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After logging 80+ cruises since the early 90s, I've finally managed to do a crossing. A transatlantic crossing on Cunard's QM2, no less. It's something I've wanted to do for years. A rite of passage for the true traveler. Old-world, leisurely, luxurious -- the whole bit -- a crossing is classic travel experience.

So what took me so long? Aside from the logistical challenges of planning a trip, I have to admit I was a bit afraid. Six days at sea with no ports and no land in sight? Just miles and miles of ocean around and below me? The idea was sort of intimidating. I hadn't grown up traveling this way, and aside from the honeymoon trip to Europe that my parents took on the liner Bremen in the 60s, it wasn't a compelling part of my family history.

Of course to some people there's no better way to travel. To the real "ship freak" (as maritime historian and author John Maxtone-Graham referred to them during a lecture on board), a transatlantic crossing on the QM2 -- the only ship doing them on any regular basis -- is a throwback to the heyday of ocean liners in the early 20th century. A cruise to the Caribbean is a sellout, a cheapened, watered-down version of the ocean crossings of yesterday, which actually carried people from point A to point B -- and in great luxury to boot, if you could afford it.

By the end of the 60s, of course, it was clear that jet travel had replaced travel by ship. By the 70s, the concept of passenger shipping had morphed into pleasure cruising a la Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Lines, and the others, and conga lines, pi¿a coladas, and bingo had replaced quoits and lap blankets. That's the way it stayed for a quarter century, so ship freaks and nostalgists were thrilled, if a bit shocked and disbelieving, when Carnival Corporation acquired Cunard (tel. 800/7-CUNARD; www.cunard.com) in 1998 and almost immediately announced it wanted to build a grand new ocean liner. A billion dollars and some five years later, QM2 was launched to huge fanfare. The Queen of England herself christened the ship, and celebrities and dignitaries from far and wide stepped aboard to revel in the rebirth of old-world grandeur -- or, to be more exact, a very modern version of old-world grandeur, a grand nod to the past, a marriage of old and new.

I saw it all for myself during my crossing from New York to Southampton last week, and while a full review is still to come (I'm typing this from the ship's Internet center, with the per-minute access charge ticking away), here are some first impressions:

  • The ship's razor-sharp prow was built to slice through tough Atlantic seas like many liners before her, while inside, the ship's 20,000-square-foot Canyon Ranch Spa was designed to appeal to our very modern need to de-stress and look younger.
  • An elegant high tea is served each afternoon by waiters in white gloves pouring Earle Gray from silver tea pots, while passengers nibble on pizza and pour cones of frozen yogurt in the buffet restaurant.
  • Unlike some of today's other new megaships, which are stuffed to the gills with shops, bars, plants, and queues, QM2 has an exceedingly open feel. The main public corridors are broader and less cluttered than any others at sea, and there seems to never be a wait for elevators.
  • Decor-wise, many of the rooms successfully evoke the past. Take the Chart Room, a high-ceilinged space with green-glass art deco maps on one wall, windows to the ocean on the other, and 1940s-style furnishings. It's a total throwback and a lovely place for a drink or a good book. Ditto for the Veuve Clicquot champagne bar next door, with its delicate chairs upholstered in soft pale gold. For grand ocean liner ambience, the Queen's Room in the stern of Deck 3 harks back to the elegant ballrooms of yesteryear, running the full width of the ship and boasting a high arched ceiling and crystal chandeliers. Ballroom dancing is offered nightly, with a live band providing the tunes and a team of gentleman hosts standing by to dance with unescorted ladies. Though modern fire-safety regulations dictate that, for example, faux burlwood paneling is used instead of yesteryear's heavy hardwoods, this doesn't take away from the overall appeal of many spaces.
  • By day the pace onboard is slow and relaxed. Public rooms are dotted with passengers quietly reading or writing postcards. There are many cozy seating areas with ocean views lining both sides of the ship on Decks 2, 3, and 7. With six days to kill, there's plenty of down time and no one seems to miss the frenetic pace of a typical port-packed cruise. Announcements are rare, save the captain's daily recap of the ship's location, weather, etc. There are no loud poolside games or bands blaring away in public areas. That said, QM2 is a huge ship (the longest passenger ship in the world, at 1,100 feet plus), so if you want to be busy, activities are yours for the taking, from pilates and yoga classes to a planetarium and movie theater to an extensive and impressive repertoire of lectures: seven different speakers on my crossing, including academics, historians, and authors.
  • You don't have to be an adult -- or even a human -- to be catered to on QM2. A kennel high up on Deck 12 houses dogs and cats who are accompanying their humans on the crossing (three dogs and two cats were aboard last week). It's a facility you'll never find on a typical cruise ship. A steward is in charge of taking care of the pets and bringing them on out a cordoned-off portion of the deck for their daily constitutionals. My nearly-three-year-old twin boys enjoyed visiting with the animals almost as much as they loved going to The Zone, the ship's playroom. Operating from 9am to midnight (with an hour or two off for lunch and dinner), the bright, ocean-view space is divided into two halves (for ages 1-6 and 7-12) and offers complimentary supervised activities and care. Unlike other modern ships, QM2 also has a quiet, separate nursery with cribs and staff members who are bona fide British nannies. My boys coveted the ball bin and padded play area, and the arts-and-crafts stations and toys kept them eager to go back day after day -- thank god. For the teens on board, activities are organized in various public rooms, including the disco.
  • Like other megaship dining rooms, QM2' s two-deck Brittania restaraunt is grand and sprawling, with a vaulted Tiffany-style glass ceiling and soaring pillars. It's the ship's main dining venue, with sharp service and a large menu that tends toward continental. I'd rate it above megaship lines like Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Celebrity, but would hardly call it outstanding -- hard to achieve true gourmet status when thousands of passengers must be served at each meal, after all. Guests in the top suites dine at two private restaurants. Upon special request, I was able to sneak into the hallowed (and among ship freaks, nearly worshiped) Queens Grill one evening. While the setting was much more intimate and the staff more polished (if a tad stiff, in that upper lip kind of way), I was surprised to find that the menu was very similar to that being served in the Britannia, and hardly superior. In fact, my lobster thermador appeared to have sat under a heating lamp for a few too many minutes.
  • For casual dining, QM2 offers the Kings Court buffet restaurant, open nearly 'round the clock and serving a great variety of tasty dishes. The Todd English alternative restaurant is appealing, though it does come with a $30 per person cover, as many alternative venues do these days.

Overall, the crossing was pure pleasure -- a nostalgic journey in many ways for those with a penchant for things that have passed, but also very much a modern vacation on a big ship well-equipped with today's latest must-haves. As I type, we're approaching Southampton, and I'm feeling a little sad. I could have spent a few more days at sea. I've grown accustomed to the pace and attached to the attractive ship. I've looked forward to a drink in the dimly-lit Commodore Club with its bow-facing windows, or a delicious scone and a few cucumber sandwiches at high tea, or a brisk walk around the ship's promenade deck to enjoy a view that seemed infinite: only the sea and the ship's wake in sight, hundreds and hundreds of miles from land . . . crossing the great Atlantic, like millions before me.

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Reintroducing Royal Caribbean's Enchantment: Bigger, Stronger, Faster

Married people deal with the aging of their spouses in several ways:

  1. They encourage good diet and exercise
  2. They encourage botox, face-lifts, hair-replacement therapy, and liposuction
  3. They embrace the aging process, and try to make it work for them
  4. They divorce said spouse and run off with the aerobics instructor

Cruise lines use variations on these same methods to cope with the aging of their ships. Princess and NCL tend to go with Option 4, selling off their old vessels as soon as newer models are ready. Cunard spent tried the sporty '70s look on QE2 for a while, then found religion and began preaching the "classic" cruise styling it espouses to this day. Ditto for Imperial Majesty Cruises and the 52-years-young Regal Empress, though on a super-budget level. Luxury line SeaDream Yacht Club has kept it's twenty-year-old SeaDream I and SeaDream II in such good shape they look like Miami glamsters.

Still other lines go for a combination approach. Take Royal Caribbean International (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com), for instance. In June 2003, the line began taking a new approach to its older vessels, pumping millions into major refurbishments that it's dubbed "revitalizations."

Renovating existing ships is nothing new, of course. Every year, most vessels go through a freshening-up process in which worn carpets, upholstery, furnishings, bedding, and other "soft goods" are replaced. Royal Caribbean's kind of revitalization, though, represents a whole different level of magnitude, intended to bring its ships up to date and create a more consistent brand identity. You want "the ship with the rock-climbing wall"? Then RCI will add a rock-climbing wall to all its ships, plus new branded lounges, alternative restaurants, and snacking options -- not to mention all the usual freshening up that's done as a matter of course.

So far four RCI ships have gone under the knife, beginning with Monarch of the Seas in June 2003, Empress of the Seas (nee Nordic Empress) in May 2004, and Sovereign of the Seas in December 2004. The revitalization program reached a whole new level of magnitude last week, though, as the line unveiled the not only refurbished but also larger and substantially cooler Enchantment of the Seas.

Reviving a practice that was common in the cruise industry ten years ago, Royal Caribbean literally had the vessel cut in half at Keppel Verolme shipyard in Rotterdam, Netherlands, then welded it back together with a new 73-foot midsection in place, adding 151 cabins, several new public rooms, and innovative new pool-deck features.

Splitting the ship took six days, as workers cut through some 2,000 feet of steel using torches and circular saws. Once severed, the 11,315-ton bow section was moved forward using skids and hydraulic jacks guided by a laser alignment system. The new 2,939-ton mid-body -- brought on an enormous barge from Aker Finnyards in Turku, Finland, where Enchantment herself was built in 1997 -- was then inserted and pushed back toward the ship's aft section, after which the bow was guided into place. Workers then spent two weeks welding the whole thing back together and reattaching nearly 20,000 connections that had been severed, including cables, pipes, and ductwork.

The entire process took 31 days -- a new record for such an operation -- and was followed by a stringent round of inspections and sea tests to assure the ship's safety. Obviously, she passed. As Captain Per Arne Kjonso joked when greeting journalists on a short preview cruise, "I hope you had a good night's sleep. You weren't afraid she was going to fall apart, eh?"

The 73-foot length of the midsection was the absolute limit that would still allow Enchantment to fit through the locks on the Panama Canal. And despite the operation's $60 million price tag, Royal Caribbean executives called it a bargain, adding the potential for 300-plus additional paying passengers while requiring minimal extra staffing. And according to VP of ship design and newbuilding Peter Fetten, Enchantment's speed and performance were actually improved by the stretching and additional changes to her hull, such as the use of drag-resistant paint and enlargement of her rudder surface. Up on deck 10, you can see a tiny little scar where the ship was sawn in half, just aft of the suspension bridge on the starboard side, about a foot forward of a red equipment box.

But wait, you say, suspension bridge? OK, now we come to the cool stuff. Up top, Enchantment's new section boasts a couple of features entirely new to the cruise world, including two bridges that connect the old sections of the walking/running track and arc above two half-moon deck areas that curve out from the side of the ship. On the port side, the new deck space is used for a long bar, while the starboard side is decked with deck chairs. Both sides have glass panels that allow you to look straight down at the water, more than 100 feet below. Along the encircling jogging track, four fitness stations give runners the option of pausing for stretch, toning, agility, and cardio work. Toward the stern end of the pool deck, a new interactive splash fountain has 64 water jets that kids can manipulate for a good soak. At night it's lit up and automated for visual effect.

The addition of new pool-deck space has allowed RCI to retool a secondary sunbathing area on Deck 10 forward. It's now home to Royal Caribbean's newest sports offering, a set of four elaborate bungee trampolines that it obviously hopes will be as attention-grabbing as was Voyager of the Seas' rock-climbing wall back in 1999. Strap yourself into a harness, then give the attendant your actual weight (no lying!) so he can adjust the tension of the bungees, which are attached to huge crane arms. Once it's set, start bouncing. If you get into the right rhythm you could find yourself up to 35 feet above the deck, doing somersaults in midair. Since the trampolines are located almost at the ship's highest point, airborne passengers get a view right out onto the sea -- as if there's no ship below you at all.

Guests are limited to two-minute sessions, but according to attendant Ryan Sangha, "by the end of that two minutes, you're done. It's hard."

Use of the trampolines is free, with two to three sessions scheduled each day and each guest limited to two tries per session. Busy times can see waits of up to 30 or 40 minutes. Minimum age is 6, with parental attendance mandatory for kids 6 to 12. Teens can go alone once their parents sign permission. The minimum weight is 40 pounds, maximum 240.

Inside, Enchantment has been funned up with several new venues. The Latin-themed Boleros bar -- already a staple aboard Navigator, Mariner, Monarch, Sovereign, and Empress of the Seas, serves Latin drinks and live Latin music, and is probably the most modern room on the ship, with moody lighting, a decor heavy on reds, oranges, and yellows, and a sunburst-pattern glass ceiling. More prosaic is the Latte'tudes coffee and ice cream shop, serving Ben & Jerry's and Seattle's Best coffees for an extra charge. More prosaic still are the additional shops which make Enchantment's shopping arcade a veritable mall. Next door, an expanded photo gallery incorporates digital photo stations where you can search and select souvenir photos, if that's your thing.

On Deck 6, a little-used lounge has been converted into a specialty steakhouse, Chops Grill, serving a large menu of meat and seafood dishes with sides served in large, family-style portion, to share. There's a $20 per person cover charge.

Enchantment's large, two-deck main dining room was renovated and enlarged while retaining its very traditional cruise-ship dining-room character -- which reflects Royal Caribbean's continuing commitment to tradition fixed-seating dining at a time when many lines are going with a more casual, open-seating approach. "From passenger comments," said RCI president Adam Goldstein, "we've learned that the number-one positive indicator is the bond that develops between passengers and their waiters. We feel very strongly about that."

For casual dining, guests can head for the inexplicably named Windjammer Marketplace, a buffet restaurant with multiple islands serving dishes from different regions of the world, rounded out with a deli station, a carvery, a salad bar, and a cook-to-order pasta station. Burgers, veggie burgers, pizza, and other items are also available from a grill near the solarium pool, open 11am-7pm and 10pm-4am.

Enchantment of the Seas is one of six ships in RCI's Vision class, and while it's logical that the line will follow the her model with the others, RCI president Goldstein says they've "made no specific commitments to do additional revitalization projects -- though this is clearly the way to go."

Enchantment of the Seas officially re-entered service July 7 with a four- night cruise to Halifax, Nova Scotia. For the rest of the summer she'll sail a series of Canada/New England cruises from Philadelphia (July 19-Aug. 21) and Boston (Sept. 4-25), then reposition to Fort Lauderdale in October to sail 4- and 5-night Caribbean itineraries.

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