The following is a guest column by the noted travel writer and journalist SI LIBERMAN)
By Si Liberman
They’ve built bigger and glitzier ships since 2004 when the Queen Mary 2 debuted amidst a blizzard of publicity and hoopla, hailing it as the largest, costliest, most luxurious and fastest cruise ship afloat.
Take it from a veteran cruiser who came off a four-nation Scandinavian journey on the 2,600-passenger Cunard Cruise Line flagship last month (August): A successor to the retired, 39-year-old, trail-blazing Queen Elizabeth 2, she’s holding her own against the mega-ship competitors that came after her.
Billed as the Scandinavian Explorer, our cruise was a sellout, and explore interesting Scandinavian sites we did during 11 days of clear, warm, picture-perfect weather. The sites ranged from preserved Viking ships in an Oslo, Norway, museum to a stadium in Gothenburg, Sweden, that partially collapsed under the weight of 40,000 spectators during a wild Bruce Springsteen rock concert.
In classic terms, the QM2 is the Waldorf Astoria of cruising hotel life with 15 restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a gaming casino, ballroom, theater and planetarium. And she’s the workhorse of the three vessel Cunard fleet and the only ocean liner with regularly scheduled transatlantic service between Southampton, England, and New York City.
Capable of hitting speeds of 35 miles an hour and with a cruising speed of 26 miles an hour, she can outrace contemporary rivals, including Royal Caribbean‘s twin 5,400-passenger goliaths, Oasis and Allure of the Seas, whose top speeds are 26 miles an hour. And Queen Mary 2’s $900 million cost hardly seems like much today compared with the $3 billion Royal Carib shelled out for the Oasis/Allure siblings.
Tradition remains a big part of the QM2 experience with daily afternoon teas, a caste dining room system and rigidly enforced dress codes after 6 p.m. Wearing blue jeans at night is discouraged.
“If a man shows up at dinner without a tuxedo or dark suit on a formal night or not wearing a jacket and tie on a semi-formal night, the maitre d’ will politely remind him of the rule and direct him to the King’s Court buffet,“ said Robert Howie, the ship’s hotel manager. “There you can dine in a more relaxed atmosphere.“ Howie doesn’t foresee Cunard following the trend of other cruise lines that have relaxed dress codes and introduced choice and anytime dining,
“Our company is more than 150 years old with certain standards that our passengers expect and enjoy,” he explained. “No, I don’t see that changing.”
As for food quality and nightly shows, QM2’s was comparable to what my wife and I’ve experienced on Princess, Holland America, Carnival and other mega-ship cruises. Dining in the Todd English a la carte restaurant, though, was a letdown. The menu was similar to the one in our Princess Grill dining room; the medium rack of lamb entrée I ordered came out well done, and the Sicilian cabernet sauvignon wine recommended by the sommelier as full-bodied wasn’t.
Traversing the often turbulent North Sea en route to ports in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany was a surprisingly smooth ride -- so smooth, in fact, you‘d think the boat wasn’t moving, Credit her two pairs of Rolls Royce stabilizers and our good fortune of being able to land a 10th deck mid-ship stateroom.
Our upscale Princess cabin was roomy and very comfortable. There were two closets, a queen-sized bed, large sofa, glass cocktail table, club chair, TV set, blond wood accented shelves and cabinets, marble bathroom and balcony. Like a returning celebrity the ship still draws crowds. In Oslo and Stavanger, Norway; Gothenburg, Sweden, and Hamburg, Germany, hundreds showed up outside port security areas to view and take pictures of her.
Oslo was quite a revelation. Unlike other European capitals hurting from the recession, the city is enjoying a booming economy fueled by the oil and gas reserves being extracted from the North Sea. It enjoys a reputation as the fastest growing and most expensive city in Europe. Immigrants comprise a quarter of the metropolitan area’s 1.5 million population. The capital’s cleanliness, crowded streets and all the fashionably-dressed inhabitants we observed clearly reflects its rosy economic climate.
The town hall where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is annually held was jammed with tourists. Inside the large ceremonial room, the history of Norway is artistically depicted in massive montages of brilliantly painted figures filling opposite walls. At Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum , a 10 minute bus ride from there, we viewed three preserved Viking vessels and some of their ancient contents in glass-enclosed cases. Built with oak timbers between 800 and 900 A.D., the ships had been buried with their owners, according to our guide. In one, the remains of a woman and those of what’s believed to have been her servant were discovered.
You can’t help but fall in love with Stavanger, Norway’s fourth largest city. With a population of nearly 120,000, it still has the feel of a small town. The harbor‘s hilly cobblestone streets, wooden homes dating back to the 1700s, quaint shops, vibrant produce, fish and flower markets and structures that once housed a booming sardine and herring canning industry present a unique blend of things old and new. Because of its proximity to North Sea oil and gas fields and the home of Statoil, the Nordic region’s largest energy company, Stavanger is considered the Oil Capital of Norway.
The big attraction in Helsinger, Denmark, was the castle fortress immortalized as Elsinore in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play. And in downtown Hamburg, we found ourselves among thousands of cheering spectators urging on hundreds of bikers competing in a marathon.
As vacations go, this one on the QM2 clearly was a winner. Posted October 1, 2012.