Sunday, December 12, 2010

Queen Mary (1)

I arrive at LAX at 8:30 PM, but it takes me till nearly 10 to get to Long Beach and the Queen Mary Hotel, 11PM my time. I'm fairly beat, but check-in is efficient and after marching down an impressively long ship's corridor, I arrive at A161. I am surprised at how large the room is, and at the spectacular harbour view of city skyline out my twin portholes. Mary had clearly outdone herself this time.

Above: bedroom portion of A181; note porthole style heating/air conditioning vents over bed. Below: Living room portion of the cabin; note electric heater on the right (directly below TV)

Extremely pleased, I start to unpack when there is this really strange / disturbing sound. I eventually figure out that it is a dog whimpering next door. I open the closet door to hang my coat, and the noise sets the dog off barking. I wait for it to subside, but no such luck. So after half a hour of this, I reluctantly call down to the desk to complain. The clerk is appropriately apologetic and asks which room it is, says he will phone them right away, and hangs up. I am doubtful this will help, because I do not anticipate the dog answering the phone.

So I wait through another fifteen minutes or so and then go down to the desk to ask if I can move because it's been a long day and I really need to sleep. The clerk courteously moves me into another room (B484) on the other side of the ship and a deck down. This room, it turns out, is half the size, has only one porthole, and no view out of that. (It looks out on a geodesic dome, the former hangar of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose and current Carnival terminus, but this is in no way equivalent to the cityscape on the other side.)

Cityscape of Long Beach as seen from starboard side of Queen Mary

I return to the desk, point out that the room is not really equivalent, but that it will do for tonight if I can have my original room back the next night, assuming the dog is gone. The clerk assures me that the dog will be leaving the next morning, now that the dog show is over. (This admission that management had knowingly booked an entire dog show worth of dogs into the hotel somewhat upped their culpability in my view.) The clerk offers me a free breakfast to compensate me for my inconvenience, but since Mary had already bought breakfast vouchers for me, I decline. And I'm not the sort of guy who complains in hopes of caging a free breakfast.

So I go to bed in my diminished but still quite nice room. It is also a bit noisy, but the noise is human, and I figure since by now it is past midnight, the humans will eventually quiet down, which the dog clearly had no intention of doing. It is a bit chilly, so I look around for the thermostat, eventually find it, see it has been turned down to 0, and crank it up to 70.

I wake up hours later shivering. I get up and discover the vent directly over the bed is spewing out icy cold air. I check the thermostat again, crank it up as high as it will go but with no change. I try fiddling with various settings (having on previous occasions encountered systems where turning up the thermostat turned down the heat down), but my experimentation is to no avail. I try to huddle under the covers and go back to sleep, but it is too cold. I get up, put on my hoodie, and try again. It is still shivering-cold, so I start to put on my winter coat, but it is too bulky to sleep in. This, I think, is crazy. If I wanted to freeze, I could have done that for free in Canada; the whole point of going to California in December is to get warm.

I try to phone the desk again, but pressing the "front desk" button on the phone only gets me a 'beep', so after several tries, I once again hike all the way back to the desk to point out I am freezing.

I may have looked a bit pissed, because the clerk turned me over to the night manager before I even reached the desk. The manager smoothly apologizes, explains that the heat must be turned off for the area, picks up the phone, calls for the engineering section, puts a 'rush' on fixing the heat in my room and asks who is ever on the other end to let him know when it's been done. He assures me this is routine, will be fixed momentarily and tells me to go back to my room and to phone the desk again if my room is not toasty within the next fifteen minutes or so. I point out that the phone doesn't seem to be working. Taken aback, he offers me breakfast, which I decline again, and he tells me to try the 'zero' on the phone next time, because sometimes the 'front desk' speed dial button is broken but zero will always get through to the operator who can connect me to him.

I get back to my room read for another half hour, shivering. I go to the phone and press zero. I hear a 'beep'.

I go back down the mile long corridor to the front desk. I tell my story to a new desk clerk who says, yeah, well its the original heating system and very ancient. The manager comes back in, sees me, and phones the head of engineering to meet him at my room. The manager is polite and professional but clearly pissed that he was told it was fixed when it wasn't. He steps into my room and says, "This is really cold!" and I say, "Yeah, so it is not just my imagination." and he says, "Not your imagination at all sir!" and offers to take 50% off my bill. The engineer shows up with the tech. The tech explains that he turned off the fan, thinking that that would stop the cold air coming in, but agreed that the room was unacceptably cold. He starts going through a set of keys trying to find the one to open the access panel. The chief of engineering -- who positively radiates authority, expertise and professionalism; the man looks like he should be the engineer on the Queen Mary, or maybe the Enterprise -- also tries to solve the problem. He is clearly about to rip the panel open, key or no key, when he figures out it's probably not the right access panel for my room anyway. Eventually they establish that the panel they need to access is inside another occupied room. The manager pronounces the situation ridiculous, and phones the desk (once he gets the phone working again!) to move me to yet another room in another corridor.

Which is an inside cabin (B513) with no porthole at all.

And freezing cold.

The manager fiddles with the thermostat, establishes that nothing is coming through the vents. More frenzied conferencing between all parties. To abbreviate a much longer story, the tech eventually finds a way to turn on the heat to this room. By this time the manager has volunteered not to charge for the night, which is probably only fair since I have been up for most of it. It takes another hour for the room to warm up enough for me to take off my coat and go to bed, so it is now about 8:30AM (9:30 AM my time) so I go have my breakfast before turning in, lest I now oversleep and miss the hours for which my voucher is valid.

Breakfast at the Promenade cafe is excellent. And a real bargain at the $9 Mary paid for the voucher.

Mary phones and I explain why I am about to go to bed, and she worries I might then miss the tours she has pre-booked for me. So I stay up until 10AM when the tour office opens to book a time for my tours. I then go back to bed and get two hours sleep before I have to get up and showered etc for the first tour at 1:15

So...having in one night experienced three different cabins in the Queen Mary, I'd have to say there are a few potential problems to watch out for. But on the whole, I was pretty satisfied with the response from the staff. Admittedly, it took quite a while to get the problems fixed, but everybody was unfailingly polite, appropriately apologetic and more importantly, focused on solving the problem as quickly as possible. I have to say I was really struck by the expertise and professionalism of everyone involved, particularly given that this was largely middle of the night, or very early morning at end of shift, when one is usually not seeing people at their best. I became aware, watching these guys, that trying to run a major hotel to modern standards based on an infrastructure from the 1930s may not be the easiest task. Had the staff not reacted as they did, I would have written scathing reviews on travelocity/expedia etc., because it was not a good night! Given what I saw, however, I am inclined to the opposite view: The Queen Mary has one of the best trained, best organized staffs I have yet encountered. (I've been in lots of 5 star hotels where staff screwed up royally, and my wife's travel column is entitled "It's a Training Issue", so I definitely see good staff as a key to a satisfying stay.)

And it was fascinating to see the different cabins. A161 was definitely the best of the deluxe cabins: spacious, good view, and with more of the original features, though none of those actually worked. For example, the bathtub had three sets of taps: one for hot and cold fresh water, one for hot and cold sea water, and the modern rotary tap bath/shower tap that actually worked. (Salt water mineral baths were apparently considered healthy back in the day.)

Similarly, the original porthole style heating/cooling vents (insert below) were left in the room, though the actual heat (worked fine) came through modern style ceiling vent.

There was also a fixture I mistook for a 1930s floor cabinet radio, but on closer examination turned out to be an electric heater. What looked like a speaker grill was actually the heating element, just the right height to brand any toddler who wandered too close or passing adult surprised by the movement of the ship.

The "original artwork" was great, though I later recognized it to be framed posters of the large pieces around the ship, rather than the original stateroom paintings. The inside cabin B513 was almost the same square footage, but the two beds instead of one meant less of the other furniture, and the lack of window might bother some. I would have probably been fine with it if I hadn't been grieving the loss of A161 and Mary's efforts to get me a great view. B484 was also nice enough, though much smaller. I believe they were all categorized as the same price as upgraded deluxe rooms, but I am unclear if they would have been different rates back in the day? I certainly would have felt ripped if I was in one of the smaller rooms for a two week crossing and had paid the same price as the good one.

Of course, my little two-room (room and bathroom) cabin would not compare with any of the first class suites. Those would have been something to see. The tour guide mentioned suites of up to 14 rooms, including two rooms for luggage. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor apparently traveled with 84 pieces of luggage in their suite, and another 70 in cargo. Those were the days when people knew really knew how to dress for dinner! Imagine trying that on today's airlines!

The other issue that has to be mentioned is the complete lack of soundproofing. I could hear every word the couple next door was saying as if they were standing next to me in my own room. I found it hilarious that said couple went on at length about the antics of the couple on the other side of them, once that couple had departed for the dining room, but appeared completely unreflective about their own conversation and, um, activities. So I'm not sure about bringing the family to stay at the Queen Mary, not only because our kids would likely be annoyingly loud for our neighbours, but also because I'm not sure how I would have explained to my 7 year old why we were not rushing to assist the people in the next cabin when they, uh, cried out for help to the good lord.

I kept wondering what it would have been like back in the day to be trapped on the ship for weeks at a time facing such a complete lack of privacy. Everybody must have known everybody else's story by the end of the voyage.

That all said, I'd still have to pronounce myself well satisfied, and to argue that it is well worth the risk of some inconvenience to stay in a living museum, to feel part of all that history. The Queen Mary is an awe inspiring feat of engineering, the hotel continues to evoke the atmosphere of a more elegant age, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself. Undoubtedly the highlight of my trip.

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