Ship Bells and Bar Bills

Jill Spalding - June 2005

Aboard the Queen Mary 2, numerous drink sites deal Cunard accountants a royal flush.

She's glamorous, she's sturdy, and there's lots to marvel at on the glorious new Queen Mary 2, which has as many luscious trimmings as an English side of beef. But when it comes to food and beverage, Cunard runs a tight ship. Mentored by their umbrella company, Carnival, they know that the average passenger is less enthralled with floor shows, Oxford lectures, and shuffleboard than with all-you-can-eat-in-a-day. And since the fare covers all food, only liquor, soft drinks, and designer water tot up extra charges. So what better way to ensure ringing up hefty tabs than to stock a dazzling array of bars?

The orchestration is stupendous; just the loading, stashing, and disposing of the consumables is daunting but well worth it. In 2004, the QM2 rang up approximately $6 million in wine and Champagne sales and $3 million in liquor sales.

This Kong of ocean liners floats 4,300 souls, of whom 3,090 are guests thirsting for the best experience of their lives. And, more significantly for conducting full-gale bar business, she alone of Cunard's liners crosses lengthy stretches of deep water.

To compare her with a cruise ship is akin to matching oranges to kumquats. The QM2 is a hugely serious vessel, built to battle the elements and plough rough water. Our voyage was not a cruise but an early transatlantic crossing, five days of nowhere to walk but aft to forward and port to starboard. That's an invitation to a lot of resting places with license to refresh.

Aside from her five full-service restaurants, QM2 has nine outlets that dispense alcohol. Two, weather permitting, are open air. On overcast days, the liveliest action centers on Deck 12 at the Pavilion Pool Bar (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), which supplies mixed and soft drinks to six rows of deck chairs and two crammed hot tubs but is too sparsely stocked (no feeder restaurant nearby) to fully service windblown droves seeking shelter in its glass enclosure.

Those less inclined to disrobe segue from breakfast in the Kings Court to the Winter Garden. Its well-stocked bar gears up at 10 a.m. to supply well-laced Bloody Marys to a culture crowd gathered in comfy rattan chairs for the daily art auction, whose take, on a well-lubricated day, has reached $100,000.

On to the Golden Lion on Deck 2 (10 a.m. to past midnight), the most convivial of the midday bar stops. Only slightly hoked up with pub mementos, it's most appealing for its draught ales and lagers (a rarity at sea) and the only truly English food aboard—albeit of the fish and chips, bubble and squeak variety—that's chalked on little blackboards.

Evenings unfold on Deck 3 aft, where a dressed for dinner crowd hugs the counter of the lustrously mirrored Chartroom Bar or soaks in views of the waves from club chairs drawn around tables while crooning old Sinatra tunes along with the pianist and calling on a copious selection of vintage Ports dating back to 1967 (two ounces for $7.50).

Adjacent to the Chartroom Bar, yet aloof from the fray, intimate and very beige, the Champagne Bar strives for glamour with muted 1930s film star murals and a horseshoe-shaped counter. Unabashedly promotional, it serves up only Veuve Clicquot, displaying every bottle size, though the largest sold is the three-liter Jeroboam. I saw one bon vivant order two for his party of 10, conditional on recouping the empties as souvenirs. Last year, 30,000 glasses of the bubbly were sold. Prices start with a glass of Brut N.V. for $10. A Jeroboam of the same goes for $200. A limited menu lists caviar with traditional accompaniments; tea smoked Barbary duck with pâté de foie gras, gravlax, or smoked salmon; and deluxe canapés. (Prices range from $40 for a glass of Champagne and an ounce of sevruga to $225 for four ounces with a bottle of La Grand Dame 1995.)

Sectioned off into a mahogany English clubby area of leather chairs and long-stemmed glasses is Sir Samuel's, named for Cunard's founder. The only designated wine bar, it serves 30 wines by the glass and lists the day's selections from a 30,000-bottle wine cellar billed as the largest at sea. In all, 310 labels are stocked, at prices climbing to $2,650 for a 1989 Château Petrus. Its bartenders do a ready turn as wine stewards, with all the swirling and cork sniffing such high office entails.

Liveliest, if decidedly non-Q, is the late stop Empire Casino bar (6 p.m. to 2 a.m), near the jammed neon blang-blang clutch of slot machines and gaming tables, pouring straight-up liquors in squat glasses that won't topple in the overwrought excitement of win or lose. Another late stop is the ship's nightclub, G32, named after the shipyard berth that Queen Mary 2 occupied while being built in France.

My top pick is the elegant Commodore Club, which wraps around the bridge on Deck 9, providing views of any sea creature action the waves toss up. Although open to all, it's a hefty walk from midship, so it remains a well-kept secret. Aficionados seek it out as readily for a quiet read or morning coffee by one of its 22 large windows as for the prodigious Martini menu featuring 59 variations, 15 of them gin-based (2.5-ounce pours range from $6 to $12), its cigar-friendly Churchill's room, and an open area cordoned off most evenings for private cocktail gatherings. The backlit counter that anchors an outsize model of the QM2 (which took longer to build than the vessel herself!) draws enough interest to keep three bartenders on the go.

Indeed, all bartenders aboard have their limits tested. QM2 bartenders mixed 45,000 Martinis and 20,000 Bloody Marys last year. And just complying with the U.S. public health system's "three bucket system" (wash, rinse, and sanitize) keeps them occupied two hours after closing. Proficient mixoloists, they fixate on detail: a straw's end paper is spiraled into a little helix; olives are skewered the same way.

"I'm addicted to George's preparation of a Campari soda," one guest told me. "He tops the Campari with half as much soda, adds the right amount of ice, a freshly cut slice of lemon, and a little pitcher of soda on the side." By the second day, passengers' names and preferences have registered. Between bar banter, a vigilant eye is kept out for minors (appeased with wonderfully elaborate cocktails of many colored juices), nuts and napkins are replenished, ice hauled in, clean glasses sorted, and ashtrays emptied (smoking is permitted in all the bars). Numbering around one to four, female bartenders say they like the disparity. Though versed in the art of the arcane cocktail, on transatlantic crossings they are seldom called to venture farther than wine and Cognac for the Europeans, adding Pimms No. 1 and Port for the Brits. Americans, on the other hand, prefer straight Scotch, basic mixed drinks, and Martinis. Beer and Champagne apparently appeal to all, as well as the popular QM2 signature cocktail of vanilla vodka, cranberry juice, Sprite, and a squeeze of fresh lime. Many of the bar staff have worked several Carnival ships, with the most seasoned plucked from Cunard's dowager QE2. While we were treated to some misty-eyed recollections by some of them who deeply missed her, on the whole they seemed already to have donned the epaulettes of pride and privilege at working on what each repeatedly referred to as "Her floating Majesty."