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Captain of Queen Mary 2 explains its makeover

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 25/10/2016 Gene Sloan

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ABOARD QUEEN MARY 2 -- Ask the captain of the Queen Mary 2 about the most significant change during the vessel's massive makeover earlier this year, and he'll answer with a paradox.

The most notable aspect of the $132 million overhaul, says Christopher Wells, is that there was no change at all -- at least to the essence of what makes the ship so beloved in cruising circles.  

"Despite spending all that money, the most important thing to me is that we are still the same iconic trans-Atlantic liner that was designed by Stephen Payne in 2002," Wells says during an interview to discuss the makeover on the famed Cunard flagship's bridge.

"We have modernized, we have invested for the future, we have added a few cabins ... but we haven't changed the ship." 

In short, Queen Mary 2 was extensively updated -- "remastered" is the word Cunard is using -- but only so that it could remain exactly what it has been since its christening by Queen Elizabeth II on Jan. 8, 2004: The finest vessel afloat designed for long-distance travel across the world's oceans. 

Wells says one of the reasons the makeover was so pricey was that the company went to extraordinary lengths to ensure "Queen Mary 2 still is Queen Mary 2." 

A block of 35 new cabins that were added to the top of the vessel on Deck 13, for instance, was carefully designed so as not to alter the ship's profile.

It took the place of a little-used deck-top area that offered tennis courts, a wading pool and two hot tubs. 

"If you stand on the quay and you look at the ship, you don't know that they are there because that block has been so designed to match the existing superstructure," Wells says.

"So often when (lines) add a block of cabins to a ship, it looks like a bunch of port-a-cabins stuck on the top. It comes more expensive to make it look right."

Cunard's iconic flagship, Queen Mary 2, underwent a massive makeover over the summer of 2016. © Cunard Line Cunard's iconic flagship, Queen Mary 2, underwent a massive makeover over the summer of 2016. In addition to the 35 new cabins up top, the makeover brought another 15 new cabins on Decks 2 and 3. Notably, this second grouping of rooms are dedicated to solo travelers -- a first for the vessel.  

Nine of the new Singles rooms were built into space that formerly housed part of the casino, now shrunken in size by about half. But Wells says the reallocation of space has had little impact on the shipboard experience. 

"For our American customers who tend to use the casino more it may be a disappointment ... but the casino was originally very big, and a lot of nationalities do not use it," he notes.

The six other Singles rooms fill a high-ceiling space with large circular windows that formerly housed the ship's photo gallery.

The photo gallery was moved to a much smaller location across from the Golden Lion Pub that also was carved out of the casino. 

Again, the reallocation of space has had little impact, Wells says.

"We've embraced technology," he notes. "Instead of walls and walls and walls of paper pictures for sale (at the photo gallery), we now have a bank of computers" to view the shots taken by shipboard photographers. 

Wells raves about two other major changes that took place to the ship: The overhaul of the Kings Court buffet eatery and the addition of a new lounge, Carinthia.

Located on Deck 7, the Kings Court was one of the few areas of the Queen Mary 2 that never quite worked. It originally was broken up into three areas devoted to three different cuisines, each with its own food stations and seating.

The idea was that passengers would choose one of the areas at each meal to dine and stay put.

But what happened was passengers would repeatedly wander back and forth between the areas, first viewing and then grabbing a mix of what was available at all three.

The result was an unanticipated traffic jam.

"It did not flow well," Wells admits. "It's been a challenge through the life of the ship."

The solution was to consolidate most of the food serving areas into a single, spacious central area that runs from one side of the vessel to the other.

Passengers now head there first, fill their plates and then radiate out to seating areas. 

The Kings Court reorganization was a major feat of retroactive construction made possible by the removal of two glass elevators that rose up from the Grand Lobby.   

"It's far, far better," Wells says of the design. "It's not perfect, but it never will be as perfect as on many ships where the (buffet) area is up on the top because it also is the (lifeboat) deck. It has to be the area that is used for mustering passengers in an emergency, and (that means it) has to be broken up into a lot of segregated areas that lead out to the boat deck." 

Wells says the glass elevators that were removed saw relatively little use other than from passengers taking scenic rides to view the lobby.

Six more elevators are just steps away in a central elevator bank, he notes. 

A side benefit of the removal of the elevators was that the Grand Lobby suddenly became a lot more roomy, allowing for the addition of plush new chairs and even the occasional string quartet performance.

It now feels much more like a lounge. 

"It's given that space a better identity," Wells says. "That wasn't the intention. It was an unintended consequence of taking the elevators out." 

Adjacent to the Kings Court, the Carinthia Lounge takes the place of the Wintergarden, a wicker furniture-filled homage to the winter gardens of classic ocean liners that also never really worked. 

Completely gutted and rebuilt, it's now an elegant space filled with comfortable sofas and low-back armchairs that offers a relaxing escape during the day and transforms into a stylish hideaway in the evenings.

Decorated in neutral shades with gold and powder blue accents, the room features a bar serving specialty coffees along one wall and a small food station in another corner that serves up light breakfast and lunch items.

"It's probably the single most important change that we have made," Wells says. "That room has come of its own and become a destination in its own right."

Other changes to the ship included the redesign of all of its public area carpeting with bold new patterns inspired by the rugs on the original Queen Mary and the refinishing of all of its exterior teak decks -- the latter alone a huge undertaking, says Wells. Every single cabin also got a refresh, with top suites getting major overhauls.

While most of the cabin renovations were finished while the ship was in a 25-day dry dock over the summer, work on about 250 of the rooms continued into the fall in bursts when the vessel was docked in Southampton, England.

The last 11 cabins just were finished on Oct. 18.

The addition of the new cabin block at the top of the ship and the new Singles cabins means the Queen Mary 2 now can hold 2,695 passengers at double occupancy, up from 2,620 before the makeover, a relatively modest increase.    
Wells, who was on the original build team for Queen Mary 2 as staff captain, says the makeover has been a wonderful thing to see. 

"She has a special place in my heart," he says, noting that he spent 18 months with the ship during its initial construction at a shipyard in St. Nazaire, France.

"I am so happy to see the investment made to give her the next 10 years of life." 

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