The Queen Mary 2, the largest and arguably the most famous ship ever to pass through the Golden Gate, will arrive in San Francisco a week from today. The Queen Mary 2 displaces 151,000 tons, more than three times the size of a World War II battleship, and is 1,131.9 feet long -- 279 feet longer than San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid is high.
The Queen Mary 2 is so big it will not fit through the Panama Canal: It is sailing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to San Francisco around Cape Horn, the tip of South America.
The ship will come under the Golden Gate Bridge about 3 p.m., and its arrival will be a big deal, says Peter Dailey, maritime director for the Port of San Francisco.
The Queen Mary 2's arrival in San Francisco "is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone who likes ships," said Dailey. When the Queen Mary 2 called at Long Beach a year ago, 100,000 people were on hand to see the ship arrive, Dailey said. Long Beach was the ship's only California call on that voyage; it has never been in San Francisco before. The ship is so big it had to be backed down a channel when it departed from the Long Beach port, and the maneuver was so tricky because of currents that it had to be done at 5 a.m. Still, Dailey said, 5,000 people showed up just to watch.
The arrival in San Francisco "will be an event like the Blue Angels,'' said Capt. Tom Miller, the bar pilot who will bring the ship into port. The Navy Blue Angels flying team typically attracts thousands of spectators to the San Francisco waterfront during Fleet Week in October.
The only difference is that the ship is arriving in winter, when the weather can be tricky, and on Super Bowl Sunday.
Nonetheless, the Queen will be met in the bay by fireboats spewing fountains of water, tour boats and hundreds of small craft.
Even the venerable Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien, one of the oldest operating steamships in the world, will be on hand with about 800 passengers. The tickets, at $50 a pop, were snapped up weeks ago.
Part of the reason for the interest in the ship is its size -- the QM2 was the largest passenger ship in the world when it went into service in 2004. It has since been surpassed by the Freedom of the Seas, which is 1,725 feet long and displaces 158,000 tons. Other super ships are said to be on the drawing board.
There are other ships that carry more passengers than the 3,090 passengers and 1,254 crew that the QM2 can accommodate. But the Queen has something else: tradition.
The Cunard Line modestly calls the ship "the most magnificent ocean liner ever built,'' part of a kind of high-toned hype designed to attract customers to a ship that cost $800 million and three years to design and build.
So far the ship has lived up the billing. The Berlitz Guide to Cruising calls it "a ship of superlatives" and gives it a five-star rating. Even The Chronicle's travel section called the ship "the new reigning monarch of elegance and grandeur.''
"There are larger ships afloat,'' said Capt. Patrick Moloney, executive director of the San Francisco-based State Pilot Commission, "but they look like wedding cakes on a barge. This one has class.''
Class, however, is expensive. A ticket for the top-of-the-line suite on the ship's current around-the world-in-81-days voyage costs $185,905 per person. The least-expensive cabin for the trip is $21,185.
Portions of the voyage are cheaper -- the 14-day trip from San Francisco, sailing Feb. 5, is $36,559 at the high end and $4,199 for an inside cabin.
The Queen Mary 2 was thought to be an expensive gamble for Cunard and Carnival Cruises, its corporate parent. Carnival runs ships attuned to younger passengers: cruise ships with show rooms, spas, discos and a kind of 21st century ambience.
Cunard, on the other hand, has a British, stiff-upper-lip tradition: dressing for dinner, and formal staff that offers what Cunard calls "the royal treatment.''
So the Queen Mary 2 is a bit of a compromise: it makes regular Atlantic crossings from New York to Southampton, but it also does cruises. Cunard likes to call the ship an ocean liner, not a cruise ship.
"It is a great living link to that glorious era of romantic ship travel,'' said William Miller, who has written 67 books on ocean travel. "The decor is such that you expect to meet Fred and Ginger."
Miller didn't identify Astaire and Rogers further. The implication was clear: If you don't know who Fred and Ginger are, you don't belong on a Cunard ship.
The Queen Mary 2 is named, of course, for the original Queen Mary, the 1936 liner that is now retired as a hotel in Long Beach.
The original Queen Mary is much smaller than the new queen -- displacing 83,000 tons to 155,000. But the new Queen has kept a bit of the old, including one of the Queen Mary's three whistles -- a device that weighs a ton and emits a basso profundo in a perfect key of A.
The Queen Mary 2 is the only big ship that carries a kennel, so that passengers' dogs can travel in style. Cats are also accommodated, as are pet birds, Miller says.
The ship also has formal nights ("one of the most distinctive parts of the Cunard experience," the company says); no one in jeans and flip-flops need show up for dinner.
There is also something else: "Of course, single travelers are welcomed at all events, and Gentlemen Hosts are onboard to dance with single ladies,'' Cunard's brochure says.
The Queen Mary 2 should not be confused with its much older sister, the Queen Elizabeth 2, which called at San Francisco last week. The QE2, famous in its own right, has been a bit of a hard-luck ship, with occasional engine trouble and other problems. Last week, it arrived in San Francisco after a troubled voyage that started in New York. There was an outbreak of norovirus, a particularly contagious disease with flulike symptoms. More than 300 passengers were affected. Only four still had the symptoms when the ship arrived in San Francisco, but Cunard got a lot of bad press.
There are other concerns: Russell Long, vice president of the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group, is concerned that cruise ships cause pollution of the ocean through discharge of wastewater, and pollute the air because they run their engines in port, emitting smoke with a high sulfur content.
The ship will arrive at the Golden Gate in the afternoon, but will not dock at Pier 27 at the foot of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco until about 8 p.m. because of tidal conditions.
The Queen Mary 2 sails for Honolulu at 5 p.m. Feb. 5.
Queen Mary 2 comparison
Queen Mary 2: 1,132 ft.
Queen Elizabeth 2: 963 ft.
Nimitz class aircraft carrier: 1,092 ft.
Jeremiah O’Brien: 441 ft.
Golden Gate Bridge tower: 746 ft.
Transamerica Pyramid: 853 ft.
Sources: Cunard, Chronicle research
E-mail Carl Nolte at email@example.com.