Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Cruising: Riding the royal wave

On a transtasman voyage, Winston Aldworth gets a taste for the high life aboard the regal Queen Mary 2

Winston Aldworth takes a dip aboard the Queen Mary 2. Photo / Winston Aldworth
Winston Aldworth takes a dip aboard the Queen Mary 2. Photo / Winston Aldworth

This must be - surely - among the finest swimming pools in the world.

That's me in the photo on the left, starfished out in the pool on deck eight of the Queen Mary II. In the background: the Bay of Islands. Behind us: a three-day voyage from Sydney.

There are, naturally, a few different pools to choose from aboard the Queen Mary 2. I took a dip in most of them and settled on deck eight's offering, with a spa on either side and a bar serving Pimm's by the jug nearby.

That day, as the giant ocean liner perched proud as a flagpole in the Bay of Islands, most of the passengers took the short ride into Paihia aboard the ship's fleet of tenders (that's one on the left in the swimming pool photo). The passengers who stayed on board were mostly Kiwis - I'd seen Paihia before, but I'd never drunk Pimm's in a spa pool aboard an ocean liner.

When at sea, the water in the pool sways in sympathy with the motion of the ocean. A slight pitch that you wouldn't notice when walking about the ship's vast corridors becomes a small tide that rolls against you as you float, starfish-style, in the pool.

It's a neat reminder of both where you are (at sea) and the absurd luxury of what you're doing (paddling about in a pool at sea).

With my mum as my travelling partner, I'd spent pretty much every minute of the cruise busily exploring the ship. An afternoon in the swimming pool was just reward.

We had sailed out of Sydney late at night, gobsmacked by the city's lit-up beauty.

As you'd guess from the regal name of the ship (and her sister ships, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria), Cunard are down with the whole class thing. Huge luxury suites on the Queen Mary 2's world tour are booked by wealthy families for months at a time.

Our Sydney-to-Auckland leg was one small part of the Queen Mary 2's round-the-world cruise.

Just don't say the word "cruise".

"This isn't a cruise ship,"Commodore Christopher Rynd tells us. "She's an ocean liner."

And, inevitably, we're not on a "cruise", we're on a "voyage". And we are called "guests"; after all, "passengers" ride on buses.

(And for goodness sake, don't call her a "boat" within hearing distance of any of any veteran cruisers).

As it happens, Commodore Rynd was born in Waiuku, my hometown. But he's crossed many oceans since then and today the man in charge of the Cunard fleet has more than a little Captain Picard about him. New arrivals on board the ship get the chance to meet the Commodore at a soiree welcoming them aboard. He is a star. After meeting the smart charmer in his white jacket, guests come away flushed, like Justin Bieber fans.

The morning address Rynd delivers on the ship's PA system covering weather conditions and matters of the ship comes forth in a baritone that might comfortably recite Shakespeare.

Rynd, with his assured manners and demeanour is a key part of the Queen Mary 2 package. Plenty of our fellow passengers are older and this beautiful ship, with her classic aesthetic and timeless traditions, appeals for its memories of half-imagined glorious yesterdays. It's a memento of a golden age of sea travel that, in reality, few of us ever really knew.

The central stairway inside the ship's interior. Photo / Sarah Ivey
The central stairway inside the ship's interior. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Couples, often with many miles of cruising under their belts, play shuffleboard up on deck 13. They walk - a seemingly constant stream of them, as if raising money for charity - around the beautiful teak circuit on deck seven. They're ducking off here and there to catch a lecture, see a movie or join a talk in the library.

One old rogue, who has at least four decades on me, nods at my boat shoes as he and his wife exit a lift. "I like your shoes."

Other than mutual footwear admiration, the lectures prove popular. Travelling with us is a lovely fellow called Paul Brunton - the emeritus curator of the State Library of New South Wales - and travelling with him are early drafts of James Cook's journals and letters home.

In the ship's giant theatre, Brunton gives talks on Cook's voyages through these waters. He mentions the ribald deeds of Cook's travelling partner Joseph Banks, who, legend has it, made love to a Tahitian princess in a canoe. ("On the island of Otaheite," wrote Banks, "where Love is the Cheif [sic] occupation ... both the bodies & the souls of the women are modeld [sic] into the most upmost [sic] perfection.")

Now that's a voyage.

And so, after filling our days, we fill our bellies.

All the meals in the Queen Mary 2's restaurants are complimentary, unless you choose to eat, as we did one night, at the superb Todd English restaurant on deck eight.

On a galley tour, we saw a slice of the massive, 24/7 operation behind the feeding of 2600 passengers in a range of different restaurants, from pub meals at the Golden Lion to fine dining at the two-storied, 1300-seater Britannia.

Food became a constant subject of discussion as Mum and I planned our days on board around mealtimes and evening drinks. We ordered our breakfasts in advance and sat - very civilised, like - on our stateroom balcony, watching the water go by over eggs, sausages and pots of black coffee.

The best view from our balcony on deck 11 came on the morning the ship rounded Cape Reinga. From our elevated perch many miles out to sea, New Zealand had become some other land, new to us, with the sun's touch slowly warming its soil.

The Queen Mary 2 plows through the ocean. Photo / Getty Images
The Queen Mary 2 plows through the ocean. Photo / Getty Images

Each night, before bed, I took a walk around the teak boards of deck seven. No matter the time, there were always a couple of constant strollers.

It's beautiful out there at night. The blackness of the sea's surface is dappled with the white crests of waves. In the darkness, distance is hard to judge so you can't tell if the waves are big or small.

I had labrador moments, leaning against the rail, looking forward along the ship's immense length. You can't help but imagine for a moment the consequences of going over the side. Over there, is certain death. Here - on this side of the rail - we're safe, warm, dry and preposterously comfortable.

In one of the lightly profound moments that come to anyone who stares at the night-time sea after a couple of drinks, I wonder if these liners represent humanity's triumph over the elements. There's a titanic thought.

The sea at night holds our imagination. Banks would have eyed these waters and pondered future princesses; I'm just thinking of breakfast.

Winston Aldworth travelled as a guest of Cunard.

- NZ Herald

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