For the second time in less than six months my wife and I found ourselves on the Queen Elizabeth. In March it was for a Panama Canal cruise over 14 days from LA and ending in Ft. Lauderdale. It was our first time on a Cunard ship and we were impressed until the debarkation.
When someone with a proper British accent apologizes us Americans are normally impressed. "We are dreadfully sorry for the delay," said the captain. Cunard was blaming it on the United States Government and the lack of Customs personnel due to the "sequester." I was going to miss my flight home and did not hold Cunard responsible until we found out that people staying on board who had bought $35 tickets to a shuttle bus to go to an outlet mall were getting off before departing passengers with air reservations.
However the rest of the cruise was so nice that I booked a 12-day New England-Canada cruise on the Queen Mary in October. Then my wife found a Southampton to St. Petersburg 14-day cruise on the QE on the 90-day ticker on the Vacations to Go website. The price for a balcony was just $1,550 per person. She bought this cruise that covered the second half of August.
GETTING THERE was going to cost more than the cruise. One of the reasons it has been since 2010 for a trip to join a cruise ship in Europe has been the air transportation. The idea of two or three hour flight to a gateway city and then another five or six hours on an overseas flight was not too appealing.
We decided we would go first class or at least business class. The US carriers were cost prohibitive. Icelandair however was very reasonable for first class seats or Saga Class as they call it. The costs were 40-to-50 percent less than US carriers. Sure it was still more than coach but it was affordable.
We flew to Boston (DC and NY also have flights), had a three hour layover that we spent enjoying free clam chowder and drinks at a special lounge that Icelandair shared with Virgin Atlantic. It was just a four-hour flight to Reykjavik and then a short wait for a flight to Heathrow. It was great and I would recommend it to all.
AIRPORT TO HOTEL: Getting to Southampton did not go well. I had made reservations and paid in advance with the Parker Car Service of London to pick us up at Heathrow and again at Southampton cruise terminal at the end of the cruise.
Arriving jetlagged and tired we were a little upset upon clearing customs to find no one waiting for us. Our driver showed up 30 minutes late.
Then to our surprise, he had never been to Southampton before and got lost despite a dashboard GPS. At one point my wife spotted our hotel and started shouting and pointing, "There is our hotel!" By the time he noticed her exclamation we were well past the hotel and it was another 10 minutes before we arrived.
At the end of the cruise a different driver was waiting for us on time at the cruise terminal and knew exactly how to get to Heathrow.
OVERNIGHT IN SOUTHAMPTON: We find it stupid to spend a lot of money on a cruise and airfares only to have flight problems and miss the ship. We usually fly in the day before a cruise. In this case it was to shake jet lag as much as anything.
There were a lot of traditional large hotels in Southampton near the cruise terminal, However, feeling like we were 30 instead of 60 we booked our overnight at the Pig in the Wall hotel, located in the 700-year-old city wall across a side street from the gleaming all glass Grand Hotel.
Our room was on the third floor. There wasn't an elevator. We had about 140 pounds of luggage. The hotel staff was all British which we found out the next day walking around and stopping at other hotels, was unusual. Fred who with Rachel checked us in also took our bags up three floors without a complaint or even a grunt. It did take two trips.
The room itself was small. But the bathroom and shower were huge! It was almost as big as the bedroom. The important thing was the mattress was firm and I was asleep in five minutes. We woke up about five hours later, stumbled out to the nearest pub for some pub grub and then returned and went back to sleep. The place while not what you except at a modern hotel but it was fun and again the bathroom and shower where enormous.
EMARKATION: The Taxi ride from the hotel to the terminal was cheap and quick. I would not suggest you walk from your hotel dragging your suitcases, at least not on the weekend, traffic is heavy.
For us poor steerage class passengers who were not in the Queen's or Princess' Grills the embarkation went pretty well all things considering with one exception.
After receiving our cabin cards there was a long snaking line to go through security. At one point people who appeared to be Cunard employee's asked passengers for their cabin cards. Was this another last check before going through security? No...it was the photo department staff trying to guide people before they are actual passengers to have their photo taken in front of backdrop of the ship. When I reached them, I asked if they were part of the security procedure or the extra money making procedure. The said they were part of the latter and I held onto my stateroom card.
Once on the ship we were pleasantly surprised to see our luggage had beat us to the room and our steward Julius met us. This embarkation was much better than what we had experienced in March in Los Angeles.
THE SHIP: THINGS THAT ANNOYED ME: On sea days the PITCH AND SELL was pretty intense including the false and misleading come-ons. These included tables in front of the shops that partially blocked your passage forcing people to look at products for sale.
The signs claiming products were 40 and 50 percent off drove me crazy, because the day before none of these items were actually for sale. How can you mark something 50% off if it was not for sale the day before at a higher price? I would have thought Cunard would be above such lowlife tactics.
The constant need to take your photo began to ruin the enjoyment of the interior of the ship. The photo department would place large 8-foot high backdrops in front of attractive mid-ship's staircases trying to generate photo business. Next to the backdrops would be orange "trip hazard" warning signs. Cunard had successfully ruined the overall ambiance their designers had tried to obtain by blocking the view with this junk. It is something that I would expect on RCI or Carnival, but not something on Cunard.
THINGS I APPRECIATED: The fact that I don't have to walk through the casino to get places on deck two is very nice. Of course as a passenger on the Queen Elizabeth twice I have to admit both times I have never seen so few people at the casino. Also the continued non-smoking in the casino is very much appreciated. On most ships smoking is permitted on the casino floor. The reason is that smokers are compulsive people falling to urges. Gambling operators like compulsive people...so let them smoke while they spend money. The only drawback is that the poor souls who have to walk through the casino are stuck smelling like an ashtray. This does not happen on a Cunard ship.
I did have to put up with the person in the stateroom next to mine smoking on his balcony. Cunard is banning this in March of 2014. Why not ban it now?
One member of the ever annoying ship's photo department actually won our praise. A 65-year-old woman who we dined with every evening, was walking back to the ship during a port stop when a ligament in her knee snapped. She went down. The woman with the photo department waiting to snag passengers for a photo not only stopped working to check on the passenger, she carried her up the gangway and to the medical department.
DINING: Here is what we noticed that had changed from Mach to August in the Britannia Dining Room...the English comprehension of my waiters. In March it was excellent...in August it was frankly poor. Also the English comprehension dropped in the Lions Head Pub from March to August.
In March I had a standing order for a shrimp cocktail and a Caesar's salad with dinner. They were excellent. I tried the same think in August. All the salads were wilted and the shrimp were of poor quality.
On some nights the main entre food was excellent. One evening the prime rib was melt-in-your-mouth quality. The final formal night with the lobster and filet was also excellent. Other nights weren't as good.
The Lido breakfast continued to be average or worse, just like in March which was amazing because the lunches in the Lido are so good. The hamburgers served from the grill on the afterdeck continued to be the best I have ever had on a cruise ship. You really can't eat breakfast, lunch, scones at tea time and dinner without hurting yourself. I kept it to just two meals a day with no scones.
There is no ice cream in the QE Lido restaurant. While the most popular crew member on a Holland America or Celebrity ship could possibly be the person scooping up ice cream, on the QE you can serve yourself some pretty tasteless soft serve and like it, because that is all you will get. However the other deserts offered are as good as they look. I have found on some other lines the deserts often look better than they taste.
In March the food in the Britannia was so good there was no need to spend extra at a specialty restaurant. In August it wasn't as good and we did take one night off from the Britannia, but instead of dining in an "extra pay" restaurant we went to the Lido buffet.
ENTERTAINMENT: The stage shows were slightly better than what is offered on competing cruise ships. Cunard books "fly-in" talent mostly through a British talent agent. The other lines normally book through talent agents located in Miami, so the Cunard ships shows have a distinctive United Kingdom feel about them.
PAT PATTON has replaced Robin Harris in the Lions Head Pub. Patton is an improvement as the Irishman has a much better personality. However you may as well nickname him, Pat "120-decibils" Patton. He is so loud that people cannot hold conversations in the back of the pub across the table. Pat's music is set so that after two nights you know when you hear one song what the next two songs will be. There is no audience participation with Pat.
SIMON, replaced Edward at the piano on deck three and is pretty good. He has a larger song selection than Edward and is generally very good. The problem for the musicians on deck-3 is there that there to give an air of elegance and provide background for people buying drinks. Simon, like Ed is young. He sports a pair of red glasses giving him a sedate Elton John look, while Edward looked like a young Hugh Grant.
The STRING QUARTET Aries is good, but I have to give the four young ladies on the March cruise from the Ukraine a slight nod as they seemed to get into their pieces with a bit more gusto, which can be hard to do when you are playing the same stuff night after night and week after week. It is nice to see that Cunard is staying with the string quartet and not reducing it to a trio like other cruise lines with strings have done.
The best daily musician on either our of 2013 cruises on the QE without a doubt was GRAMHAM WELLARD, who performed nightly in the Commodore's Club on deck 11. Graham left the ship on a break at the end of this cruise. He plays almost exclusively from the American Songbook. His knowledge of the hits and non-hits by Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer and others is astounding. From 9:30 to midnight every night he played the piano and sang. I'd be happy to pay at a nightclub to see this guy. That said it was amazing on the number of nights there were only a handful of people around for his final set.
BANDS: Cunard is one of the last cruise lines that still employs trumpet and trombone players. Most of the other lines have a keyboard player make with artificial horns. As a passenger I appreciate having the musicians. Speaking with a couple musicians, they appreciate too, but seem fearful that Cunard might join the other lines in a cost saving move in dumping brass players. Since Cunard has so much ballroom dancing, I don't know how you can get rid of the brass.
However since they do feature and advertise big band sound, I was amazed on both of our trips in 2013 that the music channels on the TV do not provide any of the music Cunard brags about providing. All the music channels in the staterooms are insipid elevator sounding crap.
CRUISE DIRECTOR'S STAFF: There are three main players out dealing with the customers on a daily basis for the cruise Director Amanda and her assistant, Leigh. They were Laura, Neco and Tommy.
There was a rather mean spirited thread in Cruise Critic several months ago by a British woman who complained that when Laura of the entertainment staff was doing an event it was like being at a "holiday camp." The reference was not faint praise, but an insult claiming Laura was not up to Cunard's standards.
During our March cruise we found Laura to be just the opposite. As Americans there were times we could only understand about 80-percent of what Laura was saying due to her accent, but we thought she was a highlight of the cruise. Her comic timing and delivery were wonderful. She did in fact provide the "anti-Cunard" Cunard employee, who had no trouble making fun of herself. She was the opposite of a smug stiff-upper lip English "swell." We were happy to see her on our August cruise and that she hadn't changed one bit.
The original "Laura Holiday-camp" thread on Cruise Critic morphed into a positive Laura thread with former passengers sticking up for her. Then something unusual happened. The thread morphed into how much people hated "Neco." The section on Neco was longer than the two parts about Laura. None of it was nice.
So when we found out that Neco was on board for our August cruise, it was like having a celebrity around. When the large South African acted like we were keeping him from being somewhere else, I was ready for it and realized that it was part of the "Neco Experience" and was not offended by his "know-it-all" behavior because I was prepared, thanks to Cruise Critic.
Tommy, who considers himself a Shakespearian actor biding his time for a role in an upcoming play was always fun even when suffering from a dreadful cold. After all, "The Show Must Go On!"
ROOMS: Service for our tiny balcony stateroom perhaps actually improved a bit on the August cruise. Julius was a fine room steward who always had a smile on his face, which was appreciated.
BLACK AND WHITE: As someone who has been on at least a cruise a year since 2000 I found something pretty standard regardless of cruise ship lines. (I believe when I'm on vacation, I'm on vacation and I'm not in a hurry to use the launderette provided on each deck by Cunard.) I send off my clothes on a regular basis for "laundry service." I have come to expect that my white and black items will be returned to have become a new color... gray. I have been pleasantly surprised on the QE as the whites came back very white and the black shirts remained the same color as when I placed them in the laundry bag.
INTERNET SERVICE: You might not want to purchase a large number of minutes of internet time while on a St. Petersburg/Baltic cruise. There were several days that the service was simply not available. The ship's staff blamed this on the Russian government.
PORTS OF CALL: Let's face it...the two big ports of call were St. Petersburg, Russia for two days and Germany.
St. Petersburg: We have cruised enough to know never, ever book tours provided by or promoted by the cruise ship. You will pay too much and be stuck at the will and itinerary of the tour company.
Cunard liked to infer that you would have to obtain a Visa from the Russia government to leave the ship if you did not book a tour with one of the ship's tour providers. This is false and you don't need a Visa as long as you book a tour with a "registered and licensed" tour provider.
We found five providers on the internet and broke them down as to price and services. We eliminated the lowest priced provider, but have to admit if we were 30 year-olds we might have gone with her.
Our choice was the "I Travel SPB" company, which also goes under the name of I Love Travel SPB. The two days of having a licensed tour guide, a driver and a fairly new Mercedes Benz at our disposal was about $1,000. It was $903 plus a 10% tip for the driver.
At first we thought this was a little pricey but quickly found out it was a bargain. Other passengers who signed up for ship tours had to sign up for two separate tours a day and join 14 other people on a small bus. There paid about the same we did per day, but we had freedom to decide where to go and when to go.
OUR GUIDE, Anastasia was a 34-year-old former English teacher at a St. pertsburg university, who found she could make more money being a tour guide and giving private English lessons. Being a tour guide doesn't involve simply paying a fee to the government. Guides have to attend courses for each museum and pass exams. Anastasia said the classes to be a certified Hermitage guide involved attending classes for six days a week for six months. Other museums tour certifications involved classes between one-month and one-week in length.
I Travel SPB had emailed us tickets which we needed to show Russian customs when getting off the ship. They did not ask for a penny up front and trusted us to pay in full or make a partial payment at the end of the first day.
CUSTOMS: We elected to start our day at 10am instead of earlier and compete with all the ship tour groups trying to get through Russian Customs at the same time. It was a smart idea. While some passengers attempting to get off the ship at between 8am and 9am faced long lines that took as long as 45 minutes to clear, at 9:30 we had almost no line at all and were through customs and past a bored and uninterested Russia Customs agent in 10 minutes.
Both the owner of the company and our guide were there to meet us.
PAYMENT METHOD WAS UNUSUAL At first I was a little suspicious, but after one day I was okay with it and just wrote it off as a "Russian thing." At the end of each day while returning to the ship, the driver pulled to the side of the road near the ship. Our guide and driver left the car and the tour company's accountant got in and accepted our money and provided a receipt. They took credit cards, but we elected to pay in cash (US Dollars). The accountant, a former guide, spoke flawless English and was as nice as our guide.
Itinerary advice: SKIP THE HERMITAGE...at least if you are there during the tourist season and on a cruise ship, especially if you are there on the weekend. While our guide had tickets prearranged so we did not have to wait in a line, the crowds were massive and often as much as 10 deep in front of a piece of art.
Instead go to the RUSSIAN MUSEUM! The Hermitage does not feature any art work by Russians. The Russian Museum is work all done by Russians and it has some spectacular pieces with no crowds.
Also a trip to the Pavlosk Palace and Gardens and the Peterhof fountains should not be missed. They are about 25 or 30 miles out of town and it was nice to see the suburbs and be in a park used by the locals and not filled with tourists.
Churches in St. Petersburg are as numerous as Ming Tombs in China, despite decades of the Soviets trying to stamp them out. Of course most of the ones still standing are tourist attractions and not churches with active congregations. Our guide made it a point to tell us which ones actually were active churches.
DON'T DRINK THE WATER: As modern as St. Petersburg looks, even the locals do not drink the water. Our guide service provided bottled water, plus we brought some from the ship. While I wanted to stop at a McDonalds (there is one every three blocks in St. Petersburg) to see if the McNuggets are the same in Russia as in the US, my wife insisted we stop each day and try authentic Russia food. She thought it was great, I said I was not hungry and still full of cruise ship food.
GERMANY: Several months before this cruise Cunard sent out an email to passengers advising them the ship would be leaving Warnemunde three hours early so trips to Berlin would be impossible. A couple of weeks later a new email said the ship would now be departing at the regularly scheduled time of 8:30 so Berlin trips could be made.
The idea of spending six hours on a bus on the autoban and just two hours in Berlin never appealed to me. I booked with Friends of Dave Tours after reading dozens of unbelievable reviews of his tours. These tours are a combination of walking and use of trains. I wrote Dave and mentioned that I would get some cortisone shots and fill up on Ibuprofen before we leave. Dave wrote back and strongly suggested that I do a different tour as his might be too much for a 60-year-old with two bad hips.
I found Taxi Harry on the internet who advertised being an English Speaking Guide with a Mercedes Benz taxi for hire for all day tours. I signed up and Harry was waiting for use when we got off the ship. Everything Harry said was true, with possibly one exception, "the English speaking part!"
Harry complained that I used an unusual dialect. Actually I had been a disc jockey and radio announcer in St. Louis, Missouri 40-plus years earlier. Midwest disc jockeys were in big demand at the time because we did not have a regional dialect or accent!
Harry did take us for eight hours along the northern coast and to towns built 700 and 800 years ago and promised us a couple of surprises. One was the stop at a mountain top hunting lodge, built as a castle. It was a mere two-mile hike straight up from the parking lot. I barely made it. My wife enjoyed the spiral staircase and the spectacular view of 30 miles in all directions as I gave my hips a rest.
The area we travelled was part of the former East Germany. Harry grew up in East Germany and was forced to learn Russian in school. His English came along later in life. I liked Harry, but the communications at times was frustrating.
Total cost was E450, with an E50 down payment in advance.
At the small town of KRISTIANSAND, NORWAY we walked. I found the library with free internet. I was amazed to see two fairly large bookstores about three blocks apart. Now in the US, bookstores are few and far between. The local grocery store allowed me to go on my own soft-drink plan, by buying my own in port and taking them to different bars on the ship and getting a pint glass of ice (always tipping the waiter). My soft-drink plan was much cheaper than the ship's.
COPENHAGEN, TALLINN ESTONIA, HELSINKI and STOCKHAM: I normally like to get far away from my fellow tourists when in a port of call. In fact when in Curacao in March I hired a taxi for three hours and told taxi driver that I did not want to see any tourists. She complied with a great tour.
However, starting in Copenhagen I tried a Hop-on Hop-Off bus for the first time and found it to be pretty good and reasonable. Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was talking to the bus driver during longer stops. He was in the Danish army and drove the bus as a second job when he was stationed in Copenhagen. He gave me some interesting insight on what if was like to serve two tours in Afghanistan and work alongside with American and British troops.
There were three different one-hour long Hop-on Hop-Off routes in Tallinn so we were able to do three hours of sightseeing for a very reasonable price.
In Stockholm you could buy a combined Hop-On bus ticket and boat ticket. It was quite a bit more than the bus tickets in the other cities, but seemed to be worth it.
The biggest problem in Stockholm was the number of fellow tourists. There were seven cruise ships in town at once. You could not walk more than150 feet without bumping into a Nikon around the neck of a tourist. In the morning the boats and buses were packed with tourists. By the afternoon it was much more pleasant.
In Helsinki there was also a harbor cruise that was discounted in connection with your Hop-On ticket. That was also worth it. Frankly I was pleasantly surprised. Even some lifelong local residents were on the harbor cruise with visitors from out of town. I had the beginning of a cold and sore throat apparently caught in Russia. I walked into a Helsinki pharmacy and the pharmacist could not have been nicer and got me a very effective product.
DEBARKATION: This went much better in Southampton than it did in Fort Lauderdale in March.
The day before debarkation I learned that our color group was scheduled to get off at 9:30. I had a car and driver waiting at 9am and needed to check in at the airport by 11 or 11:30. I went to the customer service desk and the staff changed our debarkation time to 9am. We got off right on time.
Now it is off to sail on the Queen Mary for 12 days in October. I worry by the end of the year I will be spelling color, colour and have a crisp English accent.