Long Live The Queens

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After the exhilarating moment of finally boarding, and with a ship’s map tucked into my pocket, I set out to explore as much of the 12 passenger decks and countless public rooms as I could manage in the days that lay ahead. I kept worrying there would be a wonderful spot that I’d miss, only to learn about it from some smug passenger as we disembarked. I also wanted to determine, as best I could, how much from the earlier Cunarders lived on in this one. A couple of weeks after my trip, John Maxtone-Graham, the great delineator of ships, lectured on Cunard at the Metropolitan Museum. Referring to a Cunard mantra, he asked, “Does she recapture the grace and elegance of 75 years ago?” He answered himself: “Probably not. It is very hard to recapture anything of 75 years ago. But this is as close as its going to get.”

As someone who had never sailed on those vessels, I found much to engage the imagination in many carefully designed public spaces, whose very height and breadth distinguished them from those of any other ship I’ve sailed, including the QE2 . Although the ship was fully booked, the various bars, lounges, and dining places were rarely crowded. There were echoes of Deco splendor everywhere, from the lighting that traced the long curves of the Commodore Club’s bar to similarly curved teak railings along the broad Promenade Deck. It was a pleasure to seek out the countless small touches found in light fixtures, banquettes, barstools, and stair rails.

John Maxtone-Graham said the most persuasive Art Deco moment can be found in the entrance to the theater named Illuminations. Home to the only seagoing planetarium, as well as movies and lectures, it is guarded by two muscular bronze figures evoking speed and power, each astride a globe. Less wonderful are the metallic-looking (but rumored to be fiberglass) bas-relief panels that run aft of the Grand Lobby on Deck 2. These depict four continents—Africa, North America, Europe, and South America—strewn with symbols, an elephant here, a baseball player there. As a sort of inside joke, the figure of Homer Simpson appears in the North American panel. They are meant to hark back to wall decorations that appeared on the first Queen Mary .

The ship’s dramatically flared bow echoes that of the QE2 , but on a more massive scale, and also evokes, especially as depicted in Cunard’s graphics, the bow of the fabled Normandie . On a recent Travel Channel documentary, the journalist Peter Greenburg called the QM2 “the largest all-purpose Atlantic liner the world may ever see.” As Maxtone-Graham explained, the term liner refers to a line voyage “from the New World to the Old in all seasons, with none of the idle frivolity of a cruise.” When Carnival Cruise Line, itself a synonym for frivolity, bought Cunard in 1998, it did so in order to create, its chairman said, “a new generation of ocean liner that will be the very pinnacle of the shipbuilder’s art.”

As a true liner the QM2 is built to be extraordinarily strong, its steel hull twice the thickness of a cruise ship’s. Instead of relying on conventional propellers, the QM2 is driven by four motors, known as pods, two fixed and two rotational. They pull the ship through the water, offering greater maneuverability and fuel efficiency and, not incidentally, freeing up space that would have been occupied by propeller shafts. Spare blades for these pods are parked out on the Observation Deck. They are spectacularly beautiful silvery sculptures that draw everyone’s attention. The crew has labeled them “Podhenge,” and some distant day they will fetch a fortune at auction.

At the time of my trip, the QM2 had just passed its first birthday, and everything seemed to be working well. The dining room staff and cabin crew, as well as just about everyone else, seemed effortlessly efficient and pleasant (although it surely took plenty of effort). I mention this because on the Internet you can find an alarming number of complaints, mostly referring to the early days when the staff was still finding its way. And some passengers I spoke to appeared underwhelmed, sometimes for the oddest reasons. One man claimed he didn’t like “the English food”—puzzling, since the only English food I found was in the Golden Lion pub, a very popular place that served a fine ploughman’s lunch. There are numerous places to eat aboard ship, and I enjoyed as many as I could get to. On two occasions tablemates asked that their entrées be replaced, and it was easily accomplished. One passenger grudgingly remarked, “You can ask for something and they’ll turn triple somersaults to please you. It’s fun for a while.”

Some people had a problem with the size of the ship. It was just too big. Well, I wanted to say but didn’t, blame your travel agent for not telling you or yourself for signing up without asking questions. It’s true that partly because the QM2 is huge, one never quite gets a grip. Once, as I was reading a wall card in an exhibit explaining that this ship “will carry the grace and elegance of a bygone era into the future,” I heard a woman’s loud and inelegant cry: “Where in the hell is the Queen’s Room?”