I wanted to do a crossing for years but couldn't quite face the idea of six days at sea. I finally took the plunge last July. After all, I can hardly claim to be an experienced cruise writer without a crossing under my belt -- it's a rite of passage. For an added challenge, I brought along my two-and-a-half-year-old twin boys.
Everyone said a crossing was not your typical cruise. For one thing, you actually wind up in a different continent without having to step aboard a plane. And of course, the Queen Mary 2, ushered into the world in early 2004 to enormous fanfare, is no ordinary ship. Mystique continues to surround the ship that the Queen of England herself christened. Considered the first true ocean liner built in more than 30 years, not to mention the longest and one of the fastest in the world, the QM2 is undeniably unique. Her raked stern decks and sharp bow are classics, though still, she's a modern mega ship. After all, the Cunard (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com) of today is part of a corporate giant, Carnival Corporation (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com), and that means synergies, efficiencies and economies of scale will always trump old-world tradition (for example, Cunard recently merged much of its operations and staff with Princess, so captains, for instance, now rotate between the two lines -- a move considered blasphemous by many hardcore Cunard fans).
Still, a crossing on the QM2 is as close as you'll get to what ship travel used to be like -- elegant, civilized and proper. The crossing vibe is low key, genteel and relatively quiet -- there are no loud announcements by pumped-up cruise directors, for example, just the captain reporting on the ship's position once a day. With no ports of call to contend with, nothing gets in the way of real, 100%, bona-fide relaxation. No waiting in line to sign up for a shore excursion or to attend a port talk, and no sweating it up on a bus tour or shuffling through a town swelled by thousands of cruise passengers visiting just for the day.
On a transatlantic crossing, the ship is the only destination. There's time for reading and writing and staring at the sea from the QM2's many public rooms that seemed to have been designed with long and leisurely crossing days in mind. Among the loveliest, is the retro high-ceilinged Chart Room with its green-glass art deco wall maps and 1940s-style furnishings. There's plenty of time to wander around the ship, to visit the wonderful library (that puts other ship's libraries to shame), to strike up conversations with other passengers (a mix of mostly Americans and British, both first-timers and dedicated Cunard repeaters), to take brisk walks in the fresh sea air around the ship's wide promenade deck, and to dawdle in stair landings and hallways to read the compelling museum-quality timelines of Cunard's history. Inviting idle strolls, the main public corridors on decks 2 and 3 are ultra-wide and uncluttered. Even when the ship is sailing at near capacity (about 3,000 passengers), as it was on my crossing, guests were dispersed around the ship.
No doubt, many were attending a lecture -- there are lots of them on a crossing. Some are part of Cunard's Oxford Discovery Programme, which draws speakers from Oxford University as well as other educational institutions. For example, Dr. Jane Shaw, a dean at Yale, was one of four Oxford speakers on my crossing. She teaches theology and history and spoke about how they relate to both America and the U.K. There are also acting workshops led by actors from Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, plus lecturers like maritime historian and author John Maxtone-Graham, a frequent speaker. The man's a master storyteller and kept audiences riveted with his true tales of Titanic survivors and classic liners. Other guest lecturers have included author Harold Evans and comedienne John Cleese, among many others.
The ship also has a planetarium showing a rotating series of 3D science films and offers a good number of less-cerebral pursuits as well, from wine tasting, to pilates and yoga, art auctions, spa demos and scarf tying seminars. For shoppers, boutiques include everything from high-end Hermes to low-end souvenirs and jewelry, some of it sold in a rather undignified way from long tables set up in the public corridors.
The QM2's attractive Canyon Ranch designed and operated spa is another popular place to unwind. More than 20 treatment rooms are clustered around an aqua therapy pool reserved for spa goers. The only seagoing Canyon Ranch spa, it's a refreshing break from the Steiner-run spas on most ships and it offers some truly different therapies -- for example, the Ashiatus massage incorporates the therapist's feet -- and far less of Steiner's pushiness to sell skin-care products. A 50-minute massage runs between $119 and $129.
Evenings, choose from standard cruise ship song-and-dance revues as well as live pianists, jazz quartets and harpists. There's a classy casino minus the usual neon, a funky disco and several bars, including the dark and cozy bow-facing Commdore Club. Exceedingly in tune with a nostalgic crossing is the nightly ballroom dancing in the Queen's Room, complete with a live band and gentlemen hosts to dance with ladies looking for partners. The elegant space harks back to the dramatic ballrooms of yesteryear, with a high arched ceiling and crystal chandeliers. By day, it's the venue for the popular high tea, complete with serenading string quartet and white-gloved waiters.
The three-level 1,351-seat Britannia restaurant is an attractive, nostalgic space with a vaulted Tiffany-style glass ceiling and soaring pillars. Serving dinner in two seatings, the appealing décor is not unlike that of dining room on a Celebrity Millennium-class or Royal Caribbean Radiance-class ship. On my July crossing, food was good and service sharp, though it can only be so good when more than a thousand passengers are dining each night. Only a few hundred are served in the private Grill restaurants. Suite guests get the privilege of dining in the 206-passenger Queens Grill, and junior suite guests in the 180-seat Princess Grill. The intimacy and cachet set these restaurants apart from the others more than the food does; many of the same dishes are offered in the Britannia as well. For $30 a person, everyone is welcome to make a reservation for the Todd English restaurant, a romantic venue with cozy dark-red banquettes and elaborate, rich cuisine.
For casual meals including dinner, the King's Court buffet restaurant stretches out for nearly half a deck along both sides of the ship. A fairly overwhelming cluster of food stations run down the center of the area, with tables along the sides; there is no outdoor seating. Evenings, it's partitioned off into three separate casual restaurants -- Italian, Asian and traditional English -- plus a fourth venue, the small Chef's Galley area, which offers a cooking-demo style meal with wine for $30 per person.
Sometimes, though, ordering room service and spending a quiet evening in the cabin is quite rejuvenating (especially when you have no choice because your child is sick). Cabins are attractive, designed in a clean, vaguely Art Deco motif with light woods. They range from roomy 197-square foot inside and outside cabins with portholes, mini fridges and large showers, to the truly over-the-top duplex Grand Suites. Each is 1,500 square feet and has views of the stern through two-story walls of glass. I'm living proof that a family of four can do fine in a standard cabin without a balcony (there are no standard balcony cabins that accommodate families of four), but if you've got a larger budget, the junior suites are ideal. They're almost twice as big and feature a huge bathroom with tub, walk-in closet, sitting area, and over-sized balcony.
Still, as pleasant as the QM2's cabins are, we were never compelled to escape to them as you sometimes are on ships with a more frenetic mood. We wanted to be out, walking the ship's decks, watching the sea and reveling in what we were doing. Crossing the Atlantic.
Where Else Does She Go?
Aside from the 24 transatlantic crossings the QM2 will do in 2006, the ship spends the rest of the year doing a variety of itineraries, including Caribbean, South America and Mediterranean routes. In early 2007, the ship, along with fleet mate QE2, will do a three-month-long world cruise; the QM2's 81-day jaunts sails round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale, cruising around South America's Cape Horn and over to the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean.
The Royal Treatment for Kids
Not yet 3 years old, the QM2 crossing was my twin boys' ninth cruise. Needless to say, we fancy ourselves family cruise experts and give high marks to the Queen for catering to children, especially the youngest ones.
- I was thrilled that the complimentary program includes kids as young as age one (Carnival and NCL start at two; Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America and Celebrity at three; only Disney has a lower age minimum of three months).
- The Zone, divided up into separate rooms for 1- to 6-year olds and 7 to 12s, is colorful and bright with floor-to-ceiling windows. A ball pit and padded play area were big hits with my little guys and I was impressed by the cute artwork they made every afternoon.
- On sea days, the Zone is open from 9am to noon, 2pm to 5pm, and again between 6pm and midnight (8pm to midnight for 7- to 12-year-olds) -- and it's all complimentary. Evenings, kids can hang out with counselors and watch movies, or there's a quiet and darkened nursery with cribs for the youngest children.
- Keep in mind, you lose an hour a night going eastbound from New York, while you gain an hour a night going westbound from Southampton. By the fifth and sixth nights of our eastbound journey, jet lag had finally caught up with my boys and they couldn't get to sleep before 10 or 11pm.
- Some of the counselors are bona fide British nannies, and that means they've taken two year's worth of classes to become certified.
- Bring a stroller if your kids are young, remember the QM2 is the longest passenger ship in the world, so getting from one end of a deck to the other can seem like forever.
- There are rarely more than 250 kids aboard the QM2 and usually fewer (compared to the 800 to 1,200 kids and teens typically aboard similar sized ships). This is a plus: fewer kids means more attention and space for the ones that are there. Keep in mind though, if a sailing is particularly full, the counselors reserve the right to limit participation and will ask parents to choose between either the morning or afternoon session; everyone can be accommodated evenings. In contrast, other major lines have "don't turn away policies," so you're guaranteed your child will be accommodated, even if the playrooms are packed because of it (as they usually are during the early evening hours).
- Other pluses: A daily kids high tea dinner menu is offered in a sequestered part of the King's Court buffet restaurant from 5pm to 6pm. * Nannies do change diapers. * There's an outdoor play gym, splash pool, family pool and splash fountain just outside of the playrooms at the aft of deck 6. * Kids can visit the dogs and cats at the kennel when the pets are let out into a small, fenced off part of deck for their daily constitutionals. * There is an impressive medical center (I took my son there when he had an ear infection and service was great).
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