Occupation:Travel Agent - Master Cruise Counsellor
Number of Cruises: 100
Cruise Line: Cunard
Ship: Queen Elizabeth 2
Sailing Date: n/a
Itinerary: Eastbound transAtlanticThe QE2
One Last Time
by Ernie Grossman
I do hate farewells and when I pulled up to New York’s Ocean Terminal on an overcast, drizzly July 22nd I thought the weather perfectly matched my emotions. Towering over the pier was the familiar Cunard Red/Orange and Black stack, set against a backdrop of gray New York sky. I stood in place for a few minutes, drinking in the sight I would not see again.
The QE2, berthed at one of the piers which are themselves reminders of the glory days of the Transatlantic express mail liners, always seems to exude an aura of throbbing power… her remarkably svelte hull seeming to strain against the tethers holding her in place… at the ready to thunder into the unpredictable North Atlantic, for which she was built.
I was not alone, standing there, drinking in this classic image for the last time and, at least me wondering if my fast developing melancholia would be the dominant emotion for the crossing.
I’m brought quickly back to reality by the entreaties of a typical New York longshoreman trying to rid me of my bags in the usual and not unexpected genteel fashion. (I always suspected that Cunard line specially trained these guys in advanced grumpiness, so the embarking passenger would all the more welcome the solicitous service found on board). In a few seconds I’m rid of my bags, and the requisite five dollars which will assure that my bags are sailing out of New York harbor rather than floating out.
It is just 11:30 am and I have made remarkable time flying up from Fort Lauderdale to New York. Cunard wisely assigns boarding times, by cabin category, and mine was mid-afternoon. So, one more tradition for me to follow. I hail a cab and crawl along in midday New York traffic to Grand Central Station, where I make a bee-line for the famed Oyster Bar… ensconced in the Station’s Lower Level, where it has been for decades. A dozen Cherrystone Clams (pristine, fresh from the sea, as always), a draft beer to wash them down and an indulgent bowl of made- to-order Oyster Stew, with another beer to wash it down… all accompanied by several packages of the Oyster Bar’s unique oysterette crackers (unduplicated anywhere on earth). I don’t know if it was the clams, the oyster stew or the two beers, but my mood surely was on an upswing as I grabbed another cab and headed back to my rendezvous with the Queen.
It is nearing 2pm when I return to the pier and embarkation is in full swing. The pre-assigned check-in time works well… there is no line and it takes just a few minutes to pass through security, check-in (and be issued with a passenger ID card with one’s picture on it) and walk up the gangway onto the ship.
As always, one embarks the QE2 on Two Deck, directly into the famous Midships Lobby… a large circular space whose walls are adorned with lovely sepia colored drawings with nautical and travel themes and with an inviting sunken center level with banquet seating. It is a lovely space. I’m greeted by a crewmember and escorted to my Stateroom… just a few feet forward of the Lobby, Port side. On this crossing, I’m in a P1 (Princess Grill) Stateroom, number 2054.
Awaiting me in my Stateroom is a chilled bottle of Champagne, lovely fresh flowers and some luscious Strawberries. The room is commodious… two oversized elongated portholes, a large writing desk with an illuminated mirror, sitting area, Queen sized bed (which could be converted to two singles) lots and lots of closet and drawer space, a huge bathroom with tub and shower and lots of storage room, a safe and refrigerator. The walls of the stateroom are lined with a fine wood veneer giving the room a glowing warmth that is hard to find now-a-days on newer ships. I’m traveling alone and the room is truly spacious for me… and would be quite so for two. I believe it is in the 275 to 300 square feet range. Yes… this will surely do!
In a few minutes there is a knock at the door and my luggage is delivered (the five bucks worked again!). I unpack and get set up, while sipping some of the champagne…my mood brightening all the more. It is about 4pm or so and we’re scheduled to sail at 4:30, so I walk forward to an elevator and go up to Boat Deck (the QE2’s classic promenade deck), then up the forward stairs to the Sun Deck, with it’s great viewing area just under the Bridge. It is pouring rain and there are lightening flashes every few minutes. One of them makes a direct hit somewhere on the pier and knocks out the computer system used for checking-in passengers causing a lengthy delay in the embarkation procedure and a delayed sailing. We finally sail at about 6:00 pm.
By this time, I have showered, changed and am comfortably seated in my favorite lounge on board… the Chart Room… situated on the Starboard side, just aft of the Caronia Dining Room on Quarter Deck. It is hard to imagine a more comforting place to enjoy a pre-dinner drink. Quiet cocktail hour music played on the original piano from the Queen Mary or a harp, a perfectly made (as always) extra dry Beefeater Martini, straight up (one olive please) and off to my right is passing by the abandoned ferry terminals on the Jersey side of the Hudson, followed quickly by a very close Statue of Liberty and mournful looking Ellis Island… and then Staten Island and under the Verrazano Bridge… the lights of Sandy Hook and a setting sun to the west as we glide toward the Ambrose Light tower (no more light ship), drop off our pilot and turn to the Northeast and the great circle route to Europe. QE2 has come alive… (she’s fully booked for this crossing) and one can sense that special ambiance of a Transatlantic liner crossing bubbling up and reaching a steady pitch that will continue for the next five days. How glad I am to be here!
The Most Famous Ship in the World!
QE2 is NOT a ship divided by classes… as is so often misstated. True, she was built that way as was the custom in bygone days. She is a one class ship, with all public spaces open to everyone (with the two exceptions of a small lounge, adjacent to the Queens Grill restaurant that is open only to Grill passengers and an even smaller lounge at the entrance to the Princess Grill restaurant that is open only to Princess and Britannia Grill passengers. One of the amusing results of QE2’s earlier two class design is the strange elevator structuring… baffling to many first timers on board. Elevators on the QE2 begin at odd decks and totally skip other decks, seemingly without reason. In fact, they were designed to only reach deck space within the original classes. One can master them, with a little effort, in a few days. Once you’ve learned the in’s and out’s they are quite convenient and get you to where you want to go rather efficiently.
The QE2 is a repository of Cunard Line history… including fabulous ship models, memorabilia from Cunard’s famous liners of the past, memento’s of past accomplishments and commendations, remarkable photo’s of notables who have sailed on her, not to mention the ship itself. The QE2 offers a “Heritage Trail” tour, departing a various times every day during the voyage, with an experienced and interesting guide, at no cost. It is well worth the time if you are interested in ships and those who sail in them. You can get a guide at the Purser’s Desk and do the tour on your own, too.
Overall, she is in excellent shape. She does exude a kind of fuzzy warmness that comes with age… a welcoming kind of homey ambiance that is hard to describe, but all-encompassing when you experience it first hand. “Comfortable” is a word that leaps to mind.
QE2 has four restaurant grades, and your cabin assignment and restaurant grade are linked. If you think about it, it really makes some sense. Why should a passenger paying, say, $1200 for a six day crossing get the same food and service levels as someone paying ten times that? Starting with the proposition that the Cunard is a luxury brand, one can be assured that the food and service in the lowest priced category restaurant is superb (it is)… and move up from there. The differences are subtle but each level up has a growing number of choices, more elaborate service and tableware standards and more atmospherics.
The entry-level restaurant, the Mauretania, has a wonderful menu and offers passengers a two seating (early or late) dining program. It is open for Breakfast, Luncheon and Dinner. Food and service in Mauretania easily equals anything offered on any of the Premium Brand lines… and then some. Mauretania Restaurant has its own galley.
Next up the ladder is the Coronia Restaurant. Caronia offers open seating dinning… pre-assigned tables, but continuous service from 6pm to 9pm every evening, and open times for Breakfast and Luncheon as well. Tables are available for 2, 4, 6, 8 and larger in the Caronia and service is superb. Recently redone, the Caronia is lovely to look at. It has high ceilings and well-spaced tables making for a quiet restaurant conducive to conversation in normal tones. The staff is accommodating and in ample numbers to ensure excellent service.
The Grill Category restaurants on board QE2 take dining ambiance to higher levels, with food preparation to match. Princess and Britannia Grills are the next level up. They are both intimate rooms, reminiscent of elegant Supper Clubs of a bygone era. Both rooms are elegantly decorated and feature banquet seating on various levels as well as standard tables on the main floor. Soft lighting, quiet ambiance and superb service are their hallmarks. On this trip, I dined in Britannia Grill. Raul, the immaculately attired Maitre ‘d, runs a tight ship, always with a smile and never failing to make each dining experience a delight. Raul’s staff, mostly from the United Kingdom, are professional and have just the right distance from the guest… they are not there to become your best friend. Robert, from Scotland, my waiter for the trip, never wrote down an order… and never missed, either. From day one it was “Mr. Grossman”, as it was to every guest in the room.
Food quality, preparation, presentation and variety are just superb in Britannia Grill. Deserts are uniformly great and the Cheese Cart is not to be missed. (Ask for the wheel of fine English Stilton, hidden on the lower shelf. With some Port Wine, it is the best!) And, we had a “real” Sommelier… Patrick… who actually knew his wines (QE2 has a remarkable cellar… including lots of “off the list” wines too). I prefer a good Italian Barolo with dinner… a wine that is best decanted about an hour before drinking… and Patrick had a bottle decanted and waiting every evening… including two evenings when I relied on one of his off the list suggestions, to my great delight. Britannia Grill does permit smoking (Princess Grill does not). Lots of tableside preparation is evident. Princess and Britannia Grills share a galley with Caronia Restaurant, although the Grill restaurants menus are more elaborate.
Queens Grill, the top restaurant on the ship, is consistently rated the best restaurant at sea. It has its own galley and offers a complete table de hotel and a la carte menu. It is an elegant dining experience in a grand setting. The Queens Grill galley prepares Queens Grill passenger’s room service.
The Lido Buffet, available for Breakfast, Luncheon and Dinner is, in my opinion, far and away the best such venue at sea. Breakfasts are great! Eggs to order, as you like them (including poached)… a wide range of breakfast meats to chose from (including the best Hash around), toast that is actually toasted and hot, lovely stewed tomato’s as an accompaniment and lots more. Luncheon similarly offers a wide selection, including hot carvings every day, separate sandwich and pasta stations, and on and on.
The Pavilion, hidden away on One Deck just forward of the aft pool, is an underutilized delight for a light lunch… hamburgers, hot dogs, minute steaks, French fries, salads and the like… self service but with lovely tables overlooking the pool area.
High Tea, served every day in the Queens Room lounge (and a few other locations) is simply not to be missed. It is served up in the traditional English fashion, with finger sandwiches, scones, pastries and individual ceramic pots of tea. To the accompaniment of quiet live music, served by smartly liveried staff, one can easily drift back to another time in history while savoring the moment. High Tea is one of those many events on the QE2, which is almost impossible to describe. You just have to be there.
Six Days At Sea
Many who have not done a Transatlantic crossing (note I use the word “crossing”, rather than “cruise”… they are very different undertakings) on an express mail liner, wonder if six or so days at sea will be boring. The answer is a resounding “No”.
The daily program is filled with interesting, enlightening and entertaining activities than seem endless. I, for one, rarely if ever read a cruise ship’s daily program or attend any of their offerings… ala “the Not The Newlywed Game” variety or the endless poolside games led by an over zealous, generally failed in show business, boisterous Cruise Director. The QE2 on a Transatlantic crossing is something else again. The daily program is required reading so as not to miss any of the eclectic offerings… on this crossing ranging from 5 lectures by John Maxtone-Graham, author of the definitive book on ocean liners (The Only Way To Cross) to author and editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine, Helen Gurley Brown… and lots more. Each day is
crammed full of these events. Often, there are real conflicts… resolved only by the fact that many of the events are video taped and repeated on the ship’s television system later. An occasional walk around the promenade deck… looking at the endless horizon and the dark green North Atlantic swirling around the QE2’s hull… rounds out the day. The vastness of the ocean… the security of our ship with its state-of-the-art global positioning navigation system… I marvel at how it was done in earlier days. Being at sea on this ship somehow fills one’s mind with thoughts like these… out on the deep… alone… remote from civilization. How wonderful!
Lest I forget, be assured that QE2 has the other expected amenities… an elegant Health Spa and Gym, an active Casino, great evening entertainment in lots of venues and a raucous English Pub. She also boasts a full, well equipped Library (she has the only full time librarian at sea), a fascinating Book Store with a remarkable collection of Cunard Posters from the past, ship paintings and books on ships and other nautical theme’s. Shopping, as you might expect, is elegant and varied on board… from a Harrah’s outlet to some of the best logo clothing and articles around. There are a dozen or so shops featuring a wide range of merchandise… including one with authentic antique memorabilia from famous Cunard vessels of the past (and the future… I was able to purchase some lovely Tee Shirts with the QM2 logo… available nowhere else). Of the six nights at sea, four are formal nights… and they mean it! It is wonderful and the dress code carries through for the entire evening.
I can assure the reader that six days pass faster than you can imagine on QE2… all too fast, in fact. Late in the last evening, we are off the south coast of Ireland, past Lands End and Bishop’s Rock (the traditional starting and ending point for measuring speed on the Transatlantic run) and into the English Channel.
On the morning of the seventh day, I am up on deck as QE2 sails up the Solent to the famed Ocean Terminal Docks in Southampton. We more at a fairly brisk pace, as river traffic salutes our arrival, on time. I’m sad to leave this great vessel. A short trip up to London awaits, a few days there and then, Virgin Atlantic back to Miami. I am filled with sadness at saying goodbye to this grand lady of the North Atlantic… a sadness tempered only by the prospect of seeing a new Transatlantic Liner… one I never thought would actually be built… the Queen Mary 2, which in January of 2004 will replace the QE2 on regular Transatlantic crossings. QE2 will sail her World Cruise in January of 2004 and then do one last Transatlantic crossing, in tandem with her younger sister, QM2, and then sail cruise itineraries out of Southampton, England.
There is still a chance to do a Transatlantic crossing on QE2… and I heartily commend her to all.
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For The Record…
QE2 Launched: 20 September 1967, John Brown & Company (Clydebank) Ltd. Scotland
Maiden Voyage: 07 May 1969, Southampton to New York
Ships Registry: Southampton, England
Gross Tonnage: 70,327
Length Overall: 963 Feet
Breadth Overall: 105 Feet
Draft: 32 Feet
Funnel Height: 204 Feet (above Keel)
Cruising Speed: 25 – 28.5 Knots (maximum 32.5 Knots)
Passengers: 1,777 at Double Occupancy
Crew: 921 (British)
Lifeboats: 20 (total capacity 2,244 persons)
Life Rafts: 56 (total capacity 1,400 persons)
Crossing 22 Jul 03: 26.5 Knots