Queen Elizabeth was launched in 2010 as the third ship in Cunard's fleet and a sister to Queen Victoria, which entered service in 2007. Both sisters' hulls are based on a blueprint shared with numerous other vessels in the Carnival Corporation family. Among them are Holland America's Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, P&O Cruises' Arcadia, several of the Costa ships and Carnival Cruise Line's Spirit class of vessels. So, essentially, Queen Elizabeth is a cruise ship in design, not an ocean liner like Cunard's flagship, Queen Mary 2.
Queen Elizabeth is similar in many ways to its sibling, Queen Victoria -- in most of the layout, cabins and enrichment programs, for example -- but different in others. The decor somehow feels lighter; chic, geometric Art Deco-inspired interiors as opposed to the heavier Victoriana.
Everywhere you turn, there's beautiful artwork, rich Italian marble, polished wood and soft light, diffused by glittering chandeliers. The rippling sounds of a harp, mellow piano or gentle jazz trio throughout the public areas enhance the whole feeling of old-fashioned glamour.
There's no neon or glitz on this ship, and there are few gimmicks. Instead of capturing the public's imagination with waterslides and high-tech nightclubs, Cunard cashes in on its impressive heritage, a sense of occasion and old-fashioned pursuits like ballroom-dancing, lawn bowls or afternoon tea in the Garden Lounge.
Some spaces differ from those on the near carbon copy of Queen Victoria, partly as an evolution and partly to reflect the famous dining rooms and bars of the original Queens, Mary and Elizabeth.
The Britannia Club, one of four main dining rooms, replaces the Chart Room bar on Queen Victoria, while the Todd English specialty restaurant, featured on both of Cunard's other ships, becomes The Verandah. This restaurant, helmed by Cunard's executive chef, is reminiscent of the glory days of the first Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, on which The Verandah Grill was regarded as the finest restaurant at sea. Also new is an AstroTurf-covered Games Deck, dedicated to traditional English garden pursuits. The Midships Bar, another much-loved Cunard feature, is back, as is the Yacht Club nightspot, a lounge fondly remembered by fans of QE2 for its late-night dancing. Despite the fact that Cunard is American-owned, there's no shortage of British icons like a Fortnum & Mason hamper ordering service, Harris Tweed for sale and a sunlit Garden Lounge that's inspired by the glass houses of Kew Gardens.
Extensive use has been made of cream and chocolate marble and polished wood in the public spaces. Every bar or lounge has something beautiful in it, whether it's a piece of intricate wooden marquetry or an evocative painting of a maritime scene. Everywhere you look, there's Cunard memorabilia: a Christmas card from Queen Elizabeth II displayed in a glass case, a solid silver model of QE2 made by the famed London jeweller Asprey and the original bell of the first Queen Elizabeth.
Add these genuinely beautiful surroundings to the glamorous history on which Cunard trades, and you might think you're in for a luxury cruise. But you're not, necessarily. Queen Elizabeth, like the other Cunard ships, operates a class system in which the cabin grade you choose dictates where you eat. Queens Grill and Princess Grill do represent some of the loveliest accommodations and most exclusive dining at sea, which is reflected in the price. But the vast majority of passengers -- 83 percent of them -- are in Britannia-grade cabins, dining in the Britannia Restaurant or the slightly posher Britannia Club. And what they experience is essentially a product of the Carnival family: food that's OK but not spectacular and the same nickel-and-diming that you'd find on any other big ship (charging for water in cabins and on shore excursions, for example) -- but in a very smart setting.
Some niggles, for example: In the Lido buffet, at breakfast, the waiters do not help you find a seat or carry your tray or even pour water or fetch tea and coffee. You have to line up at a machine for that. While the Britannia Restaurant is beautiful to look at, I found service to be hurried. And, while some things look very chi-chi and elegant, they're not, particularly. Afternoon tea in the Queens Room was the same scones, sandwiches and not-very-exciting cakes as were on offer in the Lido buffet. There's a fee for the really posh afternoon tea.
In some areas, the service lacked finesse. I was struggling with a heavy bag, watched by several crewmembers, none of whom offered to help. The ID card scanner broke down as several shore excursions were returning to the ship, but nothing was done to speed up the re-embarkation process; passengers were getting flustered, and the crew didn't seem to care. And that's one of the differences between a mass-market cruise and a luxury cruise; however fancy the top suites on this ship, and however attentive the service in the Grills, there are still elements of the service in the main public areas of the ship, where the crew can't distinguish a suite guest from an inside cabin guest, that lower the tone. So, while you may have paid for a luxury experience, you could find you only get that real extra touch in certain areas of the ship.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Royal Spa on Deck 9 is run by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure. It's an extensive and peaceful space, if something of a rabbit warren. An area called the Royal Bath House includes the Thermal Suite and a proper indoor thalassotherapy pool (so more than just a glorified Jacuzzi) and costs $35 for a day-pass. There are also various other facilities, including three couples' treatment rooms, a beauty salon and a Wellness Centre for seminars, of which there were many, geared to selling treatments in the spa.
The gym itself is state-of-the-art, and there's a studio area for classes, of which there are about four a day, half of them free. I did "Tour de Cycle," aka spinning, which cost $12 for 40 minutes but was a fun and satisfying workout. I had two treatments, too, and was pleasantly surprised at the lack of sales-speak from the therapists; they couldn't have been nicer, in fact. Prices are pretty much in line with other ships' spas: $125 for a 50-minute facial and $119 for a full-body Swedish massage. There are quite a few shorter treatments, too, which are a good idea for spa virgins: a 30-minute facial for $80 or a 30-minute massage for $90. A gratuity of 12.5 percent is added to all bills. Incidentally, it's made quite clear that there will be discounts on port days, so if you're wavering about what to try, hang out for the price reductions.
Queen Elizabeth offers some unusual and enjoyable fitness pursuits. Fencing lessons are held in the Queens Room at no charge, while there's a fine wraparound promenade deck for jogging and walking. The covered Games Deck is high up on Deck 11, with paddle tennis, short bowls and croquet. There are two pools on Deck 9: the Pavilion Pool, midship, and the aft Lido pool, which is surrounded by a huge sunbathing area and serves as the venue for sailaway parties. Each pool has its own bar and two Jacuzzis.
There are 1,046 cabins onboard Queen Elizabeth. Eighty-five percent are outside, and of those, 71 percent have balconies. The decor is calming and serene with shades of gold, green and brown, and there's plenty of storage, both under the beds and in the wardrobes; the under-the-bed drawers were added after complaints about lack of storage on Queen Victoria.
The biggest disappointments in the design of standard staterooms are the bathrooms. (Again, this applies to insides, outsides and verandahs.) They're stingy in size, shower-only (including a clingy shower curtain) and dreary in decor. (Everything is beige.) They're also not very well designed; the little bottles of Gilchrist & Soames shampoo and conditioner don't fit properly on the soap dish holder and kept falling off, as did the soap. Towels were small, too. I used the pool towels supplied in the cabin for the duration of my cruise.
The other criticism is that you can't turn the air-conditioning or the fan off, or even down very low; our cabin was pretty cold most nights.
All cabins have flat-screen TV's with more than 40 channels, including movies in French, German and Spanish, as well as in-house channels on which the port and enrichment lectures are rerun. My outside verandah cabin had a mini-bar stocked with sodas and mineral water, which cost $3.50 for a large bottle.
Other options include Princess Grill mini-suites. These are essentially elongated versions of the standard verandahs; the balconies are roughly the same size. Beyond larger living areas, there's also more closet space, and the bathrooms have full-size tubs and very pretty tiling that renders them charming -- one of the touches that makes the difference between standard and luxury.
The Queens Grill and Princess Grill suites are scattered around the ship, either aft, with views of the wake, or in the bulge midships, where the balconies are deeper. Deck 7, in addition to several Queens Grill penthouses, has the biggest concentration of top suites -- two Grand Suites and two of the four Master Suites, which include features like huge balconies, whirlpool baths and separate dining areas. These six suites are named after the half-dozen Cunard Commodores who have been knighted: Commodore Sir Arthur Rostron, Commodore Sir Edgar Britten, Commodore Sir Cyril Illingworth, Commodore Sir James Bisset, Commodore Sir Ivan Thompson and Commodore Sir James Charles. If you want a bath with a sea view, go for one of the Master Suites. For a wraparound balcony and outdoor dining, it's the Grand Suites, the top category on the ship.
Queen Elizabeth is perfectly family-friendly in terms of facilities, but it does have the look and feel of a really "grown up" ship, and families might be happier on lines like P&O or Princess. Having said this, there's a colourful children's playroom with toys on the starboard side of Deck 10 and The Zone, a teenagers' room with computer games, Wii, Xbox and air hockey on the opposite side of the youngsters' domain. Both feature outdoor deck space, as well. The facility operates on port days, but you have to book for younger kids in advance.
Cunard recommends $11 per person, per day, for Britannia-grade cabins and $13 per day for Grills. Fifteen percent service is added to all drinks and spa treatments, and there's a line left blank on the chit for the extra tip. The daily gratuities are added automatically onto your onboard account. On my mini-cruise, a few people were giving the staff at the Purser's Desk a hard time on the last night, trying to remove or reduce the gratuities, or redirect them to crew members they felt were most deserving. This was handled graciously.
There's a three-tier dress code: Casual, semiformal and formal, with two formal nights per week (just one on the mini-cruise). Casual is jacket-and-tie for men in any of the dining rooms. Semiformal means a smarter suit for men and cocktail wear for ladies. On formal nights, there is no limit to the glamour; this is the ship on which to bring out your finest jewels and ballgowns. People make a big effort to dress up, with lots of long dresses on formal night. On the world cruise, big money is obvious, and wardrobe planning is essential.
Queen Elizabeth's public rooms are located all along Decks 2 and 3, as well as on the upper decks. The heart of the ship is the three-deck Grand Lobby, which has to be one of the most beautiful at sea with its curving staircases, ravishing marquetry panel by master craftsman David Linley -- nephew of the Queen -- and the extensive use of marble. People pause to look every time they come by this lovely spot.
The 6,000-volume library is there, too, and is slightly "Hogwarts" with its old-fashioned polished-wood panels and quirky spiral staircase linking the two levels. It's, without doubt, a superb library -- the reference section is really impressive -- but you can only take out two books at a time, and then only when the librarian is present.
Deck 3 houses the Royal Arcade, a smarter version of the shops you'll find on other cruise ships, with Fortnum & Mason, Harris Tweed and Anya Hindmarch alongside the jewelry, logowear and duty-free merchandise. I loved the Cunard bookshop, tucked away next to the Midships Bar; it's perfect for gift-shopping, with fun vintage cards, some wonderful nautical books, calendars and memorabilia, as well as a more comical array of titles that include carb-counters, bridge tips and puzzle books.
Also on Deck 3 are two galleries: The Cunarders' Gallery, where you can buy vintage Cunard posters and prints, and the Clarendon Fine Art Gallery, which has changing displays; on my cruise, limited edition Robert Lloyd prints were going for more than $600. It's a nice idea having a proper art gallery instead of a tacky auction display, and artists whose work is featured there join some cruises to give talks. There's a huge photo gallery outside the Britannia dining room. (The ship's photographers seemed to be everywhere, but photos were expensive -- for example, an 8"x10" print cost $24.95.)
The internet centre is on Deck 1, and there are Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the public areas. Other facilities include a medical centre, three meeting rooms and five passenger launderettes.
There's live music all over the ship. Evenings kick off with either a harpist or a pianist in the Grand Lobby, which is lovely if you're enjoying a pre-dinner drink in the Cafe Carinthia or the Midships Bar, both of which overlook the area. A singing pianist entertains in the Golden Lion pub, interspersed with quizzes and karaoke, while there's mellow piano up in the Commodore Club, another great pre-dinner and late-night-drink spot.
The heart and soul of Queen Elizabeth is dancing, and there is dancing every day, morning, noon and night. Most of it is in the Queens Room, a lavish ballroom built for this very purpose, blue and gold in colour and lit by a huge Swarovski chandelier. A large, wooden dance floor, a stage for the band and a series of murals of English country houses complete the picture. Every night, there's ballroom and Latin before and after dinner, usually to a live band, as well as dancing at afternoon tea and classes in the mornings. Single ladies are kept on their toes by gentleman hosts. The Queens Room is also the venue for jazz concerts and classical piano recitals. Formal Royal Balls take place every few nights ("black and white" and "Ascot" being two of the themes).
The other big evening events are shows in the stunning theatre, complete with 20 V.I.P. boxes. A dedicated Queen Elizabeth Theatre Company of singers, dancers and actors produces two production shows, a dance spectacular and a show called "Sing," which are interspersed throughout the week with guest acts -- a vocalist and a Vaudeville entertainer on my cruise.
The entertainment has apparently raised some question marks. The abridged (and cleaned up) version of the saucy sixties musical "A Slice of Saturday Night," one crewmember confided, has not been an enormous hit, although I really enjoyed it. The production was fun and energetic and involved the whole theatre company. "Sing" was a series of hit songs backed by a big band, but it seemed lacklustre; a lot of the songs were minor, rather than chart-topping hits, although the show perked up toward the end.
For $50 (plus 15 percent) per couple, you can book one of the boxes. This package includes a Champagne cocktail and a tray of petits fours in a private lounge, attended by Cunard's scarlet-uniformed White Star Bell Boys, and a half-bottle of Veuve Cliquot in the box. It's a lovely idea, and there's a real sense of excitement when the ticket, like a proper theatre ticket, is delivered to your stateroom. My only criticism is the structure of the boxes; a Perspex-style screen in front of the seats means everything on the stage is slightly distorted.
Evenings bring plenty of other diversions. Forward of the Queens Room is the Empire Casino with the Golden Lion pub running along the starboard side. The pub, modelled after a British pub, is cosy enough, with British beers like Boddington's, Green King IPA and Marston Pedigree on offer, but compared to the fun-packed Golden Lion on Queen Mary 2, it feels a bit long and straggly; you can't see one end from the other, so late-night quizzes lost a bit of atmosphere.
In the casino are roulette, blackjack and Texas Hold'em, as well as numerous slots. The dealers seemed good humoured with a very mixed crowd of first-time gamblers and some more hardcore customers. Blackjack bets range from $5 minimum to $200 maximum, or $25 to $500 on a high-rollers' table.
The casino, incidentally, is nonsmoking; the only places smokers can light up is on their balconies, on the starboard side of Decks 3 and 10 and in Churchill's Cigar Lounge on Deck 10 (and that's cigars only).
Golden Lion aside, the bars on the main entertainment decks are small and spread out. Although the Cafe Carinthia serves cocktails and both the Casino and The Verandah have their own, small bar areas, the graceful Midships Bar is the main venue, with seating around a crescent-shaped marble bar, as well as comfortable armchairs and some wonderful memorabilia like a model of the original Queen Elizabeth and a highly stylized mural of a map of the Atlantic Ocean. Waiters serve drinks in the Queens Room, too, which is where a lot of people gather early evening.
Otherwise, the bigger bars and lounges are on Decks 9 and 10. On Deck 9, the Garden Lounge is inspired by the glasshouses at Kew Gardens in London, with a huge glass semidome flooding the tiled floor and potted lilies below with light. It's a wonderful spot for snoozing in one of the squashy cane chairs or sitting quietly with a book. On cruises longer than my five-day outing, supper club dinners and dancing are held up there.
There are two evening venues on Deck 10 forward: the Yacht Club, a recreation of the legendary nightspot on QE2, and the Commodore Club observation lounge. Thee's lots of wonderful Cunard memorabilia up there, too, including the bell and plaque of QE2 and the bell of the original Queen Elizabeth, as well as artwork by Robert Lloyd, the renowned marine artist. The plush, good and red Commodore Club has sweeping views of the horizon and a magnificent cocktail menu, with signature martinis from $9.95, as well as a huge array of other spirits and liqueurs. You can even book a mixology lesson up there ($20) or a malt whisky or vodka tasting ($25). I loved the spot early evening, when there's a pianist, complimentary hot and cold hors d'oeuvres and fellow passengers swapping stories of their days. There are two smaller rooms off the Commodore Club, the Admiral's Lounge, used for meetings and private parties, and Churchill's, a tiny cigar lounge.
Late at night, once the casino's died down and last orders have been called in the Golden Lion, the Yacht Club keeps going, with a live band and a D.J. This is another attractive lounge, with an inlaid-wood dance floor, more cream marble and blue and gold soft furnishings.
During the day, there are plenty of activities (and more were added on the mini-cruise, as so many of the passengers stayed onboard all day), but a lot are unhosted -- paddle tennis, bridge, chess, solo travellers' gatherings, deck quoits and so on.
Cunard is well known for its enrichment program, which wasn't shown off to its full extent on my mini-cruise. There were several computer, iPad, Facebook and Photoshop seminars in the Internet centre (which also sells Apple products) and art talks -- proper ones, not just attempts to sell the art in the Clarendon Fine Art Gallery onboard. But normally, there would be guest lecturers as part of the Cunard Insights program, providing in-depth talks on the arts, architecture and politics.
There are also daily Friends of Bill W and Friends of Dorothy meetings.
Who sails on Queen Elizabeth depends on where the ship is going. Ex-Southampton cruises inevitably attract a lot of Brits. The handful of mini-cruises that operate every year are a big chance for first-timers to try Cunard and attract a more economically diverse crowd than usual. The annual world cruise draws a mixture from all over the world, although there are large numbers of well-heeled Americans and Brits. Shorter voyages attract Americans and Brits, but Cunard's ships are also very successful in the Japanese and German markets. Everybody who sails has a fascination with the great Cunard name, whether they're die-hard Cunard regulars (and this brand inspires a lot of loyalty) or those who have heard about the ships and are curious to try them.
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