WE THREE QUEENS

The Baltimore Sun

"Welcome to my office," Capt. Paul Wright said as he opened the security door to the bridge of the Queen Victoria. Through the expanse of windows, the ocean seemed endless, glimmering in the sun.

It was, as it turned out, the calm before the storm.

The captain, a genial chap from Cornwall, England, was soon laughing about the rumors aboard Cunard's newest ocean liner.

No, he assured me, no one had been lost overboard. And had I seen the reports in the British tabloids blaming every glitch on this, the ship's second voyage, on the "Curse of Camilla," Prince Charles' wife, the first nonmonarch to christen a Cunard Queen in nearly 75 years?

This Queen Victoria did have its share of bad luck, but that aside, I preferred it to the Queen Mary 2, which I accompanied on its maiden voyage to the Caribbean in 2004.

Yet the two ships share a common trait: elegance. If Cunard can't yet replicate the graciousness of the 1930s in this age of inelegance, those who sail its ships -- myself included -- hope it keeps trying.

Only the most superstitious -- or the most ardent Camilla bashers -- could blame the problems of this voyage on the Duchess of Cornwall, even if the champagne bottle did fail to break at the christening.

Nor could Cunard be blamed for an outbreak of a highly contagious stomach virus that struck just before Christmas and ultimately sickened about 140 aboard. Ship personnel responded quickly to contain the bug, thought to have been carried on when we boarded Dec. 21 at Southampton, England. Hand-cleaning before entering dining spaces was required, and passengers were advised to avoid public restrooms.

Neither could Cunard be faulted for canceling a stop at Casablanca, Morocco, on advice of the British and U.S. governments -- "for security reasons," the captain said. And Gibraltar had to be scratched when gale-force winds made it too dangerous to dock. Several days of rough seas followed.

Misfortunes aside, not everyone was thrilled with the cruise, for which passengers paid from $4,100 each for an inside cabin for two to $34,000 for the grand suite in upper class. Passengers had expected lavish Victorian Christmas decorations but got little more than a pair of towering trees in the Queens Room and some greenery here and there. Others described the food in the handsome two-deck Britannia dining room as merely adequate. It wasn't on par with the food in the intimate Todd English restaurant, where a supplement -- $20 per person for lunch, $30 for dinner -- was charged.

Veteran Cunarders criticized the uneven service: missing cutlery, mixed-up orders, largely invisible wine stewards, the feeling of being rushed through meals. One night, I asked for a tall J&B; Scotch and got a short Tanqueray gin. (Some of the multinational staff seemed less than fluent in English.)

On one thing almost everyone seemed to agree: The Queen Victoria is a beautiful ship with elements of Victorian decor -- marble and mosaics and crystal chandeliers -- and touches of art deco and art nouveau. It's smaller and cozier than the Queen Mary 2. The Queen Victoria occupies a different niche, Wright said: "It's intimate, a ship where people can get to know people."

Lessons learned from Queen Mary 2 influenced the design. Mary's library is tucked away on Deck 8, but it is a showpiece on the Victoria, an inviting Deck 2 space with a spiral staircase, a skylight and leather chairs. The Royal Court Theater, all red plush and gilt, has private boxes ($50 a night per couple). Many passengers liked how most of the Queen Victoria's bars and lounges were clustered on Deck 2 around the three-deck Grand Lobby; with its make-an-entrance staircase, it's the hub of the ship.

There's a casino, of course, but unlike on the Queen Mary, it doesn't abut the Britannia dining room, so it is much less jolting. The popular Commodore Club, forward on Deck 10 with wraparound windows, is clubbier than the Queen Mary's.

The Todd English restaurant proved such a winner on the Queen Mary 2, where it is tucked away on Deck 8, that it was moved to Deck 2 on Victoria. The Golden Lion pub, larger than the one on the Queen Mary, attracted a noon lunch crowd keen on bangers and mash and fish and chips. During the day, it was a hangout for team-trivia addicts; at night, the destination of karaoke fans.

Several of the Queen Victoria's shortcomings are not open to debate. Standard outside staterooms (like mine) are a good size for a cruise ship, about 180 to 200 square feet. The decor, gold and blue with blond woods, is pleasant, and the beds are great. But there's little drawer space, and baths are so skimpy there's just enough room to turn around in the shower.

The ship's food might not have thrilled everyone, but one could not accuse Cunard of skimping. Both quantity and variety were staggering. If three meals weren't enough, the Lido buffet on Deck 9 served sandwiches, salads and hot dishes 24 hours a day. A midnight Christmas Eve buffet in the Winter Garden was beautifully presented, with ice sculptures and treats such as a croquembouche, a Christmas tree of custard-filled cream puffs.

I met happy passengers as well as disgruntled ones. Lorcas Martin, a psychiatrist and self-described cruise addict from Dublin, Ireland, said of the ship: "When she gets her character, she'll be fantastic." He had already booked the ship's cruise to Russia in May.

Roger and Janet Birkin of Derbyshire, England, were among the unhappy voyagers. (It didn't help that Roger Birkin got the stomach virus.) Janet Birkin found it "quite vulgar how they're trying to extract every dollar out of you. They're exploiting the Cunard name."

Maybe there was a lot of sell-sell-sell. Jewelry and cosmetics hawked at tables in the Royal Arcade, together with logo clothing and souvenirs. Expensive spa treatments. (I had a wonderful massage, $129 for 55 minutes, and was pleasantly surprised that the therapist only suggested but didn't push a high-priced product.) And maybe the ship's photographers were a little too in-your-face taking their expensive pictures.

But there was also much to like on this ship -- the talented lounge pianists, the harpist at tea, the string quartet in the Grand Lobby, the collection of historical Cunardiana.

David Lilliard, a retired farmer who lives two hours from Southampton, and his wife, Jo, on their 30th cruise, were disappointed overall, but they did like the ship. "Give them a chance," he said, "They'll sort it out."

I think he's right.

Beverly Beyette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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