March 2, 2006

Towering grandeur of massive ocean liner is a match for the sea

Towering grandeur of massive ocean liner is a match for the sea
Queen Mary 2 provides a monumental reason to go down to the sea.

Clearly, something monumental waited a crawling hour and 1,000 cars down the Harbor Boulevard off-ramp on the kind of peaceful Wednesday afternoon when this far end of the freeway is normally only terrorized by killer trucks.
The largest ocean liner ever built, the fraught-with-association Queen Mary 2 had come to loiter and pose and we were flocking, drawn, emotionally yanked. There were the older guys in mesh caps, 5,000 travel agents and more journalists than you could round up for a presidential hanging come to ogle what was there, when there was really only one thing there to ogle -- the sheer size of this incredible ship.
I'll run the numbers past you not because they mean anything in the grand horizon-filling scheme of this very large thing. This French-built ship -- you can tell it's not British because the plumbing looks good -- weighs 151,400 tons, nearly twice the weight of the still operating Queen Elizabeth 2. It's nearly as long as four football fields and is as tall as a 23-story building, only it feels taller. Actually, what she looks like is a modern cruise ship -- balconies and more balconies -- stacked a bit top-heavily upon an ocean liner's tall, sturdy hull.
Cunard President Carol Marlow would make a point of that later in the deco main dining room. Only, upon close examination, much of the deco is faux. Maybe it's because the French invented faux that there is so much of it; faux wood, faux bronze wall reliefs, faux skylight. But that's getting ahead of the story.
Still, this is a real ocean liner. That is to say, you don't want to be off the Grand Banks in 100-foot seas on an umbrella-drink cruise ship. The real ocean requires a real ship. And now there are but two -- old QE2 and new QM2 -- and they belong to Cunard, which is part Carnival Lines of Valencia and part snotty Cunard of Southampton. And I think that I can tell which end of the deal is stressed for marketing's sake. Also for marketing's sake we have the traditional Cunard colors, blue/black hull, massive white superstructure, red main stack and waterline trim, and five decks of balconies.

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Marlow, Cunard's second female president, claims that people these days demand balconies, though I don't know why because I've been on the North Atlantic in mid-July and felt like I was trolling for icebergs. Still, entering this ship through the high main lobby is like entering any good hotel. It's a grand space with unusually wide passages. It's meant to impress and shut you the heck up, and it does. Much of the wood here is real and there is a great sweep of stairway reminiscent of the duplex cabins that run $36,000 for a six-day Atlantic crossing. But don't be discouraged because the president herself told me that a low-end inside cabin costs $1,400 for the same trip.
Some suites come with private elevators, which is something I'd expect for $6,000 a day. Still, the most interesting thing about the ship can't be seen from dock side. Being way down there just doesn't convey the sheer height and bulk of this creation. Standing on the upper deck and looking aft and down past two descending decks, past two big pools and the Titanic-leap stern rail, the WWII-vintage Lane Victory looks like it could be comfortably fitted aboard and toweled off.
Three laps around the open uppermost 17th deck equals a mile. The only floating thing bigger than this in my experience is the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise.
I didn't see a cabin because they weren't showing them. Somehow, Cunard never does. But what it did have was the busy, heart-thumping feel of what might be the world's last great liner preparing to depart. This made me recall a skeptical friend asking earlier in the day: "Don't you think it's weird that people still want to look at a ship?"
Actually, it's not weird. It's elemental, part of our makeup, this wanderlust, this seemingly built-in appreciation of a 35-knot steel leviathan floating on oily water. There's nothing odd here, just an ancient siren calling us in a way that we still understand.

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