I was lucky enough to win a Cunard cruise in a competition earlier this year and so my husband, daughter and I enjoyed a 7 night fly Med cruise recently on board ‘Queen Victoria’.
We sailed from Civitavecchia (Italy) to Barcelona calling at Livorno, Monte Carlo and Valencia, with an overnight stay in Barcelona. Flights were direct from and returning to Manchester with Titan Airways. It was a journey of two halves – outbound with spectacular views of Paris and the snow-capped Alps, but inbound subject to nearly 3 hours’ worth of unexplained delays, both at check in and with the plane.
I am going to write this blog in 2 parts – an overview of our experience on the ship and then the ports of call, so hopefully it can be read as two distinct entities!
It didn’t get off to a terribly auspicious start: bearing in mind that we took a Cunard transfer, the coach dropped us all off at the Costa ship in Civitavecchia– 2 berths down from ‘Queen Victoria’. Eventually arriving at the Cruise Terminal we were efficiently checked in and then very much left to our own devices to board and find our cabin – (thankfully) no photographers, but also no White Star Service to greet and help guests (especially those new to cruising and the ship itself).
‘Queen Victoria’ is the sister ship to ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and there are many similarities, as well as a few welcome differences, that allow each ship its own unique selling points. They both weigh over 90,000 tonnes and can carry 2,000 passengers each. Although ‘Queen Victoria’ was built in 2007 as an adapted ‘Vista’ class ship (similar to P&O’s Arcadia) various modifications were made, externally so that the lengthened hull is more reminiscent of a true ocean liner (like ‘Queen Mary 2’) and internally so that again, the layout is more like that of ocean going liners and undisputedly in true Cunard style.
Cunard maintains its tradition of Britannia and Grills (Princess & Queens) accommodations and dining, but at the moment (although due in 2017) ‘Queen Victoria’ does not have Club Balcony class accommodation (a halfway house whereby guests have a balcony cabin as opposed to a suite, but do enjoy open seating dining in their own exclusive restaurant). The ship has 8 types of accommodation, including 9 single cabins, added in 2015 and 10 fully adapted disabled cabins (across all room categories). There are 1,003 cabins in total and more than 70% cabins have a balcony. ‘Queen Victoria’ does not have interconnecting staterooms.
Each cabin or suite has both British and American/European electrical sockets and the most amazing king size mattresses and pillows I have experienced either at sea or on land!! We were in a BE grade balcony cabin, forward on deck 5 with a small sofa that made into a large single bed at night and was ideal size wise for my adult daughter. The cabin was an adequate size (242 sq ft) with enough drawers, shelves and hanging space for the three of us. The bathroom was snug and even though the shower disappointingly had an old fashioned shower curtain, rather than a glass door, we didn’t manage to flood the area too much! On the other hand the balcony was a good size when compared to that on many other ships, with plenty of room to stretch out and chillax!
‘Queen Victoria's largest dining area – The Britannia Restaurant, is an elegant area spread over 2 decks, with intimate groupings of different sized tables, seating 878 guests for dinner over both floors, which are linked by a sweeping staircase. Breakfast and lunch are served on the lower level only on an open seating basis. The restaurant design is based on the dining car of the Golden Arrow train that ran between London and Paris in the mid-20th century, in an art deco style utilising polished wood, bronze, mirrors and gold leaf. The room's focal point is a 10’ high illuminated globe, another reference to Cunard's sailing history.
For me, the Britannia Restaurant dining experience had gratifyingly changed little since I last sailed a Cunard Transatlantic cruise, 10 or more years ago. The choice of dishes (including low calorie alternatives from the Royal Spa menu) was good: the soups, including sublimely fresh tasting chilled soups, were always excellent, you can dine on some sort of steak nearly every night and my daughter tried lobster for the first time. Thankfully White Star Service from the waiters means that you don’t have to struggle with the shell yourself! The meal is nicely rounded off with dessert, tea or coffee and homemade petit fours. All in all whether you are on fixed 1st (6pm) or 2nd (8.30pm) sitting, dinner is a relaxed, elegant experience, something to look forward to, with very attentive and obliging staff in an environment where nearly everyone adheres to the dress code.
There was a party of Japanese guests sitting near us at dinner and several of the ladies donned exquisite kimonos on the 2nd formal night of the cruise. Dinner is also served in the 468 seater Lido, self-service restaurant, aft on deck 9. At all three meals in The Lido (open 24/7), food was plentiful but dishes were, for me, disappointingly repetitious – for lunch and dinner there was pasta, pizza (margherita & pepperoni, unless you asked for alternate toppings), jacket potatoes, salads, curries & casseroles, small portions of hot meat cuts and roasts, salads, sandwiches & desserts, but with little variation over the week’s cruise. Japanese guests and those with dietary issues seemed to be adequately catered for. There was however a different flavoured smoothie each day for breakfast!
Some evenings there were themed buffets and we went to the Indian one, but there was not a lot of choice of alternatives, if you didn’t want curry. In addition to the self-service part of the buffet, a section of the Lido restaurant is transformed in the evenings into a separate bistro style dining option, offering different food from around the world. Each night, the space becomes a different restaurant including Asado (South American), Prime (American fusion food with steak as its main offering), Coriander (Indian) and Bamboo (Pan-Asian). Cover charge is $15pp.
Other eateries we visited on board were ‘The Golden Lion’ for a pub lunch. Decked out as a typical British pub and selling draught beers, there are lots of windows, oval wooden tables, some banquette seats in a dark red coloured leather and dark green leather-topped stools. We had fish and chips, suet pudding and a Ploughman’s between us – nothing extraordinary and not prepared to order. In contrast the Lido Grill served freshly cooked burgers of various sorts, albeit with frozen French fries.
A disappointment to me was the near daily afternoon tea in the Queen’s Room – perhaps my last experience had been with rose tinted glasses or maybe I have spent too much time sampling afternoon teas on dry land, but apart from the traditional white gloved waiters, the food items were exactly what I could have chosen myself from The Lido buffet. Perhaps I should have contemplated upgrading to the champagne afternoon tea experience in ‘The Verandah’ at $29.99pp.
We didn’t actually sample ‘The Verandah’ (a speciality contemporary French restaurant on deck 2 that seats 87 people. It is elegantly set out in shades of grey, including the menu, and comes with a cover charge of $15 pp for a 3 course lunch or $49.95 pp for a 3 course dinner) nor ‘Café Carinthia’ (named after a former Cunard ship, a 59-seater café area reminiscent of a traditional French patisserie and decorated in shades of gold, blue and bronze. Premium teas and coffees are chargeable items, but snacks, light lunches and afternoon tea items are complimentary).
One of the refreshing constants about Cunard ships is their strong sense of tradition and the restful elegance of the décor, which compared to a lot of modern ships, is both stylish and sophisticated. Peace is not shattered by constant announcements either -there is just one per day, at noon, offered by the captain reporting the ship's progress. ‘Queen Victoria’ adopts a darker colour scheme than ‘Queen Elizabeth’s art deco style, but it is equally resplendent in tones of beige, cream, mocha, chestnut brown and gold. Many of the walls are lined with mahogany and there are thick hand woven rugs and plenty of marble floors.
The 3 tier Grand Lobby typifies this with its sweeping staircase and wrought iron balustrades, set off by a magnificent bronzed-effect sculpture of the ship emerging from a background, showing a map of the world with the sun above it, picked out in marquetry. It is eye-catchingly visible from nearly every part of the Grand Lobby. With its sculpted balconies, attendant bars, nearby shopping in the Royal Arcade and many of the other public services on the ship, this is a glorious place to just sit and people watch, listen to live music from the harpist, pianist or string quartet or enjoy a spot of fruit & vegetable carving.
The live entertainment on board is to a tried and tested formula that has also changed little over the years, again, in contrast to that of many other cruise lines. I would perhaps unkindly, describe it as having a certain Radio 4 style. Nevertheless, and particularly, including the Insights Enrichment programme (with guest speakers), it seems to appeal to the majority of guests on board, as witnessed for example, by both the talks given by Ann Widdecombe which were standing room only in the Royal Theatre (seating for 830 guests). The ship’s show company are good, rather than exceptional and the rotational presence of a harpist, 2 pianists, a string quartet, guitarist, dance band and DJ in different venues, means that there is some form of musical entertainment, available for nearly 16 hours or so, a day.
Evenings of song and dance type reviews and shows were interspersed with those featuring comedians and illusionists. The three-deck Royal Court Theatre on Deck 3 was designed to imitate the grandeur and luxury of the 19th century theatres, with plenty of rich brocade fabric and curtains in a rich dark red colour. Another first at sea, exists with the 16 private boxes that frame the stage, complete with armchairs and cocktail tables. A box for two costs a rather pricey $55 (plus a service charge). This entitles you to a glass of champagne, canapes or chocolate-covered strawberries, a photo taken in the box and the services of a uniformed bell boy to escort you to your seat.
During the day, there are the usual health and fitness seminars (Royal Spa), chairobics in Hemispheres, card sessions (Card Room) and quizzes, games, darts and pub karaoke in The Golden Lion pub. However, being Cunard there is also the opportunity to try ballroom or line dancing in the Queen’s Room (one of the largest ballrooms at sea) and uniquely on ‘Queen Victoria’, to turn your hand to fencing. Inspired by Queen Victoria's home on the Isle of Wight, and in the style of a grand ballroom in a large country house, the Queen’s Room is 2 decks high with cantilevered balconies overlooking the 1000 sq foot ballroom which has a patterned inlaid wood dance floor and is lit by crystal chandeliers.
There is a stupendous 7,000 book library on deck 2 and 3, with a mahogany spiral staircase linking the floors, 8 internet stations, daily Sudoku & quiz sheets and a free paperback book exchange station with books in both English & German.
Or what about a visit to the equally unique ‘Cunardia’ – Queen Victoria’s very own museum dedicated to everything Cunard, from wall displays to models of some of the old Cunard ships, even old menus and artefacts. This nicely blends in with the photographs of famous past Cunard cruisers found on all the star landings – I saw ones of Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Durante, Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, to name but a few.
There is 4,000 square foot of retail therapy on Deck 3, in the shape of The Royal Arcade and inspired by the Arcades in London. Light wood contrasts with green marble and gold and white stone in this area, the centrepiece of which is a custom-built, chiming pillar clock by Dent & Co. (clockmaker to Queen Victoria) and also responsible for Big Ben. On deck 2 is The Empire Casino, where we did have a successful little flutter!
You can chill out in the wonderful Winter Garden modelled on Kew Gardens. It is a light, airy space with a relaxed, conservatory feel. There is wicker furniture, lots of greenery and ceiling fans to enhance the indoors/outdoors feel to the room which can be realised by the retractable roof and moveable glass walls, opening out onto the Pavilion Pool area. This is the place where you can catch up on sport on the wall mounted TVs and is the area you are asked to get a drink from if you do not wish to adhere to the dress code of the day. It’s also nice to have breakfast here – as an overspill area from the Lido Restaurant.
Outside on the Games Deck (deck 10), you can play paddle tennis, skittles, deck quoits and shuffleboard and there are 2 table tennis tables, secreted outside the spa area on deck 9.
The Royal Spa includes the thermal suite, sauna and steam rooms, heated ceramic benches, a hydrotherapy pool, treatment rooms and therapies. A day pass costs £35pp while The Fitness Centre has 7 exercise bicycles, 15 running machines, 4 Nordic trainers, free weights, 16 spinning bicycles, an exercise floor and mats. My daughter and I tried out a few of them!!
The main pools are on deck 9: there are 412 garden-style white framed sun loungers surrounding the two main pools and offering 10,000 sq feet of sun bathing areas, over several decks. The Pavilion Pool on Deck 9 is located outside the Winter Garden. There is a small pool bar here and two hot tubs.The Lido Pool, located aft, beyond the Lido restaurant, on the same deck, is for adults only. It also is flanked by two hot tubs and a bar. There is no separate pool for Grills passengers. If all this is too energetic for you, 3 times round the Promenade deck (deck 3) is a mile, but there are plenty of dual function benches (doubling as life jacket stores) and loungers to tempt you away from your perambulations!
As a result of all this entertainment, a sea day should rarely leave anyone bored of something to do!
Away from all the organised activities available, there are a range of small to mid-size public rooms which offer peace and quiet to read, chat, enjoy a drink or just people watch. My favourite was The Commodore Club (Deck 10) which offers 270 degree views over the front of the ship. Never busy, it acknowledges past Cunard liners and Commodores. The latter are immortalised in 7 signature gin cocktails.
There are plenty of leather sofas and club chairs for up to 122 guests and a cocktail and spirit menu that is unsurpassed throughout the rest of the ship. Hemispheres is adjacent to the Commodore Club, overlooking the Pavilion Pool, and is the ships disco, but also plays dance music earlier in the evenings. It is the most contemporary room on the ship and has a large backlit perforated metal globe as its entry piece. The circular dance floor is handcrafted wood and has a large chandelier suspended above it. During the day it also hosts other activities.
If you would sooner just people watch, choose venues closer to the Grand Lobby and the Britannia Restaurant, like the The Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar on deck 2. Serving only Veuve Clicquot and only by the bottle ($80-$395) you can drink from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. I also like the Chart Room (very near the Britannia Restaurant). It is a long, thinnish area sectioned off with sand blasted maps on small glass pillars and plenty of embossed silver 3D compasses. There are also ships models and other maritime memorabilia to enhance the nautical theme.
We thoroughly enjoyed our cruise on ‘Queen Victoria’ – she is a comfortable, welcoming ship. She is undoubtedly more traditional and formal than others, but offers a genteel grace, refinement and that special sense of occasion that is not found on all cruise ships.