Life Is Like A Ship, Part Two

“When does this place get to England?”
-Bea Lillie aboard the Queen Mary

Bea Lillie
Bea Lillie

So now it’s time to chat about our crossing on QM2.

As I mentioned in my last post, when you make a crossing, you’re part of an oceanic community that’ll be in the same boat for a week. What kind of a crossing do you want to have? Do you want to be the life of the party and close all the bars and dance until dawn? Do you “vant to be alone” and hide out in your cabin for the entire voyage? Or are you like AAC CPA and me and split the difference?

On our voyage, the ship was “fully committed”, meaning that there were about 2,600 passengers on board. That’s a lot of people, but the ship never really felt crowded. Yes, it’s true that attempting your morning run on the Promenade Deck could be challenging with all those classic teak deckchairs and all the strolling around you but, other than that, we felt that we had the run of the ship.

So, what was a typical day at sea like? We’d usually wake around 8, and make ourselves presentable for breakfast. Our version of “presentable”: During the day just about anything goes. Having said that, we felt that we wanted to look good, so certain sartorial choices were not an option: t-shirts, short shorts, flip-flops – no, no, no. We took along a fetching selection of slacks (gabardine or khaki), button down and polo shirts, cute sweaters and boat shoes. In other words, we wouldn’t be unwelcome anywhere on the ship (or in the Hamptons of a summer weekend).

Our Maitre d’Hotel, Osman, was at the podium at the entrance to Queens Grill every time we arrived (did he sleep there, too?) to escort us to our window table. From there our wait staff attended to our every whim. It could be challenging, because the first thing to appear every day was the pastry tray and we were trying so hard to be good (but not TOO good). Then came the coffee and the juice and the smoothies and whatever else we fancied for breakfast.

While at breakfast, we’d review the Daily Programme and decide what we might like to do. Take a look:

QM Daily Programme
Vintage Daily Programme – April 16, 2004

For instance, there were several lecturers on board and our favorite, Brian Hawley, was quite wonderful. His area of expertise is the grand old ocean liners, and he gave several totally absorbing lectures on the great ships from the turn of the century up through the first Queen Mary. This series of lectures was his first for Cunard, but you never would have known – he was a real pro.

Brian also has a fascinating website – Luxury Liner Row – which is loaded with ocean liner memorabilia and, should you be a collector, there are items that will delight you. For instance, how about an Acquitania bud vase? Or an Il de France brochure? If you want to go all out, how about a life jacket from the famed ocean liner Normandie? It’s all there and more. If you do pay a visit, be sure to check out the Online Museum. Visiting Luxury Liner Row was like going on an archeological dig and making all kinds of exciting discoveries. Here’s his website:

Luxury Liner Row

Other than Brian’s lectures, there were all kinds of activities for body and mind. The gym, located forward on deck 7, is one of the best at sea. Great collection of weights and machines. Likewise, the spa was quite luxe.

How about some shuffleboard? Or table tennis? You want to work your mind? There were several sessions of Team Trivia every day. Also duplicate bridge games every afternoon. And there is that library with over 8,000 volumes. All competitive activities gave passengers the opportunity to accrue “stamps” (remember green stamps??) which could be traded at the end of the voyage for prizes. We’re not talking about free cruises or anything like that, but I got myself a Cunard key chain and pen. Woo-hoo.

Oh, have I mentioned Illuminations, QM2’s on-board Planetarium? Crazy, huh? Lectures and movies are also presented here.

Illuminations – QM2’s Planetarium at Sea

By noon or thereabouts, it’s time for lunch. You have your choice of either your dedicated restaurant or, if you prefer, you can go to the Kings Court for a casual meal, served buffet style. In fact, there are those passengers who prefer to take all of their meals in this venue, as it’s the most casual meal service on the ship.

We spent our afternoons walking on deck, spending time in the library or, in my case, playing duplicate bridge for a couple of hours. Then, at 3:30, it’s time for afternoon tea, which is a long-held tradition and properly observed: first you get your tea and sandwiches, followed by scones with jam and clotted cream, followed by assorted pastries.

TRAVEL TIP: Be sure to pack plenty of elasticized pants on these voyages. You’ll thank me.

QM2 - Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea, QM2 Style

After all that eating and exercise (physical and otherwise), we liked to head back to the cabin for a little nap. It’s one of the great things to do on a ship, letting the gentle motion of the ship lull you to sleep.

Then it’s time to prepare for your evening’s activities. On the 7-day crossing, there will be 3 formal nights. Before dinner, you may want to drop by one of the many watering holes located all over the ship: the Commodore Club located at the very front of the ship on deck 9, the Chart Room or the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, amongst other drinking establishments. While your libations are not included in your fare, the prices for cocktails are reasonable, especially compared to what you’d pay in New York for a proper Negroni.

QM2 Commodore Club
Commodore Club

QM2 Chart Room
Chart Room

QM2 Veuve Cliquot Bar
Veuve Cliquot Champagne Bar

Our dinners in Queens Grill were delicious, well-prepared and served. Osman always dropped by to see if we wanted anything special that may not have appeared on the menu. That’s when the fun began. He’d make suggestions and, mostly, we’d just let him run with it. We were never disappointed.

As a possible dining alternative, I’d like to share with you one of our favorite places to eat on the ship: Todd English, which is the specialty restaurant on board. Intimate and with its own chef, menu and wine list, it’s a delightful way to spend an evening. There is a modest surcharge of $30 per person to eat there but, believe me, it’s more than worth it. We dined there twice during our voyage and had a superb meal each time. It’s also open for lunch and for $12, you can have a delicious panini.

QM2 - Todd English
Todd English

Let me share with you perhaps the most special dining experience we had during the voyage. If it hadn’t been for our sommelier, we never would have known about it. For one evening on each crossing, the ship’s Executive chef, Klaus Kremer, collaborates with Chief Sommelier, John Baskar, to create the “Chef’s Table”, a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings. This feast is available to only 12 guests, keeping it exquisitely intimate. Best of all, the venue is the Chef’s Galley on Deck 7 which has a private kitchen where Klaus prepares the meal in front of us. Before each course, John explains each wine we’re about to drink and why he chose it to serve with each course.

QM2 - Chef's Galley
The Chef’s Galley set up for us.

QM2 - Chef Klaus AAC
AAC CPA and Chef before dinner

QM2 - Wine Pairings
Our wines waiting to be served

Lasting about 4 hours, we ate and drank ourselves into oblivion. And then waddled back to our cabin.

All good things much come to an end and, soon enough, it was time to pack up and get out! QM2’s arrival into New York must be strictly coordinated with the tides. Because the ship is so tall, the Captain has to make sure that it can pass under the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. Would you believe me if I told you that there are times when there are less than 10 feet between the top of the ship and the bottom of the bridge. I kid you not.

The only downside is that the ship was scheduled to be at the bridge at 4:45 AM. Having done it before, we had NO INTENTION WHATSOEVER of getting up that early to see it but, well, you know. We just woke up and there we were. Although it was very cool outside, there happened to be a full moon and it was totally worth being awake to see it and the bridge from our balcony.

QM2 - Verrazamp
Just after passing under the bridge

QM2 - Downtown Manhattan
Pre-Dawn Downtown Manhattan

QM2 - Sunrise Over Manhattan
Sunrise Over Manhattan

At this point, there was nothing left to do but get dressed, go down for a final breakfast, take a last stroll around the Promenade Deck and disembark.

QM2 - AAC Gets Off
AAC CPA gets ready to disembark

One of the great benefits for us New Yorkers is that QM2 docks in Red Hook, which is just over the Brooklyn Bridge. We were off the ship at about 8:15 AM, picked up our luggage, went through customs, hopped into a cab, and were back in our apartment within an hour. Not a bad way to end our trip.

Conclusion: This post is much longer than I had intended, but I wanted to share with you the many flavors of the experience. For anyone who has the romantic notion about getting onto a ship and sailing across the ocean (and who doesn’t?), booking passage on QM2 is the quintessential experience. It’s a true ocean liner, has 175 years of Cunard tradition behind it, and sails into the future assured of its place in history.

I encourage you to try it at least once.

Life Is Like A Ship, Part One

Well, now that we’re back on terra firma (with NORMAL internet service), it’s time to tell you about our crossing on Queen Mary 2. Before I get into all that, I want to tell you about the ship we called “home” for a week.

There she is!

At the time of QM2’s maiden voyage in January, 2004, she was the largest ship in the world: built at Chantiers de L’Antique in France, she is 1,132 feet in length (the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet high; the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet high), gross tonnage is 150,000, cruising speed is 28.5 knots, the ship has 17 decks (rising to a height of 200 feet above the waterline), passenger capacity is 2,260 and there are 1,253 officers and crew (including, as we learned from executive chef, Klaus Kremer, 150 chefs in the many galleys aboard – more about that later). In a word, QM2 is BIG!

(Sad to note that, within two years of QM2’s launch, Liberty of the Seas became – at that time – the world’s largest ship. Currently, the largest ocean vessel is Allure of the Seas, weighing in at 225,282 gross tonnage and over 6,200 passengers. That’s one big ship.)

Queen Mary 2 is also – although neither Cunard nor any of the ship’s crew will say it – a class ship. What does that mean, exactly? Well, if you think about flying on an airplane (ugh!!!), you have your first class, your business class, and your coach class. When you travel on QM2, it is the cabin in which you sail that determines your “class”. 

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about this so-called class structure. What it really means is that the cabin in which you sail determines the restaurant in which you take your meals. Every passenger has access to almost every other part of the ship, except as noted below.

The “first class” option is the Queens Grill cabins. These cabins, all with private balcony, range from the standard 506 sf option to the fabulous Grand Duplexes that are 2,249 sf. All of these cabins include butler service and other lovely amenities. All Queens Grill passengers (about 200 in all) dine in – where else? – the Queens Grill, located on deck 7, starboard aft. You are given a designated table which is yours’ for the entire voyage. For dinner, there is no early or late seating – you show up when you like – typically 6:30 – 9:00 PM. The menu here is the most luxe on the ship and it’s here that the caviar flows, if caviar is your thing (it’s definitely NOT AAC CPA’s thing). You also have the same service staff and they are VERY accommodating. The Senior Maitre d’Hotel, Osman, actually remembered us from our last voyage, and made sure that we had a swell time. Which we did.

Queens Grill Cabin

One of the Grand Duplexes

Queens Grill
Queens Grill

The other Queens Grill perks are access to the Queens Grill Lounge, which is located directly across from the Queens Grill, and is the perfect venue for an intimate cocktail or afternoon tea (which is so much better than fighting over tea sandwiches and scones in the Queens Room down on deck 3). Also, and this you have to find for yourself because no one talks about it and it’s not on the deck plan, you have access to the Queens Grill Terrace, located aft on Deck 11. It’s a place to take some sun, read a book, or use the hot tub. It’s generally quiet and a lovely place to relax.

Queens Grill Lounge

One last perk, which can be of great help, is the Concierge Lounge located midship on deck 9. It’s there that you can get assistance with on-board reservations, tour details, travel arrangements, etc. They also have snacks all day long, should you feel peckish between meals.

The “business class” option is the Princess Grill cabins. These cabins, also with private balcony, are about 381 sf. Princess Grill passengers (also about 200) eat in the Princess Grill, located just across from Queens Grill on the port side. As with Queens Grill, you are assigned your own table, which is yours’ for the evening. The Princess Grill menu is also quite good, but not as yummy or extensive as the one in Queens Grill. Princess Grill passengers also have access to the Queens Grill Lounge, Terrace and the Concierge Lounge.

Princess Grill Cabin
Princess Grill Cabin

Princess Grill
Princess Grill

Both Queens Grill and Princess Grill passengers have early embarkation and early disembarkation, which can be a great benefit, as you’ll see in my next post.

Almost all other passengers dine in the Britannia Restaurant, perhaps the most dramatic location on the ship: a grand two-story dining venue. Here, you are assigned either an early or late seating, each of which serves up to 1,100 passengers at a time. Let’s say that, while you’ll eat well in Britannia, your dining experience will be decidedly different than in the Queens or Princess Grills. Britannia cabins are typically between 248 sf for a cabin with balcony to an inside cabin, which measures about 159 sf (which is about smaller than the closet space in the Grand Duplex). 

Britannia Restaurant

Britannia Cabin
Britannia Cabin

There is one other option – the “premium economy” option, if you will – and that is Britannia Club, which is essentially a 248 sf cabin, but you get a specially designated section of the Britannia Restaurant.

So, as with any real estate, for some people it’s location, location, location! For most, it’s about making the voyage, and these are the passengers who will say: “Why should I care where my cabin is? I’m not going to spend any time there.” And there are others who will say: “I love hanging out in my digs and the bigger and more luxe, the better. Bring it ON!” As with many things, there are no wrong answers. Whatever floats your boat, right?

So how do you feel about it?

The larger point that I want to make – and I am passionate about it – is that, when you make a crossing, you’re part of a maritime community. New friendships will be forged, unique experiences will be shared and wonderful memories will be made. As I’ve said before, I think it’s the best way to travel. It doesn’t matter in which cabin you sleep or restaurant you eat, you’re going to have an experience you will never forget.

Now that you have the lay of the land, as it were, we haven’t even discussed how you might spends your days (and nights) while aboard QM2. AAC CPA and I always try to encourage friends to join us one of our many crossings, and the response is somewhere between total boredom and abject terror. “What would I DO stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean for a week or more?” they shriek. 

Well, the simple answer is this: you have options. You might choose, for instance, to go into the ship’s library (which has over 8,000 volumes – yes, I said that) and just take out a few books, sit on your balcony or in some cozy nook and read a book a day, take an afternoon nap, a brisk walk around the promenade deck and eat yourself into oblivion. Or, you might take advantage of the myriad activities that are occurring around you all day long: lectures, performances, computer workshops, games, daily duplicate bridge (YAY!), competitions, luxurious spa treatments, gym workouts, movies, barhopping (there are many bars on board). It’s all there for you to enjoy – or not.

And, in my next post, I’ll tell you all about our week on board the glorious QM2.

To be continued……..

The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea

Good evening and greetings from somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic. How is everyone today?

I have to begin by mentioning that the internet service on the QM2 is not good, and that’s being very charitable. So it may happen that you won’t be hearing from me too much during our crossing – I guess you could all use a break from my meanderings, right?

We’ve now been on the ship for a little over 36 hours and, so far, we’re having a very pleasant time. All of the crew we’ve met – our butler, the staff in the Queen’s Grill (Osman the maître ‘d and the team that serves us), and others are very friendly and professional and seem to want one thing only: for us to have a good time. And that’s how it should be!

There must be something about sailing across the Atlantic on an ocean liner (more about that in a bit) that agrees with me: last night I slept for 8 hours (unaided, if you receive my meaning). In my case, that’s basically miraculous. Since we set our clocks back last night, we had the benefit of an extra hour of sleep or play, and I put mine to good use. I was up bright and early and off for a lovely run. I had hoped to run around the promenade deck, but it was too wet and windy for that, so I made my way to the gym that, by the way, is amongst the best we’ve seen at sea. And at 7:30 this morning, it was PACKED! I guess we all have to burn off the calories that we’re consuming.

So, remember a few posts ago where I harangued all of you about the difference between a cruise and a crossing? I wanted to expand on that thought today so we all know what we’re talking about (especially me). I’ve heard people – you know who you are – refer to ships as boats (boats are small, ships are not), and talk about cruises that are not really cruises. And what is this thing called an ocean liner? Is that a ship, too, and what’s the difference?

Note: If you could care less about this minutia, please skip ahead – I’ve got a couple of cute pictures of our cabin and a shot of the ocean below. Don’t worry – I won’t be disappointed.

Here’s the deal: a cruise ship’s itinerary is almost exclusively port-intensive. You sail to the Caribbean or the Mediterranean or the Greek Islands or the fjords and every day or so, you’re docking in some exotic place, getting off the ship and seeing the sights and going shopping. Or, if you’re like AAC CPA and me, you find the good Margarita place and watch the people go by, most of who are passengers from the ship you just left. Note that these itineraries are sailing in bodies of water that are not particularly challenging to the vessel. There will be wear and tear, but that comes with years of sailing.

An ocean liner, on the other hand, is made of sterner stuff. Its role in life is to cross the ocean (no ports – just go from point A to point B), turn around and return. And then repeat.

In Philip Dawson’s excellent book entitled Queen Mary 2, he differentiates the difference in design between a cruise ship and a “true ocean liner”:

“ Essentially the liner would need to have a relatively deep draft and refined hull form for good stability and seakeeping during sustained high-speed sailing in deep waters. The liner would need the power to cover longer sea passages at higher speeds than normally needed for cruise service, reserve power to make up for lost headway due to fog, gales and heavy seas and the structural stamina to withstand North Atlantic sailing conditions as comfortably as possible.”

This is to say that you never know what the North Atlantic is going to do to you when you’re sailing across it and you need a vessel that can withstand the worst weather imaginable.

Remember when QM2 made its inaugural crossing from Southampton to New York back in April 2004? The ship was in service for just 3 months at the time and we were scheduled to sail on the 3rd crossing, about 2 weeks later, and were very curious to know how the 1st crossing had gone. So, it was with some surprise (and not a little bit of fear) when a friend of ours’ told us that Cindy Adams, syndicated columnist for the NY Post, was aboard, and posted her column from the ship reporting that she and many other passengers were extremely unhappy. Apparently, over the 6 days of the crossing, the ship went through 2 major storms with waves crashing 60-70 feet up the side of the ship. Ever heard that phrase: “Batten up the hatches”? I think there was a lot of battening on that voyage.

In spite of the bad seas, the ship arrived on schedule in New York and the passengers had an exciting adventure to share.

Just two weeks later, we were on the same vessel, making the same voyage. Would you believe me if I told you that the ocean was so smooth the entire time, you wouldn’t know you were on a ship unless you looked out to see the ocean all around you?

As I said above, you never know what’s going to happen – and that’s part of the excitement of traveling by ship across the ocean.

01 - 1st day at sea
1st day at sea – nice, huh?

02 - Cabin 1
Our cabin

03 - Cabin 2
And another view of our cabin.

PS. Oh yeah, and we won $100 at the blackjack table tonight – WOO-HOO!!

Embarkation Day

So, greetings from Deck 9 aft on Queen Mary 2. It’s now about 11:30 PM and we’re out on the open seas. There’s nothing like a crossing to get the pulse racing. Think about it. For the next week, there’s nothing around or near us but the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s kind of thrilling, in a way. For those of you whose ancestors may have come to America from Europe in “the old days”, they most likely sailed on a ship to get to the new country. Perhaps not like we’re doing this week, but you get the idea.

Backing up, we were picked up at the hotel this morning at 10:30. Our driver, Pan, took great care of us and delivered us to the ship just before 1:00 PM. We were whisked through check-in and on board within 15 minutes. Surprisingly, our luggage made it to the cabin before we did.

Here’s AAC CPA just getting on board:

06 - Boarding QM2
AAC CPA Deck 3 – Boarding

We got settled in, met our butler, Michael, and headed up to Queen’s Grill to check our table and have a bite of lunch. So far, so good.

12 - Queens Grill
Queens Grill on Queen Mary 2

Then we took a walk around the ship to reacquaint ourselves with the layout. After many years of sailing on Crystal, this ship is very different and much bigger.

01 - Veuve Cliqout
Veuve Cliquot Bar – One of many watering holes

AAC CPA on board posing with an extra set of propellers

03 - Vogue
AAC CPA vogueing out on deck – Thanks, Nick, for the caption

By 4:30 it was time for the life boat drill – mandated by law and kind of like the safety announcement you hear whenever you fly. Nobody really pays attention but you have to know how to get into your life jacket and where to go in case of emergency. So there it is.

08 - Life Boat Muster
The obligatory life jacket photo

Then back to the cabin to get ready to sail away. There was some kind of “party” on 8 deck aft with champagne, which was not free. As it turned out, we received a bottle of the bubbly in our cabin and decided to have our own party on our balcony. We put a little Ella on the boom box thing, popped the cork, and watched our departure from Southampton. Perfect.

09 - Bon Voyage
Hail and Farewell (with champagne)

Then it was time to get ready for dinner. Tonight is “informal” meaning jackets with or without ties. We decided to go for it.

But first: a pre-dinner cocktail at the Queen’s Grill Lounge. Guess what we had?

10 - Negroni
First Negroni of the Voyage

Then over to Queen’s Grill for our first dinner. We have a lovely window table for two, in the front of the Grill. (Thanks, Osman.) We have a team of 3 waiters and a sommelier to spoil us. We like it. Tonight, it’s Dover Sole, which just might have been caught in Dover today – it’s that fresh. And a lovely Chassagne-Montrachet to accompany our meal.

Then a brisk stroll around deck 7 – the promenade deck. It’s just a bit brisk this evening. Hope we packed the right wardrobe. We’ll see.

The ship is very quiet tonight. It’s as if everyone disappeared into their cabins after a long day making their way aboard. Tomorrow we’ll see who’s here and what everyone is up to – this will be our community and neighborhood for the next week. And it’s up to us to make an adventure out of it.

Stay tuned.

PS. We turn the clocks back tonight, so everyone gets an extra hour of sleep – or an extra hour to play.