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ALL AT SEA WITH CUNARD, NOW AND THEN

By Pam Hobbs

It is dusk on a balmy evening in Port Everglades as we wave from an upper deck of Queen Mary 2 - the newest, largest, longest, widest and most luxurious passenger ship ever built - about to embark on an inaugural cruise from her winter home in Florida. On shore, local residents wave candles and flashlights; small boats zip noisily around us way, way below. Beside me my husband, Michael, grins as we raise our glasses to the next fifty years, and as fireworks light the sky he is doubtless travelling with me back in memory to another Cunard liner, another time, another country.....

We didn't know each other then, not when s.s. Franconia set sail from Liverpool on a cheerless grey day in August l953. This was a time of mass emigration from England. I had come to Toronto from England two years earlier, and was now returning from a trip home for my sister's wedding. Michael, recently resigned from the Merchant Navy, was heading for work with a shipping company in Quebec City.

It was a rough crossing. Fifty years ago liners didn't take kindly to the ferocity of storms the North Atlantic can dish up. At night I clung to my upper berth in a cabin shared with three others down in the ship's bowels. The stench of their seasickness was over-powering, (they didn't always make it to the bathrooms along the hall) , sending me to the comfort of upper decks for all of my waking hours. I was one of few people well enough to appear regularly for meals.. Another was a young man with black curly hair and a ready smile. On our third day at sea a waiter looked across the empty tables between us and asked if I would like to join my fellow passenger. I did, and we hardly stopped talking for the rest of the voyage. Three months later we were engaged to be married.

Over the years we promised ourselves an anniversary cruise on another Cunarder. There have been cruises to exciting destinations, but not on a Cunard liner until now. Perhaps we were waiting for the very best.

Built in France at a cost of U.S. $780 million, Queen Mary 2 is a magnificant sight, inside and out. Rising 23 stories above the sea, she is the length of four football fields, her interior decor unmatched by any other liner afloat. She has a staff member for every two of her 2,620 passengers and some of her guest suites are the size of an average house.

A far cry from what I remember on the old Franconia, our standard stateroom here is beautifully appointed for comfort and convenience. We have a king-sized bed, settee and coffee table, and cupboards and drawers enough for ten people. A computer key board is neatly stowed in a desk. Like 75% of staterooms ours has a balcony, though unlike most our ocean view is marred by a lifeboat. Our deluxe bathroom is equipped with toiletries from the Canyon Ranch Spa; bathrobes and slippers are in the closet. Small details include a retractable clothes line over the bath, in case we're too shy to send our smalls to the on-board laundry.

I could easily spend a day admiring the ship's wall hangings created by some of the world's top artists. Included are enormous sculpted panels of stainless steel and copper, tapestries depicting English country scenes, and larger- than- life bronze sculptures. Dramatic photographs record Cunard history from 1840 when Canadian Samuel Cunard started the first trans-Atlantic mail service between Southampton, Halifax and Boston. Walls of one gallery are covered with portraits of famous passengers, mostly Hollywood stars of the l950s and 60s who adored the glamour of these ships..

Those years were the heyday for ocean going liners. In the l950s more than a million people a year crossed the Atlantic by ship. Then came the Boeing 707, and 1970 saw only 4% of trans-Atlantic travellers choosing the sea voyage. Now Queen Mary 2 is reviving the tradition with 15 sailings between Southampton and New York during 2004.

Designed to provide the ultimate in elegant living for the six days it takes to cross the Atlantic, Queen Mary 2 is itself a destination - a grand resort as modern as tomorrow, yet as genteel as your maiden aunt. What it offers is the gift of time, in which you need do nothing more than sit in a deckchair coddled in a warm blanket, or in the warmth of a hot tub overlooking the sea. Time to browse in the library, then curl up with your book in a comfy chair before a picture window. Time to be pampered in the spa, with as vast a menu of treatments as you'll find on shore. Time to relax over afternoon tea served in the Winter Garden with its resident harpist, and flowers blooming the year round....

Remembering that this ship is 345m long, you could get your exercise simply getting from here to there. If that's not enough, the promenade deck will give you an uninterrupted 800m run, swimming pools are indoors and out, the fitness centre has all the equipment of a city gym. There is a basket ball court and golf simulator as well as traditional shipboard games. Brought the grandkids ? Good. They'll have a great time with game plans to suit their age, supervised by British nannies.

Determined to make the most of shipboard facilities we start our day in a hot tub twelve decks above the sea, watching a spectacular sunrise. Cocooned in our own little world the memories come flooding back. Michael recalls Franconia's trio of violinists who serenaded us on deck and in the dining room. I remember the kindly old soul who whispered that I shouldn't do anything I would later regret, because these shipboard romances never last!.

Because I had already spent a year in Canada, new emigrants joined us often, with a thousand questions about what they could expect. Jokes were about selling pencils on street corners, buying big cars so they could sleep in them, dates of sailings for a quick return home if things didn't work out.... Come nightfall the mood lifted, with free gin and cheap smokes, and lively music that had us dancing til dawn. Blue Moon and They Tried To Tell Us We're Too Young are songs I will always associate with that trip.

Recently I came across an enamel brooch replicating the Franconia, bought from that ship's gift shop for my mother. Queen Mary 2 probably has similar brooches if I look hard enough in the ever-crowded souvenir shop. Instead I buy a stuffed English bulldog, and tee-shirts for the grandchildren, then drool at merchandise in some of the world's most sophisticated boutiques lining avenues around the Main Lobby. International jeweller, H. Stern, has me returning time and again - not for its most expensive diamond necklace, ($50,,000) but to admire designer Frey Wille's exquisite enamel on gold bracelets for around $650.

Mealtimes on the Franconia were far from relaxed. For one thing tables were long, such as you find in institutions, and this made for a lot of noise. For another, dishes, cutlery and glasses would slide to one end of the table or beyond, then return to their rightful place when the ship rode through a big wave. Modern technology has fixed all that, so QM2 can retain her balance in even the fiercest storms.

I have to say I marvel that I am sitting here now, in the QM2's elegant Queen's Grill, our table for two set with gleaming Wedgwood and Waterford, a single honeysuckle in a vase at my side, and across from me is that same young man with whom I shared a plate of pasta when the waiter put us together all those years ago. No stodgy food typical of l950s England this time around. In the ten very different dining venues, we are offered meals as varied as bangers and mash in the pub, to Mediterranean fare in the Todd English named for its chef whose Bostonian restaurant captures top awards. Largest of the dining rooms is the opulent multi-tiered Britannia which seats over thirteen hundred at one time.

Service we experienced was top-notch, and food is what I would expect of a five-star hotel. Certainly the herb roasted chicken tastes like poultry in the good old days when chickens had the run of the farm. Lobsters are sensational, beef is cooked exactly as ordered, and extraordinary works of confectionary art presented as desserts are - dare we say it - fit for a Queen.

Our days on board slipped by too fast. We took the tour, admiring one of the two-storied suites with its own dining room and kitchen (complete with butler), his and her bathrooms, walk-in closets and spacious deck. In the two-storied theatre we enjoyed two shows featuring performers from London's West End. We avoided the computer centre (too much like work) but lingered in the Winter Garden, a colourful oasis on a dull-weather day. I lost $20 in the casino, Michael won $35, and the only time we lined up was for a planetarium show which for me at least was disappointing. Most of all we liked to people-watch in the bars and lounges.

At night QM2 is a very special place. Passengers, all decked out in their finery, compliment the brilliant decor - the dazzling chandeliers and mirrored walls, the rich wood panelling and polished brass, plush red carpets on those Scarlet O'Hara staircases. Champagne flows freely in the tiny Veuve Clicquot lounge, and we find ourselves often tucked into a corner beneath photos of Bogie and Bacall. We talk about the present, and our future, then reminisce about the past and our Franconia friends who lost touch within a year. I smile now, recalling my panic on our last morning on board as I watched Michael escorted from the ship before we could say goodbye. (I thought he was being arrested, but his new employer had cut through red tape to take him ashore.) Since I had no address in Toronto, I wondered if he would find a way to contact me or would he want me to write to him at his new office ?

I guess I hadn't realized his resourcefulness. Two weeks into his Quebec job, he quit and hopped a train to Toronto. In the city telephone directory he found the name of a friend I had mentioned, and called her to see if she knew my whereabouts. In one of those strange twists of fate I had met her for lunch that very day, and since I talked of practically nothing but him, she readily passed on my address. The rest, as they say, is history.

On Queen Mary 2 our final stop on that last evening is a jazz lounge where a trio is playing old favourites.. On the tiny dance floor we find ourselves swaying to Blue Moon. I do not see the grey hair, liver spots, the wrinkles and added poundage. We are two young people starting new lives together in Canada.

IF YOU GO;

Queen Mary 2 itineraries include the Caribbean, North and South America and the Mediterranean as well as Trans-Atlantic crossings. The six days Trans-Atlantic crossings start at approximately $2,000 for each of two people. Staterooms in each category, as well as public areas, are geared for physically challenged passengers. There are themed cruises, guest chefs, and air/land packages. For details consult a travel agent, or visit the website at www.cunard.com.

Most passengers arrive in Florida a day ahead of the ship's departure. Here we stayed at Embassy Suites, Fort Lauderdale where two-room suites include a living room with microwave and refrigerator. The hotel operates a free shuttle between the airport, hotel and dock. Shops and restaurants are close by. Toll Free 866-235-9330 for reservations E-mail: jt@net411.com

FUN FACTS

Commodore Ronald Warwick is in charge, just like his father who was at the helm of Queen Elizabeth 2 for 20 years.

QM2 is the first new Cunard liner to take to the seas since her sister ship, the QE2 set sail in 1969. This month (April) both ships will be in port in New York .

QM2 can travel at 30 knots (54 km) per hour but usually does 24-26 knots.

The new Queen's hull is built like Lego from 100 blocks each weighing 600 tonnes, welded together. The hull weighs more than a school of 330 Blue Whales.

At 345m (1,132'} QM2 is five times longer than Cunard's first ship, Britannia. She weighs the equivalent of 490 fully loaded 747 jets.

One of QM2s whistles is from the original Queen Mary, now a hotel in Long Beach, California. The whistle can be heard from 16 km away.

QM2s art collection is worth over U.S.$5 million.

She has: 1,553 miles (2,500 km) of electric cable, 2,000 bathrooms, 80,000 lighting points, 280 sq yards (250,000 sq metres) of fitted carpets, 3,000 telephones, 14 passenger decks, 5,000 stairs, 22 elevators. The largest library afloat containing 8,000 volumes. Largest ballroom and largest wine collection at sea, and the world's first planetarium at sea.

Supplies:

The annual sugar consumption on board would make 8 million scones.

Before the year is out she will use 7,000 boxes of strawberries, 1.5 million tea bags (enough tea to fill an Olympic sized pool), and so much toilet paper it could girdle the earth five times.

Annual beef consumption would supply a city the size of Southampton each year.

On-board baking requires the use of nearly 8,000 industrial size flour bags. Stacking

them would make a pile five times higher than the Eiffel Tower.

The weight of pineapples used each year matches the weight of 50 SUVs, i.e. almost 90 metric tons.