When the queens get to­gether, it’s party time

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - MAGGY OEHLBECK

LIKE shags on a rock, we were perched on Syd­ney Har­bour’s Fort Deni­son be­tween two gra­cious Cu­nard queens, one to star­board, one to port. It was the so-called royal ren­dezvous of Queen El­iz­a­beth 2 and Queen Vic­to­ria, date­line Fe­bru­ary 2008.

Af­ter 24 vis­its down un­der, the beloved QE2 was ex­it­ing the stage and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. To make sure, a fire­boat gave us a spray as we waved han­kies and mopped salty tears. There have been many such ren­dezvous since the orig­i­nal Queen Mary and Queen El­iz­a­beth, then World War II troop ships, passed each other at Syd­ney Heads on April 9, 1941. Be­tween them they car­ried 1.5 mil­lion sol­diers. Australia has since wel­comed a stately pro­ces­sion of queens dressed in Cu­nard’s dis­tinc­tive red-and-black livery, in­clud­ing flag­ship Queen Mary 2, launched in 2004.

My first voy­age on QM2 was a transat­lantic cross­ing from Southamp­ton to New York. Be­fore em­barka­tion, I was feted with af­ter­noon tea at Lon­don’s Ritz. For­ti­fied by cu­cum­ber sand­wiches and cham­pagne, I stood to leave and was nearly knocked over by a stat­uesque blonde and her male es­cort. Arm-in-arm, they had been con­spic­u­ously prom­e­nad­ing in the ho­tel lobby. Our paths would cross again.

We were wel­comed aboard QM2 by white-gloved bell­hops in their jaunty Cu­nard-red caps rem­i­nis­cent of QM2’s solo fun­nel. (The first Queen Mary and Queen El­iz­a­beth each had three fun­nels.) Out on the open sea, the swell in­creased and bar pa­tron­age dwin­dled. Who should I see de­scend­ing the stair­case in the Grand Lobby but the blonde from the Ritz. (It was whis­pered she had a du­plex suite to ac­com­mo­date all her frocks.)

Next morn­ing there were even big­ger seas. On my bal­cony I spied a stowaway, a shore bird shel­ter­ing against a bulk­head. Would he eat crumbs from the break­fast ta­ble? There were not many tak­ers in the Bri­tan­nia dining room that morn­ing and all ex­its to decks were roped off.

Mak­ing his rounds, the cap­tain apol­o­gised for the big seas. “But it’s the At­lantic … this is why I came,” a French pas­sen­ger shrugged. On the wing of the nav­i­ga­tion bridge, the cap­tain showed me a re­in­forced glass panel in the floor with views the length of the ship and into the ocean. Yes, big seas in­deed.

I set out on QM2’s Mar­itime Quest, a her­itage trail trac­ing 175 years of Cu­nard his­tory in pic­tures and anec­dotes spread across sev­eral decks. It is an en­ter­tain­ing gallery of celebri­ties, dukes and dogs (the Wind­sors brought theirs), along with fash­ion ad­vice. In the 20s, Vogue com­mented: “It sim­ply isn’t con­sid­ered smart to ap­pear too op­u­lent.”

Come hell or high wa­ter, the so­cial whirl aboard my cruise had to con­tinue. There were balls to pre­pare for, act­ing classes con­ducted by grad­u­ates of Bri­tain’s Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art to at­tend, spa in­dul­gences to be savoured, pre­sen­ta­tions in the only plan­e­tar­ium at sea and af­ter­noon tea with all the trim­mings in the Queens Room.

Only hours out of New York, we gath­ered pre-dawn on deck for that first glimpse of the Statue of Lib­erty and the lights of Man­hat­tan. It was bit­terly cold and still dark. As we docked, a stat­uesque fig­ure in a full-length fur coat with up­turned col­lar swept past, nearly knock­ing me off my feet. Gone was the blonde wig and makeup. I did a dou­ble-take. He winked con­spir­a­to­ri­ally and melted into the dis­em­bark­ing throng.

I have sailed on QM2 four times, and vis­ited Queen Vic­to­ria and Queen El­iz­a­beth in port. I have loved them all, in­clud­ing a cer­tain queen from the Ritz.

A royal ren­dezvous in Syd­ney Har­bour of QM2 and Queen Vic­to­ria takes place on March 12. More: cu­nard­line.com.au.

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