With Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth 2 passing later this year from a venerable oceangoing liner to a floating shopping mall in Dubai, an era is ending. But her retirement certainly has not halted Cunard’s luxury ships, each operating with the dignity of a bygone classic voyage.
The Queen Victoria (QV) is the second new ship from Cunard in three years, the first being, of course, the Queen Mary 2 (QM2). The Victoria, while a more manageable Panamax size, squeezes down most of the QM2’s defining features into a 2,000-passenger design. Come 2010, Cunard’s third new ship since 2004, the Queen Elizabeth — no number will be appended — will mean this oldest of lines will have one of the youngest fleets afloat. Its traditions, though, remain resolutely old school.
Cunard’s insistence on segregating its clientele into three classes may be a holdover from its liner days, but it’s also central to its English appeal. The Queens Grill and the Princess Grill classes, analogous to first and business class, use a private staircase in the middle of the ship. They not only come with two dedicated restaurants, but a shared lounge, terrace and outdoor dining area. They would be nearly completely sealed off from the rest of the ship if they had a private pool.
Passengers not in either class are referred to as “our Britannia guests,” meaning that they dine in the Britannia dining room. Hardly steerage class, Britannia hosts some 800 guests per seating, and its staff is as attentive as you’d expect of a luxury-level line. Overall, the staff-to-guest ratio is about one to two. The ship’s Todd English specialty restaurant has a very reasonable $30 surcharge and the Lido cafe is laid out in islands and sections.
Those looking for an exact repeat of the Queen Mary 2 may not get exactly what they want. The smaller QV had to omit several of her sister’s more newsworthy perks, including a second theater with a planetarium and a disco. On the other hand, the QM2 can’t fit into the Panama Canal, so the Queen Victoria has more flexibility in terms of its itinerary. (However, having been aboard during the ship’s maiden passage through the canal, I can attest that watching a ship’s perfect black livery scraped by the two-foot clearance produces pained wincing.)
Victoria has some delightful innovations onboard, including an Edwardian-style theater with three levels of opera boxes that can be rented for production shows; red-capped stewards serve champagne before ushering guests to their seats. However, it was a good idea that was diminished on execution: For safety’s sake, those boxes were marred by the addition of protective curved glass that somewhat distort the sightlines.
Victoria’s spa is operated by Cunard; the spa aboard QM2 is run by Canyon Ranch. The design is split by a public elevator bank. Unlike the QM2’s spa, here, the hydrotherapy pool for private use of guests after their treatments is not as secluded.
The Victoria has a slate of bars that, more or less, matches the QM2. Veuve Clicquot champagne again sponsors the onboard bubbly bar, done in Art-Deco style. The Golden Lion Pub approximates an English locale, serving traditional pub grub from fish and chips to shepherd’s pie. Cafe Carinthia caters to the caffeinated, and the Chart Room specializes in whiskies.
One of Cunard’s greatest assets is its Englishness. The ship’s well-stocked souvenir shop did a brisk trade in Queen Victoria-themed hats, shirts and bags. Clientele here know that the brand is half the appeal of this line. In general, her guests are well- educated and have made enough of a success of their lives to want to repeat, or at least go through the motions, of a classic liner journey. That means regular formal nights, and unlike many other lines these days, Cunard is not the sort of line where men will feel comfortable should they forget to pack the tie and cummerbund.
It also means that many of the more boisterous activities popular on other lines — the kinds that make a book reader seek quieter sections of the deck — simply don’t happen here. What you get instead is a handsome two-story, 6,000-book library (the second largest at sea), a bookstore, a small but centrally located museum dedicated to the line’s history and a busy slate of lectures by impressive professors and educators. And the offerings aren’t always all that highbrow; on my trip, famous Variety columnist Army Archerd was engaged to dish on Hollywood stars.
When it comes to children, Cunard is also probably best suited to the bookish type. That’s not due to the ship, which has two private, well-stocked kids areas in a prime area of a high deck, but to the clientele, which mostly raised their brood decades ago. On my cruise — admittedly, during the regular school year — there were very few youngsters to be found in the kids’ areas — The Play Zone nursery and children’s center, for children up to 6, and The Zone, for kids 7 to 17.
The Queen Victoria is sailing in Europe this summer, mostly out of Southampton. She circles the Black Sea in midsummer and, after a brief stint in the Caribbean, offers a world cruise embarking in January 2009. Fares typically start around $2,445 for a 12-day cruise and around $3,000 for a two-week itinerary. Cunard also offers roundtrip fares from a variety of North American gateways.