QM2 Transatlantic: Food, Class and Costume: Queen Mary 2 (QM2) Cruise Review by MelroseInSeattle

Queen Mary 2 (QM2) 4
Member Since 2011

Overall Member Rating

QM2 Transatlantic: Food, Class and Costume

Sail Date: September 2011
Destination: Transatlantic
Embarkation: New York (Manhattan)
While eating breakfast one day in the QM2's Britannia Restaurant on a crossing from Southampton to New York, I had an experience that captured many of my reactions to this ship. My partner and I had decided to forego our usual morning run through the buffet in favor of something more pampered, and we opted to sit at a 6-person table rather than eat alone. Among the passengers already seated was a wiry, sixty-something, somewhat-weathered, vaguely-upmarket British woman and her husband. Her order included fruit salad, and when it arrived she was not pleased: it consisted entirely of two types of melon, when what she had expected were additional ingredients like pineapple, strawberries and grapes. She lectured the server vigorously and with an edge, pointing out that she knew well that there were other types of fruit on board because she had seen them at the buffet line. The server explained that this was what was had been prepared for that meal, but she was rough with him and More would have none of it. He took it back from her and retreated. By now neither my partner nor I was feeling comfortable, and I noticed that one of the other two people at the table was getting a bit squirmy. The woman's husband was mute; we were sure he'd been through scenes such as this before, poor thing. The waiter may have been gone by now but the woman still had more to say, and so she turned to the rest of us to point out the weakness of the tea. This led (inevitably, because I suspect it's really where she was looking for an excuse to go all along) to the observation that Cunard is not really a British liner anymore -- the tea would have been better in the old days. She then moved on from food, reminding us that the recognized currency on the ship is now the US dollar, not the British pound, as it once had been -- a pity. I don't know where she might have taken us next, but we were saved when the waiter reappeared with exactly what she had wanted in the first place. She was thrilled, triumphant, transformed, and thanked him profusely. The meal could finally proceed, even if the mood were grim.

Whenever anyone asks me what it was like to travel on the QM2, I can't help but think of that breakfast, which serves as both launching pad and repeated reference point for this review. It certainly raised some matters that were central to my own QM2/Cunard experience. First and most important is that this little drama took place in a restaurant (actually, I'd call it a dining room, but more on that later), and the issue was a problem that someone had with her food. This piece is, in fact, very much about eating, and I think that's appropriate, for say what you will about the service, entertainment, spa, casino or lounges: on any big ship, it's basically about the food. This is especially true on a transatlantic voyage where there are no ports of call between points of departure and destination, and therefore nowhere other than the ship to eat or pass the hours of the day. Many, if not most, of the crew is there to support the creation, delivery and cleanup of food. For those passengers unskilled at finding ways to amuse themselves, say by reading, playing bridge, or going to movies or the gym (and there are more than a few of these), eating is the main event of the day. Nor should we forget all of the time spent talking about the food and dressing for dinner. Cunard's pre-sailing literature could not be more clear on this: "Dining on board a Cunard ocean liner is one of the greatest thrills that awaits you." They have set the bar high, they throw everything at it, and we have every right to think first of food when we evaluate the shipboard experience. This is a happy situation for someone like me who enjoys eating well and cooking for others, and who has also worked in professional kitchens; writing a food-focused review of the QM2 is an agreeable task that Cunard has invited by its pitch.

To be clear, then, this isn't a blanket review of the entire sailing experience, but given the degree to which the quality of the dining experience drives the overall perception of a voyage, the focus on eating seems reasonable. Specifically avoided was any attempt at a thorough discussion of service on this ship, except where necessary in the context of eating. Service is not a minor issue, but to get into that would make an already very long piece much longer and distract from the main point. Besides, there is no lack of opinion on this in other reviews, and anyone seriously thinking about traveling on Cunard should consult those for more information. I'll dismiss the entire topic by noting that the service was so uniformly good that if I could spend the rest of my life being treated as I was on the QM2, I would die a very happy man. What I knew at the outset of this task, and what became even more apparent the more I worked, however, is that eating is about much more than food, and so in the end I found that I could not feel that I had done the matter justice without allowing myself to stray now and again. Service couldn't be entirely avoided, for example, since food is served, but then there are the issues of class and dress: for me, they all came together and I wasn't happy until I had herded them all into same discussion.

I wish that I could offer a simple, unqualified answer to the question how does Cunard do with the food? but, as in many things, it all depends upon your expectations. While sailing on the QM2 was a good experience that I would eagerly repeat and always choose over flying if I could spare the seven days, I must say that I found the food to be only so-so, not great, and for me the trip would have been much improved if some food matters had been handled differently. I took that copywriter who said that QM2 dining was a thrilling experience at his word, and my expectations were higher. Our table-mate who ordered the fruit salad clearly expected more as well, and if you seriously hold Cunard to its stated promise then you too will probably have a few disappointments before your trip is over, though I hope you won't raise such a fuss as she did. If you appreciate a nice presentation and good service, and if you don't care too much about the details but just want to eat decently, then you'll likely be more than satisfied. This is not a bad score, especially when you consider the sheer number of food events that happen on a seven-day trip -- there is no way they could all be perfect. They do well even in the Britannia, the lowest of three levels of dining rooms, where the great majority of passengers eat their meals, and where I took mine. The room is comfortable, the tables are set nicely, the staff is attentive and the menus are tempting. For me, however, it was far from excellent and certainly not thrilling.

Starting with the small stuff, one was aware of little shortcuts taken out of convenience, economy or occasional carelessness. On an airline they would likely go unnoticed, even in Business or First Class, because you don't expect much there other than real eating utensils and plates, cloth napkins and an endless gush of alcohol; on a ship, where more has been promised, these slip-ups are seen, they persist in memory (perhaps out of proportion to their importance), and many people gripe about them, though usually just among themselves. The Fruit Salad Lady chose to take her complaint public, but that was not typical. This woman caught them in one of their small missteps and, as much as I hate to allow her any credit at all, she was right -- fruit salad should be more than some cut-up pieces of melon, or it should be called something else, perhaps mélange de melons? -- I'm sure they could think of something. As a survivor of commercial kitchens I'll venture a guess as to what happened here. Fruit salad was on the menu, there was an excess of melon already cut up, probably from the previous day's lunch, and there was no reason to dive into new ingredients when they had more than enough of something already prepared to get them through today.

Coincidentally I had my own little fruit-salad-like disappointment at breakfast on our eastbound crossing, worse (to me, at least) than the one I just described. The menu said fruit compote and I ordered it. I know what fruit compote is and I know how easy it is to prepare well, so easy that you might not even want to use the term "cooking" to refer to the process -- the entire recipe for a very good version could be communicated in a single sentence. What I got was a mixture of several different canned fruits, or if they were not canned they were prepared by someone who had succeeded in making them look and taste canned. In retrospect, it is interesting how disappointed I felt when the waiter slid this dish of fruit in front of me. It was only a small item out of a larger order, but it said something about the effort that was being put into the food, and it didn't feel good (this is perhaps what the Fruit Salad Lady was feeling). I ate it, I didn't complain, but I didn't order it again, and for me it took the wind out of an otherwise nicely prepared and presented meal.

My partner, too, had one of these experiences. His order of pancakes arrived without syrup, an easy mistake for a waiter to make, and one easily corrected. We flagged down our server and asked for some. The tables are set nicely, even in the Britannia, so we expected a little pitcher of syrup, but we could easily have dealt with one of those little pear-shaped glass jars with the sliding spout cover that you'd find at any Denny's. Instead, the waiter returned with the uncapped, drippy plastic bottle in which the syrup had been originally packaged, reached over my partner's plate and squeezed a large quantity of it over the pancakes without so much as a word (it made an unappetizing sound when he did this), and then walked away. You don't expect something like this in an upscale venue such as this. On the surface it was just one of those rare service infractions, a harried waiter who seemed not to want to be bothered. Worse, however, was that it gave us a chance to get a look at that syrup bottle, laying bare a nasty little truth about what we were being served, something I wouldn't have bought for my own home (and I know first-hand about cutting corners on products in restaurants -- these are things you don't want the customers to see). I'd love to have had a look at the packages from which they got their bagels, English muffins and many other baked goods -- this was not high quality stuff, and I'm certain very little of it baked onboard. I recalled the scene in Brideshead Revisited in which Charles and Julia are crossing the Atlantic by ship and Charles wants tepid water in his scotch. They had no tepid water, but they did have boiling water and they did have ice water, so the waiter brought little silver pitchers of each and mixed them to the proper temperature at the table. That sort of thing wasn't going to happen to us at this meal.

These may be minor events in the overall picture, but I'm going to stand my ground against anyone who thinks I'm being too picky. When you book a room on this ship you have been sold The Fantasy (even if you are eating in the Britannia), a big part of that Fantasy is the food, and when you suspect that someone is economizing at your expense or that the a member of the staff is being dismissive you are disappointed. If you are one of those people for whom food is important, then you are likely to have noticed what I noticed. It as though you are watching an otherwise-well-produced play in which one of the actors momentarily slips out of character; sadly, it is what will be remembered about the evening.

Dinner was more consistently troublesome. It is the biggest food event of the day, and expectations run high. Everyone marches in dressed for the part and is seated, the waiters are delightful (really, they are), and you are given one of those menus on which so many things look good that you don't know where to begin. You order an entree, your flatware is adjusted to match the order, and the sommelier does his thing. The food arrives, and it usually looks fine. But then you dig in and it doesn't have much taste. It's not bad; it's just not as good or flavorful or interesting as it sounded on the menu. It certainly isn't thrilling. This didn't happen always, but it did happen regularly. I ordered fish often because I enjoy it but my partner does not, so I don't make it at home as frequently as I would like. For me eating a piece of fresh fish with a light sauce can be a great food experience, but ordering it from a menu can be like watching the fabled canary in a coal mine: when things aren't going just right in the kitchen it will be one of the first dishes to show it. I ordered fish on several consecutive days, hoping that my past experience was the exception, but it never got any better -- it was always somewhat dry and overdone, the sauce a bit gummy, as though it had been sitting somewhere for a while before finding its way to our table. I eventually gave up. My partner, more the carnivore, ordered several meat dishes. He had better luck than I, but there were still disappointments, several overdone items and, saddest of all, a huge and gorgeous medium-rare piece of beef that was tasteless and tough. His reactions were especially noteworthy as has he is not remotely a foodie (I've been trying to turn him into one for years, but my work is not yet done).

The appetizers were a complete crapshoot, all nicely presented but unpredictable in flavor. Some were actually more canapés than appetizers, single tiny bits of food abandoned in the middle of not-so-tiny plates, surrounded by a few artfully-placed sprigs of this or that, perhaps a caper or two and a little drizzle of sauce, barely enough to taste. More than once these would arrive at our six-person table and people would stop and look at each other with a questioning smile, astonished, eyebrows raised, the thought running through everyone's head: "what on earth is this supposed to be?"

What was going on here? I think it's the same thing that goes on aboard any big ship, and it brings me back to the distinction I raised earlier about whether you call the Britannia a restaurant, as Cunard does, or a dining room, as I would. This isn't a restaurant in which meals are prepared to order. This is catering (and maybe they should call the Britannia a catering hall, but I know that doesn't sound nice). Hundreds of people are being fed at once, and the only way this can be done is in assembly-line fashion. If the menu includes items that are best hot and fresh from the grill, oven or sauté pan, then you order these at your risk, as I did with my fish. (I should have known better, but I really wanted it, and I kept hoping.) There are foods that can be prepared very well this way, moist, slow-cooked things that just seem to get better when they sit in a warm oven, like ribs, chili or lasagna. But the QM2 is serving more upscale food here, so that sort of thing isn't even on the menu. I like to think that they try their best, but with this sort of menu at least some of it is always wanting.

The most truly unforgivable food events on the QM2 took place on the buffet line. This was my first Cunard vacation and I assumed that the buffet would be handled the same way as I had experienced on two previous trips on another line. What I recall there, and what made complete sense to me, was that a subset of the restaurant menu was offered at the buffet. This meant that if you didn't want to bother dressing for dinner, weren't hungry at the appointed hour, or if you just weren't up to talking to your table partners for one more night, you always knew you could grab a tray and get a nice meal without any formalities. On the QM2, what was offered at the buffet was just cafeteria food, unrelated to anything going on elsewhere on the ship. We've all eaten in cafeterias, so let's be more specific: I'd place their buffet alongside what you would expect to get from a very good college food service. In other words, it was somewhat better than average, but nowhere near the top. If I had to go through the choices offered at any one meal I'd bet I could identify those items that had been pre-made or frozen prior to that meal, if not prior to the voyage. They were more numerous than they should have been. The packaged French fries were especially inexcusable, as were the omelets at breakfast, made in batches on a flat grill and then piled, overlapping, in a pan on a steam table. I would be willing to swear that most of the baked goods were produced elsewhere. Salads were meager and uninteresting. If you want to see how good a buffet can be, visit the take-out department in any one of the larger Whole Foods branches, or some other high-quality local store. The food looks so good you just want to put your face into it. It's hard to understand why Cunard can't do as well as a supermarket chain on this.

As a final food point, one that applies to all of the situations I've described so far, one should consider the idea that cruise-line food is always rather uninteresting because most cruise passengers do not have well-developed or adventurous palates, and that a ship must therefore always cater to the lowest common denominator. For me, that isn't a passable excuse. We entertain regularly at home for guests with widely varying tastes, and I've cooked professionally in places that serve a clientele that is not sophisticated with respect to food. Everyone likes and appreciates good food -- the trick is to cook well while avoiding the extremes (like food that is too spicy, or too many ingredients of which some may be suspicious, like squid or beef tongue, although you can get around even this in situations where a customer has a choice). Nobody likes food that is bland or uninteresting, although many may tolerate it. Repetitive, predictive food is what children insist upon; it is not what you feed adults.

Now, after all of these comments about the food, let me drag you back to the fruit salad incident and remind you how it ended. The woman was at first told that what she had been served was all that was available, but when she persisted she got what she wanted. So while there is no way that each of the several hundred people eating breakfast in the Britannia that morning could have been accommodated for a specially-composed fruit salad, the occasional isolated complaint is handled immediately and graciously. There is a little game going on here -- "standard issue" in the Britannia is dispensed to everybody in a way that strikes a bargain between nice, on the one hand, and efficient and economical, on the other, and it isn't always what you might expect, but if you are unhappy and willing to press the matter you can get it fixed with little or no pushback. What was even more surprising is that you can even do this at the buffet line. Here's what happened to us. After a few days of eating fairly heavy food, my partner just wanted some plain cooked vegetables. We were standing at the buffet line and he noticed some broccoli as part of a cluster of raw vegetables on a bed of ice, and so he asked whether he could get some. We were at first told that the broccoli was there only as part of the display for that meal, but then someone volunteered to prepare some for him. We took the rest of our food to a table, and in about five minutes a server tracked us down and presented us with a huge plate of broccoli, perfectly steamed (i.e. not overdone) -- it was the best and freshest thing we had from the buffet during the entire voyage. So you can eat at the buffet but you don't have to settle for what's on the buffet line. Who knew? I now suppose that I would not have had to put up with a number of the food disappointments if only I had pressed, but I really don't enjoy complaining and prefer to get what I have been led to expect to begin with -- one shouldn't have to make a fuss for that.

Unfortunately, even the correction of her order could not have addressed the lost sense of Britishness on the Cunard fleet bemoaned by the Fruit Salad Lady (here begins one of those digressions away from food that I promised you, but in the end it all leads back). Since this was my first Cunard vacation I knew nothing of how it was in days past, but as the line is now owned by Carnival it is understandable that some things would have changed. I've traveled to the UK numerous times and that non-foodie partner of mine grew up in England, so I probably have more of a feeling for things English than most Americans. I wouldn't describe the QM2 culture as screamingly British; as on most ships the staff included many Asian and Central/Eastern European workers in addition to some from England and Australia -- all of that seems the same from one cruise line to the next. And the food, blessedly and despite all of my complaints, was better than the usual UK fare, even though that seems to have improved well beyond what I recall during my last visit some years ago. What I did find to be entirely English on this ship was its fascinating treatment of the issue of class, which to my understanding is unlike anything found on other lines. I apologize for the appeal to stereotypes, but the English do have a thing about class, and it's more than just an obsession with the Royals. It is well known to readers of English fiction (I count myself among these, and I am hard-pressed to think of an English novel in which class is not at least a minor theme), and speech is no less a class identifier today than it was for Henry Higgins. In the glorious, pre-jet-age days of transatlantic crossings, you bought a first, second or maybe third class ticket, and the ship was all carved up into separate areas for the different passengers; the structure was iron-clad, and everyone knew his place, just as it should be. That system is long-gone. Browse the websites of the various cruise lines and you'll see that you can spend anywhere from a modest sum for a small inside cabin to an eye-popping fortune for a large balconied suite, but even at these extremes you are not members of a different class and are free to wander the public areas of the ship and use whatever facilities, like lounges and specialty restaurants, for which you are prepared to pay.

Cunard, now be owned by Americans but with its culture still rooted in the UK, seems to have a longing for days gone by, and has implemented an ingenious compromise between old and new when it comes to class. It is recognized that there are people who are willing to spend a lot of money on travel and who would love nothing more than to buy a first class ticket (by that very name), but that leaves the rest of us, the majority in fact, who won't or can't spend as much -- we too want to live that Fantasy, but we aren't willing to be called second-class, and without our business (and we do fill most of the cabins) the ship will not sail. How do you satisfy everyone? Those fortunate few who buy the costliest suites get to eat in the Queen's Grille, those who pay somewhat less eat at the Princess Grille, and the rest of us eat in the Britannia. The C word is never used. Note where we find ourselves now -- I promised you we would be back to food, and here we are again. The name of your restaurant is the proxy for your C word. (It's actually a little more complicated than that -- those Queen's Grille people have their own private lounge, their own sundeck and several other services, nowhere near the degree of separation that Charles and Julia enjoyed when they sailed from NY to Southampton, but enough to allow them to keep to themselves for much of the day without feeling too constrained.) An interesting thing happens when you arrive at the terminal to board the QM2, a process to be compared to the check-in lines at an airport. If you have a business class or first class ticket at JFK, you can go to a shorter, dedicated line, where you are handled less like a head of cattle. Arrive at the cruise port for a trip on the QM2 and what do they ask you? "What dining room are you eating in?" The staff in the departure terminal couldn't care less where you eat: they just want to know if you are a first class passenger so that you can be treated accordingly.

So the class system lives on, even if as a slightly diluted and disguised version of its former self, and is now more tightly coupled with dining than ever. As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, the majority of your waking hours on a transatlantic crossing will be spent doing something that involves food, so the three-tiered dining room arrangement is an economical and relatively inoffensive way of achieving a substantial separation between passengers, implementing class with a whisper. Since that separation is not absolute, I did meet people in some of the lounges and other public areas who were Princess or Queen's Grille passengers and had a chance to ask them about their experiences, so I can offer a few second-hand observations. Not surprisingly, dining at those levels is judged more highly, particularly so in that it is easier and more accepted to order anything you wish, regardless of what is on the menu. I'm told that preparations are more complex and pleasing to the eye by those who have eaten in both venues (though they were never shabby in the Britannia) but, interestingly, I heard the same comments about the food -- though it may have been prettier and presented more ceremoniously in the Grilles, it didn't reach expected levels, and I'm guessing that you'd have a more satisfying food experience at most two-star restaurants in New York than you would have in any venue on this ship.

There is a subtle management of expectations here. One could imagine everyone thinking that he was going to be getting first class treatment. Most get less than what falls to top-paying guests, but nobody gets anything horrible, and the hope is that everyone will play along with whatever has been meted out to him; when that fails, adjustments will be made cheerfully. I suspect that at the core of the Fruit Salad Scandal was a different understanding by the plaintiff, on the one hand, and Cunard, on the other, about her class, and that this misunderstanding played out in the context of her food. She was partially in error when she said that the QM2 had lost its identity as a British ship. It remains quite British in its implementation of class: as a passenger eating in the Britannia, she had actually bought a very good third-class ticket, infinitely better than what that would have meant in the old days, but third class nonetheless. Of course she would never have thought of it this way. In a multi-priced setting those paying the larger tab sometimes look upon themselves as having bought a special right to be imperious, which is sad. I can only imagine that the staff felt that she hadn't paid enough for her passage to allow herself to feel so entitled or, to put it another way, that for her level of accommodation on this voyage (dare I say it?) she didn't know her place. Cunard is responsible for such misunderstandings, as it is they who have tiptoed around the class issue in an attempt to please everyone optimally and still keep on budget. It is they who set the expectations. I hate to say it, but I do appear to now be defending this woman, even if only in part. She took them at their word -- she was told that she would get something excellent and that's what she demanded, but behind the scenes they thought that they could give her something that was just OK, and this time they weren't going to get away with it. She was unhappy, and in the end so was the waiter. Her table companions were the collateral damage.

If the total dining experience is driven by more than just the food, then it stands to reason that the Cunard would do all it could to get as many of those other pieces right as well. This comes through in the design of the eating spaces and in the management of service, both big determiners of how much we enjoy ourselves when we eat, and both done very well. Cunard goes a step further, however, in its handling of the dining dress code, and that merits some examination as a final point. All of the ships I've been on have had some version of this, but it wasn't until I was several days into our voyage that I started to give some real thought as to how our dress relates to how we feel about the way we are fed.

A particular level of formality is declared for dinner on each day at sea. Even the lowest level requires a sport coat at dinner for men (no tie, though), and the highest is formal wear or at least a dark suit and tie. Sailing on the QM2 is for most people a special event, and it's fun to make it more so by dressing up. On my previous two- or three-week cruises on other lines, I recall perhaps two formal dinners during the entire cruise, so I would have expected one formal night on this one-week crossing, certainly no more than two. On the QM2, there were four formal nights out of seven. Formal shouldn't be the norm; it should be a rarity, a special experience, a celebration, and to do it otherwise begs an explanation. I thought that there were two motives here, one related to class, the other to food, and both help fill out our understanding of those issues. If you would like as many people as possible on the ship to feel like they are having a first-class experience, then get them to dress up as much as you can -- then they'll have that experience at their own expense. Going beyond that to the special case of food, people who have dressed formally for dinner may be more likely to judge their dining experience as excellent than those who have not. In this, Cunard is playing the cognitive dissonance card, which goes something like this: "if I paid good money to be on the QM2 and then went to the trouble and expense of dressing formally for this dinner, then that dinner must have been a good one." My roles in the scene (what I paid and how I dressed) are then consistent, or consonant, with my perception of Cunard's role (how they fed me), and I would have felt uncomfortable had it been any other way. I believe that Cunard attempts to stack the decks of passenger opinion about both the general aura of the ship as well as the quality of the food by railroading as many people as possible into dressing up on what I found to be an annoying number of evenings. If I'm going to put on a dinner jacket, it's got to be for better food than they were dishing out. It was more than I was willing to do, and I admit to being a tuxedo scofflaw. I didn't bring one (I was going to be traveling for 4 weeks in Europe and wasn't about to drag one around with me), nor could I bring myself to rent one at their extortionary rates, so I appeared in a sport coat and tie regardless of the day's code. I thought I looked pretty good, and well matched to what I was being served, but I have to admit that I was uncomfortable with my transgression, minor as it was (in my defense the original plan was to have eaten at the buffet on formal nights, but after experiencing the food there I didn't want to do that -- I had never intended to attend those dinners in the Britannia at all). Nobody ever refused to seat me or asked me to leave the table, despite various printed threats. I was surprised at the small number of conscientious clothes objectors at dinner, by the way -- overall this was a very compliant bunch.

Afternoon tea was an especially interesting event from the perspective of food, class and clothing. Cunard provides passengers with guidelines for acceptable dress in the ship's public areas, not just for dinner, and I thought that those guidelines were reasonable: casual is fine, but not too casual. High Tea on the QM2, however, is a classy event that just begs for some formality. This is not a Carnival ship on a four-day, alcohol-sodden, Hawaiian-shirted bender through the Bahamas -- it's a Cunard liner crossing the Atlantic, which in itself means there is some history behind it, and it bears an iconic name and a certain cache, even if the ship is in its second edition. Cunard appeals, and rightly I think, to those who would love to relive the glorious past, and the dress guidelines help set the tone. The day we appeared for Tea at the Queen's Room, a large ballroom where the ritual is staged, there was a squadron of servers (I think they were even wearing white gloves) weaving through tables and chairs with tea and coffee service, as well as mounds of those supremely tasteless, crustless little English finger sandwiches that never have enough butter or cream cheese. To our right were two fifty-something women who were nothing less than drop-dead gorgeous; perfect makeup and hair, stylish suits, tasteful jewelry, fabulous shoes, it was all I could do not to stare at them. They ate their little sandwiches, sipped their tea and spoke in a proper inside voice. They were doing this right. At the table on our left, slouched in his chair, was a man in a T-shirt from some sports team, a baseball cap, flip-flops and shorts. It was an incongruous vista. The Four-O-Clock-Tea-On-The-Queen-Mary thing may be a great, genteel, civilized Fantasy but, like a little girl's tea party, it only works if everybody plays his part, and you cannot rely upon that happening. Cunard set the stage and pointed everyone in the right direction, but the passengers were part of the scene and they didn't all follow through. This is a really big point: Cunard is not responsible for every disappointment you may experience on this ship. (I haven't forgotten my own clothing faux pas at formal dinners, to which I have already pleaded guilty; I've told myself that mine was only a minor infraction, and I hope I didn't diminish some other passenger's evening, but the fact is that I may have done so and contributed to someone else's disappointment. ) Again, one must be reasonable about expectations. If you are just dying to immerse yourself into that Charles and Julia Fantasy, you may find that it just doesn't come together for you (at least not in the Britannia), unless you are one of those people who can ignore a lot of what is going on around you.

As we met people on this ship over the course of our two transatlantic crossings, we could not help but be impressed by the number of repeat customers, loyal passengers who love it and have been on it as many as ten times or more, big numbers when you consider that the QM2 is still fairly young. Some of those had views on dining similar to my own, but many didn't seem to care and whatever disappointments they had had with the food weren't enough to keep them from coming back (and perhaps some of those who did care simply did not return). As I said at the outset, what you will get on this ship is still far better than what happens on an airline, so this is not surprising. But if the food scene on the QM2 isn't so bad as to keep me from returning the next time I want to travel directly to Europe, a trip for which there are no other sailing alternatives, it was wanting enough to make me think twice about sailing on this line for a more standard cruise itinerary with several ports of call, where there is lots of competition among the various lines -- I know that there is room for improvement, and I'd like to see what someone else can do.

If having one's expectations met is key to enjoying one of these sailings, then the next trip will be made with eyes open a bit wider. My intent here was to help potential passengers experience fewer surprises, rather than to discourage them from choosing this ship. Remember that if you choose a Britannia cabin you do so at a somewhat lower class than others -- I knew that when I booked my ticket, but I didn't get the full picture until I was there. On a ship of this size and with these relative numbers of passengers and crew, realize that not everyone can be treated as well as the brochures would expect you to believe, but the trip should still be comfortable and fun. If something happens that you really don't like, then you can complain (politely, I hope) and it will probably be addressed. While finishing this review a friend whom I had met on our voyage told me of a woman seated at his table on a previous trip who repeatedly sent back salads because the lettuce wasn't properly chilled, and insisted on bringing her own floral arrangement to the dinner table because she didn't like the standard issue. She was his Fruit Salad Lady; yes, there are more of them out there. If you are inclined to this sort of thing, then either try to get over yourself and stop making your fellow passengers uncomfortable, or instead buy a first class, Queen's Grille ticket, which will kick you up to a level of service at which you are less likely to experience such disappointments, and if you are still unhappy you will have paid a price that entitles you to be silly, obnoxious and unreasonable -- the staff in that venue expects that sort of thing. Realize, too, that you and your shipmates are all players in setting a scene over which Cunard does not have complete control -- i.e. you are not only there to receive, but also to give -- so be considerate, be a good sport and play along. Note to self: bring that tuxedo next time, don't be a grinch, and dress up with the rest. As for Cunard, I offer this as a substitute for the all-too-brief post-sailing standardized survey that I filled out after both of my trips on the QM2, expansions beyond the simple check-marks that were requested on just two or three questions about food; they needed more feedback than that, so now they have it. I only wish that they could find a better balance between what they are prepared to offer to whom, and what they intend to imply, if not promise to all. It would be a good thing to keep those fruit salad incidents to a minimum. Less

Published 01/02/12

Cabin review: B6

Small but very efficient. One of those "protected" balconies, which we loved. It was on Deck 6. Only problem was that the promenade deck was above us -- a lot of clomping going on overhead.

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