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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 2)

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.

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.

Educational programs include courses in designing and cooking taught by Architectural Digest and Gourmet magazines, respectively. Seven classrooms will teach wine appreciation, foreign languages, painting and seamanship, among other disciplines. The only planetarium at sea is another learning option. Conover says Cunard had been looking for something unique for passengers who seek learning experiences on long crossings. She points out that the planetarium can be used for a number of visual shows as well as theater. It did, however, present a challenge as the U.S. Coast Guard wanted a sprinkler system built into the screen.

Physical programs center around the only Canyon Ranch SpaClub at sea, with its panoply of massage therapy, therapeutic pools and beauty treatments. There are four other pools, one of which has a retractable glass roof. The promenade deck, at a third of a mile in circumference, is large enough for jogging.

Shopping is another diversion, with the Mayfair Shops, which lean heavily toward high-end British goods such as Alfred Dunhill, and a bookstore. Of course, there is a casino and a library, one of the most impressive at sea, with 8,000 volumes. The Royal Court Theatre seats 1,105 for a variety of shipboard productions.

Situated off of the Commodore Club, with its magnificent views at the ship's bow on the ninth deck, is perhaps the best diversion of all: Churchill's, the ship's clubby cigar corner. Inside the well-appointed room that fits about 10 or 12 sits a lone smoker, puffing on, appropriately enough, a Churchill. "Welcome," he says, snapping out of his reverie. "You've found the best place to be on board."

It would be were the Cuban cigars in the locked cabinet on the far wall available. Sture Myrmell, director of food and beverage for Cunard, explains that Customs rules prohibit the sale of Cuban cigars on cruises that don't enter another country. He says that he reads Cigar Aficionado to keep up on which cigars to buy. They include Montecristos, Romeo y Julietas and Cohibas from Cuba, as well as Arturo Fuentes and a selection from Nat Sherman. The prices for Cubans are reasonable for a cigar bar, as they are sold duty-free.

"We haven't had a dedicated lounge on other Cunard vessels," says Myrmell. "It's not the same thing as sitting in a quiet room in a corner with a magazine and a cigar." Arison, the Carnival chairman, says that demand for cigar-smoking facilities changes constantly aboard his company's ships. "We went from nobody wanting them to a big push for them and then it collapsed again. We always have somewhere to smoke, though." Smoking is allowed at the ship's 13 other bars and lounges, which include a Veuve Clicquot Champagne bar. Churchill's distinguishes itself with its atmosphere and a collection of vintage Armagnacs.

Myrmell's duties also include arranging the dining on board, and for that he has secured the services of Daniel Boulud, of New York's Daniel and late of Le Cirque, as culinary adviser. "We wanted to modernize the cuisine," he says. "It wouldn't be possible to cook the exact style of Daniel, which he does for 200 people a night over several seatings, but we also didn't want to have volumes of food, massive baked potatoes—traditional cruise fare if you will."

For the QM2, the biggest challenge of cooking at sea is serving 1,300 passengers at two successive seatings, which forces the galley to prepare a large quantity of food at once. Furthermore, the crew of 1,300 must be fed. Arranging to have fresh ingredients at far-flung ports is the other challenge.

The ship has 10 dining venues, including a pub and a snack bar. The largest is Brittania, modeled after the line's dining salons of old. Top-class passengers may eat at the Queens Grill, which allows à la carte dining. Junior suite passengers can eat at the Princess Grill. King's Court on the Lido deck has an English carvery and an Italian and Asian restaurant. The Golden Lion and Boardwalk Grill serve "fast grub."

There is also Todd English, at which the restaurateur of the same name had great input both in the cuisine and decor, down to the design of the china and silverware. English says his presence at the venue, which overlooks a pool, is with the intention of encouraging a younger generation of cruisers. "We worked together much in the same way I did with Steve Wynn at the Bellagio. There was some head butting, but that's always healthy." One point of contention was that he was not allowed to have the wood-burning stove he desired. His menu includes "greatest hits" from his other restaurants, a tapas bar and modern Mediterranean fare. All is done with the modern eater who doesn't want to overindulge in mind.

The wine needs are attended to by Michael Broadbent, former head of Christie's wine department. The list is extremely comprehensive in terms of regions and vintages, without having exceeding depth. Prices are quite fair.

But celebrity chefs and luxurious amenities are the improvements by which most cruise ships have been upping the ante for years. Even while Cunard plans to add the Queen Victoria next year, Royal Caribbean will launch the Ultra Voyager at a length almost as long as the QM2. It is only a matter of time until one is longer and larger.

Naysayers contend that the cruise business is going flat and that the Queen Mary 2, with its average fare of $3,500 and high end of $27,500, may be pricing itself out of the market. Nevertheless, Conover believes in the viability of QM2 romance. "This ship will continue to be very, very special for a very long time and it doesn't matter if bigger ships are built."

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