As the mighty Queen Mary 2 passed her smaller predecessor, the graceful Queen Elizabeth 2 at Southampton, the 2 ships exchanged a volley of salutes. The deep blasts coming from the QM2 whistle initially startled me. Her deep-throated sound, a copy of the original Queen Mary, stirred something deep within my bones. Throughout the week, the sound of that horn, (although, on some foggy nights in the Commodore Lounge, I felt it as much as heard it ) linked me to the proud heritage of Cunarders plying the North Atlantic.
This was a day to say farewell to a dear old friend, our beloved QE2. Earlier that morning, we disembarked from our final cruise on her and shortly thereafter, Queen Elizabeth came aboard to bid farewell to the ship she had proudly christened over 40 years earlier.
I first glimpsed her unmistakable profile on a cruise to Hawaii in 1989. What a beauty. And her beautiful classic silhouette remains mostly unchanged -- if only I had stayed so shipshape (ouch!) over the past 20 years. From the start, we were captured by her spirit. On our first trip, much of the "jet age" formica and jarring 1967 colors still remained -- a far cry from the classic luxury liner heritage one might expect and over the years, she underwent many refits and remodels. Her dining rooms changed size, names, even briefly swapped locations and her engines and propulsion system was totally replaced, yet she still maintained that special allure and grace that we experienced on first encounter and was always, unmistakably "QE2." Truth be told, she has never really lived up to her hype, yet it doesn't matter -- she has been well-maintained, yet something always felt a bit "tatty" to me. Perhaps that's part of what made her so easy to love.
Seven days earlier, we boarded the QE2 in Civitavecchia, joining a Mediterranean cruise en-route which had departed Southampton a few days previous. This was to be our fourth and farewell voyage on her, and our first cruise on the Med. A bit about us: we're a gay couple in our 50s from San Francisco. These were our 19th and 20th cruises. We've been on a wide variety of ships and cruises, but generally prefer more traditional cruising. Before joining the QE2, we had spent 8 days in Spain (Madrid & Barcelona) and a too-short visit to Rome.
QE2 - EMBARKATION AND CABIN We were READY for a return to familiar comforts on that day. We had originally planned on spending the morning at the Vatican Museum, but instead, I had spent hours sitting in a broken chair in a trailer at Ciampino Airport as I waited for Italian customs to inspect suitcases I had shipped in advance of the cruise. Lesson learned. Do NOT use zip ties when shipping to Italy. Authorities will not cut them without in-person permission of the owner. Our luggage shipping service had given me an address where my bags were held (Customs was characteristically circumspect on why they were holding them). However, when my cab tried to get there, we were stopped by Italian police with big guns, so he let me out. I think the Polizia were trying to be helpful, but they only spoke Italian. They kept on gesturing in one direction and indicating (I think) that I should walk back down that road and then turn right. Did I mention that they had very big guns? After turning right, and wandering near some locked fences and trailers, I found a woman named Paola who took pity on me. (She had come out of her company's trailer to feed some cats, and I became another stray.) She spoke little English, but was able to call the local folks at DHL (they were in an area inaccessible to me) -- and let me sit in the tipsy chair in her office as I waited and waited for customs to open my bags so they could check out my tuxedos and underwear. A couple of long cab rides later, we were on the dock ready to board.
While we waited for someone at the Purser's Office to come out to check us onboard, we had the pleasure of meeting Shannel, a lounge waitress who was manning the water and juice station on the dock. She was a true joy -- we visited her often in the Yacht Club bar. (Not that we drink a lot but...) She had just transferred to the QE2 on this voyage from the QM2. To her delight, she found out a few days later that she was going back "home" to the QM2 on the same day we were due to board -- so we saw her on that ship as well (She also spread the word among the bar staff -- so from the start, we heard "Shannel told us about you!")
We were quickly checked-in, greeted our cabin stewardess (who had thought we missed the boat when we failed to board at Southampton) and proceeded to race around the ship, reacquainting ourselves with her quirks. Yes, the map in the Chart Room still says "Le Harve" the little Princess Lounge on 1 Deck is open before dinner, and you still use the funny curving staircase to get to Boat Deck from the Yacht Club.
Our cabin was one of a handful of Caronia class rooms squeezed in amongst the original first class cabins assigned to the Queens Grill. (We had been fortunate to be upgraded to one of these on our Panama Canal transit. They are HUGE with walk-in closets and bathrooms larger than entire cabins on 5 Deck.) Our cabin was a bit old fashioned, with portholes instead of windows and twin beds that can't be slid together, but it was immensely comfortable, with original wood paneling, ample closets and a large bathroom.
QE2 DINING We ate in the single-seating, Caronia Dining Room. We shared a table for six with two couples from the north of England who had not known each other previously, but who got along famously. Just as they had become used to being the only ones at the table set for six, we appeared. No problem (I presume) -- it was a pleasure dining with them and we had many wonderful conversations.
Food was uniformly excellent and service was flawless. We had dined in the Queens Grill on our two previous trips -- in fact, when we last dined there, it had a different name (Columbia). I wondered if the food in the "regular" dining rooms could compare. It did. Although we could not order off-menu (the extra perk of dining in the grills) -- the items on the standard menu were all tasty and perfectly prepared. Each dinner listed choices for appetizer, soup (including my favorite vacation indulgence - cold fruit soup), salad, entree and dessert. (On the two-seating Britannia Dining Room on the QM2, the first section combined the starters and soups, and was sadly lacking the delicious chilled fruit varieties.) The menus seemed to be somewhat more attuned to English passengers, since the ship has been primarily marketed in the UK and there were only a handful of Americans aboard. An additional advantage of having a single sitting is that breakfast and lunches were also at our usual table with our assigned waiters instead of open seating.
We enjoyed having a sommelier for our table. Not that we have exotic tastes in wine, (in fact we often had only a single glass from the "list at the back.") but we find a lot is lost when their trained advice is replaced by a corporate recommendation published on the menus (with associated kickbacks to the line)
QE2 ENTERTAINMENT, ACTIVITIES AND LECTURES On board activities and entertainment was of the level one would expect for a traditional line such as Cunard. There were numerous lectures and presentations. One of the special guest lecturers was a well-known (in the UK) author and police investigator. We did not attend his lectures but was told that they were fascinating. There was the usual bingo (reasonably priced) and napkin folding, but this is not the line for wacky pool games.
Of particular note are the port lectures. Unlike other lines, where these presentations only serve to direct you to stores on the recommended (kickback) list -- these lectures highlighted the history and attractions at the ports. We REALLY appreciated this -- and the maps with the recommended shops were still included in the Daily Programme, for those interested.
We noticed a definite upgrade in the production shows. To be frank, these were never the highlight of the QE2 experience. First, off until the mid-90s reconfiguration of the Grand Lounge there was no actual stage, and the troupe always seemed talented and eager but with limited resources. On this trip, not only did the (small) stage itself look improved, Cunard has upgraded the entertainment itself. The shows were interesting and the staging and talent was impressive (The Russian dancing during the "a Passionata" show was not to be missed!). The headliners were a mixed bag. We enjoyed a singer, Paul Emmanuel, but a guy who "rocked out" while playing a harp strapped to his belly was less impressive ...we left during his Riverdance number.
QE2 - PORTS AND EXCURSIONS Before boarding, we arranged a private tour in Rome with Through Eternity Tours (www.througheternity.com). They matched us with an amazing woman named Gracelyn, who seemingly knew everything about the art and history of Rome, lived in San Francisco for a number of years and had been living in Rome since the mid-90s. We spent about 8 hours walking all over Rome, with a break at a wonderful spot for lunch. This was a highlight of the entire vacation and I cannot imagine a better way to see that beautiful city in a short time.
In short, she was astonishing. We hit it off immediately, the tour was magnificent and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The downside of this was that she set a standard that could not be matched for later tours during excursions later on this trip.
The next day we saw Florence. About half of the time was spent riding a bus back and forth to Florence from where we were docked in La Spezia (substituted at the last minute from Livorno). A long day, a hot day. A suggestion -- if you want to visit the Uffizi Gallery (HIGHLY recommended) you will probably need to get advance tickets on via the internet. Admittance was not included in most ship excursions.
Next, we docked at Cannes. We took an excursion to Nice, Eze and Monte Carlo. We loved walking through the market at Nice, and the elegant beaux arts casino at Monte Carlo made us feel like James Bond (We DID have martinis, but we'd never be shaken or stirred enough to order them with vodka). The unexpected highlight of the excursion was the charming mountain town of Eze - a village seemingly constructed of steps, untouched for centuries.
The ship still travels magnificently, cruising along at over 30 knots. In fact, the Commodore stressed that only she could travel from Barcelona to Gibraltar in a day -- something that standard cruise ships cannot. The downside of this was we had to leave Barcelona early and we had to be back on board by 1:30 PM. We spent four days there just a week before, so we had already seen the major sights further north (Gaudied ourselves silly by touring Sagrada Familia and La Pedrera, walked La Rambla, with diversions to the cathedral and the Picasso Museum). Instead, we set aside some time to visit Montjuic, the park on the hill near the port and ride the funicular to the Miro museum. I must admit that still don't "get" Miro, but still enjoy his work. Most delightful was seeing groups of young schoolchildren captivated by his colorful, simple art. Afterward, we stopped for a drink at a cafe under the trees back on La Rambla. While watching the passing scene, our tablemates happened by with the disturbing news that they had fallen victim to pickpockets. (Luckily, the losses were not too bad) Yes, those warnings are true. It does happen. Use caution.
In Gibraltar, we walked to the tram that runs to the top of the rock and enjoyed the monkey business of the barbary apes living there. Just as we arrived at the top, it started drizzling - quickly turning to rain. No matter -- we were ready to get back to the ship and were looking forward to our first sea days. Good thing, because between the remainder of this cruise and the crossing, we had eight of them ahead of us.
I'm not going to dig out our Daily Programmes to figure out EXACTLY what we did those last two days at sea, but I know it involved: eating, having a drink, bingo, having a drink, shopping for souvenirs, eating, having a drink, lecture, napkin folding, having a drink, playing trivia, drinking tea, dressing for dinner, having a drink before dinner, actually eating dinner, having a drink after dinner, seeing the show and then having a nightcap. ....I actually claim that the motion of the ship makes me sleep well, but my bar tab may hold a different explanation...
QM2 TRANSFER AND CHECK-IN I had been a bit worried about what would happen on the day we were to check out of the QE2 and board the QM2 -- especially since they were at different wharves a couple of miles from another. There was no information available in advance. Worldwide port logistics and details have always been one of Cunard's strengths and I remembered the "White Star Service" signs throughout the ship, so I hoped for the best. A few days before arrival, I got instructions from the excursions office. There were only three of us transferring between ships. They arranged cabs for us and helped us load up. As we were waiting, we saw a number of guests arriving for lunch with the Queen (big cars, nice suits and silly hats).
We arrived at the Mayflower Docks a bit before they were ready to accept boarding passengers and had to wait outside for about a half hour. We were among the first group processed and ultimately were on board within an hour. It was all basically painless.
My jaw dropped once we came aboard the QM2. She is a stunner. Gorgeous. We entered on Three Deck. Especially impressive is that this deck is so tall -- ceilings are almost twice as high as on a normal ship. In fact, the two main public decks occupy the space normally taken by three. Upon boarding, you are confronted with a grand atrium with lots of marble, white plasterwork and (SOLAS-approved) wood. On these two decks are the shops (from essentials to extravagances), most of the bars, an extensively appointed showroom, the amazing Britannia Restaurant, the Queens Room ballroom, the planetarium, the G32 nightclub, Pursers Desk, excursions and cruise sales, a computer center, multiple classrooms, and photo and "art" galleries. ...and there are 10 other decks!
QM2 CABINS We had a standard B3 cabin midships on Deck 4. Like most modern ships, all the basic cabins are prefab and identical -- differing only in location. On this ship, there are two kinds of balconies -- the ones on the lower decks (4-6) are cut into the hull and the ones on decks 8-12 are attached to the sides. Especially on a crossing, the extra shelter was appreciated, and as a fellow passenger, Tom Kanitra from the rec.travel.cruises newsgroup, observed -- when we look down, we see the sea. When the upper deck balconies look down, they see lifeboats.
The cabin was nicely appointed with a great mattress and bedding, ample storage, and a decent bathroom with a good size shower. The beds combined to make a king and there was a little couch and desk with a 20 inch TV.
I have a major objection to their television programming. Not the "Good Morning with Ray" show in the morning (it was fine), nor to the wide variety of free movies shown on multiple channels (a welcome change from some other lines). No. I objected to their choice for the one, single source for broadcast news for most of the voyage. Fox News. In my opinion, such a highly-partisan channel is a poor choice for this ship. Even if one accepts the argument that it's a necessary counterbalance to a perceived liberal bias of other networks, it follows that "the other side" should also be represented in order to be fair and balanced. Fundamentally, I would argue that an operation that describes itself as "America's News Channel" has an inappropriate focus for an international ship. (This sailing had large numbers of Brits, Germans and French passengers.) I'm aware that as the ship makes its voyage, different satellites come in range, so the choices may be limited -- but I find it hard to believe that BBC Worldwide, CNN International (or even Murdoch's Sky News International) were not available.
QM2 DINING The main dining room, The Britannia Restaurant is spectacular. It has tiered seating over two decks on three levels with a grand staircase at one end and a dramatic tapestry of the Queen Mary opposite. It is simply the most beautiful dining room at sea. (Sorry -- no argument. It's an irrefutable fact!) There are two seatings, aside from a small section called "Britannia Club" with a single seating. We had a table for two in a wonderful location on the main floor. When the ship was launched, there were a lot of problems getting dinner service up to expectations. (They feed over 2000 passengers in the limited time available for two seatings -- and unlike the cookie cutter operations on large lines with similar ships, this was all new), Based upon other passengers' comments, I'd say that they've basically got it down. However, given our experience, they aren't completely there yet.
Our service was merely okay -- on a par with what we've experienced on Princess or NCL -- but not what they proclaim as "White Star Service." Most meals had an unexplained pause at some point for twenty minutes or more. (On a couple of occasions, the waiter notified us of the problem which we appreciated) More often than not at some point, we missed being offered something (ground pepper, horseradish or other accompaniment, or the tray of chocolates and candied ginger at the end) and refills on water or coffee were often neglected. I believe the problem in our case was a new assistant waiter. However, if the operation has such little tolerance for a glitch like a rookie employee, I think they might need to revisit their staffing calculations. Not a real problem, but an area which might use further refinement.
The food was excellent. No problems for any of the dishes. All were tasty and prepared as ordered. As previously mentioned, I missed seeing more chilled fruit soups. I also enjoyed the fruit sorbets on the QE2 and would have liked seeing them appear more often as dessert options. Although I found something to enjoy at each dinner, I was surprised not to see an "always available" selection of items published on the menu. (Later I found out from another passenger that their waiter told them of an unpublished list, but such items took extra time. Why it's a secret and why our servers never shared it with us, I have no idea.)
We also ate at the premium restaurant, Todd English (reservations required, $30 surcharge). It was a wonderful experience. The food was truly special, the service was impeccable and the room was beautiful. I ordered the beef tenderloin -- it was delicious and the portion was more than ample ...as was I afterwards!
Cunard celebrates tradition. This includes things like traditional dining with assigned seating, which we appreciate. It allows waiters to learn your preferences, and avoids the repetitive "who are you, is this your first cruise, where are you from?" drill when seated with strangers during open seating. Their embrace of tradition also applies to dress code. If you object to dressing up, this is not the line for you. There are three dress codes, which are more stringent than most other lines. Most evenings at sea are formal, which means tuxedos (worn by the majority of men) or suit and tie, Next comes semi-formal, for which both jacket and tie are required and finally elegant casual which means jacket required, tie optional. Obviously, women's dress requirements are similar. Casual dress is allowed at dinner in the Kings Court dining areas.
The Kings Court buffet is an interesting experiment. Like on many recent ships, there are different areas for different types of items, which limits long, meandering lines and offers more variety. On the QM2, the buffet is broken up into four different sections which can be quite distant from one another, and can result in a nomadic buffet of passengers clutching their trays, searching for that last item they saw -- somewhere. During breakfast, there were multiple omelette stations with no waiting (a first!). At night, they partition the areas to provide separate rooms for Italian, Asian, and a demonstration kitchen, Chef's Galley. We didn't try them, but were told that the Chefs Galley experience is fun.
Another great dining experience is the Golden Lion Pub lunch. They serve traditional pub grub like a plowman's lunch, cottage pie and fish & chips. Perfect with a pint!
QM2 ACTIVITIES AND PUBLIC ROOMS How many ships have a planetarium? This one does! There are a wide variety of public areas and activities to fill them throughout the day and night. This is especially important on a crossing where every day is an 'at sea" day. About that planetarium. It really is impressive. It's housed in a room with steeply raked seating which is also used for lectures and movies. (The planetarium dome drops down from the ceiling when used for that purpose.) The half hour shows are licensed from the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Let me tell you, the motion of the ship adds a virtual reality aspect to the experience when the show has you swooping around the universe! One caution, it's really, really easy to fall asleep. The shows are scheduled for that drowsy time an hour or two after lunch, and once you tilt your chair back and they turn the lights down -- well, it's almost inevitable.
Lectures were presented mainly in the Planetarium or the large, two-deck showroom. On this trip, we were lucky to have John Maxtone-Graham, naval historian, author of many books including "The Only Way to Cross." I have perhaps never seen more accomplished and entertaining presentations than his lectures. If you are lucky enough to cruise on ship featuring his lectures DO NOT MISS THEM. His lecture on the Titanic was spellbinding and even his final presentation which consisted of skits presented with his wife, which was by far his weakest, was worthwhile if only while he was giving a brief biography to hear him mention (in his sonorous upper-crusty accent ) one of his son's endeavors, a show called "Beevis and Butthead."
On the other end of the ship is the beautiful Queens Room. If any one room exemplifies the QM2 it would be this large ballroom. It has a stage with a rounded bandshell proscenium which for some may recall the Radio City Music Hall. Ensconced therein is the twelve piece Queens Room Orchestra which plays dance music for the many couples who fill the immense dance floor. (Not me - "Dancing with the Stars" would be more aptly named "Stumbling with a Klutz") The two chandeliers and beautiful furnishings make this a very elegant room. One evening we enjoyed hearing the large orchestra play a program of big band music and watching the older couples in formal wear do swing dancing like when it was new. Formal tea was served in this room each afternoon by white-gloved attendants. (Yum!)
Most evenings we stopped by the cozy and beautiful Commodore Club. Located forward of the suites on Deck 9, this forward-facing lookout bar is defined by the graceful curves of the front of the ship beneath the bridge. A classy room, it's just the place for a martini before dinner and a drink after.
Each afternoon, the ship hosted a meeting there for "Friends of Dorothy" (an old-school euphemism for "gay") About two dozen friends showed up each day -- and the get-together was a great preamble to trivia contests down in the pub. Our winning team's name was the "Dorothys."
Besides offering lunch, the pub was bustling day and night also featuring entertainment, contests and the like. The lovely Shannel handled the crowds there with warmth and style.
Across from the pub was the casino with a wide variety of tables and slot machines, I was pleased to see that the table limits for Blackjack were reasonable. My only problem was the so-called "Fun 21" table which offers a simplified version of 21 with decreased odds. Both on the QE2 and the QM2, this table was usually empty, as people crowded the others offering traditional rules. Perhaps Cunard should pay attention -- their passengers probably aren't the Fun 21 type. (Surprising to see this. Carnival has a subsidiary which concessions the casinos for all their lines and they aren't exactly known for "leaving money on the table.")
On a more uplifting note, is the extensive library and bookshop located directly beneath the Commodore Club. Besides a large collection of books (maintained by a professional librarian) -- there are computer terminals and lots of comfy chairs where you can curl up and gaze at the sea from a spectacular vantage point.
THE TRANSATLANTIC EXPERIENCE Yes, the ship is beautiful, the food excellent, the activities diverse and the service exquisite -- but there's something special about a crossing. Most specifically, there's something extraordinary about the Queen Mary 2 when she's as she's racing across the North Atlantic, doing exactly what she was designed to do. She is the latest, and soon to be the only representative of a proud tradition. That heritage sets her apart. I can't describe how or why I felt it from the moment I stepped aboard, but she's inescapably part of that long line of glorious liners and she quickly seduced me with the romance of those who had crossed before me.
She rides the North Atlantic like a champ. Her strengthened hull and distinctive bow cut through the most daunting waves, and her extra size really makes a difference as well. On our second day out, the seas were at least twenty feet, and I heard some guessing thirty. Yet, she handled them with ease. Yes there was a bit of motion -- but far less than a standard cruise ship might encounter in normal Caribbean seas. The dramatic wings at the front of the ship (with the rakish black stripes) and a similar barrier aft provide shelter for the upper balconies as she speeds along at thirty knots or more. Yes, her bow is beautiful and her look dramatic -- but most importantly, it's all there for a reason. The ship is an amalgam of the 21st century technology and experience going back to the 19th.
Yes, I was sad when I said goodbye to my beloved QE2, and indeed my eyes are getting moist as I write this, but thanks to Stephen Payne, her architect, Commodore Warwick, her first master, Mickey Arison the CEO of Carnival who championed her and countless others (some of whom tragically lost family at the shipyard in St. Nazare) -- there is a proud new ship to carry on the tradition and I have a new, special place in my heart for my "beloved QM2."