4-day cruise on Queen Mary 2
Certainly, the first thing that impresses is just how enormous the Queen Mary 2 is. The second thing that impresses is how quick, seamless and, most of all, how civilised the Cunard check-in and security procedure is, compared with the more typical airport scrum, even when travelling Business Class. Better still, there are no problems with regard to what your luggage weighs, the size or number of cases, or having to worry about liquids. It's also the quickest check-in I've ever had for either a flight or a hotel - within minutes we arrive at our "stateroom" cabin to find our luggage outside and a bottle of wine inside waiting to greet us.
The cabin is compact but amazingly manages to comfortably fit everything in that one could wish for - there are separate wardrobes for me and my husband, each with plenty of space and plenty of hangers. The king-size bed is supremely comfortable, the TV is a decent-size, and there's a dressing table, coffee table and mini-bar. I can only imagine and salivate over what the most luxurious duplex apartments or suites must be like!
After unpacking we go to the promenade deck where a reggae band is playing a lively send-off to get us in a holiday mood as we sail out of Southampton. Everything on deck is pristine and screams "luxury", from the outdoor swimming pools and whirlpools, through to the thickness of the sun-bed mattresses. After chilling out on deck we go to the main dining room for dinner, which has stunning décor, as does the rest of the vessel. The ballroom, restaurants, lounges, bars, staircases, lifts and even the passageways pay homage to Art Deco design, resulting in a fabulous blend of divinely elegant and sophisticated style, intertwined with modern functionality.
Meanwhile, back at the dining table in the Britannia Restaurant, it's not only the décor but the service and food that also impress. Despite the hundreds of people at one sitting, the salon is so well-laid out and spacious that you simply don't notice the numbers, and the impeccable service is timed just right, neither too slow, nor too hurried. What I marvel at most, however, is how the menu accommodates individual cooked-to-order courses, so that my medium-rare steak, and my husband's (sacre bleu!!!) well-done steak both arrive perfectly cooked (well, for the sake of accuracy, I should really say "both arrive as requested").
After dinner we are spoilt for choice as to our evening's entertainment, and despite thinking we might have a reasonably early night, the evening soon unfolds into an atmosphere of non-stop partying. We start off in the spacious and comfortable theatre with its wide plush seating from where we enjoy a fabulous song-and-dance show. Then we head off to the sumptuous Queens Room ballroom for a Big Band Ball evening. I am particularly enamored with seeing the QM2's gentleman hosts inviting all the ladies to dance, something of a tradition apparently on cruises such as these, and the smiles on the faces of those who take to the floor is wonderful to see, as is the dancing itself, ranging from the tango, jitterbug and jive through to the waltz and cha-cha-cha.
Watching the many bodies twirling about on the floor, it strikes me how people of all ages seem to enjoy this type of dancing (the Strictly Come Dancing TV series having clearly attracted an entirely new generation of fans). I don't know about the rest of the UK but in London there are remarkably few places to spend such an evening so, I would say to anyone who loves dancing: Come on board the QM2, it's all happening here! And for all the other dancing queens there is of course a disco, which one night featured a tremendously fun Abba-themed evening.
Later on, after a few cocktails in the lively Chart Room bar listening to a mellow jazz band, we wander into one of the many restaurants for a cup of tea, where we observe people enjoying a late-night snack from a full-blown buffet offering everything from sandwiches and cakes to salmon, noodles, and vegetables. Today, we had intended to fully explore the ship but the time has just flown by... still, there's plenty of time tomorrow!
Day 2 - Zeebrugge
After breakfast (including fresh pink grapefruit - something that in my experience even some of the best hotels don't offer) we head off to visit the nearby bijou city of Bruges which seems to have it all - impressive historic architecture, achingly pretty canals, enticing cobbled alleyways, fascinating museums, great food and truly decadent chocolate shops. I must observe, at this point, that it is inconceivable that any self-respecting chocaholic such as myself could walk past all these shops with their mouth-watering displays without entering. I, however, do keep walking past with (admittedly self-admiring) self-restraint, largely due to my drooling anticipation of the wonderful desserts I know await me on board later on.
Before taking my cruise, I did wonder just how "packaged" the excursions might be but, besides fully-organised and accompanied half or full-day tours, you can also do a "do your own thing" tour, which in essence simply escorts you straight from the ship to a central location in town, with none of the hassle and worry of making your own way there and back again.
Back on board in the late afternoon, after succumbing to a quick tea with delicious scones and finger sandwiches, we find our way to the planetarium - yes, really - I suffered no blow to the head making me see stars, there really is an on-board planetarium showing a film with awesome special effects, which the child in me absolutely loves! We note that time is moving on rather too quickly so, tonight, we opt for an informal meal in The Carvery, where the roast beef is excellent, before changing into our formal wear for the evening, then going to the theatre show which features the highly-amusing stand-up comedian Adrian Walsh.
Afterwards, we wander down to the Queens Room for The Royal Event: Black and White Ball, where everyone has made the effort to look glamorous (though for people who don't want to go to the Ball there are endless other activities to do elsewhere on board). The orchestra is excellent, as is the standard of dancing - unlike ourselves, many people have clearly taken lessons, so to us it's rather like having the equivalent of front row seats in the audience of a championship dance event - only Angela Rippon is missing. Afterwards, we pop our heads into the disco where people of all ages are strutting their funky stuff, before heading off for a late-night cocktail. I could definitely get used to the High Life, I decide, particularly as the drinks on board are surprisingly reasonably priced. Today, we had intended to fully explore the ship but the time has just flown by... still, plenty of time tomorrow (hmm.... doesn't this sound familiar!).
Day 3 - Rotterdam
This morning slight consternation sets in with the realisation that we are half way through our voyage and have still barely seen a quarter of the QM2. We intend to fully explore the ship but really are concerned that time will simply fly by all over again, especially if we do a long trip on shore. Having been to Amsterdam on several occasions previously, we initially plan to visit The Hague instead, but heavy rain and lightning storms put us off. Instead, we (OK, it was MY decision, not my husband's) decide to venture only as far as Rotterdam since the wet weather hasn't managed to dampen my enthusiasm for a few hours of shopping, and I dutifully return laden with carrier bags. Unlike flying, it is so nice to know that I can buy what I please without fear of being hammered with extra baggage charges.
Back on board after our short shore-time, I'm secretly pleased that we now have the perfect excuse and the rest of the day to finally explore the ship properly. It's been a difficult choice deciding whether to make the most of the time on shore, or on board, but I would hate not to have seen and made the most of all the QM2's facilities.
Since the typically bad Bank Holiday weather prevents us from enjoying the outdoor pools, we discover the indoor spa with its fabulously relaxing hydrotherapy pool and soothing water massage jets - oh, what blissful, self-indulgent pampering!
Suitably reinvigorated, we then bring new meaning to the phrase "let's hit the deck". Instead of going for a slumber we are on a personal mission, striding along the many of the ship's 14 decks with unbridled zeal, floor by floor (the length of the ship being 345 metres or 1132 ft long) to ensure we miss nothing - the truly impressive library, board games area, children's play zone which even has an air-hockey table, good-size gym, a sports court area including basketball and a golf simulator, and we visit another pool (of 5 on board) which has a retractable roof.
At one point, in a moment of exuberant silliness, my husband and I play a game, which is not "guess what they have on board", but the more difficult "guess what they DON'T have on board", since they seemingly have everything. Finally we decide that the only thing missing is a bowling alley, and we amuse ourselves for a few minutes, imagining striking sheer torment and terror in the hearts and minds of health and safety executives having to cope with drawing up a brief for an on-board bowling alley, with special instructions for coping with extraordinary circumstances like choppy seas.
Moving on, we stumble across some charming nooks and crannies to hide away in, including the more secluded Commodore Bar, before stopping to indulge in a glass of bubbly in the romantic and opulent Champagne Bar (naturally for research purposes only, in order to be able to make personal recommendations about the on-board facilities to our friends), having ambled past the Casino and the (typically British) Red Lion pub.
There are so many on-board restaurants to choose from that we struggle a little deciding which one to try, but in the end decide to eat in The Lotus oriental buffet restaurant, where there's a wonderful spread of Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and Indian dishes to choose from.
This evening's entertainment includes a rock-and-roll and Soc Hop party in the ballroom, after which we have our ritual cup of tea and chat to one of the charming gentleman dance hosts, who we feel really earn their keep with their non-stop dancing, before contentedly venturing back to our stateroom to collapse into bed after another truly fabulous day.
Day 4 - Cherbourg
This morning we decide to spoil ourselves even more and opt for breakfast to be served in our stateroom. Fresh grapefruit is not an option on the room service menu but I ask for it anyway and, lo and behold, it arrives, as well as two rather large pots of coffee that we also specially requested, by this point needing all the caffeine we can get.
Today we are blessed with lovely weather for our Gardens of Cherbourg tour. All three gardens we visit are ablaze with a riot of glorious colour, but my favourite is the magnificent private chateau, Nacqueville, whose perfectly sculpted garden with views towards the sea was designed by our very own Capability Brown. As an added bonus, our charming hostess and guide is the owner of the chateau, and she has some fascinating tales about her ancestry and the chateau's history.
We have dinner in the main dining room tonight, saying goodbye to the fun crowd of people we shared our table with on the first night. After dinner, the theatre show is an eclectic but thoroughly engaging mix of Motown song-and-dance numbers, coupled with songs by the flautist Bettine Clemen, who I later bump into in over my late-night cup of tea, where she tells me about her fascinating travels around the world.
We go back to our stateroom to pack as our luggage must be left outside by midnight. As I put everything away, I am suddenly aware that I have brought a huge pile of books and magazines with me, but have not even read so much as one of them! We realise that the time has gone by extremely quickly, with my husband expressing the opinion "there is almost too much to do on board". Naturally, I dismiss this as utter nonsense, retorting that there is not too much to do, it's just that we had too little time to do it all, and next time we should do the seven-night trip to New York instead. Thank heavens we can put our clocks back one hour tonight so we get a little extra time in bed, having put them forward on our first day!
Day 5 - Southampton
Morning comes too fast and my only grumble is that we need to have had breakfast and vacated our staterooms by 8.30am - an inhumanly cruel time in anyone's books. The fact that the ship is heading to New York that day seems entirely irrelevant to me, although the crew sprucing up the staterooms might have a different point of view.
Reflecting on our past four nights, I realise that any small qualms I may have had about finding the sheer number of people overwhelming is not borne out at all, despite learning later that there are some 2,600 people on board, which I would never have believed, had I not asked.
The good thing is that you can be as friendly as you wish or totally maintain your privacy if you prefer. We found people on board to be very friendly, far more so than we have ever found when staying in hotels. At the same time, should you wish to maintain total privacy, that is also easily done, not only because of the size of the ship, but also because of the many smaller lounges and cozy bars dotted around and tucked away in corners.
Again, the staggered check-out and disembarkation procedure is efficient and quick, allowing us to stay on board in comfort until our group's disembarkation time-slot, then quickly locate our suitcases and collect the keys to our car in no time at all. From being pampered from start to finish, we are now back in the cold real world, but with a warm inner glow.
Dare I say in conclusion - we've been all at sea, had a whale of a time, and now the thought of giving up this fantasy dream experience and unadulterated luxury makes me nearly want to blubber!
Written by Rona Levin