In 2009 I returned to travelling with Cunard after a break of 7 years; previously I had travelled with my mother on the QE2 (7 trips) and most recently the Caronia (1 cruise). This time I was celebrating a special birthday and travelling with my partner who had never cruised before. I had been slightly concerned as to whether he would enjoy the experience, particularly the formal evenings but we both returned from last year's voyage raving to family and friends about the whole experience (apart from the coffee, of which more later...)
I was therefore looking forward to the same voyage twelve months later (we enjoyed the first one so much we decided to do the same one again).
We travelled by car to Southampton and arrived less than 90 minutes after leaving our home in Berkshire. We booked a car parking space through Cunard's normal provider and we were very pleased to be able to drive straight up to the Ocean Terminal. As I am a platinum member of the Cunard World Club we were given a priority check-in of midday which meant we were in our cabin by 12.30 -only two hours after leaving home. The only point to note about the check-in is that I had to advise the customer service agent I was a platinum member in order to be directed to a priority line - the agent simply made the assumption I was an "ordinary" passenger and was about to offer me a card for the normal queue. Last year I made the mistake of not speaking up and thus ended up queueing rather using the benefit of CWC membership.
We had originally booked a guarantee cabin in the B3 grade but were upgraded twice, eventually ending up in an A3 cabin - identical to the one we had last year but without a lifeboat obstructing the view.
The cabin was again immaculate and the major wear and tear appeared to be to the bedspread - note to Cunard - these flimsy "satin-esque" covers may look lovely when pristine but after six years hard service they could do with being replaced. We had two cases each and found there was enough room storage for everything we brought - and all the cases fitted easily under the bedframe.
Our only real complaint about the cabin on either cruise was the electrical sockets; they are situated in the wall on the dressing table and only work if your appliance has a standard plug (I took my own hairdryer as the one provided is rubbish!). When we wanted to plug in mobile phone or camera battery chargers we had to move the bed and unplug one of the reading lamps (and only one item could be plugged in at a time).
Our stewardess kept the cabin immaculately clean but we had to ask for the shower gel to be replaced when it ran out and the napkins, coasters and notepad weren't replaced either when we used them up. I don't blame the stewardess - I suspect that this might be Cunard's approach to cost cutting....
Last year we had marvellous waiters in the Britannia restaurant who really engaged with us and made us feel as if they really wanted us to have a great time. This time around our experience was altogether different and echos that of some of the other reviewers for this cruise. Our main waiter was perfectly polite but made no effort to speak to us other than to take our orders, offer us bread (which didn't happen one night) and proffer coffee(which arrived with the dessert on the first night, not after). I felt we were really rushed on the first evening and we were on the dessert course by 9.30 having sat down at 8.30. I then developed techniques for slowing the service down on subsequent nights - asking to wait 10 minutes before ordering dessert after main course plates were cleared and requesting coffee to be served at the end of the meal.
As far as the food itself was concerned, the big disappointment turned out to be the fact that the menus for the voyage were identical to those of twelve months ago. I know Cunard rotate them every three months so we were obviously unlucky with our timing. The quality of the food was comparable to last year and we generally enjoyed everything, with beef and lamb being cooked as requested. A few points to note however. We were never offered more bread - so we just asked for it! The cheese plate consisted of four small squares of cheese and a few crackers and grapes - much less generous than last year. The petit fours, which used to be so superb on QE2, consisted mainly of little pieces of crystallised ginger, and on the first night, some disgusting Bakewell tart-type confectionery. Having said that, I should balance this review by adding that Cunard now offer two vegetarian entrees not one - and this is not at the expense of the meat and fish dishes. I'm not vegetarian but I imagine this is a change for the better for many passengers.
We had one meal in the Todd English restaurant which was superb and well worth the extra money - lots of people seem to go there to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries - but we managed to get a window table by eating slightly earlier than we would normally choose to do.
Now time to mention the coffee. Nowhere on QM2 can you get a proper cappuccino. Even in Sir Samuel's which is pitched as a specialist tea and coffee venue during the day, cappuccinos come out like slightly frothy lattes - there is no proper head of foam - and the cups are too small. The choice of tea in Sir Samuel's is disappointing too - tea bags only, no leaf tea.
Service in the bars was usually very good and fast - not surprising since the stewards make most of their income from the 15% service charge. We liked the Chart Room best and I would like to praise Cunard for the hot & cold canapes, nuts and crisps offered with early evening drinks - this does add a little something extra to the experience. The Commodore Club was a relaxing venue for a post dinner drink - we found Sir Samuel's to be too dark for this purpose.
We only went to a couple of shows in the Royal Court Theatre; the West End performer Robert Meadmore has a superb voice and the 55 minute adaption of "The Importance of Being Earnest" performed by RADA graduates was a welcome breath of fresh air from the normal fare on offer.
We noticed more queues for afternoon tea in the Queen's Room this year; I really think Cunard should consider putting this event on in the Winter Garden as well which seems an under-used venue (apart from the tacky art auctions). There was also no choice of tea although the array of sandwiches, cakes and scones remains delicious. The harpist performing there on the first few afternoons was very good (as were the string quartet in the Chart Room).
More queues were noticeable outside the Britannia Restaurant for lunch (though this is a better experience than going to the King's Court). As mentioned by other reviewers, queues for hot food at breakfast in the King's Court were long and the whole set up in the Carvery was badly managed. Everyday my partner had to wait for bacon and fried eggs were only cooked to order, yet there were three types of sausage sitting on the hot counter! I can't believe that the hotel managers haven't spotted these problems and tried to deal with them.
The bookshop remains excellent and we bought a copy of Captain Nick Bates' book. A word about Captain Nick - he is a real star who I'm sure has a future as an after dinner speaker when he retires from the sea.
We did not use the Spa or swimming pools but took the opportunity to play shuffleboard one afternoon whilst in port - the shuffleboard kits have been relocated one deck up but no one has bothered to move the rules so we made our own up! The gym is very good and the bikes are particularly popular though on both occasions at least one bike was not working properly.
The normal array of Cunard day time activities was on offer, including bingo on sea days - $20 for four games and additional $10 if you wanted three extra chances in the jackpot game. A word of warning - you now need a pen to play bingo - and if you don't have one with you you'll end up paying $1.50 for a "dabber". My partner picked up some useful tips about managing his back pain when he attended a lecture by the spa's chiropractor. Apart from the bingo and a couple of evening pub quizzes we did not participate in any other organised activities but the range and quality seems very similar to that offered on QE2.
We attended and enjoyed a couple of cocktail parties but I was disappointed that there was no senior officers' party for platinum and diamond CWC members as there was last year. I did receive all the other benefits for my membership level, however.
We again enjoyed all the ports of call and thought Alesund was an excellent replacement for Stavanger which we found a bit dull. We did our own thing in each port and still found there was plenty to see having been once before. There were lots of opportunities for walking and exploring - and burning off the calories being consumed each day! A couple of tips about Flam. Firstly, the Cunard tour, "Walking the Flam Valley" is a rip off - we did it last year and it is a very simple walk from the ship to an old church and back again. You can figure this out for yourself and the few bits of local information you get from the guides are not worth what you pay (about £30 for each adult). The Flam railway is also bookable in advance over the internet so you can get ahead of the tour groups (and probably pay less too).
Disembarkation was very easy - my level of CWC membership entitled us to use the disembarkation lounge in Todd English where newspapers and light refreshments were on offer - we went straight there rather than try to get breakfast in the King's Court - last year they were desperately trying to close most of the seating areas despite passengers still arriving before the advertised closing time.
All in all we had a great holiday despite the queues, the terrible coffee and the disappointing service in the Britannia (apart from our wine waiter who was very good and dealing with 70 guests including us!) I definitely want to travel on QM2 again (and Queen Elizabeth). However, I will be closely monitoring the queues, standards of service and levels of generosity towards the guests. The experience was value for money - I hope future ones will be too.