A taste of yesteryear

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It is a veritable who’s who of the rich and famous. The black and white photographs ooze charisma and romance from decades past; the subjects immaculately dressed in sharp suits and elegant dresses, laughing naturally with fellow passengers or directly into the camera.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Sammy Davis Jr and Debbie Reynolds are among them, to name but a few.

As diverse as the list is – actors, singers, royalty, sportsmen – they all have one thing in common; the photographs were taken on the decks of Cunard ocean liners, many from the 1950s, considered to be a golden era for Cunard. It was the glamorous way to travel between Britain and the US, and the stars lapped it up.

It is in the corridors of one such Cunard liner, the Queen Mary 2, that the photographs hang. And it is this bygone age, one synonymous with trans-Atlantic cruising, that Cunard has revisited and cultivated for the modern day cruiser.

We board at Darwin, the grandeur of the 150,000-tonne liner all the more apparent given the limited infrastructure of the surroundings. On the taxi journey to Darwin’s Fort Hill Wharf the vessel dominates the landscape. But then the QM2 and its 14-decks tend to dominate most landscapes.
Four full days at sea, with a day in Bali sandwiched in between, lie between us and Perth, our final destination.

Despite its youthfulness – QM2 was christened by the Queen in 2004 – it exudes history, and trades off the colourful heritage of its Cunard parent and the liners that pre-date it, the aforementioned photographs one such homage to yesteryear.

Retro posters of Cunard’s grand liners – Mauretania, the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania – are dotted around the ship, while on our cruise, lecturers passionately recount the history of Cunard. Even fridge magnets sold in the QM2 shop, usually the tackiest of souvenirs, carry Cunard White Star branding and are tastefully designed (say what you like about sticking objects on a kitchen appliance, fridge magnets are the collectables of champions).

What the QM2 is not is your average cruise ship. For a start it isn’t really a cruise ship at all, but an ocean liner, the shape of the hull one of the design aspects that sets it apart.

What the QM2 is, is unmistakably British, notwithstanding that 127 years of British registry ended in 2011 when Hamilton, Bermuda controversially replaced Southampton on the ship’s stern. The change enables Cunard to take advantage of the lucrative weddings at sea market, something not possible under British law.

Nevertheless, it is a ship that captures an elegance and sophistication in keeping with those grand British liners of old that traversed the Atlantic. It flaunts wood panelling, a magnificent six storey lobby with sweeping staircase (yes, think Titanic if you must), fine dining restaurants and wide-open decks. Other touches include afternoon tea with a head-spinning array of cakes, served in the Queens Room by white-gloved waiters, accompanied by a string quartet.

It may sound ostentatious, but the stuffiness that I can only imagine was symptomatic of the class-ridden 1920s and 30s gives way to a relaxed and easy ambience onboard. It is traditional, rather than pompous.
Don’t expect to wear jeans and t-shirt to dinner, mind you. There is a dress code each night in the main Britannia Restaurant – a two-deck dining room for 1347 passengers that features another sweeping, though more modest staircase – with formal, semi-formal and elegant casual evenings.

There is one formal night on our voyage, where black tie is a requirement.

I generally don’t do smart, so being compelled to scrub up and wear a bow tie, dinner jacket and crisp white shirt is really no hardship.

Indeed, we even have a photo taken in our finery, sitting at a grand piano, by one of the many official photographers – one for the parents’ mantelpiece.

The ship’s 14 bars each have their own appeal and character. They range from the Champagne Bar to the English-style pub – The Golden Lion – which sells John Smith’s Bitter, a taste bud treat for an Englishman living in Australia.

As with many Deck Eight Cabins – correction, Deluxe Staterooms – ours has a balcony, but with a twist. It has a whopping great lifeboat for a view. Initial disappointment is, however, replaced by an acknowledgement that it probably matters little as we won’t be spending too much time in our cabin.
It’s worth noting though, that if you do anticipate kicking back on your balcony and want an unobstructed view of the ocean, avoid the majority of staterooms on this deck.

On a similar note, one of the more negative perceptions that continues to linger about cruising is the worry of being stuck. Stuck on a floating hotel with no way of getting off and not an awful lot to occupy your time.
Our voyage features four full days at sea, and while it’s true, quite obviously, we can’t get off, we are hardly stuck for things to do. Only the narrow minded and those lacking in imagination would seriously reach that conclusion.

In the early evening, a four page program arrives in our cabin listing the following day’s events. We devour the schedule, plotting the next day’s activities. It is more a case of deciding how can we fit it all in rather than scratching our heads as to how we’ll fill our time.

The activity program is varied, from classes on how to get the best from your iPad to watercolour art classes and ballroom dancing.

Lectures tackle subjects ranging from wealth creation to the history of Cunard to a biography of navigator Matthew Flinders. But any thoughts of wandering in and picking a seat at the last minute are misplaced as the first time we try such a nonchalant approach we are left standing at the back of the 1094-capacity Royal Court Theatre with other latecomers.

In addition, the QM2 boasts the largest planetarium at sea, with daily shows, each of around 20 minutes. Elsewhere, regular pub trivia and a variety of sports tournaments are held each day, if that takes your fancy.
But wandering along the decks, virtually deserted after 11pm, gazing out to the ocean or sitting back by one of the pools with a cocktail are equally rewarding pursuits.

In truth, though, finding two hours to do the latter is not as straightforward as it might seem. In between a slap-up breakfast in the Britannia Restaurant or in the more informal buffet-style King’s Court, a tour of the ship’s galleys, a visit to the therapeutic Canyon Ranch Spa and an educational lecture, it is soon time for lunch. The afternoon follows much the same pattern. 

And you know what? The stars still love Cunard. As we view those frozen-in-time moments from the halcyon era of cruising, one modern-day celebrity rounds the corner. We are star struck. It turns out we are sailing with Harold Bishop from Neighbours, also known as Ian Smith. Eat your heart out, Sinatra.

FACT BOX
The QM2 has capacity for 3090 passengers and 1253 crew

At 345 metres, QM2 is the length of 41 London buses and 45 metres longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall

QM2’s nightclub, G32, is named after the hull number given to the ship when it was built in France

An art collection worth $4.7 million is on display within the ship

Each year, passengers on QM2 go through 1.35 million teabags, drink 25 tonnes of coffee, eat 1.7 million eggs and munch through 1129 tonnes of potatoes

The annual beef consumption would supply a city the size of Newcastle (population: 240,000) each year

Enough toilet roll is used each year to wrap around the earth almost five times

Guests can even bring well behaved pooches onboard when travelling between Southampton and New York, with the porters carrying out walkies