The luxurious ship was designed 'to create a new Golden Age of sea travel for those who missed the first'
Anne Vipond and William Kelly
Special to The Sun
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Anachronisms have become fertile ground for today's trends. Affluent baby boomers are buying Craftsman-style homes, teens are flocking to Bob Dylan concerts, and the hippest way to cross the Atlantic these days is not by jet plane but by ocean liner.
The English novelist Charles Dickens described his Cunard cabin as a "profoundly preposterous box" and likened it to a "hearse with windows" when he embarked on a transatlantic crossing in 1842. He was travelling on one of Cunard's earliest ships, which were built principally for delivering mail between Liverpool, Halifax and Boston. Passengers were an afterthought, and a standard cabin consisted of a cubicle with a straw mattress and chair. By the end of the century, however, the Golden Era of ocean travel was in full swing and a fleet of luxury liners offered spacious suites with marble baths. Public spaces featured grand staircases, crystal chandeliers and white-gloved service in the dining room.
Jet airplanes nearly brought an end to transatlantic ship travel, and 1958 was the last year in which more passengers crossed the North Atlantic by sea than by air. Yet, a small segment of travellers continued the seagoing tradition aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2, launched in 1967 and still in service. When Carnival Corporation purchased Cunard from Norway's Kvaerner Group in 1998, the company announced it would be launching a new ocean liner -- the first to be built since QE2. "Our goal," stated Carnival chairman and CEO Micky Arison, "is to create a new Golden Age of sea travel for those who missed the first."
If bookings on Queen Mary 2 are any indication, there are plenty of travellers wanting to experience grandeur and refinement -- but with a modern twist.
Yes, the QM2 has a broad teak promenade lined with steamer chairs, but there is also a Canyon Ranch Health Spa with a gymnasium, weight room, therapy pool, steam room and sauna. High tea is served on Wedgwood china in the Queens Room but the swimming pools and basketball courts are where some passengers prefer to exercise more than their pinky finger.
Queen Mary 2's itineraries take her to the Caribbean in winter and Europe in summer, but she is first and foremost an ocean liner designed for regular transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York. These six-day trips are not like a port-hopping cruise. Time and space seem to expand in the leisurely routine of sea days as the ship steams its way across the Atlantic and everyday cares and concerns evaporate into the horizon.
Self improvement and personal enrichment are an important aspect of Cunard's transatlantic experience. Educational programs offered include lectures by Oxford university professors and workshops held by graduates of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Special guest lecturers are featured on select sailings, and famous actors, musicians, mountaineers and explorers have shared their insights with fellow passengers on transatlantic crossings, including the British comedian John Cleese.
Passengers dine at one of three main dining rooms -- the Queens Grill, Princess Grill or Britannia Restaurant -- depending on which category of cabin they have purchased. Casual fare can be enjoyed in the buffet-style Kings Court, the Boardwalk Grill and the Golden Lion Pub where fish and chips and other pub grub is served.
Children are welcome on QM2. The ship's nursery is staffed by British nannies, and children can enjoy organized activities in the Play Zone (3 to 6 years) and the Zone (7 to 10+ years).
Dogs can also book passage on QM2, and they are offered two classes of kennel accommodation -- a standard bed or a large bed. All canine passengers receive a fleece blanket, a selection of premium foods, a complimentary photo, and nightly turndown service with a freshly baked biscuit.
Christened by Queen Elizabeth in January 2004, the QM2 makes news wherever she goes, be it Cannes for the Film Festival or Athens for the Olympic Games. When Cunard's new flagship arrived at Los Angeles in February 2006 for a historic rendezvous with the first Queen Mary (which is permanently docked at Long Beach as a hotel and tourist attraction), Queen Mary 2 was welcomed by a flotilla of yachts and fire boats while thousands of spectators lined the shore and helicopters hovered overhead.
This will be an historic year for Cunard with a number of milestones and firsts for 2007. Demonstrating the line's longstanding ties to the port of New York, Queen Mary 2 will offer an expanded season of transatlantic travel, and introduce a selection of round-trip Caribbean cruises originating from New York and cruising as far south as Barbados -- highlighting the ship's fast (up to 30 knots) seagoing abilities.
Although transatlantic crossings dominate QM2's summer schedule, the ship will also offer several round-trip itineraries from Southampton -- one in June to the fjords of Norway, and two 12-day cruises to the Mediterranean (in May and September).
Longest-serving Cunarder Queen Elizabeth 2 will celebrate her 40th anniversary with a special commemorative voyage around the British Isles. And the year wraps with the highly anticipated maiden voyages of the new Queen Victoria, marking the first time in Cunard's 167-year history that three Cunard Queens will be in service simultaneously.
WHO WAS SAMUEL CUNARD?
No name in cruising is more illustrious than Cunard. Yet the founder of this prestigious line was not British but Canadian. Born in Halifax in 1787, Samuel Cunard (kyoonard) was a pioneer of steam navigation and a leading Nova Scotia businessman when the British Government invited bids in 1838 for carrying mail to and from Liverpool, Halifax and Boston. Cunard was apparently the only contender who, instead of trying to convince the British Admiralty it should approach the situation differently, actually gave them what they wanted.
The plans he presented for a line of steamships were so carefully considered, he was awarded the contract. He soon had four ships operating as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and to this day Cunard Line has retained its Royal Mail Ship status by taking mail across the Atlantic once a year.
A Victorian pillar box stands outside the QM2's Golden Lion Pub, and an exclusive QM2 stamp is sold onboard. Stamp collectors value the unique cancellation mark that appears on mail they drop into the ship's Royal Mail postbox.
Last October, while QM2 was in port at Halifax, a 10-foot bronze statue of the "Steam Lion" (as Samuel Cunard was known) was unveiled on the waterfront.
AT THE HELM
Carol Marlow, the new president of Cunard, has risen quickly in the cruise industry and is one of the reasons Cunard is growing in popularity among Canadians. "Interest in ocean travel is at an all-time high," says Marlow, who has made a concerted effort to market Cunard to Canadian travel agents and their clients. "Cunard is the line of choice for travellers charmed by a singular blend of history and innovation."
Marlow's efforts are reaping results. Cunard Line and its flagship Queen Mary 2 were recently awarded top travel industry accolades on both sides of the Atlantic when the readers of Travel Weekly chose Queen Mary 2 as the Best Luxury Cruise Ship, and Cunard was named Best Luxury Cruise Line and Cruise Line of the Year at the British Travel Awards.
Anne Vipond is the author of several bestselling cruise travel guidebooks for destinations around the world. Her latest book, Hawaii By Cruise Ship, has just been released and is available at leading retail and online bookstores, and is distributed by Raincoast Book Express and Heritage House.
IF YOU GO ...
Accommodations on QM2 range from intimate to extravagant. Most lavish are the ship's spacious two-storey apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows and butler service.
Much more affordable are the standard oceanview staterooms, which are about 200 square feet in size and contain a queen-sized or two twin-sized beds as well as a small sitting area and a bathroom with shower. A six-day crossing between Southampton and New York can be enjoyed for under $1,500 per person, depending on the month of travel and the category of accommodation.
As with all cruise bookings, you are well advised to consult an experienced cruise agent for the best fares and potential upgrades. Harvey Strydhorst of Seacourses Cruises in Vancouver advises his Cunard clients to book an east-to-west crossing on QM2 to take advantage of the one-hour time gain per day. He says his clients have been impressed with the ship's excellent cuisine, the unique selection of onboard activities and the international mix of passengers who come from various European countries as well as the U.K., Canada and the United States.
OCEAN LINER VS CRUISE SHIP
Passenger ships used to compete for the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. Today, the race is for the title of World's Largest Cruise Ship, a distinction that was held by Queen Mary 2 until Royal Caribbean International launched Freedom of the Seas in May of 2006. A ship's size is measured by tonnage -- a cubic measurement of internal space -- and Freedom of the Seas is 160,000 gross registered tons versus Queen Mary 2's 150,000 (both ships are too wide to transit the Panama Canal). However, as Cunard's president Carol Marlow is quick to assert, QM2 remains the world's largest ocean liner.
And indeed, the QM2 is a ship in a class of its own. It was built not only for the comfort of its 2,600 passengers (who enjoy a generous space ratio of 58 cubic feet per passenger versus 44 cubic feet per passenger on Freedom of the Seas), but for crossing the Atlantic in all types of weather conditions without having to reduce speed.
The ship's hull is long and lean, able to slice through a rough sea, and its steel is extra thick. The naval architects who designed QM2 had to merge the needs of a classic liner with those of a cruise ship.
Although 94 per cent of the outside staterooms have a balcony, those on the lower decks are recessed into the steel of the hull to provide protection from inclement weather.
The promenade deck is sheltered at the bow with a wall of solid steel, its large doors left open in fair weather to allow a full outdoor circuit, but closed if the weather turns harsh.
QM2's immense size and high passenger-space ratio have allowed for palatial public areas, such as the Queens Room ballroom, the Royal Court Theatre and the multi-deck Britannia dining room.
Expansive indoor promenades create an atmosphere of opulence, and the ship's collection of boutiques -- called the Mayfair Shops -- includes
Harrods. The ship's 8,000-volume library is the largest at sea and its planetarium is the first.
The 1,132-foot vessel has 17 decks and is equal to the height of a 23-storey building. The circumference of the promenade deck exceeds one-third of a mile.
Ran with fact boxes "If You Go " and "Ocean Liner vs CruiseShip", which have been appended to the end of the story.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007