Did ever maiden wake
From dream of homely duty,
To find her daylight break
With such exceeding beauty?
Mabel, in "The Pirates of Penzance" by Gilbert & Sullivan
Didnít Goethe say something about good architecture being like good music? If that is indeed true ... and I think it is ... this ship sings! Yes, I loved the ship.
We couldnít make the maiden voyage of this new Cunarder in January, but the tandem transatlantic crossing certainly made up for it and allowed me to become acquainted with my new Best Friend. Yes, I loved the ship. The goose-bump producing send-off in New York on April 25th, the fireworks, even the ever-present police presence, all led to a heightened sense of excitement. The two Queens in the Hudson River on their way out to do a crossing together, and later, the sure and steady QE2 always at our side, was something I probably wonít see again in my lifetime. I kept pinching myself. The Queen Mary 2 AND the Queen Elizabeth 2: a ship loverís dream comes true. All I needed now was to conjure up the image of the late, great Normandie out there with us or at her berth in New York, waiting to sail, and my vision would be complete. Throw in Rotterdam V, and Iíd be in ocean liner heaven.
This review will be somewhat different from what I usually write. There has been so much written and posted online about this ship that it would be redundant for me to post photos and tell you how big, how tall and how much the QM2 weighs. All of that information is out there already. The super-stats have been beaten to death. Instead, Iíll try to give you impressions of my trip, what I thought of the ship, the maiden eastbound voyage and being a part of the tandem crossing of the QE2 and the QM2. And Iím happy to report that Iíll do it all in just one installment.
Thereís been so much written about this shipís construction history, probably more so than any other ship in recent memory, that I wonít repeat it here. There are very comprehensive descriptions of the public rooms, the deck spaces, and interior and exterior photos abound. I wonít add to that, only refer the interested to whatís already out there, easily accessed by a quick web search.
Let me say that this ship impresses initially as SO big that, at first, I could not, emotionally, seem to get a handle on it, that I just couldnít seem to wrap myself around it. The first day out, I asked myself "could it be Iím just not a Ďbig shipí person?" When we first stepped onboard, I thought I would need a sherpa to get me from the Grand Lobby to our cabin. Perhaps I would have to spend the six days following Hans around the ship, lest we both get hopelessly lost, never meet back at our cabin and never see each other again until Southampton.
I was concerned about embarkation in New York because I had heard horror stories of the last embarkations at Southampton (people literally getting crushed, indifferent and sorely lacking staff, long waits and more lines), but I have to say that this was the quickest (for the size of the vessel) and smoothest embarkation process I have ever experienced. Even the Manhattan traffic around the NYPST that afternoon cooperated. If anything else went wrong during the week, I could forgive Cunard because of the way they handled that very first contact with the shipís staff. They were exceedingly friendly and professional.
I have only our recent cruise on Radisson in January to compare this trip, ship to ship, as weíve been fairly regular Cunarders on the QE2 transatlantic run. Iím still not sure the price we paid for our cabin (Britannia category, Cabin #5055, Deck Five on the starboard side) is in line with cruise industry standards when I think of the deal we got on our Radisson Caribbean cruise last January. That cabin was comparable to a Princess Grill cabin on this ship, but we paid half of what we paid for the QM2. Of course, Iím comparing apples and oranges on many levels here, a transatlantic trip with a Caribbean cruise. One is pure vacation; one is transportation to and from continents as well as a very pleasurable trip. At any rate, next time we will book QM2 Princess Grill and then be able to compare Princess Grills on BOTH Cunarders. The cabin we had and the seating in the Britannia Dining room were nice, but I think weíll do it differently next time, which should be sometime during 2005. So, Iíve answered my own perennial cruise review question before I even get to the end of this review: Yes, I would definitely sail on this ship again. There you have it. Yes, I loved the ship.
On the very first day at sea, as I started to type these comments, the QE2 was off our starboard side, and I couldnít help but think what a handsome ship she is. Would I rather be onboard this behemoth, with all itís fancy-pants bells and whistles, watching the most famous ocean liner in the world at our side, or would I rather BE on the most famous ocean liner in the world (as originally planned for this crossing,) watching this Incredible Hulk? For the time being, I was happy with the way things were. Hans spent the entire trip being pulled to that other ship to our starboard side. At this point in time, he has yet to warm up to the QM2, as I have. One has to remember that he had the Rotterdam V wrested away from him and replaced her in his heart with the QE2. I, on the other hand, am entirely smitten. I thought Iíd like it, but I didnít expect to fall in love. Yes, I loved the ship.
First off, the ship is absolutely gorgeous, and she moves through the water like a dream. I was hoping for some rough weather to test her sea-keeping ability, but we had smooth seas just about all of our six days. If I ever had any doubts about whether this ship would be a cruise ship or an ocean liner, having traveled on her, having seen her, Iím sure. She moves on the North Atlantic like no cruise ship attempting a repositioning trip can. If I ever got caught in a storm, I would want to be on a ship of the QM2ís seaworthiness, not a run-of-the-mill cruise ship. The QM2 is a liner. There is no doubt now. Yes, I loved the ship.
The QM2ís public rooms are arranged the way they might have been on a transatlantic liner, rather than a present-day cruise ship. Except for its location, even the Canyon Ranch Spa reminds me of the way the indoor "health" pools and the surrounding recreational areas were set up on the liners of yesterday.
The interiors are stunningly beautiful, with wide passageways, large deco murals reminiscent of such grand sea ladies before her as the Normandie, the wood-laden halls of the original Queen Mary and the grand stairway in the Grand Lobby familiar of all ships that have gone before her. Think Deilmann but on a bigger scale. Iíd seen much of the interiors in a Power Point presentation two years ago, but it gave me no warning as to the grandeur and beauty of the ship. The design materials matched the grandeur of this vessel. The only public room I can say I was disappointed in was the Winter Garden. It just looked to plastic-y and cheap. Did they let Farkus onboard? Also, it had a rather low ceiling and the entire space felt almost claustrophobic. It was plopped in the middle of nowhere and was situated on Seven Deck where the North Atlantic sea winds and the chill might affect passengers sitting there for afternoon tea, for example. I predict Cunard will do something else with this space in a future refit.
For such a large vessel, there is no crowding, no lines any place onboard. The only time we had to wait for anything was the very first afternoon just before we sailed, when Hans waited to get his massage scheduled at the Canyon Ranch Spa, and the next day, when all the ship fans waited on a very long line to get their commemorative tandem crossing t-shirts. It was something he wanted, so he waited. Meanwhile, I gave myself a tour of parts of the ship I had not yet seen. I didnít need a sherpa after all, and I found Hans again quite easily.
The interactive TV system in the cabins was an interesting feature and easy to use. You could do everything right in your cabin from writing and receiving e-mails, browsing ship services, ordering your onboard photos from the shipís photographer, looking at restaurant menus for the dining venues onboard, ordering room service breakfast for the next morning, checking your onboard purchases and billing portfolio, and watching in-cabin movies and TV. I had to leave my beloved TiVo back home, so playing with this new gadget was great fun for me during cabin ďdown time.Ē
We had a cabin on Deck Five, with what I call a "cubby hull" balcony, perfect for the North Atlantic. It gives shelter, yet provides a feeling of openness and space in the cabin. Because the balcony is built into the hull of the ship, itís not open and airy, as with a traditional cruise ship balcony, although the QM2 has these, also, in the superstructure cabins. Iím not sure Iíd like a cubby hull cabin balcony for a Caribbean cruise, though.
I heard many things about this new QM2 from friends who were on the maiden voyages before we had our chance, and they all said just about the same things: 1) the ship is beautiful 2) the food is good and 3) the service stinks. They were right. The staff onboard will need much more time to get their acts in gear before this ship can live up to the Cunard brand name. There was nothing overwhelmingly awful, but small persnickety things that, if you let them, would drive you crazy. To the staffís credit, if something went amiss, they did what they could to correct it and make it good. Most times that worked, sometimes it didnít. The service onboard is not up to Cunard standards just yet, but I have no doubt that it will be soon. The new Queen is still teething. Staff is so new that I think I could do a better job of "reading" the passengers and what they want than some of the dining room staff onboard right now. This is not just my opinion, but also the very theme of ship talk amongst seasoned passengers on this trip.
And now, we get to the possible reason for the poor staff performance and the connection with Carnival Corporation. Our cabin stewardess, Shelly from Halifax, told us she trained onboard the Carnival Ecstasy after being hired and before coming on the QM2. She said the passengers were so much different on the Carnival ship that she was surprised to find no similarities at all when she arrived on the QM2.
Said Shelley: "The training didnít help. On Carnival, the average age of my passengers was twenty-something. On this ship, the people are more experienced travelers, and they are older. I spent forty-five minutes last night helping a ninety-year-old woman find her wig when she got back to her cabin a bit drunk. She insisted she lost it in her cabin, but when we looked all over and couldnít find it, we called the purserís office. We discovered they had three! Hers was one of them. That never happened on Carnival. Folks got drunk, but they never lost their hair."
Other specters of Carnival hover over this new Cunard ship. In one of the alternative dining rooms, at the end of our meal we were given the check for our wine with a Carnival pen. A small thing, but this would never have happened on the QE2 or any Cunard ship.
What did I do onboard? Well, I ate a lot. We dined in the Britannia Restaurant twice, Todd English twice, dinner at La Piazza (an Italian alternative restaurant,) a lunch at the Golden Lion Pub (great fish and chips, bangers and mash, ploughmanís lunch, Guinness ale and other British goodies,) plus stops for lunch and snacks during the week at the Kingís Court, which is a "food mall" of sorts. Of course, there was afternoon tea served in the Queens Room and the Winter Garden. Because of the twenty-three hour days, we had room service breakfast every morning. It just made things easier.
I went to the Canyon Ranch Spa. I went to Oxford University lectures. I visited Illuminations for some star watching. Hans and I frequented Churchillís late in the afternoons for cigars and soon became part of a small onboard smoking club that met there daily. We had a great time in G32 one evening late in our trip.
I followed the building and completion of the QM2 from its very beginnings. From as early as the mid-90s, I heard its creator talk about a new super liner. I was to have gone to see her last March at the French shipyard at St Nazaire, save for a back bad enough at the time to prevent me from walking across my own living room, never mind an airport, then a shipyard. That a dear friend was able to take an idea he had at a very tender age and build his dream to completion is amazing to me, and it makes me very proud. Not many people get to build their dream, at least not on such a large scale.
Did I say I loved the ship? I did, and weíll be going back as soon and as often as we can. I love transatlantic crossings. I love stops pre- and post- cruise in the U.K. I love those long, languid days just watching the ocean. And this ship is all it is touted to be, an ocean liner and NOT a cruise ship. It should be interesting to watch her ocean-going career unfold and see what Cunard/Carnival Corp. has in store for her in the years to come.April 25 to May 1, 2004