Impeccable service with a smile makes pasengers feel like royalty on QE2
The day of the week doesn’t matter; all days seem to flow together. I hop out of bed and head to the boat deck for a morning run and some fresh air. As I step onto the outdoor jogging track, I’m greeted by an unbelievable sight: the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 from deck chairs to the huge boilers is shrouded in fog.
Ignoring the urge to jog, I surrender to an even greater pleasure. I raise my right hand to the sky and savor the soft feel of my fingers parting the mist at 28 knots.
I had dreamed for years of sailing aboard this majestic ship but had been put off by the cost, as high as $33,000 for an Atlantic crossing. Then I noticed an eye popping fare on an Internet travel site. The QE2 was having a sale starting at about $1,000 per person for the seven day, one way crossing, about the same as an upscale Caribbean cruise. It didn’t take long for my wife, Robin, and me to decide to book a cruise across the Atlantic.
The QE2 is not the largest or most modern ship in the world. Indeed, some of the newer ships plying the Caribbean have much bigger lobbies and cabins.
But the QE2 is the most famous, and it has built a reputation as the most luxurious, earning a five star hotel rating. We realized that from the moment we arrived at the New York City docks. Rows of Louis Vuitton and Tumi luggage lined the curb, waiting to be carried aboard. sail. Ours was a jazz cruise, a seven day voyage from New York City to Southampton, England, with a day long stop in Boston. Along for the ride and our listening pleasure were more than two dozen musicians, including Dave Brubeck (who was celebrating his 80th year), Billy Taylor, Louie Bellson, Stacey Kent, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Bruno, Keith Ingham and Warren Vache.
Check in was a breeze, perhaps because the Cunard Line recently purchased high tech equipment to help quickly process passenger tickets and credit cards and snap pictures for photo IDs. The ID becomes a passenger’s lifeline on board, for everything from opening the cabin to buying a drink.
We entered the Midships Lobby, a circular room with plush navy seats in the center of the ship. We were directed up a red, carpeted staircase to One Deck, entering the hallway past the gift shop, where jackets, designer scarves, sweaters and handbags were displayed behind a large window.
Inside our cabin, two bottles of champagne on ice, chocolate dipped strawberries and an invitation to the captain’s cocktail party sat on a table near the window. Moments later, we heard a knock on the door. It was Maria, our cabin steward. She said she was there to do anything possible to help us have an enjoyable cruise. How about an afternoon snack after our long trip from Fort Worth? No problem, she said. High tea was about to be served in the Lido restaurant down the hall.
In the Lido, we had our first taste of the ship’s white glove service. Our servers brought us tea, coffee, finger sandwiches and pastries. The restaurant is perhaps the most relaxing on the ship, with large windows overlooking the pool and ocean.
Then outside with the other passengers, for our departure, we sailed down the Hudson River and along the most famous skyline in the world.
The QE2 has been sailing since Queen Elizabeth II commissioned it in 1968. There are photographs, portraits even a bust of its namesake throughout the ship. At 963 feet, the vessel is nothing short of a floating city. Its amenities include a hospital, synagogue, health spa, kennel, theater, 6,000 volume library, casino, computer center, five restaurants and shopping arcades.
The ship’s history can be gleaned from wall panels, which chronicle the founding of the Cunard Line in 1840 to transport mail from Liverpool to Boston. The liner began concentrating on passengers as mail revenues dwindled. The ship was even used as a troop transport during the 1982 Falklands War.
The QE2 was spruced up in 1999, after Carnival Corp. purchased Cunard. New furnishings, draperies, carpeting and woodwork adorn the ship, from the Grand Lounge and the Queens Room to the famous restaurants and the Golden Lion Pub. In addition, the QE2 added Harrods, the London based luxury department store, to the shops of its Royal Promenade.
When it comes to being treated like royalty aboard, the best place to be is the Queens Grill, the finest of the five restaurants. The Queens Grill was not as opulently decorated as other spots, but service was impeccable. And the food was first rate. In any given year, more caviar is consumed on the QE2 than in any other place in the world. Ask for a serving and the waiters happily oblige. Even lunches feature specialties such as broiled rock lobster tail or whole roast prime rib of Angus beef.
One dinner menu featured the meal enjoyed by Her Majesty during a crossing on Dec. 9, 1953: chicken consomme with large quenelles and vegetable brunoise, sea bass fillet “bonne femme” in white wine mushroom sauce with parsley, mashed potatoes, snow peas, carrots; roast stuffed duckling, baked fillet of Norwegian salmon, grilled New York cut strip loin with herb butter, or roast rack of lamb with thyme gravy.
Eating habits have changed since that 1953 voyage. Now, passengers can choose lighter fare from a “simplicity” menu, with dishes such as grilled chicken breast, aimed at “today’s changing lifestyles and the quest for healthier living.”
For Robin and me, excellent service helped make the Queens Grill special: Our waiters greeted us enthusiastically and seemed happy to see us at every meal. They were as genuinely interested in us and our lives as we were in theirs.
Still, we thought we should dine around to experience the ship more fully. We asked our maitre d’ if that would be possible. No problem, he said. The next day, Maria delivered a letter containing dates and times for our “dine about.” The managers at the other restaurants, the letter said, would be waiting for us.
All the other restaurants had touches we liked the Princess Grill’s large windows and Greek statues, Caronia’s elegance but we were happy to return to the Queens Grill. Just following a schedule had become work, and work was the last thing we wanted to do on vacation.
Indeed, our days began ambitiously: Rise early, work out, breakfast in our cabin, attend a “meet the stars” session with the jazz artists, go to a fine art auction, participate in the music quiz, enjoy dinner and entertainment before going to bed.
But as the week wore on, we slowed down. There were fewer engagements on our “to do” list. Perhaps this pace began on the second morning of the cruise. We had sailed out of Boston the night before in a pounding storm. We arose early and headed down to the fitness center.
As we rushed out the door, a puzzled Maria wished us well. She chuckled when we returned 15 minutes later with queasy looks on our faces. The storm was chasing us across the Atlantic and the ocean was churning with heavy swells. Passengers were becoming ill. Maria advised us to take it easy, and we did with one exception. Whenever Stacey Kent performed, we wanted to be in the audience. Her sultry voice left us most nights leaning back against our seats with our eyes closed, soaking in her music. And so we relaxed, doing whatever moved us at any particular time. The schedules were ditched. Robin and I spent hours one afternoon playing Scrabble in the lounge. Another afternoon, I sat outside the Grand Lounge watching the ocean go by instead of catching up on my reading without feeling any guilt. Other days, I relaxed on the Boat Deck with a good book sometimes reading it, sometimes not. In our cabin, I watched a continuous feed of taped jazz programs on TV.
We even kept to the right time and avoided jet lag, thanks to Maria, who placed a card on our pillow each night reminding us to set our clocks ahead one hour before going to sleep.
Every day, I walked past a wall chart with a tiny QE2 that traced our route. As we neared the end of the cruise, I resisted the urge to push the small replica back a few notches.
I attended a question and answer session one afternoon with Captain Paul Wright. Someone asked him about the rough seas on our second day. No problem, he said. The QE2 is built to withstand waves upward of 95 feet. The waves that hit us were only 20 feet. Easy for him to say, as I held my stomach.
Wright told us about Cunard’s new ship the Queen Mary 2 which is expected to be launched in 2003. She will be bigger, fancier and maybe even faster. The QM2 would have all the amenities of the large, popular ships plying the Caribbean. But we all agreed: The QE2 is irreplaceable. Most nights, we relaxed after dinner, listening to Dave Brubeck or Stacey Kent. Or we danced the night away in the Queens Room to the contemporary sounds of Opus, an incredible band from the island of St. Lucia.
And that’s where we were as our final night turned into early morning. We walked up to the boat deck to enjoy the cool air and find a star to wish upon. We slowly made our way back to our cabin, past the suitcases placed outside each door to be picked up by stewards when we docked. While we slept, the QE2 glided into Southampton.