Queen Mary 2

Sailing on the QM2

In July of 2013, Team Mago spent seven days on the Queen Mary 2, making this our fourth crossing on the trans-Atlantic liner.  We were less than pleased with both the quality of the service and the quality of the food.  This review of the QM 2 explains what happened and ends with a ranking of all the ships we’ve taken over the Atlantic.

Once again it’s MagoGuide vs. The New York Times. If our readers are getting a bit tired of this David vs. Godzilla theme just imagine how Team Mago feels about it, but The Times just can’t let it go. This time The Gray Lady has dispatched Dwight Garner, whose day job is writing book reviews, on the Queen Mary 2 for a trans-Atlantic crossing in January (see “Seven Days on the Queen Mary 2,” February 8, 2013).

There is actually a lot to like, if not down right admire, about Mr. Garner’s review of the Grande Dame of the cruise ship industry. It’s well written, contains more than its fair share of wit leavened with just the right amount of sarcasm, and several interesting anecdotes. In short, Mr. Garner is a very welcome respite from the usual suspects who masquerade as “cruise critics” when in reality they are venal shills shamelessly hyping a travel experience that is mediocre at best in the hopes of getting their snouts and both trotters into the cruise trough for free or at least at a steep discount.

All the Cruise that’s fit to Print?

Unfortunately, Mr. Garner has also drunk the Cunard Kool-Aid. MagoGuide does not blame him so much as his employer. Put a guy, his wife, and a good friend on the QM 2 for the first time and pay at least a big chunk of the bill (actual reimbursement arrangements remain mysterious) and you are going to get a puff piece. Predictably, Mr. Garner wraps things up by stating unequivocally that he would make the QM 2 crossing again in heartbeat.

Churchill's Cigar LoungeBy contrast Team Mago has made four trans-Atlantic crossings on the QM 2 since 2006 and every one on our own nickel. And each voyage has been more disappointing than the last. Cunard bills its flagship as the last of the great ocean liners, a living gilt-edged portrait of a vanished time when travel was as much or even more about the journey as the destination. In reality, the QM 2 is the world’s biggest and slowest moving airplane—replete with multiple, price-stratified levels of service and an infinite number of add-on costs for all but the basics.

First let’s puncture the ocean liner myth. Mr. Garner explains that an ocean liner sails “point-to-point, as in across the Atlantic, as opposed to a cruise ship, which makes a loop that finishes where it started.” Well no, many cruise ships reposition from one part of the globe to another throughout the year as the cruising season waxes and wanes. These transition voyages are basically point-to-point and not circular. The QM 2 also engages in a lot of circular cruising on either end of its crossings. The difference between the QM 2 and a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic is that the QM 2 plies the same North Atlantic route when not cruising, while cruise lines confine their crossings from the Western Hemisphere to Europe in March through May and return in October and November.

This fact also accounts for MagoGuide’s intimate knowledge of the increasingly mediocre experience of crossing on the QM 2. We usually return to our Northwest Montana love shack in early July just as the skies clear, the garden starts producing, and the trout get active. The problem with such an otherwise idyllic schedule is that the QM 2 is really the only trans-Atlantic passenger ship option in early summer.

The Starter Cruise Curse

Since it was Mr. Garner’s first time on the QM 2 his enthusiasm is partly understandable, certainly from a marketing point of view. The QM 2 is often pitched as a “starter cruise” by travel professionals because it is short and seemingly provides value for money when compared to transitioning cruise ships, which take longer to make the passage and carry a heftier price tag. MagoGuide can corroborate this phenomenon. While we seldom encounter newbies on transitioning cruise ship voyages, we always run into a half dozen or so first timers on the QM 2 who seem determined to trumpet their virginity to one and all.

It does not take long, however, for the bloom to come off the rose. Team Mago first crossed on the QM 2 in 2006 when the ship was only two years old and we were new to the joys of slow travel. During our last voyage in 2013, it was sadly evident that the ship was suffering significant infrastructure degradation that was almost certainly the by-product of efforts to wring the most profit out of each sailing. The balcony railings were rusting, many of the chairs and couches had grown very uncomfortable through excessive use, and a non-trivial percentage of the most popular gym equipment did not function properly or was completely out of service for the entire voyage.

IlluminationsSigns of cost cutting (or the functional equivalent in price gouging) were prevalent beyond the ship’s infrastructure. The range of topics for lectures as well as the total number of talks has declined. Speakers only delivered two lectures each throughout the entire voyage while four or five were the norm seven years ago. Mr. Garner’s scarce behind-the-scenes tour of the ship that cost $120 a head was free not too many years ago.

The pressure for constant up-selling has turned the QM 2 staff into a bunch of rabid Willy Lomans, who are markedly inferior to those on transitioning cruise ships. While asserting that “service was excellent”, Mr. Garner recounts, without rancor, having to bribe the maître d’ for a better table in the Britannia and a waiter hitting on his wife in the pub. Either event would be a serious scandal on either Seabourn or Crystal. Team Mago’s experience was far more pedestrian, but it did take half a voyage of twice daily requests get our steward to clean our cabin before 1 PM.

The Airline Cost Model at Sea

Since a ship is such a different means of conveyance than an airplane, first timers and bucket listers confuse the modern airline cost model with nineteenth century social stratification. According to Mr. Garner, “The Queen Mary 2 maintains the remnants of a class system. It has restaurants, lounges and elevators the herd cannot enter.” But so does an international jumbo jet. Just try to use the bathroom in first class and see if you get beyond that flimsy looking curtain between you and free drink land.

“Cunard,” Me Garner declares, “dilates on class.” Actually, the QM 2 discriminates for ducats. The Britannia Restaurant isn’t the preserve of the hard working middle class, it’s economy. The Britannia Club is not the hangout of the nouveau riche, it’s economy preferred. The Princess Grill does not cater to the landed gentry, it’s business. The Queen’s Grill is not reserved for the debauched aristocracy, it’s first.

The Formal Dress Facade

Cunard’s marketing department has done a splendid job of Tom Sawyering passengers into believing that the QM 2 experience is, as Mr. Garner so rapturously puts, “nothing less than a floating distillation of English inclinations and values, a watertight container of cask-aged nostalgia.” The primary weapon in this massive deception is the dress code associated with the three formal evenings that occur over the course of a seven-day cruise. There is, after all, something to be said for scraping the mold off of one’s dinner jacket, complimenting the wife on her new frock, and having a turn or two around the floor of the QM 2’s large and elegant ballroom.

Formal night from an earlier voyageTeam Mago can tell you that formal nights get old real fast. For one crossing it is fun but after that it turns very theme parky. And it’s sexist. Men can get away with a dark suit on formal nights, but women have to go with a gown or evening dress of some kind that has about as much use off the ship as a tux. Women’s shoes are also single purpose whereas men’s are not.

If you are a tourist (or a paid Times correspondent) you will probably cross one way and fly back the other. It’s a vacation or a tough job that someone has to do, but in either case one is a paying tourist, or writing about being a tourist, and not a traveler. Yes, before commercial aviation brought the metastasizing cancer of mass tourism to critical mass, people did dress for dinner every night when they traveled on luxury liners and elegant trains. But that was back when there really was a class system, one traveled with an entourage of personal servants who interfaced with the staff of one’s chosen transport medium, and Cunard liners actually contained the best restaurants on the planet be they land or sea-based. These days, the mega-rich have their own planes and yachts, and, most important of all, they do not read MagoGuide (nor Mr. Garner’s article in all likelihood).

The Queen's Room for formal nightsTravelers are interested in the most comfortable way to travel and a key element of comfort is a minimal luggage footprint. It is one thing to have one set of nice clothes for transitioning cruise ships and the odd Michelin starred restaurant and quite another to travel with multiple pounds of precious space-eating single purpose garments. Cunard is unique in the cruise industry for the number of formal nights per week and their associated strict sartorial regulations. What this boils down to for travelers is a ban from most of the restaurants and bars on the QM 2 for three nights out of seven for a trans-Atlantic crossing.

Adding Insult to Injury 

Team Mago was pleasantly surprised to learn that Mr. Garner wrote a book review during his crossing. He evidently did not find working conditions as onerous on the QM 2 as we have over the years. Unlike the Seabourn Square with its computer desks, tablets for check-out, printers, comfortable seating, and espresso bar, the QM 2’s library is a techno-wilderness.

This leaves exactly two places where you can plug in and work on the ship, your cabin or in the Winter Garden at the third table on the starboard side. Mr. Garner probably was able to complete his work utilizing the charge from his laptop’s battery (maybe he wrote it out in long-hand, but his references to tweeting lead one to doubt this possibility). Team Mago, however, is always pounding out code, photos, and prose product, which is to say we are unrepentent power whores who need outlets to get shit done. So we were really torqued halfway through the crossing to find the nice big round table in the Winter Garden swapped for a tiny two-person model. What is up with that? It certainly seemed deliberate. Maybe a fellow passenger complained that our non-intrusive labors were spoiling the luxury crossing experience?

Which beings us to our twenty-five hundred fellow passengers on the QM 2. Mr. Garner seems a trifle biased against the geriatric crowd, but we have found them quite polite, given to speaking in muted tones, and inclined to move slowly. He says nothing about the throngs of shrieking children (not to mention the hordes of angst laden adolescents) that charge about the ship at all hours and whose antics are often encouraged by Cunard staff members who cook up little distractions like scavenger hunts that seem to peak right at cocktail hour.

A Naval Gastronomic Wasteland

Where MagoGuide and The Times part company most decisively, however, is in the realm of gastronomy. Mr. Garner declares that “the food in the Britannia, the occasional howler aside, was terrific, especially for an operation that turns out many thousands of meals a day.” Based on this sentence, MagoGuide would have a very hard time accepting a dinner invitation at Dwight and Cree’s place, or even meeting them for dinner at a restaurant of their choosing.

It is fair to say that in four crossings, Team Mago has never had a decent meal at the Britannia restaurant. The two dinners reviewed below are typical:

Britannia Dinner Appetizers

Ham and cheese beignets with spicy tomato sauce

Ham and cheese beignets with spicy tomato sauce: “beignets”, it turned out, were stodgy and greasy fried dumplings, while the spicy sauce was definitely not.

Strawberry and peach cold soup

Strawberry and peach cold soup: they kitchen took a nice fruit soup and added way too much cream, diluting the flavor while making it far too rich.

Spinach and pear salad

Spinach and pear salad: the sweet and spicy poached pears would have gone well with some gorgonzola (had there been any, see the cheese plate below), but they were placed on a bed of spinach that was wilted by age rather than design and only hours from turning to green slime, mmmmm mmmmm good.

Shrimp tempura with remoulade dipping sauce: the tempura batter did not adhere properly to the shrimp, probably because it was battered and fried prior to being frozen and then reheated (i.e., the kind of food you would expect at 30,000 feet) and sauce was bland.

Duck spring roll: the soft wrapper and mushy shredded duck meat obviated any textural contrast and the dipping sauce, while at least evincing decent heat, was otherwise cloying.

Britannia Dinner Main Courses

Filet of plaice with asparagus, carrots, and mashed potatoes

Filet of plaice with asparagus, carrots, and mashed potatoes: I do not get mashed potatoes with fish, but they were a fave in the Britannia with just about any entrée (cost of food issue? mashies sure do stretch a meal). The plaice was decently pan fried but then almost drowned in a beurblanc sauce. The asparagus was big, old, tough, and undercooked.

Beef Bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon: dry and stringy beef stew by any name. The gravy, sorry sauce, was a one-dimensional note for the mound o’mashies trotted out for this entrée as well.

Tagliatelle with mushrooms and tomatoes: the pasta was house-made and over-cooked—it is very difficult to serve fresh pasta a la minute to so many people. The dish came with a small sprinkling of tasteless cheese and no additional amount was offered. The rustic dish really needed a strong salty pecorino cheese, without which it was bland and insipid.

Duck breast with raspberry demi-glace sauce, potato croquettes, snow peas, carrots, and cabbage: the duck was tough and over-cooked, a classic misjudgment of carry-over cooking due probably to the huge number of people they pack into the Britannia over two formal seatings that only magnify the problem of handling so many covers. At least the veggies were correctly cooked but the pre-frozen croquettes were terrible.

Britannia Dinner Desserts

Poached figs and fromage blanc mille feuille

Poached figs and fromage blanc mille feuille: diligent searching revealed very little fig in a dish that was basically a pastry cream Napoleon.

Coconut, strawberry, and lemon ice cream

Coconut, strawberry, and lemon ice cream: good coconut, decent strawberry, but the lemon tasted really weird with virtually no citrus flavor.

Cheese plate: the dish arrived laden with crackers, bread, and fruit with three small bits of cheese almost lost amidst the rest. The cheese was old, tough, and tasteless.

Britannia Lunch

If the dinners in the Britannia were bad, the lunches were nothing short of hideous. Here is a sampling.

Vegetable paella

Vegetable paella was not made with paella rice, and was over-cooked and under-seasoned.

Dining room at lunchThe “Caesar” salad bore no resemblance to any variant I have ever had. It was more like green goddess dressing on a nondescript mound of iceberg lettuce, no romaine, no anchovies, no parma, no Caesar dressing.

A “Greek” salad conssted of the same aging iceberg lettuce as the “Caesar” but with the addition of canned green olives and tasteless cubes of feta.

The “Rubin” sandwich was made with roast beef (despite the claims on the menu of corned beef, this was repurposed roast beef) and the toasted slices of rye bread were only toasted on one surface, the other three being soft and soggy. The accompanying fries were barely warm, having lingered long under the heat lamp.

The turkey burger was soggy and the fries were cold and greasy (evidently the Britannia standard).

Service was glacial in the main restaurant. One waiter did not know what was on the menu and the sommeliers had no interest in us once we said we did not want wine. It took half the meal to get a diet coke (it seems that all non-free beverages  are sold by the soms) and then we had to flag down several liveried drones to get the bill out of the som (one can of diet coke cost $3.56 with service charge by the way).

King's CourtThe Garners evidently did not dine in any of the three a la carte restaurants that take the place of the King’s Court buffets in the evenings. Unfortunately if you are locked out of all the other QM 2 food venues on the three formal nights, they are the only options.

Even these Cunard concessions to the proles have declined over the last seven years. First off, in our initial voyages all three King’s Court a al carte venues were open every night. Now only one is open for two nights in a row throughout the crossing. Secondly, the quality of food at each has declined significantly over the years. Couture refugees, however, can at least take some solace in the almost unbelievable fact that every one of the King’s Court restaurants is preferable to the Britannia.

La Piazza

The best of the three is La Piazza, rather obviously specializing in Italian food. The following is typical of meals served there.

Charcuterie antipasto: the prosciutto, copa, and marinated vegetable salad were all tasty, but this very simple dish was marred by a horrible bright pink salami that had a stodgy lardy taste as well as the ersatz Parmesan.

Mixed antipasto served in a baked filo dough nest

Mixed antipasto served in a baked filo dough nest: nice idea, poor execution. The filo was nice and crispy but the fried calamari was too heavily breaded and the rings were too thin (an unmistakable effect of using frozen squid). The little balls of mozzarella (fraudulently billed as buffalo) were old, tough, and flavorless. The fried artichokes were surprisingly good and the cold grilled asparagus was correctly cooked, but it was served too cold, which dampened its flavor.

Minestrone soup

Minestrone soup: the fake parma was too thickly grated and the broken spaghetti added too soon, creating a gluey texture. The soup needed salt and the tomato base was too sweet (added sugar to cover something up?). The cubed vegetables, however, were nice and crunchy.

Chilled tomato soup with watermelon ice: this actually worked. The salty acidity of the tomatoes went nicely with the sweet frozen watermelon. The tomato base was much better than the minestrone. They certainly could have been made with the same tomato puree. Why did the kitchen add sugar to the minestrone?

Beef filet with wine and Gorgonzola sauce: the beef was correctly cooked and the wine sauce and Gorgonzola were quite good, although there could have been more of it for once. But in an effort to leave no dish unmarred, the kitchen served a little ravioli on top of the beef that held a tasteless yellow stuffing.

Guinea fowl with mushroom demi-glace sauce: the sauce had a nice flavor but the guinea fowl was over-cooked and dry.

Lotus

Lotus venueThe best restaurant of the King’s Court trio used to be Lotus back when it had a basically Cantonese menu that offered diners at least two choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert. These days Lotus sports only a “Pan Asian tasting menu” with no room to maneuver. And standards have slipped here too as throughout the QM 2 dining venues: e.g., hot towels were not, while the wooden chopsticks were so cheap and splintered that they were impossible to use. The small tables were made even more crowded by the placement of sake boxes amongst the cutlery, evidently a ploy designed to soften diners up for the sommeliers pitch concerning overpriced sake on the wine list. The tasting menu is reviewed below.

Fish cake with mango topping: the fish cakes were bland and the stealthy mango undetectable.

Seared tuna with wasabi cream

Seared tuna with wasabi cream: the tuna was correctly seared but very chewy because it was sliced the wrong way viz. the grain of the flesh, and the wasabi was way too mild.

Shrimp and vegetable spring roll: the wrappers were correctly fried (for once) but the interior had too much non-shrimp filler and was mushy while the dipping sauce was cloying and very sweet.

Lemon grass soup with crab meat and coconut cream on top

Lemon grass soup with crab meat and coconut cream on top: not bad, decent heat and nice coconut flavor and mouth feel, but there was no evidence of any lemon grass. Furthermore, the combination of a western bowl and an Asian spoon made it very awkward to eat the soup.

Sushi and yakitori

Sushi and yakitori: the sushi was decent, and the wasabi was potent. The yakitori was just OK but the noodle stuff underneath did nothing for the dish. A spoonful of sauce separating the two components seemed superfluous. How ‘bout another piece of sushi warden? Cost of food raises it scurvy head again yar har!

Mango yogurt palate cleanser

Mango yogurt palate cleanser: nice smooth, sweet and sour flavor, but more of a palate coater than a cleanser.

Panko fried shrimp on buckwheat noodles and Peking duck rolls: The shrimp were good, well cooked and served hot, but the buckwheat noodles were served hot when they should have been cold to accentuate their flavor. The noodles had a touch of heat but needed more. The rolls had a decent duck-to-veggie ratio but nothing else in common with Peking duck, no crispy duck skin, scallions, or hoisin sauce to given them additional texture and flavor dimensions.

Cardamom crème caramel, oriental cheesecake, and fried pastry with a white chocolate and date filling

Cardamom crème caramel, oriental cheesecake, and fried pastry with a white chocolate and date filling: the crème caramel was the best but essentially made with an Indian spice (not Pan Asian by any stretch of definitions). The oriental cheesecake was nice and light but its relationship with Asian cuisine unapparent. The fried pastry was cold and soggy, the stuffing gluey, and the sauce cloying (I use that term a lot because AM 2 sauces often tasted that way).

The chef of LotusThe chef made his ebullient rounds after dinner, did not know what the sake boxes were when asked, and raved about the fried pastry claiming that it was his favorite on the menu and that it melted in your mouth.

 

Coriander

At some point between 2006 and 2013 the King’s Court restaurant that served very dependable British fare (think roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, leg of lamb, pork shank, etc.) was replaced with Coriander, an Indian restaurant. Once again diners had no choice as to their dishes. The Indian tasting menu is reviewed below.

Papadums

Papadums: the first batch were stale, but the second was better after we managed to knock the bowl off the tiny table crowded with food in small dishes and thus achieved a refill. The accompanying dips were spicy mango chutney (good, someone finally located the mangos); sweet mango chutney (bad); yogurt (not bad, but how could you really screw it up?); and onion chutney (decent, but too much salt was added when the onions were caramelized and reduced).

Tizers: Lamb was cooked to leather status. The fish was not bad. Fried onions were bland and lacking heat as was the tandoori chicken. Chick peas were slightly better but still needed heat.

Curry

Fish and shrimp curry: we ordered both curries spicy (as in hot), neither was. The fish was a tough but the shrimp were correctly cooked. Lamb curry was a much better effort, well cooked, soft and flavorful, but the dish still lacked sufficient heat despite practically begging our waiter to get word to the kitchen.

Aloo potatoes and cauliflower

Aloo potatoes and cauliflower were competently executed but under-seasoned (do you sense a theme developing here?).

Dahl

Dahl made with yellow lintels was very soupy, mushy, and (wait for it) bland.

Basmati rice

Basmati rice was over-cooked and way soft (probably made the day before and reheated). Paneer bread was surprisingly good flavorful and buttery.

A fried bread pudding

A fried bread pudding amounted to a pedestrian disposal of leftovers.

Sorbets

Sorbets: the mango was creamy and refreshing but the watermelon had melted completely into liquid by the time it was served.

Todd’s  Floating Gourmet Oasis

Outside Todd EnglishSo where do you go to find a decent meal on the QM 2. The answer is the Todd English Restaurant, perhaps the only add-on cost that delivers real value.

Again, Mr. Garner and MagoGuide are at loggerheads on this issue. While admitting that “the food pops more than it does in the Britannia,” Mr. Garner feels that one “must survive near-toxic levels of smugness and pomposity” to dine at Todd English. Team Mago could not disagree more. Not only did Todd English produce the best (one is tempted to say the only decent) meal of our 2013 crossing, but we found the staff to be both professional and helpful, two qualities that are not always on display elsewhere on the QM 2. Here is an account of our evening repast.

The breads, so mediocre elsewhere on the ship, were artisanal and freshly made. The flatbread was pretty good on the first round and much better on the second (fresher). The onion focaccia was moist and the caramelized onions sweet. White Rosemary rolls were very good. The accompanying black and green olive tapenades were quite nice, the black being the better of the two.

Tuna crudo: excellent quality tuna loin. The fiery green peppers were a very nice touch. The accompanying green sauce was a nice smooth counterpoint to the crunchy hot diced peppers, but the tian mold of rice in the center was neither Mediterranean (Chef English’s chosen cuisine) nor necessary. How ‘bout just another slice of that great tuna Todd?

Artichokes a la Giudaia

Artichokes a la Giudaia: a very cheffy take on the Roman Ghetto classic, but good. Fresh artichoke hearts were expertly fried (although in the original Roman dish this is the one part of the artichoke not used). Strangely, the chokes were completely covered by a salad of mixed greens, fried preserved lemons, and fried capers (very mild, not too salty). The lemon olive oil vinaigrette was very good. Great salad, strange name, weird presentation.

Eggplant ravioli

Eggplant ravioli: bespoke pasta and a wonderful sauce. Fried sage leaves provided excellent flavor notes.

Truffled Potato Love Letters

Truffled Potato Love Letters: Mr. Garner took exception to the name of Chef English’s signature dish. Not what we would call it either, but the point, especially after the gastronomic dessert elsewhere on the QM 2, is what the food tastes like. The dish turned out to be five ravioli with sweet potato filling that were drenched in butter and high-end black truffle oil along with a few specks of actual truffles. The preparation worked because truffle oil was employed with a deft hand and boosted by the butter. Why was Mr. Garner so critical of the menu language in Todd English when content to otherwise shill for Cunard in so many other respects?

Rack of lamb

Rack of lamb: huge portion of perfectly cooked mature lamb. The accompanying sauce, spiked with harissa, was excellent. Fried parsnip ribbons were to die for. Potatoes were meltingly soft from long slow cooking with caramelized onions. The green beans were colorful and perfectly cooked. The fried bric-like thingie sported a very nice stuffing, but the wrapper was a bit thick.

Sirloin steak

Sirloin steak: again perfectly cooked and gigantic. The accompanying fava bean risotto was superb, especially for shipboard cuisine.

Todd EnglishThose enormous main course portions obviated any hope for dessert, but they looked great. Another aspect of Todd English, in direct contradiction to Mr. Garner’s pompous remarks concerning staff pomposity, is that you can slide a bit on formal nights. Men can go with a jacket and tie vice suit or tux while women can get by with a far more reusable long skirt and jacket, vice gown or cocktail dress. But even if one goes full formal, Team Mago would opt for Todd English every time over the Britannia.

In Vino Mendacium

MagoGuide also has to call bullshit on The Times with respect to wine on board the QM 2. Quoting Mr. Garner once again: “The wine list was pleasantly esoteric, and packed with inexpensive as well as dear bottles.” The truth is that prices have gotten ridiculous for what you get. One large glass of wine for goes for $14 plus a 10% service charge on top of which they leave a line for a gratuity. The fact that they leave room for the marks to put 15% to 20% of the cost of the wine plus service (I asked a sommelier what was “normal” for the gratuity) means that a non-trivial number of people actually do. Wine bottle prices with service charges (to say nothing of gratuity) are also no longer reasonable.

Wine on boardOn top of mark-ups that one should encounter only in the most rarified of gourmet temples, one has to put up with blithering morons masquerading as sommeliers. In the Britannia I selected a 2009 Clos Poggiale from Corsica. The sommelier informed me that I had made “an excellent choice” and bent my ear about volcanic soil and the blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot used in the wine. He went off to practice his ABCs (as in always be closing) on another table and I read the back of the bottle to learn that the actual blend consisted of Nielliucio (55%) and Syrah (45%). He only returned to our table once during the meal and used the opportunity to whisk the bottle away with a generous two fingers left in it while asking me if I would like another.

A new “feature” of the 2013 voyage was that the soms in the Britannia tasted bottles after opening them using an old fashioned shallow silver cup on a chain around their necks. I assumed that this was yet another annoying Cunard affectation, trotted out by the marketing department to encourage passengers to splash out on wine. Later, however, I eavesdropped on another sommelier explaining to a table of credulous patsies that neither he nor his colleagues had tasted most of the wines on the list, because it “cost too much” to do so. He explained that they were tasting wines as they opened them on the crossing so as to be able to recommend them in the future. If you cannot allow your staff to taste the wines they are selling then why bother with having sommeliers in the first place?

We were cursed with the same sommelier at both Lotus and Coriander. To start with, he was rather proud of the fact that he had been demoted from Todd English due to the fact that he had made his colleagues nervous with his encyclopedic knowledge of all alcoholic beverages. We had identical confrontations two nights in a row during which he argued vociferously that beer did not go either Chinese or Indian food (could it have to do with cost? Surely not, perish the thought old boy). Then he was a pain about citing what beers they did have, sniffily declaring that they did not have Tsing Tao even though it was on the Lotus menu. “I do not know why they put it on the menu, they did not ask me.”

At Coriander he made it clear that he thought our choice of Tiger beer was wrong, declaring that only Western beers were worth drinking. After all this, he parked himself between us and a nice young couple who let him babble on about everything from real ale to vodka, while pausing to interject into our conversation, which was clearly not directed toward him, whenever our discussion turned to wine. He must have hovered this way for a good ten minutes after which he disappeared so that we were unable to secure any more beer until well after finishing dessert. He was clearly angry that we did not put a gratuity on his bill.

How to Find an Honest Som Without Diogenes

Would it surprise you, gentle reader, to learn that the only place on the entire ship with professional sommeliers and a decent worth-to-value ratio for wine was the Todd English restaurant?

Should Mr. Garner have been describing that wine list (I checked, he was not) Team Mago would have been in violent agreement. For our dinner there (reviewed above) I chose an Amarone Our 2008 Amaronebut queried the nice and restrained sommelier as to the vintage. He replied sans sales pitch that he thought it was 2010 or 2011. I cocked an eyebrow and asked him if he thought that was not a bit young for this type of wine. He agreed, but asked me to wait a few minutes before I made a second choice.   He ran off, got the bottle, and returned beaming to show me that it was a 2008. I asked him to decant it and he was delighted to do so as well as bring us large crystal burgundy glasses.

The wine itself displayed a nose of rose petals and cherry blossoms followed by gobs of extracted black fruit, soft tannins, and a roasted peach finish that went on for minutes. His bill was the only one that received a gratuity from Team Mago on the entire crossing.

A Trans-Atlantic Gouge Fest

The wine experience on the QM 2 with all the faux expertise, relentless upselling, and snubbing of those who refuse to fall victim is dramatic proof that Cunard has fully embraced the airline model and made it their own. Yet unless you are prepared to shell out north of twenty grand to a Persian Gulf airline for a room of your own at 30,000 feet, you pretty much expect to be dehumanized and robbed every time you fly. Cunard, however, has become grasping in the name of profit margins. Even their loyalty program sucks. One of the few worthwhile perks one gets at Team Mago’s exalted Gold Level is a few hours of free Internet access, which otherwise Mr. Garner accurately describes as “extortionately expensive.” And yet even in this area Cunard cheats its repeat customers by applying onboard credit automatically—that is without informing or asking permission of the passenger—to the internet charges before the Gold Level perk kicks in.

Like the airlines, the ticket price is only a fraction of the actual cost of the trip. Even The Times has tumbled to this fact. Mr. Garner reports that “alcohol, spa treatments, internet, and other things can easily cause this figure [the ticket price] to double.” What he does not go on to say is that when you do the math, the cost of an all-inclusive transitioning six star cruise ship becomes comparable to a crossing on the QM 2, to say nothing of transitioning cruise ships at Cunard’s level (five stars) or lower. When you factor in the non-cost comparison between the QM 2 and say an all-inclusive transitioning Crystal or Seabourn cruise ship, such as far better food and wine, very little price stratification, smaller ship size, far fewer passengers (of whom usually none are children) and a much better passenger-to-crew ratio, much better staff, and more southerly and longer routes across the Atlantic, the only reason to take the QM 2 is one of schedule.

QM 2 is Still Better than Flying

It would be unfair to end such a negative review without noting the few but substantial benefits of a crossing on the QM 2, which also happen to be the reasons why Team Mago will probably be crossing with her again, if not in a heartbeat a la Mr. Garner, then out of necessity.

  1. In spite of everything, the QM 2 beats flying hands down. Even if you could find a first class cabin that was better than all aspects of the QM 2 (which would not be easy), it would a) cost more, b) still involve dealing with the horrific experience of airport security, boarding, luggage issues, etc., and c) result in jet lag.
  2. Cunard maintains the only true trans-Atlantic crossing schedule in the industry, “the beating heart of Cunard’s lingering gravitas” as Mr. Garner rather dramatically puts it. Outside of the spring and fall transitioning windows, one is forced to consider a freighter crossing as the only alternative to the QM 2 (see below).
  3. There are four power outlets in a cabin and two are 110 volts while two are 220 volts. This arrangement, unique to the industry as far as MagoGuide knows, allows one to plug in a US or a European power strip and thus greatly enhance the in-cabin working experience.
  4. Internet service has actually gotten a little better over the years. The cost has gone up and they chisel you even on your Cunard loyalty perks, but you can actually get on most of the time and send and receive e-mail.
  5. The promenade deck really is a throwback to the bygone days of luxury sea travel. In decent weather it is a joy to walk on, an experience that is not really available on smaller six star cruise ships.
  6. The gym, when the equipment works, is large and modern.
  7. For the price of a massage you get access to the Canyon Ranch Spa infrastructure for the entire day. This includes the hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam bath, and quiet room. It is a nice oasis tucked away from the madding crowd and their vile offspring.

How does Cunard Stack Up? 

Our ratings for trans-Atlantic crossings have changed very little. Team Mago is in the final stages of a June 2014 freighter crossing on the M/S Buxcoast. A review of that particular experience will be forthcoming shortly, but at this point we are confident in issuing our MagoGuide ratings for travelers who are interested in crossing the Frog Pond without the agony of modern air travel.

1st Place goes to Seabourn: best in terms of crew-to-passenger ratio, staff professionalism, ship appointments, and cabin size.

2nd Place goes to Crystal: best in terms of food, wine, and enrichment, but their older larger ships and smaller cabins detract from their strengths.

3rd Place is a tie between Cunard and a freighter crossing: The QM2 is too much like traveling on a huge slow airplane where you have to dress up to eat mediocre food, but its schedule of crossings is unrivaled in the cruise ship industry. A freighter offers much better value for money in terms of ticket price and cabin size as compared to any cruise ship crossing as well as a year-round schedule of crossings. The food is nothing special, but predictable and compares favorably with a lot of the disasters inflicted on QM 2 passengers, especially in the Britannia restaurant. The hassles of booking passage and the vagaries of any particular schedule, however, make departure and arrival uncertain to the point of requiring two to seven days of padding built into a travel plan.

MagoGuide will continue to review trans-Atlantic crossings in the future. We hope to add additional cruise lines to our repertoire as well as make updates to the ones we have already reviewed. Be sure to follow us on our website and Facebook for updates on our cruise reviews as well as the rest of our adventures.

Here are some more photos of the QM 2 for you to enjoy:



Related Posts

Morgan Hart

MagoGuide.com was launched in 2011 as a website and virtual storefront to showcase Patti's software and Morgan's content. Dedicated to slow travel, culinary excess, and ripping good yarns, MagoGuide is the digital scriptoria for the Mago Scrolls, Morgan's historical fiction series about the Punic Wars in general and one Mago of Syracuse in particular. Although Morgan has written a great deal of non-fiction over the years in the form of specialized journal articles, book reviews, op-ed pieces, and (his personal favorite) the most unpopular coffee table book in the history of the planet, he always viewed himself as a happily frustrated novelist. Get more information about Morgan's novel and travel writing at our Products page.