Saturday, June 3, 2017

QM2 on the Ocean Blue

Oh Cunard, I can't get rid of you though I suppose I brought it on myself when I signed to cross the North Atlantic aboard the  Queen Mary2 (largest, maybe only, ocean liner to do these crossings - never a 'cruise,' heaven forbid). I am now considered a member of  a new tribe. A Cunardier, or something like that - the company's outreach is incessant. Emails  and flashy satin brochures arriving in the mail. The marketing hype is the most aggressive I've encountered since I last signed a political petition.

The ship - glamorous, the mightiest afloat - does pull rank. Aboard, however, is another matter.
With the QM2 you pay as you go and you go as you pay.  Everything above basics of food and shelter is charged. A basic fee is one thing  - it's possible to book an inside cabin (no view, poor you) for only hundreds - but 'tip money' is a required add-on for the stewards, and of course one is pressured to sign up for insurance in case something prevents you or the ship from sailing.
If you are in one of the more expensive cabins that allow you on the ship early, you are first in line for  'behind the scenes tour' and a mere $120 will be added to the credit card registered before you board. The official entry point is when, in exchange for a valid credit card, you are handed a personalized plastic Cunard card with your name and cabin number - an identity card of sorts for all out of pocket expenses.

(Personal note: many decades ago I came and went to Europe several times on student ships, so-called: bunk beds dormitory style, buffet meals only, guard rails everywhere to keep plates and glasses in place. A rock and roll time  when entertainment was what you made for yourself. I don't recall paying extra for anything aboard, so basic were the amenities.)

I managed to be waitlisted for a second QM2 tour that showered me  with such souvenirs as  a chef's hat, a chef's apron, a gold Cunard emblem pin, a diploma, a letter of appreciation and a photograph of our group that had my  face  obscured. The latter was hand delivered to my cabin following the afternoon we  spent three hours climbing and walking, talking and listening as various department heads explained their duties. Good performances, all.  We  had high tea and champagne flutes and an intimate encounter with the captain, a genial scarecrow  with impeccable social graces as might be expected of a Cunard super chief. Not snooty upper class inflected manners. Everyday pleasant relaxed ones. The captain stands at attention for a welcoming cocktail reception. He smiles throughout. White gloved waiters in gold buttons line up to greet visitors for the afternoon tea dance.

Three evening meals were listed as 'formal dress only' - long or else elaborate cocktail attire - though no one I saw was ushered out of the dining room if they had forgotten or ignored the rules.

Which was another surprise worth noting (apart from the complexities of operating this floating city where passengers and staff total well over 3000 each trip). Two upper decks  with private eat-anytime restaurants called grills were reserved for the high rollers and thus were the only parts of the ship officially off limits (except for the kennels where, in theory anyway, only pet owners were allowed). A top class French restaurant called the Verandah had a three course lunch for $20 open to all.

Likewise, a planetarium, an auditorium seating - truly? - 1,400, a library boasting 10,000 volumes was available (checking out only two at a time) and a modest store selling travel tales and history ventures. The entire ship had a nostalgic feel: walls lined with panels recalling Cunard's past, valiant service in wars of old, etc. The morning power point lectures touted old-time movie stars such as Fred Astaire and Cole Porter - blemishes and all.

 What memories remains from such an escape? Above all, it was communality - albeit an exclusive one allowing friendliness brought on by knowing we existed in a unique and temporary environment.  The short seven day journey brought passengers together in surprising ways no matter the difference in prices paid.

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