We had an enjoyable 10-day cruise on the Queen Mary 2 sailing from Southampton to four ports on Cunard's "Iberian Highlights" itinerary -- Vigo, Lisbon, Valencia, and Barcelona. This was our first cruise on the QM2, and second on Cunard. We sailed on the Queen Victoria in January 2011 and found the contrasts interesting. For various reasons discussed shortly, we were more enamored with our Queen Victoria experience.
Embarkation & Disembarkation
Embarkation at Southampton was smooth and organized. While waiting for the front desks to open up, we appreciated the complementary magazine racks nearby. It was a nice way to pass the time. Once we boarded the Queen Mary 2, we were greeted with the customary friendly welcomes from the Cunard crew.
Disembarkation on 9/14/12 was pleasant, but with an unexpected challenge. We waited at the designated place at the Royal Court Theatre for our early departure group in what was a well-organized process. However, what was NOT nice was our Cunard transfer bus waiting an extra 45 minutes for passengers who were late despite the "early departure" urgency of flight arrangements. Although the Cunard representative informed us the last tardy party had cleared the ship's security gate and should be boarding soon, they never did. After annoyed passengers complained and asked how many of us would support the bus leaving without this irresponsible party, the bus driver decided it was time to leave the station or face a potentially riotous group. Wise decision!
Food & Dining
We had the early seating at 6 pm, and in retrospect, we should have opted for the late seating at 8:30 pm at The Britannia. Early seating has several advantages, such as the option of seeing the headliner and production shows twice the same evening, but the main drawback is that you may still be full from afternoon tea or feel discouraged from partaking in the afternoon tea service or have less time to get ready for formal nights after a long day ashore.
Overall, we were a bit disappointed by the quality of the food compared to what we've had on the Queen Victoria or on Princess cruises. We dined primarily at The Britannia, Golden Lion Pub, and Kings Court, although the specialty restaurants would likely have been more satisfying. Our dinners at the Britannia ranged from fair to very good. The prime rib roast was not cooked as ordered (rare came out medium and medium well done, respectively, for us) and the cut was definitely not prime, but more like a very lean, dense choice cut that had virtually no marbling one would expect from prime cuts of beef. The fish choices, including the roasted Mediterranean Sea Bass, on several nights were overcooked and dry. The lobster tail was delicious, but clearly petite. Even our waiter apologized for the tiny tail, an apparent admission that the lobster tails were smaller than usual. Nonetheless, the menu choices were sufficiently varied to accommodate different preferences.
It's hard to say whether the decline in quality or quantity of food items was due to industry-wide efforts to control costs, but clearly the quality of preparation was lacking most evenings. However, we liked the smaller portions because it meant less waste, including less waist to worry about down the road. Food service was also slow from our wait staff, despite their pleasant and cordial demeanor. After one elderly couple complained about slow service, they began to get special attention from other wait staff and supervisors, while service to other tables was still lacking. Remember the old saying, "The squeaky wheel gets greased"? So true.
The Kings Court selections for breakfast, lunch and late night snacks were standard fare. We've noticed that the late night selections were poor and not terribly appetizing. This was helpful for our weight management, although I wouldn't have minded a few extra well-earned pounds.
We had no complaints about the food at the Golden Lion Pub. We had excellent fish and chips at the Pub several times during our cruise, and the bar and wait staff were excellent. The fish was expertly prepared and delicious.
The executive chef, Nicolas Oldroyd, and his staff prepared an exquisite "Night of Chocolate and Ice" that featured all manners of chocolate confections to suit passengers with sweet dispositions and interesting and intricate ice carvings. The chocolates were absolutely heavenly!
Our interior cabin was located on the 12th deck, mid-ship. Our excellent steward always impeccably maintained our room. He always seemed to be around cleaning the rooms and making sure everything was picked up and properly maintained.
Our chief complaint was the frequent noise from crew and passengers dragging deck chairs above us. Yes, you read that right. Deck chairs! The bank of rooms in this area was directly below an open-air deck where passengers could sunbathe or take in the scenery from one of the highest public areas on the QM2. Another passenger in our area also confirmed she heard lots of noise as well. Word to the wise -- avoid this area for future bookings!
Port & Shore Excursions
Our Iberian Highlights included four ports of call -- Vigo (Spain), Lisbon (Portugal), Valencia (Spain), and Barcelona (Spain). Cunard made its maiden voyage to Vigo. It was really convenient that the QM2 docked at the heart of Vigo making self-guided walking tours so convenient. Although we did not do this ourselves, the highlight of stopping here would have been a 96 km trip to Santiago de Compostela to visit the cathedral and the tomb of Saint James the Apostle. Along with Rome and Jerusalem, the Vatican considers Santiago de Compostela a Holy City.
The Tram and Coach tour of Lisbon was definitely worth the time. We enjoyed an intimate ride through some of the narrow and hilly streets of Lisbon, as well as complementary port and lemon tart pastry on the tram. Be awfully careful when you use the public restroom at various parks. Our tour guide warned us about professional pickpockets and thieves who pose as tourists, armed with maps, to ask unsuspecting tourists for directions or hang out inside the restrooms. At our stop, I actually saw two suspicious guys casing out the tourists. One guy was following a young mother and her daughter since her large handbag was slung slightly behind her. We did enjoy seeing the Christ the King monument across the river, which resembles the one at Rio de Janeiro. For a panoramic view of Lisbon, be sure to take the Santa Junta Lift for wonderful views of the city and the sea of red-tiled roof tops.
We also took a coach and walking tour of Valencia. It was unfortunate that our guide, Ivan "the Terrible" as he referred to himself to help us remember his name, was truly terrible. He did not use a microphone & amplifier and had to "shout" above the din of crowd and traffic noise. Needless to say, we could barely make out what he was saying. We could have done better by doing our own self-guided tour of this wonderful seaport so full of history, culture and ambience.
We managed to do better at our fourth and last port of call at Barcelona. We signed up for a coach and walking Gothic City tour of this magnificent ancient city. Our main complaint was that we did not have enough time to see and appreciate everything the guide pointed out, including what would have been a highlight of any tour -- a visit to the Picasso Museum (the other highlight would have been the La Sagrada Familia Church designed by Gaudi and never completed to this day).
One highlight was visiting the Bouqueria, a marketplace along Las Ramblas. Our guide recommended lunch at La Gardunya, and we had the paella that was delicious. Afterwards, we found an even better place for dining -- the Universal Kioska, to be found at the left-most aisle at the entrance to the Boqueria. This place was packed with long lines, and no wonder. The mixed seafood grill was prepared in olive oil and was absolutely stunning and worth coming back to, again and again. We also had the mixed mushrooms that were also grilled in olive oil with generous sprinkling of sea salt crystals. We would highly recommend this venue for anyone looking for fresh seafood. If Cunard were ever to consider an overnight venue, Barcelona should be at the top of the list. My wife and I decided we would definitely consider a land vacation in Barcelona in the future.
The QM2 had four production shows and four "bumper" shows. The four productions were "Viva Italia", "Crazy for Love", "Variety Showtime", and "Apassionata." By far the most enjoyable show for us was "Apassionata," which is in its ninth year with the QM2. "Apassionata" featured various styles of dance, such as Glenn Miller's Swing, ballroom, and Russian folk dancing. We enjoyed the production so much that we watched it twice! The Cunard dancers were superb, especially the dance captain, Katy Laverton, who showed great skill and execution throughout her routines. Her dance crew was professional and energetic throughout the performances. We also enjoyed the featured Cunard vocalists, Martin Lawson, Emily Brooks, Craig Thomas, and Nicola Bryan.
The bumper shows featured a comedian, Adrian Walsh, two instrumentalists, Maria King and Mark Donoghue, and an outstanding singer who has performed many shows at the West End, Phillip Browne, a thoroughly engaging and entertaining vocalist with deep pipes. Browne had a superb rendition of Barry White's classic hit, "You're the First, the Last, My Everything." The ladies loved it when he sat next to them and bellowed out the title lyrics. Hearts must have swooned. Walsh was absolutely hilarious, although some of his jokes were lost on us Americans.
Although my wife and I enjoy ballroom dancing, we could not enjoy it as much on the QM2, which boasts the largest ballroom at sea. We were hampered by the fact I was having foot problems and in a walking boot for part of the cruise. Nonetheless, the Dance Hosts somehow gravitated to the same group of women every night and did not really circulate throughout the crowd to find other women without dance partners. My wife even told two Dance Hosts I was okay with them asking her to dance. They did dance with her twice, but often reverted to the same guests over and over. After awhile, we gave up. We also noticed that the QM2's Queens Room is larger in terms of volume than the Queen Victoria, a smaller ship. However, the Queen Victoria actually had a larger dance floor than the QM2, which made it less crowded and more enjoyable most nights. We, and other guests, did not like the inconvenience of the QM2's Queens Room since guests had to go to the front of the ocean liner, go down one flight of stairs and up another to access the room. The QV Queens Room was located mid-ship and easily accessible from anywhere on ship. On top of that, the QV's Queens Room could be seen from the floor above, which made watching the dancing and the professional dancers much easier.
We were very disappointed that Illuminations, the only planetarium at sea, had been out of service for at least a month. The crew apologized for what would have been one of the highlights of the QM2. They also did not know when it would be operational again. Thankfully it was still available for lectures and movie showings.
What's a cruise review without some comment about Internet access? If you depend on satellite Internet service to handle "first come, first served" tasks, forget it! As you might expect from cruise ship Internet service, it was very, very slow with sporadic connections. Several guests in the Internet cafe gave up when they couldn't log on or were disconnected. Thankfully we qualified for some complementary minutes of Internet access, or else we would have complained that the bulk of our time was wasted on slow connection speeds. Certainly one benefit of being a frequent Cunard guest are the tiered benefits, including Internet service. Definitely one of the perks of using the cafe computers was the proximity to the beverage bar outside. The coffee there was far superior to what was available at the Britannia Dining Room!
The Queen Mary 2 is a beautiful ocean liner, well deserving its claim as the flagship of the Cunard Cruise Line. It's a matter of personal preference, but we much preferred the smaller and more intimate Queen Victoria, and its layout. On board the QM2, entertainment and crew service were good, but the food was somewhat lacking for us. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our overall experience with the Queen Mary 2.