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The largest ocean liner to visit New Zealand is due in Auckland shortly after sunrise tomorrow.

Cunard's giant Queen Mary 2, launched in 2004 and making its maiden voyage to New Zealand and Australia, will be almost as tall as the harbour bridge.

Towering 61m above the water, its funnel will be higher than the bridge's road deck and just 7m short of the top of the arch.

But its length may be the monster's most striking feature for Aucklanders who get a good view as it enters the Waitemata around 7am.

At 345m long it looks like the cruise-ship equivalent of a stretched limousine.

Strictly, the Queen Mary is not a cruise ship, says the captain, expatriate New Zealander Christopher Rynd. "She's a liner," he insists, explaining the distinction in the sleek cut of its bow and the fact that it cruises across oceans rather than in and out of the same port.

Since leaving Honolulu last Saturday it has been making 27 knots on engines that are said to pack enough punch to launch a jumbo jet.

Captain Rynd will be throttling back overnight, though, to ensure the ship arrives in daylight. He knows Auckland's reputation for turning out in numbers on the water and at every vantage point on the shore.

He has the crew prepared for a flotilla of welcoming craft possibly larger than the hundreds that surrounded the Queen Mary in San Francisco Bay last week.

Captain Rynd, who grew up in the Bay of Islands and went to King's College in Otahuhu, began his career with the Union Steam Ship Company. He has brought ships into Auckland countless times and expects no problems with one this size.

"It could be a bit tight rounding North Head," he said, "but no, she handles extremely well."

The Queen Mary has three lateral thrusters that enable it to turn on its own length, and it needs them. Leaving Honolulu, and again at Pago Pago on Wednesday, the ship had to pirouette in narrow waterways.

In Auckland it will be too long for the usual cruise ship terminal, Princes Wharf, and will tie up at Jellicoe quay, east of the Viaduct.

The new Queen Mary is more than twice the size of the original and twice as big as its 40-year-old sister ship, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2.

Queen Mary's 2600 passengers and 1200 crew will have only one day in port before sailing for Sydney, where the two Queens are scheduled to rendezvous on Tuesday.

About 100 New Zealanders are on board, having paid US$6000 ($8650) a head and more for the sector from San Francisco to Sydney.

The 500 passengers who booked the entire "Round the World in 80 Days" cruise paid US$40,000 for a standard ocean-view cabin, rising to US$200,000 for one of the duplex apartments over the stern.

'Wonderful' and 'awesome' say it all

Susan and Peter Gleeson of Taupo have just two words to describe their lucky break. One is "wonderful", the other "awesome".

For the past 10 days they have been aboard the Queen Mary 2 for its first voyage to New Zealand, a trip they received free in a Herald readers' draw.

The couple flew to San Francisco a day or two before the giant ship arrived and happened to be on a tram that got caught in a traffic jam just at the right time and place to see the Queen Mary enter the bay.

It cleared the Golden Gate Bridge by only a few metres.

Hundreds of small craft turned out to welcome the world's largest ocean liner, a sight Mrs Gleeson describes as "awesome".

"We were lucky the weather was clear too," she said. "It had been so hazy you couldn't see the bridge."

They were among crowds that watched from the city. "Everybody was saying how awesome the ship was, though some thought it a bit ugly," Mrs Gleeson said. Its seven-deck superstructure is longer than the classic ocean-liner profile.

Late that afternoon the Gleesons went aboard the new Cunard flagship for the Pacific leg of its round-the-world cruise, stopping at Honolulu and Pago Pago en route.

How has it been?

"Wonderful," said Mrs Gleeson. "Awesome," said her husband.

They settled into a shipboard routine of breakfast, followed by a session in the ship's gym, then lunch in one of several cafes of different style on board, before settling into a lounger on one of the decks for an afternoon of sunbathing, reading and snoozing by the pool.

As evening approaches on Cunard ships all passengers change into the designated dress for dinner. Some nights it's formal (tuxedo for men), other nights informal (jacket and tie please, gentlemen) and others "elegant casual", which means a jacket with tie optional.

The Gleesons were allotted a dining table with eight Australians who received the trip in similar draws - six from Sydney, two from Adelaide.

"They were wonderful," Mrs Gleeson said. They have been dining together every night since and often spend the evenings as a group in the ship's ballroom, piano bar or disco.

Truth be told they are in no hurry to arrive home tomorrow but look forward to the welcome they hope Auckland will turn on.

"I think there will be people watching from Mission Bay all the way round to Devonport, and as many boats on the harbour as at San Francisco," Mrs Gleeson said.

"It will be awesome."