NEW YORK -- Kimberly Wilson Wetty returned from a whirlwind overnight trip to check out the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton, England, and found several employees camped out at her office door, all eager for details.

"There's so much pent-up demand," said Wetty, the co-chief operating officer at Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. "I can't believe how many calls I've gotten from clients and agents dying to know what it's like."

Wetty was one of a handful of U.S. retailers who attended the naming of the QM2, but thousands more will get a chance this week to witness what is easily the most widely anticipated cruise ship -- or ocean liner, as Cunard's president Pamela Conover termed it during a Q&A on the ship -- in years.

About 2,000 people attended the ship's christening by Queen Elizabeth II. A writer covering the event for the Times of London mused the ship must be "significant," given the fact that the Queen interrupted her typically noninterruptible January holiday to travel to Southampton to say two sentences for a Miami-based cruise line -- although granted, a line with a British pedigree stretching back to 1840.

But Cunard, and parent company Carnival Corp., know how to get the word out, and having the Queen name the ship was certainly key. At the Southampton ceremonies, more than 1,000 press credentials were issued for newspaper, TV, radio and magazine reporters.

"All the stuff [the QM2] represents -- the biggest, the tallest, the most extravagant -- is getting a tremendous amount of press. ... It's a benefit to the industry as a whole," said Bob Sharak, the executive director of the Cruise Lines International Association.

First impressions

The QM2 may be a lot of things, but it's not a throwback to an era of opulence and ostentatious glamour. There are no crystal chandeliers, no massive mahogany tables, no brocade fabrics and heavy draperies and no heavy nautical themes. The interiors are a marriage of art-deco accents and modern furniture, upholstered in light, neutral shades.

The simple interiors seemed to catch some of the initial QM2 viewers by surprise, but Wetty said she thought the look was "elegant."

"It's understated but still grand. ... I enjoyed the fact that some of its decor was a little more subtle," she said. "It wasn't heavy on the gold and the red, like old-world grand. I love the fact that it's so different from the [Queen Elizabeth 2] in feel and decor."

One visitor to the ship, milling about on the aft pool decks, said he was impressed by the QM2's size alone.

The public rooms, for example, boast high ceilings, wide-open doors and an airiness that's enhanced by the spare modernity of the furniture.

The ship's technology is 21st century, too. Cruisers with wireless capabilities will be able to tote their laptops around the ship to e-mail and surf the Web, as soon as they visit the extensive ConneXions learning center and pick up a password.

The ship's tour

For touring purposes, it's best to start at the top and move downward. Be sure to allow yourself (or your clients) enough time to view the whole ship. On my prenaming visit, I did it in about three hours.

Must-sees for staterooms are the duplex suites, which overlook the aft pool decks and range between 1,566 and 2,249 square feet, and the forward suites that overlook the bow. If you book into the Queen Elizabeth or Queen Mary suites, your clients will have their own private elevator up to the pool deck or down to the Commodore Club.

The most nautically themed room of the ship is the Commodore Club, all the way forward on Deck 9. It's cozy and warm, just the place for sipping a scotch by the window and watching the Queen slice through the Atlantic or for listening to live jazz.

The cigar bar, which commanded a fair amount of real estate on ships just a few years ago, is noticeably tiny on the QM2.

Britannia est intimate

If you're looking for a grand staircase, you'll find it in the Britannia Restaurant, where the majority of the ship's passengers will dine underneath a fabulously bold tapestry of the QM2 in New York. Although the two-deck high room is huge, the upstairs has tiered seating and the downstairs lots of nooks, which gives the room an intimate feeling.

The Queen Mary 2's art-deco-themed Queens Room boasts the largest dance floor at sea. The Queens and Princess grills don't have a lot of frills. Both are subtly outfitted and nearly identically accented (gold for the Queens Grill, silver for the Princess Grill). They each look like an upscale New York restaurant, one where the food is more important than the decor. But here, exclusivity is the major factor. The Queens Grill seats only 206 passengers; the Princess Grill only 180.

Wetty, who has plenty of experience with upscale and luxury clients, said it's the intimate setting they crave. "A lot of people who are spending that money don't want to sit with a lot of people," she said.

The one room that Wetty said she found disappointing was the Queens Lounge, an enclave for the ultra-wealthy who buy into the QM2's top suites. The room is furnished almost like a waiting room, with nondescript chairs in brown fabrics grouped around low cocktail tables.

The red-and-gray upholstered Todd English restaurant, meanwhile, springs to life. In pleasant weather, the outdoor tables will probably be a hot item.

The ship's lido-like Kings Court turns into four separate restaurants in the evenings, all with sit-down service and menus. There's Italian, Asian, a steakhouse and the Chef's Galley, which is a demonstration kitchen-dinner show, strictly limited by a charge of $35 per person.

Nightlife

Each of the bars or lounges on the QM2 has a distinctive flavor, but the openness to the ship means many of them flow into each other, especially in the lounges between the atrium and the Britannia.

Each has its quirks: The ice buckets in the Veuve Cliquot bar have vibrant orange insides that match the champagne label. In the Chart Room cocktail bar, light-blue glass panels on the wall are etched with maps of the QM2's itineraries.

Pre-dinner, invited guests were drinking champagne in the Queens Room, a classy, art-deco-themed ballroom with a vaulted ceiling and a dance floor that (as you might have heard Cunard say) is the biggest at sea.

By the end of our evening, the mainly British crowd filled the Golden Lion pub. The G32 dance club, named after the QM2's keel number at the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard, also was hopping, with tuxedo-clad patrons lined up at the glowing blue bar.

Four-star standouts

You'll catch views of the Winter Garden, the theater and the dog kennels, but three other places are standouts:

• The Planetarium. For those who hoped to stargaze onboard a cruise ship and were confronted with floodlights on the top decks, here's a less romantic -- but more informative -- way to see the stars.

Be sure to sit in the appropriate seats in the middle of the theater or else your neck will be sore after two minutes.

• The Library. Cunard can't be exaggerating when it boasts of the biggest library at sea. This one actually has stacks, so you can wander up and down the rows.

There's also a neat bookstore adjacent to the library that's devoted to Cunard memorabilia (great for people who like historical posters).

• The Canyon Ranch Spa. A pass to the thermal spa pool is included in any treatment, or you can buy yourself (or clients) a ticket to this relaxing grotto. A waterfall pounds down one end of the pool, drowning out needless conversation.

• Top deck. If you're looking for an expanse of space and you haven't yet found it inside, check out the ship's top deck, which is enormous. I went walking topside after dinner, and it's easy to lose yourself up there.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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