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The newest member of the three-ship Cunard fleet, the Queen Elizabeth aims for a distinguished cruise experience glimmering with a touch of English royalty. Elegance is promised in Cunard literature, along with “spacious luxury and excellent service that attracts discerning travelers.” That kind of hyperbole is rampant in the travel industry, of course, but marketing push aside, the Cunard Line does indeed have a storied legacy to live up to.
Starting in 1840, Cunard was the first company to schedule regular trans-Atlantic crossings between Southampton, England and New York. Over the years the line established other seagoing firsts—the first ship to be lighted by electricity, the first “wireless” (radio) at sea, the first gym and health center, the first swimming pool, and more. In 1936 Cunard’s ocean liner the Queen Mary famously launched a new era in sea travel, and in 1940 the original Queen Elizabeth debuted as the largest passenger ship ever built (although this 83,650-ton Queen Elizabeth was destroyed by fire in 1972, it retained its title as the largest until 1996). At the end of WWII, Winston Churchill claimed the two ships—requisitioned by the British government to ferry 1.5 million troops around the world—had shortened the war in Europe by at least a year. There was also the legendary ocean liner QE2 launched in 1969—after 6 million miles the QE2 left the Cunard fleet in 2008; its ultimate fate is undecided.
Acquired by Miami-based Carnival Corporation in 1998, the Cunard Line got a new lease on life with the arrival of the one-of-a-kind Queen Mary 2, in 2004—at the time the largest, tallest and most expensive ever built. This was followed in 2007 by Queen Victoria, and in 2010 a new incarnation of Queen Elizabeth went to sea, a 90,400-ton, 2068-passenger vessel that is virtually identical in size and layout to Queen Victoria—both considerably smaller than Queen Mary 2. The main differences between the younger “siblings” are in décor, a few venue name changes, and Lizzie boasts an additional 39 cabins. The Queen Mary 2, on the other hand, remains an outlier—not only for Cunard but for the industry as a whole; it’s a true ocean liner designed for speedy trans-Atlantic crossings, much like her predecessors in the Cunard Line.
The new Queen Elizabeth gets around: In her first year alone, the vessel visited 108 different destinations. Upcoming sailings navigate Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia and the South Pacific, many of them starting or ending at Cunard’s home port, Southampton (70 miles southwest of London’s Heathrow Airport); itineraries primarily encompasses cruises longer than a week.
With expectations high and our finest duds carefully packed, we boarded Queen Elizabeth with heightened anticipation.
First things first: Queen Elizabeth is one of the most beautifully designed cruise ships we’ve had the pleasure of sailing. Structurally, the vessel has a lot in common with Signature Class ships built for Holland America—both Nieuw Amsterdam and Eurodam share the same hull design. But from there, physical similarities end, and the ship’s lavishly detailed art deco interior spaces are a loving tribute to 1930s design fads from when the original Queen Elizabeth first sailed. The main dining room, the Britannia Restaurant, is a stunner; the lobby atrium, flush with polished wood, gleams warmly. These and other common areas of the ship were transporting, as befits a vessel with a direct connection to royalty (HM The Queen named this ship in Southampton in 2010, as she did the QE2 in 1967; at the age of 12, Princess Elizabeth also attended the naming of the original Queen Elizabeth in 1938).
But soon after embarkation, a nagging thought emerged: Was this Queen Elizabeth providing a luxury cruise experience, as Cunard advertises, or was that level of service and amenities limited only to those who signed up for the pricey Princess Grill or Queens Grill suites? While those guests had their private dining room and private sun deck, suites represent just 12 percent of the ship’s accommodations. Most of us were lodged in simpler digs and, from our perspective, we disembarked feeling that Cunard’s luxury angle was oversold, particularly when it came to service, which was sometimes clunky or nonexistent. Some crewmembers went overboard adopting a stiff-upper-lip attitude and, frankly, overly prim formalities aren’t a turn-on for us (except from a bemused distance). Fortunately, our fellow cruisers—who were primarily British—were easy-going and not condescending at all; we felt quite at home.
Our balcony cabin measured 192 square feet inside (when comparing cruise lines note that Cunard’s advertised cabin sizes include the balcony square footage; most others do not). While this size was hardly cramped for two guests, by comparison, starting sizes for standard cabins on the ships of Seabourn and Silversea cruise lines are almost 50 percent larger. The bathroom was particularly unimpressive. Nonetheless our Queen Elizabeth cabin was attractively appointed, with more lighting and décor than is typical on mainstream cruise lines; fine bedding and quality bath products were another plus.
Meals should have been a standout on Queen Elizabeth, but they weren’t consistent. For all its sumptuous design, the Britannia Restaurant, was the biggest disappointment, with spotty service and middling food, especially at dinner, which was also noisy. The Lido Restaurant, the ship’s buffet, was just average. But lunch and dinner at The Verandah, the ship’s most upscale venue, was excellent and the wait staff shined. We think The Verandah is one of the best specialty restaurants at sea, well worth the surcharge. And the corner of the Lido that was converted into one of four different ethnic venues nightly was a very appealing alternative to the Britannia, also involving only a modest up-charge.
There were lots of smaller attributes to Queen Elizabeth we appreciated, such as the near absence of printed literature plugging the spa, art sales and other marketing that typically litters our cabin mailbox on other ships. There were none of those annoying art auctions to trip over, and ship photographers were not overly aggressive about making their quota for the day. We loved the well-stocked library, and the ship’s retail outlets had a much broader range of wares than most of the mainstream cruise lines. The shows in the Royal Court Theatre were well executed, and the live music percolating through various areas of the ship was welcome. And the daily list of activities was noteworthy: From white glove tea service to bridge lessons, and ballroom dance class to watercolor art lessons, there was plenty to keep us occupied while at sea.
What stuck with us well after we returned home was the accessible elegance of the Queen Elizabeth. The vast majority of passengers dressed to the nines for Formal (and even Semi-Formal) nights, and we enjoyed doing our best to keep up. While the ship’s British lineage is often experienced through an American veneer—Cunard is owned by Carnival Corp. and the ship’s tender is the Yankee dollar—for the average American, the Queen Elizabeth won’t feel like a mass-market experience. It’s a fine option for anyone who loves the monarchy and all things English; couples who want a showcase for their evening wear or to show off their (ballroom) dance moves will also feel right at home.
With itineraries that reach for the four corners of the globe, Queen Elizabeth is a ship we look forward to boarding on a future cruise—but we’ll hope that the service issues we encountered on this voyage will have been smoothed out.
Editor’s Note: In March 2013, after our voyage, Cunard announced that it was loosening its dress code for its cruises going forward. Formal evenings remain, requiring “dinner jacket, tuxedo or dark suit with tie for gentlemen; evening or cocktail dress for ladies.” Other nights are now designated as Informal—"jacket required, tie optional for gentlemen; cocktail dress, stylish separates or equivalent for ladies."
Editor’s Note: In May 2014, Queen Elizabeth entered dry dock for its first refurbishment. According to Travel Weekly changes include nine new single cabins occupying part of the space dedicated to the casino, 32-inch flat screens, and other enhancements.
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