A couple who we met on a transatlantic cruise on HAL in 2008 and bumped into again on another HAL cruise from Amsterdam to New York in 2010 emailed us about a sale of just a few days for a 15 or 18 day Panama Canal cruise on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth in March. I checked and the sale was for balcony staterooms. The prices were considerably less than an inside statement. Our price was around $122 a day per person for the 15 days. It was under $100 if we had continued on to New York from Ft. Lauderdale at no additional charge.
I tried to buy the trip through Cunard, but at the sale price they refused to sell trip insurance. I was able to get the price with trip insurance. However once I went through a travel agency I was basically persona non gratia with Cunard. There was no airport transfer for sale or a transfer from their hotel in Santa Monica to the LA docks in San Pedro.
It was just as well. Cunard wanted $680 a night at their hotel prior to the cruise. I know it is vacation time and I shouldn't be counting nickels but that is ridiculous. I called around and found a room at the nearby Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey for $400 less. The cab ride from the airport to the Ritz was $20 and from the hotel to San Pedro and the ship was $80. I was happy to pay it, heck I had just saved $400.
Embarkation was delayed. It was pushed back because there had been a norovirus outbreak during the trip from New Zealand to LA. It was hard to complain about an extra good cleaning before health inspectors boarded. However we were crammed into a departure terminal where I was thinking they should have served some ice tea, lemonade or other cold drinks. I was beginning to wonder about Cunard; that all changed for the most part when we got on board.
Our bags beat us to the room. The room steward was there minutes behind us. The stateroom was small, but it was what we expected. The chair and table on the balcony were of high quality.
It turns out the bed was great. There was not one morning with either of us waking up with a sore back.
There was just one problem with the room...the shower. It was soooo small it was almost impossible to turn around. The size of the shower would not have been a problem if Cunard had simply had hand held shower heads. The usual cruise ship sign was present asking us to conserve water. It was impossible to do. Someone suggested soaping up the wall of the shower and try turning around. If you dropped the soap or a small bottle of shampoo you literally had to exit the shower to bend over and pick it up.
I used twice as much water trying to position myself under the shower head than I would have used if there had only been a hand held shower nozzle. My wife quickly wised up and for most of the cruised showered in the spa.
Okay the English sausages are simply awful. Breakfast was average at best on the ship, with one exception. There were no long lines you become accustomed to on HAL or Celebrity. The fresh squeezed OJ would cost almost $5 a glass and didn't taste like
OJ. Blueberry muffins were scarce, probably held back from the swells in the special dining areas. However the bagels were good the hot food was hot and the cold food was cold.
However the good news for the English ship (owned by an American Corporation) is that it had a German chef. We mere people in balcony staterooms were pretty much the same as being in steerage 100 years ago. We did not get to sample the Queen and Princess Grills that the "suite dwellers" used but we didn't mind at all.
The lunches at the Lido and the dinners in the main dining room served the best food I have ever had on a full size cruise ship. There was absolutely no need to spend extra money in The Verandah restaurant. My last trip on Celebrity included the use of a special dining area for suite customers. The everyday food on the QE was much better than the upscale food on Celebrity. The soups were also a treat.
The wait staff was very attentive and close-by, unlike those waiters on HAL who saw their table count double after 2008.
For two weeks if anyone at our table had a special request or wanted something not on the menu the response from the wait staff was always the same,..."No Problem."
Beyond the Lido buffet was the hamburger and fries area on the rear pool deck. Burgers were as good as you will get on any cruise ship and better than most. On some days the onion rings were awful, simply frozen out of a bag. But on some days they made hand dripped O-rings right before your eyes. It was a great treat.
In the Lion Pub there was lunch service also that included fish and Chips and Shepherd's Pie...definitely English and also good.
The only non four-star item were the afternoon scones. The high tea held every day with music was a very nice touch, but the scones were average at best.
It took about two days of an average Breakfast, an outstanding lunch followed by afternoon scones and then a great dinner to make you realize you had to dial it back and just participate in two eating things a day. Either skip breakfast and do lunch or enjoy breakfast and wait until dinner before eating again. You couldn't do both plus scones and dinner, it was just too much even if you are a big fat slob. .
I GOTTA DANCE: Geez there was a lot of dancing on this cruise. There were dance classes in the morning and afternoon. The dance floor was busy in the early evening with couples dancing to recorded music and the floor was packed later in the evening when the ships "dance band" was on stage.
The beauty of the ship's dance band is that it Cunard is one of the last lines that since has a brass section. Most cruise lines eliminated trumpet and trombone players. Not Cunard. They have a trombone and trumpet player in both the dance band and in the theater band.
The only drawback to the dance band was that the male vocalist was simply awful.
BIG BAND NIGHT
One night during the cruise the dance band and the theater bands were combined in the ballroom for a true big band. There are not any songs from the Maynard Ferguson or Stan Kenton playbooks, but they did a very good job on the classics. Although I was waiting to see a couple of heart attacks when they played Benny Goodman's very fast paced Sing, Sing, Sing and several 70-plus couples jumped onto the dance floor and kept up with the music. Everyone survived.
The ship's shows were average at best. The passenger list was led by Americans followed by Brits. But of the total the folks from the UK were probably 35-percent of the ship's passengers. You would not have known that from the fly-in entertainers. They were mostly British and were telling enough local jokes to lose most of the audience.
Also I'm getting tired of comics who make fun of cruise ships, passengers and staff. I really don't enjoy paying for a cruise only to have the cruise line bring someone aboard to make fun of me.
One complaint we heard from fellow passengers who had been on several legs of the cruise was how the entertainment began to repeat itself including guest entertainers. "Please let us see someone different" was their complaint. When they are booking large amounts of Americans they might be wise to add an American or two into the entertainment mix.
THANK YOU...THANK YOU...THANK YOU:
The QE was the first ship I have been on where the casino is smoke free. No more walks to the theater only to arrive reeking of cigarette smoke. Also the QE does not force you to wind through the casino. I was greatly appreciated.
The Commodore's Club on Deck11 is the most sophisticated "top of the ship" lounge I have ever seen. No bright colors and low furniture. This place really made you feel as if you were in a private club. Plus there was plenty of service. It was never annoying, but if you wanted something there was wait staff there to take your order.
Perhaps the best part of this room was the musician at the piano. Graham Wellard during the early evening pre dinner times before 8:30 played wonderful songs from the "American Songbook" plus others from familiar composers of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern to songs from obscure Blossom Dearie albums made 50 years ago.
The best part of enjoying Wellard was after dinner when he also sang. The number of songs with music and words this guy has committed to memory is very impressive. He was without a doubt the best performer doing "a single" act on the ship.
The four women from the Ukraine playing as the EOS String Quartet were also very good. Unlike other string quartets I have seen on other cruise ships, the played the hits...the Classical Top 100...the pieces that most people recognized. They also mixed in arrangements of Broadway hits and some standards from the 40s and 50s.
People who walked by or sat and listened could not help but have a smile on their face.
Pianist Edward Watts also had a nice touch and a great smile. Actually the guy from London almost looks like a young Hugh Grant. He would play in mid ships area, at teas and in the dining rooms. The only negative observation about Watts was that due to his lack of songs he would play one song for 10 minutes.
This ship had at least five pianos. I'm talking real life pianos and not the electronic Grand Slam models found on HAL ships. You open a piano on a Cunard ship and you find strings and not a storage area for prizes for Name That Tune contests.
The only negative thing to report from the ship's music department was pianist Robin Rose who was manning the 88 keys in the Golden Lion Pub. It was not that he couldn't play, but if the crowd was thin in the pub, he would quit playing and go have a pint with the customers.
One night I was sitting at a large table with Aussies. The late night trivia game had just ended. The ship schedule showed Rose was supposed to play from "midnight until late."
Rose arrived and one person said, "Good now we can hear some tunes."
"No I just picking up my stuff there is no one here to play for," said Rose.
"But the schedule says you are playing again at midnight," said a customer who had just ordered a drink.
"There is nobody here," said Rose.
"There is the six of us," someone else said.
"Are you all going to be buying drinks," asked Rose as he picked up his belongings and left.
I have never heard a cruise ship entertainer be so rude to customers. The cruise lines like to calls us "guests" but in reality we are paying customers.
TOURS: The one area where Cunard is just like other cruise lines are their tours. They are always overpriced! We were able to walk a couple blocks away from the docks and find a taxi driver who would take us on great tours off the meter. My usual request to the driver is to take me where I will not see any tourists." Even at $100 or $120 for two or three hours, the per person rate is always cheaper than a ship's tour and more interesting.
ACTIVITIES 2: They had lots of activities on sea days, even if most were geared to old people. The speaker series was actually quite good.
The trivia or quiz contests were clearly geared toward Brits. Most Americans are not going to get the answer to the question, "Which London Underground line does not stop in Zone-One?"
Englishman Michael Jackson and Laura of the cruise director's staff were just great and a lot of fun, regardless what activity they were hosting.
NOT PLAYING TO YOUR CUSTOMER BASE:
The first weekend of the cruise the Lions Pub TVs were all on the Premier English Football games. But with a ship of more Americans than any other nationality, the staff let down both the customers and Cunard when four days later they did not show any of the all-day first-round of the NCAA college basketball tournament. This pub would have been full all day selling lots of beverages to American college basketball fans. When I mentioned this to the staff they said they had never heard of the NCAA basketball tournament. This was simply poor planning by the staff. (The games were available on satellite TV received by the ship.)
The other area of the staff not knowing the customers was one I see regularly on cruise ships. This ship had a large number of people between the ages of 70 and 85. They had a "Name that Tune" contest one evening. The least popular member of the cruise director staff, Tommie Hill, who was usually the least prepared, did what you see often.
Tommie thought rock songs from the 90s or 1985 were ancient and perfect for the old people. However the older people wanted to hear songs by Vera Lynn or from Oklahoma, South Pacific or My Fair Lady. Something by Z.Z. Top left them with confused and disgusted looks on their faces.
This ship had a library consisting of over 6,000 books located on two different decks. It was the most books I have ever seen on a cruise ship.
Okay, the internet service was slow like on most cruise ships, but it seemed to be a little faster than on my last four cruises.
You don't normally notice the front desk service, but I did on this cruise. No matter how frustrating the four prior customers might have been, the front desk staff were excellent. Most of the also appeared to be from England.
CONGRESS AND CUNARD RUINED MY TRIP HOME:
With the slow down for Federal services during the sequester, we found ourselves victims of Congress and Cunard. We had a 10:45 flight from the nearby Ft. Lauderdale airport. A five-to-10 minute cab ride away. We were promised we would be off between 8:30 and 9am.
Only one custom agent showed up at 7:30 to clear the ship. That agent was joined by two more by 9am. This was Congress' doing.
However Cunard did not allow us customers with morning air flights off first. No...they let passengers who were continuing on to New York or Southampton and who paid for a "ship's tour" off first. They put a few extra bucks in their pocket while leaving a bad taste in the month of customers disembarking from the cruise. The captain's apology over the loudspeaker sounded great until you realized that you missed your flight because people with $45 transfers to a shopping center were getting off before you.
We missed our flight and got separated from our luggage.
Even with this issue...I have to say I was spoiled. I will start looking for destination and sale prices first with Cunard in the future.