Cruising on the QM2 – size matters

The Queen Mary 2 is big. Really big. It’s 345 metres long (that’s about three rugby fields in length) and 45 metres wide, and the funnel stands 62 metres above the waterline. At capacity, it carries about 2 500 passengers and 1 500 staff and crew.

But none of those figures communicate the actual, on-the-ground (so to speak) size of the vessel. A stroll around the whole of Deck 7, the promenade deck, takes about 10 minutes; if you’re walking fast, it’s closer to 6 (I know – I regularly did 10 laps of it).

But it’s perhaps when you’re standing in the double-volume Grand Lobby – low down in the ship, and right in the centre (midships, if you must) – that you can most appreciate how ridiculously big the QM2 is. The Grand Lobby is grand indeed – it’s furnished with a soaring double staircase (on which I mistakenly photobombed a couple’s look-and-tell: ‘She’s in the way!’ the wife complained, as I passed at the same time as the husband snapped the pic. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll just photoshop her out,’ he replied – aah, technology), several banks of lifts, the persecutor’s, sorry, purser’s desk, shops (waaaay too expensive for the likes of me, but I did window-shop with jaw agape), several bars (including a champagne bar; Veuve Clicquot, of course) and a casino; and, at either end of a vast boulevard-style central corridor, a gigantic three-level restaurant, the Britannia, and the 1 000+-seater Royal Court Theatre.

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The Grand Lobby (source: http://cruiseweb.com/)

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The central corridor off the Grand Lobby (source: http://www.beyondships.com/)

At times – in fact, often – it’s easy to forget that you’re at sea. Were it not for the slight (and usually very slight) rolling beneath your feet, you could just be in a really swanky hotel anywhere in the world.

(On the subject of sea legs, I didn’t realise that I’d ‘got’ mine until I was back on land after a fortnight of subconsciously allowing for the shifting deck: I had vertigo for days, and twice just fell over, without the benefit of strong drink. It was a very odd feeling and I was super-relieved when it went away.)

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One of the free things I did on board was constant exploring. I’d get up very early (at daybreak – I’m cursed with the inability to sleep beyond sun-up, like being a vampire in reverse, which is unfortunately also inversely as unsexy as being a vampire) and creep out of our ‘stateroom’ on Deck 5. All the cabins were called ‘staterooms’, which is silly – the first-class cabins might have been stately but the only state ours could claim was the state of being literally not large enough to swing even a small a sea-dog. Still, it was so cleverly designed that there was a place for everything, and as long as everything was in its place, it never felt cramped or claustrophobic. We were also very fortunate to have a porthole (we had 2 friends on board in ‘inside’ cabins, and they both said it wasn’t pleasant never knowing what time of day or night it was), and even luckier that it was on the right (starboard) side – because we were travelling north, I could see the run rising over the sea every morning.

I’d trot down to Deck 2, to the Cunard ConneXions computer centre, and, via my borrowed Samsung tablet (thanks, Isabella!), log on to the ship’s wifi to download emails. The wifi, like everything else on board, was hair-raisingly expensive, so as soon as the connection was made and the little clock in the corner of my screen began its second-by-second countdown, I urged the download along, with helpful admonitions of ‘Come on! Come on!’ Nobody else was around at that ungodly hour, which served two purposes: the downloads were indeed fast because nobody else was logged on; and there was no-one to witness me talking to myself. (The day did come, however, when my computer malfunctioned and I ventured some way beyond muttering to myself, publicly verging on a kind of psychosis that involved literal blood, sweat and tears; but more about that in a future post.)

Emails safely stored in the tablet, I’d trot up the stairs again to Deck 7 – the promenade deck.

My extremely frequent trip between our cabin and the door to Deck 7 (this video done in reverse)

Outside, the only people awake were the crew, swabbing the deck. After a night of airconditioned cocooning, it was always wonderfully invigorating to breathe in real air. In the first week of the journey, we sailed for a full week without touching land, and every morning I’d emerge to what seemed to be the same 360-degree view of the endless Atlantic. This became surreal after a while: because I never saw any ‘landmarks’ (an island, say, or another ship) to differentiate one bit of the sea from another, and because of the round shape of the world, and because the QM2 moved so steadily through the water that the motion was barely detectible, I often got the impression that we were stationary in the centre of giant saucer of water. This sounds as if it might become boring but it never was – rather, it was part of the overall unreality of the entire experience, of how easy it was to forget that we were actually on a giant vessel moving at about 1 000 km per day through the second-largest ocean on the planet. And when I shook my head and reminded myself of that (something I did often), it was all just constantly bloody amazing.

I’d go into the King’s Court Buffet – this was one of lots of restaurants on board (and I’ll tell you more about the wonderful food in a future post), and probably my favourite. A +-480-seater venue, it was open almost 24 hours (it closed only between 2 and 4am), and it was always empty in the morning, so I’d get myself a cup of coffee and go and sit in a window seat.

A great thing about the vastness of this ship was that, although there were so many people on board, it was almost always possible to find a spot wherever you wanted to be – mainly because of the huge choice of venues of all kinds, from tea-rooms and bars, through restaurants and theatres, to libraries and lounges.

That said, one morning I was exposed to that bizarre quirk of human behaviour that makes some of us band together as if we’re mercury. I was sitting, as usual, on my own in a window seat of the otherwise entirely uninhabited 480-seat King’s Court Buffet, when another early bird came in. She got herself a cup of coffee, then scanned the eatery, spotted me (I presume), walked straight over to me, and sat down at an adjacent table. She did this without greeting me or, apparently, even seeing me – although it’s completely impossible that she didn’t, in fact, see me (and you’ll see why soon.)

I was still reeling from this invasion of my personal space (there were, literally, 479 other seats she could have taken, of which at least 100 were also at windows but nowhere near me) when she did two things that made me want to lean over and plunge my nail-file into her heart. First, she took a big sip of her coffee and slurrrrrrrrped it down, sounding like a suddenly unblocked drain. I’d been trying to ignore her but this caused my head to snap up as if it were on a powerful spring, and I stared steely-eyed at her. She pretended I didn’t exist.

Then, she coughed.

When we boarded in Cape Town, it felt a little like we were getting onto a plague ship. A virulent flu/cough/cold bug had been racing through the passengers and crew, and a full sanitation programme was in place. Not only did everyone have to sanitise their hands (with liquid provided) every time they entered any public space, but board and card games that required lots of hand-contact were put away, and the captain even banned hand-shaking at his cocktail parties.

And it was the right thing to do. As Richard Wood says in our book Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist, bugs love cruise ships – ‘All those people in a confined space is exactly what a virus needs to spread.’

Some people got such a bad dose of the Cunard Cough that they ended up barely emerging from the cabins for the entire 2-week journey. But emerge many of them did, and when they did, they seemed to dog me – I spent an inordinate amount of time running away from Cunard Coughers, whose ghastly wet expectorations hounded me wherever I went.

And now here was one, sitting literally within spitting distance of me!

I made a loud harrumphing noise, pointedly and noisily packed up my bits and pieces, and took myself off to another window seat as far away from the Cunard Cougher as I could get without leaving the restaurant (which, because the King’s Court is huge, was pretty far away).

Without actually telling the woman how objectionable I found her, I couldn’t have made it clearer that I didn’t want her to sit right on top of me. But, three days later, she again entered the King’s Court Buffet very early, when I was the only person there; and, again, she made a beeline for where I was sitting and made herself slurpily and coughily comfortable at an adjoining table. This time, I didn’t hesitate: as she sat down, I got up and left.

In-fucking-credible.

And this is why I know she saw me: a few days later, I passed her in the Grand Lobby – and she greeted me by saying cheerily, ‘Hi, fellow early-bird!’ (Her accent revealed her to be American.) Sadly, she’d already gone by by the time I managed to get out my nail-file.

I tested my ‘human mercury’ theory in the 475-seater movie theatre one evening. My dad and I had got there early, and I bet my dad that everyone who came in would, in spite of having 473 other seats to choose from, choose to sit near us. And they did! Almost without fail! And, even more amazingly, when my dad and I moved into a largeish unoccupied block of seats (not in a particularly great place to view from, but we wanted to get away from a nearby gaggle of Cunard Coughers), the next couple of groups of people who came in, came and sat almost on top of us again! And let me stress that this was by no means because of lack of choice or space – by the time the movie started, there were only about 30 people in the entire theatre. (Please note that I do not think my dad and I are somehow just irresistibly attractive to other people; my theory is that most people, like sheep, unthinkingly band together.)

This happened years ago to my sister and me in Cape Town. We’d had a long and drunken Saturday night out, and on Sunday morning we decided to go and lounge around on the beach and nurse our hangovers. Once we reached Noordhoek, we walked about 2km along (for those of you who don’t know this glorious piece of Cape Town, the beach is about 8km long – so it’s really really big), where we put out our towels, slapped on sunblock, lay down and went to sleep. We woke up to find a family – mom, dad, teens, a toddler, a granny, a dog, a cooler-box and a boombox – camped out literally within touching distance of us. Within touching distance!! They had 7.98km of beach to choose from, and they chose our spot!

I’ve realised that this post has now become way too long, so I’ll pick up the QM2 story in the next one.

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Cruising on the Queen Mary 2

288Embarking the QM2 in Cape Town — at last, after a 4-hour wait at the Cape Town Convention Centre.

A fabulous, fascinating and unforgettable fortnight of living the life of the rich and idle definitely proved two things for me: I’m not rich and I’m not idle.

I’m also not a cruiser (in the non-sexual sense; actually, in both senses). To be a cruiser, you have to be over 60 at least, and a person of means. As Richard Wood so accurately said in our book Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist, ‘A ticket on the QE2, even the cheapest one, costs what most people would consider a modest fortune.’

The same applies to the QM2. On the trip I did in April-May, from Cape Town to Southampton, even the ‘special’ tickets, sold off at the last minute to fill the inside cabins (those without portholes), cost ₤300 – almost R5 500. You may think this is an absolute steal for a two-week all-meals-and-accommodation-included trip on a luxury cruise-liner, but don’t forget that you still have to fork out the price of a one-way air ticket home, which can set you back anything between about R8 500 and R12 000; plus ground transfer from the port to an airport in the UK, where public transport is pricey; and add to that the $172.50 (about R2 000) ‘mandatory gratuity’ extracted from each passenger for that leg, and you’re beginning to realise that even the cheapest ticket comes at a hefty price – around R17 000 at the very least.

I didn’t pay that, incidentally. I was there as a guest of my father (a freeloader, in other words). My Dad was lecturing on board the ship, and our passages were paid for by Cunard. And because I brought on board my pathetic and meagre South African rands, I happily stuck to only the free stuff. There was plenty of that, and certainly enough of it to keep anyone with the slightest inkling of ingenuity occupied for a fortnight. (One friend, when I told her I was going to do this cruise, said, ‘Oh, you’ll hate it! Friends of mine did it and they were so bored!’ I can’t understand how – there’s a jampacked itinerary of free things to do every day, delivered to your stateroom every night so you can plan your activities.)

There’s also lots of stuff you have to pay for, but only thrice did that become a problem for me. The first time was as we were departing Cape Town, and I wildly ordered a whiskey and soda to enjoy while sitting on the deck like a millionaire and looking back over the Mother City. It came to the equivalent of about R125, and I realised that it was just as well I’m a near-teetotaller, because if you like your tipple, it’s gonna cost you. (I did have other, occasional whiskey-and-sodas, for which my father paid – thanks, Dad!)

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Cape Town from the deck of the Queen Mary 2, April 2015

The second time was when I had a bad headache, and I popped in to the onboard chemist to buy some painkillers. They only had Neurofen, at $30 (about R350) per packet, and my headache instantly and magically cleared up.

The third time was when my Dad and I attended a Captain’s cocktail party (with about a gazillion other people, so no great honour), and got an official photograph with the top dog. Of course I wanted to buy it, but I thought $25 (about R300) a pop was a bloody cheeky. So instead I slunk into the photo gallery and took a picture of the picture with my phone.

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A free pic of a R300 pic: the captain with my father and me at a drinkie-poo do.

I wasn’t the only person irritated by the userous price of the prints (and other things). I stood behind a woman in the queue at the purser’s desk (about which more in a future post) who, waving around what I assume was a bank slip, had this to say to the purser: ‘I’ve been charged almost R1 000 for three prints. Do you know what we get in South Africa for R1 000? We get a photographer and a makeup artist, and they take pics not only of us, but also of our kids and our dogs!’ She was politely cheered by a few other people in the queue, clearly feeling as stung.

This unnecessarily high price of the official pictures was representative of the slightly unpleasant money-grabby atmosphere on board, which did get to me now and again. A 15% service charge was slapped onto everything (and that was in addition to the ‘mandatory gratuity’), for instance. I overheard another South African grumbling about how much everything cost: ‘We’re just a captive audience with open wallets,’ he said. I also noticed that while everyone had been very keen to pose for the QM2 photographers at the beginning of the trip, by the time we reached Las Palmas and they were offering to take shots of us as we debarked, most people waved them away.

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My Dad and me in Las Palmas, Canary Islands – this pic wasn’t taken by the QM2 photographers and didn’t cost me R300.

But of course the trip wasn’t only about spending money – or rather, trying to find ways not to spend money — and I’ll be sharing more stories about my adventures on the QM2 in future posts.

  • You can buy a copy of Life on a Permanent Wave here or here.