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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 January 2004, 03:11 GMT
A new Queen to rule the waves
By Julie Cramer
BBC News Online, on board the QM2

Once the cutting edge of cruise ship design, the celebrated QE2 is having to make way for a more voluptuous younger sister.

Cunard has made no secret of the fact that the 550m Queen Mary 2 - its first major liner for more than three decades - is the tallest, longest, widest, heaviest and most expensive passenger ship yet built.

On top of the QM2
The QM2 is as tall as a 23-storey building

On Thursday champagne corks will be popping as the Queen names the vessel - as she did in 1967 for the QE2 - before its inaugural voyage on 12 January.

I visited on the day of the vessel's very last sea trial - a so-called "shake-out" - before she begins to plough the proposed 30 transatlantic crossings per year.

For someone whose experience of seafaring only extends to the Dover-Calais ferry, it is hard not to be charmed by her looks.

Red, white and blue

Stationed next to the dreary concrete terminal in Southampton docks - her home port - she looks particularly brand new.
Passengers will probably clock up several miles a day as they explore the ship

The length of her sleek navy blue underbelly stretches 345m - five times longer than Cunard's first ship, the Britannia.

There is layer upon layer of gleaming white decks - space for 2,620 passengers and private balconies in three-quarters of the cabins.

Her bright red funnel takes her height up to 72m - as tall as a 23-storey building.

Inside the ship is awash with relatives of Cunard employees, invited on board for the final test run.

Prices for a six-day sail start from a not unreasonable 999, rocketing to almost 20,000 for the vast duplex apartments if you can't live without a private butler.

There's no lack of entertainment on board - theatre, cinema, casino, five pools, art gallery with 3m worth of works - even an education programme devised by Oxford University.
She is as long as 41 double decker buses
Her whistle will be audible for 10 miles
There's almost one crew member for every two passengers
A single joystick on the bridge manoeuvres her sideways
Her plant power room could light the whole of Southampton
In her 40-year lifetime she will travel the equivalent of 12 times to the moon and back

The Cunard invitees are like over-excited children let loose in a toy store.

Sheila Connolly from Glasgow, whose son is a Cunard yacht captain, has already spent four days on board with friend Fiona Millar.

"We're still getting lost - there's so much to explore. And the rock opera we saw in the theatre last night was as good as any in the West End," she enthuses.

There's gourmet food in abundance - in the 15 restaurants and bars - but also low calorie options to control expanding girths.

Smoking is banned from the eating spaces - a move reportedly out of favour with some cigar-puffing Cunard regulars.

Lavish interiors

Some have likened the QM2's interior to something more suited to the Las Vegas strip.

It is glitzy - chock a block with big chandeliers, brass banisters, bare-breasted statuettes and artificial foliage.

But there are classic touches - mirrored Art Deco lifts, wide sweeping walkways, and a curvaceous double staircase reminiscent of the Titanic movie set.

To calm your senses you could always visit the Canyon Ranch spa - the biggest ever on a cruise ship.
Feature staircase on deck three

Here you can get a Thai massage in one of the 24 treatment rooms - from a real Thai master no less.

Walking the ship's elegant promenades three times will clock up 1.1 miles - you could run a marathon if you felt that way inclined.

Some elements of the ship - like the first ever floating planetarium - frankly seem unnecessary.

Surely a view of the stars from the ship's lookout, on a cool clear night mid-Atlantic, would be infinitely better than anything that comes out of an entertainment studio.

However some elements of the ship's "edutainment" programme have been well done.

A trail of wall panels around the ship chart the company's century and a half of seafaring, back to when Samuel Cunard commissioned his first four liners in Clydebank in the 1840s.

Crews of days gone by gaze out of sepia photos - curly moustached captains, donkeymen from the engine rooms, lamp trimmers who kept oil lamps burning round the clock.

A nice link with the past is the ship's whistle - taken from its predecessor, the first Queen Mary, now a tourist attraction moored off Long Beach, California.

The question remains, can Cunard routinely fill the expansive QM2 without stealing customers from its other big ships?

Next generation

Recent figures offer an optimistic prognosis for ocean-going in the 21st century.

A report from the Passenger Shipping Association declared 2003 "a year of extraordinary growth" with the number of Britons taking ocean cruises touching a million for the first time.

There will always be the serial cruisers - no more so than octogenarian Beatrice Muller from New Jersey who is a permanent resident on the QE2.

But Cunard will have to do some serious marketing to attract a new generation of clientele, which is still predominantly American.

And its launch has already been overshadowed by the tragedy at the ship's construction site in St Nazaire, France, where a gangway collapsed killing 15 people last November.

But almost certainly the ship will be a tonic for Southampton's economy - a tourist magnet when she is in port, and a vast consumer of local supplies and services.

Her maiden voyage from New York back to Southamptonin in April will also mark the QE2's farewell to the Big Apple - an old girl and a new girl setting out in tandem for a never-to-be-repeated trip.

Although travelling at 30 knots to the QE2's slightly faster 32, the younger sibling might just be pipped at the post.

The BBC's Hywel Jones
"Cruise companies are taking a long term bet on finding thousands of new passengers"

Biggest liner on view
04 Jan 04 |  Cornwall
Elderly women taken off liner
01 Jan 04 |  England
In pictures: Queen Mary 2 arrives
26 Dec 03 |  Photo Gallery
Super liner sails into Southampton
26 Dec 03 |  Hampshire/Dorset

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