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Queen Victoria, Six Weeks Out

Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

The biggest surprise about Cunard's Queen Victoria is that it's not merely a slimmed-down version of Queen Mary 2, the already-iconic mega-ship that Cunard debuted in 2003. Queen Victoria very much has -- even while still in its construction phase -- a spirit and personality of its own.

And sure, size has something to do with that. Measuring 90,000 tons and carrying 2,000 passengers, Queen Victoria is more than a third smaller than Queen Mary 2. It's just not possible to include all the features -- expansive or otherwise -- of Queen Mary 2 on this next-generation Cunard vessel.

Editor's note: Cunard President Carol Marlow told us that the new Queen Elizabeth (the ship, incidentally, is named after the first queen, not the present one) will be a sister ship of Victoria and so will be more similar than different. Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to launch in fall 2010.

The other big difference is that while Queen Mary 2 is primarily an ocean liner (which despite some cruise-type trips, was actually designed and built to slice through seas), Queen Victoria is more of a hybrid. Cunard is calling the ship an ocean liner -- but it's really not. In fact, before construction began, the ship was first intended to be built for Carnival Corp. sister line Holland America as a Vista-class vessel. Instead, it was transferred over to Cunard and became Queen Victoria. Its hull and below-the-water technology are based on Holland America's Vista-class ships. Changes that could be made without huge structural alterations have resulted in the grand, ocean liner feeling of its public spaces on Decks 2 and 3. But the main dining room, galley, lido buffet and theatre all share the same areas as the Vista-class.

With just six weeks left to go, the best part of the visit was that you could really see the rooms taking shape and assuming personalities (as opposed to our shipyard visit in March when Queen Victoria wasn't terribly recognizable). Before we launch into our photo essay, here are a few observations:

Overall, Queen Victoria is a cozier than Queen Mary 2. While size is of course a factor in that, public rooms in particular feel more intimate. The Golden Lion Pub, a Cunard trademark, actually occupies a bigger space -- but special details, including doors that close it off from the hustle and bustle of the corridors and casino just outside, give it more of a High Street feel. The Commodore Club also feels more private. And the elegant lobby, even on its grand scale, is cozy.

Fans of Queen Mary 2 will recognize some familiar places (at least in general concept), such as the aforementioned Golden Lion and Commodore Club, the Queen's Grill Lounge, the Royal Court Theatre, the Winter Garden, Todd English's alternative restaurant and an elegant, two-story library.

What's New? Princess Grill and Queens Grill diners have not only an exclusive outdoor terrace area for dining and cocktails, but also Grill-only access to an upper deck above the pool -- complete with fancy loungers, big, thirsty beach towels and bar service. In the Royal Court Theatre (on its second deck) there are private boxes for two, available to all guests. Couples pay $50 to watch the shows from there (fee also includes treats like chocolate and Champagne); the hoi polloi can still enjoy productions from the orchestra rows below at no extra charge. And absolutely don't bypass Cunardia, the ship's museum space....

Cruise ship vs. ocean liner? Public spaces on Decks 2 and 3 definitely have the expansive, high-ceilinged Queen Mary 2 ambience. Where the ship feels more like a cruise vessel is in places like the lido buffet. On Queen Victoria, the buffet is located in the usual cruise ship spot -- between pool area and aft (on Queen Mary 2 it stretches along the ship on a middle deck). The spa, which will not be operated by Canyon Ranch on Queen Victoria, is pretty much status quo in terms of layout and design. (You'll particularly see similarities to spas on Holland America's Vista-class ships.)

Captain Paul Wright will usher Queen Victoria into its maiden season. Robert Howie is the hotel director and Alastair Greener is the entertainment director. All are already on hand to prepare the ship for its maiden voyage -- and beyond.

What a welcome to Queen Victoria's Grand Lobby as a quartet plays Handel's "Largo" while staff hand out mimosas (Champagne and orange juice). It seriously almost feels like debarkation day -- but you'll notice that all is not quite what it should be. Cunard President Carol Marlow tells the gathering, a mix of media from the U.S. and Europe, that "this is not a finished ship, and please say that straightaway. There's still a lot of work to be done." Click on image to watch video.
Consider it said (and note the designer's "after" poster)!
What's immediately obvious in this shot (from Deck 3, looking down) is that though carpets have been laid, and wood finishes and glass dividers are in place, the grand sculpture in the stairway has not yet been installed. It will ultimately feature an elaborate globe/Queen Victoria theme.
If Todd English's whimsical, much-loved alternative restaurant is a tad hard to find on Queen Mary 2, you won't be able to miss it here. Clearly in a mid-phase of construction, the restaurant, which overlooks the atrium, will consist of three distinctive "regions." Tables will be tucked into a cozy area next to windows that lead out to the atrium. There will also be a tapas-style bar, first experimented with on cruising's first Todd English restaurant.
And surely the seats with the most demand will be the leather banquettes overlooking the sea (the restaurant has 90 seats -- 30 less than on QM2's Todd English). Cover charges will be the same here as on Queen Mary 2: $20 per person for lunch and $30 per person for dinner.
From just a quick glimpse of the Champagne Bar, there appears to be no hook-up in this case with Veuve Clicquot. It's hard to get a feel from what we see here at this point -- the accompanying design renders it a bit more ho-hum than the glamorous Champagne Bar on Queen Mary 2.
The elegant ambience of Queen Victoria's two-deck-high mahogany-trimmed library drew gasps from the crowd -- even without the 6,000 books that have yet to be filed into its cases! It's a beautiful room...
...separated by a gorgeous curved stairway that leads from Deck 2 to Deck 3. One interesting note: The ship's bookstore will not be adjacent to the library as on Queen Mary 2 (it will be located elsewhere). One improvement: It'll be bigger!
We don't normally wax rhapsodic about carpets, but don't miss the names embedded in the library's rug -- it's dotted here and there with signatures from famous scribes. Edgar Allen Poe, D. H. Lawrence and Robert Browning are among them (women are represented too; we picked Anne Bronte out from others). Here you can see John Keats' "autograph."
The Chart Room, an expansive pre-Britannia meal lounge, is one of the prettiest spaces onboard; the compass theme used throughout will give it a sense of worldliness...
... as will a fantastic collection of memorabilia. This room, as much if not more so than others, adds to the heritage effect. "Everywhere you go there's a story," said Rai Calouri, Cunard's Executive Vice President of Fleet Operations, and boy, are there ever. It's inspired by the first-class lounge on the original Queen Mary. You'll spend more time here just eyeballing the ship models, onboard programs and gorgeous oil portraits. (Note the portrait of Servia -- a little known Cunarder that in 1881 was the first steel-hulled passenger ship and the first to have full electric light.)
Rai Calouri fills us in on the nuts and bolts of Britannia, the set-seating restaurant that's designed for Britannia Grill-class passengers. Just as before, there will be two seatings nightly (breakfast and lunch are open). There will be no Britannia Club here; that relatively new concept, introduced on Queen Mary 2, offers a slightly elevated level of flexibility and service at a slight premium. There just was no extra room for it, Calouri told us. Click on image to watch video.

The clock -- which stands in the Royal Arcade area -- is a big nod to tradition. Here, Carol Marlow, Cunard's president, and Paul Wright, the ship's master, pose for onlookers.

If one of the disappointments on Queen Mary 2 -- a true ocean liner -- is its pool spaces, Queen Victoria's origins as a "typical" cruise ship result in a more traditional sun deck. (At least to an extent!) Here's the Terrace Pool, the "main" pool. Notice how it and its pair of whirlpools are wrapped elegantly in wood paneling.

See the arched doors that lead out of the Terrace Pool? They lead to the Winter Garden.
This is the "before" rendering of the Winter Garden, designed to be a prime spot for taking tea -- or merely lounging. What's cool... that on Queen Victoria, the Winter Garden will have a moveable roof. In nice weather one can sip al fresco; in poor conditions, the doors close off to the pool and the glass roof moves in to cover the room. Look for a tropical ambience -- with real birds of paradise among the decor elements.
The lido buffet, located on the pool deck between the Winter Garden and the aft pool (stay tuned for photos there), is long and lean, and in terms of construction schedule clearly not as far ahead as other parts of the ship we've seen. It looks like the usual -- with lines of steam tables, and seating arrangements by the wall of windows.
While facilities are certainly available for kids -- and Zone, for the youngest set (3 to 6), is whimsical -- this is not a ship that will be aggressively marketed to families with kids. (For instance, the 7- to 12-year-old group will share their facility with teens -- quite a no-no among lines that do actively target family cruise travelers.) There will be activity, but not on the level of bigger ships with rock-climbing walls and giant poolside movie screens. It's just not that kind of ship.

This standard Britannia-class balcony cabin shows that staterooms, while typically compact, are more elegant and sophisticated (not to mention traditional) in design than those on many other cruise ships. Bathrooms are shower-only (and feature the deplorable curtain rather than folding or sliding doors); toiletries are provided by Gilchrist and Soames, a company whose soaps and potions recently showed up on Queen Mary 2.
The Carpathia Suite, one of the ship's Grand Suites, features a living room/dining area, bedroom, full walk-in closet, and fabulous bathroom with a walk-in shower and a whirlpool tub set into a window that overlooks the suite's long balcony.

Back downstairs in public room mecca on Deck 2 (and part of the Royal Arcade area) is The Golden Lion Pub; it's easy to tell already that it'll be a favorite spot onboard. The look is very British pub -- note the "timbered" style typically favored by England's oldest hangouts.
That look continues to the window treatments where ship's designers have built old-timey dark window panes (if you look closely you can see that they don't quite cover the big plate glass windows that are ubiquitous on modern cruise ships). And check out the ceiling: Its pressed tin design evokes an earlier era. In this case, lightweight aluminum is glued on to the ordinary ceiling; the three different patterns, though, are based on 19th century antique styles.

The Golden Lion features including one with an electric fireplace and doors that open out into the bottom floor of the Royal Arcade; the casino (nothing to show there yet aside from a few lonely slot machines) is just across. Up the stairs in the elegant, dark-wooded arcade with the aforementioned clock, is a series of upscale shops that will sell goods from Hermes, Chanel and Faberge, among others.
Welcome to the Royal Court Theatre, as plush as if it were on London's West End (or New York's Broadway). One of the shows that will be featured during Queen Victoria's maiden season is "Celtic Heartbeat," a song-and-dance show that blends traditional Irish music with contemporary songs as it tells the tale of a young Irish man and his search for fortune. The lushly orchestrated "Victoriana," held one night each cruise, is a musical that goes beyond the stage. After the show, there is a Victoriana Ball -- an elegant dance event in the Queens Grill Lounge; crew will be dressed in uniforms with a period influence, and passengers are encouraged to dress up, too.

Other shows include "Dance Passion" (a dance show) and "A Stroke of Genius" (which blends art and music). Click on image to watch video.
Cunard has made much ado about its private boxes. They're the first of their kind at sea. Each box accommodates two people. There's a $50 charge to occupy a box during an evening show; that tariff includes coffee, dessert and post-dinner drinks. Reservations must be made onboard.
Cunardia, unique to Queen Victoria, is one of my favorite places onboard. Located between the Queens Grill Lounge and the Grand Lobby, this museum will feature revolving series of exhibits, each lasting a year or two. First up: The story of Cunard's Queens will feature memorabilia on its most beloved "modern" vessels. Note: Adjacent, there's a museum gift shop that I'm sure will lure dollars and pounds out of memorabilia lovers' wallets.

The real center of Queen Victoria's late-night scene is clustered comfortably on Deck 9. Hemispheres, the ship's disco; the Commodore Club, one of the beloved Queen Mary 2 transfers; and Churchill's Cigar Bar are all connected by a single hallway. Here in the Commodore Club, Carol Marlow is describing its final look: "It will feel very shippy," she said, noting that the lounge will be outfitted with clubby leather couches and chairs, ship photos and a grand piano.

Hemispheres (you may recall that the disco on Queen Mary 2 is called G32 and is pretty much reserved as a late-night hideaway) is a dual purpose room; because of its observatory-like look, with floor-to-ceiling windows, it will serve during daytimes as a lecture facility for Cunard's enrichment program.
Try to use your imagination here -- the rendering helps -- to envision an entirely new addition to Cunard. Princess Grill and Queens Grill, the two exclusive, elegant restaurants for suite holders and such, now also share an outdoor courtyard for al fresco dining.
Here's the current space. See where that big metal wall is? That's where a fountain will go. Above it is another new-to-Cunard innovation: an upper suites terrace. There are no images available -- but this lounging area for Princess and Queens Grill passengers will feature chaises and bar service.
This is just the usual pre-construction jumble of bare floors and rolls of carpet. The only distinctive element of the art nouveau-styled Princess Grill at this point is its decorative-glass panels.
This is the bar in the private Princess Grill and Queens Grill lounge. It lies between the two restaurants and the whole area can be accessed by private elevators. The concierge for these upper-class folks will be located in the lounge rather than in a separate concierge area; that crewmember can make onboard reservations for the spa, Royal Court Theatre boxes and meals at Todd English.
The Queens Grill, which we're told is more classically traditional in decor than the Princess Grill, wasn't open for viewing. But one neat touch is that both restaurants are cantilevered out over the ship (you can see how by looking up as we did when shooting this photo). The appeal? When you're looking down from your window-side table, all you can see is water ... no balconies or public decks get in the way.

Incidentally, the Princess Grill will seat 120 and Queens Grill will accommodate 130. The outdoor dining area has room for just 40; we predict, at least in good weather, that reservations will be necessary (though it's open quite a bit -- for all meals, including tea and even after-dinner drinks).

If anything disappoints -- and I'm hoping that the letdown is premature -- it's the spa. It feels just like any other spa on any other cruise ship. It's not operated by Canyon Ranch (the exclusive land-based U.S. spa that runs the facility on Queen Mary 2 -- the best in cruising). And it looks just like Holland America's Vista-class spas, at least in layout. Here's the hydrotherapy pool ... it looks out onto the main pool deck.
Here is a thermal suite; it's a for-fee place with heated tiled loungers, and steam and sauna.
It's not quite time yet for a manicure or pedicure, but the basic elements of the salon, which will offer the usual hair and nail treatments, are in place. The facility will also accommodate massages and other body treatments, facials and a relaxation room.
The ship's aft pool is naturally located all the way at the back of the ship -- and again reminds me more of a Holland America area than it does a Cunard one. It, like the main pool, is flanked by whirlpools. It's also set off by the lovely wood paneling.
Here we have a small performance stage adjacent to the aft pool. It's flanked by a bar on one side and a grill, for lunch fare, on the other.

Stay tuned for more coverage as Cunard's Queen Victoria finishes its construction phase and heads to Southampton for a tete e tete with its godmother, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall on Monday, December 10. The ship's maiden voyage will be a unique cruise to Northern Europe for the holiday season. Cruise Critic will be on hand for all and sundry.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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