- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

PORT EVERGLADES, Fla. - Eighteen hundred very special passengers could barely contain their excitement as they boarded the largest, longest, tallest, widest, grandest and most expensive passenger ship in the world for an overnight party raising more than $1.5 million for three Miami-area performing arts organizations.

Guests paying $500 to $50,000 per person for the post-maiden voyage “cruise to nowhere” Jan. 30-31 aboard the Cunard Line’s fabulous new Queen Mary 2 were determined to get full fare value, so who could blame them for rushing fore and aft, port to starboard, topside and below, trying to steady their sea legs before the ship even left port? After all, there were only a few precious hours to locate cabins, unpack, report for lifeboat drill, grab lunch and still have time to tour the ship before changing into black tie for the evening’s festivities.

Tight schedules were hardly a problem for the seasoned ocean-liner aficionados, many with mini-deck-plans in hand, who deftly negotiated the promenades and passageways on the 17-deck, 1,132-foot leviathan.

All reports were highly satisfactory.

Wometco heir and arts philanthropist Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson Jr. compared the eagerly awaited vessel to its legendary predecessors from the golden age of ocean travel during a reception in the opulent Queens Room for top donors to the Miami City Ballet (MCB), the New World Symphony and Broward’s Winterfest.

“Everything is as it should be,” the veteran of 100-plus trans-Atlantic crossings pronounced with evident satisfaction. “Her bow is inspired by the sleek, wind-cutting prow of the Normandie, her bridge is similar to that of the Queen Elizabeth 2, and her rear exhaust funnel reminds one of the old SS France.”

Mr. Wolfson also complimented the interiors of the public rooms, especially the three-deck-high Britannia Restaurant.

“It’s absolutely stunning, worthy of any liner at sea,” he said of the art deco-inspired dining saloon’s classic columns, softly muted lighting and dramatic, sweeping staircase.

“There’s nothing I don’t like about the ship,” said Mr. Wolfson’s sister-in-law, Lynn Wolfson, as lavishly gowned and bejeweled pals greeted each other with air-kisses to sounds of “Besame Mucho” from the ship’s orchestra.

What did she most like? Her accommodations, of course: a plush suite with living room, bedroom, dressing room, bath and “best of all, a major walk-in closet.”

“The gym and [Canyon Ranch] spa are impressive. … I loved the magnificent wooden lounge chairs and the ability to walk for miles on deck even in the rain,” said Miami bank executive and former Washingtonian Adrienne Arsht. “It’s obvious they spared no expense.”

Guests were surprised to learn that MCB Artistic Director Edward Villella was hardly a shipboard stranger.

“I was trained to go to sea, but I got my ballet legs first,” the 1997 Kennedy Center Honors awardee explained, revealing that his father had compelled him to interrupt his dance studies to enroll at New York State Maritime College — where he eventually earned a degree in maritime transportation.

“The QM2 is certainly not the kind of ship I trained on,” Mr. Villella said with a laugh, “It doesn’t rock and roll, it just vibrates ever so slightly.”

The lack of rolling and vibration was the reason guests could enjoy “the first pas de deux on the high seas” when MCB principal dancers Mary Carmen Catoya and Mikhail Ilyin performed a selection from Delibes’ “Sylvia” in the QM2’s Royal Court Theatre during a gala that included Michael Tilson Thomas conducting 60 of his musicians — about half of the New World Symphony — in selections by Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

Dinner was served in dining rooms throughout the ship with Messrs. Villella and Thomas joining entertainment stars Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada and Carlos Ponce; University of Miami President Donna Shalala; Carnival Cruise Lines chief Micky Arison and other VIPs in the Britannia Restaurant for a four-course meal featuring lobster and filet mignon.

Partying carried on until the wee hours, with passengers scurrying to disco, drink champagne and take advantage of gambling opportunities in the Empire Casino before the QM2 slipped quietly back into U.S. territorial waters.

Many were already planning to return.

“I want to come back and really explore the ship,” Ms. Arsht told a reporter following her disembarkation. “My fantasy is to sit on a deck chair with my pillow and bouillon, and finally get started on a box of unread books.”

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