Comparative luxury

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My Dad and I on another seafaring adventure – this time on the Silver Cloud, cruising the South African coastline

Having a very large elderly man collapse onto you, causing you to fold like a card table and trapping you under his immovable and possibly dying bulk, would be a traumatising experience in almost any conditions. That it happened to me on one of the world’s most vaunted luxury cruise liners spoke volumes.

The intractable unhelpfulness of the Queen Mary 2′s pursers’ station –  basically, their helpdesk – would have been funny had it not been so monumentally awful. On a ship that accommodates thousands of passengers, there are naturally going to be a literal boatload of queries and complaints. The QM designers anticipated this, and made allowance for it: there’s a bank of about 10 helpdesks at the pursers’ station. But only two or three of them are ever actually manned. That means that there’s almost always a long queue of people lined up waiting to find out what restaurant they’re billeted to eat in, what time the 10 o’clock show starts and why they’ve incurred an inexplicable and hair-raising charge on their credit card (about which more in a moment). Additionally, on a ship that caters mainly for over-60s, there isn’t the option of seated queueing – everyone, regardless of advancedness of age or stutteriness of heart, must stand in the line.

Which is why, when the very fat old guy who’d been leaning heavily on his cane in the queue ahead of me for at least 20 minutes, turned and said to me, “Oh, my dear, I feel dizzy,” I had no option but to try to catch him.

It’s one of the many differences between cruising on the Cunard Line-operated Queen Mary 2, and travelling on the very much smaller Silversea Cruises’ Silver Cloud.

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Mirror-selfie of my Dad and me, all gussied up.

To be fair, the passenger-to-crew ratio is roughly double on the bigger ship: about 2 600 passengers to 1 250 crew on the QM; about 290 passengers to 220 crew on the SC. The much smaller passenger/crew component on the SC certainly has its pros, and its helpdesk staffed at all times by people who simply can’t do enough to help you, and right now, is only one of them. You develop close acquaintainceships with fellow passengers quite quickly because you see them all the time; and the staff start intuiting your wishes and bringing you a cappuccino, for instance, just when you were about to order one. But there are also cons: a woman with a particularly vexing line in vapid chatter befriended me then began lightly stalking me, and I seemed to run into her around every corner. By comparison, on the QM, because you’re one of almost 3 000 people, it’s really easy to get lost in the crowd.

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Relaxing in a hot whirlpool while moored in PE harbour on a Tuesday morning. As one does.

Let me get the one other odious comparison out of the way immediately: on the SC, which sells an “all-in” cruising package at a sum in American dollars that would make most South Africans curl into the foetal position and cry like a little baby, everything really is included, even alcohol – they generously restock your cabin refrigerator every day and you can ask for just about any booze you like at any time of the day and night. You also get uncapped good-quality wifi.

On the QM, on which it’s possible for even an ordinary person who’s saved assiduously to get a berth (which will be in the bowels of the ship where you don’t get a porthole so you’ll never know what time of day or night it is – but hey, you’ll be on board), your fare doesn’t include a whole range of things, which will start driving you a little nuts: you’ve got to pay for alcohol (which is understandable but also through the nose), but then they also extract from you extra charges that seem unnecessarily niggardly: for bottled water, for any coffee other than a cappuccino, for wifi and memento photographs (both breathtakingly expensive), and – the most annoying additional charge of all – a very substantial “mandatory gratuity”; in other words, the QM forces you to cough up a very large tip for its staff, regardless of what you thought of the service. (Helpdesk aside, the service on the QM, like on the SC, is tremendously good. And on the SC you get a personal butler whose very existence genuinely seems predicated on fulfilling your every desire.)

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Great local wine from Groote Post in The Restaurant, the main fine-dining area.

Both boats are very goodlooking – what uber-luxurious cruise-ship isn’t? But the sheer scale and grandiosity of the QM takes some beating. It’s really the most exquisite ship, with enormous public rooms, plush carpets, chandeliers the size of small planets, acres of immaculate decking, astonishing artworks casually hung in gigantic sweeping stairways, and a vast choice of beautiful places to sit and beautiful things to sit on. It’s also got two external glass lifts, two extensive glass-lined galleyways at sea-level, a very grand Grand Lobbey, a theatre that seats over a thousand people, several swimming pools, many restaurants, including a vast buffet that offers seemingly every kind of food known to man, a huge library fantastically situated right at the front of the ship, with deep sofas to sit in and views over the open sea, and a planetarium. Yes, a planetarium.

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Reading on a deck at the back of the ship.

The SC simply can’t compete. It’s got a lovely pool and a pretty theatre and a perfectly acceptable small library, and two lovely restaurants, one of which offers a nice little breakfast buffet. It’s also got a serviceable gym which is situated right at the front of the ship, with a bank of treadmills facing the open sea – but, disappointingly, with TVs at face height so you can’t see the view. In the SC‘s plus column, it does have a dedicated outdoor running/walking track, something the QM doesn’t have.

In the same vein, there’s just no way you can get bored on the QM – if there isn’t anything going on that interests you (although there always is), you can just explore the ship itself – by the time I got off after two weeks, I still hadn’t exhausted every nook and cranny. On the SC, the laid-on entertainment is limited but they do have a fairly good DVD library.

Another substantial difference between the two ship experiences was the emergency drill. On the QM, when the emergency whistle blew, we were required to amble to a muster station, where we were shown how to put on our lifejackets (“Put it over your head”), before ambling back to our staterooms. If we’d hit an iceberg, we all would’ve died.

On the SC, the drill is thorough to the point of weirdness – down to being frogmarched out into the corridor, hand on the shoulder of the passenger in front of you, prisoner-of-war style, and lined up in front of the life-raft that would be carrying you to safety. The crew also did a full lifeboat drill during a day in port, and it was organised and impressive enough for me to have complete confidence in their ability to keep me alive should we meet trouble on the high seas.

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Cape Town from the sea, about 6am. Pretty, ne? And a lovely sight after 10 days away.

 

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