Queen Mary 2: The Ocean Liner Experience

Today cruise ships are mostly a vacation option, but there was a time when passenger vessels were lifelines.

In less than 40 years, society has nearly forgotten that ships were our only means of trans-oceanic travel for 99.99% of our time on earth; anyone contemplating such a voyage today automatically thinks about air travel first.

Cunard ocean liners played a leading role in the migration of humanity from Europe to North America, and today, the company continues to offer the ocean liner experience to people who appreciate its significance. Cunard's flagship is Queen Mary 2, the largest ocean liner ever built.

We just sailed transatlantic on Queen Mary 2, and we were delighted to find that the spirit of the golden age of ocean liners is still alive and well.

Cunard's Place in History One of the oldest passenger ship companies, the line is as British as afternoon tea. According to popular lore, in 1930 the fleet commodore asked King George V if he had any objections to Cunard naming its newest liner after "the greatest queen who ever lived." The commodore was referring to Queen Victoria, who had passed away.

The king allegedly replied that his current wife, the very much alive Queen Mary, would be delighted to have a ship named after her. While Cunard claims this story is not true, Her Majesty Queen Mary presided over the 1934 christening ceremony of her namesake vessel, uttering the only 28 words she ever spoke in public.

The year before, the British government had forced a merger between Cunard Line and White Star Line, which had built Titanic. Aside from the one "mishap" with Titanic, in its day White Star Line was the pinnacle of good taste and fine service, as accurately portrayed in the James Cameron namesake movie. Cunard still proudly boasts of "White Star Service" as its trademark of excellence.

During the early 1900s, Cunard played a huge role in bringing immigrants to the U.S. Many people can trace their American roots to a Cunard liner. During both world wars (and the Falklands War), Cunard liners were converted into troop carriers, and it is said that without Cunard the war would have lasted a year longer.

By the 1950s, Cunard's two sister ships -- the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth -- dominated transatlantic travel, and continued to do so until 1969, when the airlines began to steal passengers away from the liners. Both ships (88,000 tons each) were sold and replaced by a single new liner in 1969 -- the smaller (68,000 tons) Queen Elizabeth 2. For decades, it appeared QE2 might be the last ship to carry on the ocean liner tradition. Every ship that had been built as a true ocean liner was aging rapidly.

But when Carnival Corporation took over Cunard Line in 1998, it stunned the cruise industry by announcing (in 2002) that Cunard would build Queen Mary 2, the largest passenger vessel in the world at the time -- and that it would be an ocean liner, specializing in transatlantic crossings.

The launch of Queen Mary 2 in 2004 extended the effective life of ocean liners -- possibly forever. In the process, Cunard created a new generation of liner enthusiasts who find the tradition and decorum attractive enough to keep it alive - reveling in the finery of the liners' golden age.

Queen Mary 2 is fully imbued with Cunard tradition and "White Star Service." Passengers will feel almost as much a part of the Cunard legacy as those who were making life-transforming moves on the original Queen Mary 50 years ago.

Ocean Liner What are the differences between an ocean liner and a cruise ship? Ocean liners were built for speed and stability, since their main purpose was to cross the Atlantic. In the days before air travel, the goal was to accomplish that task in as little time as possible. The fastest ships ever built, like the SS United States, are no longer in service, but they attained speeds up to 40 knots with streamlined hulls and extremely powerful engines.

Queen Mary 2 has a true liner's design in her hull structure, so she cuts through the North Atlantic swells with speed and stability. Her engines are powerful enough to attain speeds of 30 knots, about 30 percent faster than the average cruise ship.

Onboard Queen Mary 2 We boarded the ship in Southampton, the main port for the U.K., about 100 miles south of London, on a chilly mid-May afternoon. Although Queen Mary 2 is 148,000 tons, rivaling the largest cruise ship in the world, she has the classic lines of an early 20th century liner, and hence her immensity did not impress me as much as I expected. She fools the eye into thinking she is smaller than she truly is, which is also true on the inside.

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Entering Southampton Harbor   Queen Mary Docked

This does not mean she is a disappointment. Unlike the leviathan Royal Caribbean ships of similar girth, Queen Mary 2 uses her size to scale up a classic design. She does not have 20 decks to add more and more rooms along labyrinthine hallways. She has 14 decks of generously allocated openness -- wider hallways, taller ceilings and some of the nicest staterooms I have seen on a modern passenger vessel.

The public rooms are grand in scale -- so big they almost make the ship seem empty, until the people come out and bring her to life, which they did every waking hour of our six-night oceanic journey. Like all Cunard liners, she is a class act, not given over to steel and glass modernism, but rather displaying a British Colonial look with grand maple wall panels and three-dimensional murals on copper and bronze.

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Queens Room - for tea and night dancing   Beautiful Lalique Vases throughout   Bronze and copper 3-d sculpture
beautiful chandeliers in Queens Room at night   magnificent hallway with murals   mural of NY City inside Britannia

Everything fits her scale; this is not an ornate interior décor. The hallways are long and wide, and the restaurant tables are widely spaced. The staterooms have sofas, king-size beds and balconies deep enough for two reclining lounge chairs. Our suite (P1) had a sofa, chairs, bar area, bathroom with tub, a king-size bed and a walk-in closet. The amount of storage space is astonishing, far more than we needed.

Onboard Enrichment Options I have been on two previous transatlantic voyages, but this was my first on a purpose-built ship for such itineraries. I expected to be bored by the third day, but I was wrong. It was over far too soon, and I wished for more days to do all the things I couldn't fit in.

The onboard enrichment program (schedule of activities) was far more entertaining and enlightening than I expected, and although I am sure they occurred, I was not aware of a single bingo game or art auction during the entire voyage. I was too busy going to the Planetarium, which featured a different show each day of the cruise (except the last, when they reprise the four previous shows); attending lectures on ship lore, New York City architecture or science-related topics from spelunking to entomology; or attending computer classes. The things we didn't have time to do were a common topic of conversation at dinner every night.

RADA: The offerings I missed included intensive acting workshops by RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. This London-based drama school is generally regarded as one of the best in the world, counting Peter O'Toole, Diana Rigg and Judi Dench among its graduates. Individual instructors lead groups of a dozen passengers through technique, scripts in hand. These workshops were held once per day.

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RADA day training - drama classes   RADA Poster   dramatic license

The Planetarium: This is sort of a miniature IMAX Theater experience. The showroom is called Illuminations, but it becomes the planetarium when specially filmed shows are shown on a unique dome-shaped screen that descends from the ceiling. The seats recline, and six coordinated projectors fill the screen with visuals of outer space. The films are about half an hour long and are narrated by Robert Redford. The topics include "Cosmic Collisions" and "Searching for Extraterrestrial Life." A different film is shown each afternoon, four times, tickets required. On the fifth day, each film is reprised once.

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Liner historian Ted Scull   schedule of Illuminations events   one of several planetarium projectors

Lecture Series: In the mornings, the Planetarium theater, actually named Illuminations, is the site for lectures. Our cruise had three experts: an ocean liner historian (Ted Scull, who has contributed many articles to CruiseMates), an art restoration expert who spoke on the Statue of Liberty, and a scientist who has a regular series on the Discovery Channel.

During late afternoons and nighttime, Illuminations becomes a movie theater.

Computer Center: Queen Mary 2 has an abundance of computers. There were four fully wired classrooms where instructors offer classes on digital photography, how to use Vista, Word or Excel. One room has several computers containing self-guided classes on several topics, and each of these computers had Internet access.

A nice thing about this computer center was its self-service coffee, tea and cold-drink station, all free of charge. There is wireless access here and in several rooms around the ship, but unfortunately not in the staterooms. If you bring a laptop, you will have to look hard for American wall sockets; it would be wise to bring an English (not European) adaptor.

Library and Bookstore: I hate to admit I didn't even have time for this 8,000-volume library. It is isolated on Deck 8 forward, great for sunny views over the bow, but not close to any other public areas. There is also a bookstore, where they download complete copies of the New York Times and London Times every day for onsite reading.

Library   Daily Newspaper Reading Room

Royal Court Theater: Every afternoon the main show lounge, Royal Court Theater, was the site of classical concerts and other mid-day diversions. One day featured a pianist, another day the cruise staff performed a screwball comedy sketch. Of course, the showroom had entertainment each night -- two of them production shows by the onboard ensemble.

Royal Court Theater   crystaline sculpture inside Royal Court Theater
royal court theater

Arts, Crafts and Games: Each day featured painting classes, card games and lectures on jewelry and health topics. The art restoration expert gave daily talks as well.

Dance Classes: The onboard dance instructors, Dmytro and Tetiana, gave daily instruction in waltz and other ballroom techniques.

Canyon Ranch Spa: Queen Mary 2 is the only ship to feature the Canyon Ranch Spa of Tucson, AZ. The spa is beautiful in décor, featuring a lovely sitting room with a waterfall. Packages are available for the steam rooms, wet and dry saunas and aromatherapy showers, by the day or voyage. The fitness center has Pilates, yoga and other classes.

Daily Trivia: Passengers on our cruise were 75 percent Brits going to visit New York. Many of them could be found in the traditional British pub, the Golden Lion Pub, as early as 10 a.m., having their first pint and cigarette of the day. Ray, the cruise director, would be leading them in pop music trivia or other games. Karaoke was another onboard favorite activity. There were several team games daily such as "quizzical corner" and "Pub-team Trivia."

10 a.m. in the Pub, the Brits are already warmed up   Cruise Director Ray leads trivia

Bingo and Art Auctions: As I said, I know they occurred but I never saw them. The 6,000 square foot Empire Casino offered several slots and gaming tables, but it was surprisingly empty for most of the cruise. My guess is that either the odds are not so great, or that the British don't have the gambling bug.

Ship Tours: This is one ship that still offers bridge tours, galley tours and tours of the ship. There is a "Cunardia Museum" onboard where passengers can take a self-guided tour through the history of the company (started in 1840) with a pre-recorded program on a headset.

Galley Tour   Ben Lyons Give Virtual Bridge Tour   On the Bridge - Officers and Spotters

The activities listed above are just the daytime activities. There were also afternoon movies, a string quartet in the Queen's Room, an elaborate tea precisely at 3:00 p.m. daily, sports events like simulated golf and table tennis -- and don't forget lunch. As you can see, this is a very active ship. You actually feel guilty just sitting in your room.

For Queen Mary 2 after Dark, go to Part 2 of this article.

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