To sea on an iron maiden

On a world voyage, Robert Upe discovers cigar lounges and dress codes endure on the new Queen Elizabeth.

A fine salt spray whips off the back of the waves as they roll by. I can taste it on my lips. I'm leaning on the rail of a ship's balcony, high above the water, but the spray softly drifts up to me, refreshing like a spritzer.

These are waves that may never break because we are a long way from land - on my calculation at longitude 164.77E and latitude 38.82S. This places us in the middle of the Tasman Sea, otherwise referred to as the Ditch, between Australia and New Zealand in an area known for its wild seas and white-knuckle yachting.

The dark-blue water is 4000 metres deep, about the same depth in which the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912.

Our captain pulls out a navigation chart and delights in showing even deeper patches of the Tasman Sea. He points to a section on the map marked to a depth of 4400 metres, then another where it is an unfathomable 5500 metres.

We're on board the luxury ocean liner Queen Elizabeth and, fortunately for the full complement of 2092 passengers, the going is easy today at a brisk 20 knots on this notorious stretch of water and the swell so weak that it fails to roll a pencil on my writing desk.

The Queen Elizabeth was launched in October by Cunard to join Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria in the cruise line's fleet. It's on its maiden world voyage, a 103-day circumnavigation from Southampton, England, with whistle-stop tours in the US, the Pacific, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The Queen Elizabeth sailed into Sydney with fanfare a few weeks ago when it had its rendezvous with the Queen Mary 2 and also slipped in to Melbourne and Perth. It is now making its way through Asia.

It is a grand ship with classic lines, 294 metres long and the equivalent of 21 storeys high, but it is not its bulk that is its distinguishing feature. Besides, if size alone were the mark of shipping greatness, that title would go to the mega-liner Allure of the Seas, the biggest passenger ship in the world at 362 metres long.

The Queen Elizabeth, instead, revels in tradition and evokes a cruising experience from a bygone era, when ships dominated transatlantic travel before the jet age.

It was a time when ships had sweeping staircases, when bands played in glorious ballrooms to women in their finest gowns and men in tuxedos, cigar lounges were filled with heavy smoke, string quartets performed amidships as couples strolled by and piano bars clinked with martini glasses and tunes such as As Time Goes By. I find it all on the Queen Elizabeth, plus a few bored teenagers.

"It's an elegant ship and there is a focus on heritage," the captain, Julian Burgess, says. "We're keen to maintain the classical elements of cruising and we're more formal than other cruise lines but, of course, we are a modern cruise liner and we also embrace technology."

As the captain speaks of satellite navigation and a bevy of electronic devices, he reveals that some traditions never die. A sextant is still carried and officers practise its use when opportunity allows. And there is always a lookout on duty, armed with binoculars and a keen eye for flotsam and jetsam.

What happens if we hit a shipping container? "It will be smashed to a million pieces," a third officer offers. "We may feel a slight bump but that's all."

The captain's table is also among the enduring traditions. Of those privileged with a dinner seat at the commander's flanks on this voyage are passengers taking the full 103-day journey (priced from $26,000 for an inside cabin to $73,000 for a suite). Other notables at the table include author James Bradley, who wrote the best-selling Flags of Our Fathers (later made into a movie by Clint Eastwood), and a countess from the Bismarck family, after which the German World War II battleship was named.

Celebrity is all around the Queen Elizabeth, in the form of old black-and-white photographs of famous passengers on board Cunard's legendary ships such as the Britannia, the original Queen Elizabeth built in 1940, and the Queen Elizabeth 2 launched in 1969 and retired in 2008 to Port Rashid in Dubai, where it awaits a refit to become a floating hotel.

There are photos of an elegant Cary Grant in a bow-tie, Bing Crosby sitting on a balcony rail, Rita Hayworth in heels, Marlene Dietrich in full-length fur and Winston Churchill at the helm with cigar in hand.

I find a packet of "Three Small Churchills" - not as thick as the cigar in Churchill's hand but ideal for the cigar lounge - while browsing the shelves of the ship's Fortnum and Mason store. The $US53 "Churchills" are there among the biscuits, tea and preserves of this very English store that has had a presence in Piccadilly since 1707.

While shopping, I eavesdrop and hear some not-so-kind words about another prominent British institution. "Oh no, sir. Harrods is a little bit common, if you know what I mean. We don't have one on board ..." But also on board in the Royal Shopping Arcade - near the casino, where roulette wheels spin and poker machines sing - are clothing, jewellery and book shops selling everything from Harris Tweed garments made from hand-woven Scottish fabric, to limited-edition Queen Elizabeth watches by Chopard for $US18,000 and the two-volume Titanic - the Ship Magnificent, a $US170 book by Bruce Beveridge about the design, construction and fitout of the doomed liner.

It is a book that would make a worthy addition to the 6000 already in the ship's two-level library, where the centrepiece is a large world globe from 1932 and a leaded-glass ceiling.

"These books don't even mention the sinking but they are snapped up by Titanic enthusiasts," the bookseller says of Beveridge's book. "From the detail and specifications in them, you could build another Titanic. They are hard to get but I have three on board."

There is also suit hire on board, an essential service if you haven't packed for the formal dress code that applies to most of the ship after 6pm.

The dress code for the night is announced daily and varies from elegant casual ("jacket, no tie for gentlemen; dress, skirt or trousers for ladies"); to semi formal ("jacket and tie for gentlemen; cocktail dress or trouser suit for ladies"); to formal dress (tuxedo, dinner jacket or formal dark suit for gentlemen; evening dress or other evening attire for ladies; military or award decorations may be worn").

Apart from heightened fashion, formal nights are marked with special occasions and enhanced menus. As we approach Sydney on one such night, there is a Venetian masquerade ball for which the face masks are ornate and the menu in the Britannia Restaurant includes the likes of lobster thermidor with truffle-scented pilaf rice, as well as escargot sauteed in garlic and red wine.

The waiters do a good job "selling" the lobster and 960 creamy tails are sent out that night, among 1400 main meals.

The Britannia is one of the ship's largest restaurants and has two sittings a night with passengers at reserved tables. The waiters are smart in black trousers and white tunics, the silverware rests on white linen tablecloths and the two-tier restaurant has a sweeping staircase and is decorated with art deco flourishes, like many of the public areas on the ship.

Our sommelier is expert and remembers our preferences each night. The waiters are efficient and the service is never slow but sometimes it is too fast and might even be regarded abrasive if dished out at a similar-standard city restaurant. I guess there is some tolerance for the fact so many passengers need to be fed.

The executive chef, Nicholas Oldroyd, presides over 10 restaurants, seven galleys and 142 chefs, who turn out 12,000 meals a day.

He says the lobster from Bermuda is the most popular dish but there is also daily consumption of 4188 eggs, 287 litres of fruit juice and 2615 tea bags - enough tea to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool for a year. Annually, it's estimated that 5870 kilograms of smoked salmon, 15,817 kilograms of breakfast cereal and 54,947 kilograms of scrambled eggs will be served. To finish off, passengers use 141,600 toothpicks each year.

The ship's fine-dining restaurant is The Verandah, which is French to the core and follows in the tradition of the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, where the eatery was like a private club in New York, Paris or London.

The menu includes foie gras and poulet de Bresse sourced in France, scallops in lime butter, pigeon roti and rack of lamb - but, surprisingly, it is the asado (South American barbecue) served in the 24-hour down-to-earth Lido buffet that impresses most. On other theme nights in the Lido there is an Aztec (Mexican) and Jasmine (Asian) menu for a surcharge of $US10 a person.

Passengers staying in the ship's most exclusive suites have their own dining areas in the Queens Grill and Princess Grill restaurants on deck 11 at the top of the vessel. This restricted area includes courtyard dining with an Italian alfresco feel, a private bar and a lounge with perhaps the best forward views on the entire ship.

Most of the 1046 cabins, however, are on decks four to eight, including 738 with a private balcony, an en suite, small sofa and lounge table, flat-screen television, internet connectivity, minibar and writing desk. Each cabin is assigned a steward, who acts as a personal concierge.

As comfortable as the cabins are (Cunard calls them staterooms), most interest lies elsewhere, because the ship has a packed program of entertainment that never seems to let up.

There are lectures from experts in many fields, including naval history and submarines. The former Liberal minister, Alexander Downer, speaks about global affairs and packs out the 800-seat Royal Court theatre.

Later in the theatre is a question-and-answer session with the captain and a performance by the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Company presenting a triple bill of scenes from Neil Simon plays: The Odd Couple, Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Plaza Suite.

There are piano recitals, harpists, bingo, yoga and other fitness classes in the gym, computer seminars, card games and quizzes. There are two swimming pools and, on the games deck, a bowling green, croquet field, golf practice nets and a court for paddle tennis.

But if you don't want to do anything at all, you can lean on the balcony and watch the ocean roll by.

Robert Upe cruised between Auckland and Sydney courtesy of Cunard.

FAST FACTS

The Queen Elizabeth will return to Australia in February-March 2012 when she visits Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Port Douglas during a world voyage. Fares cost from $4049 twin share for 15 nights from Sydney to Hong Kong, or $5649 for 24 nights from San Francisco to Sydney.

Fares include meals but a surcharge applies in some restaurants, such as $US18 ($17) for a main in the fine-dining restaurant The Verandah.

Other optional extras include shore excursions, internet access ($US89.95 for 240 minutes), massages in the Royal Spa (from $US69 for 25 minutes), facials (from $US80 for 30 minutes), access to the Royal Bathhouse (with lounges and a small indoor jet pool, from $US35 a day), ship-to-land phone calls ($US5 a minute). Phone 13 24 41, see cunardline.com.au.

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