This was our second trip to Norway with Cunard, having done seven days in the fjords at the same time last year. This journey covered some of the previous ports we had visited plus several others and went all the way up to the most northerly city in Europe at the Northern Cape.
We had the good fortune to stay in a Q1 suite, the first and possibly last time that we will enjoy such an extravagance. We had booked a Q7 guarantee and been allocated a Q4; but a couple of weeks before sailing got the phone call to ask if we would like to spend a little more and upgrade. Mindful that we might never get the call again and judging it to be a fair price, we pulled out the credit card and the rest, as they say, is history. It is a little rude to talk prices, but suffice to say that we paid about the same for 14 nights in a Q1 as we paid for 7 in a Q4 on the same route last year.
Cabin - I could only find one review of a Q1 which was titled, "Just OK". Prior to our voyage I thought this a surprising comment and whilst I may not entirely agree with it, I can maybe now understand some of the other author's rationale for that lukewarm conclusion.
For us, the Q1 was all that we could ask. Granted, like all estate agent photographs the reality isn't quite as large as you might expect but nevertheless it is a truly impressive space with separate bedroom, sitting room, dining and study/wet bar areas. The four Q1 suites each cover fully half the width of the ship and are located in a nice quiet location with zero foot traffic. Note that the layout of the suites vary. Those on Deck 6 are similar to the plan in the brochure, whereas those on Deck 7 are slightly larger but differently arranged.
Three sets of patio doors open on to a truly immense wrap around balcony with a range of good quality, comfortable furniture, only let down by some flaking paintwork. It is a very nice spot to take breakfast before heading off into town. The only downside is that unlike Queen Elizabeth with her stubby rear, the aft of Queen Victoria is tiered so the Q1 balconies there can be partially overlooked from Decks 8 and 9. Fine, if you are the "look at me" type, but otherwise it is sometimes more convenient to shelter under the overhang. It is wise to be careful about wandering out early in the morning and voicing the thought, "another bloomin' fjord", because you run the risk of about 30 people on the rail two decks above thinking you are a moron.
The arrangement has the added complication that the balcony above your own cabin is directly above your suite, so anyone dragging around the rather hefty balcony furniture early in the day can wake you from your slumber.
Niggles? Yes, but fairly minor. Although the space is great, the layout and some of the features were obviously designed by someone who never expected to stay there. Why there are three sinks (plus a wet bar) but only one toilet (with no adjacent sink) defeats me. The shower is excellent, but the fittings and un-labelled controls look like something from a 1950's Dan Dare comic. The toilet roll holder is a similar triumph of design over function and since it was installed some bean-counter has obviously decided to source narrower rolls, which fall out of the holder. There are two excellent, large towel rings placed in a doorway so that you bang an elbow on them every time you pass. I found it bizarre that although there are two doors into the bathroom (and a further three inside), you cannot switch on all the lights if coming from the bedroom so have to go to the other door. Suite lighting generally is excellent but I gave up trying to count the confusing plethora of switches and how to control them.
There are two TV's and two DVD players, all of different manufacture so that is four remote controls to figure out. Unlike on QE, there is no iPod dock. You do get the use of an iPad with a selection of international newspapers downloaded to it every morning. Daily Star readers will be disappointed though.
Overall, we wouldn't hesitate to take a Q1 again if the opportunity arose. But we would have been a little underwhelmed if paying the full brochure price, hence my reason for understanding the previous Q1 review.
You share a butler with half a dozen other cabins further down the corridor so the service is the same as anywhere else in QG. What you ask for, you get, but how outright enthusiastic your butler is depends on the individual and how demanding you are. My DW and I are fairly self-sufficient so didn't need much. It was, however, the first time that a QG butler had ever offered to unpack for us. We arranged a small gathering for some new friends we met aboard and everything we needed, with the exception of alcohol was provided without a problem, despite the hasty timing.
As always, the cleanliness of the cabin and the speed of response to requests were excellent. One night, we discovered at 11pm that there was no cold water. Less than five minutes after calling the Purser's desk there was someone in our cabin to check up and we were given the option of getting a plumber out immediately. We instead went for anytime after 8am next morning and by the time we had returned from breakfast full service had been restored.
Food - The big cabin might give the expectation of top-of-the-range service in Queens Grill but in reality we have always found it to be perfectly fine, regardless of what cabin grade we had and wouldn't have wanted to be anything special. Although we did get a plum table, we were treated no better and no worse than anyone else.
The food was good quality, well presented and varied enough for our taste. The quality of some of the meat and fish was excellent.
Having said that, I do feel that the QG has lost a little something recently and I can't put my finger on quite what it is. I sadly lack the experience to be one of the "it was better on QE2" brigade, but it was certainly a few percent better on QV last year. Early in the voyage there seemed to be less wait staff in our end of the grill than we had seen previously, this resulted in things being a little slow. Someone complained and it was soon fixed.
Less tangible, was the feel to the place and what seemed to be a change in emphasis, perhaps driven by some cost cutting. No trolley full of brandy and liqueurs in the doorway as you entered QG - to be used for the table side cookery we've seen so much of before. We didn't see the widespread production of crepes Suzette, bananas Foster and cherries Jubilee like previous voyages. Having said that, if you asked for something, it was available. One evening we had a very tasty Chateaubriand, but when presented it was from the tail of the fillet which would usually be used for stroganoff, not from the centre as would normally be the case. This sounds like nit-picking and perhaps it is. None of this is by way of complaint, just an observation of something not quite as sharp as it once was. It will have to slip a lot further before we decide to give it a miss.
Ports and Tours - let me begin with the positive stuff. We didn't take a tour at every port, but where we did, we had no complaints. Unlike on some other cruises, we didn't hear any complaints from others either. We also found a very helpful young lady named Izabela on the tour desk.
Now the gripes. We have previously been very impressed with the tour desk on QE and massively underwhelmed by the same experience on QV. The trend continued. When we asked for some fairly simple information, the advice from the chap we spoke to was to go and ask in port. So we persevered and asked the tour presenter to get back with an answer but he never responded. We found the very simple answer in port, but by then it was too late.
I defy anyone to visit Norway and not be bowled over by the beauty of the scenery. The price you pay for this is that many of the stops are little more than small villages so unless you take a tour or strike out on your own there is very little to see after the first hour or so on land.
Here are the highlights:
Stavanger is a nice spot for a walk around if the weather is good. There is a small market, an oil and a canning museum and the local food is excellent. The best recommendation is probably to hop on the fjord tour ferry which departs from the quay beside the ship, rather than spend twice the price for the official version of the same thing.
lesund is full of Art Nouveau architecture, has a pretty harbour, a sea life centre and a viewing point at the top of the nearby mountain. On the downside, it is not great for wheelchair users, with uneven pavements and ill thought out drop kerbs.
Flam is really beautiful, but why anyone would pay $125 for the ship-arranged trip up the mountain on the Flamsbana railway when you can walk 200m from the quay to the ticket office and pay the equivalent of about $60 is a mystery to me. We took a coach tour up a mountain and found the scenery spectacular.
I'm sure Tromso is a pretty spot on a vibrant sunny day, but on a snowy bank holiday the place is grim. Cunard can't arrange the weather, but if they had bothered to tell us that everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) was closed, I suspect most people would not have even bothered getting off the ship. They might even have sold a few more tours! On our tour, there were a few extra minutes to spend so the coach drove an extra kilometre to the far end of the town, went around a roundabout and returned to the ship; this gave us a bonus view of the town scrap yard.
Trondheim was unremarkable. There is a very impressive cathedral and bishop's palace though.
Andalsnes was much smaller and even more unremarkable, but had the advantage of being a tender stop in a very pretty fjord.
Olden followed a similar trend and unless you booked a tour or jumped on the "noddy train" for a fifty minute tour there was little to see unless you wanted to set off walking. We were tempted by the option of a helicopter ride up the glacier being sold on shore, but in the end they didn't seem to get enough takers to make the trip worthwhile. Maybe next time.
Honningsvg is pretty much at the top of the world and you really do need to take a tour to get anything from the stop. We decided against it and had the misfortune to get caught in a snow blizzard on the way into the tiny little town. Cunard thoughtfully laid on hot chocolate and whipped cream at the dock gate for bedraggled returnees. A Costa ship arrived at the same time and they appeared to have the option of quad bike tours, which would probably not fit with the Cunard demographic. If going there, try and book a port side cabin so that you get the midnight view of the North Cape on the return journey.
The stop at Bergen was aborted due to local strikes and we were due to be diverted to Zebrugge. Not Jersey or Guernsey, not even LeHavre, but sunny Zebrugge. Fortunately, the strike was called off and we did make it to Bergen, but not before several unhappy souls had swapped all of their Kronor for Euros at pretty poor exchange rates.
Bergen was the final and largest city on the voyage. It is a good size with lots to see and plenty of shops. Lovers of knitwear and Christmas ornaments are particularly well catered for. QV now moors within walking distance instead of being a shuttle bus ride away, which is a big improvement. The view from the top of the funicular railway is well worth the trip but get there early -- we did and by the time we came back down the queues had grown to easily fifty metres or more. The fish market is a favourite spot of mine but being Sunday, wasn't as good as we have seen previously with more limited choice and quite steep prices.
An unusual highlight of the voyage was our return to Southampton for the three Queens event on June 5th. There has been plenty written about this already so I won't bore you with re-statement. It was certainly worth missing breakfast for.
Overall, Queen Victoria remains a ship we like and I hope that our perception of a little bit of drift in excellence was ill-judged. Norway is not a destination to rival the Mediterranean or the Canaries of you are a sun worshipper, but nevertheless is one of my favourite places in Europe and we will return again.