My audience with the Queen Mary
WE have become accustomed of late to pre-dinner mojitos and martinis in the refined surrounds of the Commodore Club.
But as it turns out, throwing back a couple of ice-cold ales and soft drinks under the yellow XXXX umbrellas in the Mandorah Beach Hotel beer garden is the most-fitting way a couple of Aussie "loyal subjects" could farewell royalty in the Northern Territory.
The waterfront hotel is several kilometres across Darwin Harbour from Fort Hill Wharf where RMS Queen Mary 2 has docked for the day on her first visit to the territory capital.
In reality, the picturesque little pub is a million miles from the opulent life onboard Cunard's 151,400-tonne flagship.
Our six-night journey on the largest, most luxurious ocean liner to visit Down Under presented a procession of jaw-dropping moments and left us envying those undertaking her 22-day Royal Circumnavigation of Australia ... and indeed the full 108-night world voyage.
A spur-of-the-moment decision to take the ferry across from Cullen Bay to visit the tiny Mandorah township results in unobstructed views of QM2, as she is affectionately called, in port at the distant wharf.
Just as she is about to leave, the zoom lenses work overtime to capture the traditional salute in honour of the 345m-long ocean liner's first visit to Darwin as a tugboat sprays two great arcs of water across the bow.
The publican and a couple of locals also are keen to see "Mary" in all her glory as she dwarfs Darwin CBD skyscrapers and passes straight in front of the humble hotel on her way to the next port of call in Bali.
Queen Mary 2's first Royal Circumnavigation of Australia pays homage to Matthew Flinders who was the first to sail the length and breadth of our shores from 1802 to 1803.
After the Indonesian sidestep, QM2 finally bid farewell to the Antipodes in Sydney last Thursday.
At that time, she will have visited eight Australian ports across five states and the Northern Territory (the longest time spent in a country outside her northern hemisphere home ports of Southampton and New York), as part of her fifth world voyage which left Southampton on January 10 and will return on April 27.
As we sit chatting to the friendly Mandorah folk and a Darwin friend, we have carte blanche to reminisce about our week.
We rave about the foodie heaven across a diverse range of restaurants including the Lotus Asian-inspired dining and the signature Todd English Restaurant, plus the first-class entertainment ranging from a string quartet and harpist to solo artists such as comedian juggler David DiMuzio and the amazing voices of headliners Phillip Browne and Lorraine Brown.
I want to close my eyes and imagine I'm reclining once again under the dome screen of Illuminations - the world's only floating planetarium - listening to Robert Redford narrate Cosmic Collisions or Harrison Ford detail the Search For Life in other galaxies as six projectors help bring patrons closer to space and its mysteries.
I want another scalp massage under the cascading waterfall or to loll in the bubbles of the whirlpool in the hydrotherapy pool before surrendering to the powerful thumbs of Canyon Ranch therapist and Brisbane resident Rachel Pole.
I want to be served once more by our knowledgeable waiter Arnold or to discus grape varieties with Croatian sommelier Christian in the Brittania Restaurant.
I want to plonk myself down on the plush red velvet lounges of the Royal Court Theatre as the turquoise "peacock-inspired" costumes of the Royal Cunard Singers and Dancers grace the stage in a tribute to the golden age of showbusiness, backed live by the theatre orchestra.
I want to be enveloped by the South Pacific Ball in the Queens Room and watch black and white tuxedos and sparkling formal gowns swirl across the dancefloor.
But perhaps what I really long to do is to lean back on the sunchair, feet up on the coffee table of starboard-side Deluxe Balcony Stateroom 8001, and do absolutely nothing but stare into the vast expanse of ocean on a balmy afternoon in the tropics - one of the few times you realise you are moving on the water.
During our six full days, we also snorkelled Manta Ray Bay off Hook Island and lazed on Black Beach in the Whitsundays (while anchored off Airlie Beach) and explored Kuranda and the rainforest (after anchoring off Yorkeys Knob).
But one of the highlights of the sea days would have to be late afternoon on February 20.
Joining dozens of keen photographers and others with binoculars, I shared the excitement of sailing past Australia's most northerly point at Cape York and seeing the wind turbines atop the Thursday Island township before rounding Hammond Rock on an ever-so-cautious westerly passage through treacherous Torres Strait.
And if that wasn't enough of the wow factor, the sight of two distant ships sailing into the golden sunset was the image that stayed with us as we went on our separate ways to dress for our semi-formal night at sea.
Queen Mary 2 stands head and shoulders above other ocean liners as the longest, tallest, widest and most comfortable at sea. But her attention to detail is her forte.
Particularly after completing her extensive refurbishment last December, she certainly lives up to the superlatives afforded the grandest, most famous ocean liner afloat today.
And her daily programs featuring activities such as ballroom dancing classes, art exhibitions and lectures on myriad topics echo the traditions and romance of the golden age of cruising when passengers liked to stroll the decks, partake of afternoon tea and dress in black-tie for dinner.
Mary can't help but sail into the hearts of all those who come to know her intimately.
So, while our Mandorah Beach toast may have been on a beer budget, it came with champagne gratitude for a memorable voyage.
QM2 calls Down Under next year to Australian ports including Brisbane and Sydney as part of the 106-night world voyage from Southampton on January 10. Thisl includes her historic maiden 12-night circumnavigation of New Zealand Visit Cunardline or call 13 24 41.
QUEEN MARY 2's vital statistics
Tonnage: 151,400 tonnes - almost twice the size of the original Queen Mary, which was completed in 1936, and more than double the size of the legendary QE2.
Length: 345m - the longest liner in the world. She is more than double the length of the Gabba cricket ground and more than two-thirds the length of Brisbane's Story Bridge spanning from Kangaroo Point to the Valley
Maximum speed: 30 knots or 55kmh
Capacity: 2620 guests plus 1253 crew
Number of staterooms: 1310 - 75 per cent (955) featuring private balconies - covering 10 different stateroom types
Number of decks: 14