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Cruising 2005

Queen for a Year

The world's largest cruise ship just celebrated its first birthday. Is it still a big deal?

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page P01

It took me three days, but I finally found my place aboard the Queen Mary 2.

On a ship where a description of anything must include an adjective ending in "est" -- biggest, grandest, tallest, widest, costliest -- my pleasure was a simple one, discovered on the teak flooring of Deck 7. There, rows of polished-wood deck chairs swathed in thick green cushions wind for hundreds of feet along a varnished rail. Soooo Titanic. But who'd use those things when the QM2, the world's largest cruise ship, has so much else to offer?

Queen Mary 2
Queen Mary 2
Sitting on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it passes through the Eastern Caribbean. (John Deiner - The Washington Post)

_____Cruising 2005_____
Queen Mary 2
Trends in Cruising
Graphic: Roundup of Mega Ships
Cruise Contacts
A QM2 Hit Parade

You can spend a week on the Queen Mary 2 and do nothing but race from one activity to another. So how to choose? Here are nine sure-fire activities.

Go to the library. With magazines, Internet-for-a-fee and more than 8,000 volumes ranging from travel guides to classics, the QM2' s library -- the largest afloat -- is not only beautifully appointed but functional.

Have an afternoon drink at the Commodore Club. This intimate U-shape room tucked on Deck 9 toward the bow features a bar adorned with a giant model of the ship, but go for the amazing views.

See both planetarium shows. Two starry extravaganzas are in repertory at the Deck 3 Illuminations theater, and both dazzle. You need a free ticket for a set time, so pick it up in the morning on days at sea or risk losing out.

Have lunch at the Golden Lion Pub. The pub grub (fish and chips, bangers and mash, etc.) isn't widely publicized in ship literature, and it's only served from 11 .a.m. to 2 p.m., but the food -- fried up fresh and served piping hot -- is smashing.

Sun at the Splash Pool. If you like your privacy, head to the top deck toward the bow, where you'll likely have this pool and its hot tubs to yourself.

Buy a Spa Club Passport. Services at the Canyon Ranch spa range from expensive to stratospheric in price, but a one-day pass to its spectacular Aqua Therapy Centre (pools, spas, saunas) starts at $19. A better deal: the three-day pass for $49.

Eat at Todd English. The Deck 8 view isn't great (pool chairs and a bar), but the service, food and plush decor make Todd's a QM2 highlight. It's $20 extra per person for lunch, $30 for dinner, but worth it. Book early; there's a reservations kiosk right before you get on the ship.

Go to Big Band Night. Find out when the Queens Room Orchestra will be cranking out Tommy Dorsey and Co., then put on your dancing shoes. It's the ship's most elegant affair, and it's plumb wonderful.

Buy a poster. Hermes and Veuve Clicquot champagne are duly represented aboard, but the top souvenirs are the vintage Cunard posters ($30) in the bookshop on Deck 8.

-- John Deiner

Seventy-two hours later, having explored the vessel from its bowels to the Boardwalk Cafe, I answer my own question, then fall fast asleep.

The QM2, which celebrated its first birthday during my January isle-hop through the Eastern Caribbean, is indeed gargantuan. At 1,132 feet long and 135 feet wide, the ship is the 151,400-ton gorilla wherever it lays anchor. On board are a planetarium, a 20,000-square-foot Canyon Ranch spa, an English pub and a ballroom -- but to find them you have to wend through miles of corridors with more dead ends than an incomplete subdivision.

And after a year as the headline-stealing queen of the seas, it's got the ego to match. Muted earth tones define the ship's dignified palette, voluminous sprays of fresh flowers overwhelm vases, and Beethoven riffs outnumber Billy Joel in public places. The only neon in sight is in the disco, whose name (G32) is more familiar to the ship's relatively older clientele as a winning bingo number than a place to boogie. In its most uppity gesture, guests with suites nosh in separate dining rooms and sun on a private deck, but otherwise mix freely with the rabble.

Scratch beneath the QM2's oh-so-proper British veneer, though, and here's what you'll find: a dandy of a cruise ship, and one tailored for transatlantic travel at that. Placing this dapper behemoth in the Caribbean, the land of rum punches and limbo contests, is like putting clown feet on James Bond.

An uneasy fit? At times, yes. But somewhere between the heights of hype and the deep blue sea, there's a Queen Mary for everyone. You just have to know where to look.

Oh, the grumbling. It's incessant, and as hard to dodge as gnats at a picnic. It starts before we leave port in Fort Lauderale, Fla., as many of the ship's 2,600-plus guests gather on the tiered decks at the ship's aft.

Five other cruise ships are jockeying to depart as the sun starts to fade, causing outrage among some standing near my wife and me. "Don't they know who we are? Why can't we go first?" snarls one woman. (A few moments later, as Xtasea, the resident Caribbean/Top 40 band, plays the "Macarena," she remarks, "That reminds me. I need a margarita." She's either hard of hearing, unfamiliar with the song, or both.)

For the next seven days I listen to a litany of criticism, surprised that after a year in operation the QM2 continues to generate such a high volume of whining. Admittedly, cruisers are notorious nitpickers, but still . . . So-so reviews of the ship litter the Web, but many were based on the inaugural voyage in January 2004 or the months shortly thereafter. I'd found that newer reports were much more positive, an indication that the ship had shaken off any opening-day snags.

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