QM2: She’s getting better with age

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QM2: She’s getting better with age
You’re not likely to experience the service snafus that plagued the QM2 when she made her maiden voyage three years ago.

BY JAY CLARKE
[email protected]

Three years after it exploded onto the cruise scene, the Queen Mary 2 still reigns as one of the most talked-about ships ever built.

Wherever it goes, the ship is often greeted not just by crowds of onlookers, but sometimes even with parades and fireworks. ”When we go into Hamburg, 500,000 people line the shore to see the ship, and we’ve been there five or six times. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ben Lyons, the QM2’s first officer.

In those three years, too, the QM2 has matured.

On its maiden voyage in January of 2004, the ship was shaping an identity. Would this grand ship, the first ocean liner built in decades, live up to the elegance of transatlantic travel in the golden years of the 1920s and 1930s? Would it reflect traditional British reticence or take on the free-wheeling style of American cruising? Would its size — it was the world’s biggest passenger ship at that time — be an asset or a deterrent?

I was on that maiden voyage, and to see what kind of experience the QM2 now offers, I sailed it again last month.

MUCH IMPROVED

While the ship exuded a grand style from the beginning, the service on the maiden voyage left much to be desired. Passengers dining in the Brittania restaurant complained that their food came to them late, cold or both. Room service was spotty. Some ship personnel didn’t know their way around.

”We had teething problems. Sixty percent of our staff were new hires,” admitted the QM2’s cruise director, Ray Rolfe, who has been on the ship since it entered service.

Today, I’m glad to report, I didn’t find any trace of poor service during my four-night cruise. I tested several dining venues on board, from the upscale Princess Grill and Todd English restaurants to the standard Brittania and the buffet-style Kings Court; the service and the food in all were excellent. Front desk people were courteous and knowledgeable. Our cabin steward addressed us by name and made sure our needs were met.

Passenger Wiley Hinton, who also had sailed on the maiden voyage, had high praise for the ship. ”I love it. It’s the best travel experience,” he said. Bob and Justine Angland of Hobe Sound said both food and service were good, and Edward Rinalducci, a Gables High School alum who ate in the Brittania restaurant, said the wine steward did a fine job.

On a ship like this, one expects elegance and the QM2 doesn’t disappoint. High tea is served every afternoon. The ship boasts both wine bar and champagne bar, along with special wine-tasting sessions. Top accommodations are outrageously luxurious and priced accordingly. (A duplex suite on the ship’s 80-day World Cruise, now in progress, cost its occupant $500,000, Rolfe said.) Its onboard shops, with labels like Hermes, Swarovsky and H. Stern, are not for the faint of wallet.

Dress codes are more relaxed in the Caribbean, but you can still count on three formal nights on both seven- and 10-night sailings, and three on the six-night transatlantics. On the current 80-night World Cruise, Rolfe said, there are 60 nights at sea; 50 of them call for formal dress. The dress code applies only in the dining rooms, of course. You can go casual anytime in the other restaurants.

YOUNGER PASSENGERS

Casual fits the mood of younger guests on the QM2 — and indeed this stately ship does attract young as well as mature passengers.

”The passenger mix has changed. It’s younger, even on transatlantic sailings,” said Rolfe. ”In July and August, we had 200 children on each crossing, mainly Americans.” The ship has two zones exclusively for children, plus a splash pool just for children and families.

It also has a disco, a feature one associates more with cruise ships, and during our cruise the two-level, steel-themed G32 disco was well populated with younger adults.

Yes, the ship is big, and walking from one end to the other is more like a hike than a stroll. But its very size enables the ship to offer more diversions and provide more space to standard facilities.

Nothing on any other ship, for example, can compare to the QM2’s library, a stunning room with 8,000 volumes, Internet connections and a book shop. It has the largest dance floor at sea. Four outside pools and one indoors. A Canyon Ranch spa with 24 treatment rooms. Its planetarium is unique, doubling during non-starry hours as a theater, lecture hall and demonstration venue. And if you walk around the 360-degree Promenade, your pedometer will read more than a third of a mile. (Take 10 at one of the traditional steamer chairs on that deck.)

Want to sample a QM2 cruise? Take one of its new four-night holiday cruises from New York over Memorial Day, Independence Day or Labor Day this year, or over President’s Day and Easter next year.

An added fillip: The QM2, like sister ship Queen Elizabeth 2, has kennels aboard. ”We can take five dogs and three cats, and the kennels are totally occupied on the transatlantics,” said Rolfe. Dog fare is $500; cats cost only $300.

CLASS ACTS

Like its ocean liner predecessors, QM2 has class distinctions, but only when it comes to dining. Passengers occupying the highest level accommodations dine in the exclusive Queens Grill, which has its own lounge as well. Next on the dining chain are those whose accommodations qualify them to dine in the Princess Grill, also a dine-when-you-want venue.

All other passengers dine in the Brittania restaurant, which seats 1,351 and has two seatings. At the conclusion of its current World Cruise, however, the QM2 will inaugurate still another class-oriented, single-seating dining venue, the Brittania Club. This separate room next to the Brittania restaurant will cater to those occupying deluxe balcony cabins.

Other restaurants are also open to all passengers. Todd English, which in my mind is the best restaurant aboard, requires reservations and is the only one with a surcharge ($20 for lunch, $30 for dinner). I loved bangers and mash for lunch at the Golden Lion Pub, a British-style eatery.

Kings Court, with four distinct themed dining areas, is the main casual dining venue. Breakfast and lunch are buffets; at night, there is waiter service and reservations are required. However, with four dining areas in a linear layout, the Kings Court design is cramped. Bus boys, waiters and guests carrying trays of food all have to maneuver together through the narrow passage connecting the areas.

The only other problem I have with the QM2 are cabins labeled ”Premium Balcony (in Hull).” The opening in these balconies is simply a hole cut in the hull; when you sit on the balcony, you can’t see anything but sky. No sea. That’s not premium in my book.

Overall, though, the QM2 deserves high marks. Service and dining are now at high levels, as are its entertainment and cultural programs. It’s spacious, elegant and mixes cruise itineraries with ocean crossings.

In sum, it has successfully managed to meld ocean-liner style and tradition into a modern context — and that’s exactly what its builders intended.

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