Nearly four football fields long, rising out of the water as high as a 23-story building, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is not a cruise ship but an ocean liner, with a steel hull twice as thick and engines far more powerful than the industry standard. At full speed, the QM2 could sail from New York to Southampton, England, in less than four days. The captain usually holds back, completing the voyage in a more leisurely six days.
With all the publicity surrounding the QM2's early days--ABC's Good Morning America broadcast live onboard from Barbados to Fort Lauderdale--the ship was often entirely sold out. These days, it's a lot easier to find open cabins--and deals. Toward the beginning and end of the April-November transatlantic sailing season, rates for a six-day crossing start at $1,500 for an inside cabin and $2,150 for one with an ocean view (all prices listed are based on double occupancy, with port charges of about $150 extra). Occasionally, there are bargains: Last year, Virgin Vacations was selling packages with a transatlantic crossing and airfare starting at $1,500 (888/937-8474, virgin-vacations.com).
The classic New York-Southampton sailing is hardly the only option. Routes change, but like other ships the QM2 generally goes where the weather is nice, basing itself in early winter in Fort Lauderdale for several one-week Caribbean cruises. Round trips from Southampton make loops in the Mediterranean during spring and summer. In 2006, a special Fourth of July trip departs New York for stops in New England and Canada. And the ship's maiden round-the-world voyage sets sail in January 2007.
Using a cruise broker is the most cost-effective way to book a cabin. Rather than shopping around, go to cruisecompete.com and enter your dates; several brokers will send you their best offers.
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The QM2 experience is really about what happens on the ship; ports are almost afterthoughts. A few of its ten restaurants charge extra: Celebrity chef Todd English's restaurant costs $30 for dinners of lobster risotto and the like. As for the main dining room, it's no ordinary buffet, but a three-story, 1,350-seat affair with grand staircases. There's also a café by the pool where it's OK to dine in your swim trunks, and, in case you forgot this was a British ship, a pub for fish and chips and a pint.
Even with a disco, there's no mistaking the QM2 for a party ship. The 8,000-volume library is the largest afloat, and lectures are arranged by the University of Oxford. But things aren't too stuffy. Sign up first thing in the morning for the planetarium show. And don't miss the nights when a full orchestra plays swinging tunes by Tommy Dorsey. The ballroom, of course, is the largest on water.
The QM2 normally begins each sailing with a mere 6,000 bottles of champagne on board.