When the queens get together, it’s party time
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.