Classy yet lively
All that I had heard prior to the voyage made it clear that this wouldn't be just any cruise. The QM2 is the largest, longest, tallest, widest and most expensive ship ever to sail the high seas. The ship's size affords high ceilings in public rooms, giving it an air of elegance akin to the transatlantic liners of yesteryear. While the grand staircase from the second floor of the main restaurant to the first floor was certainly not as elaborate as the one in the movie Titanic, it was indeed sweeping and faced an atmospheric, floor-to-ceiling mural of a transatlantic liner. However, I think what most epitomized the romance of travel past was the long row of wooden lounge chairs that flanked the Promenade deck.
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All this understated elegance did not make the ship overly stuffy. From enrichment lectures to evening shows, the variety of activities was definitely a cut above the norm. The ship always has an active roster of lecturers, ranging from maritime historian John Maxtone Graham to big name celebrities like Richard Dreyfus. Other daytime activities include computer classes and free daily planetarium shows. The latter were perfect for adults as well as families and were held in a dedicated planetarium auditorium complete with comfortable reclining seats. For those interested in dancing, there were daytime classes followed by themed dance evenings on the largest ballroom floor at sea.
At night, cruisers could choose from a Chefs at Sea program watching chefs prepare meals and then feasting on them and a variety of classy shows. The headliners in evening stage entertainment ranged from a Broadway singer to a concert pianist to a comedian/violinist. Even the dance revue shows were more appealing and less campy than on mass market ships.
While the diverse passengers and crew all give the cruise a very international flavor, there is a decidedly British feel to the ship. Unlike most other cruises, QM2 still operates on a class system in which passengers booked in the top categories of suites get privileges from private deck areas to separate dining rooms that the masses in the standard rooms aren't privy to.
While overall service on the ship was good, the staff was a bit formal and not as warm as those on other cruise lines. Employees come from at least 40 different countries and outnumber passengers in a comfortable two to one ratio ensuring prompt service.
On our early July cruise, there were about 2,700 passengers on board. According to David Stephenson, QM2 Hotel Manager, passengers are usually about 60% American and 40% British. Additionally, there were about 70 German passengers as well as some from France, Spain and Asia.
Although the ship tends to get a majority of passengers who are in their 50s or older, I did not feel out of place with my 11-year-old daughter in tow. Our cruise had about 325 youngsters on board who were happily ensconced in the youth program by day and night. Cunard Line is one of the few cruise lines which allow children as young as one year old in its youth program. Little ones are lovingly and patiently cared for by youth counselors, many of who are professionally trained British nannies.
The youth program operates from 9 a.m. to noon; 2 to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight daily and is free for all ages. Although the offerings weren't as diverse as on some other cruise lines, there was enough of interest to attract children at least once a day. The ship itself also has plenty of other family-friendly activities such as daily planetarium shows, wholesome evening stage productions, basketball and paddle tennis courts, shuffle board, and five pools, including a splash pool and covered pool.
Food, glorious food
As expected, the food was excellent. We ate in the Britannia Restaurant for dinner, which is the primary venue for most passengers. While at times I would have preferred more options than those on the menu, ultimately I was very satisfied with the taste and quality of food that I ordered. Passengers in the top cabin categories eat dinner in the Queen's Grill or Princess Grill which have similar cuisine to the Britannia but also feature an ala carte menu and one open seating time.
Other dinner options include sit-down menus at Lotus and La Piazza, which double as buffet areas for breakfast and lunch. The former features Asian and the latter Italian cuisine. Reservations are necessary for these complimentary eateries at dinner time. Another section, the Chef's Galley, has "children's tea" from 5 to 6 p.m. when families can order kids' food with fairly swift service.
Our favorite dinner was at the alternative restaurant, Todd English, which charges $30 per person. Reservations are a must and can be made either in the passenger terminal or once you board the ship. The meal not only was top notch, but presentation was particularly attractive and featured a number of appetizers and desserts served on long, rectangular plates. The lobster bisque brimmed with huge chunks of lobster; the steak had a delicate yet flavorful sauce; and the "fallen chocolate cake" was truly a showstopper.
We also loved the breakfast and lunch options at the King's Court buffet area. I counted a whopping 16 different ingredients choices for made-to-order omelettes. Lunch was my favorite meal with hot and cold Italian fare at La Piazza; stir fry and sushi at Lotus; continental cuisine at The Carvery; and burgers and fries at Chef's Galley. With all these options, it was easy to maintain a lo-cal diet for lunch, at least until dessert and tea time! The Golden Lion Pub also served British style fish and chips daily.
Throughout the cruise, I encountered unexpected pleasures which added to the entire panache of the ship. One of the best was tea time. Cruisers choose from traditional, sit-down tea in the Queen's Room; buffet style in the King's Court; and a roving tea cart for passengers relaxing on the Promenade Deck's wooden lounge chairs. I felt totally indulged when the cart showed up, complete with excellent scones, clotted cream and jam.
Another favorite was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) troupe that sails on every QM2 crossing. I enjoyed the academy's two theatrical productions (one featured short scenes from Shakespeare and another from modern plays) as well as its dramatic workshops, complete with fun exercises presented by RADA actors.
In all my years of cruising, I had always heard about gentlemen hosts who sail some traditional ships and serve as non-romantic dance partners for single ladies. During our crossing, we came across gentlemen hosts on the Queen's Room dance floor. For the sake of journalism and because dance-partner husband was not on board, I partnered with two different gentlemen hosts who were very good dancers.
Another surprise was the variety of services including acupuncture and chiropractic treatments offered at the ship's Canyon Ranch Spa. I was disappointed, however, that passengers can only use the saunas for free on days they have paid for other spa treatments. Otherwise there is a $29 daily fee, which includes use of saunas and a huge indoor whirlpool. I have never had to pay for sauna use on any other cruise ship and felt it was an unnecessary charge.
The true luxury of QM2 was the spaciousness of indoor and outdoor public areas. With five pools, the deck areas never felt crowded like they sometimes do on Caribbean ships. Although QM2 is a world unto itself, its many pools and quiet deck areas afforded the best entertainment in my eyes endless views of tranquil seas without anything other than occasional pods of dolphins in sight for five days. For, as aptly stated in QM2's brochure, "the journey may be even more magnificent than the destination." And it was.
Luisa Frey Gaynor is the family cruise editor for CruiseMates.com, a contributing editor at Cruise Reports newsletter/Web site, and writes for other travel publications. Unlike USA TODAY staff writers, Luisa, who wrote this piece on a freelance basis, does sail on complimentary cruises. However, she is dedicated to offering unbiased opinions of cruise lines and their youth programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org"
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