This was a 24 night cruise from Southampton taking in a number of maiden ports for Queen Elizabeth.
On embarkation day, the QM2 was going out of the Ocean terminal, so we boarded QE at the Mayflower terminal, which we had previously experienced on P&O cruises. It was broadly okay, but it was nowhere near as slick as our previous encounter with Cunard’s own, quite new terminal just down the road.
Ours was a late booking at a ridiculously discounted price less than 1/3 of the brochure figure and as such, we found it remarkably good value for money. We booked a guarantee Q7 with the hope of a visit by the upgrade fairy. In the end, we got a Q7 at the aft of the ship and were perfectly happy there.
Our cabin had more room than we expected and was comparable in size to the midships Q4 we recently had on the QV. There have been previous reports on CC of problems with vibration and noise in the aft cabins. I can report that the vibration was definitely there and was fairly noticeable at times, but it was never a problem for us. Other people might find it unacceptable. Curiously, we have been at the aft on older ships which were not so badly affected and it came as a bit of a surprise.
We did have problems with a persistent heavy knocking noise when the sea was rough and the ship rolling a little, which continued throughout one night but (thanks to the wine) didn’t interfere too much with sleep. We mentioned it the next day and the response was excellent. Not ten minutes later, the Chief Purser was in our cabin with her ear pressed to the wall and an engineer followed soon after. I don’t know if the source ever got identified, because the seas were never rough enough for the rest of the voyage for it to rear its head again.
The ship is only a year old so is in good condition. One route to our cabin had a short stretch which always seemed to have a faint odour of bad drains, but the larger public areas were well kept and there was never a problem finding somewhere to sit down, daytime or night.
We can’t fault the standard of cabin cleanliness and service. Breakfast or dinner in the cabin was always hot and recently cooked.
The theatre is a nice venue and most of the time seems big enough for the volume of people on the ship. It’s a good idea to avoid the upper level and the boxes because impressive as it is, you end up watching the entertainment through curved glass screens which have distracting reflections from the LED floor lights. For the same reason, we didn’t bother booking a box at $50 a shot, complete with some finger food and a glass of fizz on one of the big nights.
We didn’t see all of the entertainment on offer, but what we did see was generally of reasonable quality. The on-board theatre company was not as finely polished and talented as you will find on some other ships and one or two of the voices were weak but there was nothing to complain about. It’s not every cruise ship where you can see a mid-afternoon performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night accompanied by a string quartet.
There was a good available variety of activities during the days at sea plus lectures of variable interest and quality, but this is definitely not a cruise for the young.
As for the voyage, the food, the ports and the tours, I have mixed results to report.
We found the QG food once again excellent and thoroughly enjoyed the fare throughout the cruise. In 24 days I only had one course that I thought lacklustre, so not a bad result. Some fellow passengers had gripes but to be honest, not things that would have troubled my wife and I and as far as we could see there was a genuine effort to get things right.
The food in the Lido buffet was also good whenever we ventured there, much better quality than on some of the mid-market lines. But as on all cruise ships it is important to get the timing right otherwise one risks getting trampled when it is busy.
I can’t be so complimentary about the wine list. There seems to have been quite steep price rise since 2010 and again since our time on the QV in June 2011. Once you have added on the mandatory 15% service charge then a reasonably good wine with dinner becomes an unnecessarily expensive item. On a like-for-like basis, prices were well above that you might expect to pay at an upmarket restaurant on shore.
The ports were a good mix and enjoyable, with one exception.
After a six day Atlantic crossing we began with two days in New York. We arrived just as the sun was rising and departed just before dusk. The route in and out took us past the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn, Ellis Island and the rest. We berthed next to the USS Intrepid and Concorde.
There is nothing about this city that I can tell you. If you have been there, you know everything you need to know. If not, then you need to see it to believe it. The ship docked at the Manhattan terminal which is an easy fifteen minutes walk from Times Square. The most direct route there, to Broadway and other targets is straight through Hells Kitchen, which although still distinctly downbeat is not the risk to life and limb it would have been in bygone days. I still wouldn’t have done it after dark though. The view of Manhattan at night time is every bit as impressive as you would imagine.
Initial customs and immigration clearance in NY involved everyone getting off the ship over a period of about three hours and braving a 1.5 hour queue to clear the formalities. No-one was allowed back on board until all was completed. Contrast this with Canada, where things were quick, effortless and entirely stress free. The UN was in session and Obama was in town but even so, the US approach seems completely over the top compared with anywhere else I have ever visited.
Next came Newport, Rhode Island, a tender port in beautiful sunshine and a really pleasant place to spend the day. It is a sailing mecca and clearly a place of well above average wealth. It is relaxed, pretty and has plenty of interesting local sights to see. I could happily live there if money were no object, a feeling I’ve seldom had about most places I have visited. There were some complaints about the time it took to get everyone ashore, but once on dry land it was worth the wait.
The visit to Boston was for a full day with the ship departing at 11pm. Boston is an interesting enough place, but there is only so much of the revolutionary history you can put up with before you get fed up with the tour guide. It is a big city, with plenty of traffic, but no wow-factor that we could identify.
A bone of contention for us and indeed, several other passengers we spoke to, was the rip-off prices for a shuttle bus from Quincy Market back to the quay. To charge $10 per person one-way for a five minute journey was blatant profiteering; with hindsight we ought to have taken a taxi. Our last Cunard voyage included free shuttle buses at the only port where the dock was a reasonable distance from the town centre and this ought to be the norm when you are paying Cunard’s premium prices.
Portland, Maine wasn’t a place where we found lots to do, but nevertheless it was an interesting place to spend the day. After Boston, the local hop-on, hop-off bus service which did a 45 minute circular trip was remarkable value for only $5 each. This is especially true when compared with the $32 per person shuttle fare to the Freeport shopping centre outside town. If someone wants me to spend a day emptying my pockets, they can pay for my transport otherwise I’ll stay in town. Unsurprisingly, Cunard seemed keen to promote the shopping trip and the tours but we only found about the local bus once we got off the ship. There were also the usual duck buses plus a narrow gauge railway to be found at reasonable prices.
Bar Harbor was another tender port and another very attractive place to visit. With a population of less than 5000, the arrival of QE and two other cruise ships must have nearly doubled the headcount. The place still reeks of early 20th century wealth but despite this the shops were good value, as was the food. As a maiden visit port, we got an advance copy of a specially printed edition of the local paper and the town seemed well geared up for our arrival.
We visited the nearby Acadia national park, which even in the foggy weather was truly beautiful and a place we will someday visit again. Our visit was on one of the organised tours with a good and knowledgeable guide. Quite a few passengers took advantage of the one-off local free bus service which went from the harbour around town and also went into part way into the Acadia Park. Once again, this was not something Cunard sought to publicise in advance.
Our next stop was Halifax, Nova Scotia. We didn’t have massive expectations, but on arrival thoroughly enjoyed the place. Perhaps it was helped by the glorious sunshine and the fact that we arrived on a Sunday when there was lots on offer for the locals to do. But there was so much to do and see along the full length of the harbour front that we didn’t even bother to venture up the hill into the centre of town.
As another maiden visit port and also the home town of Samuel Cunard, there were some formalities, including a re-dedication of the Cunard statue in the harbour and a lot of local dignitaries and their kids on board during the day. There were plenty of places to eat and no shortage of shops including clothing, crystal glass and places selling very nice pewter. Our impression, perhaps unfairly was that the prices of souvenir tat were a little higher here than elsewhere. It was useful to find that most places would accept either Canadian or US dollars.
After a day at sea, our next port of call for two days was Quebec, arriving at midday after a very enjoyable morning sailing up the St Lawrence River. The view on arrival is magnificent, with lots of fine old architecture below and above the cliffs and the old part of town is accessible directly from the quay. There is no shortage of high-end clothing, art, wood carving and other shops, plus restaurants a-plenty. Beware though, this isn’t a city that is particularly accessible for anyone with mobility difficulties. The streets are steep and cobbled, drop kerbs are few and poorly thought out even where newly paved and most of the shops and eateries are only accessible via steps with hardly any ramps to be found. On one of our two days the funicular railway up the cliff was closed to wheelchairs for maintenance so our scope was limited further.
After a day at sea, our final port of call was Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Let me not be too critical; I’m sure that there is something interesting there to see or do, possibly if taking one of the tours. We didn’t.
The ship docked beside the pulp and paper factory, which was undoubtedly the most interesting thing we saw. Free shuttle buses had been laid on, or to be precise, one coach and a school bus doing a 30 minute circular trip around town. With about 2000 passengers disgorging from the ship, this didn’t work very well. The queue was long, so we headed off into town independently. We didn’t get very far because of the steep hills, uneven pavements and the almost complete absence of drop kerbs which made progress in a wheelchair a tedious and frustrating experience.
We did manage to find one level street and even went into the local discount store, which was very much like a UK pound shop but without any of the classy stuff. The place is distinctly dreary compared with the other ports. We were back on the ship before noon, as were most of the other passengers. Apparently, we hadn’t missed much in our failure to get into the heart of the place. Some people who took the free shuttle bus didn’t even bother getting off and came straight back to the ship. The people who saw the Gros Morne National Park were very complimentary so my advice is to go there and ignore the town.
Corner Brook was a maiden call for Cunard as a late replacement for Sydney, which was apparently too busy to accommodate the QE. There has only ever been four cruise ship visits and twelve are booked for next year. We won’t be on one of them.
Overall then, a good mix of interesting ports and an itinerary that with one exception we would be happy to repeat. The autumn colours were not fully developed at any of the ports we visited and ideally we would have been there two or three weeks later, but this did not spoil the whole experience.
The pre-arranged tours and the tour desk prompted mixed reviews.
Our experience was entirely positive. We enjoyed the tours we took and found the guides informative, accommodating and generally humorous. The tour desk couldn’t have been more helpful, perhaps because we quickly figured out which one of the staff was on the ball and could make decisions. Some of the water-based tours in the various ports drew good comments from fellow passengers.
Others did not fair so well.
The first day in New York prompted some general discontent with many of the tours, possibly because people were late on to the coaches after clearing immigration. In Newport, the delay in getting on shore meant that some people were waiting land-side for an hour and a half for their fellow passengers to make it to the coach.
One tour in Boston was such a shambles that people were given a full refund.
The tours do provide a low risk way to see things you might be reluctant to organise individually, but the pricing is never going to be outstanding value for many people. It is disappointing to find that Cunard did not publicise the low cost or free options at the ports or provide good value shuttle bus services at the places where we docked a good distance from town.
Niggles? Very few. On such a long voyage, the limited availability of self-service laundry facilities meant that washing clothes had to be planned like a military operation. It must be seriously frustrating on the world cruise. In the end we accepted defeat and sent two loads for laundering.
Disembarkation was a little delayed for reasons not well communicated. Once the cork came out of the bottle it became a bit of a free-for-all due to the folks who couldn't or wouldn't follow the plan.
So in summary, this was a very enjoyable cruise and met our expectations very well. We’d be happy to repeat it in a few years’ time, ideally when the trees are in full colour.