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The Magnificent Queen
By Ralph Collier

QE2 There is little doubt that Americans go to London more than any other capital abroad. The Cognoscenti have a similar feeling about British ships, tops among them, the QE2. In comparison to the Queen Elizabeth 2, the new kids on the block look like so many rock bands, fast, slick and indecently young.

The embarking passenger is quickly overwhelmed by her superior and gracious presence.

She is as long as the Paris Eiffel Tower is tall, about 10 city blocks, but great magnitude is forgotten in the nobility of form. And it is wise to skip the cliche "a floating hotel" when discussing her - a ship is a ship and the QE2 is a personality with her own heritage and attributes. Captain Roland Hassel is her Captain, the third generation in his family to be the Master of a major British vessel in a century. And like the skipper, his ship has a rarified, Old World air that sets her apart from the brash newcomer cruise ships in this day and age.

The histories of great ships are meagerly recorded and make fairly mediocre subjects. What is known about them can be told in a few pages. At the opposite end, the QE2 presents a colossal adventure on the high seas. Follow her into any port of call as she anchors and she is instantly surrounded by a gawking galaxy of smaller craft from ferries to sailboats, kayaks, even a rowboat carrying a father, his three tiny tots and their black lab, all staring at her 13 decks. Her single giant red funnel and the lettering on her stern reads in large white characters: QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 SOUTHAMPTON. Inevitably, she gives you that visceral shock of recognition. Not visible from below, she also sports 13 elevators and has room in her garage for 13 automobiles. Her passengers have included numerous royal families and one tale often retold has to do with an incoming telephone message and someone who asked to speak to the Queen. "Which one" was the operator's answer.

This is a ship that was originally built to service and spoil the rich and romantic. It is one of the few ships on which, when you come on board, it belts you with its ambiance and gives you that visceral shock of recognition.

In the days when she was launched more than 3 decades ago, it was appropriate for most ships to camouflage the reality that passengers were at sea. In sharp contrast, her design team was actively encouraged to emphasize her surroundings, after all, passengers who travel on ships of this magnitude do so by choice rather than lack of alternatives. Thus her restaurants are placed high in the vessel enabling those aboard to relish outrageously fine cuisine and enjoy the best of both worlds: an ocean vacation and the luxury of a grand hotel. Throughout the ship, there is not a flicker of British haughtiness, the crew is unflappable, warm and competent and some of the function rooms remind a passenger of home - provided, of course that home is Buckingham Palace. In one suite, a visiting writer slept the sleep of kings.

In the Queen's Grill, the most posh of the dining facilities, time spent at lunch or dinner diminishes stress considerably more than a 45 minute hour on a shrink's couch.

One feels like having stumbled into a small, tasteful restaurant in London. There is the space itself, winsomely evocative of charming European dinners in the past. So, how smart is the ship's Executive Chef, Austrian born Karl Winkler? His dining rooms such as the Mauretania and Caronia and the Queen's Grill prove their point thrice daily beginning with surprising delicacies such as a special amuse-bouche followed by a tin of caviar, available nightly in the grill, and even when not on the menu. Passengers refer to the chef as the Sturgeon General given his liberal budget with this delicacy. As one has come to expect, everything is in a fine fettle. The kitchen shines particularly in a juicily true-to-the-master appetizer. Cote d'Azur Marinated Vegetables that include seafood with Artichoke, Cauliflower, Mushrooms and Zucchini simmered in White Wine, Coriander and Lemon Juice. It arrives with freshly baked Olive and Sundried Tomato Bread just out of the kitchen's ovens. Options suggested by the Grill captain include Escargots a la Bourguignonne; the snails baked in a traditional herb sauce that is properly garlicked - the dish characterized by bold flavors and unusual harmonies. Under Winkler's supervision, the kitchen turns out food with extraordinary confidence.

For entrees, dishes such as Pan Seared Venison served with Hazelnut Croquettes, Red Cabbage and a Wild Mushroom Sauce or an Osso Bucco Gremoulata in a Tomato Wine Sauce along with Spaetzle deliberately raises the level of culinary sophistication on the high seas. The menu is sufficiently au courant to gratify anyone with a regular habit of dining well, but it also bears in mind that each ship includes some passengers saddled with a more timid palate and modest requirements. Cooking on this floating castle is not a 100 yard sprint - it is a marathon 7 days a week and Chef Winkler's QE2 restaurants are an outpost of civilization where the maxim "savoir fare" - savoir vivre" reigns supreme.

The QE 2 has become fairly exalted, and proof is in evidence on the Royal Promenade dominated by designer inspired apparel such as pastel sweaters, chiller jackets and other WASP attire featuring the quasi regal QE2 logo, items intended for the affluent passenger. Already they have taken their place among the more cosmopolitan of the global brands. There are the traditional thirsty bathrobes with the ship's monogram, brandy snifters, clocks and nautical objects, all creating a souvenir that, thank heaven, is less crass and less obvious than the inevitable photographs Poster Boys and Girls of the "Me Generation"insist on having taken, complete with waiters and the maitred' hotel smiling in the background. As the Bard of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken wrote, no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

Bottom Line: The QE2 is nothing less than exotic because more than any ship afloat, illusion and commerce are joined to perfection.

For information, please call 1-800-7-CUNARD

Ralph Collier is a member of the American Society of Travel Writers, and has guided thousands of vacationers and business travelers to rewarding adventures with his widely syndicated radio series and newspaper columns.

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