28.04.2012 - 30.04.2012
One of the things I traditionally enjoy about any trip is the bit before - the dreaming; the planning; the anticipation. In this case, everything had happened so fast that I hadn't really had time to take it all in, especially in my still less than perfect state. Though I was expecting to be heading to the US for a period and had finally received my visa earlier this year, I was expecting to be going to work. Thus most of the pre-preparation had been work related. But this trip is entirely personal, for convalescence, and essentially unplanned which left no time for any build up or anticipation. Baring some time hiding out in the sticks and hopefully regaining something resembling “normality”, I have very little idea of what I am going to do or where I am going. But I do like being at sea. It is one of the things that generally relaxes me most. At the moment relaxation is something I desperately need, and I settled onto the QM2 pretty quickly.
Cunard and the Queen Mary 2 pride themselves as the very epitome of luxury; throwbacks to the glory days before jet air travel, when transatlantic voyages were the norm and evocative names of companies such as White Star line and Cunard themselves, competed to be the most luxurious way to cross between Europe and North America. Given more time between booking and sailing, i'm sure my expectations would have increasingly risen, and in a way I think I am glad that I have not had that anticipation time. Why? Because thus far, and admittedly I am not entirely sure what I was expecting, I think I was expecting more from the QM2. First impressions are often telling, and after the first few hours on board I admit that I am not overly impressed. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the decor, to my mind, none of it is really very fancy: rooms feel like midrange chain hotel rooms, whilst the restaurants feel either a bit more or bit less fancy than that - I have been on a couple of cruise ferries in the Baltic which had not overly dissimilar standards in certain restaurants. Even the grand lobby and staircase looked surprisingly understated to me. Yes, there are posher bits, but after a pretty full exploration of the ship, I am still searching for that thing which gives me the “wow” factor that I should undoubtedly have received.
Though I have been on passenger ships before, I suppose this is my first proper crossing/cruise. The nature of the RMS St. Helena means that it is a very different sort of experience as well as being tiny in comparison, and whilst the HAL Noordam and Westerdam which I used to and from South Africa for the World Cup in 2010 are much closer in scale and scope to the QM2, both voyages were private charters and thus not really typical of more regular or scheduled services. Beyond that, I have only been on ferry-type vessels and cargo ships.
The QM2 is 345metres long and about 148,000 gross tonnes. Big, yes, the largest liner ever built by some distance and large amongst cruise ships when built, but are only average by modern cruise ship standards. The Allure of the Seas and her sister ship, for example, are over 225,000 tonnage, whilst the liner design of the QM2 means that she is significantly narrower than modern cruise ships. In terms of passengers, capacity on the QM2 is considered to be about 2,600 although the theoretical maximum is just over 3,000 (the extra people come from using the fold down beds in some cabins and suites and sharing with friends, not extra bookings). Yes, this is allot of people but in nautical terms, not as many as you might expect. In comparison, the Titanic also had a passenger capacity of about 2600, but in a tonnage of under 47,000 – less a third of the QM2, whilst the average modern cruise ship takes 3000-3500+, and a handful comfortably take upwards of 6000 passengers. Staff numbers generally add 50% to that total. As a comparison, The HAL ships I had been on were about 82,000tonnes, 285 metres and about 1,900 passengers, so significantly smaller that the QM2.
My first night on-board was not great. My cabin is on deck 4 (of 12), above the Queens Room near the stern of the ship. But it is, I assume, also above the engines, because I can hear a constant mechanical droning noise in the background, and feel (and even see, if I put a book on the desk, as the cover flaps up and down) a constant and noteworthy vibration in the room. Though the noise is generally audible on the lower decks, I can't see or feel the vibration anywhere else on ship including in the corridor just outside my cabin. In the evening, I can hear the music of whichever show was being performed below, which added an extra irritant and mean't that early nights were impossible. My cabin is roughly the same as my return on the Westerdam: both inside cabins of approximately the same size, style, layout and content. It can be converted between between double or twin beds, and two extra beds can be dropped down from the ceiling for use by a family or a group of 3-4 friends. These are folded up and locked into the roof when not required, which is sensible. But they both rattle something chronic, and really affected my sleep.
By the first morning I knew that if I didn't do anything about it, the rattle would be constantly on my nerves and I would struggle for sleep all week, but after asking both my cabin steward and the pursers office (the nautical equivalent of a hotel's reception) I was told that they couldn't do anything and even refused to send somebody to come and have a look. That seemed very poor customer service to me, and forced me to take matters into my own hands: some judicious use of tightly folded cardboard wedged into offending gaps, combined with unsightly but effective duct tape and rebuilding a desk lamp which also rattled gave me some much needed peace and quiet. For the remainder of the trip, I was forced to add an extra “room-rattle fix” approximately daily, with the end result being that my cabin started to resemble a bizarre piece if modern art or failed origami. A couple of existing bits of cardboard in the roof suggested that I was not the first to encounter these issues, but it was equally obvious that it was not one that Cunard cared about or checked when they were making the room up.
Elsewhere on the ship, I kept finding small things which were irritating or just not thought out properly. In isolated terms none of them were a huge problem, but all in combination convinced me that the ship was just not quite as well designed or as user friendly as others I had been on. For example, one of the larger lounges - the Winter Garden - was full of comfy chairs and tables. But all of the tables were either so low or so poorly designed that it was impossible to put legs under the tables, leading to an uncomfortable stretch to get drinks/other things from the tables. In the Kings Court area – location of many meals, including the self service options – each of the food serving areas had large perspex overhangs, as is normal. In theory, the idea is to stop the spread of germs by preventing people sneezing etc on the food, but in practice overhangs here are so large that it is incredibly awkward to actually get any of the food, especially from the back row. Air conditioning in the cabin could be varied by temperature, but not level as would be expected and can not be turned off. Sign-posting around the ship was patchy and lacking in many places where it would be helpful, whilst oddly, neither in cabins or with the welcome pack was there a top-down deck plan of the ship which would certainly have helped aid learning orientation of the ship, especially as some of stairwells and passageways do not run the entire height/length of the ship.
I also find some of the little details irritating or missing: though allegedly with a much larger selection of books on board, the library is probably less than a quarter of the size of that of the Westerdam and feels claustrophobic, whilst the presence of DVD players in cabins with a vast library of films, music and shows available to be borrowed on HAL ships added extensively to entertainment options, especially for those not feeling very well or sociable, and wishing to remain in their cabins. On the QM2, you are restricted to a few generally unexciting films shown on a daily loop on the TV, some of which were being repeated after the first day or two. In the Chart room, there are some lovely large charts are on the wall – the North Atlantic initially one looks quite impressive, but (admittedly, to a cartographer) at a slightly more detailed glance has some 'interesting' content. All of the text and names are in English, except for Corsica which is randomly shown as “Corse”. There are some curious inconsistencies in font sizes and styles, whilst despite the ship being launched 10years after the split, “Czechoslovakia” is shown; the only place named in Scandinavia and one of only 8 in the half of Europe that is shown is somewhere called “Viken” which despite the fact it is located within about 50km of Kristianstad where I lived for 6 years took me 2 days to recall it's existence, as it is only a village of maybe 4,000 people.
I also noted that whilst the variety of drinks on board was quite extensive, the entire selection of Ale's were stored in fridges or freezers. Whilst this is a constant battle outside of Britain and Ireland to make people understand why they should be stored and served at room temperature, for a mostly British crew on a British ship catering to at least a strong percentage of British passengers, this is unforgivable. Also, although I am sure it is done to disguise the true cost, I was irritated by the fact that 15% is automatically added to all drink purchases on board – hot or cold, in bars or room-service, bottled or hand made, alcoholic or not – and is compulsory. It is not that fact the service is compulsory that I dislike, but rather that it is not included in the price-lists (although the fact that it is added is mentioned on every page). I don't want to have to work out what 15% of 5.85usd is and if it is impossible to avoid, why not just show the total price with a note saying that 15% service is included? That, at least, is more honest.
I have also found staff attentiveness to be lacking: To take one example, on the entire voyage I was only once asked if I wanted something to drink: On all other ships, people are constantly enquiring if they can get you a beer or glass of wine with your meal or when you are sat in communal areas. I have also witnessed a couple of arguments/discussions between crew and passengers, to which the general attitude of the crew has been surprising and an almost arrogant “we work for Cunard. Of course we are correct. How dare you question us, you mere passengers who should be grateful just to be allowed on board”. Combined with my own experiences, I can say that there definitely hasn't been the levels of service and politeness that I would expect in any circumstances, let alone towards people paying hundreds (or in some cases, many thousands) of pounds to be there. The whole thing just feels, i'm not sure, perhaps elitist and not as relaxing or welcoming as I would expect. Oh well.