- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

Since its media-fueled debut 14 months ago, the list of superlatives used to describe Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 probably would span the 1,132-foot-long vessel. Many of us have read “largest,” “widest” and “grandest” galore, and we got the message.

I thought I knew what to expect. Still, as our taxi inched toward the Passenger Ship Terminal on 12th Avenue on New York’s West Side with my husband and me and our luggage, the up-close and personal image of this huge new liner was overwhelming. Almost as long as four football fields, it carries more than 150,000 gross tons and is 113 feet longer than the original Queen Mary.

The big and beautiful 17-deck QM2, Cunard’s new flagship, is every bit as regal as its name, and traveling on it is an unforgettable experience.

I used to feel similarly about the much smaller Queen Elizabeth 2. It is an impressive ship and set the gold standard for trans-Atlantic crossings while adding a sense of history, elegance and tradition to a major travel experience.

Both ships were built as ocean liners, not cruise ships, and Queen Mary 2 retains that unique quality while blending 21st-century technology and engineering with large public areas, good-sized staterooms and minimal noise and vibration levels even at extraordinary speed.

I made three crossings on the QE2 in the late 1980s and early ‘90s and never had a complaint until sometime around 1994. On that crossing, I found the ship a bit tacky and uncared for. One morning, as a test, I wrote my initials in the dust on the television set and upturned a chair that had a horrible stain on its seat before I left the cabin for breakfast. My maid asked why the chair was upturned. I replied that I had wanted her to see the ugly spotting.

“Oh,” she quickly answered with a smile, “someone must’ve spilled on it.”

No steps were taken to clean the fabric. The dust — and my initials — were still there when I disembarked in Southampton. My love affair with the gem of the ocean had lost its fervor.

The Cunard name in those mid-1990 days also had lost its sheen. The glory days of Cunard, an icon in the cruise industry since its 1840 beginning, seemed to be past.

How wrong I was.

A SEA CHANGE

When a Carnival Corp. consortium bought Cunard in 1998, work began almost immediately on the QM2, and Cunard’s standards again began to soar. Carnival acquired the remaining shares of Cunard and took 100 percent control of the company in 1999.

Last year, Cunard and Princess Cruises, another Carnival Corp. company, started to work together at offices in California while still maintaining their brand individuality. Veteran officials of both lines created a high standard of service on the $800 million QM2, corrected initial errors, and now have a queen-sized success on their hands. Cunard has scheduled 26 Atlantic crossings this year.

Cunard merged with the old and traditional White Star Line in 1934. This year, in March, the line introduced White Star Service, a training program for officers and staff focusing on three words: legendary, elegant and memorable.

White Star Service is designed to acquaint crew with the history and passion of Cunard’s 165-year history in an attempt to revisit the line’s impressive past. Each member wears a black enamel pin on which are inscribed those three words.

Cunard has rediscovered its golden days. The Queen Mary 2, quite simply, is one of the best ships at sea. It merges all the high-tech options of other contemporary vessels with that proverbial elegance and tradition.

Powered by two gas turbines and four diesel engines, the QM2 has a normal cruising speed of 24 to 26 knots and a maximum speed of more than 30 knots.

David Stephenson, QM2 hotel manager, says the experience onboard his ship is “like driving a classic car but still enjoying air conditioning and a radio.

“Queen Mary 2,” he says, “comes also with an expectation of a past when things like fine dining and history were more important.

“Elegance and formality are alive and well on this ship.”

WELCOME ABOARD

From the moment of embarkation until six days later at the voyage’s end, personal attention, fine service and Cunard’s much valued history are your traveling partners.

The only time I found a crowd or queue on a recent sailing was on disembarkation day, awaiting an elevator from our Deck 10 to Deck 2, where we were to meet to leave the ship.

All elevators were filled with guests and their carry-on luggage, so we waited and eventually found space. After six days of almost regal service, this hurt no one.

ROYAL TREATMENT

Let’s start at the beginning to sense what sailing aboard QM2 is really all about.

Inside the terminal, guests are greeted immediately and welcomed by uniformed employees who smile and clearly enjoy the meet-and-greet pre-boarding service. Embarkation is simplified amazingly. Again, no long lines or pushing, shoving, complaining passengers who are eager to get rid of their carry-on luggage, get to their cabins, don their flip-flops and down a drink.

Cunard uses a large staff to facilitate boarding, with many desks offering service and dozens of men and women offering their help.

A short walk brings guests to the gracious Grand Lobby on Deck 2, home to the purser’s and shore-excursion desks. The lobby is bright and located at the bottom of a lovely glass-topped atrium.

White-gloved attendants escort you to your cabin, and, like all the crew on the ship, are helpful yet unobtrusive. Artwork is everywhere — about $6 million of it — and guests actually take time to stop and look as they traverse the great ship. They can pick up a guide and audio pack at the purser’s desk for informed gawking and admiration.

STATEROOMS

Many potential passengers question a class system aboard QM2 and QE2, but the location of passengers’ cabins limits only where they dine.

Entertainment, daily programs, pools, Internet access, etc., are available to all passengers. The interactive television system is almost like having a bellboy in each cabin. Passengers can order a drink, watch a video or book a spa treatment from their staterooms.

Grill passengers dine in Princess Grill or Queen’s Grill, all others in Britannia. The two grills are where guests in junior suites, suites and the five duplex apartments take their meals. Each duplex apartment has its own exercise area, balcony, marble bathrooms and private library and can be combined to create a lavish 9,000-square-foot apartment.

Make no mistake. Grill accommodations are luxurious and elegant. Guests can enjoy butler service; receive a newspaper in their suite each morning, a same-day electronically reproduced paper in its original layout; order anything on any menu for in-suite dining; and have stationery on which their name is printed. Grill guests are pampered and cosseted.

All other guests dine in Brittania. The two-seating, three-tiered Brittania replicates dining rooms on lovely old liners, with a sweeping staircase and a marvelous ceiling that turns blue at night. A magnificent tapestry of the New York skyline is the centerpiece of the dining room. Menus in all dining rooms are similar.

Staterooms and cabins are all done tastefully, and whether it’s an interior stateroom or a duplex apartment, all are decorated attractively in soft, muted hues with interesting prints on the walls. All also offer fine amenities and nightly turndown service.

Brittania Dining Room accommodations range from a standard inside cabin at just about 200 square feet to premium or deluxe balcony cabins with 248 or 269 square feet.

QM2 offers 30 handicapped-accessible cabins. The ship features low doorsills, and two elevators were designed specifically for mobility-challenged guests.

OTHER DINING OPTIONS

The big name on the dining option menu is Boston restaurateur Todd English, who features Mediterranean-inspired cuisine at his Olives restaurants in Washington and other cities. A signature dish is the oven-fried asparagus and morel tart with caramelized onions, double smoked bacon and creamy fontina cheese. A per-person charge of $30 is assessed for dinner in Todd English, $20 for lunch.

QM2 also offers the exciting Chef’s Galley, an open kitchen. A theme might feature Canada night with an appetizer of duck-breast salad with foie gras, arugula and enoki mushroom; salmon with white bean puree and chorizo sausage; and, for dessert, a maple-syrup pana cotta with pine nuts and dates. While the Chef’s Galley is also open for breakfast and lunch as part of the Lido-style Kings Court, dinner customers pay $30 per person.

Kings Court features self-service breakfasts that include cooked-to-order eggs, hot and cold lunches, a salad bar, sandwiches and always a sweet table and tea offerings if a trek to the Queen’s Room for high tea isn’t in your daily program. One area offers Asian cuisine; another, Italian specialties.

HERE’S TO YOU

When it’s cocktail time, guests gather in a variety of popular places on this beautiful vessel. Among the favorites are the sophisticated Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, an homage to the ‘20s and ‘30s; the Chart Room, recommended for jazz devotees; Sir Samuel’s Wine Bar; the Commodore Club; and midship’s Winter Garden. The ship carries an impressive wine cellar.

Another popular gathering place — where I played musical trivia five days — is the Golden Lion Pub. In addition to a traditional London pub decor, the restaurant-pub-bar also offers super fish and chips.

WHAT TO DO?

Cruise director Brian Price is a veteran at the game of keep-the-guests-happy. He works with a program designed for inclement Atlantic weather, should it keep passengers indoors.

On a normal cruise, he says, in the Caribbean or Mediterranean, passengers expect good weather. Trans-Atlantic passengers know there is a probability of bad weather. His Plan B includes calling out his entire cruise staff and scheduling indoor activities such as races, trivia contests, putting tourneys and the like.

Even shows in the Royal Court Theatre might be altered because of weather. “We err on the side of caution,” Mr. Price says, “Safety of our performers is important.”

Normal onboard QM2 activities vary. The daily program shows that there is something for everyone:

• Choose books from the extensive 8,000-volume library on Deck 8.

• Watch one of several outstanding constellation shows in Illusions, the only planetarium at sea.

• Learn from lectures by Oxford University professors or Royal Academy of Art instructors.

• Improve your computer skills at more than a half-dozen classes in Connexions on Deck 2.

The Connexions area is used often for classrooms, and the Illusions planetarium also serves as a lecture hall and movie theater.

The ship offers trivia games and trivia competitions, the ubiquitous scarf tying, bingo and art auctions.

Interested in more physical activity? Try the Fairways Golf simulators on Deck 12; visit the Canyon Ranch Gymnasium on Deck 7; go to the four outside pools, take dance classes or play table tennis.

Hiking across the 17 decks and up and down stairs helps work up an appetite and get rid of calories. Deck 7 is the Promenade Deck, and three laps around equals 1.1 miles.

Children’s programs for travelers in their teens include a daily tea served in the Kings Court from 5 to 6 p.m.

Want to be pampered? Pick from many amazing treatments at the Canyon Ranch Spa and Beauty Salon, including the exotic Rasul Ceremony, a signature Canyon Ranch mud-and-steam treatment, or enjoy the 30-by-15-foot thalassotherapy pool.

I found the pool the perfect answer to sore muscles acquired trekking up and down stairs and across this very big ship.

Nighttime entertainment is also queen-sized. In addition to the requisite flash-and-dash musical productions and revues in the Royal Court Theatre, individual performers appear in the theater and a variety of other rooms around the ship.

The Empire Casino and G32 nightclub (named for the number assigned the hull by the shipyard in St. Nazaire, France) round out your options. On two nights during the six-day crossing, formal balls are held in the Queen’s Room.

“We have a huge attendance at the Black-and-White Ball and the Ascot Ball,” says QM2 hotel manager Mr. Stephenson.

Dancing is a big deal on trans-Atlantic sailings, and all those dips and bows from cotillion days are back in fashion in this ship’s huge ballroom.

If maritime history is your interest, the “Maritime Quest” exhibition, installed across several decks and along the corridors, displays the history of Cunard. It makes an interesting picture story.

SHOPPING

The A-list Mayfair Shops include Harrods, Chopard, Hermes and Dunhill plus other upscale label items by the shipload.

PASSENGER LIST

Queen Mary 2 appeals across a broad spectrum of travelers. Inside cabins, for a six-day crossing, can run as low as about $1,100 per person, and that per-diem ranks with any Caribbean sailing. Consider that once ships sail, all other aspects of the ship — except dining — are the same for inside cabin guests as for duplex doyennes.

The ship does appeal to veteran travelers, those who have sailed the Mediterranean and other European itineraries, gone through the Panama Canal half a dozen times and seen Alaska’s fjords.

With six days at sea — no ports, in other words — a crossing may not be a proper first-time at-sea experience. Most passengers are savvy to sea days, are well-educated and well-traveled and enjoy the networking and concept of making new friends when time constraints aren’t a factor.

QM2 was the flagship vessel at the Olympic Games in Athens last year, playing host to Queen Sophia of Spain and former President George H.W. Bush.

Celebrities who have sailed on the new QM2 include Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Whoopi Goldberg and Elizabeth Hurley. Other visitors have included Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Princess Michael of Kent, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The glitterati who sailed aboard the original Queen Mary include actors David Niven, Vera Lynn, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Ella Fitzgerald and Ginger Rogers.

• • •

To find out more about Queen Mary 2, contact a travel agent, call 800/7CUNARD or visit www.cunard.com.

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