Jan. 25, 2004 Before 6 a.m. Saturday, Port Authority employee Leroy Walters was sweeping the waterfront apron, picking up any stray debris. He stopped his work, leaning on his broom. "Look at her, just look," he said. "She's here. And look at all those lights."
Unless you've been living in a cave for the past few weeks, you probably know what Walters was in awe of.
Her Royal Majesty the Queen Mary 2 had reached our shores — her first U.S. stop on her inaugural voyage. She sailed in noiselessly before 6 a.m. and sat regally accepting her homage from a flotilla of charter yachts, U. S. Coast Guard cutters, police and Planning and Natural Resources vessels, VIPA harbor boats and St. Thomas' brand new fireboat, which greeted her by shooting bright streams of water. The official vessels stayed for the day, patrolling the ship's security zone.
Walters was preparing the waterfront for an all-day celebration (complete with moko jumbies and the Rising Stars Steel Band). Main Street was also ready for the day, dressed up as a pedestrian mall, complete with local arts and crafts vendors, and music by Milo's Kings.
But, back to her majesty, the QM2. There are similarities between a cruise ship and an ocean liner they both float and they both carry passengers. But never mistake one for the other. "The most apparent change," said Commodore Ronald Warwick, "is the shape of the ship, it has a much longer bow and is built to withstand the waters of the North Atlantic, where you need a much stronger ship." Warwick added, "It also has more powerful engines and cruises at between 23.5 and up to 26 knots. In bad weather, it can do 30 knots."
The ship sailed on Jan. 12 from Southampton, England, where Queen Elizabeth, in a formal ceremony, named the vessel (the term "christened" is no longer used) for her grandmother, the wife of Britain's King George V. And at that ceremony, Warwick received Cunard's highest honor. He was appointed commodore — a captain no more.
The genial commodore is a veteran of the Cunard line and has maneuvered the QE2 in these waters more than once. He looks the perfect notion of the master of such an elegant and imposing vessel. Tall, with a white beard and a gentle demeanor, he is still very British. He seems at ease with all the attention he receives at a plaque ceremony, where he first received a plaque honoring the inaugural visit from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, shortly followed by an array of gifts from other government agencies. Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards presented a plaque, along with the West Indian Co., various tour groups, the taxi association, and a Virgin Islands flag from Lt. Governor Vargrave Richards, (which was flying alongside the Union Jack before the day was out).
The governor recalled his memories of the first Queen Mary. "I grew up hearing about the Queen Mary," he said, "but I never had a chance to go on it, and now here I am as governor." He recalled, "historically speaking, if you didn't make the Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary, you were nobody."
The governor was somebody Saturday. Smiling from ear to ear, he said, "I am personally delighted to be here and honored that the Virgin Islands is the first American stop of your voyage." The governor did not overlook the economic impact of the visit. "It is so important, the publicity we receive will really help."
The very size of the ship is something that stays with you. It's three and a half times the length of a football field, more than twice as long as the Washington Monument is tall, and a mere 117 feet shorter than the Empire State Building is tall. She is more than a hundred feet longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall and more than four city blocks in length. If she were afloat in the pool at the foot of Niagara Falls, her stack would rise over twenty feet above the rim.
For over 60 years, there has been a Cunard "Queen" sailing the oceans. Queen Mary 2 is the first such liner built in a generation and the worthy heir to the company's 160-year heritage.
But it's not the size of the vessel. It's the opulence. You are in a luxury world of the '30s and '40s. Everywhere you step is carpeted; every detail is perfect, nothing is overlooked. The companionways sparkle. You are being well cared for. The walls are covered with Cunard history and original art, many circus oil paintings reminiscent of the original Queen Mary, said cruise hostess Maureen Ryan, a veteran of many cruises, going back to the sixties.
There's not an inch of the massive vessel she doesn't know. The ship is about 21 stories high. Ryan guides a group of entranced media folk with her. The reporters themselves are even at an occasional loss for words.
She takes the group to the planetarium, the "Illumination," which also is a 1,000-seat theater. Enormous statues of Zeus and Mercury greet you at the entrance. The dome is situated over one bank of chairs and can be lowered for sky shows, which, on the open sea, are spectacular. However, this is not Ryan's favorite.
She then leads the group to the Royal Court Theater containing deep red chairs, a mezzanine, carpeting you could lose yourself in, banquets arranged here and there, and a stage set up for a musical performance. You look around, expecting to see Woody Allen filming "The Purple Rose of Cairo." "This is my favorite," Ryan said, "jolly good, it is." Who could disagree?
Then on to the main deck. No plastic chaises here. The deck is all teak, as are the steamer chairs, covered with forest green pads. For walkers, three laps around the deck is equal to 1.1 miles. Or, if you don't feel like walking, you can relax in the wicker chairs of the Wintergarden Room, to read a book or have tea. The room has a soothing waterfall, before a highly stylized mural of tropical birds. Or you could likely do a dozen other things. The Canyon Spa is available, shuffleboard, a casino, no end of dining rooms, buffets, and a fully stocked library, to name a few.
Ryan's other favorite is the three-tier Britannia dining room, and it is both elegant and opulent. Sparkling tables crowded with water and wine glasses, gleaming flatware, servers standing erect, greeting you with at formal smile. Each table bears a fresh orchid in a tiny crystal vase. The dining room has a young British staff, as opposed to the mainly over-40 passengers, who, so obviously, are enjoying the passage.
"We made our reservations, before she was a ship," said Lowell Simpson, of Babylon, N.Y., "Our reservations were made under the name 'ship G-32'." We've waited two years for this trip," he said. "We love the planetarium, and it's multi-use, they have films and performances. We feel privileged to be aboard."
A great number of the guests are British. They will fly home from Ft. Lauderdale, the QM2's next port, where a five-day celebration is planned.
The inaugural crossing carries 2,514 passengers and a crew of 1,285. According to Cunard officials, there are 1,500 non-U. S. guests onboard, two of whom were debarking on the waterfront earlier. As the steel band was playing, "America, the Beautiful," Joe Whyte and Judy Dowling stood transfixed looking at the moko jumbies. "Why, this is splendid," said Whyte, "I've never seen anything like this. And it's Judy's 70th birthday, a magnificent way to celebrate it."
It was a far different celebration from the ship's departure at Southampton, where, a British Web site noted: "with much pomp and glitz, the queen pushed a button and a champagne bottle smashed into the ship's hull, military pipes and drums played, and an operatic rendition of 'Amazing Grace,' was sung."
The ship will be making regular calls to St. Thomas with a Caribbean itinerary over the next couple months. On Jan. 31, th
e QM2 will depart Ft. Lauderdale on its first cruise. Though some guests on the inaugural cruise paid up to $48,000, that is not the norm. Cunard's Web site says the average fare is $3,499.
For nostalgia buffs, the highlight of the QM2's first season will take place at the end of April, when the ship will make its inaugural east-bound Atlantic crossing. It will sail from New York on April 25 in tandem with the Queen Elizabeth 2, the day marking the first time two Cunard Queens will have been berthed in the port together since March 1940. The cruise will be the last Atlantic crossing for the QE2, with the QM2 now to take over Cunard itineraries involving such transits.
USCG Lt. John Reinert was in charge of security for the QM2, a challenge he welcomed. Reinert coordinated all the different vessels surrounding the QM2 . "Though we dont officially have a boat assigned to St. Thomas," he said, "we are always a presence here." A 110-foot USCG cutter from Miami cruised around the big ship, along with vessels from DPNR, the National Park Service, customs and police, keeping sightseeing craft at bay. The Miami vessel is an armed, with a gun stationed in its bow.
"It went very well, Im very happy," Reinert said. "Even though there was no credible threat, we have to be here."
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