Let the other ships have their rock climbing walls and their water slides, their come as-you-are and do-as-you-please ambience. On the new Queen Elizabeth, it's lawn bowling and croquet, formal nights and afternoon teas, assigned seating and fixed dining hours.
Indeed, Cunard's elegant Queen Elizabeth is the very embodiment of British civility.
The 2,068-passenger Queen Elizabeth, successor to the storied QE2 (now docked in Dubai, where plans to convert it into a floating hotel are on hold), made its debut Oct. 12, christened by Queen Elizabeth II (the flesh-and-blood monarch). It joins the larger Queen Mary 2 (2004) and the slightly smaller Queen Victoria (2007) as the last of Cunard's new queens.
I was onboard in late November for its Gallic Debut, a five-night round trip from Southampton, England, with calls at Amsterdam, Zeebrugge, Belgium, and Cherbourg, France. Sleet and snow greeted us on the way as the big chill descended over Northern Europe.
Embarkation at Southampton's Ocean Terminal was a tedious 75-minute process and included mandatory shoe removal as we passed through metal detectors. I had not experienced this on any of my 10 or so post- 9/11 cruises.
By the time I got to my stateroom, my luggage was already there. The cabin was light and cheerful with blond wood and burgundy and gold accents. A 242 square feet , it felt spacious, with a king bed, desk-dressing table, mini-fridge and flat-screen TV. But what was with the hair dryer tethered to the dressing table with a cord so short I couldn't look in the mirror while drying? (I'm told the matter has been addressed with the designers.)
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Fares for Queen Elizabeth cruises range from $1,195 for an inside stateroom on a five-night voyage to $199,995 for the top Queens Grill suite on the 107-night world voyage that will depart Jan. 10, 2012, from Southampton, England. These fares are per person, based on double occupancy, and do not include taxes and fuel supplements.
The ship, which left Jan. 5 from Southampton on its maiden world voyage, will call at San Pedro on Saturday, embarking on a 24-night voyage to Sydney, Australia, with ports of call including Hawaii, and on to Southeast Asia, India, Egypt and southern Europe, returning to Southampton on April 19.
The Queen Elizabeth will sail in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean during the year and will make a maiden voyage to the Holy Land, from Southampton on Oct. 28, calling at Jerusalem and Galilee/Nazareth as well as Gibraltar, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.
Info: (800) 728-6273, http://www.cunard.com.
Unlike the Queen Victoria, which was woefully short of drawer space when it first sailed, I found storage aplenty, including night tables with drawers. I counted 43 wooden hangers among the 21/2 closets. Although the bath was small, with a barely adequate prefab shower, it too had good storage.
There was much to like, starting with the Art Deco public rooms. The Victoria incorporated bright red and blue into its décor, but Queen Elizabeth's softer color palette of blue, gold and burgundy flowed more smoothly from space to space. These sister ships are essentially alike, but Queen Elizabeth has 35 more cabins aft and a larger games deck. Some Cunarders had hoped for radical changes, but, said ship's Capt. Christopher Wells, radical change is costly, and "at the end of the day it's all about pounds and pence."
There are no singles cabins. "Cunard doesn't feel obligated" to do that, Capt. Wells said, noting that most luxury hotels don't offer this option. Although he acknowledged the demand — Cunard is popular with single, older women — he said, "You could never build enough. You can never win."
The ship was built in Italy, and Cunard is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., but Cunard hasn't forgotten its British roots, to the delight of its many British passengers. (Baked beans at breakfast and all.) Formal nights are a must. We had one on our cruise, and it was lovely to see women in real evening gowns, not cobbled together make-do outfits. As I watched from the mezzanine, women of a certain age were being led around the ballroom floor by Cunard's gentlemen hosts. As elegantly turned out couples danced to "The Anniversary Waltz," a silver-haired man next to me said, "Now that's what I call ballroom dancing. That stuff on TV? That's acrobatics."
Traditional didn't mean stuffy. In the Yacht Club disco one night, couples were dancing under strobe lights to the strains of "Hound Dog." In the Queens Room ballroom, a quartet of Beatles imitators always packed the house. I was horrified to realize that this was a trip down memory lane.
On karaoke night in the Golden Lion Pub, I caught Londoner Vicki Adams-Salmon, a building surveyor whose hobby is costume-making, belting out "Lipstick on Your Collar" à la Connie Francis. Adams-Salmon sported a strapless red gown and a screamingly bright red wig. She smiled and said, "It's pink underneath," as she lifted the wig and showed her hair. She was celebrating her 30th birthday with boyfriend Clive Cheer and thought the ship was "brilliant."
Other things that floated my boat: The casino amidships is not overwhelmingly intrusive. The two-level, wood-paneled library has a spiral staircase and leaded skylight. The multiple bars and lounges and variety of entertainers, including pianists, a harpist and a string quartet, seemed to suit nearly every taste.
A new concept for the 800-seat, tri-level Royal Court Theater is the Queen Elizabeth Theater Company, a resident troupe presenting shows in repertory as varied as Neil Simon and Shakespeare. Ours was "Hotel Royale," a thinly plotted musical set in a faded hostelry.
On some nights, music and dancing were featured in the Garden Lounge, an airy venue designed to suggest Kew Gardens.
The heart of the ship is the soaring tri-level Grand Lobby with its double staircase. It's dominated by an 18-foot-high inlaid wood panel depicting the first Queen Elizabeth (1938) at sea, created by London furniture maker David Linley, son of the late Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon and nephew of Queen Elizabeth II, who stopped to admire it at the christening.
Those who cruise to eat might be disappointed. Food and service in the Britannia Room (included in the price of the cruise) was decidedly uneven, with wrong dishes arriving with some regularity and servers bringing one guest at a table a second course before another guest had finished the first.
For alternative dining options (for which there is generally a surcharge), instead of a Todd English restaurant as on the other Queens, this ship has the Verandah, with a French-inspired menu created by Cunard chef Jean-Marie Zimmerman. I had a superb steak dinner, beautifully presented, from the prawn amuse bouche to the baba au rhum. All this, and Edith Piaf in the background. It's à la carte, and my meal, with wine, was about $60. Other dining alternatives: At night, areas within the Lido buffet are transformed into three table service restaurants — Asian, Mexican and South American. There's a $10-a-person surcharge.
Among the British onboard were Londoners Audrey King and daughter Tracey and their friend Sheila Dennis, all veteran Cunarders. Audrey King and Dennis had sailed on the QE2, the Queen Victoria and the Queen Mary 2. They choose Cunard for its "service and standards," thought this ship lived up to most expectations but gave the cuisine only a B. And, said Audrey, she sensed cutbacks — no captain's reception, "not even a drink to greet you."
She is among those still nostalgic about the QE2, and for those who revel in nostalgia, the Queen Elizabeth has mementos aplenty, including a phone from the first Queen Elizabeth and art depicting the golden age of cruising, with men in knickers and women in cloche hats.
Barbara Ball from Leeds, England, said she has taken 30 Cunard cruises, including three on the Queen Mary 2 and one on the Queen Victoria. She thought the Elizabeth was "a lovely, lovely ship and, by today's standards, a very good value." She and longtime companion Colin Almond, avid ballroom dancers, have booked the ship again. They did complain about the size of the showers, and she thought the Britannia Room cuisine just didn't have "that wow factor."
Freezing weather spoiled some shore excursions. I joined "Christmas Spirit in Bruges (Belgium)," a big disappointment. The Christmas market was mediocre, a blight really on the beautiful medieval square, and in the cold, our 90-minute walking tour was a $65 endurance test. Why, we wondered, was it not canceled?
On a day at sea, I indulged in a massage in the Royal Spa. David, my masseur, strongly suggested I buy no fewer than three products to relieve stress. (I didn't.) The spa menu includes body composition analysis, acupuncture, sunless tanning, Brazilian blowout hair straightening ($425) and classes in yoga, tai chi and Pilates. Use of the well-equipped fitness center is free. The ship has two outdoor pools — and a few hardy souls plunged in — but the indoor pool in the Royal Bath House is $35 for a day pass.
Cunard knows its guests. They tend to be older and, said entertainment director Amanda Reid, "wouldn't be interested in skating rinks and climbing walls." They like bingo, shuffleboard and dancing and, she added, "any speaker who has a show business or television background, especially royal correspondents." But passengers also enjoyed brushing up on their computer skills with seminars on Facebook and EBay.
After three launchings within a decade, Cunard has no plans to introduce another Queen. Why not? I asked the captain. He smiled and said, "England didn't have that many queens." (Jane doesn't really count, having reigned for only nine days.) So the options are few, he said, smiling, "unless we bring out a Queen Anne — or maybe a Queen Camilla."
There will be a grand celebration aboard April 29, with a satellite feed of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, followed by a commemorative dinner. I'd love to be onboard on this, my favorite of the three ships. Besides, what could be better than being on the Queen and watching a future queen?Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun