HYPE, HISTORY AND REALITY -- 3 Nights ON QM 2 IN AUSTRALIA
Since her launch in 2004 I have been fascinated with QM2 -- and still have the very first QM2 brochure. The opportunity to experience all the hype, history and compare it with the cruise experience reality on this ocean liner ( as opposed to a cruise ship) came a few months ago, when Cunard released a 3 night sector at the very beginning of their inaugural around Aussie cruise -- from Perth (Fremantle) to Adelaide -- this being a part of QM2 world cruise.
By the standard of the widely-cruised Cruise Critic members, we are cruise novices in our mid 50's and mid 60's. Our last cruise was 5 years ago on MSC Musica in the Mediterranean. Before that we took a few cruises on what are now called medium size ships of 77.000 tons. These ships were all 4 to 7 years old at the time of our sailings. They included P&O Aurora (from Perth to Singapore and Aussie Coastal) , Sun Princess (now permanently in Australia and apparently deteriorating because of poor maintenance), and Celebrity Galaxy (no longer with that line) to Alaska and West Coast.
Before this cruise, I have read all the helpful QM2 reviews on cruisecritic site, the PR hype that has been generating for years, and Douglas Ward's assessment and comments about her in the Berlitz Guide.
I knew that we and 85% of other passengers in the Britania Class on QM2 could not expect a luxury of 5 star experience -- at the very best, providing we are lucky, we MIGHT get a good 4 star quality cruise. But I also knew that this ship is one off-and very special for many reasons (with acknowledgement to D Ward for the next section)
HYPE AND HISTORY
QM2 is not a cruise ship -- but an ocean liner ready for rough Atlantic weather that is doing some cruises, crossing and world voyages. And that means that she is different -- with a thick, very expensive hull for stormy weather, pointed bow to cut through the waves, public rooms on the lower decks and many enclosed balconies with recessed hull to cope better with rough weather - and no vibration even at her max speed of 30 knots.
She is the ship with retro-style, regal decor and a blend of early 20th century liners with 21st century convenience. She has double heights main hallways and two wide stairways on some decks that provide grandeur. She has fine furnishings, stunning dining room (but frustrating traffic flow in the Kings Court buffet), art deco paintings, chandeliers, richly coloured carpets, dark wood finishes, fresh floral arrangements, planetarium and a conservatory (Winter Garden). To minimise getting lost on this huge ship, she has not 2 or 3 but 4 stairways that run vertically through the ship, each with a different carpet colour -- and she needs it for her size. And one can take a stroll on the wide wrap-around promenade deck 2030ft long (620m) long, with wind screens to shield pax as she travels at high speeds.
I was also looking forward to see some of the 177 years of Cunard history and the photos of some the film starts that used to travel on Cunard -- provided by the 50 panel wall display with audio sets available for a self-guided tour. And to its biggest library at sea, with 9000 books and two prime spot armchairs, always occupied, with views to die for. Even though Cunard is now only a brand logo within the giant Carnival Corp, the ship supposed still to retains some touches of the overt Britishness, like its maritime history display, the white glove afternoon tea service and the ship whistle at noon which can be heard up to 10 miles away.
We were also very happy that following her 2011 dry dock refurbishment we could additionally expect a spotless cabin with fresh look curtains, carpets and bedding, and a good night sleep with comfortable premium mattresses and good soundproofing. And we were keen to experience the post Dec 11 changes of public areas: new carpets in high traffic areas, the redesign of the very popular British Golden Lion Pub (now with the American Country Club feel) and the refreshed Commodore Club lounge with new carpet design an new white leather chairs, sofas and bar stools.
NOW THE REALITY
Our first good pre-departure surprise news was that we were upgraded from our B3 category to B2 category (balcony in hull) one deck higher but right in the midships -- Cabin 5104 -- we were dreading forward or aft cabin, as my wife is prone to seasickness. A second small surprise was that, in addition to the e-ticket, Cunard sent a hard copy of impressive personalised Pre Vogage Documentation, which looked like a thin brochure, with our names on the front, a clear indication of the dress code for each night of the cruise and it also showed our allocated cabin clearly marked on the deck plan -- a nice touch, we did not get it with any previous cruise line.
We flew from Sydney to Perth (using air miles) the night before to board the ship. Our embarkation time was 3 PM and rather than rush, we took the opportunity to have the bento box lunch at the famous in the USA Nobu Japanese restaurant -- now at the Perth Burswood hotel/ casino complex where we stayed -- lunch was excellent, and there is no Nobu in Sydney as yet.
When we arrived at 2.15 pm for our designated 3 pm embarkation, there were only a few people (apparently some people were running late) and after filling health form, and the obligatory pre-departure photo, we were aboard in 20 min -- and surprise, our luggage was already in our cabin.
First impressions -- stunning ship -- in a traditional elegance style (and not the contemporary elegance of Celebrity style). The ship was spotless, the stateroom very comfortable and bright, bigger than average shower (but if you want to be picky, some screeches on the sofa) -- and a Filipino steward who was waiting for us and who sounded disappointed when told of our 3 day mini cruise with pre-paid gratuities. Dinner companions were very pleasant -- a British, South African and Indian couples in their early to mid 50's , all travelling from Cape Town to Sydney. Dinner service efficient in somewhat formal British style , but Indian and East European waiters were in a hurry and with little time or inclination for a chit chat with passengers. However, all staff was very polite, happy to answer all the questions posed, and not fazed by complicated breakfast orders (multiple course, multiple juices and hot dishes -- orders correctly repeated without note taking by one waiter to us).
We had all meals in the dining room but two night snacks in the buffet -- a confusing arrangement, where only one section is free at night with limited menu, and the other 3 sections of the large Kings Court area become a $10 surcharge table service casual restaurants at night, with carvery, Italian and Indian options. For the first 2 days all food in the buffet area was served by staff -- apparently it is the Cunard's usual way to minimise norovirus, whenever a large number of pax get on. Also hand sanitisers were prominently placed in the dining room and all other eating venues. We felt that the food quality was good to very good (by the standards of the large cruise line) and the variety and portion sizes were also very good for our taste.
The speciality Todd English restaurant now imposes an a la carte charge for each dish (expensive at dinner) and we did not go. However, we made up for this by having their 2 formal afternoon teas in the Queens Room -- door opened on the dot of 3.30 pm and about 14 waiters parade with their special tea and then serve the mini sandwiches, pastries (good) and scones (excellent). The busiest place on the ship during the day was the British pub, with the daily trivia session very popular with British cruises. By contrast the Casino (small, Monte Carlo decor and not Las Vegas glitz) was very quiet after 11 pm -- but their 50 cents roulette was good for some fun. The gym is also small.
We needed the 3 days to fully explore the ship -- and its many nooks and crannies with interesting photos, posters and display of Cunard heritage. Also the bookshop attached to the library had a few gems for cruisers interested in history -- a book of old travel posters, mini ship cards, an interesting book by a ship doctor of his life at sea -- and a QM2 certificate of voyage (excellent for $5 -- just fill your name). Ship photographers were good, we got some photos on the formal night -- and the majority of people do dress up for dinner e.g. only a few ties with suits on formal night, mostly black ties for men but simple black dresses OK for women. And nobody asks you constantly to buy drinks.
With regard to the entertainment, there was no production show during the 3 nights of our cruise. One Shirley Bassey type singer was very good, but a magician/ comedian very disappointing. An afternoon concert of the string quartet was good for lovers of light classical music, and watching other cruisers dancing to the live big band sound in the Queens Room ballroom was very pleasant -- but the lectures given on specialised subjects (World War submarines and old Fremantle port) sounded too high brow and we did not go. The 23 minutes planetarium show in Illuminations (reclining seats) was very interesting to understand how small the solar system itself is in the universe (and never mind the earth)
We had an early disembarkation in Adelaide (carrying our luggage) and had a good look at some 600 pax marching off to join shore excursion -- most of them in their 50's but a few young Aussie couples, including 2 on their first cruise (told them that they started near the top). Only about 12 kids on board and two wheelchairs. The weather during the 3 days was good, with smooth seas but strong wind (bring warm clothing if you want to walk on higher decks).
In summary - for us it was a very interesting and pleasant 4 star plus vacation at a very good price, with no complaints about the food, service and staff. We were very happy to have experienced this very special and stable ship with an overwhelming sense of history in the air. QM2 would not suit everybody -- but those appreciating maritime history and tradition on the unique ocean liner and those looking for a few very relaxing days at sea in an completely uncrowded and spacious atmosphere - would definitely enjoy it.