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Glamor sails the Atlantic on 'Queen Mary 2'

TRANS-ATLANTIC ON THE QM2

I want those five hours back.

On a trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to London on the Queen Mary 2, we had to turn the clocks ahead one hour on each of five nights. My husband and I really hated losing that time.

For most cruisers, the Queen Mary 2 is a radical departure from what they are used to. A liner built for ocean crossings, the ship has an inward focus. Forget the rock climbing wall and miniature golf course. There aren't too many warm and breezy days on the North Atlantic, so passengers must be entertained indoors. The Queen succeeds marvelously.

The Queen Mary 2 may be the most stunning ship afloat. The towering grand staircase and the spectacularly decorated wide corridors set passengers up for what's to come. Art is plentiful, interesting and everywhere.

A highlight is the 127-panel series Maritime Quest, which provides 10 stories about the golden era of trans-Atlantic crossing in large wall displays. Starting with Samuel Cunard's first ship, The Britannia, the exhibit includes "Stars Aboard" (the noted and notorious who have sailed on Cunard) and "Life Below Deck" (a look behind the glamor in the days of coal shovelers and butlers). The numbered panels are easily navigated on walks about the ship, and a free audio guide is available from the purser.

The public spaces are elegant and distinctive. Each bar is a unique space, unusually decorated, and the library is roomy and comfortable; the shops are small but stylish (Hermes, Chopard, Dunhill). The Churchill (of course) cigar lounge is an English club at its best.

The ship takes advantage of its history and its British roots. There is no doubt that this is a Cunard vessel. The main dining room, Britannia, is inspired by the main dining rooms on the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. A two-level room, it may be the most glamorous dining space at sea, with its remarkable glass ceiling, art deco lighting and use of tiered seating to maintain a coziness in a room that seats more than 1,200.

Actors from Britain's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts provide entertainment on every cruise. These talented thespians present entertaining snippets of traditional and modern theater during the day. Chekhov, Shakespeare and Neil Simon were in our mix. The acting is first-rate. I couldn't help thinking that I might be seeing the next Judi Dench or Anthony Hopkins. When not performing, the actors lead passengers in participatory acting classes.

Oxford Discovery provides onboard lecturers. They are interesting, offbeat and sometimes wacky in that distinctive British way. We will not soon forget the Rev. Peter Owen-Jones wending his unorthodox way from pre-Christian England to the Reformation. Other speakers included Baroness Gillian Shepherd on power and politics, Dr. Catherine Oakes on the great collections of British art, and Dr. Emma Smith on Shakespeare. Each speaker gave three or four talks during the voyage.

The ship also provides the usual activities — bingo, art auctions, wine tasting, a casino (which rarely closes as the ship is always at sea), exercise classes, dance lessons, bridge and darts tournaments, karaoke and shopping. There is even a knitting class. The evening entertainment is grander than the norm, with several of the comedians, musicians and ship singers and dancers (ballet, even!) a cut above what is found on some other lines.

Traditional approach

The Queen Mary 2 is one of the largest ships at sea, and several of its onboard offerings boast the same adjective, such as the library at 8,000 volumes, and the Canyon Ranch Spa. The ship boasts the only planetarium at sea, which offers three IMAX-like movies about the solar system, each repeated frequently during the voyage on a curved overhead screen. The space is also a comfortable venue for theatrical productions and lectures.

The outdoor pools (all heated), hot tubs and topside bars are nice, if underused, on a transAtlantic trip; a bit breezy and cool for sunbathing. The outstanding promenade deck harks back to the grand days of North Atlantic cruising. We spent lots of time power-walking around the deck (three laps to the mile) and enjoying our fellow passengers. On sunny days, many hardy souls sat in deck chairs, wrapped head to toe in tartan blankets provided by the ship.

The ship's attention to formality and tradition affects the dress code, too. There are three formal nights on the six-night crossing, no shorts allowed anywhere after 6 p.m., and, of course, the Royal Ascot Ball night that encourages the ladies to wear hats.

Our traveling companions were a surprisingly mixed-age group. While there were few children (there is a well-staffed children's area with spaces and activities organized by age groups), the mostly couples crowd ranged from lots of mid 30s on up.

A class distinction

Cunard is the last holdout in a world of class-free dining. There are three main dining venues, and passengers are assigned based on the price (and size) of their cabins. Suite and penthouse passengers enjoy the Queens Grill; larger cabins, the Princess Grill. Everyone else dines in the Britannia. Of course, there are buffet offerings for all meals (an excellent array of Asian, Italian, salads, sandwiches and carving stations) that are open to everyone, as well as a couple of specialty restaurants and room service.

Despite the class distinction, the daily dinner menu is similar in all three venues. The difference is an additional entree or two and the availability of an a la carte menu (the same throughout the voyage) that gives diners the options of daily doses of caviar, high-end steaks and foie gras. The food was excellent (we sampled all the venues) and always offered a British favorite or two (we could have had the Dover sole every night).

The specialty restaurant is an interesting adventure. The food of the much-heralded chef Todd English ($20 at lunch, $30 at dinner; wine extra) is a bit over-the-top. Excellent and unusual dishes, each item was a stand-alone feature of richness and complexity (the Boston Bibb salad was generously sprinkled with blue cheese; starter pasta courses of ravioli or gnocchi were sauced with creams; the sea bass came with a small lobster tail, lobster vinaigrette and lentils). Together, they were almost too rich.

Six days (shortened by those pesky time changes) were not enough. The Queen Mary 2 was an extraordinary experience — glamor and tradition in equal measure, eased through the prism of 21st century technology and style, to provide a truly unique shipboard experience.

Maria Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

.IF YOU GO

Sailing the QM2

The QM2 is one of the last liners offering regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings. The trip is a great way to avoid jet lag going to or from Europe. Except for last-minute bookings, the best one-way trans-Atlantic fare I found was $1,195 for an inside cabin, but other cruising Web sites frequently offer specials at lower rates.

Register at www.cunard.com for information on specials. In winter, when it's too cold to sail the North Atlantic, the QM2 offers Caribbean, Hawaiian and South American itineraries; crossings resume in April.

Cabins are spacious, with lots of storage. Even inside cabins are flush with drawers and closet space.

One special moment of any crossing is sailing by the Statue of Liberty. Whether at dusk at departure or at dawn on arrival, seeing the statue from a ship as many of our ancestors did is poignant and moving.

The ship has a high-tech nightclub (G32, named after the shipyard berth where the ship was built), a kennel (occupied by four dogs on our trip) and a high-tech in-room television system that provides information on daily schedules, menus, shore excursions and a wide array on entertainment options.

Glamor sails the Atlantic on 'Queen Mary 2' 03/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 1:50pm]
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