Aboard The Queen Victoria
"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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Queen Victoria: A story in Sunday's Travel section on the new Queen Victoria ocean liner incorrectly referred to passenger Michelle Grant of Santa Monica as a travel manager. She is a talent manager. —
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 non-monarch 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.
Like the Mary, the Victoria is an ocean-worthy liner (a liner generally makes oceanic crossings and may not return to its port of embarkation for some time), rather than a cruise ship (which generally leaves from and returns to the same port or one close to it). Purists sometimes dismiss cruise ships as clusters of floating flats.
The Victoria's signature black and red livery and elongated bow identify it immediately as a Cunard ship, but it is no mini-Mary.
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.
Let the others have their casual dress, free-choice dining and rock climbing. Formality is fine with me, and, flaws and all, a Cunard voyage is special.
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. (The 24-hour virus, common in enclosed places, causes vomiting, diarrhea and cramps but is rarely fatal.) 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 mandated, 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.
With time to kill as we headed back to Southampton, the ship slowed, which also made for a more comfortable trip. The Atlantic was choppy, the horizon shrouded in mist. Waves 11 feet high crashed against the hull. The captain reported "rogue swells" of up to 30 feet that caused the Victoria to creak and shudder as it rose and fell.
The good news from the bridge: "The ship has handled these big ocean swells very well" on this, its first real test, said Wright, who kept passengers abreast of the big waves and the bad bug.
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 a par with the food in the intimate Todd English restaurant, where a supplement -- $20 a person for lunch, $30 for dinner -- was charged.
Veteran Cunarders also 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.) But I have only praise for Vivian, my cabin steward, who anticipated my needs and never made me feel as though I had to plan my day around her schedule.
On one thing almost everyone seemed to agree: The Queen Victoria is a beautiful ship with elements of Victorian décor -- 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."
Alastair Greener, the ship's entertainment director (a new Cunard title replacing cruise director), said: "A lot of people didn't like the size of the Queen Mary 2. The Queen Mary 2 is big and grand," the Ritz-Carlton of liners; the Queen Victoria is more like "a five-star luxury country hotel."
Lessons learned from Queen Mary 2 influenced the design. Mary's library was 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 was 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.
In all, public rooms seemed well placed. And getting from one to another wasn't a marathon-ish task.
Several of the Queen Victoria's shortcomings are not open to debate. Standard outside staterooms (that's what mine was) are a good size for a cruise ship, about 180 to 200 square feet. The décor, 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. Malfunctioning toilets also were a problem.
Sixteen days make a long cruise, especially with two ports scratched and seven at-sea days. But the entertainment staff worked overtime to keep passengers amused, even though the paucity of big-cast production shows disappointed some.
Theater acts included a politically incorrect British comedian, an overreaching soprano, a magician, a juggler and two men playing one piano. "What's next, an accordionist?" asked Cunard devotee Randy Randolph, a retired high school teacher from Pompano Beach, Fla. The Brits onboard (1,165 among the 1,880 passengers) loved the Victorian music hall show, enthusiastically waving miniature Union Jacks, but it seemed to leave many Americans bewildered.
Along with elegance, Cunard sells Britishness. It clings fiercely to British traditions, including afternoon tea -- cucumber sandwiches and scones, served by white-gloved waiters.
But some Cunarders seemingly can't forgive the company for becoming American. (Miami-based Carnival Corp. bought the line a decade ago and later moved Cunard's U.S. headquarters to Valencia, Calif.) Some think acquisition by Carnival was the beginning of the end.
Roger and Janet Birkin of Derbyshire, England, were among unhappy voyagers. (It didn't help that Roger got the stomach virus.) Janet found it "quite vulgar how they're trying to extract every dollar out of you. They're exploiting the Cunard name."
There's some truth to that. We had to buy our own drinks at the sail-away parties. Shore excursions cost as much as $129 per person. But the two I took -- to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain and to Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais in Portugal -- were well organized, with excellent English-speaking guides and included first-rate lunches ashore.
The ship's 24-hour computer center charged 50 cents a minute (with discounts for frequent Cunarders and package deals, such as $480 for 32 hours). Wi-Fi, widely available, was 50 cents a minute.
The "daily programmes" included fencing classes, napkin folding, whist (similar to bridge), line dancing and electronic photo editing. Some were free; some weren't. There were lectures by British actress Sylvia Syms (the queen mother in the 2006 movie "The Queen") and motor-car racer Jackie Stewart.
I met happy passengers as well as disgruntled ones. Lorcas Martin, a Dublin psychiatrist and self-described cruise addict, 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.
Martin pointed out that the 1,000-member crew was still "getting to know the ship, just as we are. Until you've got a shipload of passengers, it's very hard to know how it's going to work. Given time, I think it will become people's favorite."
Patricia Heinlein, a Portland, Ore., homemaker, praised the ship's beauty but said, "I don't think they need to have everything so British," especially the entertainment. Her son Sam, a 21-year-old college student, lamented: "There's no one my age here." He was excited to learn about the Royal Arcade but less enchanted when he learned that it was not about games but rather high-end shopping. Very high end, with one shop offering a $15,000 Fabergé egg.
Cunard's demographic is decidedly mature. There were 55 passengers under age 17 but few in their 20s. One man collapsed in the ballroom but was resuscitated. Another passenger's death was announced about 3 a.m. on New Year's Day; an urgent "Code Alpha" accidentally was piped into staterooms.
"There's always something" with an older demographic, said the ship's chief medical officer, Dr. Peter Hawthorne. "That doesn't mean you should sit at home and wait for the grim reaper."
THE GOOD, THE BAD
The ship's food might not have thrilled everyone, but no one could 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.
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.
And I met many happy passengers. Michelle Grant, a travel manager from Santa Monica and first-time cruiser, said she was having a "wonderful trip. There'll always be people who are cranky, even if it was picture-perfect."
Michael and Jean Crowe, who are from the Isle of Wight, were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary with a three-generation party of 10. "We've had a thoroughly good time," Jean said. "Christmas was lovely. The cabins are beautiful. The crew are wonderful."
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," David said, "They'll sort it out."
I think he's right.
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