Fresh from a $160 million refit, Queen Mary 2 set sail across the Atlantic. John Honeywell was on board to take a look at the new venues and accommodation.
It’s taken eight days to get here, “pootling along at 18 knots” in the words of Captain Chris Wells, whose stentorian announcements at noon enlightened every day on the journey across the North Atlantic.
Eight days without a sight of land since leaving the south coast of England. Eight days when Queen Mary 2 has been our lives and we have had the freedom to be as energetic or as indolent as the mood took us. Five of those days were extended by an hour as we travelled westward into new time zones, so there’s been no shortage of sleep. No hardship, then, to set the alarm clock for 5am and to be on deck as the first fingers of dawn begin to caress the Manhattan skyline.
Who would want to spend all that time getting to New York and not be out there to be greeted by the welcoming arms of the Statue of Liberty?
$160 million refit
On this, her first arrival into New York following a $160 million “re-mastering” QM2 even has a new viewing point on which passengers can stand to take in the spectacular view.
A block of 30 Britannia Club balcony cabins has been built at the forward end of the Sun Deck. A walkway across its roof had been chained off during the crossing because of high winds, but by the time the ship had picked up the New York harbour pilot at Ambrose Light, and slowed to pass beneath the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge linking the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, it was packed with passengers brandishing selfie sticks.
Lady Liberty welcomed us, a warm sun rose over Brooklyn’s Red Hook cruise terminal, and there was time for breakfast before we disembarked.
Apart from a freshly painted hull – which soaked up 3,900 gallons of paint – those deck 13 cabins are the only visible external signs of the huge investment Cunard has made to bring its flagship, launched in 2004, up to date.
There’s much more inside. The ship’s first accommodation for solo travellers, for a start, with 15 single cabins (pictured below) built into what was part of the casino, and replacing the old photo gallery.
More than a million man hours went into the 25-day dry dock work in a German shipyard. Almost 557 square metres of carpet – enough to cover 10 soccer pitches, was laid in public rooms, corridors and staterooms. The new design in the Grand Lobby (left) and the lift lobbies is particularly striking.
Two lifts from the lobby were ripped out in order to open up the Kings Court buffet restaurant on deck 7. What was previously no better than a shopping mall food court has been transformed.
Lighter furnishings, newly-tiled floors and an assembly of modernistic cityscapes on the walls make this a much more pleasant venue and additional serveries have reduced the tedious queues.
There seem to be more tables, too – although bagging a coveted “bay-window” seat looking out onto the deck 7 promenade can still be a lottery at busy times.
The real triumph of Kings Court shows itself at dinner, when a small section is closed off and turned into a variety of themed restaurants, which rotate throughout the voyage. La Piazza is a family-style Italian trattoria. Lotus serves pan-Asian food. Coriander selects dishes from different regions of India, and Aztec takes its influences from Mexico – with tortillas, chimichangas, fajitas and spicy burgers.
Finally, to Smokehouse – serving classic American barbecue fare, recipes from the deep south and some Cajun classics. Think buffalo chicken wings or Maryland crab cake for starters, buttermilk southern fried chicken or Memphis-style baby back ribs marinaded with a rich sauce of Jack Daniels and Coca Cola. Yum and sticky-fingered yum! Book early to make sure you don’t miss out on these US$15-a-head feasts.
Each themed restaurant has its own wine list chosen to match the food, and for US$22, guests can choose a wine flight of three different glasses.
The Smokehouse, for example, goes for a Californian chardonnay, Velvet Devil from Washington State, and a late-harvest sauvignon blanc from Chile. In Coriander, it’s sauvignon blanc and zinfandel from India, and a Moscato d’Asti from Italy. Eat in Bamboo for a selection of sake.
Most passengers have their dinners at one of the two nightly sittings in the main Britannia Restaurant (pictured). Menus here have been updated and refreshed, but the two deck-high room, with its spectacular tapestry showing a stylised Cunard ship against a New York skyline, remains much the same as before – apart from one corner where the Britannia Club restaurant has been extended to accommodate the additional passengers from the new balcony suites.
The Grills restaurants – Princess and Queens – have been updated, and in response to popular demand, there are now more tables for two. Queens Grill, exclusively for passengers in the ship’s most expensive suites, looks particularly opulent with its red upholstery and gold decor.
This is a venue where the menu is of little consequence. Think of it as merely a guide to what might be offered for dinner. In addition to the daily changing selection, there’s a lengthy a la carte and guests are encouraged to request anything they might fancy, even if it is not listed anywhere. Subject to availability, the chefs will do their best to oblige.
A welcome change
Another major change is the demise of the Todd English restaurant, replaced by the Verandah, already popular on Cunard’s other ships. For me, the presence of the American celebrity chef on such a quintessentially British vessel was always an anomaly, accentuated by the restaurant’s bizarre decor.
Now it’s much lighter and brighter, with a circus theme running through the artwork. There’s a cover charge of US$35 per person for a three-course dinner (US$20 for lunch). And what a dinner! Starters included white crab and sea urchin salad, Scottish langoustine ravioli, frogs legs sucettes (or lollipops) and oak-smoked Highland venison tartare.
Follow that with lobster tail, octopus and red mullet, liquorish magret of Chalosse duck, loin of Gloucester Old Spot pork, rack and shoulder of Dorset lamb, or Galician dry-aged beef.
The old QM2’s unloved and under-used Winter Garden has been replaced by the Carinthia Lounge, which has proved an instant hit.
Chefs work behind a small counter in one corner to prepare light-bite snacks for breakfast and lunch – the charcuterie selection was excellent. Next to that is an Illy coffee bar preparing espressos and other speciality coffees.
Further along is a cocktail bar and another new feature – the “Port Wall”. Not a gallery of plaques from destinations the ship has visited – as I expected, but temperature-controlled storage for an epic collection of port wines, from years that trace the history of Cunard Line, and dating back to an 1840 Ferreira, from the year Britannia made the first scheduled Transatlantic crossing. Yours for just US$4,445.
Depending on the time of day, the lounge’s small stage can be host to a harpist, a classical guitarist or a jazz band. Newly energised, it welcomes passengers throughout the day.
In the dog house
Human passengers are not the only ones to have benefitted from QM2’s remastering. The kennels – operated for pampered pets making the Transatlantic crossing – have been extended,and equipped with a New York fire hydrant and a lamp post from Liverpool.
Highs: Enrichment lectures – on a Transatlantic crossing there is time to sit and listen to a wide variety of talks by well-qualified experts; relaxing on the Promenade Deck; Canyon Ranch spa. Lows: It’s a shame the burgers in the Chef’s Galley are pre-cooked and lie shrivelling on the counter ready for self-assembly. Most cruise lines can at least match Macca’s and Hungry Jack’s by cooking to order – why can’t Cunard? Best suited to: Inquiring minds with a taste for the better things in life, and time on their hands.