The driver called for us in Georgetown just before eight and delivered my wife, Arlette, and me to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal a little after noon, where the Queen Mary 2, flagship of the Cunard Line, waited for our transatlantic crossing. The comfortable point-to-point, or more precisely door-to-port, limousine presaged a magnificent trip.
Ten days earlier, the Cunard Line had called and offered an upgrade from our balcony stateroom to a Princess Stateroom or Queens Suite for a few hundred dollars. When I told the woman that my doctorate was academic rather than medical and that I had recently taught high school math, she told me her husband helped neighborhood kids with math. She put me on hold for a minute and then came back to say she had changed our booking to a “Penthouse Stateroom” at no additional charge. We knew it would be impressive and the service excellent, but we were hardly prepared for the reality.
Luggage safely on the porter’s cart, we found the “priority” check-in line, signed forms attesting that we did not have dread communicable diseases, were photographed so the crew could check our identities merely by glancing at their terminal, and given our room keys, which were also used for any expenses on board. A few minutes later a bellboy in a bright red jacket and pillbox hat led us aboard, past the grand lobby with its curving white staircase up to the next deck, through several corridors, up an elevator, down more corridors, finally showing us into our stateroom.
We expected the welcome bottle of champagne, but were surprised that the champagne stopper we brought would not be needed — the first example of the attention to detail of Cunard’s White Star Service. Beyond were red roses, tightly clustered blooms in a low, square glass vase. Then the suite itself claimed our attention.
Just inside the door, to the right, was the “guest bathroom.” To the left, a dry bar with a black marble counter, a bowl of fresh fruit, and a complementary bottle of red wine and Dewar’s scotch whiskey. A white orchid bloomed on slender stalks in the center of a round breakfast table surrounded by four chairs. Further in a couch stood against the left wall beneath a large luminescent painting of yellow tulips. The coffee table with champagne and roses sat before it. To the right a “captain’s desk” and two easy chair perched in front of the ceiling-to-floor windows, a big screen television against the opposite, interior wall. Beyond that were a king sized bed and the master bathroom with Jacuzzi and bidet. Turning back to the right, the walk-in closet waited patiently for our luggage to be delivered. Two doors, at opposite ends of the suite, next to the couch and the bed, opened onto our balcony where two chairs and two chaise lounges, each pair separated by a low table, awaited our pleasure. The balcony was over 40 feet long, the stateroom an astounding 758 square feet. Not to forget, there was 24 hour butler service. A little bit of heaven for our transatlantic crossing: seven days from New York to Southampton, a day in port, and another day to Hamburg.
Rooted in tradition, the Queen Mary 2 is reminiscent of the “Golden Age of Ocean Travel”, and demands a style commensurate with its magnificence. Shorts and jeans were not accepted after 6 PM and the dress code for three “formal” evenings was, for gentlemen, a tuxedo or dark suit, and for women, appropriate dresses or gowns. The rest of the evenings were “informal” requiring gentlemen to wear a jacket, but not necessarily a tie, and women cocktail dresses.
When we got to the head of the line at the Captains Cocktail party on the third evening, I said to Captain Osprey that the time he spent meeting passengers must be the most tiresome of any voyage. “Oh no,” he replied. “I enjoyed meeting people. If I didn’t I’d be captain of a cargo ship.” A comment I overheard later from another ship’s officer put this in its proper context. An officer on a Cunard liner is more likely to lose his position by mishandling passengers and by mishandling the ship.
Culinary excellence is featured on all large cruise ships today, and in this, the Queen Mary 2 set an exceptionally high standard. Passengers were assigned seats in one of three restaurants depending upon cabin category. Those with interior, window, and balcony staterooms choose one of two dinner seatings in the Britannia Restaurant; those with more expensive staterooms had open seating in either the Princes Grill or Queens Grill. The Britannia Restaurant offers the most striking space aboard. Entering through double doors, the guest hesitates, taking in the sweeping three-story atrium. Immaculately appointed tables spread through across the floor and mezzanine, dominated by the marble pillars stretching up to the ceiling and royal blue carpeted double stairs curving gracefully to the second level. Flowers grace each table, complementing the polish and glitter of chairs and serving stations.
Traditional pub fare is available in the Kings Pub, and the elite Todd English Restaurant offers dishes for a surcharge created by that celebrity American chef. Food in other restaurants is included in the fare, but drinks are extra. Each restaurant has its own kitchen where extra touches and details are added, but soups, roasts and the like are prepared in the Britannia kitchen. The King’s Court, a buffet restaurant, and the Winter Garden bar did not require formal attire or even a jacket on informal evenings. Crew members stood at the entrance to each restaurant offering squirts of hand sanitizer, mounting an operation with military-like precision to avoid the novovirus that had run rampant on cruise ships in the Caribbean.
We ate in the Queens Grill, the excellent cuisine and service eliminating any interest in alternative venues. A gratuity to the maître D assured arguably the best table in the restaurant, overlooking the promenade deck to the stern. By the second meal the servers greeted us by name and the headwaiter escorted Arlette on his arm to our table. In addition to the à la carte menu, special items could be ordered in advance: Lobster Thermador, Châteaubriand, Lamb or Beef Wellington. If one so desired, it was possible to have Caviar every meal — we were told that Cunard buys more caviar than any other purchaser in the world.
Most evenings the servers prepared flamed dishes at one or another table — Lobster Americaine, Bananes Flambé, Crepes Suzettes — the flames climbing halfway to the ceiling. The maître D described told us that on one of the first voyages of the Queen Mary 2 the flames from the dish he was preparing activated the ceiling fire detector, thoroughly drenching passengers and staff and ruining the carpet. After that we observed the servers glancing upward to carefully position their carts between detectors when preparing flaming dishes.
Passengers on a Cunard voyage tend to be sophisticated and well-educated, seeking an atmosphere more attuned to intellectual and cultural pursuits rather than physical activity or partying. The Queen Mary 2 has the largest library afloat, with several thousand books, and the largest planetarium, offering films like “Cosmic Collisions” and “Infinity Express.” Graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts gave performances in the Royal Court Theater, and musicians of the Juilliard Association performed jazz and other musical offerings. Experts lectured in the Cunard Insights program on topics from The Great Atlantic Liners, Black Holes and Wormholes, The Northern Lights, Security in the Middle East, and The History of Forensics. Celebrity author Margaret Atwood presented insights into her latest novel. Lessons were available on everything from using the iPhone and iPad to watercolor art to bridge to my favorite, folding napkins.
The Queen Mary 2 is matchless in three ways. First, she was designed and built to uphold the traditions of the Cunard Line, stretching back more than 170 years. Second, she is an ocean liner built to meet scheduled crossings no matter the weather, averaging 22 knots and racing when appropriate up to 28 knots. Third, because she is the heir to the Cunard tradition and the heritage of the great transatlantic ocean liners, QM2 has a unique public reputation that extends beyond the cruise ship industry
The Queen Mary 2 is roughly the size of an aircraft carrier and three turns around the promenade deck is bit more than a mile. In addition to her six restaurants, there are 16 bars on various decks. She boasts a full spa, a hairdressing salon, and a workout gym, which my wife used every second morning at 6 AM. I merely avoided the elevators and took the stairs to whichever of the 12 decks was my goal. Of course the lavish casino was open for gambling 24 hours a day when in international waters. Understanding probability theory and knowing that the odds are always slanted in the houses favor, I only looked in during one of our wanderings around the boat.
Despite the many offerings, we spent the majority of our time lounging on our balcony, reading and observing the ocean. The sea was calm, the swells never higher than seven or eight feet. The slow, sensuous undulation of the water was mesmerizing, with never ending, never repeating flows and crosscurrents. From the railing of our balcony near the stern it was possible to see the slight imprint of the bow wave spreading out from the ship and hear tumultuous roiling of water sweeping along the hull.
The last evening of the voyage a gentleman from an adjoining table approached us and said that I must be the most photographed man on board, observing that my wife frequently photographed me during dinner. “It’s because,” my wife explained, “we met 36 years ago but we’re still honeymooning.”