Travel

Promise of elegance in an era of anything goes

But would the Duchess of Windsor have sported a Queen Mary 2 baseball cap?

That thought ran through my mind as I perused the ship's photo gallery of the grand and gracious era of Cunard ocean liners. There were the Duke and Duchess, who had brought their pug and perhaps 150 pieces of monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage.

There, too, was Noel Coward, who asked, famously, "Why do the wrong people travel and the right people stay at home?" What would he have made of golf shirts at dinner?

Cunard — which coined the slogan "Getting there is half the fun" — had been hyping this ship as the "largest, longest, tallest, widest and grandest liner ever built."

Would it live up to the hype?

To find out, I joined about 2,550 other passengers, mostly Americans, on the QM2's second voyage, an 11-day journey that sailed Jan. 31 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (I skipped the maiden voyage, a Jan. 12 transatlantic crossing from Southampton, England, to give ship and crew time to work out the kinks.)

I came home with an official maiden voyager certificate (it was the maiden Caribbean cruise), some QM2 souvenirs (made in China) — and mixed feelings.

The ship is beautiful, stunningly so. But some things just weren't up to snuff.

The food in the main dining room was uneven, not the promised "gustatory celebration," and the service, although it improved as we went, was not the impeccable, seamless pampering many had expected with a crew-to-passenger ratio of about 1 to 2. Trying to get a seat, or a drink, in one of the main bars before dinner was an endurance test.

As for glamorous evenings with women in beaded gowns sweeping across the ballroom floor, we had only two formal nights in 11 nights at sea, but five informal nights and four casual nights, the last category being, in my view, an abomination. Somehow, foie gras on Wedgwood china just wasn't the same when some diners looked as though they were dressed for a dash to 7-Eleven. Were those who showed up on informal nights dressed to the hilt — bless them — making a statement? (Cruise director Ray Rouse said Cunard would be "revisiting, rethinking" casual nights.)

All of which poses the question: Can the QM2 sell elegance in an era of inelegance? Or must it cater to lowered standards?

Must there be slot machines blinking and clanging just off the wide, red-carpeted promenade leading to the Britannia dining room, a magnificent two-tier space with sweeping staircase and vaulted backlighted glass ceiling?

And must the Wish-Bone dressings be served straight from the bottle at the salad bar in the Kings Court buffet?

There is much to love about the QM2, from bow to stern on all 14 passenger decks. The public rooms are grand. The 8,000-volume library has cozy corners for reading. I loved the smart, nautically themed Commodore Club bar and the Winter Garden, where, as a harpist played, we sat in wicker chairs under a trompe l'oeil ceiling, sipping tea served by white-gloved waiters.

The social staff was terrific, jollying up passengers, injecting fun into bingo, horse races and team trivia. Cruise director Rouse, who long ago sailed with Cunard as half of a dance duo, had such infectious enthusiasm that he could have talked me into doing a tango.

Pomp and circumspect As we embarked at Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades, four trumpeters dressed like Buckingham Palace guards heralded us. We walked up a red-carpeted ramp and into the grand lobby with its curving twin staircases and soaring six-deck atrium.

Before returning to Port Everglades the morning of Feb. 11, we would drop anchor in Puerto Rico; St. Kitts; Martinique; Barbados; St. Lucia; Dominica; and St. Thomas.

A split of champagne was cooling in my category B3 deluxe balcony room on Deck 8. ( For this category, the price was $3,749 per person. Standard inside rooms started at $1,999 per person, before taxes, deluxe balcony rooms with better views at $4,629 per person. Single surcharges were as much as 100%.)

Soon the buy-your-own-champagne sail-away party, driven undercover by rain, was underway in the pavilion pool area, with musicians in island shirts playing calypso. We eased away from the dock and, just offshore, were treated to a splendid fireworks display in the night sky.

I had chosen late meal seating, so at 8:30 I made my way to the Britannia room, eager to meet my table companions. I was in luck, soon joined by four fun-loving people who "adopted" me.

The QM2 boasts of having "the largest wine collection at sea," but we almost had to trip the wine steward to get any. Martinis arrived, inexplicably, in margarita glasses. Although we were five at a table for six, the extra setting was never cleared.

Back in my stateroom, I found that Nelson, my steward, had turned down the king-size bed, pulled the draperies across the glass wall opening to my balcony and left bedside chocolates. I ordered breakfast in bed for the next morning and snuggled under the fluffy duvet.

The room was lovely, in soft gold and burgundy with black-accented blond wood. There were a sofa and table and a desk with mini-refrigerator. Piqué robes with Cunard's lion and crown logo hung in one of the two closets. The bath, with stall shower, was well designed. My view: an orange lifeboat, with glimpses of ocean to either side.

The TV had CNN and BBC, movies and an interactive system enabling us to send e-mail, book pricey shore excursions ($29 to $149 per person) and other things I never quite got the hang of, though I did manage to order breakfast electronically. (Is this really easier than check marks on a door hanger?) One channel featured Dan and Ivan, the ship's shopping gurus, talking about diamonds and rum cake buys ashore. (QM2 voyagers descended with purpose on those island jewelry shops.)

Our second night on board was formal. At the captain's cocktail party under the crystal chandeliers in the Queens Room, the crowd was huge, the hors d'oeuvres scarce. The men were like a sea of penguins, the women attired in everything from thrown-together bits to sequins and feathers.

Two days out, we anchored off San Juan, Puerto Rico, and piled into the ship's tenders to go ashore. As it would be at each of our seven ports of call, our arrival was an event, with costumed dancers and free rum punch.

Even with three full days at sea, time flew. There were talks on subjects ranging from maritime archeology to scarf tying. The latter was standing room only, cruise hostess Maureen Ryan said, adding, "Not everybody wants to listen to a lecture on 18th century pottery."

There were interactive language classes, computer and dance classes, music in three bars, a nightclub, a ballroom with orchestra, movies under the stars. And, in Illuminations, the first seagoing planetarium, a dome that lowered to give us virtual stars in a virtual sky.

My bedtime reading was a big history of the QM2 placed in my stateroom. There I learned the lovely story about the naming of the first Queen Mary. (See Page 4.) The ship was to have been the Victoria — until Cunard asked permission of King George V to name it "after England's greatest queen" (his grandmother). Said the king, "My wife [Mary] would be delighted."

The Southampton-based Queen Mary 2, the first true ocean liner in more than three decades — the last was Queen Elizabeth 2, which made its debut in 1969 — is a bold and expensive (nearly $800-million) venture for Carnival Corp., which owns Cunard. The vessel was designed, Cunard says, not as a ship of times past but as a ship of its time: more hip, less stuffy, with high-tech amenities and the grace and grandeur of a classic liner. Can these two concepts find happiness together?

Gone are the miles of open deck found on earlier luxury liners, replaced by outdoor bars, sports courts, five pools (no topless sunbathing, please) and a wildly popular $40-an-hour golf simulator.

One always felt a bit superior, standing high on the QM2 decks, looking down on cruise ships in port. One day, as we returned a whistle salute from another ship with a blast of our mighty whistle (which came from the first Queen Mary), a woman on our ship yelled, "Take that!"

The QM2 cruises, but it is not a cruise ship. It is an ocean liner, sleeker and sturdier, designed to tame rough seas. (We had none.) It's prettier too. As we put into ports, passengers on cruise ships lined the rails to gawk. Helicopters circled. We were an A attraction. (As one cruise ship glided by, one of our crew sniffed, "That's not a ship. That's a block of flats.")

Solely in the interest of research, I booked one day at the lavish Canyon Ranch SpaClub for a 50-minute massage ($99, including tip). As I slipped out of my Cunard robe and slippers in the treatment room, therapist Jennifer, an Aussie, sprayed crisp sheets with lavender. Gregorian chants played. Divine.

Passing on the aromatic steam room and crushed ice rubdown, I met my dinner companions for lunch in Todd English. There was no surcharge to eat in the 156-seat restaurant on my trip, but Todd English has proved such a hot ticket that a charge of $20 for lunch and $30 for dinner is being introduced. It overlooks a pool area aft and is smartly done up in gray and burgundy. Food and service were superb. When Stephen, a young Irish waiter, offered madame his arm, I told him that hadn't happened below in Britannia. "But this is Todd English," he said.

Passengers cast a critical eye On board this ship were 850 members of the Cunard World Club, repeat passengers who seemed less forgiving of lapses than the newcomers. They grumbled about everything from the absence of palate-cleansing sorbet between dinner courses to having to tote their beach towels from room to deck.

The multinational crew of 1,241 was young, willing and friendly but largely inexperienced; a third of them had never before been to sea.

"That's probably the biggest challenge of all," said Ronald Warwick, the ship's commodore.

Jan and Jerry Shriber, a retired Utah couple, were among Cunard repeaters. She loved the QM2's décor but wished for more decorum. "The cruise ship is practically the last bastion of civilization," she said. He thought the ship needed "fine-tuning" but liked its potential. "I have a feeling they were in too much of a hurry to get it afloat and have it start paying for itself," he said.

World Clubber Thomas Deucker, a Palm Springs real estate investor, said the ship "has a lot more drama and is more beautiful" than the QE2, but "we had more personalized service on the QE2. Here, we have to wave people down."

Carlos Menendez, a Miami bank president, and his wife, Teresa, frequent cruisers, were on their first Cunard ship and, she said, "probably our last." There were kinks to be ironed out, but, she said, "We didn't pay for kinks. The lack of elegance is a real disappointment. The ship doesn't set high standards. They need to give guidance to people who do not have these standards."

Her husband said, "They've been running big ships for a long time and they should have a formula." The ship itself? "There's nothing better," but poor service and mediocre food "erase everything else."

The crew seemed aware of the shortcomings. A wine steward said, "For fine service, we need double" the staff. "We do our best, but we are always a little late."

That's for sure, said Ron Smith, a Glasgow, Scotland, wallpaper entrepreneur. "I like a long meal," he said, "but I don't want to spend the night."

My steward said the ship's sheer size presented a problem. A simple errand could take too much time away from routine chores. He was tending 14 cabins, changing sheets every three days.

But there were many aboard who thought it was idyllic. At least one couple were so enchanted that they had hoped to stay on for the 12-day Rio de Janeiro cruise but couldn't get accommodations.

Jesse and Peggy Booth, both 80, of Sun City Center, Fla., were happy voyagers who loved the ship so much they never went ashore. They met in London during World War II and were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, having marked their 50th on the QE2.

Entertaining the guests At night in the Queens Room, unattached women were whirled around the dance floor by the six gentlemen hosts, including the courtly George Sexton, a 72-year-old Atlanta widower. "Have tuxedo, will travel," said Sexton, who is not paid and pays $28 a day to his booking agency. The lure? World travel. Rules are strict. "We don't dance with the same lady until all the ladies have been danced with," he said. Although hosts must be good dancers, showing off is bad form. "The idea is to do what the lady can do and look nice doing it," even if it's a samba and the lady has two left feet. And no hanky-panky.

"I've had them try to get me into their cabin," Sexton said. "You have to act like it didn't happen. Night, night. Sleep tight."

Each day's daily "programme" offered something for everyone — an art auction, perhaps, or an acting workshop by graduates of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. One day there was a reunion of about 60 passengers from the first Queen Mary, including several men who had sailed as guests of Uncle Sam during World War II, when it was a troop transport. With 15,000 troops aboard, one recalled, "We slept in pup tents strung from poles in the hold."

Reunion-goers included Elaine Peters of Pacific Palisades, who crossed on the Queen Mary — second class — as a student in 1957. "We'd sneak up and play bingo in first class and sneak down to the disco in tourist and dance all night." She was happy with the QM2.

Unlike the Queen Mary that she remembered, the QM2 is not strictly a multi-class ship. Passengers in the most costly accommodations have separate dining rooms — the Princess Grill and Queens Grill — but mix with the bourgeoisie in the public rooms, including the Royal Court Theatre. There, sitting on red plush chairs, we watched nightly stage shows of varying quality, but without name talent. Headliners "want the best cabins for themselves" and freebies for their entourages, Rouse explained. His biggest challenge, he said, is keeping passengers awake for the shows. "These people are walking the decks at 6:30 in the morning. By evening, they're nodding off in the Royal Court." (The demographic is decidedly older.)

The QM2 promises to be kid- and pet-friendly. Although the kennel was not yet operational, British nannies — a complimentary perk — were on board. In the Play Zone, nanny Helen Brown, 29, showed me the nursery, the Minnows pool and the soft play area for safety in rough seas. Nannies had baby-sat 20 of the 22 kids on board, amusing them with games on the kiddie deck where, Brown pointed out, the railing is padded "so they can't pop overboard."

High up on the bridge, I stood with Commodore Warwick as the QM2 was anchored in the turquoise waters off Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. The white-bearded skipper, 63, is a Cunard man tried and true; he and his father were masters of the QE2. The QM2, he said, performs "beyond all expectations. A very maneuverable ship, considering its size, quite incredible. It's easier to handle than the QE2."

Although he was standing before an impressive bank of computers, he was quick to point out that "computers aren't driving the ship." That's done by humans, using computer data to maneuver the "joysticks" on the giant console. The skipper smiled and said, "We didn't even have calculators when I started."

I asked him about security, which was tight. Our ship-issued ID cards were scanned coming and going, our bags X-rayed. No visitors were allowed. "In this day and age, everything's vulnerable," Warwick said. "In some ways this ship is an attractive target, but not if you compare it with the World Trade Center. This ship's always on the move."

For now, he commands the queen of the seas. It's a ship, he said, that "reflects changing lifestyles." In 30 years, maybe 40, he knows that it, too, will be passé.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Getting on board with the Queen Mary 2

BOOKING THE QM2:

Cunard Line, 6100 Blue Lagoon Drive, Suite 400, Miami, FL 33126; (800) 7-CUNARD (728-6273), http://www.cunard.com , or see a travel agent.

PRICES:

Fares for the QM2 vary widely, depending on the itinerary and the length of the sailing. For example, for a grand duplex on the ship's maiden Southampton-to-New York transatlantic six-day crossing in April, brochure rates range from $1,869 for a standard inside cabin to $27,499. Discounts and airfare-cruise packages are available.

Basic cruise prices do not include such extras as bar drinks, bingo and horse-racing games, or shore excursions, which can be costly, up to $149 a person on the Caribbean maiden voyage. Each passenger is assessed $121 to cover staff tips, but it is customary to tip the waiter and cabin steward extra for good service.

ITINERARIES:

Through the end of the year, the QM2 will make transatlantic crossings between England and New York and sail to Brazil, Europe, Canada, New England and the Caribbean.

DRESS CODE:

Cruises have casual (shirt sleeves for men, skirts or pants and blouses for women), informal (jackets for men, dresses or dressy pantsuits for women) and formal nights (tuxedos or dark suits for men, evening dresses or evening pantsuits for women).

DINING:

The QM2 follows shipboard dining tradition, and passengers can choose between an early dinner seating at 6 p.m. and a late seating at 8:30 p.m. in the Britannia, the main dining room.

— Beverly Beyette

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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