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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

(continued from page 1)

The newest Queen, while marking the superlatives of longest, widest, heaviest and tallest, does not aim to strike a completely new template in the looks department. If anything, it has brokered an agreement between the majesty of the older liners and what cruising has become. While deferring to the newest technology, it maintains the elegant appearance of the golden age of liners. This is no more true than in the graceful public spaces, where a grand lobby with an atrium reaching six stories is the centerpiece into which passengers board. Its sweeping staircase is reminiscent of the Titanic, to which the Queen Mary 2 is related through an earlier merger with the White Star line, which launched the ill-fated ship. The atrium's glass roof puts one in mind of the one from the movie The Poseidon Adventure and through which hapless characters crash when the ship rolls over in high seas.

The fates of those two vessels, one fictional and the other quite real, are a distant thought on this ship, which simply by virtue of size is exceedingly sturdy. Four huge stabilizers reduce roll by 90 percent. A model of the ship was extensively tested in a tank that reproduced the most ominous sea conditions. Adjustments were made to smooth the QM2's ride even when it operates at full capacity (about 30 knots). The ship is powered by four propellers (the QE2 has two) that are mounted with their electric motors outside the hull. Two of them rotate 360 degrees and act in place of a rudder, which would have created enormous drag on the ship. Maneuverability is exceptional despite the size.

While size now matters to the lore of the Queen Mary 2, according to Conover, the company didn't start out to create the largest ship of its kind. "It just happened," she says. Conover came to Cunard via Carnival, which bought the line in 1998 when Cunard was severely down on its heels. Within a week of the purchase, the company announced its plan to build the QM2. Carnival's acquisition in the ocean liner market, she says, brought with it a commitment to uphold Cunard's "brand equity built on transatlantic travel for more than 160 years." The level of luxury that the company had in mind for an ocean-crossing vessel created an economy of size. "We had to keep making it bigger to get enough passengers to make it pay," says Conover. "We had to not build her or build her big."

Design considerations also dictated size. The company had decided on a steel hull rather than the aluminum one featured on the QE2, because of steel's better durability. But that meant the ship had to be made wider. Ultimately the size was constrained in length by the amount of room in which the ship could turn around in its two main harbors: Southampton, England, and New York. Its height was tailored for passage under New York City's Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The QM2's growth didn't stop, however, until she was already too large to make it through the Panama Canal. Conover says that was not a major concern as "Panama Canal economies just weren't there for ocean liners." However, the company's president does confess to "a bit of gulping" as the price rose on the vessel during the more than five years between the idea's conception and launch.

On board, the normally jaded travel agents and press who make up this short "trip to nowhere"—an excursion out past the 12-mile limit so passengers can familiarize themselves with the new ship and play at the casino—are noticeably awed by the noble vessel. Such is the overriding appreciation of the history of the event that the shop that sells souvenirs—shirts, hats, playing cards, anything with the QM2 logo—is doing a land office business. Calls on the PA system for agents who want to make bookings are responded to quickly.

Harvey Boysen, a principal in Gulliver's Travel Services Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, enthuses over the ship: "The thing is that it's really elegant, but not glitzy. It's understated as big as it is." He comments that while the Queen Mary 2 is bigger than all of Carnival's other ships, it carries fewer passengers than many of them. "You don't feel crowded. You don't feel hurried." The atmosphere, he says, is that of a smaller luxury ship with a 700-passenger capacity, and rattles off lines such as Seaborne, Radisson and Silver Seas. "But that's really comparing apples and oranges. This is a liner, stable in rough seas, and it's not going to hide from a crossing."

Boysen's business has already sold 50 cabins for a Caribbean cruise on the ship and 10 more for an ocean crossing. He says before the Queen Mary 2 he had no takers for ocean crossings, "but this ship's a destination in itself."

Detractors were in evidence as well. Gary Silverstein, president and owner of Mann Travel & Cruises in Charlotte, North Carolina, says, "With all the hype I got, I was expecting a bit more." His cabin on a lower deck wasn't as large or as well equipped as he would have liked. On the other hand, he appreciates the business the ship affords. "It will sell just on the mystique alone." He anticipates that special itineraries such as the one planned for the Summer Olympics in Athens will be a good draw as passengers will be able to escape the crush of the city and conveniently eat and drink at the ship's high standards.

The grandest accommodations on the Queen Mary 2 are some of the most luxurious at sea. Five duplex apartments and four forward suites grace the ship and offer such amenities as offices, private dining rooms, state-of-the art video systems, marble bathrooms, full bars and butler service as well as private elevators. Suites number 82 and junior suites, 76. Three-quarters of the cabins have balconies. Only 292 of the 1,310 accommodations are interior staterooms and 12 of those offer windows into the atrium overlooking the lobby.

But even with the most brilliant of accommodations, what does one do on a five-day Atlantic crossing? Cunard is betting on a spectrum of possibilities that include enrichment of the mind, toning of the body, indulging of the senses and just blowing off steam.

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