I sailed with friends on Queen Mary 2's 17-night Three Continents Cruise on March 26th 2004, from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton, calling at Barbados, Dakar, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Madeira and Lisbon. This review however is only about the ship.
Although I have sailed on the QE2 a number of times, my main cruising background is with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, NCL, Holland America, P&O and Princess.
I noticed that the ship carries portable check-in terminals in large flight cases for processing passengers at the port of embarkation. They are taken off the ship on arrival. Credit card details are recorded, and key cards are produced with the passenger's photograph.
On this trip the embarkation procedure seemed to be well organised and the whole procedure was completed within an hour.
The ship's exterior is absolutely stunning and I feel she is as beautiful as any modern ocean liner could be, bearing in mind the economic necessity of having lots of balconies. The profile is very well balanced and until one sees the ship in person it is difficult to get a sense of scale. She has a very high waistline and I think this makes it difficult to appreciate her incredible height from a photograph. True perspective is gained when other "large" ships are alongside.
The interior depends very much on personal taste. It is more the general sense of scale and spaciousness that impresses than any specific feature. One's senses are not bombarded and there is nothing breathtaking like the Royal Promenade on the Voyager Class ships. Most of the interior dEcor is rather understated and many regard it as very tasteful. There are a lot of wood laminate finishes, some of which I found realistic and others that reminded me of "melamine" in the sixties.
I do not wish to give the impression that the dEcor is disappointing because, irrespective of flaws, the whole ship is just amazing. However, there is a rather indefinable synthetic feel, which denies the ship a solid character of its own. Perhaps it is trying too hard to recreate something that cannot be achieved with modern materials and labour costs.
On boarding the ship on deck 2, one enters the main lobby area, which has a warm feel with rich red carpeting, lots of wood effect, attractive plasterwork and cornicing, but compared to other ships it is otherwise rather restrained.
The atrium is not especially large and climbs only from deck two to deck seven. On both decks two and three, the ceilings are much higher than usual and on each of these floors there is a very broad passageway running from the Royal Court Theatre, forward, through the atrium to the Britannia restaurant, aft. Looking through from one end to the other is quite striking and gives a great sense of spaciousness.
Deck 7 has a wrap-around teak promenade deck - three times round equals 1.1 miles. There are traditional wooden steamer type deckchairs lining the length of the deck adjacent to the ships rails. These deckchairs are easily accommodated to the forward part of the ship where the deck is especially wide. Unfortunately, further aft there are numerous alcoves within the King's Court dining area that protrude onto the deck and also safety equipment, both of which cause narrowing which detracts from what would otherwise have been an extremely impressive feature.
The main dining room is initially very impressive, but within a few days the laminated wood panelling became wearing and looked unnatural to me and not as appealing as elsewhere on the ship. The sweeping staircases are no more impressive than I have seen on Royal Caribbean or Celebrity.
The illuminated art deco style glass ceiling and the huge QM2 tapestry can be seen from only from relatively few tables - those in or directly adjacent to the centre section of the room. There are some tables to be avoided, especially near to the kitchen entrance. They are rectangular and badly arranged, being close together and having the layout of a school canteen.
Service is very inconsistent with many of the waiters apparently still learning. This was the case with our initial waiters but after a table change we had two excellent waiters. Experienced waiters make a tremendous difference to one's dining experience.
The menus have a European influence and are quite imaginative. The choice is slightly narrower than I would have hoped for. Perhaps an extra option at each course would improve matters. The soups were all delicious. The regular bowls are small, but larger ones are available on request. In other respects it would seem that previous concerns over portion sizes have been addressed.
Although the quality of the beef was sometimes a little disappointing, the food overall was much better than I expected - certainly significantly better than Royal Caribbean and Princess, but not yet up to the standards I have experienced with Celebrity, which is my benchmark for quality. The lobster dish that came with steak was, without doubt, the best lobster I have ever had on a ship.
For past QE2 passengers, by comparison I felt the food quality was much better than the Mauretania Restaurant and compared favourably with the Princess Grill, but the dining experience certainly did not.
On one evening our waiter advised that one of the entrees was not available. This surprised me because, unlike other ships where the menus are re-used on each sailing, all the menus are individually dated at lunch and dinner.
There needs to be a decision taken about music in the restaurant. At the moment the same music is repeated at every meal. Little, if any, thought appears to have been given to the selection of recorded music, and much of it is inappropriate - including the 1812 Overture, which does nothing to help create the proper atmosphere. A live string quartet would be much more appropriate for this venue. If recorded music has to be used, there is no need for repetition.
I am delighted to report that the hackneyed nightly round of waiters singing "Happy Birthday" is not present on this ship. Nor is the tacky Baked Alaska Parade or any other similar tip-soliciting performance by the waiters. Also missing was any sort of gala buffet.
PRINCESS AND QUEENS GRILLS
I much preferred the dEcor and ambience of both Grills to the Britannia Restaurant, although I was not fortunate enough to dine there myself. There are no set seating times and one retains one's own table and waiter for all meals. A much superior level of service and a wider choice of food can be expected.
Due to overwhelming demand, this alternative-dining venue has had to introduce a charge of $30 for dinner and $20 at lunch.
Understandably, attempts are being made to discourage passengers from passing through the restaurant to the Terrace Pool and Bar during dining hours. However this is the only access route without using stairs, so I suggest requesting a table well away from the through traffic.
There has been a lot of hype about this restaurant and perhaps my expectations were too high. The dEcor, ambiance and service were all absolutely excellent. Although many of the dishes were individually good, I found the overall meal to be too rich.
The Lobster Chowder was very intense in flavour and there was too much. The Butternut Squash Ravioli had a beautiful taste but the portion was enormous and very, very rich. The Short Rib of Beef was melting and the accompanying gravy was full flavoured but, after the other food, this dish was rather heavy going. The Falling Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream was truly fantastic and was the only dish I would wish to eat again.
So when I look back at this dining experience, I am glad I tried it. However I cancelled my second booking not only because of the cost, but also the food in the Britannia Restaurant seemed to improve after the first couple of days.
Comparing Todd English with Ocean Liners on Constellation, both had excellent service, albeit in quite different styles - Ocean Liners being much more formal and theatrical. However the main difference to me was that I enjoyed every dish at Ocean Liners and the overall dining experience was more balanced and satisfying.
I suspect that the current charges will be necessary to control demand on the six-night transatlantic crossing but on longer cruises $20 for dinner and $10 for lunch would seem more realistic. If that were the case I would have given it a second chance and would have chosen much more carefully from the menu.
This is a very large area, which has four separate themed food sections, one at each corner. Chef's Galley and La Piazza are located forward and quite some considerable distance aft is The Carvery and Lotus.
At night, parts of this enormous venue are sub-divided into sections using screens that are assembled each afternoon. However, there is still no great sense of intimacy as passengers can still pass through.
Tablecloths and place settings are laid and waiter service is provided. There is no extra charge unless one chooses to dine in the Chef's Galley, which is a smaller section accommodating only around 25 passengers. Reservations are essential and there is a charge of $35, which includes wine. Diners get a good view of the chef preparing the meal in the open demonstration kitchen - aided by cameras and plasma television screens.
The oriental food served at Lotus made a pleasant change from the regular dining room food. The tasting menu with twelve different items was very enjoyable, but no a la carte alternative was offered. Initially, it seemed that twelve courses were going to be served but then dishes were grouped together on one plate, so there were actually only five courses.
Most passengers' experience of King's Court will be by day when it is used for buffet breakfast and lunch. A table can be hard to find unless one is a real early bird. The idea of extended choice sounds good but the problem is that with each section serving different food one has to wander about trying to find everything one wants, and at busy times this can be a slow and frustrating experience. So although some of the food is very good, it is almost impossible to have a relaxed meal.
One suggestion would be to ensure that every section (except Chef's Galley, which is too small) should have all the basic essentials available at breakfast and lunch. Another little thing that would be easy to do is to provide napkin-wrapped cutlery with the trays, rather than have waiters laying them on tables.
At breakfast, it is worth searching out the freshly made waffles, which were delicious. It was also a challenge to find the oatmeal. Then it ran out and was not available anywhere on board for over a week.
Other food items ran out half way through the cruise - frosted flakes, homemade cereals, fruit yoghurts and sugar-free maple syrup. Bagels were often unavailable. On one occasion the cartons of milk were sour even though they were within two days of their expiry date.
As is usual on ships, coffee was below expectations, varying from okay to undrinkable. It was impossible to get a decent piece of toast unless one found someone who was willing to go and make it fresh. Juices are always available from the fonts in King's Court - not just at breakfast.
At lunchtime, the Chef's Galley prepares sandwiches and burgers to order. Freshly carved meats are offered at The Carvery.
La Piazza has some imaginative salad combinations and a wide variety of hot dishes from run-of-the-mill to more adventurous Italian food. I did hear reports that the daily souffle was excellent. La Piazza is also open for late-night snacks serving pizza, pasta, chilli, burgers, fries and the like.
However the most popular section for lunch is Lotus. The stir-fries are delicious and passengers stand in line whilst two chefs freshly prepare them. Unfortunately the ventilation system is totally inadequate. The sizzling woks produce a lot of smoke, which permeates the decks above and below, adjacent to Stairway B.
The general consensus amongst those I spoke with was that the whole King's Court venue needs to be better organised. As the cruise went on, more and more frustrated passengers turned to the Britannia Restaurant. It is only the lower level of the dining room that is open for breakfast and lunch and demand was such that occasionally it struggled to accommodate everyone.
This is a small inconspicuous canteen situated forward of the covered pool area on deck 12. It has a very utilitarian feel and seems totally out of place on a ship like this. On entering one feels as if one has wandered into a crew area. The food is the most basic type of pizza, hot dog and burger food, which seems likely to be appreciated only by those who are in a hurry to find a quick snack.
Wood coloured plastic tables and chairs are set up on the huge open deck space outside the cafe, when weather permits. There has been no attempt to make this area attractive. The dining area needs to be more defined. Perhaps the deck space should be broken up in some way - maybe an elevated area with a canvas-type covering and some decorative lampposts might help.
If there is one room that captures the essence of what this ship is attempting to achieve, it is the Queens Room. It is a traditional style ballroom on a truly grand scale with a very high ceiling. The focal point is an unusual semi-circular art deco style bandstand protruding from the rear of the room directly onto the large dance floor, above which two large chandeliers hang from an imposing vaulted ceiling.
This is a quiet, elegant lounge for taking afternoon tea, but it really comes into its own when filled with passengers on a formal evening, for example at the Captain's Cocktail Party or a themed ball. The atmosphere is quite unique but not stuffy. It is difficult to imagine another venue that could more closely recreate the grandeur associated with ocean voyages of a bygone era.
An orchestra plays here nightly for traditional dancing. Sadly, the room seemed to be underused and the acoustics are bad unless the room is pretty full. The rather plain backdrop to the bandstand seems unimaginative, bland and out of place.
There is one other significant flaw: when people enter or leave the G32 nightclub, noise floods into the Queens Room. A late night comedian's routine was repeatedly interrupted and at other times blasts of disco music clashed with the orchestra and damaged the atmosphere.
It seems to be a standing joke that this room is difficult to find and the deck plans do not help much. One can either go directly there by going aft to Staircase D and taking the elevator to deck 3. Or one can simply make one's way to the entrance to The Britannia Restaurant where there are short stairways port and starboard to level 3 lower. There is a windowed corridor on each side of the ship cleverly wedged between the upper and lower level of the Britannia Restaurant. These corridors are in the void between the ceiling of the lower level and the floor of the highest tier of the upper level, at the sides.
This is the most impressive nightclub I have yet seen on any ship with an ideal layout. It is ultra modern, high tech and very tastefully done, with excellent sound and lighting and arrays of plasma screens. An excellent band called Onyx alternated with a DJ throughout most evenings until the early hours.
Accessible only from the Queens Room, one enters on the lower level and there are stairways at each side up to the mezzanine level. Here one can simply have a drink and listen to the music, or look down on the action below. On this cruise, the average age was over seventy, so it was rather underused. However, with a younger age group I really feel this would be a first-class venue.
This is another unique feature of this ship and is more than just a planetarium. When being used for the special shows, the large concave projection screen is lowered over the central section. Only the red, reclining seats in the middle section under the dome are used for the planetarium shows.
There are three special shows lasting about half an hour. Of the two shows for adults, "Infinity Express" was much the better being both educational and, through its use of special effects, very entertaining. There is also a children's show, which I did not see.
This venue is like a second theatre with lectures, concerts and recitals and is fully equipped as the ship's cinema. I prefer its design to the main theatre with its traditional individual seating and excellent sightlines.
ROYAL COURT THEATRE
This main theatre is rather smaller than one would expect. There is a large proscenium stage, which brings the audience closer to the action and makes the theatre feel more intimate. On the lower level the sightlines are better than upstairs, but it is nevertheless badly designed with lots of obstructions.
Downstairs, two rows of movable rotating chairs are crammed between each long row of fixed sofa-type seating. This makes it awkward to get in and out of some seats and also means that latecomers who move chairs around can affect one's view.
The theatre has all the latest high tech devices, including a hydraulic orchestra pit that can be raised or lowered on cue and the stage rotates and changes levels in seemingly endless variations.
There is a show each night at 8.30pm and 10.45pm. These are the usual type featuring either a headline act such as a singer, comedian, magician or instrumentalist, or a glamorously costumed production show performed by the ships troupe of singers and dancers. There was a fair mix - some good some bad. Of the three production shows " Rock @ the Opera" stood out but, disappointingly, the ending was an anti-climax.
This surprisingly small observation lounge seems rather plain by day; at night it is transformed. The combination of a talented pianist, subdued lighting and the professionalism of the bar stewards make this a superb venue for a pre-dinner drink. The atmosphere is intimate, very sophisticated and highly recommended.
There is a huge illuminated model of QM2 above the bar, which is stocked with an amazing variety of spirits - well over a hundred bottles all of which have to be removed for storage each night. The Martini and cocktail lists are impressive and the bartenders have the opportunity to show off their undoubted skills.
Alcohol prices seemed very reasonable to me and certainly much cheaper than I am used to on other cruise lines. Draught Becks, Stella Artois and Bass Ale are all on tap. There are no soda guns in this bar. This means that if one is having a spirit with a mixer one always gets it from a can or bottle, at no extra charge - what a difference it makes to a gin and tonic!
GOLDEN LION PUB
This is a large room with high ceilings, extremely popular at lunchtime when finding a table can be difficult. Typical "pub grub" such as bangers and mash and cottage pie are served at no extra charge. The fish and chips with mushy peas and tartare sauce are highly recommended.
The actual bar with its traditional barstools, wooden gantries and draught beer taps is very attractive and has an authentic feel, although the dEcor of the room as a whole lacks the true character of a British pub.
At least there is a good selection of beer on tap at only $3.50 per full Imperial pint (20 ounces). These include Bass Ale, Guinness and Boddingtons Pub Draught (this is the only location on board where this beautiful, smooth beer can be bought on draught). Lagers include Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser. There is also the novelty of half-yards of ale, sometimes available on a "buy-one-got-one-free" offer after 9.00pm.
A pianist plays here during lunchtime and prior to dinner, and Karaoke takes place later in the evening.
This lounge is brightly decorated with plants and flowers painted on the walls and ceiling and has the feel of a conservatory. Background bird noises are played to add to the effect. I had mixed feelings about this room and did not spend much time there although many passengers really liked it. Afternoon tea is served here and live harp or piano music is played and, occasionally, a classical recital.
CHART ROOM BAR
This is the main venue for jazz, which was originally intended to be the Commodore Club. It is very elegant in cool pale green colours and very spacious - all the tables are set far apart. I don't think the wood effect works in this room but the ambiance would be improved if it had only one entrance, instead of three.
VEUVE CLIQUOT CHAMPAGNE BAR
This is a pleasant bar serving Champagne and caviar. A fine place to people watch, but its open plan style gives it the feel of a hotel lobby bar.
SIR SAMUEL'S WINE BAR
This is an attractive wine bar with wine and cheese tasting. Blocking off direct access from the shops would give the room a more intimate feel.
LIBRARY AND BOOKSHOP
The library is beautiful and the atmosphere is very pleasant. There really is a huge collection of books stored in beautiful shiny wood trimmed glass cabinets. The passageways between are a little narrow, and can become congested on sea days. There are computer stations for internet access and comfortable seating with views over the bow. The bookshop is adjacent and sells maritime books and cruise memorabilia.
This narrow card room overlooks the bow and is a lovely quiet spot when not being used for tournaments or lectures.
This is a very large facility with many different computer equipped rooms. There were seminars on various computer related topics like digital imaging and Windows XP.
Less glitzy than other ships, it is probably as tasteful as a casino can be, bearing in mind the number of slot machines and the noise that they generate.
CANYON RANCH SPA CLUB
All the latest treatments are available and the general impression is that the standard is high, as are the charges. Use of the beautiful Aqua Therapy Centre is included with most spa treatments or can be purchased for a charge of $25 per day ($19 on port days), and there are three-day and five-day packages available at $49 and $79 respectively, but these days must be taken consecutively.
The thalassotherapy pool features the usual neck fountains and (new to me) a "deluge waterfall" which was fantastic. At one end it has a submerged airbed where one can stretch out and be massaged by vigorous bubbles. There is a separate whirlpool that was out of order for the whole cruise, because of an electrical problem. There are two saunas: one herbal and one traditional Finnish and an aromatic steam room with a refreshing scent and relaxing music.
Whilst I accept the need to charge for the use of this facility to prevent it from being crowded, many people felt the charges were far too high. Also it seems wrong that on a ship like this that one cannot have access to a sauna without paying.
There is no charge to use the fully equipped gym.
The shops were mainly expensive big name franchises like Hermes, Dunhill and so on - so not much here for bargain hunters. There were however the usual sort of "inch of gold", "designer watches" and other "special sales", when display tables were set up outside the shops. Duty free alcohol was expensive and was stored until the last night of the cruise.
The Pavilion Pool is a solarium type area with a sliding glass roof. It is much smaller than similar facilities on other ships and also rather stark by comparison. There are comfortable wooden deckchairs with cushioned pads.
Considering the number of passengers, I was amazed that this smallish area was never full, and a deckchair could always be found. One has to bring one's own pool towel from the cabin, as they are not available poolside. Admittedly they are beautiful green jacquard towels with the Cunard logo. I know it doesn't seem right on an upmarket ship that one has to carry one's own towel around but, on the other hand, the fact that everyone was responsible for his or her own pool towel may have helped reduce chair hogging.
The main outdoor pool is the Terrace Pool on deck 8 aft. There is plenty of deck space and this is the normal venue for sailaway parties. The only access to this location without using stairs is via Todd English.
Minnows Pool on deck 6 is for children. There is also an extremely shallow splash pool on deck 13.
The standard cabin style is as good as on any premium line. They are tastefully decorated and well fitted with wardrobe and storage space. The en-suite shower rooms have a slightly larger than usual shower compartment and an attractive sink top, but no toiletry compartments, just shelves.
There is an interactive television and a keypad is provided for internet access. There is a charge of $1.50 to send or receive an e-mail. In the cabin and throughout the ship my laptop displayed an available Wi-Fi connection to "QM2 Internet".
There has been a lot of talk about "hull balconies". These are the balcony cabins on decks 4, 5 and 6 where an opening is cut into the side of the ship. The superstructure restricts the view from inside these cabins.
As far as the Q and P categories are concerned, there is a very high premium to be paid for these. I think most people realise that a large part of this is for the privilege of dining in one of the grillrooms. Queens Grill passengers also have the use of their own lounge. There is also a very nice private deck aft on Deck 11 with its own Jacuzzi.
Everywhere she goes the QM2 attracts the sort of attention previously reserved exclusively for the QE2. Crowds gathered in all the ports - not just where she was making her maiden call. Security around the ship was very evident.
I know it is obvious but the ship is huge and there really can be a lot of walking between the various venues. The corridors are deceptive and seem to go on forever. Probably the best cabin location to minimise the amount of walking would be just aft of midships and slightly forward of the "C" stairway.
The cruise director, Paul Becque, was excellent. He had a great personality but was not overpowering. Not of his choosing I am sure, but there are too many unnecessary announcements repeating information contained in the daily programme. It's nowhere near as bad as most of the mainstream cruise lines, but I prefer Celebrity's "no announcements" policy.
Aside from the normal type of shows, this ship provides slightly more "highbrow" activities including a wide range of enrichment lectures, drama workshops and computer learning.
At only three months old one would not expect the ship to be lacking in routine maintenance, but many areas required paint retouching, varnishing, repairs etc. Many of the wooden deckchairs were unstable and needed bolts retightening. The moulded plastic strips around all the swimming pools (where the water overflows) were loose and were frequently floating in the water.
Many more staff need to be deployed on cleaning - especially windows. The carpeted areas of King's Court were heavily stained. You just do not see the continual cleaning that you do on other lines.
Towards the end of the cruise a medical emergency occurred when a passenger collapsed on the stairs that lead down to the dance floor in the Queens Room. The only crew reaction was to call the medical centre but no crewmember came to tend to the passenger whilst they lay on the floor. It took over twenty minutes for medical staff to arrive. Many passengers felt the response time and the failure of crew to provide immediate attention was rather poor.
Technical problems resulted in the ship's arrival in Southampton being delayed by over 4 hours. Many passengers due to fly back to the USA the same day had to have their flights rebooked and the majority were accommodated in a hotel overnight. This was a massive task and the staff seemed to do a good job.
QM2 is a special ship that provides a totally different experience and I think most open-minded cruise enthusiasts would be willing to pay a bit extra to experience her. I thoroughly enjoyed the cruise. The per diem cost was about 70% more than I normally pay. For me it was worth it on a one-off basis. I would gladly go again if the price was right, but I wouldn't be willing to pay anywhere near as much next time.
For those contemplating sailing on the QM2, I would recommend that they be realistic in their expectations. They should not expect the ship to match their fantasy of the ultimate possible cruise experience. Unless one travels in Grill Class, the standard one can expect is similar in many respects to that of other "premium" cruise lines, like Celebrity and Holland America. Although the ship has yet to reach its full potential, the plusses outweigh the minuses and the ship will provide a memorable experience because it is unique.