A Cunard voyage into the elegance and style of yesteryear
Having experienced the world's last ocean liner QUEEN MARY 2 with a winter transatlantic passage from Southampton to New York, I was rather sceptical of trying a "cruise ship". I am nothing if not a traditionalist, and large mega-deck floating holiday resorts, with all the glitz and glamour they offer, do absolutely nothing for me. But each to their own!
With our next QUEEN MARY 2 experience planned for late 2024 and after all the misery of pandemic lockdowns, my wife and I had been agitating to get to sea again for a little longer than our usual cruise ferry experiences - as enjoyable as they are! Calling me out on a previous suggestion (made while I was off guard) that I might consider a cruise ship voyage on either QUEEN ELIZABETH or QUEEN VICTORIA, as capacity is modest at around 2000 passengers, Sara duly presented a East Coast Australia round trip cruise from Sydney to Tasmania, calling at our home town of Hobart for two nights.
Tempting yes, but my default traditionalist and maritime professional mindset kicked in. QUEEN ELIZABETH is not a liner in that she was not built for regular voyages between two points across oceans such as the Atlantic. She is a cruise ship, designed to operate voyages for pleasure, typically sailing between ports on coastal runs. And I don't like cruise ships! But having said that, the ship was constructed with heavier plating around the bow to cope with heavy seas when she finds herself on the transatlantic run.
As an ocean liner QUEEN MARY 2 is designed for the sea conditions she will meet during the course of her scheduled operation, whatever the weather. Notably, her bow is longer and stronger than that to be found on a cruise ship, with her accommodation placed further back to protect it from the waves she will most likely encounter. The wheelhouse too is to be found higher up on the upper deck, thereby protecting it from all a winter ocean can throw at it. QUEEN MARY 2 is also faster than typical cruise ships, the extra turn of speed being needed where time needs to be made up when schedules are disrupted due to bad weather. She is, as one might say, a "proper job"!
After much discussion the decision was made and our cruise was booked - I was about to sail on my first "cruise ship", as opposed to an ocean liner. If I was to do this, then what better company to do it with than Cunard.
Sydney check-in at the Oversea Passenger Terminal was a breeze. We arrived at the terminal with our negative Covid RAT tests all in order. First point of contact was the baggage drop and then we were ushered towards health screening for checks of our vaccination status and our test results. Security followed check-in and within 15 minutes of arrival at the terminal we were crossing the gangway. Without exception, the whole terminal experience was incredibly friendly and well organised.
Entering the ship through the triple height Grand Lobby on Deck 2 we could immediately see QUEEN ELIZABETH is no ordinary cruise ship. She may not be an ocean liner, but her art deco style is very much a nod to the heyday of 1930's ocean travel in the likes of the magnificent MAURETANIA, or the original QUEEN MARY and QUEEN ELIZABETH. Indeed, the latter is remembered in an enormous timber wall feature in the Grand Lobby. Making our way to our Britannia Balcony stateroom on Deck 7 even a cursory glance at this amazing ship told us we were in for a special experience over the next seven nights. With ornate chandeliers and grand sweeping staircases, QUEEN ELIZABETH exudes style. With her beautifully sumptuous accommodation together with the promise of fine dining and traditional afternoon teas she very much has a refined feel so if you're looking for neon glitz and waterslides then this ship is definitely not for you.
Our Britannia Balcony stateroom was situated aft on Deck 7. and we were reunited with our luggage shortly after stepping in for the first time. As with QUEEN MARY 2, our stateroom was truly excellent with so much natural light and a generous king size bed, in fact it was identical. The living space, next to the floor to ceiling balcony doors, has a comfortable lounge area with a small writing deck, coffee table and mini refrigerator. A satellite TV offers movie and music channels but we had this permanently set to the ship's electronic chart display. Storage space is generous and at no time did we feel at all cramped. So too the bathroom with walk-in shower - plenty of space. A friendly cabin steward was on hand to keep the stateroom in top order day and night.
With our Britannia stateroom we had a reserved table in the splendid Britannia Restaurant, although we opted for open dining instead. This meant we could make a reservation to dine at a time that suited us rather than a set time, which often coincided with a port departure. With its magnificent sweeping staircase, and and double level layout, the grandeur of the Britannia Restaurant provides an genuine sense of occasion. The five course evening menu changed daily and featured an impressive choice of cuisine, from smoked salmon and spring lamb to Indonesian chicken and papaya salad. This was our default venue for breakfast, lunch and dinner but we also sampled The Lido for breakfast and lunch and The Golden Lion Pub for a lunch of a British counter meal washed down with an ice cold craft beer. All meals are included in the cruise fare. Dress code for the Britannia restaurant is jacket optional smart attire after 6.00pm and a little more relaxed at all other times. On Gala Evenings however, of which there were three during our cruise, the atmosphere is heightened as guests are invited to dress in their finest evening wear tuxedos and ball gowns.
One dining venue not to be missed is The Steakhouse at The Verandah, so named after the 1930s Verandah Grill which was reserved for Cunard’s first-class passengers. For a very modest supplement we were able to enjoy steaks and seafood of the highest quality. Ordering from a range of cuts, not only was the steak cooked exactly to personal preference - except where the chef recommends otherwise - but we were presented with a selection of steak knives from which to choose from. The food and wine here was truly sublime and even as I write, the memory of the most amazing clam chowder comes flooding back.
As coffee lovers, a daily morning call at Café Carinthia was compulsory. This art deco style café with adjoining lounge offers speciality coffee and a good variety of signature pyramid teas. Staff here were warmly welcoming and were only too happy to accommodate our requests for takeaway coffee in our keepcups so we could take our daily vice out on the spotless decks to lounge and listen to the sound of the ship gliding through a sparkling ocean at 18 knots. Bliss! It has to be said, the Carinthia is more than just a coffee shop and the chef’s signature sandwich of the day looked tempting, as did the sharing platters featuring Italian antipasti, seafood, and a chargrilled selection of vegetables. There were desserts too and pastries made in their own patisserie.
Without question our favourite spot throughout the ship was the Commodore Club on Deck 10. Its relaxed atmosphere with mellow musical performances, low lighting and intimate seating provided just the most perfect way to relax after a beautiful dining experience. The lounge boasts a nautical theme, the tone set by paintings from renowned maritime artist Robert Lloyd. On offer is a collection of cocktails inspired by seven of Cunard's most decorated Commodores; and each with its own backstory. Notes from Cunard talk of "from the quintessential British notes of Land of Hop & Glory, inspired by Commodore Sir Cyril Illingworth, to the Commodore’s Cure, a tribute to Commodore Sir James Bisset, these unique concoctions are as legendary as the men they serve to honour." Quite apart from the range of drinks, and the sheer comfort, the sea views over the bow and the exceptional service from the Commodore Club staff, this was one of the ship's many delights we failed to tire of.
There is so much to do on board QUEEN ELIZABETH but such was our level of relaxation we did not get to try everything, such as the nostalgia of ballroom dancing, high tea and games such as bowls, deck tennis and croquet! Can't dance? Then you could even choose from a variety of classes before showing your stuff in the grandeur of the Queens Room. Alternatively there are Resident DJs and live bands in the Yacht Club, but I found this rather lame and by the lack of fellow passengers I wasn't the only one! We were just happy to relax on deck, enjoy fine dining, spend an hour or so reading or doing a jigsaw puzzle and even take an afternoon nap after a dip in the pool! What joy it was to awake from a nap, take a shower and then wander up to the Commodore Club or the Midships Bar for a pre-dinner drink!
Master of the QUEEN ELIZABETH for our cruise was Captain Stephen Howarth. A veteran of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary who one day, as a young officer, stood at the rail of his grey ship alongside at Marchwood and looking across the water to Southampton at a beautiful white cruise ship, thought to himself "that's for me!" And so it was, Stephen joined P&O Cruises serving on most ships in their fleet including the lovely ORIANA in all ranks from 2nd Officer to Master. ADONIA was also a special command, but it is QUEEN ELIZABETH that he considers is the pinnacle of his career.
So my first cruise ship experience impressed. QUEEN ELIZABETH is a marvelous ship and truth be told she really is QUEEN MARY 2 in miniature - at least on the passenger decks. And was I converted to the cruise ship experience? Well maybe! But perhaps QUEEN ELIZABETH is best described as a hybrid "cruise liner"! Either way, we're looking forward to our next QUEEN ELIZABETH experience in January 2024 - so that perhaps answers the question!