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Majesty of the High Seas

The Queen Mary 2 harks back to the golden age of liner travel when elegance, luxury and glamour were the only way to cross the ocean
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

The largest passenger ship ever built sits alongside the dock in Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades. Security is tight amid unsubstantiated rumors that this brazen ocean liner might be the target of terrorists. Busloads of passengers wait in the parking lot for the call to get in line to go through security. After winding their way though another circuitous line to get cabin assignments, they finally wait to board the Queen Mary 2.

It's the biggest hype in memory surrounding a passenger vessel.

Queen Elizabeth II, England's reigning monarch, has only recently christened the ship, which just completed its first transatlantic crossing amid huge press notice. A network news show has reported daily on its progress and grandeur. Major newsweeklies have run stories. Everywhere one sees its record-breaking stats: 1,132 feet long, the length of nearly four football fields; a tower 203 feet—or 23 stories—above the water line puts passengers eye-to-eye with the Statue of Liberty; a 165-foot beam at the bridge; gross tonnage of 151,400 tons; built at a cost of $800 million.

But as passengers wait to board for their trip, they are entertained not by more news of the superlatives of this bruiser, but by archival photographs of movie stars and other well-heeled swells as they board and disembark from past liners. Young men dressed as bellboys from the 1930s hustle through the lines as part of the preboarding entertainment. A woman in a long dress from the turn of the last century strolls by with a parasol. All serve to emphasize that for all its advancement, the Queen Mary 2 is a throwback to the golden age of liner travel when elegance, luxury and glamour were the only way to cross the ocean. She is not so much being compared with the Queen Elizabeth 2, whose transatlantic crossings she will take over, but to the earlier Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which sailed the ocean from 1936 to 1967 and 1946 to 1968, respectively.

In an age of cruise ships (pleasure vessels that meander from port to port for amusement as opposed to ocean liners that make crossings as a serious mode of transportation), the QM2 is bucking a lot of conventional wisdom about passenger ships. First, it will make 26 weeklong crossings a year as a main source of revenue. Second, it delivers a rarefied level of luxury in such a huge package (a 2,620-passenger capacity with a 2:1 passenger-to-crew ratio). Many ships deliver similar amenities, but most choose a passenger volume in the hundreds. Third, it mandates the elegance of planned formal dinner nights and a general return to traveling propriety with British decorum. Many ships have no dress codes and you're likely to rub elbows with passengers in sweat suits on buffet lines.

Nevertheless, the QM2 has captured the imagination of the world and returned a feeling of true romance to passenger ships at a time when many still think of them as a diversion for the blue-haired crowd or lovelorn "Love Boat" types. Not only has the QM2 succeeded in capturing advanced bookings of 12 months, but she has drawn interest to the whole industry as well. As the saying goes, the rising tide raises all the boats.

After a downturn following 9/11, cruising has returned and is growing, with its secure combination of travel and amusement in one moving package on which, the industry is fond of saying, you need unpack your bags only once. "For the last couple of years, cruise ships have been the best values that they've ever been and it's not going to stay like that forever," says Micky Arison, chairman of Carnival Corp.' the parent company of the Cunard line, which operates the Queen Mary 2.

While Cunard bills itself as having "the most famous ocean liners in the world," that class of ship is in a shrinking crowd and the line itself is but a pittance of the overall scheme of things for Carnival Cruise Lines, which caters, for the most part, to a less affluent but larger market. Cunard president Pamela Conover insists, "The reason the QM2 captured the imagination of the people has nothing to do with its size. It has to do with the ship. For a company this small to take on a project this big is amazing."

As an Englishwoman, Conover takes national pride in the debut of the Queen Mary 2: "I think we need a great British icon. The Concorde's gone, so we're here."

When Cunard's last great liner, the Queen Elizabeth 2, debuted in 1969, it was the odd-looking duck, a departure from what ocean liners had looked like. While the style until that time was to be sleek with hulls like sunken cheeks and a bow that seemed to be a knife in the water, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was defiantly rounded, especially in the stern, and boasted but one funnel, while the earlier Queens had two or three. The QE2 was all about modernity. The interior design and marketing seemed to force the issue that stuffy tradition would be a thing of the past and cruising would now be a swinging pursuit.

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