Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A grand crossing

ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2 - The QM2 was halfway between New York and Southampton, England, when I struck up a conversation with hotel manager David Stephenson, who supervises the ocean liner's onboard service.

"How does a QM2 trans-atlantic cruise differ from other voyages?" I asked Stephenson, a veteran on all manner of ships.

Stephenson cringed. "Please don't use the word cruise. This isn't a cruise; it's a crossing."

Semantics, I silently told myself. Probably a British thing. But Stephenson elaborated:

"One difference between a cruise and a crossing is almost spiritual," he said. "Forty percent of all Americans can trace their heritage back to a sea voyage. And a transatlantic crossing is still one of the world's great journeys. When you see the Statue of Liberty from the sea, it's always a moving experience."

Also, Stephenson suggested, "This ship is equipped to deal with long periods of time on the ocean. We have plenty of space; you don't see people fighting over deck chairs. There is always something to do. And in the middle of the Atlantic, you lose the influence of TV. It forces people to go out and talk to each other."

Stephenson couldn't resist one other comparison: "We don't evaluate our waiters on how well they can carry a baked Alaska on the top of their heads," he said.

Three years after its much-heralded debut as the world's largest passenger vessel - a distinction yielded to Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas last summer - Cunard Line's 150,000-ton, 2,700-passenger QM2 remains one of a kind.

The ship embarked last month from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on its maiden around-the-world voyage and offers itineraries in the Caribbean, New England/Canada and Mediterranean.

But what sets QM2 apart are its crossings.

Dozens of ships operate repositioning cruises from the United States to Europe in spring and the reverse direction during autumn. These typically combine an abundance of sea days with port calls, and last a leisurely two weeks. But following the tradition of other Cunard liners, begun long before transatlantic flights, the QM2 is now the only vessel with a significant part of its calendar dedicated to direct crossings between New York and Southampton.

Twenty-two such voyages, 11 in each direction, are scheduled this year from April into November. Each lasts six days and covers slightly more than 3,000 miles at speeds reaching 28.5 knots, which is equal to about 32 m.p.h. There are no stops. (A two-day extension to or from Hamburg, Germany, is available on four 2007 sailings, and some crossings can be combined with Mediterranean itineraries.)

I had multiple reasons for booking a QM2 eastbound crossing in November. I wondered whether service deficiencies, widely reported during the ship's early voyages, had eased. I discovered the answer to be yes; on my crossing, the staff was uniformly professional and eager to please.

Another was that while I have cruised more than 40 times, three repositionings included, I'd never experienced a Cunard crossing. I wanted to know how it would compare.

In addition to all that, it seemed a welcome alternative to flying across the Atlantic.

Is a QM2 crossing for you? Here is some perspective to help you decide.

The No. 1 question about transatlantic voyages is, "Will I get bored?" That's not likely on the QM2. On our crossing, the challenge was in prioritizing the entertainment and enrichment opportunities.

As on other ships, the QM2 schedules nightly cabarets and production shows. One especially innovative performance combined rock and opera in the 1,100-seat Royal Court Theater. But that was just a start:

Four professionals affiliated with the University of Oxford delivered a combined 20 lectures with topics as diverse as "Rivers of the Atlantic: How They Control Climate" and "Paper Faustus: From Gothic Revival to Marvel Comics."

A Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts troupe presented an abridged performance of The Importance of Being Earnest and excerpts from William Shakespeare's plays.

Food Network chef Dave Lieberman offered cooking demonstrations, and interior designer Jamie Drake discussed architectural trends. Other crossings have included such luminaries as actors John Cleese and Richard Dreyfuss and authors P.D. James and Dick Francis.

Scientific productions occur several times daily in the only planetarium at sea. Classical-music concerts enliven afternoons. Fitness classes and seminars are presented by Canyon Ranch Health Resorts. More routine offerings include computer lessons, wine tastings, golf instruction and bingo. And the absence of port calls means no local laws prevent the ship's casino from opening every day.

Within the first maritime Canyon Ranch SpaClub, passengers can savor a signature treatment (perhaps a Thai massage or a grape-seed scrub) or purchase a day pass to a large aqua therapy center.

You can get a workout, too, walking or jogging along the QM2's promenade deck. The ship is so huge, three laps around this covered deck equals 1.1 miles.

Another departure from the norm: Though my dining-room waiters were from India, my cabin steward from the Philippines, and the sommelier from South Africa, the QM2's overriding personality is British.

It's evident in the lunch buffet where Yorkshire pudding is a staple, in the bright red Royal Mail postal box at the entrance to the Golden Lion pub, in the formal Ascot Ball for which women ages 5 to 95 don their most elaborate store-bought or homemade hats.

Afternoon tea? Take your pick of three venues.

The passenger mix can depend on the direction and season. My crossing included 1,300 people from the United Kingdom, 600 from the United States, and 500 from other nations. Stephenson explained that most Brits prefer to fly to New York first, shop, then take advantage of the QM2's unlimited luggage allowance returning home.

Westbound crossings, he said, often carry more Americans. (All things being equal, sail west; with time changes, you'll get five 25-hour days. On my crossing, we lost an hour five consecutive evenings.)

In either direction, crossings are dressy. Formal attire is requested on three of six nights, and the vast majority of passengers comply.

The QM2 maintains a semblance of a class system, too, with its dining regimen. Guests splurging for the plushest accommodations are assigned to the 200-seat Queen's Grill; those in minisuites eat in the 178-seat Princess Grill; the masses gather in the trilevel, 1,350-seat Britannia Restaurant.

Not that the Britannia brigade endures a floating mess hall. Basic menus are almost identical in all the restaurants, with lobster and crepes Suzette available everywhere. And the Britannia may be the most beautiful dining room on the oceans.

Grill patrons at the higher levels, however, can choose from a secondary a la carte menu (foie gras every evening if desired). Or with 24-hour notice, chefs will satisfy most any whim; in the Princess Grill, we casually mentioned an affection for spicy Indian food and next evening feasted on prawns Vindaloo. Grill passengers also dine when they please rather than observing a rigid timetable. (Beginning in April, a small section of the Britannia Restaurant will adopt similar policies for passengers in some stateroom categories.)

Another alternative open to anyone for a $30 surcharge is Todd English, the acclaimed Boston chef's namesake restaurant. The setting is lovely and the truffled potato delectable, but I didn't find Todd English a cut above the QM2's all-inclusive eateries in terms of food quality, service or ambience.

More disappointing is the midday buffet. Unlike most new ships, which dedicate portions of an upper deck to casual indoor-outdoor dining, the QM2 utilizes a midlevel location. That's understandable given unpredictable weather in the north Atlantic. And on paper, the concept seems ideal, with separate areas for a carvery, Asian and Italian fare, and made-to-order sandwiches.

But in practice, the layout, which can seat only about 25 percent of passengers at one time, creates confusion and crowding.

To QM2 designers' credit, the buffet - which converts to four comfortable, no-extra-charge dining rooms with table service at night - was the only congested area, especially applaudable considering that passengers on our voyage had limited use of outdoor decks because of rain, wind and cold temperatures.

Public rooms (dozens of them) are spacious, corridors wide, elevators plentiful, and staterooms large and inviting. High ceilings, rich furnishings and tasteful artwork combine to create the sensation that this is a premium five-star hotel crossing (but not cruising) the Atlantic.

Just don't expect dancing waiters.


Sailing the QM2

All voyages scheduled in the near future on Cunard's Queen Mary 2, the transatlantic crossings and the cruises, are listed, along with other information, at www.cunard.com/ourships/default.asp?ship=QM2. Phone: 1-800-728-6273.

Harry Shattuck HOUSTON CHRONICLE
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