I hate farewells, and when I pulled up to New York's Ocean Terminal on an overcast, drizzly July 22, the weather perfectly matched my emotions. Towering over the pier was the familiar Cunard red/orange and black stack, set against a backdrop of gray New York sky. I stood in place for a few minutes, drinking in the sight I would not see again.
The QE2, berthed at one of the piers that are themselves reminders of the glory days of the transatlantic express mail liners, seems to exude an aura of throbbing power, her svelte hull seeming to strain against the tethers, ready to thunder into the unpredictable North Atlantic, for which she was built.
Cunard wisely assigns boarding times by cabin category, and mine was mid-afternoon. It was nearing 2 p.m. when I got to the pier and saw embarkation in full swing. The pre-assigned check-in time works well; there is no line and it takes just a few minutes to pass through security and check-in and to walk up the gangway onto the ship.
One embarks the QE2 on Two Deck, directly into the famous Midships Lobby, a large circular space whose walls are adorned by lovely sepia drawings with nautical and travel themes, and with an inviting sunken center level with banquet seating. I'm escorted to my stateroom just a few feet forward of the Lobby, port side. On this crossing, I'm in a P1 (Princess Grill) Stateroom, number 2054.
Awaiting me in my stateroom is a chilled bottle of champagne, fresh flowers and hors d'oeuvres. The room is commodious: two oversized, elongated portholes; a large writing desk with illuminated mirror; sitting area; queen-sized bed (that could be converted to two singles); lots of closet and drawer space; a huge bathroom with tub and shower and lots of storage room; a safe and refrigerator. The walls are lined with a fine wood veneer, giving the room a warm glow hard to find on newer ships. I'm traveling alone; the room is truly spacious for me and would be quite so for two. I believe it is in the 275 to 300 sq. ft. range.
In a few minutes there is a knock at the door and my luggage is delivered. It is about 4 p.m. and we're scheduled to sail at 4:30, so I walk forward to an elevator and go up to Boat Deck (the QE2's classic promenade deck), then up the forward stairs to the Sun Deck, with its great viewing area just under the bridge. It is pouring rain and there are lightening flashes every few minutes. One of them makes a direct hit somewhere on the pier and knocks out the computer system used for checking in passengers, causing a lengthy delay in embarkation and a delayed sailing. We finally sail at about 6 p.m.
lounge, the Chart Room, on the starboard side just aft of the Caronia Dining Room on Quarter Deck. It is hard to imagine a more comforting place for a pre-dinner drink. Quiet cocktail hour music is played on the original piano from the Queen Mary, or on a harp, as I enjoy a perfectly made extra dry Beefeater Martini. Off to my right we?re passing the abandoned ferry terminals on the Jersey side of the Hudson, followed by a very close Statue of Liberty and the eternally mournful looking Ellis Island, then Staten Island and under the Verrazano Bridge. As we drop off our pilot and turn to the northeast and the great circle route to Europe, QE2 has come alive. She's fully booked for this crossing and one can sense that special ambiance of a transatlantic liner reaching a steady pitch that will continue for the next five days.
The Most Famous Ship in the World!
QE2 is not divided by classes, as is often misstated. True, she was built that way, as was the custom in bygone days. But now she is a one class ship, with all public spaces open to everyone (with the two exceptions: a small lounge adjacent to the Queens Grill restaurant, open only to Grill passengers; and an even smaller lounge at the entrance to the Princess Grill, open only to Princess and Britannia Grill passengers). One amusing result of QE2's earlier two-class design is the elevator structuring, baffling to many first timers. Elevators on the QE2 begin at odd decks and totally skip other decks, seemingly without reason. In fact, they were designed to only reach deck space within the original classes. One can master them, with a little effort, in a few days.
The QE2 is a repository of Cunard Line history, including ship models, memorabilia from liners of the past, mementos of past accomplishments, and photos of notables who have sailed on her. The QE2 offers a "Heritage Trail" guided tour, departing at various times every day, at no cost. It is well worth the time if you are interested in ships and those who sail in them. You can get a guide at the Purser's Desk and do the tour on your own, too.
QE2 has four restaurant grades, and your cabin assignment and restaurant grade are linked. (It really makes some sense. Why should a passenger paying, say, $1200 for a six day crossing get the same food and service levels as someone paying ten times that?) Starting with the proposition that Cunard is a luxury brand, one can be assured that the food and service in the lowest priced category restaurant is superb (it is). And move up from there. The differences are subtle, but each level up has a growing number of choices, more elaborate service and tableware standards, and atmosphere.
The entry-level restaurant, Mauretania, has a wonderful menu and offers passengers a two seating (early or late) dining program. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food and service in Mauretania easily equals any of the premium lines. Mauretania Restaurant has its own galley.
Next up the ladder is the Coronia Restaurant. Caronia offers open seating dining, pre-assigned tables, but continuous service from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every evening, and it is open for breakfast and luncheon as well. Tables are available for 2, 4, 6, 8 and larger in the Caronia and service is superb. Recently redone, the Caronia is lovely to look at. Its high ceilings and well-spaced tables are conducive to conversation in normal tones. The staff is accommodating and in sufficient numbers to ensure excellent service.
The Grill category restaurants take dining to higher levels. Princess and Britannia Grills are the next level up. They are intimate rooms, reminiscent of elegant supper clubs of a bygone era. Both are elegantly decorated and feature banquet seating on various levels as well as standard tables on the main floor. Soft lighting, quiet ambiance and superb service are their hallmarks. On this trip, I dined in Britannia Grill. Raul, the immaculately attired maitre d?, runs a tight ship, always with a smile and never failing to make each dining experience a delight. Raul's staff, mostly from the U.K., is professional and maintains just the right distance from the guest. Robert, from Scotland, my waiter for the trip, never wrote down an order and never missed. From day one it was "Mr. Grossman," as every guest in the room was greeted by name.
Food quality, preparation, presentation and variety are superb in Britannia Grill. Desserts are uniformly great and the Cheese Cart is not to be missed. (Ask for the wheel of fine English stilton. With some port wine, it is the best!) And, we had a "real" sommelier, Patrick, who actually knew his wines. (QE2 has a remarkable wine cellar including lots of "off the list" wines.) I prefer a good Italian Barolo with dinner, a wine best decanted about an hour before drinking, and Patrick had a bottle decanted and waiting every evening. Britannia Grill does permit smoking (Princess Grill does not). Lots of tableside preparation is evident. Princess and Britannia Grills share a galley with Caronia Restaurant, although the Grill restaurants' menus are more elaborate.
Queens Grill, the top restaurant on the ship, is consistently rated the best restaurant at sea. It has its own galley and offers a complete table d?hote and a la carte menu. It is an elegant dining experience in a grand setting. The Queens Grill galley prepares Queens Grill passengers? room service food, too.
The Lido Buffet, available for breakfast, lunch and dinner is, in my opinion, the best such venue at sea. Breakfasts are great! Eggs as you like them, including poached; a wide range of breakfast meats (including the best hash around); toast that is actually toasted and hot; lovely stewed tomatoes as an accompaniment and lots more. Luncheon similarly offers a wide selection, including hot carvings every day, separate sandwich, salad and pasta stations, and on and on.
The Pavilion, hidden away on One Deck just forward of the aft pool, is an underutilized delight for a light lunch -- hamburgers, hot dogs, minute steaks, French fries, salads and the like. It has self-service but with lovely tables overlooking the pool area.
High Tea, served every day in the Queens Room lounge (and a few other locations) is served up in traditional English fashion, with finger sandwiches, scones, pastries and individual ceramic pots of tea served by smartly liveried staff. To the accompaniment of quiet live music, one can easily drift back to another time while savoring the moment.
On this crossing, as in past crossings, I never met my cabin steward or stewardess. But as on past crossings, he or she was the best. Never in the six days on board did I leave my stateroom and return to find it in the same condition as I left it. This silent, unobtrusive service was just remarkable. I don't have to endure the ?welcome on board? speech, with a description of the attendant's ethnic background, followed by a recitation of the attendant?s working hours. QE2's silent cabin staff are always there, hidden from view but wonderful!
Six Days at Sea
Many who have not done a Transatlantic crossing wonder if six or so days at sea will be boring. The answer is a resounding "No".
The daily program is filled with interesting, enlightening and entertaining activities than seem endless. I rarely read a cruise ship's daily program or attend any of their offerings ? e.g., the ?Not The Newlywed Game" or the endless poolside games led by an overzealous, boisterous cruise director. The QE2 on a transatlantic crossing is something else. The daily program is required reading so as not to miss any of the eclectic offerings, which on this crossing ranged from five lectures by John Maxtone-Graham, author of the definitive book on ocean liners (The Only Way To Cross) to author and editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine Helen Gurley Brown. Each day is crammed full of these events. Often, there are real conflicts, but many of the events are videotaped and repeated on the ship's TV system later.
The QE2 has the other expected amenities -- an elegant Health Spa and Gym, an active Casino, great evening entertainment in lots of venues and a raucous English Pub. She also boasts a well-stocked Library (she has the only full time librarian at sea) and a fascinating Book Shop with a remarkable collection of Cunard posters from the past, ship paintings and books on ships and other nautical themes.
Shopping on board is elegant and varied, from a Harrah's outlet (the only one at sea) to some of the best logo clothing and articles around. There are a dozen or so shops featuring a wide range of merchandise, including one with authentic antique memorabilia from famous Cunard vessels of the past (and the future: I was able to purchase some lovely T-Shirts with the Queen Mary 2 logo).
Of the six nights at sea, four are formal, and they mean it! It is wonderful and the dress code carries through the entire evening. The elegance of these formal nights, with music wafting through the air, conversation and restrained elegance combine to transport one back to another time.
Six days pass faster than you can imagine on QE2. Late in the last evening, we passed the south coast of Ireland, and sailed past Lands End and Bishop's Rock (the traditional starting and ending point for measuring speed on the Transatlantic run) and into the English Channel.
On the morning of the seventh day, I was up on deck as QE2 sailed up the Solent to the famed Ocean Terminal Docks in Southampton. We moved at a fairly brisk pace, as river traffic saluted our arrival, on time. I was sad to contemplate leaving this great vessel. A short trip up to London awaits, a few days there and then, Virgin Atlantic back to Miami.
I am filled with sadness at saying goodbye to this grand lady of the North Atlantic -- tempered only by the prospect of seeing a new transatlantic liner. The Queen Mary 2 in January of 2004 will replace the QE2 on regular transatlantic crossings. QE2 will sail her World Cruise in January of 2004 and then do one last transatlantic crossing, in tandem with QM2, and then sail cruise itineraries out of Southampton, England.
There is still a chance to do a transatlantic crossing on QE2 during the remainder of 2003, and I heartily commend her to all.
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For The Record.
QE2 Launched 20 September 1967, John Brown & Company (Clydebank) Ltd. Scotland
Maiden Voyage 07 May 1969, Southampton to New York
Ships Registry Southampton, England Gross Tonnage 70,327 Length Overall 963 Feet Breadth Overall 105 Feet Draft 32 Feet Funnel Height 204 Feet (above Keel) Cruising Speed 25 - 28.5 Knots (maximum 32.5 Knots) Decks 12 Passengers 1,777 at Double Occupancy Crew 921 (British) Lifeboats 20 (total capacity 2,244 persons) Life Rafts 56 (total capacity 1,400 persons) Average Speed Crossing 22 Jul 03 26.5 Knots