Route: 11 day voyage: Ft Lauderdale - St Thomas - St Maarten - Grenada - Bonaire - Panama Canal (Gatun Lake only) - Ft Lauderdale
1. General Comments: A most pleasant and interesting voyage. This was the ship's only Caribbean run. It had completed Los Angeles - Ft Lauderdale, and after our voyage it was returning to its home base in Southampton. (According to the Captain, Cunard ships are "ocean liners" that are on "voyages." They are not "cruise ships," nor do they "cruise.") The ship was nearly full with ca 1,900 passengers. While the majority of passengers were American, next were the British, followed by the Germans. Most passengers were experienced, older, travellers. In the 11 days I counted only two infants and three grammar school-aged children on board. I saw no teenagers.
We booked a Princess class stateroom in order to learn the Cunard standard for this level. We wanted something longer than a regular crossing, and we also were celebrating my wife's birthday.
2. Travel to Ft Lauderdale and Embarking: We made our own plane arrangements and arrived in Ft Lauderdale the day before the voyage. We took the hotel shuttle to the pier.
Having checked in on-line, and using the separate check-in line for Grill class passengers, we got on the ship quickly. We arrived at the pier at noon, checked in, dropped off our carry on bags in our cabin, and were sitting down to lunch in the Lido at 1PM.
Waiting for us in our cabin was a bottle of champagne on ice, a bowl of fruit, and a plate of sweets and chocolate-covered strawberries. This was an indicator of things to come. Our luggage arrived around 3:30, as did a bowl of fresh strawberries.
3. The Queen Victoria: A very attractive ship, enhanced by its smallness. Our cabin was a tad larger than a "regular" cabin with verandah. I think the extra size could be seen in the sofa; it was regular size instead of the smaller two-person type. Our cabin was perfect for two. Plenty of storage space (few drawers, but plenty of shelves), and the bathroom had a tub shower. There was a small safe and a small refrigerator (only filled with water and soft drinks, which we assumed were free. There was no liquor.). We had two TV screens (one for bedroom and one for sitting area) which received the usual news, movies, music, etc. However, there was no CNN nor ESPN. We did very well with BBC for international news, and CNBC for financial news. . You get a daily planner in your cabin the night prior. You need to read it carefully as there are no announcements on the PA system. The Captain does his noontime report from the bridge, and that is it. You also get a daily newspaper (US, UK, or German, depending on your home), and weekdays you get an international financial news sheet.
For the ship's public areas, see the films and descriptions on the Cunard website. They show you just about everything. While the audio may be a bit overblown, the pictures are accurate.
4. Meals: OK, we took Princess Class so we could have our own dining room. There are separate dining rooms for Princess and Queen Classes, and there is a lounge between the two. And, this area is restricted; you need your key card and a specific elevator to get to this level (11th deck). If you are celebrating a special occasion, save your pennies and go for this class. When you book, you indicate what size table you want. When you board, you receive a card informing you of your table. This is YOUR table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You only need to appear during the meal times. No reservations, no early or late seating... nothing. After you appear once, the maitre d', the wine steward, and your two waiters know you by name and your preferences. We only did dinner in our Grill; there was no way we would have been able to consume all three meals there. Dinners were uniformly outstanding, as was the service. I think the wine list is the same throughout the ship; you can get good wines for $40 and you can splurge $1,500 for a Bordeaux. The choice is up to you.
Lido Buffet: Well designed, and very good food. The design is such that compared to other ships the Lido is relatively quiet. You can actually hear the background music on the speaker system. Selections for both breakfast and lunch were varied, and there was no rush. You could sit over a second cup of (weak) coffee and not feel that people were waiting to pounce on your table. Also different from other lines, there are no wine or beer carts going through hawking their wares. You want a glass of wine or beer? A crew member will get it for you. Oh yes, the Lido is open 24/7.
Todd English specialty restaurant: My wife and I have mixed feelings on this. Food, service, and wine were great. However, when you are in the Grill Class, is this restaurant worth the $30 per person extra charge? We aren't so sure. The Grill dining rooms are already top flight. Yes, the Todd English menu is different, but not that much. We have no idea on the food and service in the Britannia dining room; we are sure it is good. On other ships we felt that the specialty restaurant was a definite step up from the dining room. We are not so sure that Todd English is that much of a step up from the Grill dining room. You have to make your own decision.
There are plenty of bars - but not food outlets - around the ship. You have to choose what appeals to you. We settled into the Grill lounge for a pre-dinner drink and the Commodore lounge for after dinner. In all bars you have to specify the brand of liquor you desire for your cocktail; there is no "standard" or "house" brand.
Birthday celebration: I ordered flowers, a gift, and champagne for my wife's birthday from the on-line Cunard gift brochure a month or so before the voyage. Flowers were delivered in the morning by our steward. The gift came late that afternoon because it was from a different department. I checked with our maitre d' that the champagne would be waiting for us for dinner that evening (it was). Our waiters and maitre d' presented my wife with a simple and attractive birthday cake with only one candle and NO singing at the end of our meal. It was all very well done.
5. Cunard dress code: Cunard is serious here. If you don't want to follow their code, the staff and fellow passengers will make you wish you had taken a different ship. Nothing blatant, but subtle... like you are the only one in jeans at formal night. Before you leave home, you will receive from Cunard some literature on the ship, your shore excursions, etc. Included will be a listing of the evening dress for each night of the voyage. No more wondering; you have the schedule ahead of time. We were 11 nights: 4 formal, 3 informal (coat and tie), and 4 informal (jacket, but no tie). Formal nights were all on sea days. On formal nights, most men were in tuxedos; the rest in dark suits. A number had medals or ribbons on their tuxes. The ladies were in everything from elegant pants suits to ball gowns. Informal nights for men was not so much suits as it was blazers with ties.
6. Shore Excursions: Make your shore excursion reservations on-line! This saves you standing in line at the ship's tour desk. The on-line billing goes direct on your credit card and not on your shipboard account. If you know the ports of call and want to travel by yourself, then, of course, you don't need the ship's tour office. Tour prices are not cheap; you are paying for the convenience of having the ship organize the tour rather than you doing it after you get ashore. Also, if you obtain your tour through the ship's staff, you have support when there is a problem.
There was a professor (geology) on board who lectured on all aspects of Panama and the Caribbean before we entered the canal. Many people commented on how pleased they were to have heard some, or all, of his lectures. Another lecturer boarded the ship when we entered the canal and provided a very good commentary - not continuous - of the entire tour; she left the ship only after we cleared the last lock before re-entering the Caribbean.
7. Shipboard entertainment: The ship has a daily schedule full of activities for all tastes: lectures, bridge, bingo, etc, etc. Don't forget fencing lessons! The bits of the evening shows we saw were fine; we heard good reports about them in the Lido. The ship's theater is that: it is a theater. There is no bar service as on other ships. There are also boxes. For a fee, you can reserve a seat in a box and be treated royally - to include champagne - while you watch the show. While art is for sale, and there are auctions, this is done discretely and without noise. Much of the art on board is generally nautical and specifically of Cunard's long history...and ships. While there is advertising for the art for sale, there is also plenty for the ship's spa.
The casino was small and the machine payoffs did not seem to be much worse than Las Vegas. Card and roulette tables were present, but no craps tables. There was a small selection of duty-free liquor on board; you order your liquor and it is delivered to your cabin the day before disembarking. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to have your picture taken by the ship's photographers--pricey, but a good souvenir. There are various venues for night owls.
8. Tipping: Not a problem if you sign up for the recommended amounts. The amounts are charged to each person's shipboard account. You have nothing more to do. You only need to tip separately (cash) the person who brings your room service. Your bar and wine bill automatically adds 15 percent.
If you want to tip, for example, the maitre d' because of his help in organizing your wife's birthday celebration, then you have to give him some cash in an envelope.
9. Settling of Accounts: During your voyage, anything you purchase on board (drinks, souvenirs, tours, duty free items, photos, etc) is punched into a computer; you sign one copy of the ticket and you receive a copy. On March 26, three days before our disembarkation, we received a preliminary bill. This bill not only lists every charge you have made, but also subtracts the charges from whatever ship's credit you may have received from your agent or elsewhere. Pay attention to this as contrary to other ships, your credit is per person and not per cabin. If you are the usual couple, the husband signs all the charge slips. His credit gets used up. Now you find out that the wife's "voyage credit" has hardly been touched, and the credits are NOT transferable. For the last days of the voyage, my wife signed all the charge slips, and we made out OK. In short, if each person does not use his credit, he will lose it. On the last morning you receive a paper final statement of your account.
10. Disembarking in Ft Lauderdale: Your bags have to be out between 5PM and 12PM. Crew personnel are constantly removing the bags; you must be careful placing your bags outside because they will be gone, and you will have no chance to add or retrieve an item. Breakfast is early, and you will be out of your cabin by 8:30. You must be out and waiting in your designated area because that is the only place where you will hear disembarking instructions. Nothing is announced on the TV or PA system. The system works very well. In our case we got off the ship at 8:30; were through customs and immigration, and arrived at the airport at 9:15; and were checked in, through security, and at the gate at 10:00.
11. Our only complaint: Several days into the voyage I received a rude form letter from the "chief accountant" accusing me of "failing to provide credit card information" and threatening to freeze my ship account if I did not provide this information. Not being in a good mood, I went to the Purser's desk to find out what was up. The clerk apologized that there was a transfer problem from the pier check-in computers to the ship's system. That was reasonable, and he was not thrilled when I pointed out the tone of the accountant's form letter. More apologies. Cunard literature emphasizes how the line trains its personnel in service, manners, etc. While this training is well reflected in the crew and officers on board, it does not seem to apply to the bean counters who have no contact with the passengers.
12. Conclusion: This was a most enjoyable trip. We learned about the Cunard system of running its ships and can easily see why there are so many fans of this line. We are not interested in doing a crossing, but whenever a Cunard ship is doing some sort of a voyage based out of the US, such as this one, we will be interested.
If anyone has questions, send me an e-mail at LTC519@satx.rr.com.
San Antonio, TX