World's largest ocean liner gets her sea legs
A diary of the maiden trans-Atlantic voyage of the QM2 from Southampton to Fort Lauderdale
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 10:26 p.m.
MONDAY, JAN. 12:
Our bus pulls up to the ship terminal in Southampton, England, at 2:30 p.m. after a soggy drive from London. The bright red smokestack of the Queen Mary 2, the world's newest and largest ocean liner, stares down at us, roughly 23 stories high. Painted in the Cunard signature blue-black, the hull stretches nearly a quarter mile.
Our group includes my husband, my parents, brother, cousin and her husband and four couples who are among my parents' closest friends. My father, who loves ocean liners, has persuaded us to help him and my mother celebrate their 35th anniversary with this trip. (He timed his marriage proposal so their honeymoon would coincide with the last sailing of the Queen Elizabeth).
In the terminal, bellhops cheerily pipe, ``Welcome to the Queen Mary 2!'' We are photographed and issued ship identification cards and politely funneled through security, on to the gangway. The deep baritone of the ship's whistle blasts.
A white jacketed butler whisks us to our room, through the bustling red-carpeted grand lobby, past luxury shops and up the elevator.
For an hour my brother, my husband and I run like giddy children between Decks 9 and 10 comparing our rooms and waving to the tiny dots of spectators packed on viewing boats.
The cabin grades are differentiated by price, but more politely referred to by restaurant affiliation. My father has booked the least expensive cabins associated with the Queens Grill, the most exclusive, $14,999 a person, double occupancy. Rates for this voyage range from $2,869 to $37,499 a person, double.
Our room is, in my husband's term, ``plush.'' A wide entryway opens into a spacious room with two sets of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a private balcony. Even with a king bed, desk and sitting area that includes a sofa, chair and coffee table, there's plenty of room to walk.
Complete with Jacuzzi, the bathroom is easily double the size of our bathroom in New York. A walk-in closet and dressing area provide enough space for our clothes. The room is decorated in tones of tan and taupe and has a flat-panel TV screen through which we can order room service and movies and use other amenities, including e-mail.
The balcony is outfitted with two teak deck chairs and a matching table. I can hardly believe it when the doorbell rings and Nora, our steward, offers to help unpack.
After the safety drill, we stand atop the ship bundled in the chilly evening breeze, looking out over Southampton. Although we are meant to sail at 5:30, the smooth voice of the staff captain announces an hour's delay: baggage loading problems.
What else to do but turn Deck 13 into a cocktail party? The line at the open-air bar is long, so we gather the Champagne and glasses from our room. People mill about in hats and scarves toasting the smokestack.
An hour later the staff captain announces that all lines have been cast off. The horn blasts long and low. My father's eyes gleam as he looks up at the smoke from the stack. I squeeze his hand as a speaker bursts out ``Rule Britannia'' and fireworks erupt.
The dress for dinner is casual since most guests have not had time to organize their belongings. Joan, our waitress, is cheerful and businesslike.
My entree, pasta with prawns and scallops in a green curry sauce, is tasty but a bit gluey and probably too spicy for our first evening out; my stomach hasn't settled into its shipboard routine.
We're headed for rough weather, and the boat begins to roll and sway as we eat. I'm disappointed that there's no chocolate for dessert and settle for mango sorbet, far too healthy for our celebratory first night.
Later, my husband, my brother, my cousin's husband and I descend to Deck 2, at sea level, to test out a blackjack table in the casino and watch the waves. By the time we return to our cabin at 1:30 a.m. we can't walk a straight line. It's not the Champagne: we're sailing into a storm.
TUESDAY, JAN. 13:
Our first night aboard is virtually sleepless as the storm rages. A steel door clangs incessantly below our balcony. Most of our party remains in bed today as the wind howls and the boat groans and pitches.
Our off-the-menu request for chicken broth at lunch is denied; it is on tonight's dinner menu, but somehow can't be heated up early. The steward apologizes profusely and makes it available for lunch tomorrow, by which time we hope it won't be necessary. We settle for tuna club sandwiches.
Later, as my father, ever a Curious George, tries to go out on his balcony to observe an oncoming wave, the ceiling of my parents' cabin falls in because of a wind-tunnel effect. They spend the afternoon with us while the maintenance crew works on it. Amid more profuse apologies, the chief purser admits that the ship and its crew have not experienced such weather.
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 14:
Thankfully, the weather has improved as we steam along the coast of Portugal. We wake up late (9:30 a.m.) and I realize I have already missed morning yoga, introduction to bridge and the flower-arranging demonstration. I resolve to order a wake-up call and do better tomorrow.
At lunch, Joan dexterously squeezes wedges of lemon over tempura using a fork and a spoon one-handed, muttering, ``We were required to squeeze lemon over every piece of fish served on the Caronia.''
I make up for my earlier sloth by attending an afternoon lecture with my mother on the British playwrights Alan Ayckbourn and Alan Bennett.
We end the afternoon lying blissfully at the spa in a massage room with peppermint hair tonic rubbed into our scalps and warm towels around our feet.
At dinner Joan repeats the lemon trick over caviar, and Vasant, our other server, brings me extra spinach because he remembers I am partial to it. I'm beginning to like it on the QM2.
THURSDAY, JAN. 15:
The automated wake-up call rings at 7 a.m.
As I resolutely make my way to the gym, people bustle about on the promenade deck watching the ship enter the port of Funchal on Madeira, a small volcanic island about 500 miles southwest of Portugal. Still shrouded in darkness, the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains rise from Funchal's harbor.
A guide takes us up the winding, narrow streets to the Jardim Orquidea where a fifth-generation orchid cultivator gives us a tour of the family business. Higher up the hill we visit the Botanical Garden, a tribute to the lush and varied flora of the island, followed by a buffet lunch at Reid's Hotel, atop steep cliffs.
My brother and husband escape to sample local wine, and we women peruse woven baskets and lace napkins.
Back on board, my attempt to get a pedicure is thwarted by a burst hot water pipe on Deck 9 (also our cabin deck). The salon apologetically reschedules me for the same time tomorrow.
The sun sets as the whistle blows and we pull out of the harbor. Fishing and pleasure boats scurry alongside, honking and waving, racing to keep up with the ship.
After a dinner of duck and pinot noir (no spinach tonight; we have joined the younger crowd in the Princess Grill), my cousin and I catch the end of a juggling act in the Royal Court Theater. While it's not to my taste, the older British ladies in the audience chortle contentedly.
Walking back to my cabin I spot a large red bucket catching drops from the ceiling three doors down.
FRIDAY, JAN. 16:
This morning we motor into the port of Santa Cruz on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. At 8:25 a.m. a man calls to apologize that the breakfast we had ordered for 8 a.m. would not be delivered for another 30 minutes. Would we still like it?
Declining, we race to the Kings Court, the cafeteria-style buffet, and wolf down cereal and coffee before meeting our group.
Frustration dissipates as we arrive at our first stop: the Piramides de Guimar, similar to Maya and Egyptian pyramids. Our guide, Dominique, takes us literally above the clouds to the Parque Nacional del Teide, an otherworldly volcanic landscape, and a view of the snowtopped Pico del Teide, the highest peak on Spanish territory at 12,195 feet.
Back on the boat my luxurious pedicure, complete with hot water, is administered by Palma, an enthusiastic young Australian woman who, like many in the crew, has signed on to the QM2 for eight months.
SATURDAY, JAN. 17:
The people of Palma chant what I believe is ``Dio Mio'' as the QM2 pulls up alongside the pier.
We get set to head straight for the Kings Court when my husband asks if I've seen his watch. His wedding band was on it - he took them off before his weightlifting session at the gym last night.
When we have sufficiently torn apart the room, I page Nora, who calmly asks if we have checked all our pockets. Yes, four times at least. She reports the loss and schedules a meeting with the head security officer for this evening.
We head into town and spend an hour in the old part of the city, and return in time for a bridge tour guided by Jeremy, the boyish third officer who explains how he can maneuver the ship with one small joystick.
As darkness falls and fireworks light the sky, security officers arrive to search our room and ``interrogate our doorlock'' with a reader that can tell whose cards have been used to enter the room. The security officer emerges from our closet with the watch and ring; they were in my husband's pants pocket after all.
We apologize and thank the officers profusely. I get the feeling that they've been through this before.
SUNDAY, JAN. 18:
Today marks our first full day of four at sea for our ocean crossing. At the Kings Court for breakfast we get the best sense of the general population on board. Most are 60-plus; we 30-somethings are definitely in the minority.
At breakfast we are seated adjacent to a table of our relative contemporaries - two American men and a Swiss couple. They commiserate about the poor food in the Britannia (the largest restaurant, serving some 1,600 passengers), a complaint I have heard elsewhere on board.
MONDAY, JAN. 19:
My cousin and I walk briskly around the Promenade Deck in the bright sun. Quite a few fit people roughly double our age breeze past us.
In his noontime daily update Commodore Warwick assures us of good weather in the coming days and says the closest land is 17,000 feet below us on the ocean's floor. The afternoon begins on the top deck complete with ``virtual golf'' (standing in a mesh cage whacking golf balls at the wall).
TUESDAY, JAN. 20:
As far as the eye can see there is nothing but azure water, a perfect setting for a glorious day of nothing. I chuckle thinking back to the first days of the trip and my desire to attend every lecture and participate in every event.
The truth is that this is the best of it - cutting through two-mile-deep ocean where our closest neighbors are a school of flying fish. I spend most of today buried in a book. The hot sun shines on the port deck where rows of passengers laze in teak lounge chairs outfitted with handsome green cushions.
Because this boat is so large it has been easy for everyone to find a nook, and while I have been aware of the 2,000-plus other passengers, I have not felt constricted by them.
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 21:
On the top deck, four elderly British gentlemen engage in an intense table-tennis tournament while others challenge each other in paddle tennis and basketball.
My husband tests one of the plunge pools (none of the several pools on board is really big enough for lap swimming) and my cousin samples the Regatta Bar's pina colada. We eat lunch in the Kings Court, which feels like a food court in a mall, but it is the most efficient choice. Everyone's priority is soaking up sun.
SUNDAY, JAN. 25:
The last three days pass in similar fashion: hours on deck in the sun. On Friday evening, John Maxtone-Graham, the maritime historian, and Stephen Payne, chief architectural designer of the QM2, join the cocktail party we organize to thank my father for arranging the trip.
Because of a frustrating problem with the tender boats, we stay on board all day Saturday while in St. Thomas. We try the popular Todd English restaurant, where lunch is pleasant but ultimately unremarkable.
As we pack, we remark on how quickly the time has passed, how genuinely excited everyone was to be part of this historic voyage.
MONDAY, JAN. 26:
We arrive at dawn in Fort Lauderdale amid the buzz of helicopters and the spray of fireboats. A Navy ship, its crew in dress whites, accompanies us.
At breakfast we hug Joan goodbye. On deck, waiting to disembark, I wave my Union Jack and Cunard flag. We've royally enjoyed this great ship.
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