No ordinary drama queen

It is 10am and the Caribbean shimmers lazily, unbroken by even the smallest wave.

St Thomas is the sun-slicked mother of all duty free shopping malls. A paradise of consumer excess, where serpents and apples are fashioned from 18 carat gold and hard liquor is sold in handy six-bottle packs. This Eden has a fringe of perfect white sand and crystal sea to offer a tropical restorative once the serious spending is complete, but watersports are far from the prime activity here.

The minutes tick by. Regular Tannoy announcements have asked passengers to wait in the public areas. Another call has asked the Catholic priest to report to the hospital (something that might be better announced in code, surely). Now the voice of Captain Paul Wright booms above the mutinous mutterings of the captive hoard. The American coastguard is denying receipt of documentation e-mailed to them a week earlier. They will not permit any passengers to disembark. They are threatening to fine the ship for this alleged omission. Judging by the tone of Captain Wright’s very English voice, he has made quite a few threats of his own. As yet to no avail.

American bureaucracy has blossomed since 9/11 and no target is too large. Not even one that weighs 150,000 tons and cost 800 million. So there is no alternative but to enjoy an extended stint of sartorial subversion. ("Can you believe that T-shirt, the woman must be 80 if she’s a day; How do Americans keep their trainers so dazzling white - do they only wear them once?; Is that a tattoo or a really arty bruise?")

Eventually, the coastguard relents and the daunting task of decanting hundreds upon hundreds of disgruntled guests begins. Every few moments a different accent phrases the same question - whose idea was it to come on a ship this big anyway?

The few who remain on board are rewarded by serene spaciousness and the captivating delusion that these suddenly silent acres of thick carpeting (280,000 square yards of it to be precise), of teak and marble, glass and chrome, are our own. A 17-deck private play space, where every sun lounger is ours alone, every Jacuzzi burbling for our singular pleasure, every pianist playing our song. It might take a William Randolph Hearst to persuade himself that the three-storey Britannia restaurant was strictly necessary for private parties, but a drink in each of the ship’s 14 bars should help stoke that essential grandiosity - as might a stroll through the Grand Lobby with its 20ft by 23ft bas relief in sheet bronze and stainless steel, by Scottish sculptor John McKenna. A work so large that McKenna had to relocate to a larger studio in Ayrshire to complete it and then send it to the ship in four separate pieces.

As a latter-day Goldilocks, I found the 8,000-book library with its spectacular views over the ship’s bow to be "just right", as was the velvety darkness of the world’s first ocean-going Planetarium. Even the quarter of a million Champagne corks that will pop on board each year seem pretty much my preferred scale of celebration.

If the size of the ship is her fascination, it is also a source of anxiety to some passengers. "She’s a perfect terrorist target," a young woman from Long Island assured me. "That’s why we’re being shadowed the whole time by a nuclear submarine."

We are? "Absolutely. You’d better believe it. My boyfriend has access to that sort of information. There’s a sub with us the whole time."

I’m not quite sure what defence a nuclear sub would be against a little on-board semtex, but I discovered long ago that it’s best not to argue with Americans claiming inside information. Besides, the idea that Cunard can dictate the itinerary of a military submarine is rather charming. I wonder if they managed to surface for some sunbathing off Martinique?

At 6pm the few remaining, battle-weary, sweaty stragglers make their way to the last returning tenders. We are due to sail at 6:30pm and Captain Wright has invited a few passengers to the bridge (all 164ft of it) to watch the leviathan raise anchor and proceed on her journey towards New York. In the bilious radar-tinged green an enthusiastic fellow guest offers far too much information about the four mermaid pods that propel the ship, each weighing 350 tons, and two of them able to revolve through 360 degrees, thus acting as the ship’s rudder. I am rather more interested in the repeated calls from the purser’s office for four missing guests. It is a fairly regular calamity for guests not to make it back to the ship on time and, no, she does not wait for them. At least not for long. The responsibility for that last pina colada is all their own. As is the expense of the alternative travel arrangements.

It is 9:15pm and second seating guests are at dinner in the Britannia restaurant. Guests travelling in the most expensive suites (costing up to 40,000 for eight days) dine in the Queen’s Grill and eat what and when they please. The merely grubby-rich eat in the Princess Grill, again in a single seating, and the rest of us in Britannia, at either 6:15 or 8:30pm. Thus does Cunard continue the class system in proper British style. This evening we are celebrating the 60th birthday of a Belfast chap called Len, who is making a manful attempt to be jolly, but is continually assaulted by the memory that his wife has just left him after 30 years. He veers from geniality to melancholy like a metronome.

However, this is not the only interruption to the bonhommie of new-found friends. At first the message from the purser’s office sounds routine. Would Mr So-and-So of cabin such-and-such please contact the purser’s desk urgently. Ten minutes later, this request is repeated. Then, it changes. The Captain’s voice asks if anyone has seen this guest. He is described as of heavy build, 46 years old and with a grey beard. A few moments after that, we are told that he was last seen at half past eight, then, finally, a tense voice announces a crew alert, followed by the imperative: "Search, search, search".

"He must be overboard," a woman from New Jersey remarks, as she calmly butters a piece of bread. There is a moment’s silence, but this is either too bleak an idea to contemplate, or no-one is really interested, so a joke about disappearing husbands nudges the conversation back into its more familiar shallows.

10pm. "The ship is definitely turning," says a woman on deck seven. A ship the size of the Queen Mary 2 cannot make a nifty U-turn. She is a quarter of a mile long and her turning circle is slow, so slow that in the North Atlantic large liners such as QE2 and QM2 do not turn to search for overboard passengers. The water is too cold for anyone to survive long enough for the ship to rescue them. But this is the Caribbean and the Queen Mary 2 is turning to seek her missing passenger. Floodlights rake the surface of the sea as we head back towards St Thomas. They find nothing.

9:30am. The Captain announces that the ship is back on course, "released" from its search at 2am by the local coastguard, who will continue it. Less officially, we discover the man had left a suicide note in his cabin, which was found by his partner. No-one saw him jump, but the QM2 is 237ft from keel to funnel - that’s half as tall as the London Eye. She only clears New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by ten feet. So if this man jumped, he could have died as soon as he hit the water. It’s a thought that suddenly makes the sapphire blue Caribbean look a lot darker.

But even that contemplation is put aside by another announcement from the bridge. The ship is turning once again. Back towards San Juan. A medical emergency, this time. A passenger must be airlifted to hospital, but we are out of range of the coastguard’s helicopter. At 11:30am a thunderous whooshing sound announces the arrival of the helicopter. A US Air Force jet circles the ship at the same time. "That’s in case it’s all a ruse and we’ve been lured here by al Qaeda," another security-conscious American says with all the authority of keen imagination. The helicopter pilot is skilful and hovers, perfectly still, above Deck 12 as the stretcher is taken on board. Passengers throng the ship’s rails to watch.

We’re becoming accustomed to drama on this voyage. However, it is not these emergencies that reduce so many of the guests to tears. That is effected by the compilation of rousing American music that blasts from the sound system as we reach New York and sweep majestically past the Statue of Liberty. Not in the manner of the huddled masses whose Ellis Island entry would have been a lot less glamorous. But with all the attitude that the last two centuries has bequeathed America. "Top of the world, Ma! And the best of all possible worlds, at that" (as Jimmy Cagney nearly said).

We are several hours behind schedule. Although QM2 can maintain a brisk 30 knots, we eventually dock four hours late, creating another flotilla of personal crises to sort out. It is little comfort that none of the problems on this cruise was the fault of Cunard. Down in the bars on deck three, where the adjudicating goes on around the clock, people are mentioning again the dreadful accident in the shipyard at Saint-Nazaire last November when a temporary gangway collapsed during a party for the shipyard workers’ families and 40 people fell between the pier and the hull. Fifteen died. A grim tragedy, which prompted a flood of negative press comment long before her maiden voyage.

Even now, six months later, the ship sails into a suddenly strident furore about the precise fire-retardant consistency of the panelling in the cabin bathrooms. On 24 June this makes a long leading item on BBC news broadcasts and is billed as exclusive. Viewers watch as blow torches are applied to the panelling, which shrinks and burns several seconds earlier than it apparently should. So all those who habitually take a shower with a blow torch should be very alarmed indeed. Cunard - fresh from the paperwork of the late New York arrival - pledges extra sprinklers in every cabin bathroom. (So you can have a shower with your shower.) Each face and voice broadcast is all concern and quiet determination. This is still a wonderful ship, they try to say, but are not quite permitted the space.

The truth is, she is an extraordinary feat of glamour and engineering. The only liner built for nearly 40 years designed to withstand the very worst Atlantic weather. No South Seas idler in frilly whites, but a true ship that can cope with the 30ft waves and Force 10 gales that were thrown at her on her maiden crossing from Southampton to New York in April. A ship which only the truly cynical could view without a shock of admiration and awe. A massive steel-girded rebirth of an earlier "special relationship" between America and the UK, intriguingly depicted in a series of blown-up black and white photographs that line the corridors on deck three. Royalty, film stars, politicians financiers - all travelling Cunard, frozen on film amid the inimitable pause in routine identity that a voyage permits. Time for fantasy; time to "create a face to meet the faces that you meet". Time for the illicit liaison. The swift encounter and the lifelong friendship.

So the 1,250 staff of 50 nationalities on board QM2 do not consider her jinxed. Many pleaded transfers from Cunard’s other ships, Caronia and QE2. Others were recruited from the deluxe hotels of the world, before serving a compulsory White Star training course - "So they understand who we are, what we are, and where we have come from," as personnel manager Brian Lynch puts it.

A more vivid comment sits alongside the New York berth that QM2 so generously overspills. There, a grounded Concord lies tethered and motionless - like a white butterfly pinned to a collector’s board - her supersonic prowess a thing of the past.

Whether crossing the Atlantic in six days instead of four hours will return as the thing of the future remains to be seen. When I first travelled on a Cunard ship, in 1980, a fellow guest announced with pride: "I drove to the airport in a Rolls-Royce, I crossed the Atlantic in Concorde and then boarded the QE2; each method of travel the best the world can offer - and all of them British."

Well, he couldn’t say that today. And yes, there is a certain sadness at the passing of our engineering empire. But Brian Lynch insists that: "Carnival is the best thing that ever happened to Cunard. Without their massive investment, the company would have struggled to stay competitive."

In 2000, when Carnival Corporation purchased Cunard, there were only five passenger ships remaining in their fleet, with QE2 and Caronia both more than 30 years old. Plans to build QM2 were announced immediately. A sister ship, Queen Victoria, follows in 2007 (delayed because a nearly completed ship has been refused as unsuitable for Cunard - a brand identity that the new owners are guarding jealously).The cruise industry is currently the fastest-expanding sector of the travel market. By next year, it is estimated that 25 million passengers worldwide will take a holiday on the high seas, for it offers what the stressed 21st-century traveller values most: minimum effort with maximum horizons. Your resort travels with you and however long the journey, you only unpack once.

This last fact, combined with all the dressing-up opportunities that large ships offer, translates into mountainous tonnes of baggage. Laid out in colour-coded sectors in New York’s Ocean Terminal, it makes a truly frightening sight. But not quite as frightening as the throng of late and irate passengers jostling for taxis. The 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol allotted each of us translates into a rather shorter span of compassion. "If I could get my hands on that selfish f***** who went overboard, I’d kill him myself," spits a woman surrounded by eight pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage. "Twenty-six hundred people inconvenienced by one loser ... Someone’s gonna have to pay for this."

I hesitate to tell her that someone already has.

The QM2 will be anchored at South Queensferry on Tuesday 13 July enroute to the Norwegian Fjordes