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A Cruise for All People

Even a cruise skeptic could fall in love with Cunard’s Queen Mary 2

Images courtesy of Cunard

As the superb British singer Jenny Williams presented a program that mixed popular songs and opera arias in the Royal Court Theatre aboard the Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, she paused to ask how many of the perhaps 600 people in the audience were on their first cruise. A few score hands went up. Second cruise? Perhaps the same number. She then asked how many were on their fifth cruise, their 10th—and still significant numbers of hands were raised.

Cruises might not be for everyone, possibly including me. But there’s a large group of travelers who adore them. And aboard the Queen Mary 2, which Cunard just spent north of $110 million renovating, it’s not hard to figure out why. Those who love the sea really love the sea, as the price of oceanfront property attests. And, as I found out when I joined a weeklong Asia voyage a few weeks ago, the Queen Mary 2 allows you to soak up the sights and sounds of the marine realm and visit storied ports while indulging both your mind and your body.

The “Daily Programme” for an at-sea day (which appears in your cabin each evening for the next day’s offerings) can contain about 100 on-board activities, from yoga classes and dance lessons to lectures, concerts, films and affinity group meetings (LGBT, AA, Christian fellowship). And even saying “concerts” hardly conveys the options, which include headline performers like Jenny Williams, who come aboard for brief stays, and the resident musicians, such as jazz ensembles, ballroom-dancing orchestras, rock bands, string quartets, solo pianists, harpists and more. Lectures range from the expected (an introduction on the next port city and its culture) to the charmingly orthogonal—such as “Hogarth’s London.”

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Aboard the QM2 it is remarkably easy to find a group of like-minded folks. Whether your enthusiasm is for dancing or fencing, crafts or astronomy, there are opportunities to find others aboard who share the same interest.

There are some things one can find afloat only on the QM2, such as its planetarium, called Illuminations (with programs from the American Museum of Natural History in New York). There is also a kennel on board (in use when the ship is plying the New York to Southampton route in the summer months—the last of the scheduled ocean liners on this fabled route). The on-deck area set aside for dogs even has thoughtfully provided both a lamppost and a fire hydrant—a cute touch.

You’ll likely realize—maybe when you enter the dining room for your first dinner and see what looks like hundreds of waiters—that the number of staff members ensures you’re never far from someone who wants to make sure you’re taken care of. In fact, the passenger to crew ratio is just a bit more than two to one. Crew members sign aboard for various lengths of shifts at sea, and often first-time crew members sign on for a six-month tour of duty. Paul Bowes, the food and beverage manager for the ship, told me that about 75 percent return after that first experience. Like the passengers, the crew is made up of people who just seem to like life at sea. Bowes himself has been at Cunard since 1993, when he joined the old Queen Elizabeth 2 as a sommelier. Some of the crew are working the demanding seven-day-a-week pace to save up for some near-term goal—to open a restaurant in the Philippines, or an ayurvedic spa in Kerala, India—but many appear to find the sea-going life as enthralling as the passengers.

Perhaps the best way to understand the attractions of life aboard is to consider the 6,000-square-foot Empire Casino, which is open to the main lobby and has expansive windows on the sea. Gambling, like so many other things aboard, is one aspect of a pleasure-filled day, not treated as an obsessive and furtive retreat from life.

SHORE LEAVE

“Join the Navy and See the World” goes an old recruiting slogan, and part of the attraction of a cruise is the chance to go ashore at various ports and experience other cultures. As the Queen Mary 2 makes its inaugural round-the-world voyage after a stem-to-stern renovation, Cunard offers an assortment of tours at each port and can also arrange individual tours for guests who wish a more custom experience.

Getting ashore, it must be said, is a process. Few experiences are as leveling as going through immigration at a border—and the Queen Mary 2 is often carrying around 2,700 passengers. A happy surprise is that the travelers’ queue is made far easier than you’d expect. You surrender your passport at boarding, and at each stop you go through a pretty painless clearance process timed to reduce the amount of standing around to the bare minimum—far less than the average airport clearance.

Once you leave the liner, the experience can be a bit of a letdown, as you’re likely to be touring on a bus that is subject to the vagaries of local traffic. On an eight-hour tour, your fate is ultimately dependent upon the quality of your guide. Passengers have varying interests, which makes it a challenge for any guide to decide his/her areas of focus while describing the attractions. At the same time, the guides themselves are the main or perhaps the sole real contact you may have with the local people, and this can be enlightening. A guide in South Korea announced early in his presentation that he would refer to the Japanese—whose treatment of Korea in the first half of the 20th century was disgraceful and often criminal—as “our neighbors.” His acerbic use of this bland term managed to convey effectively the deep animosity that many Koreans still feel toward the Japanese, and itself was as profound a historical lesson as could be learned from any museum or monument.

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After a daylong bus tour, there’s probably no better place to unwind than at the hydrotherapy section of the onboard Canyon Ranch Spa. It has a lovely pool with a submerged chaise longue at one end and a cascading waterfall shower and jet massages at the other with a nearby steam room, sauna, whirlpool tub and other instruments of relaxation. (A spa pass costs $40 a day, $75 for three days, $105 for 6 days—eminently worth it.)

While the shore excursions may have some rough spots, the minor annoyances are forgotten, as the stories and sights of new cities and cultures prevail—particularly if one has had the blissful transition of reflecting upon these sights in warm, percolating waters. In Follow the Fleet, a 1936 film with music by Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire and a chorus of swabbies sing that they had joined the Navy to see the world, “And what did we see? We saw the sea.” As it turns out, aboard the QM2 this is a pretty good outcome.

MEAL TIME

At sea, meals are the center of social life. In the dining rooms, you’ll see couples dining á deux, family groups of eight or 10 arrayed about a large table, individuals taking dinner with a fork in one hand and a book in the other, and so forth. If you come in alone, as I did, you’ll be offered the choice of joining a table or taking one by yourself. It’s easy to be alone, but you’ll have no excuse to be lonely.

Passage aboard the QM2 includes meals (with some exceptions noted below), and the array of choices on the menu, just in one dining room, is astonishing. Soups, salads, appetizers, entrees, desserts—a constantly changing variety of foods is on offer, prepared to please both eye and palate. Fortunately, portions are reasonable; it would be far too easy to over-indulge otherwise. Wines and cocktails are available (at extra cost), both in the dining rooms and in an assortment of elegant bars onboard.

Those traveling in the Queens Suites class have their own dining room, as do passengers in the Princess Suites accommodations. The largest restaurant is for the Britannia class passengers, and it is an elegant, two-story space with stained-glass ceiling, warm wood details and accents of flowers. Should you grow tired of your regular meal spot, there are a variety of other options. One is the Kings Court, where all are welcome, and you can avoid the dress code for dinner in the more formal restaurants, which runs from jackets required for men (and equivalent for women) to occasional formal black-tie evenings. Cuisine choices range from simple British pub fare at the Golden Lion to the elegant dining at The Verandah, which serves regional French fare in a space that recalls the style of the original Queen Mary, which entered service in 1936 (the QM 2 launched in 2003). Even more variety can be found in the pop-up restaurants that rotate through the weeks, including Coriander, specializing in Indian cuisine, Bamboo with “pan-Asian” fare, and Smokehouse, if you crave American BBQ. (These extra choices can carry added costs.)

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Although the flavors might be varied, the sources of the food are not. Owing to concerns about meeting the most rigorous British and American food-safety standards, most of the food consumed aboard has either been put aboard in the United Kingdom or is shipped from there to meet the QM2 as it progresses around the globe. A port stop can include not only tourist excursions but also the loading of a dozen 40-foot containers of food (some containers with frozen food, some refrigerated and some with nonperishables).

The quality of the food is notable, given that the QM2 serves between 15,000 and 16,000 meals a day to passengers and crew. More than half of the 1,250 or so crew on board work in the food and beverage operations, including 147 chefs. The kitchen itself seems roughly the size of an airport terminal. The scale of the enterprise is astonishing, as is the attention to detail. When the ship encounters weather rough enough to upset the QM2’s impressive stability at sea, the ship’s computers help revise the amounts to be served at each meal to reflect the diminution in appetite that seasickness can cause.

THE VERDICT

Cunard clearly does a fine job of turning first-time cruisers into longtime clients. One night, in the seas between China and Korea, the ship was welcoming novice passengers aboard and took a moment to recognize those who had made many voyages. One guest had spent nearly 1,400 nights aboard Cunard ships—just a couple of months short of a full presidential term.

With most classes of accommodation already sold out for the 2018 world cruise of the QM2, and most of this summer’s transatlantic berths already booked, it is clear that they know their business.

Cunard has an extensive and very helpful website that depicts the various attractions of the QM2, as well as the costs of various voyages. There is, for example, an upcoming 134-day ’round the world excursion on offer, with an interior stateroom priced at $24,219 per person—and this trip is selling out quickly. The far more luxurious Queens Grill Suites, as well as the plush Princess Grill Suites—are already sold out for that journey (which gets under way next January 3). Fares quoted are per person, double occupancy. A travel agent can also be helpful to sort out various options and seek out special offers and discounts that may be available. cunard.com

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