My Delta flight from Fort Lauderdale was uneventful. At LaGuardia Airport, New York, I was met, as promised, by a crisply dressed, officious Cunard Line Representative who directed me to a waiting van. I joined a dozen or so other passengers, all of whom were en route to that seagoing adventure of adventures... a Transatlantic crossing aboard the last of the great express mail ships, Queen Elizabeth 2.
Virtually everything about a "crossing" is different from a "cruise", not least the ship itself. Pulling up to Pier 90, in the New York Ocean Passenger Terminal on the Hudson River, one senses the aura of history, the great ships that sailed to and from Europe from these very piers... names synonymous with the exciting era in which these liners were the only way to cross. The terminal's facade has changed, but the piers themselves have not. They remain huge, cavernous and drafty, yet one can literally smell the history of the place... Queen Mary... Queen Elizabeth... Normandie... those hordes of well-dressed passengers arriving on crisp winter mornings... steam billowing from the ships' funnels and portals... a very different time indeed.
Looming over the pier is the magnificent silhouette of the last of these greyhounds of the sea, QE2. From a vantage point on the roof of the pier, I am transfixed by her lines... a far cry from the lumbering, top heavy, shallow draft behemoths that we have become used to of late. She has a racer's hull, sharp prow and cruiser's stern. She is literally throbbing with power and life... built to withstand the vigors of winter on the North Atlantic. She was built for speed, warmth and comfort and it shows, even from a distance. My heart is pounding with excitement at the prospect of boarding her... an event swiftly and comfortably accomplished by the excellent Cunard pier staff; a precursor of the highly efficient service I would experience and come to expect over the next six days.
The transition from the drab New York pier to the warmth of the Midships Lobby is striking. Warm hued, monochromatic paintings surround this quiet space on Two Deck, circular in shape, with comfortable seating on a sunken level a few steps down. My cabin is just a short distance forward on Two Deck, in Caronia 2 Category.
At this point, a word may be in order for those not familiar with the Category and Restaurant system on QE2. There are five main restaurants... Queens Grill, Princess and Britannia Grills, Caronia and Mauretania Restaurants. Cabin grades are keyed to the restaurants in which you will dine and the name of the restaurant prefaces the number of the category.
For instance, my cabin was in "Caronia 2" grade, referred to as "C-2". Aboard the ship there can be found "Q-2," "P-2," and "M-2" as well. Although QE2 was originally built as a two-class ship, with strict separations between first and tourist class, she has been run as a one class ship for many years. All public areas and deck space are open to all passengers, all the time (except for one small lounge open only to Queens Grill Passengers). As with most ships today, the larger and more deluxe a stateroom, the higher the price. QE2 takes the sensible step of offering more and more deluxe dining, in more and more spacious venues, as the price of your stateroom increases.
I would hasten to add that QE2 is a luxury product throughout and dining in the restaurant for her least expensive staterooms, the Mauretania Restaurant, is a culinary experience equal to virtually anything found at sea today. All restaurants on QE2, except Mauretania, have one seating for meals.
The only other vestige of QE2's history as a two-class liner is the fact that some elevators do not stop on some decks, for no apparent reason! It can take a day or two to get used to this oddity.
My cabin was quite spacious, with two oversized port hole windows, beautiful wood veneer wall paneling, loads of storage space and a strikingly beautiful bathroom with full sized tub. Of course, all the usual amenities were present... hair dryer, color television and telephone. The life preservers were sensibly stored in compartments under the closet floors, rather than taking up half the shelf space in the closets, as is the case aboard so many newer ships. QE2 underwent a major renovation a few years ago and it is evident everywhere, but most noticibly in the bathrooms... stunning marble wash stands with integrated mirrors and lighting and plenty of storage space for toiletries and other sundries.
I visited cabins in every grade aboard the ship (no easy task as she was virtually sold out on this crossing) and they are all comfortable and well equipped. Mauretania grade cabins are in the 120 - 150sqft range, Caronia grade are 160 - 200sqft, Princess/Britannia grade range up to 241sqft and Queens Grill cabins and suites are in the 245 - 355sqft range. Two duplex suites each average over 937sqft. Carefull attention should be paid to bed convertibility, especially in Grade C-3 and below.
Within a few seconds of my arrival at my cabin, my steward presented himself at the door... a masterpiece of timing I would become used to and come to expect over the next six days. I cruise six to eight times a year, on ships ranging from entry level, through mass market, premium and luxury. My steward on this sailing was probably the best I have ever had... and, in fact, pretty much the same could be said for virtually every member of the ship's staff I encountered on the voyage. Service levels aboard QE2 have been honed to a fine edge and it clearly shows throughout the ship.
There are so many exceptional things about QE2, that one could easily contemplate writing a book (several have been written), rather than a review.
Here are several of the highlights:
Dining...Each of QE2's main restaurants offers a wide selection of high quality, exceedingly well prepared food, with abundant items to choose from. The Lido buffet is open for breakfast and lunch and midnight buffets. Of course, a highlight of any Cunard sailing is High Tea, at 4pm each day. QE2 carries on this elegant tradition in several venues, including the Queens Room. It is not to be missed. As with so many aspects of QE2, in six days I never heard a single complaint about the food or dining room service. As for service in Caronia Dining Room, it could not have been more efficient or friendly. I was greeted by name by the welcoming Maitre 'd at the entrance and addressed by name by my Waiter and Assistant Waiter. Dinner was a daily joy... enhanced in no small degree by fascinating and delightful table mates. I had lunch one day in the Mauretania Restaurant and am delighted to report that I found the service, menu and food preparation to be excellent.
A daily check of posted menus from Mauretania Restaurant revealed a good choice of enticing appetizers, entrees and deserts. A word about soups... if you are a lover of soup, as I am, you will be delighted to know that QE2's chefs excel at soup preparation... every day a choice of three or more superb soups with lunch and dinner! QE2 chefs also excelled in the preparation of fish and seafood... always well prepared, fresh and attractively presented.
Ship Condition...QE2 is in sparkling condition! Her carpets are fresh and clean. The furniture in the public rooms (and staterooms) is quite nicely upholstered and invitingly comfortable. Her passageways, stair wells, elevators and lounges are crisp and clean in appearance. Her outside decks are spacious, clean, very nautical in appearance and inviting. Deck chairs are plentiful.
Ambiance...QE2 is a repository of Cunard memorabilia... from magnificent ship models to display cases filled with matchbooks, silverware and other remembrances from the glory days of Transatlantic travel and the wonderful ships that sailed under the Cunard flag. One can take a self-guided tour, called the Cunard Heritage Trail. It is a wonderful experience for those who love ships and the sea.
There are numerous lounges, each with its own special ambiance. My favorite, the Chart Room, featured a harpist each evening at cocktail time. For lovers of English Pubs, there is the Golden Lion Pub... generally the scene of raucous merrymaking before dinner, during the evening and well into the night! One can coose from the sophisticated Yacht Club, elegant Crystal Bar or lovely Queens Lounge for a pre- or after dinner drink as well.
The Casino is adequate, not too noisy and, on formal nights, reminiscent of an elegant London gaming club.
Speaking of formal nights, on a six-night Transatlantic crossing, there are four formal nights... and they mean it! The dress code remains in effect through the entire evening, and how wonderful it is. Music wafting through the air from some distant orchestra... elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen sweeping into the dining room... my mind wanders back to another era... I am on Aquitania... I am on Queen Mary... I am on Normandie... I am on Ile de France... this is not some Holly wood movie set... this is quite real... I have passed through some kind of time warp and am really there. This is precious... and can be only rarely found in the world today!
Special Venues... QE2 has a number of very special facilities that deserve mention here. First, her Spa is one of the best equipped at sea. Besides all the amenities you would expect, there is a lovely indoor pool to enjoy.
Her Library is one of the finest at sea... not the usual two bookshelves with a minimum number of books. In fact, QE2 has the only permanent Librarian at sea today!
Her Bookshop is extraordinary!!! Filled to the brim with Ship Posters from times gone by, an enormous collection of books on nautical subjects, objects d'art and souvenirs. Anyone remotely interested in Ocean Liners, Ships the men and women who designed, built, operated and sailed in them, will find this collection to be remarkable.
Shopping aboard QE2 is, as one might expect, varied and elegant. The "Cunard Collection Shop" has one of the nicest collections of logo merchandise I have seen. There is even a shop featuring authentic antique Cunard memorabilia, with some truly extraordinary items for sale.
Entertainment and Shipboard Activities... QE2 offers her Transatlantic passengers an unending program of shipboard events to entertain, educate and enlighten. On this sailing, we had frequent lectures by David McCullough, the noted Historian, Author and Television personality... several talks by Dennis Cochrane, holder of the largest private collection of Titanic memorabilia... and illustrated lectures by a British Airways Concorde Pilot.
Negative... As you may guess, I could find very little to complain about on this grand ship. For the record, however, I think the choice of television programs and channels leaves a lot to be desired. Also, I do not suggest you go aboard the QE2 on sailing day too hungry. There is no "sail away buffet" as we know it... just some tea sandwiches and cakes in the Lido. Have a nice lunch before going to the pier!
Not too much to complain about here!
The Crossing Following a classic northern track, QE2 passed Nantucket Light and headed out into the North Atlantic. Seas were calm to moderate and we experienced some of the fog so familiar to Transatlantic passengers. The historical measuring points for speed on the Transatlantic run are Nantucket Light in North America and Bishop's Rock at the entrance to the English Channel. On this sailing, QE2 averaged twenty-five and one half knots. (She is capable of considerably higher speeds but has been slowed a bit so Cunard can offer six day crossings instead of her usual five day passages). by any of today's standards, this is extremely fast. We sliced through the seas at this remarkable speed with little or no perceptible feeling of motion.
Early in the morning of day seven, this stately vessel sails slowly into her home Port, Southampton. I'm up on deck, directly under the bridge, before sunrise, as we enter the harbor. My mind drifts back to the thousands of ships that have entered and left Southampton, bound for Ports around the world... all those grand express mail ships of times gone by.
It is a magical moment... shared with hundred of my fellow passengers, who have risen early to experience it as well.
Those who have never experienced a Transatlantic Crossing on an express passenger liner often ask if, because of the absence of ports, it is boring. The answer to this is a resounding "NO!" The magic of a North Atlantic crossing on this historical route is an unforgettable journey. On the fastest passenger ship afloat, one is transported to a byegone era... to an extraordinary feeling of isolation from the rest of the world... to an historical experience of a very special nature.
No... this is no "Cruise" in the modern sense of the word... this is something very very special... a voyage of dimension and style and grace, too sadly absent from so much of modern life.
This is, in fact, a voyage through History... aboard QE2... The Perfect Ship!
In addition to the Eastbound Crossing reviewed above, Mr. Grossman crossed Westbound, from Southampton to New York, sailing on August 22nd, 1999. While he will be submitting a new review on the August 22nd sailing at a later date, we can summarize his review as a one word addition to the earlier one... "ditto"!