We returned yesterday from the 4-day "Memorial Day Getaway" cruise on the QM2, a four night cruise with two sea days and one day at the Cunard/Princess private beach at Princess Cays. Since there are any number of QM2 member reviews posted here, I wanted to take a different tack with this review.
This was my ninth cruise, but my first with Cunard, having previously sailed with Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. When we thought about booking on the QM2, we had a lot of questions about whether and to what extent a Cunard cruise would be different from the "standard" (in the best sense of the word) cruise experiences we had had on other lines. Everyone on the boards was helpful, of course, but since many of them tend to be Cunard "loyalists" with little experience on more mainstream lines, we weren't able to really anticipate whether we'd be as comfortable on the QM2 as we've always been on our other cruises. Accordingly, for those who, like us, might be considering "stepping up" to the QM2 from these other lines, this review will focus on the comparison between our prior mass-market experiences and our QM2 experience.
EMBARKATION: We left from the Brooklyn, NY terminal, and it was far and away our smoothest, best organized and most painless embarkation ever. We had booked Princess Grill suites, and therefore had the earliest embarkation time. There were no crowds, plenty of porters to take our bags, and parking was plentiful and very close to the ship. We have previously sailed out of Miami (a nightmare), Manhattan (even worse) and Bayonne (well organized, but you have to be bussed to the ship after checking in) and found that there was absolutely no comparison to the ease of boarding the QM2 -- even though we had had priority check in status at each of those other venues. After going through the normal security screening, you fill out your health form and walk right up to the check in counters. The entire process took no more than ten minutes and, best of all, once you finish, unlike at Bayonne, you simply walk on board the ship, where someone was waiting to escort us directly to our suites. It took all of 30 minutes from the time we drove up to the terminal and dropped off our bags to the time we entered our cabin -- and that includes the time spent parking the car and walking from the parking lot to the terminal.
THE CABINS: Just so you know we are comparing apples and apples, we have in the past always booked balcony suites on our cruises, which would be the equivalent class on those ships to the Princess Grill suites we had on the QM2. You wouldn't think there would be much difference between suite cabins on newer ships -- they all have the same basic items -- beds, a couch, closets, a balcony, balcony lounge chairs, a desk area, etc. How different could they be? Well, the answer is -- VERY. The fabrics, the furnishings, the use of space on the QM2 all exceed her reputation, and leave the other cruise lines we have sailed far behind. To be more specific on a few items, as you would expect on a liner that does lengthy world cruises, there was an abundance -- indeed, an overabundance -- of closet space. In addition to the usual "wall o' closets" as you walk in, there is a separate walk in closet with five additional drawers for clothes storage. The bathroom was, by cruise ship standards, absolutely enormous, with room to actually walk around in -- although I was in the cabin by myself, there would have been more than enough room in there for two people to get ready in the mornings at the same time. Another standout feature of the cabins were the beds. I love to go to sleep to the gentle swaying of a cruise ship at sea, but always recognize that in the morning I'm going to wake up achy from the thin mattresses and hard bed surfaces in the cabins. Not so on the QM2. The mattresses were thick, soft and plush. (One odd space concern, however, is that the beds are so close to the desk area that you can't really pull out the chair from the desk, and sort of have to "squeeze" into it to do your makeup in the mirror). The balconies were another delight. Not only were they far deeper (measuring from cabin door to the rail) than on other ships, but the deck chairs were first rate -- varnished teak with removable cushions. Personally, I am a significantly "plus size" cruiser, and on other balconies, have always felt uncomfortable and insecure in the resin or plastic lounge chairs found on the balconies. Here, I spent hours in the incredibly comfortable, secure and wider deck chairs. As a result, I was able to really enjoy the balcony area to its fullest.
One of the very few areas on which the other lines beat the QM2 in the cabin was the selection of TV channels. The two English-language movie channels showed third or fourth-rate movies we'd never heard of (ironically, the best movies during our cruise -- the DaVinci Code and the Thomas Crowne Affair -- were shown only on the foreign language channel, alternating in French, German and Spanish), and unlike on RCCL and Celebrity, which both have at least one channel running a loop of half hour sitcoms, there was really nothing to turn on and relax to for an hour before getting ready for dinner. There was also no kid-friendly station running, say, a loop of Nickelodeon shows. While you might chalk that up to the fact that there are far fewer children sailing on the QM2 than other lines, we were told that on our particular sailing there were 200 children (including my five-year-old niece), so it shouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that passengers will need something to turn on for "quiet time" in the cabin in the afternoons.
THE PUBLIC AREAS: The ship is exquisitely beautiful, I would say by far the most beautiful ship we've been on (and we considered many of those ships, including the Grandeur of the Seas and the Carnival Pride and Spirit, also to be lovely ships). The artwork throughout the ship is tasteful and, at times, inspiring. The decor is elegant without being too muted. Every piece of glass and metal on the ship sparkles with attention. The public areas are also extremely well laid out; even on a short cruise, it took us very little time to acclimate to the right deck, and the right elevator bank to get us where we wanted to go. The ship has a feeling of space throughout; with the possible exception of the casino, you never feel that you are crowded by people. Although the hallways by the cabins did seem a bit narrow, the hallways on the public areas, and the space between tables in the lounges always seemed more than ample.
SPA: One of my favorite parts of a cruise is the pampering you get in the spa. I always book at least a facial, and preferably also a massage treatment on my cruises. In this area, again, the QM2 far outshone the other cruise lines on which I've sailed. Spas on those other lines are all run by Steiner, while the QM2 spas are run by the world-famous Canyon Ranch Spa. Perhaps as a result, the "menu" of treatments is much broader and more varied on the QM2. This cruise, I opted for my standard facial plus a Thai reflexology treatment (basically, an enhanced foot and calf massage, though I'm sure they would not want me describing it in those simple terms). Both treatments were fabulous, and the facial in particular, had some significant improvements over the Steiner spas on the other ships. For example, during a facial, there comes a point where they have applied a mask of some sort to your face and need to allow it to "set up." In the Steiner spas, they dim the lights, play soft music and leave you just relax while that happens, all of which is quite nice. However, this time during that process, the technician, rather than leaving the room, actually did an arm and hand massage which was a lovely, relaxing touch. But the real difference between the QM2 spa and every other spa treatment I've had onboard ship comes at the end of the treatment. As anyone who has ever had a beauty treatment in a Steiner spa knows, it ends with the technician bringing in the products she thinks you need for your skin, along with the order form and the semi-hard sell. Not so on the QM2; not one word was said about purchasing any follow up products -- although, when I ASKED the technician to recommend a cleanser, she actually spent some time helping me to choose the right one for my skin.
DINING: Surprisingly, this is not an area in which the QM2 performed particularly well against its competition, especially Celebrity.
The food in the Princess Grill was very good indeed, but at its best never quite as good as the best of Celebrity. Desserts, in particular, tended to be very bland. However, there are two exceptional features of the Princess Grill worth noting. The first and most important is that in the Princess (and Queens) grill, dinner is "open seating;" you have an assigned table, and may show up at any time during the breakfast, lunch or dinner hours (dinner from 6:30 to 9:00). We found this to be infinitely better than either the standard two-seating, set time dinners (which is how the non-suite Britannia restaurant on the QM2 still operates) or other cruise lines' view of "open seating" where you do not have a reserved table (and which, with a large party, can mean that your dinner is "open seating" in theory only, unless you are willing to split up when a table for six, eight or ten is not available when you want to eat). The second highlight was the Princess Grill ala carte menu, which offered several appetizers, side dishes and entrees available every night in addition to what was on that evening's menu. I know that other cruise lines, RCCL and Celebrity in particular, also tell you that certain entrees, usually a grilled chicken breast and a steak, can be ordered at any time, but the Princess Grill ala carte menu was much more extensive and sophisticated than that, including, for example, a superb roasted tomato soup, a beef tenderloin seared tableside with mouthwatering onion rings, and such excellent side dishes as parmesan mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and roasted asparagus, any of which could be ordered to complement the side dishes listed with that nights' menus entrees.
If the food in the Princess Grill just missed equaling the best of Celebrity dining, however, much of the food in the buffet Kings Court fell short of some of the worst of any of the cruise lines we'd been on. Hamburgers were inedible, and tasted as if the meat had not been properly refrigerated. Selections at the other stations were hit or miss and tended toward the fancy-for-fancy's-sake. We did not try the Asian portion of the buffet, and so cannot comment on that, though the stir fries did seem to be fresh, varied and hot. But the lunches at the carvery were uneven, from a very dry chicken and mushroom pie (actually, dry chicken and mushroom cubes in a lackluster gravy topped with small pieces of puff pastry) to very good fish 'n not-so-good chips. The Italian section, as well, was very, very uneven. The pizza was passable, but no more, and the Italian buffet entrees lacked flavor.
Also hurting the dining experience in the Kings Court buffet was a frustrating lack of organization. I have always liked the idea of splitting up buffet areas into various "stations" each serving a different type of food ever since I first saw that layout on the Carnival Pride. It keeps lines down and, once you get the feel for the general type of food each station has makes it easier to reconnoiter and decide what you want. However, the four stations of the Kings Court are placed much, much too far apart -- the Italian and sandwich/burger sections are aft, while the Carvery/Asian sections are amidship. Thats a big walk just to check out the four stations and decide which you want for lunch. Obviously, there is nothing that they can do about that now that the ship is built. However, the other big lunchtime problem is that they stagger the opening times for the four sections. So if you come to the buffet at 12:00 thinking you're going to have lunch, you'd better want Asian or Italian, because the carvery doesn't open for another half hour. In fact, that was a significant dining problem at other times as well. I've never been on a cruise ship where there wasn't always some place you can get something to eat; on the QM2 on more than one occasion I found myself having to wait for places outside the dining room to open up. Now, since I mentioned before that I'm a "plus size" passenger, let me make it clear that my complaint is not about wanting to spend 24 hours a day eating. It is about making sure that the ship's organization is such that whenever I DO decide to eat in between other activities, that option is available.
Of course, the one true 24-hour dining availability is room service. However, the menu not only is limited (though no more so, really, than on other lines), it lacks "straightforward" choices, like a ham and cheese or turkey sandwich, opting instead for more "sophisticated" options like a "club" sandwich featuring a fried egg, dry slices of turkey and undercooked bacon. That said, room service breakfasts were first rate, including specifically one of the very best fruit plates I have ever had on a cruise, including mango, papaya, blueberries, melon and strawberries.
SERVICE: As one would expect, QM2 shines in this area. Our cabin stewardess was attentive, efficient and always around (on Carnival, in particular, I have gone days without seeing my cabin steward, and in fact on a couple of recent cruises received notes saying that the cabin staff were available only during specified limited hours). The service in the dining room was absolutely impeccable, with one exception. Our first night out dinner seemed to stretch out forever, and, in order to make the show we actually had to leave before our ordered coffees were served. However, we heard later that there was some ship-wide problem that night, and that some people in the Brittania dining room waited hours between ordering their entree and being served. Since every other night moved smoothly and quickly through courses, I assume that the first night issue was a one-time glitch, having nothing to do with our wait staff. Oh, and of course, for some reason the QM2 feels that your dining experience CAN be complete without a parade of waiters singing "O Sole Mio" and carrying baked alaska on their heads. That custom, kind of cute on your first cruise, becomes boring by your second and annoying by your third. We did NOT miss it at all.
Elsewhere on the ship, service is equally good, everyone is attentive, always smiling, friendly and wanting to know how your cruise experience is going. There is definitely a feeling of being pampered aboard the QM2.
As with all things, however, there was one notable and annoying exception. On our one port day in the Bahamas, we arrived in the showroom to get our tender tickets only to be told for the first time that we would also need to have our Bahamas immigration form filled out. That requirement did not appear anywhere in the daily ship's program, nor had the Cruise Director mentioned it at all at the end of the show the prior night when he spoke about the arrival in the Bahamas -- although he did speak about the tender ticket process, and therefore was focused on the processes involved in getting to the island. (We were told than an earlier announcement had been made over the loudspeakers about needing the forms to get ashore, but since the announcements are not piped into the cabins, the only way you would have known that was if you happened to be in a public area during the announcement; clearly, the information should have been included prominently in the printed daily bulletin). Worse still, no one in the showroom from the purser's office knew anything about the forms -- though there was a table set up with information on the days activities, there were no blank immigration forms, forcing us to go back to our staterooms, retrieve our forms and fill them out as best we could, all the while having to turn in our tender tickets and get new ones as tender after tender left without us. A really appalling lack of organization, which we chalk up to the fact that, unlike other cruise lines which are constant visitors to the Caribbean and thus have the procedures down, the QM2 spends the vast majority of her time in other areas of the world.
DAYTIME ACTIVITIES: I would give the QM2 higher marks in this regard than the other cruise lines I've sailed on, though others might disagree. Personally, I'm not big on poolside games, men's hairy chest contests, or cannonball competitions. If you are, be aware that the QM2 doesn't engage in these particular cruise staples. However, other standard cruise fare, such as trivia quizzes, bingo, line dancing lessons, arts-and-crafts classes and art auctions are found in abundance on the QM2. What gives the QM2 the edge for me, however, are some of the activities that you WON'T find elsewhere, including the lecture series (on our particular cruise, there was a very interesting lecture on the history of pirates and privateering in the Caribbean, as well as lectures on the history of jazz and one by a very entertaining "life coach" about bringing more inspiration into your life). As anyone who has cruised the other "mainstream" lines is aware, what passes for a lecture on those lines is a list of the "preferred" shopping spots in the next port (highlighting, as we all know, those stores that have a financial arrangement with the cruise line). In addition, one activity you won't find anywhere else are the acting workshops conducted by members of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. On our cruise there were two such workshops, one in the use of voice and the other in stage movement. Clearly something unique and different.
The children's playroom and program was first-rate, with the area for 2-5 years olds including a "ball" room (you know, a room filled with plastic balls that the kids can jump around in), games, toys of every description, arts and crafts and a host of other activities. This area also includes a family pool; while the counselors are not allowed to take the kids in the pool for obvious liability reasons, it does give families a separate pool area where you don't have to worry about "disturbing" other passengers who just want to sleep on a lounge chair by the pool.
EVENING ACTIVITIES/SHOWS: A caveat on this section: we don't disco and we're not into lounges, so I can't really compare the disco or lounge experience on the QM2 with other lines. For us, the nightlife on a ship revolves around the casinos and the shows. In both categories, the QM2 experience was fine, but no more -- and frustratingly, you could see that it could have been much, much better. All three of the prior lines we sailed would score higher than the QM2 in this category.
Starting with the casino, the problem was not that the casino was small; really, it was more than adequate in size, with plenty of slot machines in all different denominations. The problem was that so few of the table areas were consistently open. There were four or five blackjack tables. But except on our first night out, or at absolute peak hours, I never saw more than one or two of them open. There is nothing worse than standing waiting for someone to give up a seat while looking over and seeing two or three tables sitting there idle.
It's harder to describe what was wrong with the shows. Person for person, it was absolutely clear to me that these were the best singers and dancers we had seen on any cruise ship, and that the production values -- sets, costumes, lighting -- were as good as on any of our other cruises. In addition, I have to disagree with some reviews I have seen complaining about the showroom itself. We sat all over on various nights, in the back, up front and in the balconies. Sight lines from all three locations were excellent, the sound was first rate, and the seating was very comfortable.
Unfortunately, the shows themselves were at times incredibly boring, and, with an exceptional number here and there, never really outstanding. Whoever selected the music and choreographed the dances for the "company" shows really failed to take advantage of the fantastic raw material that he or she had to work with. Especially bad was the rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" which was the finale of one of the shows, which was laughably ponderous -- apparently no one ever told the show's director that the Queen song is a SPOOF of opera, not one to be played straight. Highlights, however, were an enthralling trio rendition of "The Prayer" and an exceptionally well choreographed opening rendition of "Rock Me Amadeus."
The same is true of the planetarium shows. They have this marvel of a venue on the ship, and then they fill it with a show that -- literally -- put three members of our party to sleep. Very disappointing indeed.
One final note on entertainment. When the planetarium shows are not on, that room is used for showing movies (on our cruise, "Flags of our Fathers" and "Night at the Museum"). It's been a long time since I was on a cruise ship that had a space dedicated specifically to showing movies -- I think the last one was my first cruise eleven years ago on the Monarch of the Seas -- and it's a very nice entertainment option, indeed.
PRINCESS CAYS: I won't spend too much time on this, as most QM2 cruisers won't have this as a port of call -- and besides, you can probably read much more thorough reviews of Princess Cays in the reviews of the Princess ships that go there. The island is lovely, with nice white sand beaches, plenty of bar and barbeque venues and the requisite hair-braiding and straw market shops. We opted to rent one of the six bungalows that are available on the island. The are down at the far end of the beach area, in a section shaded by coconut palms, and consist of a small air-conditioned hut just big enough for a round plastic picnic table and four or five chairs, plus a courtyard area with lounge chairs and a shower spray on the side of the hut. We decided to rent it because my sister is currently going through chemo and had to have a place to be out of the worst of the sun. However, having been there, I would now highly, highly recommend renting it if you can (since there are only six of them, they go very fast). It was fabulous. One caveat -- don't plan on swimming in the area in front of the bungalows -- it is far, far too rocky even to wade into (and I have the scratches all over my feet and the back of my legs to prove it). If you want to swim, walk back up to the more "public" area of the beach and go in there.
One other note on Princess Cays. The children's program on the island was terrific. They have a list of scheduled activities which you can sign your child up for individually, so that you don't have to choose between putting them in the program for a whole day or keeping them out of it so that you can spend quality time together as a family.
BTW, the organization of the tender service coming back from the island could use a serious overhaul. The lines waiting for the tenders were endless, even though we arrived at the tender pier a full 45 minutes prior to the scheduled "last tender." We arrived at the tender pier at 2:15, and reboarded the ship well after 3:30, a really unacceptable delay.
AMBIENCE: I treat this as a separate category because this was one of the things we were most concerned about when booking a QM2 cruise: will we feel out of place? will it be too formal and stuffy? will our fellow passengers all be 70-year old cigar-smoking, brandy-drinking tycoons (nothing against 70-year-olds; in fact my 77 year-old-mother was the one who booked this trip for all of us, and is always the most fun person in our party). Bearing in mind that this was a short Caribbean cruise, which one would expect to be somewhat less formal anyway, let me say that all of our fears in that regard were absolutely unfounded. The ship, its passengers and its crew were elegant, but never stuffy. On formal night, there were a lot more tuxedos and evening gowns than I'm used to seeing on an RCCL or Celebrity cruise (I don't think I've ever seen a passenger in a tux on a Carnival cruise), but there were also a lot of dark suits. There were evening gowns, but also dressy pantsuits. Not once did we feel anything but completely comfortable and at ease.
DEBARKATION: If possible, this was even better than the embarkation procedure, and far better than any debarkation we've had on any other cruise line (including a nightmarish three-hour wait in the showroom of the Voyager of the Seas, when our cabin class entitled us to be among the first off the ship). The scheduled debarkation time for the Princess Grill suites was 8:45. In fact, they called us shortly after 8:30, and we were off the ship, through customs, had our luggage and were in our car BEFORE 9:00 AM!!!! An unbelievably efficient operation.
BOTTOM LINE: I think we would sail the QM2 again in a minute. However, I would not say that this cruise "spoiled us" for the other lines we traveled on. All ships, and all lines, have their strengths and weaknesses. I'm very much looking forward to my next cruise whether it winds up being on Carnival, RCCL, Celebrity or even Cunard.