Sue Bennett chronicles how a dash of all things British infuses life aboard the American-owned Queen Mary 2.
A film about a ship best known for sinking gave rise to the creation of the great ocean liner Queen Mary 2. When Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) embraced on the bow of the Titanic in the 1997 disaster movie of the same name, bookings for Cunard cruises rose by 7 per cent. It was the trigger for the shipping company to spend $US800 million to build a ship aimed at re-creating the golden age of sea travel.
They call it an ocean liner, not a cruise ship. With its huge red funnel, blue-and-white livery, wraparound promenade deck and distinctive shape, Queen Mary 2 has many hallmarks of a classic liner.
It has recently completed its first circumnavigation of Australia, part of a 108-night world cruise. I joined the cruise in Fremantle, the first stop in Australia, then called in to Adelaide and steamed into Sydney Harbour six days later. Australians loved it - for the first time since the launch of the ship, affectionately known as QM2, Australians made up the largest number of passengers. From Adelaide to Sydney early last month, for example, there were 2482 passengers, of whom 1169 were Australians, 630 Britons, 192 South Africans and 148 Americans. There are 280 passengers taking the complete round trip from Southampton. It has 1253 crew members and takes a maximum 2620 passengers.
From the sweeping staircase in the main dining room and the six-storey grand lobby to the wide indoor promenade with huge embossed panels, many features convey a sense of space and style. More than 300 original artworks are on board, valued at more than $US5 million.
Unlike liners of yesteryear, most staterooms are at the top of the ship's 17 storeys and almost 75 per cent have balconies.
For taking the air, there's a wraparound covered deck, among many outdoor areas. For when the weather's fine, there are four outdoor swimming pools, deck games, basketball and paddle tennis. When it's not, the Pavilion Pool is tropically warm beneath a retractable roof.
Oh, to be in England
Though built in France, registered in Bermuda and American-owned, there's a lot of Britishness about the Queen Mary 2. The Golden Lion pub, for example, serves fish, chips and mushy peas, shows Premier League football matches and hosts afternoon bingo.
It's also one of the few cruise ships to retain the vestiges of a class system. Passengers in the two top classes - Queens Grill and Princess Grill - sleep in superior staterooms on decks eight to 11, eat in their own restaurants and relax in a designated lounge and outdoor deck. They also pay a lot more. For example, on a transatlantic crossing, the best suite costs $22,649 (a grand duplex stateroom), while the cheapest stateroom costs $1709.
Anyone who wonders what they would do on a cruise ship hasn't travelled on the QM2. It's more a case of "how can I find the time?" There are back-to-back activities and classes throughout the day, from painting to computer training, bridge to cocktail making. Trivia is especially popular. Movies are shown in Illuminations cinema and passengers can voyage through the universe in the ship's planetarium.
I want to be alone
There are plenty of places to recline in a deckchair with a book from the library, one of QM2's treasures. This sanctuary of backlit, walnut cases and easy chairs has more than 8000 books and magazines.
There are two orchestras on board, as well as a jazz band and a cast of entertainers, comedians and musicians. Formal-dress nights are held regularly and every evening there's a show in the Royal Court Theatre. Flautist James Galway performs and delivers a lecture on my leg of the cruise. For those who like to tango, there's dancing with live music in the Queens Room each night and, for the younger set, a nightclub.
As we cross Bass Strait, I sway with the slight seas in the bubbling waters of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub's aqua-therapy pool. The green-tiled, Ottoman-style herbal room and Finnish sauna are alongside and there's an ice fountain for the brave. Later, I have an 80-minute massage and get my nails fixed.
Eating and drinking
The consumption is staggering. Each day, almost 16,000 meals are eaten, 344 bottles of champagne and 1200 litres of milk are drunk and 73 kilograms of lobster dispatched. There are six restaurants, one cafe, a pub and more than three bars that serve food, though the majority of passengers dine in the 1347-seat Britannia Restaurant. Here, the meals are international in style with plenty of choices and every leg of a cruise includes at least one night with lobster, chateaubriand, rack of lamb and duck a l'orange.
The fine-dining Todd English restaurant is available to all passengers at an average extra cost of $10 a dish. English is a Boston-based chef and the restaurant's American-leaning food is a serious notch above Britannia's. Unlike many ships, food preparation on Queen Mary 2 isn't run on a centralised system; there are 10 kitchens run separately. It shows.
For lunch, a favourite of mine is Sir Samuel's, which serves excellent open sandwiches and tarts with beautiful pastry. My least favourite is Kings Court, a self-service restaurant. Just a few steps away from here but a world away in food quality and service is the Queens Grill restaurant. Here, the 200 passengers paying the most money to travel can eat caviar all day, every day. The grill has silver service and a smart menu with skilfully made contemporary dishes, such as yellowfin tuna tartare with white miso dressing. It's not open to other passengers. The Princess Grill class passengers' 178-seat restaurant is alongside.
Executive chef Klaus Kremer oversees it all and, yes, he observes national traits among passengers. He says the British have steak well done, the Germans love Black Forest gateau and the Australians, just like Americans, pile their plates high, especially at the start of a cruise. Without Americans on board, there's barely any demand for beefburgers.
The Veuve Clicquot bar is a chic space to enjoy a glass of bubbles but my favourite is the Commodore Club. At the front of the ship, it's a sophisticated haven with a wonderful martini list and savvy waiters who will sell you amazing gins and vodkas from London to Lensk.
The English know how to do afternoon tea. When you have a waterline window seat in the grand Queens Room and pianist Edgar Macias is tickling the ivories, it's hard not to think all is right with the world. A white-gloved waiter serves English breakfast tea, or Earl Grey by request, from a large, silver teapot; milk and sugar are already on the white linen-decked table.
A dainty side plate, napkin and cutlery appear as a tray of traditional, white-bread sandwiches is offered. For old time's sake, select the cucumber - they're delicious. Cakes follow but the stars are the scones, with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Oh, to be in England! But there's no need, when a touch of England is here on the high seas.
To add a bit of fizz to teatime, there's champagne afternoon tea in Winter Garden, a green-shaded room with wicker chairs, a waterfall and clipped trees. A glass of Veuve Clicquot Brut or rose accompanies rather superior sandwiches served on a classic three-tiered cake stand, with scones and delightful, dainty cakes.
All power to her
The Queen Mary 2 is the only ship that offers a scheduled transatlantic service and this requires a lot of grunt. Weighing 151,400 tonnes, the ship is designed to cope with the roughest of seas and has 40 per cent more steel in its structure than other cruise ships of comparable size. Four pods - rather like large outboard motors - are attached to the underside of the hull and drive the propellers.
The ship is able to turn around in its own width and did exactly that leaving Adelaide's outer harbour. The 345-metre ship swung around in a space only 505 metres wide and with only six metres of water beneath the keel.
Get me to the liner on time
The first wedding to be held on QM2 takes place next month and has involved the termination of 127 years of shipping history. In November, the Cunard fleet changed shipping registration from Britain to Hamilton, Bermuda, and this allows the company to arrange weddings on its ships.
And so to bed
As with the British class system, some QM2 passengers travel in rather more style than others. The Queens Grill is the ultimate in luxury. Its passengers enjoy flowers and replenished fruit bowls, while butlers take care of tedious tasks such as packing and unpacking.
There are 97 Queens Grill staterooms, including two 209-square-metre grand duplex apartments, which have a living room, huge balcony, marble bathroom and whirlpool. Travellers in the 76 Princess Grill suites - one class below - enjoy many of the same treats, including personalised stationery at their desks, fresh fruit and a menu of nine pillows.
Grill passengers have their own silver-service restaurants for their enjoyment and they dine when they choose. They also have a Grills lounge and sun deck with whirlpool.
The term "grills" began on the Queen Mary in the 1930s when passengers paid extra to eat and dance in the Verandah Grills. Later, Cunard retained the name for its most luxurious class of cabins with linked restaurants included in the cost of the voyage.
The remaining passengers stay in 1137 Britannia staterooms, which are smaller but faultless in the quality of fittings and so well designed that size is not an issue. Mine, No.8001, is at the front of the ship and beside the library - my idea of heaven. I have a compact but functional en suite bathroom with a shower; a flat-screen television; two-seat sofa with coffee table (handy for breakfast in the room); and a desk with a chair. From the balcony, I watch the waves. All is very right with the world.
Sue Bennett travelled courtesy of Cunard
Queen Mary 2 will return to Australia next year, before its inaugural circumnavigation of New Zealand. The 12-night round trip leaves Sydney on March 7, 2013 and calls at Auckland, Wellington, the Bay of Islands and Milford Sound, as well as a maiden visit to Christchurch. It costs from $3049 a person, twin share.
Queen Mary 2 will make regular transatlantic crossings between New York and Southampton from April to December this year. Fares cost from $1709 a person, twin share, for a seven-night cruise from Southampton to New York departing on August 21. Phone 13 24 41, see cunardline.com.au.