Queen Mary 2
QM2 is literally in a class by herself: a modern reinterpretation of the golden age luxury liner that's built to sail hard seas well into the 21st century. Though she's lost her place as the world's largest ship, she's an enormous vessel with a huge amount of elbowroom for everyone on board.
Typical Per Diems: $135-$165
Queen Mary 2 sails Transatlantic from New York (spring, summer, fall), to New England/Canada from New York (fall), and the Caribbean from New York (winter).
Before her launch, we often heard QM2 referred to by industry types as "Micky's White Elephant" -- Micky being Micky Arison, chairman of Carnival Corporation; the criticism referred to the fact that QM2's design and construction sucked up about $1 billion and 5 years of labor, a record expenditure to match her record-breaking size.
But that was before her launch. That was before the Queen of England did the honors at the naming ceremony. That was before the fireworks and traffic jams that attended her first arrival into every port, and amazingly enough, still continue to this day in many ports. When all is said and done, QM2 is a really remarkable ship: classic yet contemporary, refined yet fun, huge yet homey, and grand, grand, grand. The longest passenger ship at sea (when Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas was launched in spring 2006, she snatched the title as biggest in terms of tonnage), she's also the only real ocean liner built since her older sister hit the water in 1969.
As a modern-day ocean liner, the QM2 had a hull that had to be more knife-prowed than a normal cruise ship's, due to the need for speed. The need for strength meant her steel plating had to be uncommonly thick and her skeleton unusually dense and superreinforced. The need to battle high waves meant her superstructure had to be set much farther back on her hull than is common on today's cruise ships. The list goes on and on.
Inside, QM2 is laid out in such a way that, even after a weeklong crossing, you might still find new places to explore on board. And it's very unlikely you'll feel hemmed in or claustrophobic, as Heidi feared before she made her first crossing. She never once felt antsy in the spacious and gracious ship, and, in fact, wished the crossing were a few days longer! Our favorite rooms? The Queen's Room ballroom on formal night; the classic Chart Room for drinks before dinner; the forward-facing Commodore Club with its clubby atmosphere; and the forward observation deck on Deck 11, just below the bridge -- probably the best spot aboard when sailing out of New York harbor. Throughout, artwork functions both as decoration and for mood enhancement, with iconography that recalls the ocean liner's golden age. The most evocative art of all, though, may be a sound: Way up on QM2's funnel, on the starboard side, is one of the original Tyfon steam whistles from the first Queen Mary -- the same whistle that sounded when the Mary made her first crossing in 1936, now on permanent loan from the city of Long Beach, California.
In reality, QM2 is really two ships in one. The top categories, the Grill classes, are very luxurious and come with their own dining rooms, lounge, and private deck space. Guests in these categories also enjoy all of the rest of the ship along with everyone else booked in non-Grill class accommodations. For the purposes of the ratings in this guide, they are based on the largest part of the ship, the non-Grill categories. It is very safe to presume that the accommodations and dining ratings for the Grill classes would be higher.
And, let's be realistic: Without QM2, it's doubtful Royal Caribbean would have spawned Oasis of the Seas, in the corporate battle of "can you top this."
All of QM2's cabins, from the smallest inside to the largest outside, are decorated in a smooth, contemporary style, with light-blond woods, simple lines, and a clean, uncluttered look. They range from 162-square-foot inside cabins; to roomy, 194-square-foot outside cabins with portholes, minifridges, and large showers; to the truly over-the-top Grand Duplex Suites. Each of the latter is 1,500 to 2,200 square feet and has views of the stern through two-story walls of glass. Our coauthor Heidi is living proof that a family of four can do fine in a standard cabin without a balcony (there are no standard balcony cabins that accommodate families of four), but if you've got a larger budget, the Junior Suites (aka Princess Grill suites) are ideal. They're almost twice as big as a standard and have a huge bathroom with tub, a walk-in closet, sitting area, and an oversize balcony. Even standard inside and outside cabins, though by no means huge, have a simple elegance and a nice helping of amenities, including robes and slippers, a fridge, safe, dataport, and TV with e-mail capability. The vast majority of cabins are outside ones with balconies, but to ensure they stay dry in even the roughest seas, many of them are recessed back into the hull with steel bulkheads that block ocean views when seated. All Queens Grill and Princess Grill suites feature Frette linens, dedicated concierge service, a full bottle of champagne or sparkling wine on embarkation, and access to the Queens Grill Lounge and a large private deck overlooking the stern (which is actually also open to Princess Grill guests as well, despite the signage). Queens Grill Suites also get fully stocked bars, daily canapés, flatscreen TVs, and personalized stationery.
There are 30 wheelchair-accessible cabins total in various cabin grades.
Decor-wise, the Queens Grill and Princess Grill restaurants that serve suite passengers exclusively are the very models of restrained good taste, with a series of elegant blown-glass vases as their one bold touch. The Britannia Restaurant, on the other hand, is a large dramatic space, intended to recall Queen Mary's magnificent first-class restaurant and featuring a vaulted, Tiffany-style glass ceiling, a curved balcony that echoes the shape of the QM's famous bridge, candlelit tables, soaring pillars, and the largest art tapestry at sea, depicting a liner against the New York skyline. Although it's large, the space is exceedingly glamorous, and designed to feel grand but not overwhelming. The new Britannia Club area has literally been carved out of a corner of the restaurant, but misses out on the full dramatic height of the room. Still, the 100-seat area succeeds in providing an exclusive, old-world dining experience, just as the suite guests have in the Grill restaurants. All guests can dine in the cozy and elegant Todd English restaurant for a $30 cover charge for dinner (it's $20 at lunch). King's Court is the ship's casual buffet option, and it becomes separate (complimentary) specialty restaurants each evening.
Because QM2 was designed for comfortable sailing in rough seas, most of the public areas are clustered unusually low, down on Decks 2 and 3. At midships, the relatively restrained (except what's with those jarring white pillars?) Grand Lobby atrium opens onto two central promenades, decorated with huge Art Deco wall panels. Some are stunning and recall decorated glass panels from the opulent liner Normandie, while others are a bit chintzy (they look like they're plastic) and miss the mark.
Getting beyond that one flaw, Deck 2's promenade leads down to the elegant Empire Casino and the too-big-to-be-cozy Golden Lion pub. Up one deck, the very attractive Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar (serving a variety of champagnes, as well as caviar and foie gras) is decorated with slightly abstracted images of mid-20th-century movie stars and leads into one of the most beautiful rooms on board: the Chart Room, a high-ceilinged space with green-glass deco maps on one wall and the feel of a great ocean liner. You expect David Niven to come strolling through any minute. By day, both of these rooms are popular hangouts for book readers, letter writers, and daydreamers. Across, on the ship's port side, Sir Samuel's Wine Bar serves coffee, sandwiches, and cakes in the morning and afternoon. Forward, the Royal Court Theatre is a two-deck grand showroom and the principal theatrical venue on board, seconded by the striking Illuminations planetarium farther forward.
In the stern on Deck 3, the Queen's Room ballroom perfectly captures the essence of Cunard style, running the full width of the ship and boasting a high arched ceiling, the largest ballroom dance floor at sea, crystal chandeliers, and a truly royal quality. The G32 nightclub, almost hidden behind silver doors at the head of the Queen's Room, is decorated in industrial style to match its name -- "G32" was the number by which QM2's hull was known at the shipyard, before Cunard decided what she would be called.
Other notable spaces include the Winter Garden on Deck 7, designed to provide an outdoor garden feel on long transatlantic crossings, which somehow misses the mark; and the Commodore Club bar/observation lounge on Deck 9, with its wonderful white-leather chairs, dramatic bow views, and attached Churchill's cigar room. There's also a card room hidden away on Deck 11, just behind the Observation Deck, as well as the remarkable library and bookshop forward on Deck 8.
Pool, Fitness & Spa Facilities
The Canyon Ranch Spa is a two-story complex occupying some 20,000 square feet. At the center of its treatment rooms is a coed 15X30-foot aqua-therapy pool whose relaxation gizmos include airbed recliner lounges, neck fountains, a deluge waterfall, an air tub, and body-massage jet benches. There's a hot tub adjacent, and nearby is a thermal suite composed of aromatic steam rooms and an herbal sauna. A salon occupies the top level of the complex, affording tremendous views from its lofty perch. The gym, one deck down, is sort of drab and chopped up, but is perfectly well equipped to make people sweat, with free weights and the latest digitally enhanced climbers, steppers, runners, and rowers.
A more classic exercise is a walk or jog around the wide outdoor Promenade Deck, which encircles the l-o-o-o-o-o-ong ship on Deck 7 and allows for beautiful sea views; three times around equals 1 mile. For some shoulder work, there's a pair of golf simulators adjacent to the covered pool solarium on Deck 12. Other dips include a splash pool and hot tubs way up on Deck 13, and several in the tiered stern, including a wading pool, family pool, and play fountain on Deck 6, outside of the children's playrooms. Rounding out the sports options are Ping-Pong, an outdoor golf driving net, basketball, quoits, a paddle-tennis court, and, of course, shuffleboard -- this is a transatlantic liner, after all.