Cunard Queen Mary 2 – Southampton to New York

by Continental Club on July 20, 2013

Cunard

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the European Cruise Council and Passenger Shipping Association, 20.6 million people took a cruise holiday in 2011, and a record 1.7 million of those call Britain home. And there’s little doubt that cruising traces its roots back to the days before mass-transport by air; a time when the only means of travelling ‘long haul’ was by ocean liner, and where ports-of-all were necessary purely for provisioning, not for pleasure.

It’s unlikely that many of the passengers who coined the word POSH – for whom Port Out & Starboard Home afforded the most comfortable passage – would recognise the style and scale of some of today’s cruise ships. It’s likely, however, that they’d find plenty familiar on board the ships of Cunard – the only remaining operator of the true ocean liner, and the last remaining crest under which the 21st century commercial passenger can undertake a ‘crossing’ rather than a mere cruise.

With a fleet of three vessels, Cunard exists today when many would have believed that its former flagship, the QE2, was to have been the last of the line. Instead, the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Victoria and the undisputed current standard-bearer, the superlative-dripping Queen Mary 2, together ensure that a tradition which traces its lineage back to 1839 continues to rule the waves.

Cunard QM2

‘QM2’ is unique; her vital statistics alone set new standards of construction integrity, which build upon those which were once considered cutting-edge; standards which represent the pinnacle of strength and efficiency, if not outright speed. Utilising 40% more steel than contemporary cruise ship designs, and being the only ship to maintain scheduled transatlantic service between Southampton and New York, makes QM2 the only ocean liner in maritime revenue-earning operation anywhere in the world today.

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Embarkation for this November 2012 crossing was from Southampton’s new Ocean Terminal – the replacement for the Art Deco facility of the same name which stood from 1950 to 1983. Today’s Ocean Terminal is across the dock from the original, and won’t frighten those used to modern airline passenger lounges.

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The most notable difference, apart from perhaps the general orderliness of the place, is the rather unusual diffidence with which the building’s design treats its raison d’etre – the ship itself. Where airports generally open up their walls with glass panoramas of the aircraft and runways, the Ocean Terminal affords only glimpses of the vessel it feeds.

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It’s a tantalising view though, and there’s plenty of opportunity to gaze up at the bridge whilst waiting for boarding to be called. When it is, it’s a relaxed process; luggage has already been whisked away by stevedores at the kerbside downstairs, and all passengers are provided with an embarkation time prior to travelling to the dock, so that the flow through check-in and security is managed. There’s none of the ‘dashing around’ of aviation; there’s only one ship and one gate, and departure will only occur when everyone is safely on board.

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And, whilst the QM2 may play host to the only planetarium afloat today, in fact it’s pure theatre from the moment that guests board – the industrial functionality of a glazed gangway leaps into the bronze-beaten, marble-pillared and shoe-swamping carpeting of the Grand Lobby.

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There are stewards left, right and centre, each and all happily directing embarkees toward their staterooms, but in truth it’s a challenge to pay the slightest attention to their smiling instructions when your lower jaw is dragging along the floor.

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Bumping our chins up the stairs, however, we find our abode for the next seven nights, replete with the signature Cunard bottle of fizz to welcome us.

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Our stateroom is termed ‘sheltered balcony’, grade BB, and to translate that means that we have a steel balcony wall but an otherwise unobstructed view. Above us, glazed-terrace accommodations begin with those for whom a lifeboat is an additional outboard appendage. Only above them do the truly panoramic perches begin – but our selection feels both open and solid at the same time. A thoughtful vinyl protects one of the berths in preparation for suitcase-emptying.

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Each stateroom enjoys a minimum of an en suite shower and loo; arguably the one part of the experience that might be described as utilitarian – but it’s spotlessly clean and fed by abundant hot water where it matters.

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And who wants to linger lathering when there’s a condensation-covered bucket dripping outside?

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Alongside, the Hampshire Riviera can only be described as grim. In fact, the intensity of the deluge has delayed so many passengers that the great vessel they aim for is delayed too. But that’s the first of many indications that this service remains focussed on its self-loading freight. The guest aboard is the absolute centre-of-attention; the pure raison d’etre of every spar and rivet, every plate and waiter. No-one will be left behind.

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And as the November night wraps around us, the weather worsens yet more. It’s an inauspicious view, and not one that Hollywood would likely replicate unless 3,000 miles West with ‘bergs aplenty.

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Finally, eventually, the last attachment to the prosaic is severed as the Hi-Viz docksman hydraulically withdraws his jetty; the glazed tube sinking away from us gently as we almost imperceptibly drift from the quay.

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There’s no drama; no disconnection from a push-back tug, no thumping over expansion joints of concrete taxiways. There’s no queue for clearance, no edging towards the threshold, no line-up, no pausing. No spooling or surge. No thundering along the strip – no seatbelts or chimes. Just an utterly mesmerising separation from land that we know we’ll not set foot upon again for a week.

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So as the Solent passes beneath us, and after the delayed mustering takes place above, we retire to ponder the coming days and opt to quietly sample room service rather than launch headlong into restaurant-dining that we’ll save for the morn’.

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And what a dawning it proves to be; the contrast from the Southampton tempest could not be more marked, as we explore the ship beneath cloudless, cerulean skies, and every landbound stress seems to dissolve in the wake of this one-of-a-kind liner.

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It’s a little early on this November day for a dip in one of the pools, but the Southern arc of our course means that temperatures are still in the mid 60s and by lunchtime, there’s quite a Jacuzzi party going on.

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At any time of the day (or night), the Promenade Deck is the place to be; whether it’s purposeful marching or idle observations that are sought, this uninterrupted orbit of scrubbed teak is both the provider of contemplative solitude against the balustrade, or nose-pressing inquisitiveness through the portholes of the exclusive Grills restaurants for suite-occupiers.

Even the lifeboats, obscurers of view from beside, take on a sculptural quality from below.

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The sea and the sky fight for attention throughout though; ever-present reminders that we’re crossing, not cruising. With every passing hour, the concept of ‘land’ feels more alien; the calm sea seems to be our protector from everything that terra firma burdens us with. We’re held afloat, almost aloft, and the very thought of reconnection with the shore becomes less and less appealing with every gentle heave of the ship.

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It even seems that the ranks of steamers are holding out their reclining arms to further comfort us.

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Not that those who treat the teak as a challenge are forgotten. Three laps before breakfast and that 1.1 miles deserves at least Eggs Benedict, if not a full English grill.

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Indeed, it’s the catering that may prove most compromising when it comes to maintaining levels of get-up-and-go. Never overpowering, but with a regularity (nay frequency) that most are unused to, it’s mostly the case that each repast deserves a moment or two of quiet contemplation to digest.

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Many’s the time that the welcoming embrace of one of those arm-outstretched steamer chairs is simply impossible to resist, and a mid-morning toes-to-sky is exactly what’s required.

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And then once awake again, what’s to do? Well, it’s more of a challenge to do nothing. From navigation to knitting; canape creation to skyscraper seminars (on our crossing) the choice of diversions is dizzying. But peace is always to be found, and distractions in the form only of unusual perspectives are abundant. Look over, around, above or along and there’s a new view – a perspective upon this increasingly familiar world that’s surprising, or impressive, or downright awe-inspiring.

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The brochures tend mostly to focus on what’s between the hull’s sides – and perhaps rightly-so. For more than 150 years, and certainly for the first century of that period, ocean liners had but one-and-a-half purposes: one, to transport – and a half to utterly suffocate any concept of the inhospitability of the environment through which they ploughed their aquatic furrow.

The ‘glamour’ of the ocean voyage was undoubtedly an over-promotion; one which reached its apex with the Titanic in terms of fantastical juxtaposition with reality and yet, and yet, there is not one part of the Cunard experience which does not refer to that age of (mostly) benign deceit. There’s an infusion not of subservient decadence, but of subtle yet utterly co-operative care. Not for one moment do you feel that a white-gloved tea-pourer would not be capable of manning a winch. It’s an intoxicating combination that’s almost unique in modern-day civilian life.

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So while those canapes are created deftly below-decks by craftsmen still capable of twirling a rope-bound capstan with similar alacrity, passengers above can continue to divorce themselves from the daily grind.

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No better an opportunity to do that presents itself in the form of the largest library afloat – with just 8,000 books to its name. Though Cunard seems curiously (or is that just peculiarly Britishly) shy to describe the aesthetics of this space. For it is almost certainly one of the most beautifully-crafted book depositories on the planet. Enter this and not want to leaf, flick or be utterly absorbed and there’s possibly no hope for humanity.

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There admittedly comes a point when nature and literature reach their limits in terms of their power to massage, however, and for that moment the commercial partnerships folks at Cunard have thoughtfully thrown a lifebelt around Arizona’s landlocked Canyon Ranch – and dragged it out to sea.

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And goodness it’s good, whether floating in the hydrotherapy suite, or going-with-the-flow in the foreship-located gym where every-other oscillation on the cross-trainer is down and down again, before up and up once more with the ocean’s swell.

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When there’s no more relaxing or exercising to be done, Illuminations offers cinema-screenings as well as stratospheric insights.

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Conveniently (and maintaining the gently-recumbent theme on board) it also treats its patrons to the most generously-proportioned and deeply-reclined perches this-side of British Airways Club World.

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The Royal Court Theatre, cleverly layered above the planetarium, plays host not only to RADA and RSC companies, but provides a stage for the varied artists that ply the Atlantic to further entertain, educate and intrigue passengers. Can you see who it is yet?

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Even the miniature is magnificent, and a passing glance of the utterly immaculate scale model of the ship actually serves only to remind the viewer of the enormousness of that which carries both the mini-facsimile, and the almost 4,000 souls aboard.

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Back to the stateroom however, and the sun floods in across each day’s freshly-pressed linen, tucked in by the army of 1200-plus crew.

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The balcony significantly adds to the living space, and when moments apart from the rest of the ship are all that are sought, it’s a sea-borne sanctuary.

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As pleasant as the seclusion may be, the draw of the iconic outside is difficult to ignore, and even a simple circulation of the Promenade Deck provides unique vistas that impress themselves on the consciousness with every turn.

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From the sweeping fo’c’sle, to the Commodore’s Cufflinks, the name given to the sculptural yet completely functional spare turbine blades mounted on the foredeck, few could deny the rare care that has gone into designing almost every part of this ship.

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It’s a reflection of a level of attention that renders the functional and necessary both beautiful and inspiring.

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So much of what’s seen betrays the difference between this Queen and so many of her contemporaries; this is not a ship that seeks solely to pack the greatest square-footage of saleable cabin-room into the overall limits of dock space and port-day provisioning. This is a testament to naval architecture that values detailed, calm contemplation of line and form, sturdy and dynamic, organic and engineered.

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Even, here and there, key references to the past – the White Star Line that merged with Cunard, but has never been submerged, appears from behind a porthole.

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And always, the ocean. By day or by night: a constant. Looking out to endless horizons, or straight down to the frothing swirl astern.

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Back inside, the historical references further abound. Who could deny the Titanic-esque impression of the Britannia Restaurant – arguably the heart of the ship?

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A theatre to dining, the Britannia embraces twin tiers of balconied galleries above the main floor, and is such an attraction that guests of Princess & Queen’s Grill suites, who themselves can enjoy their own distinct restaurants, are often to be found breakfasting and lunching in the altogether grander surrounds of this multi-storey magnet.

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For those who crave the more informal, the King’s Court restaurant provides a self-service alternative. We christened it BHS (for those familiar with the UK high street department store canteen), but in truth parts approached Harvey Nichols or at the very least John Lewis.

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When drama is craved once again, however, there’s no better place than the Queen’s Room for afternoon tea. While our American cousins may still get confused and call it ‘high tea’, this remains a very English tradition that Cunard embrace with gusto.

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So, from the wings emerge an entire company of silver pot-armed waiters, white-coated and gloved and ready to provision several hundred guests at each sitting with a piping-hot cup of tea within 120 seconds of curtain-up.

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And if you’d like to suggest that these ship-stewards aren’t having as much of a blast as us, please try to un-PhotoShop these pictures….

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It’s more English than England, and it’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Even the tea is a ‘proper’ colour, and those scones are actually English-sized, not American. For which read hockey-puck, not Lu Blu.

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If I knew how long a football pitch is, then I could probably equate the length of one of QM2’s corridors to Rooney’s play park, but I don’t and therefore all I can say is that after breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, fore and aft are a very great (but beautifully carpeted) distance apart. GPS would have been helpful.

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So much so that, after dinner as well, it may very likely be quite impossible to extricate one’s carcass from the stateroom for breakfast. Fear not though, for our stewards remain on-hand to deliver tray-borne delights to start the day.

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When motion is finally possible once more, there’s always the Veuve Champagne Bar (host to the knitting class prior to the fizz-popping).

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Then there’s the Chart Room, for a little light lounging in preparation for the bar opening.

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Though of course the Red Lion might be the preferred venue, especially if a spot of Royal Mailing is required after one’s pint, pie and chips. She is, of course, the RMS Queen Mary 2, and she carries at least one mailbag on each crossing to maintain her title.

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No matter what’s going on inside, there’s a never-ending show outside, as the Atlantic swells, surges and surfs to every horizon – and the balcony aperture frames each vista perfectly.

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 Just rest against the balustrade and watch nothing pass by…..

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 ….as the moon rises….

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 ….and the sun sets….

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 ….and all sorts of those new views present themselves….

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 ….out to sea, and onboard….

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….behind us….

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….below us….

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 ….and alongside….

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In the end, a week is so short, and in the small hours of the final night-cum-morning, everyone is on deck for the last moments of this Westbound crossing, to watch the deck of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge ride over ours with only feet to spare.

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While we peer out in rapture at the New York Skyline, the ship assumes its position as the spectacle for those ashore, and illuminates itself to herald our approach.

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We glide up the Hudson, afforded an arrival in New York unusual for contemporary Cunarders; the effects of Hurricane Sandy rendering the usual Brooklyn pier unserviceable and forcing us into the traditional Manhattan home of the liner: Pier 88.

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We’re gently nudged into position, the final minutes of our voyage meshing with the start of a new day in New York.

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With a last breakfast enjoyed, we’re called to disembark, and descend to the quayside to see in full-view for the very first time our maritime conveyor this past week….

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The unique Queen Mary 2.

Continental Club paid £899 per person (twin share) for a Westbound crossing in November 2012. For more information and to book, visit cunard.co.uk.

 

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by Queen Mary 2 Video Review | Continental Club | Continental Club Blog on August 27, 2013 at 12:07 PM. Reply #

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