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Queen Mary 2 delivers a royal voyage
02:34 PM CST on Friday, December 9, 2005
I want those five hours back.
On a trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to London on the Queen Mary 2, the ship turns the clocks ahead one hour on each night of the voyage. The intent is to arrive in London without any jet lag.
But I really hated losing that time. When the QM2 was launched two years ago, it immediately became the most famous cruise ship in the world, and critics took aim. Reviews were mixed; service was reportedly not up to standards, food was mediocre, and much of the criticism was directed at the classes of service.
So how are things now?
In a word, marvelous.
For most cruisers, the Queen Mary 2 is a radical departure. A liner built for ocean crossings, the ship has an inward focus. There aren't many warm and breezy days on the North Atlantic, so passengers must be entertained and entranced indoors. The Queen succeeds in spades.
The Queen Mary 2 is still the most stunning ship afloat: a towering grand staircase, unusually decorated wide corridors, clubby and distinctive bars and lounges, the spectacular art deco Britannia dining room, stylish shops, a planetarium, Canyon Ranch Spa, and art that is plentiful, interesting and everywhere.
But, of course, you knew all that. What is the cruising experience like now? Owner Cunard has attempted to re-create the glorious bygone era of sailing, using its own history and its British roots to create an elegant, upscale, one-of-a-kind sailing experience.
A troupe of actors from Britain's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts provides entertainment on every cruise. The talented thespians present entertaining snippets of traditional and modern theater during the day (Chekhov, Shakespeare and Neil Simon were in our mix). The acting is first-rate I couldn't help thinking that I might be seeing the next Judi Dench or Anthony Hopkins. When not performing, the actors lead passengers in acting classes.
Oxford Discovery Programme, created by the University of Oxford especially for the Queen Mary 2, provides onboard lecturers. They are interesting, offbeat and sometimes wacky in a distinctive British way. We will not soon forget the Rev. Peter Owen-Jones wending his unorthodox way from pre-Christian England to the Reformation. Other speakers included Baroness Gillian Shepherd on power and politics, Dr. Catherine Oakes on great collections of British art, and Dr. Emma Smith on Shakespeare. Each speaker gave three or four talks during the voyage.
There are also the usual shipboard activities bingo, art auctions, wine tasting, a casino (which rarely closes, as the ship is always at sea), exercise classes, dance lessons, bridge and darts tournaments, karaoke, shopping and even a knitting class. The evening entertainment is grander than the norm, with several of the comedians, musicians and ship singers and dancers (ballet, even) a cut above most other lines'.
The 20,000-square-foot Canyon Ranch Spa is not to be missed, with its huge assortment of health and wellness programs. Best to book early.
Outdoor pools (all heated), hot tubs and topside bars are nice, if underused, on a trans-Atlantic trip; a bit breezy and cool for sunbathing. The promenade deck harks back to the grand days of North Atlantic cruising. We spent hours power-walking around the deck (three laps to the mile) and enjoying our fellow passengers. On sunny days, hardy souls sat in deck chairs, wrapped head to toe in tartan blankets provided by the ship.
The ship's attention to formality and tradition affects the dress code, too. There are three formal nights on the six-night crossing, no shorts allowed anywhere after 6 p.m., and of course, the Royal Ascot Ball night that encourages the ladies to wear hats.
Our traveling companions were a surprisingly mixed age group. While there were few children (there is a well-staffed children's area with spaces and activities organized by age groups), the mostly couples crowd ranged from the mid-30s on up.
OK, now let's talk food. Cunard is the last holdout in a world of class-free dining. There are three main dining venues, and passengers are assigned based on the price (and size) of their cabins. Suite and penthouse passengers enjoy the Queens Grill; larger cabins, the Princess Grill; and everyone else dines in the Britannia. Of course, there are buffet offerings for all meals in the Kings Court (an excellent array of Asian, Italian, salads, sandwiches and carvery offerings) open to everyone, as well as a couple of specialty restaurants and room service.
We were surprised to learn that the daily menu is identical in all three main dining venues. The differences in the restaurants are an additional entrée or two and the availability of an a la carte menu (the same throughout the voyage) offering diners daily doses of caviar, high-end steaks and foie gras. The food was excellent (we sampled all the venues), and a British favorite or two (we could have had the Dover sole every night) is always offered. A highlight of all three dining menus: the Canyon Ranch items at every meal. These were light, tasty and a good way to balance out extra servings of foie gras or dessert.
Bottom line on the food: Expect to be dazzled. And don't worry if you can't afford the upper-level accommodations. Unless you need a large cabin and butler service or a daily dose of caviar, the food, service, presentations and décor in the main dining room are top-notch.
The specialty restaurants are interesting adventures. The much-heralded Todd English ($20 at lunch; $30 at dinner, wine extra) is an over-the-top room that features the styling of this celebrity chef. The food is a bit over the top, too; excellent and unusual dishes, but each item was a stand-alone feature of richness and complexity (the Boston Bibb salad was generously sprinkled with blue cheese; starter pasta courses of ravioli or gnocchi were sauced with creams; the sea bass came with a small lobster tail, lobster vinaigrette and lentils); together, they were almost too rich.
The Chef's Galley ($30, dinner only, wine included) is a small restaurant with a large demonstration kitchen an open-fronted preparation area and four closed-circuit televisions allow diners to follow all the action. On each voyage, Cunard features a different guest chef, who prepares a different meal each evening. (Recipes are provided so you can follow along and re-create them at home.)
On our voyage, the celebrity chef was Jim Botacos, purveyor of fine Greek and Italian food in New York City. This venue is a lot of fun: instructive for home chefs and delightful entertainment for others.
Six days (shortened by those pesky time changes) were not enough. The Queen Mary 2 was an extraordinary experience glamour and tradition in equal measure, eased through the prism of 21st century technology and style, to provide a truly unique shipboard experience.
Maria Smith is a Dallas freelance writer.
The QM2 is the last liner in the world doing regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings. The trip is a great way to avoid jet lag going to or from Europe. Except for last-minute bookings, the best trans-Atlantic fare on the QM2 I found was $999 for an inside cabin. Register at Cunard's Web site, www.cunard.com, or check with a travel agent, for information on specials. In winter, when it's too cold to sail the North Atlantic, the QM2 offers Caribbean, Hawaiian and South American itineraries; trans-Atlantic crossings resume in April.
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