With high expectations, we finally arrived at Queen Elizabeth II terminal in Southampton for the voyage we were awaiting for so long. The terminal was buzzing with excitement, and embarkation was very smooth. After 45 minutes in the waiting room, we were ushered aboard. As we entered the Grand Lobby, between ranks of white-uniformed staff, this ship touched our emotions as none had before. Although we were not greeted nor offered assistance in finding our stateroom (a missed opportunity that did not bode well for service expectations), we wandered through the heart of QM2 impressed by the scale, richness and ocean liner tradition that oozes from the design. It is possible to stand with your back to the Samuel Cunard mural adjacent to the Royal Court entrance on Deck 3 and look through the Grand Lobby to the QM2 tapestry on the back wall of the Britannia Dining Room -- more than 360 feet away! It was remarkably easy to find our B4 grade stateroom on Deck 6 and we were suitably impressed when our South African stewardess greeted us by name in the corridor as we opened the door.
The staterooms are a leap forward for Cunard, but no better or no worse than the latest staterooms on RCI, Celebrity, HAL or Princess. In design terms it is simplistic (not even central light switching), showing art deco influences in the pale wood with black inlay headboard and furniture. Storage space includes a double wardrobe with about 25 hangers, a second single wardrobe with a pullout rail for hangers from a suit carrier, four drawers, two shelves and a safe. For two weeks the storage is more than adequate, and for longer trips there are free launderettes on each deck. Bedside tables with annoyingly stiff anti-roll catches, a dressing table/fridge/TV console with chair, height-adjustable coffee table and sofa complete the furniture.
Apart from the black inlays, pale red sofa and primary-colored art, the color scheme is generally beige and pale neutral. The shower room is more compact than expected, but with a huge shower tray and adequate storage, size was never an issue. The internal layout of the B4 grade stateroom is similar in size and style to all B, C and D categories, except that some C's (standard ocean-view) have the combined space of the B stateroom plus its balcony and are huge. The only other grade of stateroom we saw was a P grade Mini Suite, which had identical decor but was 50 percent larger than the normal staterooms and had a walk-in wardrobe plus a more generous bathroom with full-size bathtub.
We had what is known as a 'hull' balcony, an open balcony space within the hull with a rectangular opening cut into the top half. The balcony is accessed by a glazed door in the floor-to-ceiling glazing of the stateroom. To me the location of this rectangular opening in the hull is a major design flaw: It is impossible to see anything except the sky unless you stand at the rail. I can see no reason why the hole couldn't have been lower, or a second hole cut below the first. The lounging furniture is nonsense and takes up half the floor space. A table and chairs would be much more useful. That said, it was still good to have a balcony and we made good use of it - especially on the very rough Bay of Biscay crossing (when fresh air was sometimes needed in a hurry and this type of balcony becomes much preferable to the unsheltered, inaccessible 'glass' variety.
With great excitement, we ventured to the Britannia Dining Room. The photographs of this room catch the grandeur of the design but give no clue to its vastness, seating up to 1,300 passengers. The vast illuminated glass ceiling over the double-height space and curving double stairways gave the feeling of being in a large Edwardian liner. The space, however, is cleverly broken up so there are only a few places where you are aware of more than a hundred fellow diners. We were unlucky with our table companions but had no problems being moved. Many people we spoke to in the first two days were also unhappy with their tables and had moved. After three restless nights, we were invited to a table for eight and were set fair for the rest of the voyage.
Whether it was too few waiters, poor training, lack of planning or galley problems (probably a combination of all four), service fell far short of what anybody could reasonably expect on the maiden voyage of a Cunard flagship. Service was very inconsistent, and varied from the appalling to the acceptable. Food overall was a good banqueting standard. Ingredients were good, presentation was good but menus were lacking in imagination; after a week it boiled down to a choice of fish, beef, chicken or pasta every night. If they can raise standards to those found in The Franconia Dining Room on the Caronia, then they will have a winner.
The 280-seat Queens and Princess Grills on Deck 7 are a stark contrast to the Britannia, being very simple in decor. Initially I felt glad to be dining in Britannia with its wow factor decor, but after about a week it became a little overpowering (or maybe that was the stress of wondering what the service would be like each night) and the Grills started to look and feel more elegant each time I saw them. We heard that both these dining rooms also experienced service problems on the same scale as the Britannia.
We generally took lunch in Kings Court on Deck 7, which is cleverly divided into four distinct areas by color scheme and menu. Asian dishes; fish, meat and chicken; pasta and pizza; carved roasts; sandwiches; salads; - these delicious offerings and more were available at these four daytime buffets (Lotus, The Carvery, Piazza and The Chef's Galley). Again the downside was lack of staff at busy times, when tables weren't cleared quickly enough. Against lunch buffets on other ships this compared very favorably. Like many other ships, QM2 has done away with the midnight buffet in favor of a late-night buffet in Kings Court Piazza. We tried lunch in the Britannia, but strange table mates, haphazard service that included forgetting water and bread for the whole table, plus an uninspired menu meant the experience was not repeated.
The alternative dining onboard has much to recommend it. Service and food in Todd English and especially Kings Court Lotus were pretty good considering the stress on the staff by the second week. The rich decor of Todd English is an amazing concoction of styles somewhere between Morocco and Byzantium - check out the tented entrance. Lotus (as well as Piazza and The Carvery) in Kings Court is transformed by screens and soft lighting into a series of charming and intimate casual dining booths. It seems that Todd English will soon be imposing a surcharge, which is hardly surprising given its popularity. But the Kings Court venues (apart from the Chef's Galley, which charges $35 including wine) still remain an excellent free alternative to the main dining rooms.
The bars offer a variety of styles and atmospheres to suit every taste. Grand in scale and size, the three central bars adjacent to the Britannia Dining Room are ideally located for pre-lunch or pre-dinner drinks or for a quick one during a busy day tracking down those elusive souvenirs. Sir Samuels is modern and sharp in decor but colors, lighting and furnishing feel a little harsh. The Chart Room is Cunard elegance at its best. During the day, very calm and restful; and at night, a sophisticated bar with live music (also one of the most stable places to be in case of storms). The much maligned Golden Lion was as expected, typical faux pub design (the steamer trunks and hat boxes were a step too far) but high on atmosphere which, as any Brit will tell you, makes any real pub more than just its decor. Always busy, this was the place for pub food, a pint and karaoke!
The Veuve Cliquot Champagne bar is a very nicely designed corner of the Grand Lobby with a few art deco references, but blink and you'll miss it! The Commodore Club on Deck 9 became our favorite haunt. Restful observation room by day, it became sophisticated cocktail bar par excellence at night - even dispensing cocktails in Stuart Crystal, 'Jasper Conran' designed glasses that retail in the U.K. at $55 each! The decor with its dark wood and muted colors accentuates the shape and location of the space which - with the huge bar-mounted model of QM2 - are the keys to its success. If you like to ride a roller coaster, then drink in the Commodore in rough seas - those G forces are something else. As for service in the bars, Cunard probably missed between 25 and 50 percent of its potential revenue from pre-dinner drinks by having insufficient staff or inadequate bar facilities to cope with peak demand. With empty glasses on most tables and in many hands during the last 15 to 20 minutes before dinner, it was not uncommon to wait 5 to 10 minutes when actively seeking to be served.
The Winter Garden is a strange mix of lounge and bar (which closed at 7 p.m.), and was largely empty and underused once we reached warmer climes. Its decor is very tropical with wicker chairs, a trompe l'oeil ceiling full of palms and blue sky, and a rather garish waterfall with bright fluorescent colors that seem out of place. The entrance like a shrub-lined park gate is a nice eye to detail. This strikes me as one of the areas that relate more to the Liner role than to warm weather cruising and I'm sure it will be a bright and popular day lounge on cold grey North Atlantic crossings.
One annoying aspect common to all these rooms was the smoking policy. If most passengers are non-smokers, which is a fair assumption, you would expect a well ventilated space in each room to be set aside for smokers. Unfortunately, on QM2 smoking is also allowed along the length of all bar tops, which spreads cigarette smoke almost everywhere except the farthest corners of non-smoking areas in what have effectively become smoking rooms.
The main entertainment areas of the ship are grouped together forward on Decks 2 and 3. The Royal Court is a 'state of the art' theatre with a stage almost in the round and seating more akin to a luxurious cabaret lounge than a true theatre. The three or four shows we saw there were all technically superb, with great sightlines from comfortable bench or club seats. Dame Shirley Bassey gave two superb one-hour concerts after a very rough crossing of the Bay of Biscay and laughed about it (no mean feat). Two production shows, La Passionatta and Rock @ the Opera, are very good and could be excellent once the cast eases into them more. Rock @ the Opera is worth seeing for the stage effects and costumes alone. Opera Babes, Magicians and Comedians we gave a miss. Curiosity drove us to witness Ruben Studdard killing us not-so-softly with some songs in between complaining how seasick he was (no mean feat on QM2 in a very calm Caribbean).
For me the real jewel in the crown is Illuminations. Theatre, cinema, lecture hall and planetarium - this space not only looks like a fabulous 1930s art deco cinema, it also doles out excellent entertainment at every level. The illustrated lectures given by John Maxtone-Graham and Steven Payne were enthralling and packed to the rafters and the planetarium experience is mind blowing.
Attending any of the lectures at the well laid out Cunard Connexions we deemed unnecessary when it became clear they were being taped and screened on stateroom TV. The much vaunted interactive QM2 TV had not yet been fully commissioned so many of the functions were unavailable and, disappointingly, this included the normal details on ship course, speed, location and weather conditions.
The largest ballroom at sea is also one of the most stunning spaces on Queen Mary 2. The Queens Room is cunningly accessed via two Deck 3L fenestrated corridors housing the photo and art galleries. It is an impressive space richly decorated in blue and gold, with a lavish inlaid dance floor and sparkling crystal chandeliers. The busts and memorabilia of Queen Mary and King George V add a sense of being somewhere exclusive. Not being a ballroom dancer, I can't extend an opinion on the music or dancing offered there. If you venture through the Queens Room you reach the dark, double-height space of G32, the supposed late-night club. This is a big disappointment for me in design and how it is used. From the richness of other public areas you are plunged into a hi-tech space with uninspired 1960s retro decor. Its convenient proximity to the Queens Room but remoteness from everywhere else means that when the ballroom band stops playing there is usually a dichotomy of groups patronizing G32 (the ballroom dancers vs. the partygoers). Throughout the voyage a combination of vocal groups (how many Nat King Cole tributes can you take in 30 minutes?) and an inexperienced DJ (who looked all of 16) cleared the dance floor by half past midnight and kept all party fun to a minimum. Low bar returns from G32 must surely lead to a rethink and early changes.
QM2, CRUISE SHIP OR LINER?
Having traveled onboard and having listened to authoritative sources, I know for sure that this ship has been built as a transatlantic liner. There is no cruise ship on earth that can sail at 26 knots through 40 foot seas, and there is no way on earth that Mickey Arison has spent a 40 percent premium (over $200 million) for a cruise ship that looks like a liner!
John Maxtone-Graham credits Mickey Arison with being so inspired by the movie 'Titanic' that he wanted to build the largest and most expensive transatlantic liner - why else would he want to buy Cunard? Stephen Payne described in great detail the research in designing this ship to handle any weather the Atlantic has produced in the past 25 years, and to be twice as seaworthy as QE2 (for example, a sea that produces a 10-degree roll in QE2 will only produce 5 degrees in QM2). Stephen also added that Mickey Arison told him, "I need seven decks of balconies or she doesn't get built," and how he was able to give him eight!
The head of Carnival has a dream -- to re-establish transatlantic travel by sea as a major rather than a niche market. Who can doubt that dream will probably come true? In 2005 QM2 is slated for 26 Atlantic crossings, which is already 42 percent of the year, and I believe in the years following, the Atlantic 'season' will increase to whatever the market will support. She is used for cruising when the North Atlantic is too uninviting, like other great liners of the past; hence the seven-day jaunts out of Fort Lauderdale and New York from December to March. Only market demand will decide if these warm-weather cruises settle into premium or discount rates. I also believe that if Mickey Arison has gotten it right, we will see a sister ship in service on the North Atlantic in seven to 10 years.
If, as I believe, Queen Mary 2 has been built primarily for the six-day North Atlantic crossing, and if Cunard can overcome the annoying service problems caused by lack of crew or insufficient training, then I think she will be a huge success and take on the title 'Most famous ship in the World,' if she hasn't done so already!