After crossing the Atlantic on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and the now-retired Queen Elizabeth 2, I was curious to see if the same memorable travel experience would await me in “cruise mode” aboard their newer “sister” ship, Queen Victoria, when I embarked upon a 10-day voyage around the British Isles.
Although launched in 2007 at 965 feet and a massive 90,000 tons, Queen Victoria is not considered a true ocean liner in the strictest sense, as she lacks the heavy plating and powerful engine required for constant transatlantic service. Once destined as an addition to the Holland America Line fleet, the “Vista-class” vessel with a stubby bow and top-heavy superstructure was reconfigured to include many of the successful features of her regal predecessors. Chief among them was space for the special “Grill Class” accommodations for passengers demanding the ultimate in personal service and amenities for which Cunard has been renowned for more than 170 years.
The separation of passengers according to sleeping and eating quarters defines the Cunard experience. Those choosing the top-tier Queen’s Grill category enjoy the largest suites (536 to 2,097 square feet) and eat in the Queen’s Grill. Those choosing the marginally less grand Princess Grill suites (367 square feet) eat in the Princess Grill.
High atop the ship on their own separate deck, both dining rooms are reached via private elevator and enjoy access to the private Grills Lounge where cocktails, canapés and afternoon tea may be enjoyed. There is also a courtyard Terrace Cafe for dining alfresco in warm weather and a special Grills Upper Terrace area for private sunbathing and quiet reading a world away from the crowded open decks and outdoor swimming pool below.
My 4 Deck cabin was amid ships and closer to the water line than most and therefore quite stable as far as motion was concerned – perfect for anyone prone to seasickness. It had separate sleeping and sitting areas that could be separated by a curtain. The bathroom featured both tub and shower but was not large enough for more than one person to occupy. Some passengers joked about the relatively small closets (“This ship is no closet Queen”) and lack of storage space (“The Queen has no drawers”) but this would only be a problem for those traveling with large amounts of baggage. The décor’s attractive gold, cream and blue hues induced a restful atmosphere, as did the lack of outside noise. The bulkheads must be quite thick because I never heard a peep from my neighbors. There was a mini-bar stocked with complimentary drinks, a safe, and a television and DVD player for in-room entertainment. The private balcony, big enough for two chaise lounges and a small table, is a perfect place to watch the ship enter and leave port, especially when in bathrobe-mode.
Both Grills boast commanding views of the water from large plate-glass windows and offer single-seating dining (as opposed to early and late sittings). The bill of fare tends toward classic haute cuisine (Dover sole, rack of lamb, lobster thermidor, steak au poivre and the like) even though healthier “spa” alternatives are always available for calorie counters. While Queen’s Grill passengers get caviar and a few other specialties like Châteaubriand that are not available in the Princess Grill, the exceptional wait staff and sommeliers do their best to cater to requests for off-menu items (one needs to make these wishes known at least one meal – or better yet, one day – in advance). Disappointed by a pre-prepared Caesar salad one night, the maître d’ tossed a proper substitute tableside with great aplomb the following day. Breakfast Note: Judging by the lack of company in the Princess Grill each morning, most of my fellow passengers were opting to have their first meal of the day in bed. I much preferred to select from 60 or more menu items that included British specialties like Wiltshire sausages and grilled kippers, perfectly scrambled eggs, a huge variety of fresh juices and fruits, hot and cold cereals, fluffy croissants, pancakes, waffles, and the like.
Fully exploring Queen Victoria’s grand public rooms takes several days and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the ship’s lavish appointments and art collection (especially the many maritime works). The attractive yellow-and-gold Queen’s Room features crystal chandeliers and a curtained stage where the ship’s orchestra plays nightly as couples waltz, fox trot and rumba across the 1,000-square-foot dance floor. The three-level Royal Court Theatre, a masterful recreation of an 1890s-era Shaftesbury Avenue playhouse, is said to be the most beautiful afloat and may be the only one to feature 16 private boxes (that may be reserved along with drinks service for a $50 fee). It must be said that the entertainment offered nightly was of an exceptionally high quality for cruise ship fare. A lively troupe of “Royal Cunard Singers and Dancers” from many lands never failed to please with shows ranging from Celtic and Victorian-era classics to a tribute to Sting and a night of sizzling “Dance Passion.” Talented classical pianists and opera singers performed on other nights. There are many bars to choose from. My favorite was the Commodore Club on Deck 10 with commanding 180-degree views overlooking the bow. Just aft is Hemispheres nightclub, a futuristic space that takes off late at night if the DJ’s sounds match the mostly age-50-plus clientele’s oldie-but-goodie faves.
The stunning double deck library connected by a winding staircase (said to look “a bit Harry Potter”) contains thousand of books, so there is no need to lug reading materials aboard. Gamblers won’t want to miss the Empire Casino’s slot machines and gaming tables, although the room lacks the size and panache of other shipboard gaming rooms. The range of other activities was extensive considering that most passengers were touring in port much of the time. They included movies, exercise classes, lectures on health and art topics and wine tastings in addition to such longtime Cunard traditions as scarf-tying lessons, shuffleboard and deck quoits. Apart from buying a few souvenirs, “duty free” shopping opportunities were disappointing. There are no name brand luxury purveyors à la Hermes and Chopard (as on Queen Mary 2) and the art gallery was rather an embarrassment, especially the hokey auctions of works as expensive as they were mediocre.
Outstanding beauty, fitness and spa facilities are a good reason to stay aboard during dreary port days or when the ship is at sea. Floor-to-ceiling windows affording ocean views make jogging on the treadmills a joy. Don’t miss relaxing on one of the heated beds that recline at comfortable angles (also with great sea views) after your workout routine, massage, sauna, or whirlpool. Thankfully, the spa was never very crowded, probably because of the stiff charge to access it without a treatment appointment.
Queen Victoria will sail the Mediterranean from July through October with 10 itineraries that include Venice, the Greek islands, the Holy Land and the Black Sea. For more information call 1-800-7-CUNARD. Or visit www.cunard.com.