Times two at sea

Mak­ing waves with Mum on the re­vamped QM2

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - KEN­DALL HILL

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

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