This 8-day voyage segment had a high percentage of British Commonwealth citizens on board. It was opportunity to see areas of the country some have never visited. A week is long enough to relax, yet not so long that getting time off from work would normally be a problem.
The first two ports on the Around the British Isles tour started with two historic ship terminals. At Southampton we used the Queen Elizabeth II terminal rather than the Ocean Terminal generally used by QM2. Due to weather conditions we arrived late and another ship had to divert from Dover to Southampton. So QM2 berthed at the home of her grandmother, the QE2. Passing through the QE2's terminal again was nostalgic for many.
Fortunately the next morning port was Cherbourg, France, which was a short distance so the late departure from Southampton didn't affect our arrival. What did hurt was advancing clocks yet another hour to conform to continental European time.
The terminal at Cherbourg appeared to be an old one, and it is connected to a former railway terminal. While departing for a tour we passed through what appeared to be an old customs claim room. Long wood counters had wood rails that seemed to facilitate sliding baggage along. The terminal included a 1/200 model of the SSUS and other ships that berthed here during her service days. The gangways are the older "tunnel" type and the ship's gangway entrance adjusted according to the tides.
Cunard-sponsored tours included an option to see the D-day American Landing Beaches. This and other tours left too early to allow for breakfast in the dining rooms so that left room service or King's Court. It was King's Chaos as only one food station was open! Given that the early tours were no surprise, there should at least have been a second area where one could grab a yogurt or Danish.
Our American Landing Beaches guide was an enthusiastic student of the history of D-Day. In the northern part of France the people are eternally grateful to the WWII Allies. On our tour was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division who had made a parachute jump in 1959 for the then-15th anniversary of D-Day. He gave his personal experience of that re-enactment, and of how difficult was such a jump even without enemy fire.
Cunard gives all tours a rating for intensity of physical activity, but leaves it up to passengers to decide if they are up to the activity level. The American Landing Beaches tour was rated Moderate for the steps, hills, and walking distances required for full participation, and I believed that to be accurate. Some of my fellow guests however used canes or walkers to get around and I can only wonder - what were they thinking? A tour rated Moderate or higher for physical activity is probably not the best choice for anyone who needs the ship's elevator to go down one flight of stairs.
At evening, rumor had it that two passengers had literally missed the boat. If you do something on your own, and don't return to the ship in time, Cunard does not wait.
The second port of Cobh, Ireland was quite a local event. Just about everywhere cars had been stopped and people wanted to see this great ship. The passenger ship terminal here is conveniently alongside a rail road station but while it gets the job done it is really pretty primitive. Just some barges between the quay side and the ship.
The RIB harbor tour was an unconventional and exciting way to get to Kinsdale. Once there we had some free time before returning to the ship. All Cunard tours give some free time so that one can do some shopping or touring. The agility of the QM2 was on full display as we left Cobh. She pivoted from her bow and swung her stern clockwise until she had pivoted 180 degrees. From deck 11 it appeared as if either her bow would scrape the stone quay or her stern would whack the pier at the Navy base! Stephen Payne's ship is a marvel and who would have believed that a 4-screw ocean liner would be constructed in the 21st century?
The third port was Liverpool where we were greeted as if we a boatload of returning war heroes. It's a business day yet people are lining the streets on both sides of the river. Princes Parade, the street along the cruise terminal, has one lane was closed down to accommodate all the onlookers. For so many years all the great British transatlantic liners called Liverpool their home port. The Cunard Building, long sold to other owners, is nonetheless flying the Cunard house flag.
Liverpool Cathedral, private tour and organ recital, gave a wonderful overview of the architecture and a display of the power of the organ resonating through that magnificent space. Most would have heard it only within the confines worship music.
Our departure from Liverpool could have been mistaken for Independence Day in the US. At 9:45PM fireworks began while images of Liverpool landmarks were projected onto the Cunard building. We depart at 10:15PM -â€“ ruled by the tides -â€“ and Princes Parade was lined with people in a scene reminiscent of an old Hollywood movie when thousands would bid farewell as an ocean liner departed. Camera flashes follow our departure until we were out of range. When I had flashed my QM2 ID card to re-board, I wondered how many there would have loved to be in my position - to walk up the gangway to this great ship instead of just photograph her.
Our next stop was Greenock on the Clyde, where the past Cunard Queens were built. We arrive on the Clyde to a cold, rainy, Scottish early fall day, yet a bagpipe band welcomes us. We pivot before docking at what is literally a container terminal. The cruise terminal is nothing but a pre-fabricated steel building and containers are stacked to make a security perimeter. It's very basic but gets the job done as there is not much passenger embarkation to justify anything more elaborate.
"Clyde Built" meant, at one time, superior naval engineering. One of the tours offered was the Titan Crane at the former John Brown Shipbuilders site. The crane sits next to the still-extant fitting out basin where it once lifted the Yarrow boilers into the QM and QE, and also the steam boilers and turbine into the QE2. The buildings are gone, but the slipway where these three ships once slid out of the womb and into the Clyde is now a grass plot built to preserve the slipway's footprint. Today, only three shipbuilders remain of the 23 that existed in the 1960's. Their demise also meant the end of many supporting industries -â€“ like the companies that made cable and other ship fittings.
The local transportation museum has the models of the QM, QE, and QE2 donated by John Brown Shipbuilders. Presumably they were in their home office until they closed. The QE2 model shows her as originally built, complete with tacky furniture and mod tile around the pool. Like fine wine, she improved with age. She may have started out as 1960's trailer trash but she matured into an elegant grand dame.
Despite the rainy day, we are sent off down the Clyde with a music choreographed fireworks show. While the QM2 wasn't built here, she is nonetheless a reminder of the Clyde's proud connection to the earlier Cunard Queens.
We next have a sea day as we traveled around the northern end of Scotland. Due to the ship's position the satellite internet connection was very limited. We had consistently traveled within sight of the coast. However here, it was so thinly populated that rarely do we see any lights on shore. During the day however we did have a Coast Guard helicopter follow us for a time -â€“ apparently for some photography. Stephen Payne, the chief architect of the QM2, gave an Insight Lecture on the design and construction of this ship. The QE2 was the starting point as he wanted to utilize what was successful for her. The first class lounge of the first QM was the inspiration of the Britannia Restaurant -â€“ he wanted to give all passengers the same grand ocean liner experience and not just those in first class. Further, the placement of passenger staterooms starting up on 4 deck was to provide a buffer against north Atlantic sea conditions. While on the eastbound transatlantic, I had mentioned that the ship was pitching while we were in very rough seas and then the stern pitched up the ship was vibrating. He said that the pods were aerating -â€“ not up in the air but churning air dissolved within the water.
South Queensferry -â€“ Edinburgh was an anchor port where we need to tender in. Cunard tries to avoid these since passengers must have some independent mobility in order to enter the tenders.
The area was called Two Bridges. One was the Forth Bridge, a steel truss railroad bridge that is much too low for the QM2 to pass. Because we were anchored across from a residential area we didn't have the crowds the came out at Liverpool and Greenock. But they were just not congregated in one spot. A man was walking with two young boys and one boy spotted out ship and excitedly yelled, "Look! It's there!"
For various reasons I've not booked any organized tours but instead walked about the town...which looked like something from an idyllic travel brochure. A coffee shop with free Wi-Fi was full of foreign-born young men who all seem to be surgically attached to an electronic device - probably our crew members on shore leave.
Port days are not a bad way to spend time on board. The spa gives discounts and you practically have the pool to yourself. Unlike many other lines, Cunard serves lunch on port days -â€“ so you also have the waiters to yourself.
As the tender ducklings were returned to the mother duck, we had a miserable late afternoon/early evening rain. Upon raising the anchor, we were to pivot 180 degrees before heading to sea. I've never seen the ship take so long to do this, and that was with a tug pulling the starboard side stern. There must have been some current condition working against the move. At times the stern seemed to drift one way, then another, as if she was being steered by a drunken sailor. Well, we got underway.
After two days of overcast and mist in Scotland, the last day at sea was a glorious late summer day. In the late morning we past close to the coast of Yorkshire. We were unusually close to the shore to the point where pleasure and sightseeing boats were out in force. Some boats came over to our port side so they could photograph the QM2 against the local landscape. At one point that Commodore announced that we had to maneuver to evade pirates -â€“ fortunately for a boat made up to look like a Jolly Roger pirate vessel.
One situation cast a negative veil on this voyage -â€“ dining mostly alone. Upon booking, I asked for a table for 8. The PG at this time only goes up to tables for 6, which worked fine on the eastbound transatlantic. Four transatlantic passengers got off at Southampton so that left me and a gentleman who ordered in when seas were rough. The first night the new people didn't show. The second night couple #1 came and immediately asked to dine by themselves. Couple #2 came very late, and would continue to come very late and only for dinner. I explained what happened to the maitre d' and asked to be moved.
Since I have not met the other two couples there was scarcely anything I could have said to bore or offend them. I can only speculate that they didn't like dining with a solo, probably out of fear that a single traveler will insert themselves into the couples' activities and leave them no privacy or peace. Long story short, he never reseated me and I didn't forget that when I wrote up envelopes. It is also the reason why I rated this segment lower in the service category.
There were also some scheduling foul ups. A Canyon Ranch talk in the Winter Garden was on the printed schedule. At the same time a noisy group of foreign passengers was having a loud discussion and a Cunard staffer asked us to move for them! He was to give a disembarkation talk in their language. We wouldn't move and showed him the printed schedule which had to trump whatever was not announced. As for the Winter Garden, it has been used for art auctions and table overflow from King's Court. The former use is gone but the later use remains. The artificial waterfall is dry and what is supposed to be a faux atrium is really gloomy. It's a horrible waste of a nice space. It runs the beam of the ship at that point and has nice views of the promenade deck and of the ocean. I hope this gets some very much needed attention in the November refit.
On Sundays, Cunard offers worship services for those so inclined to attend. The Captain leads nondenominational Christian services on Sunday morning. Cunard also continues to have a Catholic priest on board for daily mass. Fewer cruise lines continue to do this, and for some passengers and crew members this is important. About 600 QM2 crew members are from the Philippines, a country which demographically is observant Roman Catholic. Being able to practice one's religion may be the difference in signing on with Cunard.
At Southampton on disembarkation morning I heard some disappointment: that QM2 doesn't compare to the facilities and decor of Celebrity ships. While I have no personal experience to agree or disagree with them, they might be right when the QM2 is compared to a cruise ship. On this Southampton-Southampton circle -â€“ where many boarded - QM2 is really doing a cruise and encountered none of the sea conditions that we had experienced on the eastbound transatlantic. Had they been on board then they would have experienced why an ocean liner doesn't have a pool near the bow or cabanas on her top deck.
QM2 was indeed a ship of state this voyage. She was the international star visiting her home town and the locals were immensely proud of her. Alas, this was to be a farewell to both the UK registry and to her historical Royal Mail Ship title. If this entire voyage was blowhard publicity on Cunard's part it had succeeded beautifully. Time will tell if the Queens of Bermuda can work the same magic.