Times two at sea
Making waves with Mum on the revamped QM2
Mohammed the Uber driver is gazing at the vast white hulk in front of us, mouth agape, when he says, “You know, whenever I see these big ships I always think of the Titanic.” I ask him if he knows what happened to the Titanic. “Yes! But I don’t mean that!” he says, mortified. “Inshallah, you will have a very safe journey.”
My 80-year-old mother loves a stormy sea but I also hope, for her sake and those of the other 3942 passengers and crew on board, that Queen Mary 2 sails from Melbourne to Sydney without incident. The liner is midway through her world cruise — 80 ports, 42 countries, 118 nights, about a fifth of those spent in Australian waters — and Mum and I are embarking on a three-night taster of the all-new QM2.
She (the ship, not Mum) looks suitably grand and gorgeous after a £90 million ($146 million) overhaul last year. Besides 4000 new artworks and 6500 new pieces of furniture, the remodelled 17-deck ship has three new restaurants, 45 new cabins (including 15 for singles), additional shops — Michael Kors, Barbour, Mont Blanc — and 12 new kennels for the world’s most pampered pooches afloat.
The last time Mum was aboard a large passenger ship was in 1956 when, aged 19, she and her best friend Jeanette turned their backs on the Melbourne Olympics and set sail for Tilbury, England, aboard SS Orion. She says all she can remember of the voyage is that her cabin had two bunks on one side and a bed on the other, but no window or even a porthole. She also recalls cruising the Straits of Gibraltar during “the most incredible storm”. She was the only person on deck. “There were waves crashing over the decks and it was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” she says, smiling at the memory.
I imagine she is disappointed we encounter no fierce tropical lows enroute to Port Jackson. The seas are gentle and skies blue as we sail scenically past Wilsons Promontory on our first full day at sea; the only turbulence in the water next day occurs as we cruise by Ben Boyd National Park in southern NSW and dozens of dolphins arc out of the Pacific. There is little else to see enroute so days mostly unfold in a staid routine of eating, the occasional organised activity and constant discovering of all that’s aboard.
When first launched in 2004, QM2 was the largest passenger ship ever built, and packed with superlatives. Most still apply. The most extensive library at sea (more than 8000 volumes); the biggest dance floor; the only liner making regular transatlantic crossings; the only planetarium afloat and the only ocean-going kennels (which house cats and ferrets as well as dogs).
While no longer the largest cruise ship, the QM2 remains massive but is so cleverly designed that, beyond the main Kings Court eating hall and packed tea dances in the Queens Room, it rarely feels overcrowded. This is also partly due to Cunard’s cunning strategy of scheduling almost 100 daily activities to spread passengers across all decks and keep them occupied. Days begin with stretching and yoga classes on the Queens Room dance floor and then segue into Christian Fellowship gatherings, craft classes (“sew a nautical phone case!”), watercolour classes, a retired-and-serving-law-enforcementpersonnel gathering, 11am line dancing, table tennis, spa “lectures” (“Turn back time in only 20 minutes. Look like yourself from 10 years ago!”), ballroom dancing, countless musical performances and bridge tournaments, a needlework and knitting corner with social host Tommi (“Bring your own projects. This is not a class!”), book club, Friends of Bill W (aka AA meetings), Friends of Dorothy (aka gay cocktails) and bingo and film screenings, to namecheck a small selection of the many amusements. I haven’t even touched on the four outdoor swimming pools and 13 bars and clubs, including the handsome Commodore Club with its excellent dry martinis.
I suggest craft classes and social Scrabble to Mum but she tells me I needn’t worry about finding things for her to do. “I’m quite happy doing what I like doing,” she says. “Promenading and people-watching.” With so much going on, it’s difficult to imagine how passengers find time to eat but, miraculously, they do. Cunard claims QM2 passengers put away 3.3kg of Russian caviar, 73kg of lobster and almost 350 bottles of champagne a day, as well as scoffing 700 English scones at afternoon tea.
When the first Cunard liners set sail in the 19th century, passengers chose from a hand-written bill of fare offering such treats as goose with apple sauce and vintage Pommery bubbles at 15 shillings a quart. One menu from 1882 informs guests they “should expect to gain 1lb a day during the cruise” but today’s passengers should adjust that for inflation and the fact they can now eat 24 hours a day if they choose.
Beyond the caviar and champagne set, eating habits tend to be more prosaic. The main Kings Court dining room is a labyrinthine buffet, an industrial-strength human feedlot open 5am-2am daily but, on the bright side, there are plenty of other dining options, including 24-hour room service. I prefer the 1350-seat Britannia Restaurant with its ostentatious staircase and friezes of doves above nautilus-patterned carpets in blues and golds — though I like it more for the extravagant art deco styling and the wine list than the calibre of the food.
The original Queen Mary was renowned for its wine cellar and QM2 aims to reclaim that reputation with a list that now runs to 450 labels and includes Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Petrus and Screaming Eagle — all available by the glass thanks to the ingenious Coravin wine pouring system. There is also a new Tasting Room on Deck Three where Dickson Moniz and Slivin Soans, two Oberoi-trained Indians turned Cunard sommeliers, introduce us to six of the cellar’s fascinating bottles, including an Altenburg Riesling from the 1597 Dr Burklin-Wolf Estate, a classic Austrian Gruner Veltliner and a light Mediterranean red so bursting with lollybag aromas it’s like drinking an adult sherbet. It’s from Lebanon, which might sound odd but, as Soans reminds us, Lebanese wines are mentioned in the Old Testament in the Book of Hosea (these guys are total wine geeks).
The apex of onboard gastronomy is the new Verandah Restaurant, named after the original Queen Mary’s Verandah Grill where Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor once dined. For a modest surcharge of $US35 ($46) a head, diners can savour Scottish langoustine ravioli with shaved bottarga, terrific aged Galician beef with fat chips and a nutty romesco sauce, and entire trolleys of petits fours and digestives. Elsewhere there is the new Carinthia Lounge, an elegant cafe by day and “Iberian wine bar” by night, the Golden Lion pub for fish and chips and rolling trivia comps, and a section of Kings Court that transforms into nightly themed restaurants.
Passengers fortunate enough, like us, to stay in premium Grills suites not only get coffee machines, capacious walk-in robes, balconies and pillow menus, but their own restaurants.
In the subtly deco-styled Princess Grill we gather at a white-clothed table over chilled chablis and tasty lamb jalfrezi and the conversation, inevitably, turns to our cruising histories. When it’s mum’s turn she recounts what little she can remember from her four-week voyage aboard SS Orion but neglects to disclose that my father was also on that ship. He was crew. That’s where they met. That’s why I’m here. It possibly also explains why I’m so fond of being at sea.
Kendall Hill was a guest of Cunard. Afternoon tea on QM2 (P14)
QM2 in Sydney, top; Verandah Restaurant, the newest dining option, above left; premium Grill suite, above right; QM2’s dramatic atrium, below