Cunard Queen Victoria: Tandem Crossing
(Review Written 2008)
Having now done ‘crossings’ on all three current Cunard Queens (QE2, QM2 and QV), I can categorically conclude that the three ships have little in common with each other apart from similar liveries, similar funnels and the fact that they share of some of the same public room names. Each ship is a very different in size, design and décor. However they are all designated ‘Cunard Queen’, appear in the same brochure (until the QE2 retires in late 2008 ) therefore I find it impossible not to compare the three ships. However, it is worth noting that when the QE2 entered service in 1969, she originally had contemporary (1960’s) décor, a little of which still remains, yet the QM2 and QV which entered service more than three decades later have retro-décor, designed to recapture the ambience of the great ocean liners before the QE2.
Like the Queen Mary 2 which preceded the Queen Victoria, much has been written about this ship before she even entered service. However not all of the comments have been positive. The QE2 and QM2 are both purpose built, one-off Ocean Liners. However, in contrast the Queen Victoria is a ‘Cruise Ship’; from the Carnival stable of ‘Vista Class’ derivatives, many of which are already in service with Carnival, HAL, P&O (Arcadia) and the Costa brands.
Some Cunard aficionados were shocked when it was announced that the QV would essentially be a mass-produced cruise ship with a Cunard livery and ocean lines themed decor. She will not carry mail and thus will not receive Royal Mail ship (RMS) status like her running mates. Cunard have also been criticized for naming her as a Cunard Queen; the designation having previously been reserved for the line’s flagship (Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth 2, and Queen Mary 2), which were all ocean liners. And finally, to add insult to injury, the Queen Victoria was named in Southampton by the Duchess of Cornwall (aka Camilla Parker Bowles) and not the reigning British Monarch as were the previous Queens.
I travelled on the maiden crossing of the Queen Victoria from Southampton to New York on 6th January 2008. This was an eight day tandem crossing with the QE2. This review will essentially be a ship review, although elements of this particular cruise will be mentioned.
The Queen Victoria’s modifications and interior design were created by the design team at Princess Cruises. At 90,000 gross tons, the Queen Vic is approximately 20,000 gross tons bigger than the QE2, yet approximately 60,000 gross tons smaller than the QM2. She is mid-sized by modern standards. Her standard passenger capacity is around 2000 giving her a respectable passenger to space ratio, which is slightly better than the QE2’s, but not as impressive as the QM2’s.
Externally the ship is somewhat angular and box-like with her wall of balcony cabins. Unlike the QE2 and QM2 she does not have a tiered fan-tail which greatly enhances their appearance. However the Cunard livery, with dark hull, white superstructure (not unlike the new HAL ships) and red funnel makes the ship look more attractive than those ‘Vista’ class ships in the world than have a completely white livery.
Embarkation at Southampton’s City Cruise terminal took over two hours, nearly all of which was spent standing in a very slow moving line. Likewise disembarkation at Manhattan’s ‘New York Passenger terminal’ took up to four hours, depending what deck your cabin was on. The overall experience was no better than that of a busy international airport; in fact it was arguably slower. Curiously the entire ship was freezing during the disembarkation process, forcing passengers to wear their coats on-board for hours.
I do have serious concerns about the cruise lines and ports ability to disembark big cruise ships efficiently. (And remember the Queen Victoria is only mid sized). I noticed that at both Southampton and NY the cruise terminals had more check-in desks and immigration desks, respectively, than they had staff actually staffing them, which I find inexcusable.
The Grand Lobby
We embarked the ship via the three story ‘Grand Lobby’. This is a very attractive space with a sweeping ‘Titanic’ style staircase, overlooked by John McKenna’s three-dimensional bronze ship and sun sculpture. (The QM2 also has a McKenna’s sculpture overlooking the lobby). An domed light in the centre of the room also provides an attractive focal point. The ground level of the lobby has a marble floor with the Pursers desk, complete with a Venetian mural as a backdrop, and the shore excursions desk located there. A string quartet or harpist often occupies the centre of the lobby. Cunard Connexions Room 1 (there are three) which is used for IT courses and the Connexions Internet Centre are both located off the lobby. There is an excellent painting of the Queen Victoria at sea by artist Robert Lloyd as well as sculpted gold Cunard logos by Ian Brennan.
Although the QV’s lobby wins no prizes for the tallest or widest atrium afloat, it really does instil passengers with an immediate sense of grandeur. Some commentators have concluded that it is the nicest ‘atrium’ of any of the Vista class ships. Although I found the QM2’s lobby to be very attractive, I think the Queen Victoria’s is probably the more attractive of the two, in part because of McKenna’s exceptional centrepiece. The QE2’s midships lobby is of course almost beyond comparison. It was, and is a unique ‘modern’ single deck circular space with futuristic central mushroom said to be originally inspired by the movie ‘2001 a Space Odyssey’.
It is important to note that the QV is built on an entirely different scale to that of the QM2. Not only are the QM2’s full width pubic rooms wider than the QV’s (the QV is built to pass through the Panama canal, the QM2 cannot) the QM2’s all have greater headroom, creating a real sense of space. In addition the QM2 has 12 Cabins overlooking her Lobby. However, in turn the QV is a larger ship than the QE2. General Layout
A few words about the general layout of the Queen Victoria: deck one, amidships features the lower level of three-tier ‘Grand Lobby’. Decks two and three are exclusively devoted to public rooms. The three level Royal Court Theatre is at the bow of the ship and the two Level Britannia Dining room at the aft. In between these two rooms are numerous other public rooms. Much of the navigation between the rooms on deck two and three is done via the starboard side of the ship, with many of the public rooms being on the port side, unlike the QM2 which has a wide central corridor.
Deck nine is also exclusively devoted to public rooms, with decks ten and eleven both having some public rooms. Navigation is relatively easy on the lower decks as the layout is linear; however the navigation of the upper deck public rooms is more complex as there are some ‘dead ends’.
The ship has a mix of décor styles, but like the QM2 there are a lot of faux dark brown polished wood, although the QV features more Victorian influences, with the QM2 arguably featuring more Art Deco ones. The décor of the QV is a little ‘heavier’ than the QM2, which could be called more ‘understated’ in places.
I am not going to discuss every public room as there are too many, but will take a closer look at the main ones. The Queen’s Room is one of the most attractive rooms on-board and is the ‘heart’ of the ship. The décor is primarily yellow and gold. There are crystal chandeliers, a large 1000 sq ft hardwood dance floor, a curtained stage, and backlit octagonal stained windows. However, three etchings in the Queens Room (one by Queen Victoria, one by Prince Albert and one by the two together) are among the ship’s most treasured works.
It is immediately noticeable that the QV version of the Queens Room does not have the width of the QM2’s, which is surely one of the most attractive rooms afloat. However my main concern is the fact that on the lower level of this double height room there is a corridor running through the Starboard side of this room, effectively reducing its useable width. On the upper level there is a balcony/corridor, with an art shop overlooking it. Cunard have not learned from their mistakes as both the QE2’s Queens Room and Show Lounge both of which have corridors passing through and shops overlooking the latter, which can cause disturbances to functions within. My only other complaint is that the gold colored plaque on the wall which says ‘Queen Room’ in engraved italic script looks incredibly cheap. However on a positive note, although the room which can seat 275 passengers can get full for some events, such as piano recitals, those passengers unlucky enough not to get a seat can get a view from the balcony. Irrespective of my minor criticisms, the QV version of the Queen’s Room is a charming space and is ideal for cocktail parties, afternoon tea and ballroom dancing.
On the subject of afternoon tea, Cunard continue this British tradition on-board the QV. It was well organized and I actually got more offers of extra tea, cake and sandwiches than I did onboard the QM2. However it was oversubscribed each day (first come first served) with lines of passengers awaiting free tables on a daily basis. It is a victim of its own success.
The Britannia Dining room is an art deco style room of dark brown polished wood, bronze mirrors and gold leaf. It is inspired by the dining car of the famed ‘Golden Arrow’ train, or so they say. Never the less it is a great disappointment from an aesthetic point of view. It is simply not half as attractive as the QM2’s Britannia dining room and dining rooms on-board many other modern ships such as RCI and Celebrity vessels. Although it is a two tier room, the upper cut-out providing balconies overlooking the lower level is relatively small. The ceiling height is also low (as it is with all single height rooms on the QV) which does not help to create a sense of space. Behind the Captain’s table is an impressive ten foot tall three-dimensional artwork featuring a rotating globe. However the room does not have the scale to accommodate it, making the lower level look cluttered. From a functional point of view the QV dining room is fine and it certainly does not feel like you are sharing your meal with 875 other souls. However I can definitely say that when I dined in QM2’s magnificent ‘Britannia’ I actually felt privileged to be dining in such a beautiful room. Unfortunately the QV did not have quite the same affect on me.
The food and service in this dining room was generally excellent, apart from the fact that some dishes were only a few degrees hotter than my complaint threshold. I was very close to sending several back to the kitchen. Interestingly the two tiers of the dining room are served by two different kitchens. I was assigned a table on the upper level and my waiters told me that this level they had a very long walk to the kitchen. This could explain the luke warm food. On the lower level the walk to the kitchen was considerably less. It is worth noting that the QV Britannia is very susceptible to the motion of the sea being located completely aft. The QM2’s ‘Britannia’ has a more traditional location closer to midships for stability, as were the dining rooms on-board all of the great ocean Liners of the past.
The Golden Lion ‘pub’ probably has more atmosphere than the equivalents on both the QM2 and QE2, although it does feel a bit like a ‘Disneyland’ version of a British Pub. It is a room in the true sense as it has no corridor passing through it, with two doorways and glass windows which look out into the centre of the ship. The lighting is subdued and the ceiling is low. Karaoke, Quizzes and a sing-a-long pianist regularly provide the entertainment within. It very popular at lunch times and after dinner, in fact it can be difficult to get a seat at peak time. In some ways it could do with being bigger, but this would probably take away its intimacy. Table top blackboard menus advertise the day’s pub Grub, including fish and chips, Curry, Ploughman’s and Shepherd’s Pie. Having a pub lunch (no extra fee) is fun, but I found the wait of at least 45 minutes for what was mediocre fare, just too long. I had a pint of ‘Boddingtons Bitter’ which would have been nice if it had not been so chilled. (British Bitter should be served at cellar/room temperature). It’s odd that they get an obscure detail like the blackboard menus right, but the temperature of the Bitter wrong.
The Chart Room is not an unpleasant lounge/bar, but it’s not a ‘room’ as such, as its counterparts are on-board the QE2 and QM2, It is in part a corridor. With just 77 seats in is reasonably small. The décor features Tulip style Art Deco lamps as in the original Queen Mary’s Observation bar. It also has some sand blasted maps on the walls and there are some attractive display cases of Cunard memorabilia. Live piano music is often provided. The entire space is not dissimilar from spaces on many other Vista class ships such as HAL’s ‘Spinnaker Lounge’.
The Royal Court Theatre is a lovely recreation of a Victorian West End Theatre. I must say that once again there is a touch of ‘Disneyland’ about it; nevertheless it is probably the most attractive large raked (delete) theatre that I have seen on any ship. It is used for live entertainment, lectures and a daily afternoon movie. It even has 16 Private Boxes (the first at sea) which contrary to popular rumour, can be used by any passengers (first come first served) apart from during the big production shows, when these can be reserved for a $50 fee, which includes a drink service. The boxes and balcony do have glass screens which you have to look through, but without them somebody would surely fall out. Although a novelty, these boxes do make the theatre look very attractive. However as the theatre is located at the very bow, you do need a strong stomach to sit in one of the boxes during a storm as they are all located stage right or left. Unlike many ‘real’ Victorian Theatres the ‘Royal Court’ is well raked, well air conditioned and has wide comfortable seats with good leg room. Drinks are not served at the seats as there are no tables; however I prefer this as it avoids any disruption. It was never full. I guess that many Cunard passengers prefer to exchange ship tales in the bar.
My only complaint is that if you sit on the lower level of the theatre, at the rear, you can smell cigarette smoke drifting in from the nearby Casino area. This Theatre certainly offers better views that the QE2’s old style non-raked show lounge and beats the QM2’s Theatre in terms of the aesthetics. However, the QM2’s theatre has more state-of-the art audio visual equipment including a stage that can raise the orchestra or performers hydraulically and an amazing performing ‘mirror ball’ above the auditorium. The QV entertainment was quite good, but unfortunately we were not provided with any production shows on our cruise. This was probably due to staffing issues. Cunard normally do these well.
The Library is spread over decks two and three, linked by an attractive spiral staircase, differentiating it from most other ships libraries. It has a leaded glass Ceiling and gold, green, and cream tones and mahogany cabinetry. There is an entrance on each deck, so a Librarian was needed on each floor. One passenger did describe it as looking “a bit Harry Potter”. I bet the carpet was expensive as it features the signatures of famous authors. There was an excellent selection of books for loan. The small bookshop, unlike on-board the QE2 and QM2 was in a completely different location to the Library, but has a better collection of maritime books than you are likely find in any shore side book shop. If you do buy a book, remember to ask for the sicker “Purchased on-board the QV” to stick inside it.
The Empire Casino is quite small by contemporary maritime standards, possibly reflecting the fact that we Brits are not particularly big gamblers. At first sight it looks like just a rather crowded and bland area of gaming tables and slot machines with little outstanding décor. It certainly is not the most attractive Casino that I’ve ever seen. However on closer inspection, if you look up to the ceiling it has three beautiful glass backlit leaded glass panels which are recessed and quite well hidden. Unfortunately for non-smokers it is a very smoky area.
Above: Notice the ship in the distance
The Winter Garden is an odd space. Cunard describe it as a colonial winter garden based on London’s Kent Gardens. Well it must be a different Kew garden to the one I know. Initially it seemed like a waste of space: it’s a large area with just 100 cane chairs and tables surrounded by some sparse potted trees and plants. It has doors and windows looking out to the pool deck and a sliding roof. Surely the roof would have been better used to cover one of the two pools, as the ship lacks an indoor pool (apart from the spa’s small hydro-pool). Although I’m sure that some passengers never found it, the entrance was through an unmarked door adjoining the Lido Buffet. This means that the Lido is a real ‘Lido’ with open air dining (assuming the roof is open) and the Winter Garden can act as an over spill room. I certainly think this bland room needs some more foliage to really be called a ‘winter garden’. Nevertheless I’m sure it will prove popular in hot climates when there is plenty of pool activity.
The Royal Arcade is a Victorian shopping mall (hard to imagine, I know) spread over two decks. The centrepiece is a clock by Dent & Co., the makers of “Big Ben” which chimes on the half hour. The clock is nestled between two sweeping staircases from deck two to deck three, with a port and starboard balcony of shops. Glass domes on the ceiling illuminate the space. Even from my description alone you will probably gather that this is the most ‘Disneyland-ish’ of all the public spaces. Only Mickey Mouse is missing. I wonder what great ocean liner inspired this design? Nevertheless it is an attractive and functional space, in an over the top way.
The Commodore Club is probably the most attractive bar on the ship, perched on deck ten with 180 degree views overlooking the bow (although you can’t see the actual bow). This is a public space that the QE2 no longer has. This room is HAL’s ‘Crow’s Nest’ by another name. The theme is the Great Ocean Liners with murals of past Cunard liners in porthole displays, as well as some very nice ship models of the QE2 and Cunard Countess. There is also the obligatory wood inlaid floor with a compass design. Hemispheres is located behind the ‘Commodore Club’ and an almost circular disco/nightclub pointing aft, overlooking the Pavilion pool area. It reminds me a slightly smaller RCI Viking Crown Lounge. Its décor is quite futuristic, but not as futuristic as the QM2’s G32 (Disco) which feels out-of-place on an ocean liner. The DJ on my cruise was particularly mediocre and he struggled to play music that kept people on the dance floor.
Instead of a “Heritage Trail” and the “Maritime Quest” which are displays of Cunard and other nautical art and memorabilia distributed throughout the QE2 and QM2 respectively, the QV has ‘Cunardia’, a dedicated museum space which showcases Cunard’s history. Just to confuse the issue many wonderful works of art by the likes of Gordon Bauwens, Robert Lloyd and Stephen Card, plus ship models still adorn the ship’s passageways, public rooms and stairwells. An interesting innovation is that you can borrow an Ipod from the Purses Desk and take self guided audio and video tour of the ship’s $2 million art collection.
If you need proof that the QV is not a ‘real’ ocean liner, the use of artificial teak on all outside decks and a promenade deck that does not wrap fully around (it’s ‘u’ shaped stopping at the bow), is conclusive. By the way I’m convinced that the rubber ‘teak’ is much more slippery when wet than the real McCoy.
Interestingly the QV creaked and groaned her way across the pond like an old sailing ship, something her two sisters do not do so badly. Mind you we did have some heavy seas. She did not feel as stable as my previous crossings on-board the QE2 and QM2, but after all she’s just a ‘cruise ship’.
She also cannot match their speed of course; hence the crossing was extended to 7 nights rather than the QE2’s and QM2’s 6 nights. Never the less, the beautiful QE2 could be seen half a mile off our bow, alternating between port and starboard on a daily basis.
There were many complaints that the in-cabin internet connection was very slow and unreliable, as was the internet in the Connexions room, although actually getting a seat in this very busy room was a challenge in itself. Cunard blamed it on “over-demand”, yet all Gold World Club members (upwards) were granted some free hours, which is great if you could access the equipment and make it work. I would suggest that Cunard need to rethink their internet provision on this ship.
There are no kennels, no planetarium, no bridge viewing window and no ‘propeller garden’ onboard the QV as there are onboard the QM2.
On board Atmosphere: For most of this review I have discussed the physical spaces and décor of this ship. Although the Retro-Ocean Liner theme is responsible for some on the on-board atmosphere, it is Cunard’s food, service and enrichment/entertainment program that distinguishes them from other cruise lines. We had a excellent selection of lectures including John Maxtone-Graham (Maritime Historian), Stephen Payne (designer of the QM2) and Terence Stamp (actor). The Captain’s cocktail party is held in a Ballroom and not the theatre, where the guests can truly mingle (if there was not so much British reserve). Daily afternoon tea was served by white gloved waiters in the Queens Room. We were also offered ‘Fencing lessons’ which were great fun (a Cunard first) when other lines offer ‘belly flop’ or ‘knobbier knees’ competitions. Daily computer courses in the three ‘Connexions’ rooms are very popular with passengers. The Cunard experience is also about like-minded passengers who enjoy nautical history, tradition and dressing for most evening meals. Unfortunately, the QV lacks a second ‘auditorium’ type venue which the QM2 has in the form of ‘Illuminations’. This effectively reduces the breadth of activities on offer a little. The QM2 is also able to offer interesting enrichment programs from Oxford University and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, making their selection a little broader. I also liked the way the QM2’s IT training Rooms (Connexions) are in quite space and are not adjacent to busy public spaces such as QV’s Grand Lobby.
The Lido Restaurant is an attractive design and layout not unlike those on-board the new NCL ‘Jewel’ class ships. I was never entirely happy about the QM2’s Kings Court layout, which had a very longitudinal design making it a long walk from one end to the other to find the different food varieties. Kings Court also got overcrowded at peak times, however the food and selection was very good. It also cleverly converted into four specialist (free of charge) restaurants in the evening. However I found the selection of food and quality available in the QV Lido to generally be very limited and not of the quality that I would expect from a premium line. (Thomson Celebration, a budget ship had better for example). The exception was the freshly cooked Pizza and Pasta. Cunard need to rectify this as soon as possible. In addition tea and coffee pumps often provided tepid drinks, so someone urgently needs to adjust the operating temperature.
Above: Lido dining with a view
Cunard of course has different grades of dining linked to cabin grade: ‘Brittania’ being the standard grade, then ‘Princess Grill’, with the ‘Queens Grill’ being the top grade. Both Grill Rooms are located on deck eleven are arguably more attractive than those on-board the QM2. The Grills offer single-seating dining and share the concierge staffed Grill Lounge, as well as a charming private courtyard (a little reminiscent of the SS France’s patio) for al fresco dining and afternoon tea. An exclusive Grills Upper Terrace is located on deck twelve. It is accessed by private elevator with key card; maybe to stop the steerage passengers invading it? However if the seas are rough passengers would need a very strong stomach to hold down their fine dining in these rooms perched so high on top of the superstructure.
Everyone agrees that the Todd English alternative restaurant, named after one of America’s leading chefs (with a $30 per person fee for dinner) was very good. It’s not hidden like its counterpart on-board the QM2, it’s off the second level of the Grand Lobby. Much to my amusement the sign outside it says ‘TE’ which reminds me of the likes of ‘KFC’, which is unlikely to be an association that Cunard intended to promote.
The QV has the normal range of cabin types found on all big new ships. There are 1007 cabins and 715 of these have balconies. In contrast the QE2 has only 32 balcony cabins. The cabin corridors were particularly bland, in fact the wall finish made them look like they were still awaiting wallpaper. The standard cabins on-board the QV were attractively decorated in gold and blue and are of course very similar to those onboard any other ‘Vista class’ or any other new cruise ship. All cabins are reasonably spacious. My cabin (grade C3) had two wardrobes and some shelves. There was a mini-bar, hair dryer and safe. Both UK and USA style mains power sockets are provided.
Most passengers concluded that there was a serious lack of drawers and the bathrooms lacked storage cupboards for toiletries. Remarkably the shower in my cabin did not flood the floor, but the sink took over that role instead. Maybe it’s the way I wash, but the water kept leaving the sink. The cabin TV was a flat screen LCD variety. However many of the channels had poor reception and the volume could not be turned up loud enough to actually hear some of them properly. The TV was not an interactive type, so it could not be used to book excursions, book dining, check your on-board account or write and read e-mails as you could on the QM2. On-board the QV, to achieve these things, you have to join a line at the Purser’s Desk or the shore excursion desk or try to gain access to ever crowded ‘Connexions’ internet room. This is very disappointing as Celebrity pioneered Interactive TV’s on-board Galaxy and Mercury more than a decade ago. Oh, the cabin toilet stopped working briefly a few times, but this seems to happen on most cruises that I take. I wanted the feather pillows replaced with foam and this took many hours to achieve and multiple phone calls.
For those who are well heeled, the QV has Master Suites (Queen Grill dining) that are around 2000 sq ft and come complete with their own butler. Slightly more modest but still opulent, Princess Grill suites range in size from 335- to 513-square feet.
The QV started her inaugural year with a three month world cruise. After this she will be offering European cruises mainly from Southampton to the Canaries, Baltic, Fjords and the Mediterranean in the summer, and fall. She will then visit the Caribbean. In January 2009 she will embark on her second world cruise. Although she will occasionally cross the Atlantic to reposition, via the more sheltered route, it is the QM2 that will continue to offer scheduled winter and summer transatlantic crossings.
On my chosen maiden crossing to NY (the first leg of the maiden world cruise) the majority of the passengers were British and in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. There were very few children. Although I met a surprising number of first-time cruisers and first-time ‘Cunarders’, most passengers were well cruised, often with Cunard. Most shared a love of ships, maritime history and relished the idea of dressing for dinner each evening.
In Conclusion, the Queen Victoria is a cruise ship with some very attractive ‘Ocean Liner’ themed décor. She is a floating museum to the Golden Age of Liner Travel. However I must say that she does feel a little bit like an America version of what Victorian ‘Britishness’ is, rather than a British version. Nevertheless, her interiors are arguably more tasteful than 90% of all other modern cruise ships.
Although a very attractive ship, her public rooms and open decks do not have the breathtaking scale and in some cases, breathtaking décor, of many of the public rooms on-board the Queen Mary 2. She also does not have the ‘no expense spared’ feel about her design that the QM2 has. The positive aspect of this is that she has a much more intimate feel than the QM2. In fact she feels considerably smaller than her 90,000 gross tons would suggest. This more intimate atmosphere has already proved popular with many QE2 devotees. She will also be more popular with those with mobility problems, than her big sister. Not to mention that her accommodation and facilities are more in keeping with modern passenger expectations than the QE2’s are.
It is important to note that my ‘crossing’ was in winter, causing the passengers to be largely confined inside the ship, leaving the outside decks and pools virtually unused. Considering the pressure of the public spaces, she handled her compliment of 1800 of passengers very well.
My main criticisms about the Queen Victoria are about the ‘software’ such as the quality and choice of the Lido food and not generally the ‘hardware’. Hopefully these issues will be quickly rectified.
The Cunard experience is as much about quality food, good service, enrichment and like-minded passengers, as it is about the décor. There is no reason why Cunard cannot replicate the QE2/QM2 ‘atmosphere’ on the Queen Victoria and to a large extent they already have. I’m sure that the Queen Victoria will prove to be a very popular addition to the Cunard fleet, irrespective of what the purists think.
See my QM2 Review: HERE