Queen Elizabeth 2
by Lisa Plotnick
6-Night Westbound Transatlantic Crossing
It was our trip of a lifetime, our dream vacation. As I am an ocean liner fanatic, a transatlantic crossing on Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) marked the culmination of several years of studying passenger ship history and a quest to travel on as many of the remaining ocean liners that time would allow. The main difference between our previous trips on liners and our journey on QE2 was that all of the former were cruises, whereas the latter was the true ocean crossing for which these ships were designed. So, it was with great anticipation that our family of three booked QE2 for our 2003 summer vacation.
LONDON ARRIVAL AND TRANSFERS
We combined our QE2 voyage with a pre-crossing stay in London. As this was our first visit to London, and it involved one-way airfare, we turned the pre-crossing arrangements over to Cunard. After clearing customs at Heathrow Airport on a Saturday morning, we were met by a Cunard representative, who drove us in a private car to our hotel near Buckingham Palace.
After two glorious days in London -- in which we managed quite a bit of sightseeing despite temperatures that topped 100-degrees Fahrenheit -- it was time to embark on the two-hour ride to Southampton where QE2 was waiting. Our transfers from London to Southampton were also arranged through Cunard and were handled seamlessly. We traveled by bus, which was clean, roomy, and comfortable.
The embarkation process was very smooth. We arrived at the Queen Elizabeth II Terminal to find two lines, one long one for passengers booked in Mauretania and Caronia categories, and a shorter line for Grill Passengers (those in the Princess, Britannia and Queens Grill categories). Our long line moved very quickly, and we were soon checked in and issued our boarding passes. We were directed to a large lounge upstairs, where boarding numbers were being called. The embarkation lounge was nice, with ample, comfortable seating. There were many posters of Cunard liners and other cruise ships along the walls, even in the lavatories!
Our boarding number was called within 15 minutes, and we began the exciting walk up the gangway. Just before stepping on board, I couldn't resist touching the outside of the ship. We entered QE2 in a circular lobby on Two Deck that was adorned with artwork depicting the history of Cunard. A steward immediately stepped up to escort us to our cabin.
We had selected Cabin 4143, a category C5 triple on Four Deck. Several factors influenced our cabin choice -- its amidships location, its size (220 square feet, according to our travel agent), and the fact that it had three lower berths so that our 9-year-old would be close to the floor should a rogue wave hit in the middle of the night. Our choice was also influenced by our preference to dine in the Caronia Restaurant, which offered single seating rather than early or late dining. (More on that later).
Cabin 4143 turned out to be perfect for us in every way. The cabin was long, narrow and spacious. Upon walking in, the bathroom was to the immediate left. It was small but functional, and had a glass-doored shower and sufficient storage space. (Although our cabin was likely original to the ship, the bathroom had been clearly modernized over the years.) Continuing down the cabin hallway, the bedroom alcove was on the left. We've actually been in cabins that were the size of just this bedroom. Between the two twin beds was a three-drawer dresser with about a foot of storage space underneath. The dresser had a pullout writing desk. Above the dresser was a mirror, and a small television was on a shelf above the foot of one of the beds. We got a decent number of stations, including CNN.
Past the bedroom was a dressing area, consisting of a four-drawer dresser with mirror, a full-length mirror, and three full wardrobes. Life vests were stored in an out-of-the way compartment on the floor of each closet. There was also a safe that required a magnetic strip of a card to operate.
Finally, was the sitting area, which extended to the left, where there was yet another four-drawer dresser with mirror. A chair was to the right, along the main wall. Running the width of the cabin, just below the single porthole, was a third bed. It was a sofa bed by day and at night, our steward Jongs would a few things up and out of the way to turn the piece into a twin bed. Unlike some other lines we've tried, all of our beds were completely made up each day.
I had a chance to look at other cabins on disembarkation morning. All looked very comfortable, even the tiniest M5 inside cabins. Many of the larger, original first class cabins have a walk-in closet with a compartment for a steamer trunk. There are also a variety of more modern cabins that were added during the ship's refits. Even so, we were very pleased with our cabin and highly recommend it for a family of three or three adults.
QE2 is a beautiful ship both inside and out. Although there were no public rooms that made me say "Wow," what made the ship special was that the entire package was more than the sum of its parts. Rooms flowed wonderfully from one to the next, and the Cunard memorabilia throughout the vessel added to her charm.
I found the layout of the public areas of QE2 to be among the best we have ever seen. QE2 was planned as a three-class ocean liner, although she was ultimately built to accommodate just two classes. Thus, there are three decks of indoor public spaces: Quarter Deck, Upper Deck and Boat Deck.
Quarter Deck, the original First Class space, houses a number of fine rooms, including the Caronia Restaurant, Queen's Room (a spacious lounge/ballroom with white columns surrounding a large dance floor), and the glorious Chart Room (a lovely bar that contains many fine pieces of ocean liner memorabilia, including a piano from Cunard's 1930s Queen Mary). Far forward on this deck are the Princess Grill and Britannia Grills, although the main accesses to these restaurants are from adjacent decks. The Lido, offering casual dining, is far aft. A wonderful bookshop and library are other highlights.
One deck above, Upper Deck features a similar layout, now re-purposed for the liner's single-class configuration. Directly above the Queen's Room is the two-deck high Grand Lounge, which today serves as the main show lounge. (It is also open all day, and passengers may view rehearsals, a nice touch.) The Golden Lion Pub, the only place onboard to get draft beer, is above the Chart Room. Also on this deck is the Mauretania Restaurant, the ship's only restaurant that offers early and late seating dining. Just outside the Mauretania Restaurant is the Crystal Bar, one of the few public rooms that span the width of the ship. Direct access to the Princess and Britannia Grills one level below is available from this bar. Far aft is the Yacht Club, a large bar and lounge that served as a disco in the evenings. A small casino is also situated on this deck.
Many of the rooms on Quarter and Upper Deck are connected by indoor promenades on both the port and starboard sides of the ship. This is similar in layout to SS Norway's International Deck, only QE2's promenades are carpeted and offer ample plush seating.
Above Upper Deck is Boat Deck, which contains the main shopping area. A number of shops are located in an area that overlooks the Grand Lounge. Some suites, added to the ship in the 1970s, are located amidships. The forward part of the deck is devoted to the Queens Grill and the Queens Grill Lounge; the latter is a narrow lounge reserved for Grill passengers and their guests. Access to the outer decks is available from Boat Deck.
While most of the public areas are located on these decks, a few public spaces are located below. One level below Quarter Deck is One Deck, which has a small Champagne Bar (formerly the Princess Grill Lounge and one of few areas on the ship that retains its original 1969 décor) and a sundries shop. Continuing downstairs, the Computer Centre and aforementioned Midships Lobby are located on Two Deck, and a synagogue is on Three Deck.
The majority of cabins are located on One Deck through Five Deck. Most of the Caronia and Mauretania cabins are on Four and Five Decks. (Mauretania cabins are standard insides or outsides, and Caronia cabins are slightly larger outside cabins.) The larger staterooms and suites are located on One Deck through Three Deck, while the luxury suites with balconies, later additions to the ship, are on the two highest decks, Signal and Sun.
Passenger areas are also located on Six Deck (Health Spa, complete with thalassotherapy pool, cost $15) and Seven Deck (gymnasium and wonderful indoor pool, which I used several times).
Outdoor space was abundant. An outdoor pool is located on One Deck aft, surrounded by two hot tubs, a children's wading pool, and a large seating area. An aft seating area is also located just off the Yacht Club on Upper Deck. Boat Deck contains a sports area (shuffleboard, basketball/tennis court, small putting green) and a teak promenade. I was a tad disappointed that the promenade was not a true circuit, but that was soon forgotten as I settled into one of the wooden deck chairs that overlooked the sea. Another large outdoor seating area is located on Sun Deck. Here, passengers could rent a deck chair for the entire crossing for $17. The outer decks were sheltered from the wind, which was great as QE2 averaged over 24 knots on our crossing, per Captain Ian McNaught.
As we had booked a "C" grade cabin, we were assigned to the Caronia Restaurant. This is one of the most attractive dining rooms we have seen aboard ship. The main entrance is a semi-circular platform from which passengers descend approximately ten steps on one of two stairways to the dining room floor. The dark wooden columns and trim are lovely, giving the room a luxurious feel. Large windows flanked the port and starboard portions of the dining room, and curtains remained open throughout all meals so that passengers could enjoy the view of the Atlantic. There were numerous dolphin and whale sightings along the way.
There was no need for us to visit the dining room upon boarding to make sure that our seating arrangements were satisfactory. When we entered our cabin, a seating chart was waiting for us, along with our table number. We knew immediately that Cunard had honored our request for a four-top in the non-smoking section. (Note: Four of the five restaurants permit smoking in designated areas. The Princess Grill is the only completely non-smoking restaurant.)
One of the best features of QE2 is its single seating dining in most of the restaurants. We thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the Caronia Restaurant. Our table assignment was ours for all meals and we could dine at any time within a two-hour window for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. It was wonderful to not have to contend with open seating breakfast or lunch. And, while we tended to arrive at approximately the same time for dinner every evening, we enjoyed the flexibility while knowing that our table was waiting for us.
The only restaurant on board without single seating dining is the Mauretania, which has early and late seating dinner and open seating breakfast and lunch. This is still a beautiful restaurant with glorious sea views, and features the same menu as the Caronia although they use different galleys.
Casual dining alternatives were adequate, if not as abundant as on newer ships. The Lido was large and offered numerous self-service items for breakfast and lunch. The Lido was also open for a more casual dinner, although shorts were prohibited in the evening hours. There was also a small eatery near the outdoor pool on One Deck that served "fast food" during the day as well as a light children's meal in the evening.
We took most of our meals in the Caronia Restaurant, and used the Lido primarily for tea and snacks. Dinner menus consisted of five courses -- appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert. Luncheon menus included appetizers, hot and cold entrées, and dessert. A healthy "Simplicity" menu was also featured, along with sugar-free desserts. The food was wonderful in both variety and flavor. Some of my favorites were pan-seared cod, roast striploin of beef with horseradish sauce and Yorkshire pudding, and the rock lobster tail. Desserts were heavenly, although I usually indulged instead in the international cheese cart. There was no children's menu, although the maitre d' told us that we could order items in advance. That turned out to be unnecessary in our case as our son thoroughly enjoyed the adult meals, particularly the fish entrees and the consommés.
I normally don't write a separate category for afternoon tea in my reviews, but as this was a highlight of the crossing I felt it deserved special attention.
Afternoon tea was served every day but embarkation day from 4:00-5:00 in several locations. Tables were pre-set with a small plate, teacup and saucer, utensils, and a cloth napkin. Waiters circulated with pots of tea and delicious finger sandwiches -- salmon, cucumber, egg, to name a few. A little while later, sweet desserts were served, including scones with clotted cream. The menu was exactly the same in the Queens Room and the Lido; as I was not a Grill passenger, I cannot speak for the Queens Grill Lounge.
I had been looking forward to tea, and it didn't disappoint. However, tea in the Queens Room wasn't as elegant as I had expected. For one thing, it was far too crowded, so finding a seat was difficult if you arrived later than 4:00. Secondly, there was no evidence of a dress code, as there had been on SS Norway. Looking around, I noted several passengers in shorts or blue jeans or other very casual attire. I had been under the impression that the Queens Room was more formal than the Lido, but that was not the case. To my surprise, I actually preferred tea in the Lido. While the room did not have the historical ambiance of the Queens Room, finding a seat in the Lido was never a problem and service was more frequent.
Despite the very minor comments noted above, I truly enjoyed afternoon tea. The tea, sandwiches and desserts (particular the scones) were marvelous. Service was also excellent, particularly in the Lido.
Prior to our crossing, I had questions concerning daytime dress, so I'll include this in the review.
Yes, QE2 is a formal ship on crossings, and most (but not all) passengers oblige. Nevertheless, I saw a wide variety of daytime attire. Most passengers, including our family, dressed "business casual" during the daytime. (Keep in mind, though, that this was a transatlantic crossing and not a tropical cruise.) Cunard has relaxed its requirement that shorts are not to be worn in the dining room during breakfast and lunch. They did request, however, that no shorts be worn in the evenings, even in the Lido.
Dressing up for the evenings was a highlight of the crossing. Of the six nights, four were formal and two were informal (jacket/tie for the gentlemen, dress or fancy pantsuit for the ladies). I'd estimate that two-thirds of the gentlemen wore tuxedos on the formal nights, with the remainder in suits and ties. Nearly all of the ladies wore evening gowns or nice dresses. The majority of the children were also dressed for the occasion. Most passengers stayed formally attired for the entire evening, not just for dinner, which added to the ambiance of the crossing.
Service was excellent overall, as we had expected it would be. This is best described by citing a few of many examples.
Our cabin steward, Jongs, noticed that I was an avid reader, and loaned me a few of his own books for the voyage. Cabin service was quick and efficient. One thing we also noted was the absence of stewards' carts in the hallways during most of the day.
During afternoon tea in the Lido, I once declined dessert as I felt I had already overindulged in sugary treats for the day. Within five minutes, and without my asking, the waiter returned with two sugar-free muffins.
I had rented a deck chair on Sun Deck, and actually fell asleep there one chilly morning. I awoke to find that a steward had covered me with a comfortable wool blanket.
The only exception to this otherwise excellent assessment was the mediocre service provided by our waiter and waitress in the Caronia Restaurant during dinner. I believe we had a new waiter who was unaccustomed to the single-seating dining setup. The first two evenings, our service was excruciatingly slow. Our waiter blamed it on a long line in the galley, but passengers at nearby tables with other waiters were being served much faster than we were. We planned to mention this to the maitre d', but he must have been aware as our service improved without us having to say a word. Nevertheless, even when there were delays, our meals always arrived at the proper temperature and were wonderfully presented. (However, we did get the "comment card pitch" on the final night, a practice we find to be inexcusable.)
The entertainment on QE2 exceeded expectations. Our crossing was a "Jazz Festival at Sea," and featured the marvelous sounds of the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Allstars (Slide Hampton, Antonio Hart, Terrell Stafford, John Lee, Dennis Mackrel and Renee Rosnes). This wonderful group played many sets in both the Grand Lounge and Theatre and our entire family enjoyed them thoroughly. We also enjoyed the sounds of the Dave Shepherd Quintet, who played a tribute to Benny Goodman one evening in the Golden Lion Pub.
Each evening, a different extravaganza awaited us in the Grand Lounge. The highlight was a wonderful performance by cellist Kirstin Spencer. Ms. Spencer captivated the audience with her renditions of popular tunes such as themes from James Bond movies, the Nutcracker Suite and "The Godfather," while alternating between traditional and electric cello. She was sensational.
The performance troupe, the Broadway Bound Theatre Company, was fine, but indistinguishable from other companies we have seen on other lines (with the exception of the Jean Ann Ryan Company on NCL). Shows were enjoyable, yet were the typical tributes to Broadway and Hollywood.
We were also treated to a classical recital one evening in the Theatre by the Viva Expressia Trio. If you should ever encounter these fine musicians, please make every effort to hear them play. Their selections included Vivaldi's "Winter and Summer," performed flawlessly by three ladies on piano, violin, and viola.
Daytime offerings included movie showings, dance classes, and craft lessons, to name a few. Our favorites, though, were the enrichment programs. Renowned maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham was onboard, and he regaled his audience with insights from his books The Only Way to Cross, Liners to the Sun, and Titanic Survivor. Another popular lecturer was former BBC correspondent Kate Adie, who shared her experiences on her three decades of news reporting.
In reading the above, it may seem that QE2 was a very sedate ship. Actually, it was quite the contrary. The disco was hopping well into the wee hours, according to many passengers I met. There was also another evening in which we listened as passengers and members of the jazz bands participated in an impromptu jam session. Players got introduced, picked a key and started to play as if they'd known each other for years. It was a fascinating and fun night of music.
I am usually not a big shopper onboard ship; however, our final bill on QE2 proved this to be an exception.
Boat Deck is filled with numerous shops, ranging from fine jewelry to costume jewelry (including the "Inch of Gold," to which I succumbed), and from a Harrods Outlet to formal and informal clothing. The clothing shop had some reasonably priced items, which was fortunate as I had to purchase a blouse to replace one that somehow got left at home.
My downfall, however, was the QE2 Book Shop on Quarter Deck. This wonderful book and memorabilia shop has a number of titles that I have been unable to find in the U.S. I was able to complete my John Maxtone-Graham collection (graciously signed by the author while onboard), and I also found books on SS Norway, SS Rotterdam, RMS Queen Elizabeth, RMS Queen Mary, and other fine liners and cruise ships. This shop is a liner lover's dream.
Just six days after boarding QE2 in Southampton, we arrived in New York for disembarkation. Cunard handled this procedure very well. In addition to providing colored tags, we were also given a number within our assigned color. This number corresponded to an area in the pier, enabling us to find our bags instantly. New York, on the other hand, handles the arrival of passengers deplorably. There were four other ships in port that day, and waiting for a taxi was sheer pandemonium. Hint: Instead of waiting for a taxi at the pier, gather your belongings and walk towards Eleventh Avenue. You will likely find a taxi immediately, as we did. Our driver told us that it takes one half hour to enter and exit the pier area, so many drivers prefer to wait for passengers to come to them rather than the other way around.
RANDOM CLOSING THOUGHTS
- I would definitely recommend a 2-night pre-cruise/crossing stay when there is a significant time zone difference. Our first day in London was somewhat tiring, but we were back to ourselves by the second day. This allowed us to board the ship on Day 3 feeling completely refreshed.
- I greatly enjoyed single-seating dining as it combined the best of feature of Freestyle or Personal Choice (choosing the time you wish to dine) with the best feature of traditional dining (same table and wait staff for every meal). I wish more lines would consider this concept, although I doubt it will come to pass. Even Cunard is abandoning it on the new Queen Mary 2, with the exception of the top-most Grill categories.
- Another feature I wish would be incorporated into new ship design is more sea views. QE2 has a plethora of such spaces, both indoors and out. I particularly liked the tiered aft decks. Sadly, these spaces have given way to private verandas on most new ships. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed these wonderful aft views, and sharing them with other passengers.
- We met a variety of wonderful passengers on our crossing. One day, I shared a table in the Lido with a 70-ish gentleman from Canada who had begun his journey on QE2 a month earlier for his first-ever trip outside North America. (The ship had made a Mediterranean cruise between its eastbound and westbound crossings.) Another morning, I had tea with a woman about my age who was transporting her car back from Europe on QE2. We also enjoyed the company of two women who sat at an adjacent table to ours in the Caronia Restaurant. I shall always cherish the lovely gift that one of them presented to me the final night of the crossing. Finally, there was the little girl who fell "in love" with our 9-year-old son, and danced with him in the Queens Lounge while the band played "Sunrise Sunset."
In closing, our six days on QE2 were exciting, relaxing and fun. The ship is beautiful and appears to be well maintained, showing little evidence of her 34 years. There was enough to do that the days passed quickly, while we still had time to rest. The Atlantic was very calm, although I admit that I was hoping for a short span of rough seas to see what the ole girl could do.
While QE2's career as a transatlantic liner will come to an end in 2004, Cunard intends to keep her in service as a European-based cruise ship. We hope to someday return to this fine ship for a cruise. We are grateful to have experienced a transatlantic crossing on one of the last luxury liners of the twentieth century. She gave us wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.
Lisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past twelve years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.
Lisa is a SeaLetter Columnist and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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