer larger "sheltered balconies" with steel railings. All the balcony and outside cabins are larger than the insides, the difference being a sitting area with sofa. Some of the cabins with glass balconies on Deck 8 have obstructed views and are thus priced lower even than the sheltered balcony cabins, but really, who wants to sit out on a balcony and look at a nice bright orange lifeboat?
Going beyond the balcony cabins, the sky's the limit with mini-suites, suites and penthouses and at the top of the range, duplex apartments larger than most people's houses. Why anyone would want to hide out in a fancy cabin with all this ship has to offer is beyond me, but each to his or her own!
This is an area where Cunard traditionally excels and QM2 is certainly no exception. The most hyped of her attractions is undoubtedly the planetarium, located in Illuminations. The planetarium dome, which is normally part of the room's ceiling, lowers over the audience for the planetarium shows, which are shown four times a day on sea days and operate on a ticket system for capacity control (it is a simple matter to go down to the Connexions desk and pick up however many free tickets you need). The shows a produced by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and we saw two; "Search for Life", narrated by Harrison Ford, and "Cosmic Collisions", narrated by Robert Redford. I found both quite entertaining and informative and certainly for the novelty value of seeing a planetarium show on a ship it is worth spending a half hour of your time to see at least one of these.
Of course, as on virtually all mainstream cruise ships, the main event is the nightly "show', which on QM2 takes place in the Royal Court theatre. As we had a brand new cast on our cruise they spent the first part of the cruise doing rehearsals meaning we had only two shows rather than the usual three; however they certainly impressed. The first, "Rock @ the Opera", was typical cruise ship fare in that there didn't seem to be much of a plot (OK, no plot at all) but the talent displayed by the singers and dancers, along with the staging, costuming and choreography were all first-rate - certainly among the best I've ever seen aboard ship. However, the highlight was undoubtedly the second show, "Apassionata", which refreshingly didn't even attempt the conceit of a plot but rather said flat-out that it was simply going to be a sampling of dancing from around the world. This was truly superb - out of the dozens of cruise ship production shows I've seen Apassionata is easily one of the two or three best.
Then there is always the challenge of offering "headline entertainers" on the nights where there are no production shows, and here again Cunard excelled. My favorite was the utterly hilarious ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, whose characters tend to say things a "real person" might not get away with. If ever you have the chance to see Paul on a cruise ship, don't miss it! Paul appeared three times and never failed to leave the audience in stitches.
Others included the excellent singer Mark O'Malley, many of whose songs I didn't recognize (a lot of them were from West End/Broadway shows I never saw) but whose great voice and down-to-earth personality made him a joy to watch, and the violinist Vincenzo Gentile, of whom I saw only a very little bit; but from what I saw he was very good indeed.
Naturally there is nightlife outside the Royal Court theatre and on QM2 this meant live music for just about any taste. This is a ship that carries two - yes, two - full orchestras, not to mention a bevy of pianists, a string quartet, a dance band and more. The balls in the Queens Room (how many cruise lines have balls these days?) even featured a professional ballroom dance team who displayed their talents at night and offered lessons during the day.
On a cruise with so many sea days it is always a challenge to keep everyone busy and here again Cunard did an admirable job. The lecture series is usually a highlight on a Cunard voyage and here it was headlined by the actor Richard Dreyfuss who gave a Q&A session with Cruise Director Alastair Greener as well as a lecture on his projects to improve civics education in the USA. Then there was antiques lecturer Geoffrey Whittaker who lectured on innumerable antiques-related topics and port lecturer Netta Martin who did a nice job of making the Caribbean interesting (let's face it, port lecturers in e.g. the Med have a lot more material to work with) and whose sense of humor was much enjoyed. Finally to round out the offerings there was someone from the Canyon Ranch spa (which runs the ship's spa operations) offering health and wellness advice.
While the lecture program is always a draw there were also plenty of other daytime activities including classical concerts by someone billed as the foremost classical musician in the UK (being no authority on the subject I have no idea if this is true, but it did seem a rather grand statement to make), the aforementioned planetarium shows, and so on. All in all it would be quite difficult to get bored on this ship!
Fitness & Recreation:
In case you've not caught on to the pattern yet, QM2 features the latest and greatest in most everything, so it should come as little surprise that fitness fanatics too will be quite happy aboard. The Canyon Ranch spa, located forward on Deck 7, is one of the largest at sea and here you'll find a vast gym with all the most advanced and expensive equipment, a veritable rabbit warren of treatment rooms, a hydrotherapy pool, "relaxation rooms", saunas, steam rooms, a very chic beauty salon, and on and on it goes. I will freely admit that I'm not a "spa person" but the Canyon Ranch spa on QM2 is so gorgeous I felt like spending time there just to admire the décor! The sleek, modern and vaguely Asian-inspired décor here offers a nice respite from the grandeur of much of the rest of the ship.
Of course, the most time-honored form of shipboard recreation is spending time on the open decks, and QM2 offers acres of teak deck space on which to do it. The promenade deck on Deck 7 - three times round is 1.1 miles - is one of the best at sea; it's wide, lined with teak steamer chairs and the forward end is enclosed for use in all weather. Aft on Deck 6 is the Minnows Pool, adjacent to the ship's kids' facilities; Deck 8 aft has the Terrace Pool and Bar; Deck 11 has a small open deck with whirlpool aft and a great observation deck all the way forward; and all the way up on Deck 12 is the Pavillion Pool and Bar, covered by a retractable glass dome. This deck also boasts a vast amount of open deck space surrounded by glass wind baffles, shuffleboard and deck quoits courts, and the Boardwalk Café for light poolside dining. Aft of the Pavillion Pool is also the ship's golf putting green. Deck 13 brings another huge expanse of open deck space with a splash pool, two whirlpools, the Regatta Bar and, aft of the splash pool, an observation platform that raises you up another deck level and gives a 270-degree view (the funnel blocks the view aft). Forward on Deck 13 is the Sports Centre with basketball/volleyball courts, and all the way forward is the Lookout, another forward observation deck whose view is sadly compromised by the high steel bulwark (necessary, but unsightly).
QM2 does not appeal to families as much as many other mega-ships, but she does have the requisite facilities, The Play Zone (3-12) and the Zone (13-17) aft on Deck 6. Because it was over the Easter holidays, we did have an unusually high number of families on our cruise and I heard no complaints.
Cunard always attracts a more diverse passenger group than most and on this cruise we had around 1,100 Brits, 1,000 Americans, fairly large contingents from Canada, Germany and France and smaller groups from a long list of other countries. The majority of passengers seemed to fall in the "50-plus" age range, though this by no means spoke for all and there were a fair number of younger people as well. All the nationalities seemed to get along well though understandably the French- and German-speakers tended to mingle among themselves.
International hostesses were provided for German-, French- and (rather unusually) Spanish-speakers and each language group had a number of special events that seemed well attended. The announcements - kept to a bare minimum on Cunard - were fully translated into all three languages and printed materials were available in all three as well.
Cunard is a considerably more formal cruise line than most, though adherence on a Caribbean cruise will generally not be quite as strict as on a crossing. There are three dress codes: formal, informal and elegant casual. For men, formal means dinner jacket/tuxedo (or alternately dark suit), informal is a jacket or dark suit and tie, and elegant casual is jacket (tie optional). Formal and informal dress codes were adhered to well with about 80% of men wearing dinner jackets/tuxedos on formal nights (this is fairy low for Cunard - on some voyages it approaches 100%) and jackets and ties universal on informal nights; elegant casual was spottier with a solid majority of men not wearing the supposedly required jacket. Many were rather unprepared for "elegant casual" as much of the pre-cruise information still contained the old "casual" definition (no jacket required); elegant casual heretofore existed only on QE2 but apparently now goes for QM2 too and the latest Cunard brochures show "casual" having been eliminated altogether. (There still seems to be an awful lot of confusion about this - on our cruise the Daily Programme even listed the old "casual" definition next to "elegant casual" one day!)
Our eight-night cruise had three formal nights, one informal and four elegant casual. Generally speaking, days at sea are formal (but with a maximum of three per week), the first and last nights and days in port with departures 6 PM an later are elegant casual, and port days with departures before 6 PM and any other sea days (if more than three per week and not the last day of the cruise) are informal.
The dress code applies to all public areas after 6 PM. At least officially, this includes the King's Court, leaving no official casual dinner venue.
All passengers are automatically charged the rather cumbersomely named Discretionary Hotel & Dining Charge, which comes to $11 per day for those in Britannia accommodations and $13 per day for those in Grill accommodations. While no additional gratuities are suggested or expected, you are free to tip additionally if you are so inclined.
Those wishing to opt out of this program and tip individually may do so by notifying the Purser's Office.
An automatic 15% gratuity is added to all bar bills. Rather cheekily, a space is left for an "additional gratuity" - one wonders how many passengers make use of this...