The first thing you will notice is that this review will sound really negative, yet I have given 5 stars for most of the areas. The truth is that we all had an amazing holiday. We saw some fantastic places, met lots of nice people and ate way too much first class food.
I read lots of reviews before departure and I was specifically interested in the negative ones. Most of them seem to be from people that are used to having perfection all the time whereas most of us can enjoy a holiday for what it is and not get caught up on the bad points. Cunard are trying to appeal to a broad range of people here. The expectations of someone paying £1500 for a cabin are going to be wildly different to the sort of person who is paying £15,000. I know the grill dining areas are apparently better than the Brittania (quite how the Brittania food can be improved upon is beyond me) and they get their own deck, but all the public areas are the same so there are bound to be people who aren't happy with things. If that is enough to ruin your holiday and make you give 1 star reviews then perhaps you should think about chartering your own private boat in future.
The boat is fantastic and we saw no evidence or wear and tear or bad workmanship. The decor was lovely and finished to a really high standard. The staff is all well trained and everything ran smoothly. I can't help but feel it is a shame that when designing the boat they had an opportunity to create something magnificent and push the boundaries of what luxury cruising will be in the future. Instead they dug out the old QV plans and said lets save a few quid and build another one of these. The two boats aren't just similar, they feel identical. Yes the lobby is a little different and the games deck has a new look but these all feel like minor cosmetic difference. 99% of the ship is the same which is a shame when you think about what they could have done with a skilled team of nautical architects.
The cabins are lovely although with the sofabed pulled out (which the maid does from 6pm if you have kids) you can't access the balcony or fridge. The beds were comfortable and the climate control worked well even if it was a bit noisy.
The onboard entertainment didn't feel quite as good as the QV but maybe our expectations were set too high. There just didn't seem to be as much variety, plus the shows were 45 min whereas I'm sure they were an hour on the QV. It was a lot of singing or dancing with only the comedy juggler and pickpocket acts bringing in something new. They were both absolutely brilliant though and more than made up for the lack of other different acts. The in-house dancing and entertainment teams were all fabulous and if you are into musicals and dance then you would be very happy every night.
One thing people might be interested to hear about is the kids facilities as this is an area not many people have written reviews about so far. We have 2 boys who were aged 8 and 5. The younger was in the Play Zone and the older one was in the Zone. Both rooms are amazing and the kids couldn't wait to get there after meal times. All of the staff were brilliant with them and always managed to keep smiling even after 8 hours of looking after 10 - 15 kids! Izzy deserves a special mention as she really took an interest in every child and would go the extra mile to make sure everyone's needs were catered for.
There are a few things I felt could be improved however. 2 years ago we went on a Med cruise on the QV. Both kids were in the kids club most days and at the end of the 2 weeks they came out with a huge folder stuffed with the things they had been making, painting, colouring, moulding e.t.c. This time I think we had 3 or 4 sheets of colouring in. The reason for this is clear. Both clubs are very video game focussed and if you give a kid a choice of playing on a Wii or PS3, or doing some colouring I expect most would choose the video games every time. The older club had a big screen with a Wii and about 6 or 7 LCD screens connected to PS3's and XBox's. There was also an air hockey table and table football so at least the kids were getting plenty of exercise.
We didn't really mind them playing games so much, it was just nice that last time they spent so much time doing creative things and this time they didn't. It felt like a step backwards.
The other big downside is that you can drop the younger kids off at 6pm (there is a special kids dinner in the lido at 5pm every day) but the older kids aged 8+ can't be dropped off until 8pm. This is a real pain if you are on early sitting for dinner (as we were) and fancy an adults evening. The problem is that the older teenagers are given the Zone from 5pm - 8pm so the others can't be in there. I don't see why they couldn't go in the Play Zone for those 2 hours to watch a film or something, they were rarely busy in the early evenings.
In addition to this, you can only leave your kids on the boat all day when you are in port IF you have booked a tour through Cunard. There were a couple of days when we would have preferred to leave the kids on the boat for the day rather than dragging them around museums that they have no interest in (St Petersburg for example). We paid a lot of money for the holiday and you expect everything to be included which in this case it wasn't unless you spent more money with the.
So this brings me on to our biggest gripe - tipping. Now I don't mind giving money in return for good service. This is the point of a tip as far as I know. At what point do we get to decide if we have had a good service? Certainly not before the holiday so why assume we will be happy? I think it was 11 dollars a day per person which includes the 8 and 5yo so for our family it was 44 dollars a day for 15 days, that's 660 dollars. They say it is fair so everyone gets a share but why would I want to tip the barman in the commodore club that I never went to, or the health club workers that I never saw? I've also never in my life felt the need to tip a chef or pot washer. They aren't giving me a good service, they are doing their job. If they aren't paid enough and Cunard need to use our tips to top up their salary then something is wrong.
It gets worse though. They justify this auto-gratuity as a way of people not having to worry about leaving tips throughout the day. That's fine but why then does EVERYTHING have a 15% gratuity added on? You want a beer from the bar? That's 5 dollars plus 15% gratuity, a bottle of wine with your meal? 40 dollars plus 15% gratuity. Even a one dollar can of sprite from the mini bar has it added on! It starts getting expensive should you decide that 100 dollars is good value for a health treatment. Where does all this money go?
I'm not ashamed in any way to say we asked to have all gratuities removed from our bill and we left cash for out chambermaid and our waiters who all really exceeded our expectations and gave us an excellent service. I'm assuming by using cash they actually get to keep the money.
Other gripes include photographs - why are they so expensive? Make them half the price and you'll sell twice as many and have happier customers. Also, you really can't expect people to buy a photo of you standing next to a tacky life ring with the name of the port in the middle. Other ships we saw had people dressed up in local costumes to greet people as they disembarked.
The casino was good fun but they really need someone who understands poker to run the tournaments. I think the buy-in was 40 dollars (no gratuity but the house too a decent chunk of the pot). We each got 1500 chips and the tournament started. Those who have played poker before would assume the staring minimum bet (or blinds) to me 5 and 10 chips, maybe 10 and 25 at a push, these then go up every 5 minutes to give a tournament that lasts about 60 - 90 minutes. With this one the starting bets were 100 and 200 chips and they went up every 5 minutes. It wasn't about playing poker it was about getting lucky in the few hands that were dealt. I think the whole thing lasted 20 minutes at the most and we all felt really cheated. We questioned the casino manager who said it was policy from the shore and they couldn't change it. We all agreed we wouldn't play again under those rules and the boat didn't try and put any more one. This becomes even more crazy when you realize there was always 2 or 3 people paid to stand next to the roulette and blackjack tables with no customers at all. Poker is a massive game globally but the high buy-in and short format was a real disappointment. They could have had 5 or 10 tournaments a day if they were cheap and fun. These were neither.
I guess it all comes down to the central theme of this review. You don't feel like you are stepping onto a luxury ocean liner, you feel like you are entering a giant machine designed to extract every penny it can from you. For the most part people overlook this and get on with enjoying the experience but look closer and you will see what I mean.