Britannia Dining Room on QM2

She is possibly the greatest ocean liner ever built.

She’s the Queen Mary 2, the only liner built since the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969, and the last ship still offering a regular schedule of trans-Atlantic crossings. And she may well be the last true ocean liner to ever grace the Seven Seas.

There are dozens of cruise ships out there, many offering voyages to everywhere and nowhere. They are for the most part stubby-nosed floating condominiums with bulky super-structures and the maneuverability of an overweight pig. Put one in the middle of a North Atlantic storm and many passengers would make a bee-line to the reception desk for some sea-sickness pills.

Atrium on QM2

But cruise ships are not built for regular oceanic crossings, nor are they an alternative form of transportation. For the most part, their purpose in life is to take passengers on vacations in reasonably protected waters on seven-day cruises to the Caribbean, 10-day voyages to Alaska, 12-day trips in the Mediterranean, etc.  And their design, construction and onboard amenities reflect that mission, which they do extremely well.

Contrast that to an ocean liner whose purpose is to transport people across great distances, and which is designed to withstand the rigours of regular oceanic crossings.  They are built with heavier-grade steel hulls, raked bows that make it easier to cut through heavy seas, and more streamlined superstructures. For example, the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) has 40 per cent more steel in her hull, higher quality materials in her fittings, and more powerful engines than any other ship her size. In fact, the QM2 has a top speed of nearly 30 knots and a cruising speed of 26 knots, which is much faster than the 18 to 22-knot average cruising speed of most cruise ships.

Since ocean liners spend most of their time at sea rather than in port, they also tend to have more grandiose public areas and more beautiful interiors than cruise ships. In this regard, the QM2 is likely the most beautiful ship at sea with Art Deco inspired public rooms and some 5,000 commissioned works of art including bronze reliefs, glass sculptures, expansive murals, beautiful tapestries, and hundreds of oil and watercolour paintings.

Jazz trio in the QM2’s Chart Room

The QM2 was also one of the most complicated ships to be built in modern times.  At the time of her construction in 2003 no other ocean liner had been built in the past 30 years. Consequently, it was challenging for the shipyard at Chantiers de l’Atlantique in France to find enough skilled tradespeople to work on what was going to be the longest and heaviest ship afloat. And while that record size has since been surpassed by several cruise ships, the QM2 remains the largest ocean liner ever built.

She was also the most expensive ship to build, with an average cost of about US$300,000 per berth (total cost of nearly a billion dollars), about double the industry average. Interestingly, after completing the QM2, the shipyard offered to build a second one at a steep discount because they finally had the necessary experience and trades people in place to do so. Unfortunately, Cunard declined stating that there was not enough demand to put two ocean liners on a trans-Atlantic service.

First-class dining room on Normandie

Until the 1960s the seas were filled with iconic ocean liners that offered regular transportation from continent to continent, most of it across the North Atlantic between Europe and the United States. They sailed for legendary steamship companies like Cunard, French Line, Italian Line, United States Lines, North German Lloyd, Swedish American Line, and Holland America Line. And as each new liner was launched, they became bigger, greater and more stunningly beautiful than the last.

Two of the greatest and largest ocean liners of that era were the original Queen Mary and the revolutionary Normandie – each in the 80,000-ton class.

Art-deco inspired
Grand Salon on Normandie

The SS Normandie entered service for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat. She was by all accounts the most extravagant, beautiful and glamourous ocean liner ever built, with an extraordinary Art Deco interior that was unrivalled at sea.

The Normandie boasted a revolutionary hull with a clipper-shaped, streamlined bow. Her first-class dining room, which was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, stretched 93 m long and rose gloriously to a height of three decks. Furthermore, passengers made their grand entrance into the room through a stunning pair of 6.1 m-tall doors adorned with bronze medallions. At the time of her launch, the cost of “standard” interior decorations for a ship like the Normandie was about six percent of a vessel’s cost. However, the CGT spent an outrageous sum of 10 percent of the ship’s cost on design to achieve a result that the French designer Andre Leleu called “sensational.”

Photo of the first-class dinning room on the Queen Mary

First-class dinning room on Queen Mary

Unfortunately, the outbreak of war in 1939 cut the Normandie’s life short when she was seized by the Allies and tied up at a pier in Manhattan to keep her from falling into German hands upon her return to France.  Three years later, a devastating fire broke out on the ship, which caused her to capsize and sink at the pier, tragically ending her life after just four years of service.

Cunard’s Queen Mary arrived in 1936, one year after the launch of her cross-channel rival, and featured a combination of traditional, Art Deco and ultra-modern styles.  For example, her expansive first-class lounge featured three fireplaces, frosted-glass fixtures, and a towering floor-to-ceiling carving.  While less striking than the Normandie, the Queen Mary was cozier and less fussy. She also had less public space exclusively dedicated to first-class passengers, which made her more popular with the general travelling public. In fact, the Queen Mary consistently attracted more passengers and made much more money than the Normandie.

One of 2 outdoor pools on the QM2

Interestingly,  legend has it that the new Cunarder was supposed to have been christened the Queen Victoria in keeping with the line’s tradition of giving its ships names that ended in “ia” as in Lusitania and Mauretania.   However, when Cunard’s President informed King George V that he wanted to name the new ship after England’s greatest Queen, the King replied that his wife Mary would be delighted!

The Queen Mary also had a happier and more productive life than the Normandie. In total, she made 1,000 crossings, sailed 3.7 million miles, carried two million passengers, and generated some $600 million in revenue during her 31 years of service. Many of those passengers were celebrities including Winston and Lady Churchill, Spencer Tracy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Charles Boyer, Cary Grant, David Niven and Humphrey Bogart. And over time, she came to symbolize what the glamour of trans-Atlantic travel was all about.

As with all ships, the Queen Mary eventually out-lived her usefulness and Cunard announced she would be retired in September of 1967. The line received a variety of offers for the ship, including one from a Japanese scrap yard for $3.25 million. However, at the last minute the City of Long Beach, California won the prize with a bid of $3.45 million and a plan to turn the Queen Mary into a floating hotel and museum.  The ensuing renovation cost $72 million – three times more than it had cost to build the ship 30 years prior – but she remained intact for all to see.

Evening show on the QM2

Today, some maritime historians believe that while the Normandie was the most beautiful ship ever built and the Queen Mary was the most comfortable, many of these attributes can be found in their godchild – the Queen Mary 2. The QM2 has combined the beautiful profile and interiors of the great French flagship, and the practical design and utility of the Queen Mary that made the latter so beloved.

In addition, the QM2 has all the modern amenities available today to keep people entertained during a crossing, including a planetarium, a superb roster of lecturers, a computer learning centre, Wi-Fi, its own theatre company at sea, a kennel, and much more. And just like her name sake did, the QM2 attracts many celebrities on her crossings including famous entertainers, politicians and writers.

This is why some maritime historians believe the QM2 is the greatest ocean liner ever built. And when she retires from service 30 or so years from now, perhaps the last.

(Editor: The writer has crossed the Atlantic Ocean by ship seven times, six of them on the Queen Mary 2. As a result, it is now difficult to get him to cross the pond by plane!)

Featured image: The Queen Mary departs Dubai (courtesy Cunard Line)

1 reply »

  1. David
    I am reading this as I GO to Toronto to meet CC
    for a political breakfast!!
    You have covered all those wonderful liners brilliantly and with a wide knowledge of QM2
    it goes a long way
    I must make the effort to sail on this gem
    Yours aye



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