RMS QUEEN MARY 2 MAIDEN VOYAGE ~ A REVIEW
EMBARKATION. With high expectations, latterly fed by a frenzy of TV coverage that assured the world that we had all paid £26,000 for the privilege (our bank manager was especially impressed), we finally arrived at Queen Elizabeth II terminal in Southampton for the voyage we seemed to have been waiting for so long. Even the weather smiled on us that day as the sun shone for the first time in weeks. The terminal was buzzing with excitement and embarkation was a very smooth operation. After 45 minutes in the waiting room, which was decorated with Cunard memorabilia, bell boys and white QM2 roses, we were ushered aboard willing ourselves to be impressed. There was no need, for as we entered the Grand Lobby, between ranks of white uniformed flunkies, this ship touched our emotions as none had before. Although we were not greeted nor offered assistance in finding our stateroom (a missed opportunity which did not bode well for service expectations), we wandered through this heart of QM2 impressed by the scale, richness and ocean liner tradition that oozes from the design. It is possible (if your eye sight is up to it) to stand with your back to the Samuel Cunard mural adjacent to the Royal Court entrance on Deck 3 and look through the Grand Lobby to the QM2 tapestry on the back wall of the Britannia Dining Room over 360 feet away! It was remarkably easy to find the way to our B4 grade stateroom on Deck 6 and we were suitably impressed when our South African stewardess greeted us by name in the corridor as we opened the door.
ACCOMMODATION. The staterooms are a major leap forward for a Cunard ship, but no better or no worse than the latest staterooms on RCI, Celebrity, HAL or Princess. In design terms it is very simplistic (not even central light switching) and shows a strong art deco influences in the pale wood with black inlay headboard and furniture. Storage behind a neat bank of veneered doors comprises a double wardrobe with about 25 hangers, a second single wardrobe with a pull out rail for hangers from a suit carrier, four drawers, two shelves and a safe. For 2 weeks the storage is more than adequate and for longer trips there is always the free laundrette on each deck (4 washers, 4 dryers and 2 ironing boards for the technically inclined). Bedside tables with annoyingly stiff anti-roll catches, a dressing table / fridge / TV console with chair, height adjustable coffee table and sofa complete the furniture. Apart from the black inlays, pale red sofa and primary coloured art work, the colour scheme is generally beige and pale neutral. The shower room is more compact than expected, but with a huge shower tray and adequate storage size was never an issue. The internal layout of the B4 grade stateroom is similar in size and style to all B, C and D categories, with the exception that some C's (Standard Oceanview) have the combined space of the B stateroom plus its balcony and are huge. The only other grade of stateroom we saw was a P grade Mini Suite, which had identical dEcor but was 50% larger than the normal staterooms and had a walk-in wardrobe plus a more generous bathroom with full size bath tub.
We were blessed with what has become known as a 'hull' balcony, an open balcony space within the hull with a rectangular opening cut into the top half of the deck height. The balcony is accessed by a glazed door in the floor to ceiling glazing of the stateroom. To me the location of this rectangular opening is a major design flaw, as it is impossible to see anything other than the sky unless you stand at the rail and look out. I can see no reason why the hole could have been made lower or a second hole cut below the first. If safety was an issue then why did they put a metal step a few feet convenient to the floor and compound it with furniture that lends itself to be stood on so that you can lean out of the balcony opening? The lounging furniture is a nonsense and takes up half the floor space. A table and chairs would be much more useful. That said, it was still good to have a balcony and we made good use of it - especially on the very rough Bay of Biscay crossing (when fresh air was sometimes need in a hurry and this type of balcony becomes much preferable to the unsheltered inaccessible 'glass' variety. The thinking behind these balconies I will touch on later.
DINING. Pleased with our accommodation, it was with great excitement we ventured to the Britannia Dining Room. The photographs of this room catch the grandeur of the design but give no clues to its vastness, seating up to 1300 passengers at any one time. The vast illuminated glass ceiling over the double height space and curving double stairways gave the feeling of being in a large Edwardian liner. The space however is cleverly broken up and separated so that there are only a few places where you are aware of more than a hundred fellow diners. We were unlucky with our table companions (twice) and had no problems being moved which beggars the question why, with the computer based passenger data available in the Dining Room plus many months to plan it, was the dinner seating plan not more considered. Many of the people we spoke to in the first two days were also unhappy with their tables and had moved.
After three restless nights we were invited to a table full of Cruise Critics (thank you Dan Tobey and Peter, Bill & Ray and Thulewx) and were set fair for the rest of the voyage. Much has been said elsewhere about service and food. All I will add is that, whether it be too few waiters, poor training, lack of planning or galley problems (and it was probably a combination of all four), service fell far short of what anybody could reasonably expect on the maiden voyage of an untried Cunard flagship. Service was very inconsistent and varied from the appalling to the acceptable. Food overall was a good banqueting standard. Ingredients were good, presentation was good but menus were sadly lacking in imagination and after a week it boiled down to a choice of fish, beef, chicken or pasta every night. If they can raise standards to those found in The Franconia Dining Room on the Caronia then they will have a winner.
The 280 seater Queens and Princess Grills on Deck 7 are a complete and stark contrast to the Britannia, being very simple and most plain in dEcor. It must be said that initially I felt glad to be dining in Britannia with its wow factor dEcor, but after about a week it became a little overpowering (or maybe that was the stress of wondering what the service would be like each night) and the Grills started to look and feel more and more elegant each time I saw them! We heard that both these dining rooms also experienced service problems on the same scale as the Britannia.
We generally took lunch in Kings Court on Deck 7, which is cleverly divided into four distinct areas by colour scheme and menu. Asian dishes; fish, meat and chicken; pasta and pizza; carved roasts; sandwiches; salads; - these delicious offerings and more were available at these four daytime buffets (Lotus, The Carvery, Piazza and The Chef's Galley). Again the only downside was the lack of staff at busy times when tables weren't being cleared quick enough for people to sit down. Against lunch buffets on other ships this compared very favourably. Like many other ships, QM2 has done away with the midnight buffet in favour of a late night buffet in Kings Court Piazza. Lunch in the Britannia was tried once, but strange table mates, haphazard service that included forgetting water and bread for the whole table, plus an uninspired menu meant the experience was not repeated.
The alternative dining onboard has much to recommend it. Service and food in both Todd English and especially Kings Court Lotus were pretty good considering the stress on the staff by the second week. The rich dEcor of Todd English is an amazing concoction of styles from somewhere between Morocco and Byzantium - check out the tented entrance. Lotus (as well as Piazza and The Carvery) in Kings Court is transformed by screens and soft lighting into a series of charming and intimate casual dining booths. It seems that Todd English will soon be making a charge which is hardly surprising given the over subscription. but the Kings Court venues (apart from the Chef's Galley which charges $35 including wine) still remain an excellent free alternative to the main dining rooms.
DRINKING. The bars onboard offer a variety of styles and atmospheres to suit every taste. Grand in scale and size, the three central bars adjacent to the Britannia Dining Room are ideally located for pre lunch or pre dinner drinks as well as for a quick one during a busy day tracking down those elusive souvenirs. Sir Samuels is modern and sharp in decor but colours, lighting and furnishing feel a little harsh and as a whole it doesn't strike me as a very inviting space. The Chart Room is Cunard elegance at its best. During the day very calm and restful and at night a sophisticated bar with live music - also one of the most stable places to be in case of storms! The much maligned Golden Lion was as expected, typical faux pub design (the steamer trunks and hat boxes were a step too far) but high on atmosphere which, as any Brit will tell you, makes any real pub more than just its decor. Always busy, this was the place for pub food, a pint and karaoke!
The Veuve Cliquot Champagne bar is a very nicely designed corner of the Grand Lobby with a few art deco references, but blink and you'll miss it! The Commodore Club on Deck 9 became our favourite haunt. Restful observation room by day, it became sophisticated cocktail bar par excellence at night - even dispensing cocktails in Stuart Crystal, 'Jasper Conran' designed glasses which retail in the UK at $55 each! The dEcor with its dark wood and muted colours merely accentuates the shape and location of the space which, with the huge spell binding, bar mounted model of QM2, are the keys to its success. If you like to ride a roller coaster then you will want to drink in the Commodore in rough seas - those G forces are something else. Again, much has been said about the service in the bars. All I can add is that Cunard probably missed anything between 25 and 50% of its potential income from pre dinner drinks by having insufficient staff or inadequate bar facilities to cope with peak demand - with empty glasses on most tables and in many hands during the last 15 to 20 minutes before dinner, it was not uncommon to wait 5 to 10 minutes when actively seeking to be served.
The Winter Garden is a strange mix of lounge and bar (which closed at 7.00pm) and was largely empty and underused once we reached warmer climes. It's dEcor is very tropical with wicker chairs, a trompe l'oeil ceiling full of palms and blue sky and a rather garish waterfall with bright fluorescent colours that seem out of place in this well mannered area. The entrance like a shrub lined park gate is a nice eye to detail. It strikes me that this is one of the areas that relates more to the Liner role than warm weather cruising and I'm sure it is going to be a bright and popular day lounge on cold grey North Atlantic crossings.
One annoying aspect common to all these rooms was the smoking policy. If a majority are non-smokers, which is a fair assumption, then you would expect a well ventilated space in each room to be set aside for smokers. Unfortunately, on QM2 smoking is also allowed along the length of all bar tops which spreads cigarette smoke almost everywhere except the far flung corners of non-smoking areas in what have effectively become smoking rooms.
ENTERTAINMENT. The main entertainment areas of the ship are grouped together forward on decks 2 and 3. In a few words, The Royal Court is a 'state of the art' theatre with a stage almost in the round and seating more akin to a luxurious cabaret lounge than a true theatre. The three or four shows we saw there were all technically superb, with great sightlines from comfortable bench or club seats. Dame Shirley Bassey gave two superb one hour celebrity guest concerts after a very rough crossing of the Bay of Biscay and laughed about it (no mean feat). Two production shows, La Passionatta and Rock @ the Opera, are very good and could be excellent once the cast eases into them more. Rock @ the Opera is worth seeing for the stage effects and costumes alone - well, I've never heard a stage set get applause before! Opera Babes, Magicians and Comedians we gave a miss. Curiosity drove us to witness Ruben Studdard killing us not so softly with some songs in between complaining how seasick he was and how drugged he felt (no mean feat on QM2 in a very calm Caribbean). Like a large portion of the audience we left early to enjoy a last cocktail.
For me the real jewel in the crown is Illuminations. Theatre, cinema, lecture hall and planetarium - this space not only looks like a fabulous 1930's art deco Cinema, it also doles out excellent entertainment at every level. The illustrated lectures given by John Maxtone-Graham and Steven Payne were enthralling and packed to the rafters and the planetarium experience is mind blowing.
Attending any of the lectures at the well laid out Cunard Connexions we deemed unnecessary when it became clear that they were being taped and screened on stateroom TV. The much vaunted interactive QM2 TV had not been fully commissioned so many of the functions were unavailable and, disappointingly, this included the normal details on ship course, speed, location and weather conditions.
DANCING. The largest ballroom at sea is also one of the most stunning spaces on Queen Mary 2. The Queens Room is cunningly accessed via two Deck 3L fenestrated corridors housing the photo and art galleries in voids running below the raised Deck 3 seating areas on either side of the Britannia Dining Room. It is an impressive space richly decorated in blue and gold, with a lavish inlaid dance floor and sparkling crystal chandeliers above. The busts and memorabilia of Queen Mary and King George V add a sense of being somewhere exclusive. Not being a ballroom dancer I can't extend an opinion on the music or dancing offered there.
If you venture through the Queens Room you reach the dark, double height space of G32, the supposed late night club. This is a big disappointment for me as a design and how it is used. From the richness of other public areas you are plunged into a hi-tech space with uninspired 60's retro dEcor. Maybe the designers were touching their caps to those two high points of 60's design, the France and QE2 (I jest), but the result is dull and uninspiring. Its convenient proximity to the Queens Room but remoteness from everywhere else, means that when the ballroom band stops playing there is usually a dichotomy of groups patronising G32 (the ballroom dancers V the partygoers). Throughout the voyage a combination of vocal group (how many Nat King Cole tributes can you take in 30 minutes!) and an inexperienced DJ (who looked all of 16) cleared the dance floor by half past midnight and kept all party fun to a minimum. Low bar returns from G32 must surely lead to a rethink and early changes.
THE VOYAGE. Although the itinerary was predictable and traditional, the draw was in being the first to take a commercial voyage in the first Cunard 'Queen' for nearly 40 years. Nothing however, could have prepared us for the strength of welcome and the pure unadulterated joy of the inhabitants at most of our ports of call.
The sailaway from Southampton was the beginning of a rollercoaster voyage of emotions which couldn't fail to touch even the most inveterate traveller. Maybe we left late because there was so much more luggage than Cunard had expected - well, this was THE Maiden Voyage, but nobody cared once we had backed up to Mayflower Park and that amazing firework display started crashing overhead to the strains of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Crown Imperial and other stirring anthems. This was the sort of send off that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and tears well in your eyes! The fireboats sent their water high into the black night sky and the escorting flotilla of boats, small and large, made as much noise as possible as we began edging back down Southampton Water past Town Quay and Queen Elizabeth II Terminal with the Commodore returning the greetings on the deafening steam whistle from the original Queen Mary. We stayed, frozen by the cold wind, until Southampton disappeared behind us and then had the pleasure of travelling down in an elevator and chatting with Steven Payne who was as happy and excited as any boy with a new toy could possibly be.
The first day at sea through The Bay of Biscay came hurtling at us with a high class storm to make the ship slowly roll and pitch like she was alive. We drove through seas which must have been reaching upward of 40 feet in height (in order to frequently drench the windows of The Chart Room on Deck 3) at speeds of up to 26.5 knots and the G forces in Stairway A were something to play with! Needless to say the dreaded mal de mare struck down many during that first full day. By day 2 the storm had abated and day 3 woke early to a warm welcome in Funchal, Madeira. After a stroll around the town in warm sunshine it was all aboard to a warm but polite send off by crowds in their hundreds. Day 4 woke to a loud raucous welcome from fireboats in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and crowds in their thousands (obviously word was getting around!).
After lunching on land with friends living on the island, it was back to the ship for dinner and a late sailaway with a generous firework display on the quayside. Day 5 woke to an even louder arrival in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. With crowds in their thousands to welcome us, the day would become one that will go down in folklore as one of the biggest receptions ever given by any port to a passenger ship. On the quayside the local association of carpet weavers created a vast QM2 carpet in coloured salt, the high speed oompah bands marched up and down in a way that only Spaniards can, folk dancers danced and crowds grew bigger and friendlier by the hour. Departure was originally slated for 5.00pm but the Las Palmas schedule to welcome QM2 would not be denied the chance to give a lavish 30 minute firework display par excellence, as we left behind us tens of thousands of adoring Canarians some two hours later.
By the sojourn in the Canaries, the weather had warmed enough for sun loungers and steamer chairs to start appearing all over the open decks. The next 4 days were given over entirely to worshipping the ever strengthening sun as we sailed in a west south westerly direction. Time had come to explore the vast expanse of the outside teak decks. The aft sun decks 6 to 8 were the most popular with the timber loungers and green canvass covered mattresses filled to near capacity, especially near the pools. In spite of expressed misgivings, the duplex suites, the open seating of Todd English and the sunbathers of deck 8 all coexisted quite comfortably like the inhabitants of any sun kissed Marina or Lido might. The strange three deck shortcut open staircase from decks 8 to 11 is quite a climb, but at least it allows one to put a foot (even if it is only in transit) on the sacred sun deck 11which in sunny weather is reserved for Queens Grill passengers only. The climb up to deck 12 is worth it for here, and on the forward deck 13, there is more space and sun loungers than even a Carnival ship could fill. Equipped with an open air cafe, a pool with opening glass roof, two bars, jacuzzis, splash pool, sports and observation areas this is a sun seekers paradise, but strangely most of these areas were never more than 25% occupied.
My only complaint would be that there is no shade in the form of awnings or canopies anywhere even in the vicinity of the Boardwalk Cafe. The other thing I could not get my head around was the sense of having 'splash pools' with only a few inches of water - surely they used to be called foot baths???
The heat was on by day 10 when we arrived at Bridgetown, Barbados and true to form we received a suitably relaxed and inform Caribbean welcome from the local brass band. One more day at sea and did the Commodore really say that we were currently doing 28.5 knots - it seemed we were hardly moving? Day 12 brought ours and the crews first tendering experience as we reached Charlotte Amalie on Saint Thomas. Having duly faced the intransigent and charming as ever officers of the US Immigration Department, we had a leisurely breakfast before taking the first 'open' tender of the day around 11.00am. The crew's lack of experience in handling the tenders, the unwillingness to fill tenders too full and the failure to be able to accommodate larger shoreside ferries against the tender platforms meant that the tendering process took longer than anticipated. This one assumes is something that can be overcome with practice and a little more forward planning. Moored in the very outer anchorage of the harbour, our presence in Saint Thomas must have gone almost unnoticed - we took the opportunity of this call to slip away to Magens Bay for an afternoon swim.
All too soon Day 13 came and went, goodbyes were said, last meals were eaten, last cocktails shared and the triumphant arrival in Fort Lauderdale was upon us. We arrived out of the dawn to find the noisiest and most colourful fireboats yet throwing their red white and blue spumes high into the air. An unprecedented US Naval escort, a dozen helicopters and the most cacophonous reception from the famous landmark Condos made this welcome the cherry on the cake, a fitting end to a truly remarkable voyage.
QM2, CRUISE SHIP OR LINER? Having once been the devil's advocate in the discussion of cruise ship or liner I now have to say that, having travelled onboard and having listened to authoritive sources, I know for sure that this ship has been built as a transatlantic liner. There is no cruiseship on earth that can sail at 26 knots through 40 foot seas and there is no way on earth that Mickey Arison has spent a 40% premium (over $200 million) for a cruiseship that looks like a liner! An interesting anecdote from John Maxtone-Graham credits Mickey Arison with being so inspired by the movie 'Titanic' as to want to create a dream of building the largest and most expensive transatlantic liner - why else would he want to buy Cunard?
Stephen Payne described in great detail the research made into designing this ship so that it could handle any weather the Atlantic has produced in the past 25 years and be twice as seaworthy as QE2 (for example, a sea that produces a 10 degree roll in QE2 will only produce 5 degrees in QM2). Stephen also added that Mickey Arison told him 'I need seven decks of balconies or she doesn't get built', and how he was able to give him eight! John Maxtone-Graham amongst others has been disparaging about the 'hull' balconies but as he explained, these cabins produce more revenue with a balcony than they would if the balcony space was included in the cabin - so these balconies are purely revenue driven and without them the ship would not have been built! The other piece of enlightening comment from Stephen Payne was that nothing was allowed to compromise the design of QM2 as a transatlantic liner - something which should be born in mind when considering criticisms of the ship's cruising abilities and her unsophisticated warm weather outdoor deck spaces. On the aesthetic side, Stephen also thinks the funnel is too short but, save raising the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, there was nothing to be done about it!
So there you have it. The head of Carnival does have a dream and that dream is to re establish transatlantic travel by sea as a major rather than a niche market. Who amongst us can doubt that dream will probably come true? 2005 sees QM2 slated for 26 Atlantic crossings, which is already 42% of the year, and I believe the years following will see the Atlantic 'season' increase to whatever the market will support. She is utilised for cruising when the North Atlantic is too uninviting, like other great liners of the past, hence the seven day jaunts out of Fort Lauderdale and New York in December to March. Only market demand will decide if these warm weather cruises settle into premium or discount rates. I also believe that if Mickey Arison has gotten it right again, we will see a sister ship in service on the North Atlantic within 7 to 10 years.
If as I believe, Queen Mary 2 has been built primarily for the 6 day North Atlantic crossing and if Cunard can overcome the annoying service problems caused by lack of crew or insufficient training, then I think she will be a huge success and succeed to the title 'Most famous ship in the World', if she hasn't done so already!