The Queen Mary 2 lay at her berth in Southampton, England, poised to take on a full load of 2,600 passengers for her much-anticipated maiden voyage, a 14-day cruise-style midwinter crossing to Fort Lauderdale. As I approached the new liner, I noticed that she loomed much larger than her older sister, Queen Elizabeth 2 -- a ship I had traveled aboard only a month before, and many times prior to that, back to June 1969. Given my fondness for QE2, would I take to this much-hyped new ship?
Embarkation was swift, and soon I was running into all sorts of familiar faces among the crew and passengers. But continuity with the past would soon be peppered with the many innovations in this ship.
Straightaway, I found the TV in my cabin to be a mine of information about the QM2's services, amenities, weather, tour options, and more -- in fact, I am writing this report via a companion keyboard that came with the TV. E-mails are no longer slipped under the door, but come as a notice on the TV screen.
The ship had to load 50 per cent more baggage, so departure was delayed for an hour past the scheduled 5:30 p.m. sailing time. The QM2 then boomed three big blasts, using the original whistle from the retired RMS Queen Mary. An accompanying flotilla of local excursion boats and private craft parted to allow the giant liner to position herself opposite Southampton's Town Quay. A powerful rendition of Rule Britannia preceded a fireworks display, interrupted three times by the Britannia Restaurant's maitre d' asking, and then wearily pleading, for passengers to take up their seats for the first sitting. Few appeared to comply, not wanting to miss the big show.
The pyrotechnic display burst skyward over the ship in a most dramatic and colorful fashion, and thousands of flashbulb lights erupted from ashore. Then in 20 minutes we were on our way, with our escort shepherding the liner for some distance before turning back.
I had booked an inexpensive cabin, and hence was allocated to the two-sitting, impressive three-deck-high Britannia Restaurant. My well-positioned table, shared with friends, was on the lowest of three tiers with a great view across the room and overlooking the central well.
While our steward was a professional, the galley had trouble keeping up with the demand, and there were lengthy gaps between courses.
My pate portion was small if attractively presented and tasty, but we all stopped short when two tiny lamb chops appeared as the main course. With the trimmings, the miniscule entree could have easily been served on a butter plate.
The steward quickly responded to our surprise and brought a plate of additional chops to distribute. For dessert, a portion of Bananas Foster was equally skimpy, giving rise to my observation that this was not nouvelle cuisine but rather petite cuisine. The second night's portions were equally small.
The weather forecast was dire with a whole gale predicted, and like the QE2, this purpose-built ocean liner took the heavy seas of a Force 8 storm with ease. A cruise ship would have bounced over and slammed into the waves, and had to reduce speed.
Certain areas of the ship recall the grandeur of past Cunard greyhounds, especially the public room deck corridors, the elevator foyers, the aforementioned main restaurant and the lovely, formal Queen's Room.
Only an elegant London hotel could match the QM2's afternoon tea service; one must arrive early to secure a good table by the window. Tea is offered with white-glove service all the way, as sandwiches, pastries and scones are served course by course to the accompaniment of a string duo.
Not so sophisticated is the multiple-sectioned King's Court, i.e., sprawling buffet. It is all rather cheerless and utilitarian, though in the evening, the rooms are made more pleasant by table linens and softer lighting for their selection of reservations-only theme menus that I intend to sample.
The promenade deck, furnished with proper wooden deck chairs, is among the most spacious afloat, and the short bursts of sunshine drew scores of passengers out to circumnavigate it, with three loops adding up to 1.1 miles. The outdoor sports activities will have to await more southerly latitudes.
In the meantime, my initial reaction is that the Queen Mary 2 is indeed a worthy replacement for the venerable QE2 on the punishing North Atlantic route.
It's time for the planetarium show, and I hope I am not disappointed, as the ones I remember from my youth were among my happiest and most enchanting pastimes.