Maybe it was the type of cruise: seven days from Florida, when our previous Cunard experience has been either transat or on long cruises, including legs of the QE2's annual r-t-w voyage. A week-long cruise from South Florida perforce attracts a different passenger mix.
Maybe it was because we weren't in the Queen's Grill, but not that much, I thought, as apart from the opulent cabins and suites in the Grill classes, the experience seemed much the same regardless of where one slept.
Maybe it's because QM2 has been so hyped that no ship could live up to the press this one got.
THE EMBARKATION -- I'll start at the (awful) beginning. Boarding in Port Everglades was the worst I've ever encountered. The dreaded "computer problems" were blamed but never explained. It took about two hours in long, slow lines to get to the desk where one's documents -- all done in advance -- are processed and photo IDs issued. And we were lucky: if indeed you arrived -- as directed -- at 2:00 p.m. the wait was nearly three hours. As it was sailing was delayed by an hour or so to accommodate the backlog. A quart of vodka in the trusty rollaboard passed from shore to ship without comment. To skip ahead -- disembarkation was much better until we got outside the cruise terminal where a transportation Hell awaited us, seemingly unsupervised, with fights for taxis and no orderly system for queuing, parking, loading, etc. I presume this was not all Cunard's fault but it's an awful way to end a cruise. And $17, with tip, seemed an awful lot for a cab ride to an airport that's a five to ten minute drive away from the pier.
THE ACCOMMODATIONS -- The D2 grade cabin, by contrast, was terrific. As all the inside cabins are the same, the only difference we enjoyed was our location, on deck 10, which otherwise is all Princess Grill mini-suites. The cabin itself was designed and furnished perfectly, with sufficient closet and drawer space and a small, but expertly laid out bathroom with a large shower. We never had a problem with hot water or HVAC: both were instant and ample. The decor, a light oak sort of wood-look primarily, was light and at the same time restrained and restful.
THE SERVICE -- Our steward, Nelson, was invisible but in the best sense: we'd put on the door tag and the room was done. We never had any special requests; in large part because he took care of everything so well. (We're also the sort of people who clean up for the maid in hotels, so I guess that speeds the work: I wonder how they handle some of the cabins I've seen on this and other cruises when walking by an open door: they looked like a teenager's bedroom after a cyclone.)
We hit it off with our table companions at once, so didn't bother moving but couldn't understand why Cunard would put World Club members (all of us) in the furthest corner of the dining next to a kitchen door. The food itself in the main -- Britannia -- restaurant was very good, considering the giant size of the dining room. Our waiter (Devender) and assistant waiter (Hakkim) were smooth and professional; their service to us was excellent.
THE CRUISE -- Ours was one of a series of 7-day cruises to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands; Phillipsburg, St Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles and Basseterre, St. Kitts. We've been to all three ports more times than I can count. Except for a brief visit to all our friends on Front Street in Phillipsburg -- home of some of the best prices overall in the Caribbean -- we didn't get off the ship.
San Juan, Puerto Rico was to have been the first stop but Cunard rearranged the ports, reportedly because of difficulties with the depth of water available underneath QM2 in San Juan. Dredging will be required before she can return, we were told.
THE PASSENGERS -- Not, I'm guessing, the same mix of ages and nationalities you'd get on a crossing. The average age was older than we've seen in a while, perhaps as it was from Florida, perhaps as it was QM2, perhaps because it was discounted and heavily promoted. I'm guessing mid-60s and up covered most of the passengers with perhaps ten percent or a bit more less than 50 years old. Two striking blondes in their early 20s quickly gained the nicknames "Paris" and "Nicki" and not, I hasten to add, because of any similarity to Ms. Hilton's film fame; it's just that anyone that young and that blonde really stuck out from the herd.
Lots and lots of Brazilians and Italians (but from Brazil?) and a first, for me, anyway; lots (fifty or more) Chinese passengers from the PRC and not from, say, California. My guess for a breakdown would be perhaps twenty percent Brits, fifteen percent other nationalities and the rest Americans and our often (until they vote) indistinguishable neighbors from the north...
THE FOOD -- I say the food was very good as it always arrived cooked as ordered and even as it -- of necessity -- is plated in advance, it was hot when it was supposed to be hot and cold when it was to have been cold. I'm not crazy about the coffee, but seldom are: mine is always better at home 'cuz I can get what I want. What kept it from excellence was the absence, most of the time, of the ruffles and flourishes. Carnival ownership -- or perhaps more plebeian tastes -- have reduced the number of mains offered from seven or eight to five or six and luxury items: shrimp cocktails, caviar, escargots are seen only once if at all.
Portions are small by American standards but perfectly adequate in the Continental sense of eating four of five courses. On the plus side, plates were almost always garnished in interesting ways: it always looked good. I enjoyed lunch in the Britannia most days because 1: I'm on vacation: the cafeteria is for work and 2: the items offered at lunch were often as -- or even more -- interesting than those seen at dinner. One complaint: chicken breasts are the moistened, formed kind instead of the real thing broiled. It's not an airplane: don't make it taste like it was prepared in a flight kitchen somewhere.
"Tea" from three to four in the Queen's Room was pretty lame: a cup (not a pot) of tea followed by one pass or at most two by a waiter with a choice of finger sandwiches and sweets: no orchestra, nor that much or varied or interesting snacks. Room service breakfast, once, convinced us that it was worth the trek to King's Court or the main dining room for the morning meal. The room service menu itself looked pretty slim; we never ordered from it so cannot comment on the quality of their offerings.
THE BOOZE -- We didn't do much exploring but the wine list is surprisingly full of good, reasonably priced wines. A particular favorite, an Argentine Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend called Septima was a great pairing with red meat (of which I ate enough to be drummed out of PETA for life) at $20 a bottle. Well-priced whites were abundant as well: we just didn't get to try many. Standard drinks are $5; the "Drink of the Day" was $3.75. Bar service was uniformly excellent.
THE ALTERNATIVE DINING -- Todd English wasn't bad BUT: our orders were delivered incorrectly, meaning two appetizers for two of our table of four; the waiter pouring the bisque into the ridiculously large soup bowls inadvertently splashed some on a tablemate's dress; the beef tenderloin arrived very very very underdone (medium means pink, not bloody red but better bloody, I suppose, than overcooked) and we were served other people's wine. Which, for $30 pp, is unexpected to say the least. This restaurant was never full. To be fair, the bread basket was good.
A happy surprise, though, was La Piazza; the sit-down Italian alternative restaurant which was both superb and free. The Deck 7 Lido-like area (King's Court in QM2 parlance) is divided up at night into the aforementioned La Piazza (Northern Italian); Lotus (pan-Asian) and the Carvery (think roast beef, but also fish, chicken and pork) as well as the Chef's Kitchen ($30 pp, including wines, for a demo dinner) and a section, confusingly also referred to as La Piazza, with a 24-hr buffet. All but the Chef's Kitchen are free, but no one seemed to know that? They were never filled. If price wasn't the bar, it certainly wasn't the food: a la carte prep and delicious.
THE GUILTY PLEASURES -- I never went to the spa, so don't ask: all I can tell you is that soap smells nice. Prices seemed in line with what you see on land or on other lines. Ditto the casino: I don't gamble. It's not that I object to gambling, only to the losing money part.
THE ENTERTAINMENT -- The shows were, measured against past Cunard standards, poor. Measured against some other lines, very poor. The comedian, Cary Long, wasn't all that funny (don't these guys talk to each other? Every shipboard comedian does packing, eating, getting around the ship jokes. "Been there, heard that," time after time. It's just not that funny) and at one point his material veered into the homophobic with a mincing portrayal of a flight attendant "interested" in some of his passengers. I guess trashing the gay passengers with hateful, inaccurate and ultimately dangerous stereotypes is OK with Cunard. I cannot imagine a Gentile comedian (or a Jewish one, either) these days mocking the Jewish guests with Yentl accents or portraying them with unflattering stereotypes nor, say, a white comedian telling anti-black jokes in an African-American dialect. It might have worked in a different context or in a different day and age but it still would have been in poor taste if perhaps unfortunately found more acceptance -- but I can't see how: it's 2005. My objections, voiced to the Assistant Cruise Director were listened to but not, I fear, heard. Paul Emanuel, a British singer, did a creditable tribute to Nat King Cole but it was more like singing Nat's songs if not always sounding like Nat (come to think of it, who could?) The "Rock the Opera" show seemed silly: the "Tommy" from Pinball Wizard looked more like Fonzie from "Happy Days." We missed most of the Judy Garland tribute; again, if you can't BE Judy, don't try: I've seen drag queens do better. (Come to think of it, who hasn't?) There was a Scottish pianist who tried but failed to channel the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, and a Latin dance team who similarly tried but failed to move us with their passion. Again, not awful but nothing that rose above a level other lines have established.
The classical music program (a harpist, one piano concert, a string quartet some evenings before dinner in the Grand Lobby) was OK: again, nothing awful, nothing great. Two lecturers, a retired US ambassador explaining the basis of making foreign policy (followed, during the Q&A, by a woman passenger who excoriated him for not telling everyone the "good news about Iraq" said "good news" being that somehow, somewhere, Americans are now helping Iraqi children learn how to brush their teeth AND his having omitted mention of the military help we've gotten from Poland. The continuing deaths from the conflict, both American and Iraqi, did not appear to interest her, oral hygiene -- apparently -- being of paramount concern.) He, and an author speaking on the history of the Caribbean, were pretty much it for enrichment, apart from the Canyon Ranch nutritionist ("Eat healthy." "Duh, here?") and the napkin folding and watercolor classes ("Always start by painting the sky.") for free: wine tastings were $25 or $65 depending on the quality of the wines. I'm sure there were dance lessons: we missed 'em. Likewise bridge was being played but was not -- at least from what I could see -- all that popular. First run movies were shown, pre-airplane, that is: "Sky Captain" and "Being Julia" were two films I saw on the program, if not in the theater. Dinner dancing was scheduled but not that well-attended; again, it all depends on the mix onboard. Good QM2 orchestra, though.
THE PUBLIC ROOMS -- The "Illuminations" theatre was a bit of a letdown. Perhaps they have different shows on other cruises: our choice was two 20 minute films, both on the possibilities of life in outer space; one narrated by Harrison Ford. The Super Bowl was shown in the Royal Court (concert/larger) Theatre on Sunday: odd, indeed, to see it without commercials -- it was like on "Pay Per View." Never thought I'd miss 'em but I did. But New England won, so no matter.
The Royal Court Theatre was technically advanced with a five-part riser, revolving stage, great sound and generally good sight lines if you aren't behind a column. But why are there columns? I've been in much larger shipboard show rooms without 'em...
The Queen's Room (main ballroom)is located near the stern and accessed -- with some difficulty -- by corridors running over the first level of the Britannia restaurant. I'm not sure how I feel about it: the "band shell" arched opening for the stage is different, the decor (posters of Britain's Queens, a variety of colors that maybe work, maybe don't) felt somehow incomplete. Oddly, when it's empty it seems cavernous. Full, it felt cramped.
G-32 (Meaning, "what" exactly?) is the disco, found beyond the Queen's Room. The decor is metallic, the shape rectangular, the chairs uncomfortable and the smoke thick. I kept flashing back to the scene in "Guys and Dolls" where Nathan Detroit has found a place for the oldest established permanent floating crap game: underground.
The Main Lobby is the now-standard atrium at the center of the ship's traffic flow. It extends from Two Deck (Pursers office, round lobby) up to Three Deck (shops, offices) and glass elevators can carry you from there to Seven Deck where the Canyon Ranch spa, the Winter Garden, King's Court and Queen's and Princess Grills are found. All of Seven Deck is surrounded by an outdoor promenade: roughly 1.1 miles for three laps. The shops deserve mention if only for their lavishness and attendant prices: $600 for a belt from Hermes, 'frinstance.
Todd English, the eponymous extra-fare dining room is, to say the least, colorfully decorated but -- like so much of the ship -- suffers for the details. The lobby is surrounded by faux-Etruscan olive oil jars in "picture frames" floating in space. The concept is Mediterranean, the antiquity is suggested by the resin "barnacles" applied to each jar. Fabric lines the walls and ceiling to evoke a harem tent, I guess, with a tufted ottoman the size of a queen size bed covered with pillows in the center of the room. But Mediterranean? Is Persia in the Med? Libya, maybe? Odd overall.
Access to the stern pool, scene of Sailaway and deck parties, is logically through the TE restaurant except that, well, there's people eating there. So one must either find the nearly-hidden port side corridor or access the pool area from above or below.
In addition to being hard to reach, the Eight Deck pool area faces five of the ship's most expensive -- and no doubt luxurious -- suites. Given the $2,000 or so per person, per day rates (on our cruise, the smaller ones were priced at $12K, the larger $15K, for seven days) I'd wonder if the sound of the reggae band was a bother at night. At dusk, before shutting the curtains, they look like Macy's windows: all lit up with all their luxe on display. The Winter Garden was sparsely used and not -- by a mile -- as attractive as similar rooms I've seen on other ships, among them Cunard's former CARONIA and Crystal's HARMONY. The Commodore Club, the bar we enjoyed the most, is two decks up on Nine and has lovely views forward by day but -- as light from the windows would distract the view from the bridge -- they're covered at night. It's a dark, paneled room with a magnificent model of the ship behind the bar. Two interesting nearby rooms are Churchill's to starboard, the ship's cigar lounge and to port the unused but attractive Boardroom with it's real-looking but really fake (for fire safety rules) fireplace. Below Churchill's on Deck Eight you'll find the ship's library but not before first finding the library's book and gift shop. Can you see those cards being swiped, and not to check out library books? Another spending op. The library itself is handsome with cabinets that appear to be burled walnut. Internet access is found at terminals here, as well as lower in the ship in the Cunard Connexions area on Deck Two. Access was reliable and relatively quick (faster than 56K, slower than cable or hi-speed) and priced at either fifty cents a minute or at lower per-minutes rates via package plans.
Overall, the public rooms and areas are done in a wide variety of styles, colors, themes and finishes ranging from mild to wild. Decor is a personal taste: I got the feeling the designers wanted to evoke the splendor of the old Queen Mary and, for instance, attempt to do so with the long corridors midships on Decks Two and Three but (and I could be wrong) the bas-relief plaques on these walls that mean to look like bronze feel like resin. Similarly there's an abundant amount of "wood" on display everywhere and if indeed it's wood, there's a forest worth of it scattered around. Somehow, though, I'm pretty certain it's laminate. Real-looking, but not real.
SEMI-FINAL THOUGHTS -- The Cunard World Club party, held on the last formal night at sea so without much competition, drew only 180 guests. Put another way, less than 10% of the passengers showed up for free drinks. Because it was a Caribbean cruise? Perhaps. Because she does what she's supposed to do -- drawing new passengers to Cunard? Perhaps. Still, I'm used to seeing a third to half of the passengers attending. With the exception of the German and French hostesses, who made it a point to introduce themselves to guests, the social staff was inexplicably distant from the passengers throughout the cruise. The social hostess, who we'd met when she worked for another line and who greeted us as we boarded, was never seen or heard from again. At the Cunard World Club party, there was no receiving line. As a result, Commodore Warwick was at times standing in the middle of the dance floor looking lonely while the cruise director spent his time chatting up his staff and officers and staff attending stood in tight little clumps and spoke only to one another. Hardly a way to interest you in coming back.
FINALLY FINAL THOUGHTS -- The difference between the two Queens is not just their relative age. The QE2 carries, essentially, three classes: the Grills, Caronia, and Mauritania. There are -- for better or worse -- some real distinctions in terms of accommodation, food, service and perception. In addition, the Queen's Grill and Princess and Britannia Grill passengers comprise, if the ship is full, about 400-plus people, roughly a quarter of the average passenger total. The Mauritania passengers equal a bit more than that, perhaps -- again dependent on what sells -- comprising 30-35% of the total with Caronia passengers taking up the rest.
QM2, by contrast, has the Grills and everybody else and everybody else -- even in the cheapest inside cabin -- has accommodations that rival anything at sea, category for category. If the Queen's and Princess Grills sell out, on a full ship they are much less of a factor, numbering again about 400 or so but on a ship which -- sailing at capacity -- can carry as many as three thousand passengers. So there just aren't -- in relative terms -- that many high-dollar, highly selective, well-traveled passengers on board. There may indeed be plenty of well-traveled passengers on board, many of 'em very well off and with plenty of cruise experience but they aren't there to be catered to, in the same way or in the same strength, as was the case before on QE2. And that diminution of the top end shows. QM2 is aimed a bit lower.
Apart from the QG lounge, a small deck area astern on Deck 11, more caviar and -- to be sure -- much more in the way of service and amenities, there isn't the distance from an M5 inside with an upper and lower berth in less than 100 sq. ft and the duplex penthouse suites on QE2. The top end on QM2 is nicer, sure; much nicer in fact, but so is the bottom. The cheapest QM2 cabin is double the size of the cheapest QE2 cabin. And everybody but the toffs eats in two shifts, or whenever they like, and with varied dining options unavailable on QE2. Class distinctions are thus lessened on the newer ship.
Most of all, though, the difference is an inevitable result of what you may -- or may not -- think of as progress. Ships costing $800 million don't get built these days unless someone in Miami thinks they can make a profit. Similarly, ships costing $800 million use up an awful lot of that money on technology. Sometimes there isn't money left over for things like real wood and real luxury and really big shrimp cocktails. Don't get me wrong -- she's a wonder of our age. And they seem to have solved most of the problems I'd read of in her first year of operation, mainly with the service onboard. The ship is spotless, the crew is happy and Commodore Warwick still captains Cunard's flagship. These are vitally important to the ultimate success of this ship.
But there's still something missing, or at least there was last week on this cruise. The unalloyed glamour and swank, the special feeling of being on what was long seen to be the last great ocean liner, isn't there as it once was on QE2. To be sure, it's probably not there on the QE2 anymore, either: she's getting on. But QE2 was British to the core, (for good and, well, sometimes less than good) built and staffed and run by an organization that really did go back to the days of Samuel Cunard. QM2 has lots of posters detailing that 165 year history but is run by a company without that history. Don't take this as critical of Carnival: without them, there'd be no QM2. But don't believe it's the old Atlantic Ferry, or a reincarnation of the Queen Mary that's now in Long Beach either. It's not. Nor was it meant to be.
Perhaps, in 30 years or so, if she has the luck to have the long and mostly distinguished career QE2 has enjoyed, QM2 will be even more famous than she is today. It'll be interesting to wait and see and even perhaps -- on occasion -- to revisit her and so revisit my first impressions.
Many thanks for sticking around until the end. I hope reading this was as enjoyable for you as writing it was for me.