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 Lines' Spirit-class 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, with 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 string quartet throughout the public areas enhance the whole feeling of old-fashioned glamor.
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 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, as well as 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 more posh 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), just 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, we 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 that were on offer in the Lido buffet. There's a fee for the extra posh afternoon tea.
In some areas, the service lacked finesse. We were 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. 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 passenger from an inside cabin passenger, 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.
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-plus-volume library is there, too, and it's 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. However, you can only take out two books at a time and only when the librarian is present. A focal point is a large geographic globe, and the library's collection includes books in large print.
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 jewellery, logowear and duty-free merchandise. We 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 our cruise, there was an exhibition of sensuous Latin prints by Fabian Perez and associated talks comparing and contrasting his work with that of U.K. artist Jack Vettriano. 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 8x10 print cost $24.95.
The Internet centre is on Deck 1, and there are Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the public areas. Internet packages are available from $47.95 for 120 minutes, and pay-as-you-go is $0.75 per minute. Other facilities include a medical centre, three meeting rooms and five passenger launderettes.
There are 1,046 cabins onboard Queen Elizabeth. Eighty-five percent are outside, and of those, 71 percent have balconies. Inside cabins (standard and deluxe) range from 152 to 243 square feet, outsides from 180 to 197 square feet and balcony cabins from 228 to 352 square feet. 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. We used the pool towels supplied in our cabin for the duration of our cruise.
Another gripe, particularly for women, is that the hair dryer is fixed inside a drawer of the dressing table/desk. You need to keep the drawer open to operate it and the cord isn't particularly long. A higher powered plug-in hair dryer would be much better.
All cabins have flat-screen TVs 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. Our balcony cabin had a mini-bar stocked with sodas and mineral water, which cost $3.50 for a large bottle.
Princess Grill suites (335 to 345 square feet) 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 suites (595 to 671 square feet) 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 (508 to 596 square feet), has the biggest concentration of top suites -- two Grand Suites (1,375 square feet) and two of the four Master Suites (1,493 square feet), 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, outdoor dining and reclining steamer loungers, choose the Grand Suites, the top category on the ship.
The onboard currency is the U.S. dollar. Cunard recommends $11 per person, per day, for Britannia-grade cabins and $13 per person, per day, for Grills. Fifteen percent service is added to all drinks and spa treatments, and there's a line left blank on the receipt for the extra tip. The daily gratuities are added automatically onto your onboard account.
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 that, there's a colourful children's playroom with toys on the starboard side of Deck 10. The Zone, a teenagers' room with computer games, Wii, Xbox and air hockey, is on the opposite side of the youngsters' domain. Both areas feature outdoor deck space, as well. The facility operates on port days, but you have to book for younger kids in advance. The few youngsters spotted on our cruise seemed perfectly happy and at ease in the surroundings and clearly loved dressing up on the formal nights, but you get the impression that if any children started letting off steam and running around, there'd be "looks" and tut-tutting from old-school cruisers.
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 globe, although there are large numbers of well-heeled Americans and Brits. Shorter voyages also attract Americans and Brits, but Cunard's ships are very successful in the Japanese and German markets, as well. 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. It can lead to a nice cosmopolitan mix; on a two-week Black Sea itinerary, 43 different nationalities were onboard.
In April 2013, Cunard altered its long-standing three-tiered dress code of elegant casual, semi-formal and formal to simply informal and formal. Although the move upset many purists who say dressing up to the nines is an integral part of the Cunard experience, the cruise line said the change reflected growing travel trends toward more casual attire. Cruises typically have two formal nights per week (just one on the mini-cruise). The dress code comes into play at 6 p.m. On informal nights, men should wear a jacket, but no tie is required, and ladies may opt for a dress, skirt or trousers. No jeans or shorts are allowed. There is no limit to the glamor on formal nights. People make a big effort to dress up, with lots of long dresses; this is the time to bring out your finest jewels and ball gowns. On the world cruise, big money is obvious, and wardrobe planning is essential. For passengers who don't want to don their best attire, the nightly dinner buffet in The Lido has a casual and relaxed dress code, although shorts are not permitted after 6 p.m. (To avoid any wardrobe malfunctions, the daily program reminds passengers of each evening's dress code.)
During the day, stylish casual wear, including smart jeans and shorts, is fine onboard. Swimsuits, sarongs and gym wear are allowed pool-side, on deck and in the spa and fitness center, but passengers must be covered up in any other 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; it 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 -- about four a day, half of them free. We did "Tour de Cycle," aka spinning, which cost $12 for 40 minutes, but it was a fun and satisfying workout. We also had two treatments and were pleasantly surprised by 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, a 30-minute massage for $90 or a taster session of three mini-treatments for $129. 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.
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