Long Live The Queens

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Years ago I acquired a wonderful piece of memorabilia, an invitation to the September 26, 1934, launch of a ship known as No. 534, with Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary in attendance. The vessel’s name was a closely guarded secret until the Queen smashed a wine bottle against its hull, thus christening the Queen Mary . I was decades late for that ceremony, nor did I get another chance when the present British monarch christened the second Cunarder of that name on January 8, 2004.

But because the World Ship Society, an organization of ship lovers that I belong to, was alert to another historic opportunity, I was able to take part in a memorable sighting. On April 22 of last year the Queen Mary 2 arrived in New York Harbor on its maiden transatlantic voyage from Southampton. Three days of festivities ensued. Then, on April 25, its glorious older sister, the Queen Elizabeth 2 , appeared. In service since 1969, she was still sleek but appeared oddly shrunken next to her outsized companion. Until a Royal Caribbean behemoth comes along later this year, the QM2 holds title as the largest ship ever built, nearly four football fields long and soaring 200 feet above the waterline. The original Queen s, the most popular and profitable ships on the North Atlantic run, had last appeared together in the early days of World War II, and now these two would be sailing out in tandem, possibly for the only time.

Because of a thicket of security concerns, the usual gathering of small vessels that would accompany such a departure was cleared from the harbor, leaving it mostly to police boats and helicopters. But the World Ship people and one or two other groups had managed to charter a few commuter ferries and Circle Line boats, providing an amazing vantage from which to chart the liners’ progress from their berths down the Hudson, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and toward the waiting Atlantic. It was a cold, gray evening, and bundled up on the deck of the ferry John Stevens , the lit-up city a fantasy stage set, I could almost imagine that this was the start of my own transatlantic journey.

As the giant glowing vision moved out (pausing near the bridge to wait for her sister, who was suffering a delay), people on my ferry conducted envious cell-phone calls with friends aboard. And when both ships sailed into the distance, the New York skyline itself seemed diminished, something I would not have thought possible. I’d never made it aboard the first Queen Mary , but I knew I had to be on this one. That same night a little boy who had watched from the shore was interviewed on television. “Would you like to go on it?” the reporter asked. “Yes, very much.” “What do you think it would be like?” “Paradise. Living the life,” the child said.

Since the cruise-ship population is expanding these days and because people aren’t so eager to fly to distant ports, many lines that have ignored New York’s piers for years, except for summer runs to Bermuda and fall trips to New England, are returning here and to other East Coast ports. Norwegian Cruise Line now has a year-round itinerary to the Bahamas, soon to be joined by Princess, and the QM2 will become a regular presence, offering 26 transatlantic voyages, as well as a series of cruises. Starting next spring, many of these ships, the QM2 included, will depart from a newly refurbished terminal in Brooklyn’s Red Hook. So book now if you want to be able to experience the classic, unequaled Manhattan departure.

Checking the QM2 ’s calendar, I spotted an eight-day roundtrip from New York that, thanks to the ship’s superior speed of 25 knots (it can reach 29 if necessary), would bring it deep into the Caribbean, stopping at St. Thomas, St. Kitts, and St. Martin. It wasn’t the ports that appealed but the chance to have four full days at sea—two in each direction—making this a sort of hybrid cruise-crossing. After all, the ship’s transatlantic run takes only six days, and it easily could be done in five.

On an unexpectedly freezing day in early March, and after a five-minute cab ride from my home, I arrived at Pier 90 knowing from having read many grumpy accounts on the Internet that I would be in for a long wait. You can see why a new terminal is in the works; Manhattan’s piers may resonate with history, but their waiting rooms hold no charm.

The shifting, restless crowd of 2,600 passengers, a full house, could not help being diverted by the close-up view of the ship. It filled the terminal windows, blotting out any sign of city or sky.

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?”

I found myself wondering if the ship had the personality or soul of its great predecessors.

On the other hand, there were many happy travelers aboard, some of whom had already signed up for future trips. The ship is still very new, and I found myself wondering, as I tried to penetrate its mysteries, if it indeed had a personality or soul, as its great predecessors undeniably did. Deborah Natansohn, a Cunard executive, has thought about this too. “It takes time to ripen it,” she says, “but QM2 will develop its own character, and it will certainly be rooted in the British heritage and tradition of Cunard.”

Back home I find myself thinking of the QM2 as she goes about her purposeful work as a liner. I walk over to Riverside Park to spot her unmistakable funnel, making a skyline all her own a mile and a half away. I think about being out on deck watching her cut a broad wake through the waters, or I remember curling up in a favorite spot by a window supposedly to read my book but really to stare out at the moody sea that is her natural home. In the corridors of my mind, the QM2 is growing barnacles of character with every turn of her engines.