It is a parallel universe. At home they'll be like the rest of us but for three months, round-the-world passengers on the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner are in another world. They are lotus eaters.
We pick her up in Auckland on one of her 40 shore stops and have only two days to cram in as much of the QE experience as possible. I overhear many who are doing the whole trip (no change from US$35,000 each in a balcony stateroom. No such things as mere "cabins") and others whose schedule includes a week in Sydney then picking up sister ship the Queen Mary 2 for the journey back to Southampton. When one 84-year-old American woman gets to Sydney she'll have done 2480 days at sea with Cunard, the equivalent of more than four-and- a-half years.
While the QE is in Auckland and many passengers are ashore we have the opportunity to do a quick recce. Everything is immaculate and as Auckland has pulled out all the weather stops, QE's white paint glares in reflection and miles of varnished wood gleam. There are 12 passenger decks, but we can investigate only 10 as decks 11 and 12 are for the "them" not the "us". At the top of the nine accommodation rungs is a Grand Suite taking in about 140 square metres. We are in a balcony stateroom, one of more than 700.
She pulls out of Auckland with a full complement of 2620 passengers and about 1000 crew. It is a clear, still evening and the tannoy announces we are passing Ran-gee-toetoe. Later, as we head towards Wellington, we will hear we are near Pea-toan.
But these are nothing more than amusing hiccups as we have a taste of this other world of grace and luxury. The pace is elegant, but relaxed, designed for passengers who are, largely, of pensionable age.
They need not be indolent, however, and those travelling alone need not be lonely. There are activities and attractions from 6am until midnight and beyond. And women alone who want to enjoy ballroom dancing have the services of the Gentlemen Dance Hosts, eight on the QE, who are 50-plus to mid-70s and who work the inlaid floor of the two-storey Queen's Room from after dinner to midnight. Gentlemen not gigolos, they are masters of diplomacy, spreading themselves thinly - three minutes a time - to keep all the ladies happy because it is said the hackles rise when one gets more than her share of attention. The dance hosts are on short-term staff contracts but eat and mingle with the guests, sometimes leading shore excursions. I watch the dancing from the balcony and this is no place for shufflers - these people know their foxtrots from their mambos.
As with any cruise, food and drink are an important part of the day. QE has 22 restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. She also has an enforced dress code. In the main restaurants, effective from 6pm, the rule is either "formal: black tie or formal dark suit for men (medals may be worn) and evening dress or other formal attire for ladies; semi-formal: jacket and tie for men and cocktail dress or trouser suit for ladies; or elegant casual: Jacket, no tie required for men. Dress, skirt or trousers for ladies. No jeans at any time."
We are in the Britannia restaurant, the main dining room whose sweeping staircase and art deco features link to classic ocean liner restaurants. For the two dinner sittings waiters, carrying a maximum of 10 mains at once, serve 1600 meals. Our first-night choices include poached turbot bonne femme, lamb Wellington and grilled paillard steak Diane. There is much "madam-ing" and "sir-ing".
Passengers on the next accommodation rung have the separate Britannia Club with single-seating dining. Next up are the Queens Grill and Princess Grill restaurants on deck 11, up where the hoi poloi may not enter. I have it on good authority they are "enclosed by graceful and gently curving panoramic gall walls on the seaboard sides and are cantilevered out of the side of the vessel".
Down on deck nine The Lido is a dress code-free buffet restaurant open 24 hours a day and in the evenings, for an extra charge, Mexican, South American or pan- Asian meals are available. There is also a complimentary 24-hour room service menu and breakfast can be served in your room. What more could anyone ask?
We opt for room service breakfast as there is an early start. Sir has volunteered to undergo treatment at the Royal Spa. "A setting where your inner beauty is pampered until it is apparent in every muscle of your body, in every strand of hair and in every light-hearted thought that whispers: 'I love this'."
I, however, have an appointment under the crystal chandeliers of the Queen's Room. After Sit and Get Fit and before the line-dancing class - which is always packed - there is Introduction to Fencing. How could I turn it down? We learn the en garde position, how to move, and are then kitted up and armed. It is tremendous fun, especially as one of my duelling partners doesn't have an aggressive bone in her body and I am repeatedly able to "go in for the kill". Huge fun but also hugely sweaty under all the protective gear. It ends far too soon.
When Sir returns from the spa's Canadian Sarah - she of the strong thumbs - he says the treatment was glorious and that he had nodded off a couple of times. His forehead has been ironed.
We lunch at The Verandah, QE's French restaurant, facing each other on two-seater sofas with extra back support. Windows out to sea run the length of the restaurant. A harp being played outside in the main lobby. It is another world.
I start with superb scallop mousse with langoustines, green bean risotto and sauce Americane. Then it's prune-stuffed supreme of guinea fowl braised with a vintage Bordeaux. Into the swing of all this I venture: "Where was it shot?" "Somewhere near Southampton, madam," the waiter says after the briefest pause. Sir has glazed fillets of sole with grapes, Sancerre sauce wilted lemon-scented baby spinach. As dinner is only a few hours away we'll not have desserts but I tell the super smooth sommelier that we'll have a bottle of the Chateau D'Yquem (whisper it: US$245 a bottle). "A bottle, madame?" "No, it's OK, I was only joking." "Oh, madame, any time."
There are hand sanitisers at the entrance to all restaurants and bars to keep the dreaded norovirus away, but at The Verandah the bottle wears a gold kimono. "So ugly without it," says the maitre d'.
We then sedately pound around the promenade deck at least half a dozen times, passing many who prefer to sleep off lunch on the cushioned steamer chairs with their shining brass fittings. Among the various lifeboats attached to the sides of the ship above us - 24 more than the QE could need - are two rescue boats powered by New Zealand's Hamilton jets.
Up on the games deck it's mallets at 20 paces in the croquet tournament, the paddle tennis is furious and the lawn bowls is not. A bit surprised to find the boxed box hedging is plastic, but the salt air would probably play havoc with the real thing. We fit in another swim and some people- watching around the pool before its time to prepare for pre-dinner drinks. Sigh.
It's a formal night and, yes, some medals are worn and so are several kilts. A highlight comes after dinner when we have a private box in the three-deck Royal Court Theatre. A red- liveried bell-hop serves champagne cocktails in an anteroom and then in the box there is champagne on ice and pink chocolate truffles. The dance show is good but, really, I would have gone to watch paint dry. A silent bell pull away, the bell hop is waiting should we require anything else. Does he have lotuses?
The Queen Elizabeth is the equivalent of 21 storeys high, weighs almost 100,000 tonnes and is 294m long. Put it on its end and it's 34m short of the top of Auckland's Sky Tower antennae.
She was built in 2010 at an estimated total cost of US$630 million. AThere are 1046 staterooms, including 738 with private balconies.
Her two-storey library has more than 6000 books and a spiral wooden staircase.
Each day about 950 bottles of wine and champagne are drunk, along with 4188 eggs and 287 litres of fruit juice. More than 2600 tea bags are used.
This year was QE's second visit to New Zealand and in 2013 she will be back with sister ships, the Queen Victoria and Cunard's flagship vessel, the Queen Mary 2, who will make a Sydney-Sydney circumnavigation of this country.
The Queen Elizabeth returns to New Zealand in February, 2013, stopping in four ports. Her sister ship, Queen Mary 2, will next year complete her first circumnavigation of New Zealand as part of her sixth, 106-day World Voyage.
The Royal Circumnavigation departs Sydney on March 7, arriving in Milford Sound on March 10, and will stop at Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and the Bay of Islands. For more information go to cunardline.com.au
Maureen Marriner was a guest of the Cunard Line.
- Sunday Star Times