Monday, September 8th 2014 – Noon BST
To be “classic” the journey would have to begin at London Waterloo. It would have to begin with a boat train ride to Southampton Docks. In former times there was always a dedicated train: “The Cunarder” leaving Waterloo to connect with the ocean liners sailing from Southampton. Actually there were usually 3 trains; one train for each class on the ship. The First Class one always left Waterloo last and travelled non-stop to Southampton and there was always a dining car on that one too.
In 2014 we made do with the Southwest Trains 12:35 Waterloo-Weymouth service making stops at Woking, Basingstoke and Eastleigh and timed to reach Southampton Central at 13:52. We chose to ignore the over-priced on-board catering trolley in favour of a not-so-lavish picnic lunch from Marks & Spencer. Nevertheless, as the train left the London suburbs and the sun shone on the beautiful Hampshire countryside, I began to get some of that “boat train” vibe. We were travelling from London to New York and we were not going to be leaving the surface of the earth. How cool was that?
The “Cunarder” used to go straight onto the docks at Southampton and one could go directly from Pullman car to Cunard Queen in a few steps. Sadly the track was removed in the 1980’s so we were forced to depend on Syed the taxi driver to get us from Southampton Central to our ship. Syed was a friendly local Southampton lad and espoused the benefits of living in the town as he fought with the considerable town centre traffic. Eventually we made it through, turned a corner onto the sea front and there she was……
QM2 is a big ship. I had seen her twice before, once on Southampton Water and once from the Brooklyn Bridge, but this was the first time close up. I have to admit she is not the most attractive ship at first sight; she looks top heavy and more than a bit overweight.
We dropped our bags effortlessly. The porters took them straight from the taxi boot, quickly made sure we had applied the correct labels and bundled them straight into the X-ray machine. The next time we saw them was in the cabin.
After some photos of my wife in front of Mary we walked towards the Ocean Terminal.
The Ocean Terminal was modern and functional. It was like a mini airport. There was no queue for check-in and after filling out a health questionnaire, having our photos taken and our passports checked, we were each issued with a credit-card sized bar-coded magnetic card. This was our room key, charge card and our only means of paying for anything on board for the next week. QM2 is totally cashless and I must admit I found the point of sale systems all very efficient.
Without further ado we passed our hand luggage through an X-ray machine check and climbed up the enclosed gangplank towards the ship. I have a tradition that whenever I go on board (and ashore) in Long Beach I kiss my hand and then touch the hull. As this was our first meeting I decided to dispense with the kiss and just do the touching. Mary didn’t seem to mind.
Immediately on board, we were welcomed onto Deck 2 and into the main Foyer by a line up of Cunard staff. We were asked if we knew where we were going. I replied confidently that we did. I had spent considerable time memorising the deck plans. There were 13 decks with 4 main staircases clearly labelled A to D forward to aft. The staircases are colour coded and I already had my own system, A for apple green, B for berry red, C for charcoal grey & D for dandelion yellow. How complicated could it be?
Our cabin was mid-ships on the Port Side on Deck 4. Wanting to impress my wife I had memorised the route and confidently headed straight for the grey Staircase. There, I just made one tiny mistake and headed downstairs instead of up.
We ended up on Deck 1 (which is not normally used by passengers) and surprised the porters who were busy loading bags into the ship. I tried the “I just wanted to show you this” line but I didn’t get away with it. The next thing my wife was consulting the plan of the ship mounted on the wall.
We climbed the staircase back to Deck 4 and entered the long portside corridor and quickly found our cabin (stateroom). I tried to convince my wife that I had known where it was all along, but to no avail.
Accommodation on the QM2 is organised along 2 long corridors (port and starboard) running the length of the ship. There are 3 accommodation decks (6,5 and 4) below the public rooms on the promenade deck (Deck 7) and the main “Britannia” (named for the first Cunard ship) restaurant is below them on decks 3 and 2.
This arrangement reflects almost exactly that on RMS Queen Mary. With the First Class (now hotel) accommodation below the Promenade Deck on 3 decks (Main, A & B) descending down to the Restaurant (R) deck.
The main difference is that QM2 has an extra 5 decks of accommodation (8 to 12) above the promenade deck. These are the more expensive balcony cabins and are there to meet modern demand from cruise Passengers for balconies. From my purist point of view they look like a block of flats strapped to the top of the ship, but I totally understand why they are there.
Like many on Decks 4-6, our own cabin was a clever hybrid. Whilst it was a conventional cabin situated in the hull it had a large section cut out of the side. It was a kind of windowless window with a small outside balcony in front of it. The cut out was high up so It was impossible to sit down and see the sea, but that didn’t matter as we knew the weather on the Atlantic wouldn’t permit sitting outside for too long. At least we could get lots of fresh air and lean over and greet the ocean every morning.
The Cabin was reasonably well decorated and quite well thought out. There was a king size bed, a flat screen TV, a sofa, a little table, a fridge, a writing desk and a modular plastic bathroom of the sort found in most Japanese apartments.
We sat down on the bed eyeing the complimentary half bottle of “Sail-Away” sparkling wine on the table and half concentrated on the safety briefing playing on the TV. After a few minutes, Joseph, our Cabin Steward, knocked on the door to introduce himself. Whilst he was still in the middle of that our luggage arrived.
It was still before 3:00pm and, as we started to unpack, we noted that the whole journey from Southampton Central to getting the luggage in the cabin had taken less than an hour. By 4pm we had completely unpacked, fitted the cases under the bed and started on the sparkling wine. Not bad going.
At 4:15pm the public address announced that all passengers needed to go to their muster stations for the emergency drill. We got our life jackets out of the wardrobe, headed up the grey staircase with our fellow passengers and gathered in the Kings Court Buffet on the Promenade Deck 7.
At Muster Station J we stood in silence and listened to an announcement from the Captain about Health and Safety on board. The briefing covered one of the biggest hazards the passenger faces: Norovirus. Cunard go to great lengths to try to prevent ship-borne illness from spreading.
Every public room has a hand cleanser dispenser located in view and often the stewards are there holding an extra bottle of cleanser to offer to the passengers. You do find yourself washing your hands much more often than usual.
At the end of the briefing we all tried on our life jackets before returning to our cabins. Back in the cabin I finished off the Sparkling Wine and then tried my life jacket on again.
I must admit that up to now I had not been too impressed with décor of the ship. Obviously comparisons with RMS Queen Mary are unfair. Queen Mary is an Art Deco Masterpiece. She is “a ship of 50 different beautiful woods” and loaded with art and craft from a whole Empire. She would be totally impossible to recreate now. For one thing there is a distinct lack of an Empire and for another the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) regulations strictly enforce fire resistant materials.
Nevertheless, on QM2, the ultra-red carpet and plastic décor in the entrance way reminded me too much of a Las Vegas Casino. The Kings Court Buffet looked, at first sight, like something straight out of a service station on the M6. I started to worry if I would enjoy the experience at all and whether it would be anything like my expectations.
I needn’t have worried.
With the ship about to leave we went outside to the stern. My heart melted. The back of the ship is just stunningly beautiful. She has a beautiful Ocean Liner stern. It is a simply gorgeous cascade of decks descending down in layers from 12 to 6. The sun was shining, the band was playing, everyone seemed happy and I fell for Mary’s most charming feature. I returned many times during the voyage and never tired of looking at her backside.
Shortly before 5pm the engines (almost un-noticeably) sprang into life and, following an announcement from the Captain, we started to move slowly but surely away from the quayside. We reversed into Southampton Water and, after a kind of 3 point turn, we headed out towards the sea.
The Isle of White Ferry was in keen pursuit. The atmosphere on that cascade of decks was absolutely wonderful and the experience was truly unforgettable.
Monday, September 8th 2014 –Evening
Luckily for me we had been allocated the later sitting (8:30pm) in the Britannia Restaurant. My wife had wanted the earlier (6:00pm) one and we had left it to Cunard to allocate us whatever was left. I had won!
Now it was almost 6:00pm and I was in no mood to sit down for dinner. Instead we began to explore the ship. We did a complete loop of the magnificent promenade deck (7) and then inspected the rooms on this main deck. The Spa and Gym were at the front, the Winter Garden Bar, Kings Court Buffet and the exclusive Grills Restaurants were at the back.
Next we ventured up to the Commodore Club Bar on Deck 9 right at the front. This was one of our favourite rooms on the whole ship and we returned to it several times over the week. The bar is a very elegant observation lounge (modelled on the Observation Lounge on RMS Queen Mary) where one can sit with a beer or a cocktail and enjoy almost the same view as the bridge (just 3 decks above).
By now the ship had cleared Southampton water and was heading out to sea. The Isle of Wight was on the starboard side and as the sun began to set the views we got were stunning.
Eventually we went back to the cabin to get ready for dinner. We paused on the way to witness the dropping of the pilot. The little boat came alongside and we slowed almost to a standstill. The Southampton pilot appeared from the starboard side of the ship and climbed down a ladder jumping onto his little boat. The boat then sped away back towards Southampton. It is incredible to think that even in the 21st Century no ship is allowed to enter or leave a harbour without a local Pilot on Board.
At 8:25pm we made our way to the Britannia Restaurant located on the lower decks 2 and 3. The restaurant is obviously designed in a retro style and recalls the golden years of the trans-Atlantic liners. It works surprisingly well; it is obviously retro but very tastefully done. The restaurant covers the whole width of the ship.
Seating is on three levels with sea views on each side. The restaurant is designed to seat about 1000 people in one sitting. As we sat down to dine we glanced out of the windows and saw the sun setting and coast of the Isle of Wight slowly receding. That was to be our last sight of land for more than 6 days.
When you book on the QM2 they ask you the size of table you prefer for dinner. I had gone for 6 and that is what we got. Except that there were only 5 of us. Terry and Janet were a couple in early retirement and from Exeter. Tim was about 60 and from Glasgow. He introduced himself as a single traveller and, given the Scottish referendum campaign then underway, a committed Unionist. We all struggled with his heavy Glaswegian accent and, to be honest, conversation between us was a little difficult that first night.
Our two friendly waiters introduced themselves and brought us the menu. After salad starters my wife chose the cod and I went for the steak. The portions were refreshingly small and the food was absolutely delicious. I have to say that everything we ate on board, from snack to main course to dessert, was top class.
Everything on board is included in the fare except for alcohol. We chose never to drink wine in the dining room. We had brought wine on board and smuggled it in our luggage so we planned to enjoy a glass in the cabin before dinner.
The meal was over quicker than I expected and, after we had said good night to everyone, we wandered through the Queens Room passing the ballroom dancers and into the G32 nightclub. It was only 10:30 so it was still quiet. We were too tired for dancing so we didn’t hang around. We headed back to the cabin and went to bed. The bed was extremely comfortable and the gentle rocking of the ship sent us off quickly into a deep and lovely sleep. The clocks went back one hour at 2am.
Tuesday, September 8th 2014 – Morning
Waking next morning relatively early, we took one look outside the balcony and saw that it was a already a lovely day. The sun was streaming into the cabin. It felt great.
The daily programme, long traditional on Trans-Atlantic liners, had been delivered to the cabin and it listed all the activities scheduled for the day. There were many of them.
I decided to go early and book tickets for the planetarium show. The QM2 boasts the only planetarium at sea. Located right at the front on Decks 2/3, the planetarium doubles as a cinema and a lecture theatre. There are two or three 35 minute 3-D planet shows every day. They are free but the tickets are limited and hard to come by.
At 9am I joined the queue outside the theatre. I immediately struck up a conversation with Ian. Ian was from Manchester but was living with his girlfriend, Gillian, in Brisbane. It turned out they were doing exactly the same thing as us. Ian was 50 in August and he had long planned to do this trip to celebrate.
He was a Manchester United Fan and we talked for a long time about Football, life in the UK and life in Australia. After a 20 minute wait we finally managed to secure tickets for the 5pm show.
I met my wife in the Britannia restaurant for a late breakfast. We were seated with a couple from the Chilterns who turned out to be the most boring people I have met in a long time. They talked about nothing but themselves and their opposition to the HS2 train line. We broke the speed record for eating kippers, smoked salmon and bagels and hurried quickly outside.
We spent the rest of the morning exercising on the very top deck. First I managed to win a round of the traditional ocean liner game “shuffleboard” and then I was beaten at the equally traditional game of deck quoits.
We went right up to the front of the ship and played a couple of rounds of tennis in the mini-tennis court. I lost again.
We changed into our sports gear and went down to the large gym located at the very front of the ship with a view over the bows. I managed to run 3 miles at a slightly quicker pace than normal and then I went outside and ran a few laps of the Promenade Deck as well.
In a tradition that stretches back a long way, at exactly twelve noon the massive whistles (the QM2 had inherited one whistle from RMS Queen Mary) blew as a test. The captain’s navigational announcement followed.