I had often talked of cruising the Greek Islands so for my 60th birthday, my husband booked us on the Queen Victoria, Rome to Venice, with stops in Santorini, Izmir, Istanbul, Samos, Athens, Zante, and Dubrovnik from 9-23 Sept. 2011. While we have never been on a cruise before, we had heard many stories from friends, one of whom referred me to cruisecritic.com. We booked with Cunard because we hoped to avoid some of the more sophomoric antics we'd read about with other cruise lines and also thought dressing for dinner might be a treat - since we have spent most of our lives in sweatshirts and jeans.
Ron and I are very independent travelers, so chafe at the idea of being told when you are going to be in what port and how long you can stay, but we were open minded and ready to enjoy ourselves.
We booked into a hotel in Rome a few days early to allow for time adjustment (good thing because we slept 15 hours!) and do some sightseeing, then took a taxi across town to catch the cruise line sponsored shuttle. Aside from a lengthy wait at the pick-up hotel (coffee would have been nice) we had no problems checking in. Once at the port we simply got off the bus, walked through the terminal building and onto the ship. Easy. We found our cabin with no problems.
I had read some reviews that complained about the lack of space but I thought our room was quite adequate. Lots of storage under the bed for suitcases, plenty of room in the closet with lots of coat hangers, room to walk around and a couch to sit on. Yes, the shower was a bit small, but it is, after all, a ship. How big is the shower in an RV?
We toured the ship - very nice, but then I had nothing else to compare it to - and realized we were forward on deck 6, while most of the eating was aft on decks 8 & 2/3. That was great because it forced us to walk!
Food, for the most part, was excellent. You can't bat 1000 all the time, so a few not-so-hot meals were to be expected. Portions were small, and since I'd been on Weight Watchers, I really appreciated it. We were second seating in the Britannia at a table for 6. Had lovely dinner companions, which made coming "home" after a day of touring a lot of fun as we could compare notes on what we'd done each day. Actually, I should tell you that the first night, there was a couple at our table that we didn't care for all that much, but what the heck. We figured we could make it work. Evidently, they really didn't like us because the next night they were replaced by a lovely English couple so it turned out OK in the end. Both of the other couples had been on many cruises so we were able to ask them about their experiences.
I was a little concerned that the ship would feel crowded but there were many times when Ron and I were alone in the Commodore Lounge and felt like we had our own private yacht! There were so many places to be and so many things to do that no one place was ever really all that crowded - except when people were meeting up to do port tours or to disembark.
Tea in the Queen's Room was delightful. There was often a harpist or string quartet playing so if your tastes run more toward grunge music, hard rock or rap, the Cunard ships are probably not your best choice.
Unfortunately, I was sick and missed the cruisecrite.com meet and greet our first sea day. We didn't do any of the spa things or eat our evening meals in any of the other restaurants. We liked breakfast at the Lido buffet, since it was more casual and we could select what we wanted rather than chose from a pre-set menu with formal service, which allowed us to either eat quickly or linger over coffee. Typically, we ate lunch at the Golden Lion Pub.
The ship photographers were everywhere, but at $24.95 a pop, we ended up only buying one photo. If they had been less expensive, I probably would have purchased a few more. I know they print them up and lose money if you don't buy, but if they'd drop the price to something more reasonable, I'd bet they'd sell more (so less waste and more profit). Just couldn't justify spending that much on a photo.
The lectures that were presented on the ports were nothing more than an infomercial for the tours. I thought this was pretty bad. Tell me about where I'm going - get me excited about what is there - I can read a brochure and select which tour I want to take myself. Information was redundant because many of the tours go to the same places. Also, the person doing the port info strongly recommended against taking the mules up the hill from the port in Santorini - so, of course, we took the mules. That was THE MOST FUN we had the whole trip. What a hoot! We laughed and laughed. It was a heck of a lot better than waiting forever in the long line for the cable cars. Just because he had a bad experience once, doesn't mean it will happen to everyone else, every time.
Ron and I did not participate in any of the balls or dancing, except to watch, but there was dance instruction available. Library was terrific. One thing that was a problem was the laundry. It was often full and if you weren't there when a machine opened up, you missed out. People would hog machines and the ironing board and would take your clothes out of the dryer before they were dry if they wanted the dryer and you weren't there to stop them.
Chaise lounge hogs on deck were also annoying. At dinner one night we complained that we'd tried to go to the pool but there was no where to sit. Our tablemates told us of seeing a woman in the morning grab 8 towels and put them on 8 loungers, then she left. They were there several hours, reading, and she never returned. 4:30 in the afternoon, the towels were still exactly where she'd put them - never been moved. How selfish.
We went on 3 ship sponsored shore excursions - 2 in Turkey and one in Athens. The tours in Turkey were both done by the same vendor and were NOT good. I hope Cunard drops them and finds something better. We booked the tour in Athens to the Acropolis and the guide there was quite knowledgeable. Most ports we simply went ashore and explored on our own. I worried that we would get stuck some place and the ship would leave without us if we didn't take a ship sponsored tour. Could happen - especially considering the economic turmoil and possible strike actions - so we probably could have done more than we did. One of our goals for this cruise was to see if we wanted to go back, and it answered that for us. I'd go back to Greece and Turkey in a flash - Italy, no.
Oh - the WORST thing was the flea market set up every night around the shops. This was really, really tacky and not what I expected of Cunard. They set out tables of "sale" items - reminded me of buying a street watch from a vendor in Washington, DC. A couple of times during the cruise might have been OK to have a "sale" but not every night. I know they are trying to separate you from your money any way they can but it could be done with a little more subtlety and finesse.
On the whole, I thought cruising was OK. It was nice to get up in the morning, go to breakfast that's already made, with no clean-up for me to do, go back to the room to find the bed is made and the cabin is neat and clean. Not having to worry about what to make for lunch or dinner, with no prep or clean-up was a nice change. It was also nice to get dressed up for dinner, although by the end of the cruise my husband could no longer fit into his tux! One thing they did, though, was ask that your bags be packed and in the hall as early as 5 PM - but men were supposed to have a jacket for dinner that night. Might be good if they relaxed that regulation for the last night, so bags could be packed.
Dress code wasn't hard to follow and because there is so much cultural diversity, the definition of "formal" and "elegant casual" can have wide range of meaning. People watching was the most fun - especially ABBA night where one woman wore a totally sheer gown with sequins in the necessary places.
So - there's not much work to do on a cruise - just what you want to do to enjoy yourself. There's nothing to stress about. I would go on another cruise if the price was right; I had nothing better to do; it went some place I'd always wanted to go (Alaska?) but I don't know that I'd actively seek out another cruise unless I was too old or infirm to do anything else.