Now the QE2 is being converted into a Dubai hotel, Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 is the only oceangoing liner - and this ship does cruises too
I nearly broke the Olympic high jump record from a seated start. I was enjoying a quiet lunch out on deck on Queen Mary 2, anchored just off Gibraltar, when there was an almighty roar just behind me. As I shot off my seat, I turned my head just in time to see a fighter jet zoom past at as near zero altitude as makes no difference. It was the first of several high-speed passes by Spain's "Top Guns".
It may be a fair few years since Cunard was British-owned, and QM2 may have been built in France and paid for by the US Carnival Corporation, but she still flies the red duster and the Spanish government remains just a tad sensitive about Gibraltar's continued British sovereignty. Probably a bit more so after we left Gibraltar with 'Rule Britannia' roaring out over the Tannoy.
It was strange, really, as we had already enjoyed peaceful calls at Barcelona and Malaga en route from Piraeus (Athens) to the ship's home port in Southampton. Instead of just the usual mix of British and Americans who make up the majority of the passengers when QM2 crosses the North Atlantic, Europeans dominated a passenger list also laced with a sprinkling of Russians, Japanese, South and Central Americans. In all, just a quarter of the 2,400 passengers were English-speaking. It meant that some of the announcements seemed endless as we had them repeated in four languages but it did give this cruise a real cosmopolitan feel.
At 150,000 tons and costing nearly $900m, the QM2 is – until the arrival of Royal Caribbean International’s $1.2bn Oasis of the Seas at the end of 2009 - the largest and most expensive passenger ship ever built. So it is important that staff and passengers create a warm and cosy atmosphere among themselves.
Immediately after her launch in January 2004, QM2 had mixed reviews, with some of her design being criticised for being too glitzy and some of the service for being too slow. Some was unfair, as today's safety regulations prevent cruise lines from including many of the classical features that made the liners of the 1930s to1950s so revered. Also, on a ship of this size and complexity, getting the service logistics 100 per cent right from the start was never going to happen.
The good news is that service quickly improved and there is now more to admire than criticise. Firstly, the standard cabins (they call them all suites on the shipboard maps but that is just marketing hype) are a major improvement on QE2. Attractively furnished, reasonably spacious and very well soundproofed, they all include interactive TVs, bathrooms with tub and/or shower and comfy double or twin beds. More than three-quarters have outside views and most of these also have private balconies - more of a boon in the Med than on the North Atlantic, I suspect. There are also some lavish suites and even five huge duplex apartments, which come complete with their own libraries and exercise areas.
Although QM2 is essentially a one-class ship, whch cabin or suite you book dictates where you eat, just as it does on QE2. Suite and apartment passengers eat in the one-sitting Queens and Princess Grills, while cabin passengers have the option of the main two-sitting Britannia restaurant or the four reservations-only Kings Court restaurants. One of these, Chefs Galley, carries a $30 supplement (although that does include wine) but the main alternative venue is Todd English.
Much better-known in the US than in Europe, Todd English specialises in Mediterranean cuisine tailored for American tastes. Initially, there was no surcharge to eat there but it was so overwhelmed by demand - real passenger fights over reservations were breaking out! - that a $30 charge ($20 for lunch) was introduced.
It is worth every penny. Food quality and presentation is superb and even with the charge, it is still difficult to secure a dinner reservation - lunch is easier, when the menu is only slightly less elaborate. This option also does make up for the slightly disappointing fare usually on offer in the other restaurants. The design of Kings Court also leaves a lot to be desired, as it creates unnecessary queuing and searching for empty tables during its casual breakfasts and lunches.
Inside, it takes the best part of a week just to see all the different public areas. These include a variety of bars (check out the sophisticated Commodore Club, which includes the Churchill cigar bar) and showlounges. There is also a nightclub, casino, gallery of shops and a superb library and bookshop.
My favourite area, though, is the Maritime Quest section, featuring a collection of prints, montages and other memorabilia telling the story of classic liner travel down the years. Much of it speaks for itself but there is the option of an audio tour with a taped guide available from the front desk.
The 20,000 square foot Canyon Ranch Spa is impressive but expensive, while the more modest (but free to use) Pavilion Spa - a heated pool and Jacuzzi under a magradome sliding roof - comes into its own in the more challenging weather conditions encountered on the North Atlantic.
On my cruise, the closest I got was going to the planetarium - the only one at sea - and watching a superb presentation of the stars and satellites over the North Atlantic. It was a fascinating experience for which there was no extra charge but, even so, not quite the same as looking up from deck at the real stars as she slices through the waves en route for New York. Maybe next time...