The Only Way to Cross – 175 Years On
Friday, August 28, 2015
“The sea, perhaps because of its saltiness, roughens the outside but keeps sweet the kernel of its servants’ soul.”
This morning, I awoke aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 after one of the most restful sleeps I’ve had in a long time. On a comfort level, the beds aboard Queen Mary 2 are the most comfortable I’ve slept on outside of luxury line Silversea. And I’m just in good ol’ Britannia Class. You can imagine what those in the Princess Grill or Queen’s Grill suites are enjoying!
In fact, if I had to register complaint with anything, it would be with the weather. It’s too darn sunny, smooth and clam for my liking! It feels as if we’re crossing a pond; QM2 is so still and steady that you’d never even suspect we were crossing an entire ocean.
Credit for that has to go to Mr. Stephen Payne, Queen Mary 2’s lead designer. If you don’t know Payne’s name, you should: chances are very good you’ve sailed on one of his ships. He was involved in the construction of Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fantasy class that revolutionized modern shipbuilding in the early 1990’s. He was a driving force behind Holland America’s Statendam-class ships, as well as 1997’s Rotterdam VI, Amsterdam, Volendam, Zaandam, Zuiderdam…the list goes on.
Payne still designs ships, but his most enduring legacy may very well be this ship – Queen Mary 2. Nothing about this ship is accidental. Her bridge is reminiscent of that aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2. Her forward superstructure appears like a modern version of that found aboard the original Queen Mary. Her stern is a modern hybrid intended to evoke feelings of the old rounded “cruiser sterns” found on many liners throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. That viewing area beneath her bridge? More than a little reminiscent of White Star Line’s Olympic.
Stephen Payne has done a masterful job of working in all these little nods to the past legacy of ocean travel into Queen Mary 2. But nostalgia is a funny thing; quite often we tend to view the past with rose-coloured glasses.
I recently came into a large collection of maritime memorabilia from a good friend. I had five boxes of books, magazines and collectibles shipped to my doorstep – as if I need more books and magazines on ships! But what I found was a treasure trove…and buried inside Box Number Three was every Cunard brochure since 1978. Sometimes in duplicates, sometimes in triplicates. The past owner of this box loved Cunard. Which works out great: I love Cunard, too.
So let’s wind the clock back 25 years to 1990 – and Cunard’s 150th Anniversary celebrations aboard Queen Elizabeth 2.
At that time, Cunard was not owned by Carnival Corporation PLC. Queen Mary 2 was but a dream. As Micky Arison, president of Carnival Corp. would later remark, “We bought Cunard to create Queen Mary 2. Not the other way around.”
In 1990, Queen Elizabeth 2 would complete 17 transatlantic crossings. This year, Queen Mary 2 will complete 28. In 1990, a crossing was just five days in length. In 2015, Cunard offers voyages across the ocean that range between seven and nine days in length. Sure, Queen Mary 2 could do this journey in four days –maybe less – but who the heck wants to do that? The entire idea is to spend as much time at sea as possible. One hundred years ago, the average crossing was one week in duration, though the fastest ships could do it in six days or so.
I never had the privilege of sailing aboard Queen Elizabeth 2 – or QE2 as she was affectionately known – but it is fascinating to look at how much both Cunard and this journey across the Atlantic have changed in the intervening years. Personally, I think crossing the Atlantic in 2015 offers a superior experience in every way.
In 1990, Cunard had a complicated fleet structure. They had QE2, the yacht-like Sea Goddess I and SeaGoddes II (which are today SeaDream I and II for SeaDream Cruises), the older but very cool Sagafjord and Vistafjord, and the oddball Cunard Countess and Cunard Princess, which to me never really looked like Cunarders. Unfortunately, both of the two latter ships would meet ignominious ends at the hands of other cruise lines after years of neglect.
So the fleet was all over the place. In 2015, it’s far more streamlined: Queen Mary 2 leads the pack, followed by the slightly-smaller Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. The product is consistent across the fleet; if you like Queen Mary 2, chances are good you’ll find a lot to love about the QV and QE.
Brochure fares for QE2’s regular season trips, in an inside cabin with bunk-style berths that measured less than 100 square feet, started at $2,005 USD per person. Brochure prices for Queen Mary 2 in 2015 on a standard Westbound transatlantic in an inside cabin measuring 159 square feet with a full-sized queen bed start at $1,199 USD per person – though certain crossings routinely go for less than a grand.
In 1990, a Westbound crossing would depart Southampton at one of three possible times: 3:00p.m., 4:00p.m., or 8:00p.m. Arrival in New York was a total mess, with times ranging between 7:00a.m. and 9:00a.m., depending on your sailing. Today, departure and arrival times are much more streamlined (though, naturally, subject to change based on weather and other factors.) Typically, departure from Southampton is at 6:00p.m., with arrival into New York around 7:00a.m.
The 1990 brochure is a real trip. It’s filled with anachronisms that have aged prematurely (Jazzercise! IBM Computer Learning Center! Special Guest Speaker Dom DeLouise!). But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the journey itself. Twenty-five years later, QE2 is no longer with the fleet. She’s tied up in Dubai, her fate still in a state of semi-limbo. Queen Mary 2 has taken over her duties. It may be hard to believe, but Cunard offers more transatlantic crossings today than they did back in 1990. Their new flagship is larger and more powerful. Their fleet is more streamlined and consistent.
People like to bemoan Carnival Corporation; I still see those who gripe that the company purchased Holland America back in 1988 – to which I say, give it a rest already! But of this I have no doubt: had Carnival not purchased Cunard back in 1998, I wouldn’t even be here writing to you about all of this – because Queen Mary 2 wouldn’t exist. So if Micky Arison were here now, I’d shake his hand. The man enabled Cunard to sail on into the future, and paved the way for generations to continue to enjoy this most classic of cruises.
After my trip down memory lane this morning, I ate lunch at Todd English – Queen Mary 2’s dedicated specialty restaurant on Deck 8.
Typically open for lunch and dinner, Todd English carries a’la carte pricing that is surprisingly reasonable, with most appetizers going for between $5 and $9, and entrees priced between $10 and $20 on average. Tucked away on Deck 8 aft, few guests even realize it’s here since it is away from the hustle and bustle of the main public areas on Decks 2, 3 and 7.
For lunch, I indulged (too much!) in the freshly-baked onion focaccia bread served with two kinds of olive tapenades. Don’t like onions? Not to worry – other kinds of freshly-baked breads are available too.
As an appetizer, I had ricotta ravioli that was so good I could have just had a double-helping as an entrée. I have no idea if they would do that, but I presume it wouldn’t be a problem.
Because I am trying to eat healthier when I cruise, I chose the lightest-sounding option from the lunch menu: the so-called “bricked chicken” that comes served with fried eggplant. Lightly seasoned and garnished with ripe cherry tomatoes, it was an exceptional lunch that I certainly didn’t feel guilty about indulging in.
And for dessert? A selection of fruit sorbets.
So why did I choose lunch here? Two reasons: one, I’ve already done dinner here on a past crossing in 2012. I loved it – it was a real highlight of my trip. But I love dining in the gorgeous Britannia Dining Room, and I don’t want to miss a single evening there. By contrast, lunch in the King’s Court Buffet on Deck 7 can get a bit competitive. Lunch at Todd English was the complete opposite: quiet and relaxing, with great views off the stern of the ship and delicious cuisine.
If you’re on the Queen Mary 2 in the future, give lunch at Todd English a try. It’s a nice low-cost way to experience something different and enjoy a more serene, relaxed atmosphere at the same time.
Today’s Daily Programme onboard Queen Mary 2 lists a total of 97 different activities, events, performances, concerts and notable diversions to while away your day at sea. People often think that a transatlantic crossing will be boring or scary somehow; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only will you not be bored (particularly on Queen Mary 2), but you most certainly won’t be bored.
Even better: we get to set the clocks back tonight, our first of six time changes that will work in our favor and which will result in us being treated to six 25-hour long days.
Perhaps that’s why tonight’s 175 Ball in the Queen’s Room was such a success. Starting out with a special dance performance by dance instructors Sergey and Olga, the room was packed well into the night. Queen Mary 2 isn’t the ship for those who retire to bed early; this is a ship with an incredible nightlife. People in their 80’s are doing laps around me. This is an active, fun ship for active, fun people.
I ventured down to the King’s Court Buffet at midnight to find the Midnight Snack delightfully well-attended, and I clearly wasn’t the only one who thought a cup of Twinning’s peppermint tea was a good idea.
It’s formal night tonight, and the entire ship is dressed for the occasion. Men are in dark suits and ties or tuxedoes, and women are dresses of varying features, colours and sizes. The dress code takes effect at 6:00 p.m., and no one seems to mind. While you can still use the Wintergarden and King’s Court buffet on Deck 7 if you don’t dress up, you’ll find your options elsewhere are limited.
But dressing up is just part of the fun that is the Cunard Experience: 175 years old this past July, and still going strong.