July 12, 2007

High seas drama and luxury (QM2 review)

This in the Manchester Evening News:

"Deanna Delamotta 10/ 7/2007

AS I threw myself across the bed of the Queen Mary 2's most luxurious suite, I thought `I could really get into this cruising lark'.

Unfortunately I was in dry dock at the time, with hundreds of other journalists, snooping around ahead of the naming ceremony of what was the world's largest and most expensive passenger ship.

Little did I know then that some three years later I'd have the chance to actually sail on the QE2's big sister. The start could have been better. After flying from Gatwick to Fort Lauderdale to embark on a nine-day `Caribbean Adventure', we were stuck in an overcrowded immigration room for two hours. Finally, when we arrived at the head of the queue, the smart aleck customs officer said. "You don't really look like this any more, Deanna, do you?" comparing the youthful blonde in the passport mugshot to the haggard woman before him. I resisted the temptation to respond sarcastically for fear of being branded an `alien' and shipped back to Blighty faster than I could say: "Visa, what visa?"

The US really must make entry to their land more welcoming if they are going to get tourism numbers back to where they were pre 9/11. To round up visitors, many of them frail and elderly, most of them on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, in an airless room and then allow their own nationals to jump the queue really isn't cricket, is it?

By the time we walked down the gang plank we were too frazzled to take in the awesome splendour of a cruise liner whose handsome heavyweight (151,400 ton) stature belies the ladylike name. We just wanted a reviving cocktail in the Commodore's Lounge but were stopped en route by a photographer, who made us pose by a lifebuoy. "You can guarantee we won't be buying that," I said to my mate, a fellow hackette. But as soon as you board the QM2, you buy into the whole experience, and that means purchasing ridiculously expensive photos at $28 a shot, at each stage of the trip.

Who would have thought, for instance, that me, a commoner who says `serviette' not `napkin', would get busy with a buffet fold? After a half-hour napkin-folding session I could create a bishop's hat, a pleated fan, a single candle and a buffet fold.

Lavish I couldn't quite manage the bird of paradise or the double candle, as I always was a bit cack-handed. How could I have got through life without such knowledge? That was the topic of conversation in the Princess Grill, second poshest restaurant on board. The most lavish restaurant is the Queen's Grill, while the masses dine in the Britannia, which has more atmosphere if not the menu choice of its more upmarket sisters. I tried to demonstrate the art to fellow diners before we got stuck in to yet another three-course meal (you are going to put on five pounds on this cruise even if you go to an exercise class every day - take it from one who knows). Unfortunately, the napkin was the wrong shape.

Still, my enthusiasm did prompt my colleagues to bubble excitedly about the scarf-tying class. Haven't you always wondered how some women manage to tie scarves with such aplomb? Chances are they've been to finishing school or on the QM2, which underlines its quintessentially English credentials - although the American spellings are a giveaway to it being US-owned. Napkin-folding and scarf- tying are but two options in a packed schedule on `at sea' days.

If napkin-folding, quick step, salsa, or karaoke are just too low-brow, there's always Richard Dreyfuss. The Jaws and Close Encounters actor was the star turn and he got to stay in that lavish grand duplex I road-tested at the launch, in return for sharing his thoughts about George Bush (hates him) and the Iraq War (hates it).

If he fancies returning to the same swanky pad as a paying punter on an 11-night Caribbean cruise later this year, he'll have to fork out £17,500. He can console himself that major discounting goes on in the cruise world due to the fierce competition in this crowded market and, according to industry insiders, most of the 2,000 passengers on our trip wouldn't have paid the full brochure price, with many paying less than £1,000 (including flights). But you won't be getting anywhere near a duplex or penthouse suite for that money.

Enthusiastic Other entertainment included a rock opera with Cunard's singers giving us an enthusiastic rendition of Eighties classics such as Rock Me Amadeus. Where's Jane McDonald when you need her?

Our island days included stops at Bonaire, Grenada and St Kitts. It was a good decision by Cunard HQ to include Bonaire in the itinerary, if only because when you get home you can impress your mates by saying `Have you heard of Bonaire? (blank faces) It's one of the ABC islands, don't you know?' Grenada is a better-known Caribbean island, which I'd visited in 2003, the year before Hurricane Ivan claimed 39 lives, decimating 90 per cent of a beautifully lush oasis where the smell of spices hangs heavy in the air. Grenada's rapid recovery was illustrated during our lunch at the Spice Island Beach Resort, where'd I'd stayed pre-hurricane. Looking around, I assumed the hotel was part of that lucky 10 per cent to be untouched by a disaster that shall remain nameless, as Grenadians are suspicious that if they utter its name it will return to wreak more havoc. In fact, the resort was completely destroyed and yet here I was four years later sipping a rum punch in exactly the same surroundings I remembered.

On St Kitts we tried a woodland walk with the island's answer to David Bellamy. But examining every tree got a bit wearing after about 10 minutes. Also, the warning of Commodore Bernard Warner (a Yorkshireman who married one of his passengers) that he wouldn't wait for us, rang in our ears. We were so anxious not to miss the boat that we returned at least an hour before departure time, curtailing what was already too brief a spell on each island to get a real flavour.

The spectacular arrival into Brooklyn harbour, which marked the end of our cruise, made up for it, though. We glided in at five in the morning and the view of a million lights glittering in the darkness took the breath away. When it comes to making an entrance, it doesn't get much better than this.

FACTFILE:From October 2007 to April 2008, Queen Mary 2 will undertake 12 11-night voyages to and from New York which will call at Tortola, St Kitts, Barbados, St Lucia and St Thomas. Fares start from £1,199 per person and include return flights. Reservations on 0845 071 0300 or see cunard.co.uk

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