Queen Elizabeth Entertainment
There's live music all over the ship. Evenings kick off with either a harpist or a pianist in the Grand Lobby, which is lovely if you're enjoying a pre-dinner drink in the Cafe Carinthia or the Midships Bar, both of which overlook the area. A singing pianist entertains in the Golden Lion pub, interspersed with quizzes and karaoke, while there's mellow piano up in the Commodore Club, another great pre-dinner and late-night-drink spot.
The heart and soul of Queen Elizabeth is dancing, and there is dancing every day, morning, noon and night. Most of it is in the Queens Room, a lavish ballroom built for this very purpose, blue and gold in colour and lit by a huge Swarovski chandelier. A large, wooden dance floor, a stage for the band and a series of murals of English country houses complete the picture. Every night, there's ballroom and Latin dancing before and after dinner, usually to a live band, as well as dancing at afternoon tea and classes in the mornings. Single ladies are kept on their toes by gentleman hosts. The Queens Room is also the venue for jazz concerts and classical piano recitals. Formal Royal Balls take place every few nights ("black and white" and "Ascot" being two of the themes). The dance teachers were performers from the onboard shows, and some dance enthusiasts said they felt slightly short changed that there were no resident dance instructors.
The other big evening events are shows in the stunning theatre, complete with 20 V.I.P. boxes. A dedicated Royal Cunard Company of singers and dancers stages variety and dance spectaculars, which are interspersed throughout the week with guest acts -- a comedian and Dean Martin sound-alike on our sailing.
For $50 (plus 15 percent) per couple, you can book one of the boxes. This package includes a Champagne cocktail and a tray of petits fours in a private lounge, attended by Cunard's scarlet-uniformed White Star Bell Boys, and a half-bottle of Veuve Cliquot in the box. It's a lovely idea, and there's a real sense of excitement when the ticket, like a proper theatre ticket, is delivered to your stateroom. Our only criticism is the structure of the boxes; a Perspex-style screen in front of the seats means everything on the stage is slightly distorted.
Evenings bring plenty of other diversions. Forward of the Queens Room is the Empire Casino with the Golden Lion pub running along the starboard side. The pub, modelled after a British pub, is cosy enough, with British beers like Boddington's, Green King IPA and Marston Pedigree on offer, but compared to the fun-packed Golden Lion on Queen Mary 2, it feels a bit long and straggly; you can't see one end from the other, so late-night quizzes lost a bit of atmosphere.
In the casino are roulette, blackjack and Texas Hold'em, as well as numerous slots. The dealers seemed good-humoured with a very mixed crowd of first-time gamblers and some more hardcore customers. Blackjack bets range from $5 minimum to $200 maximum, or $25 to $500 on a high-rollers' table.
The casino, incidentally, is nonsmoking; the only places smokers can light up is on their balconies, on the starboard side of Decks 3 and 10 and in Churchill's Cigar Lounge on Deck 10 (and that's cigars only).
Golden Lion aside, the bars on the main entertainment decks are small and spread out. Although the Cafe Carinthia serves cocktails, and both the Casino and The Verandah have their own small bar areas, the graceful Midships Bar is the main venue. It offers seating around a crescent-shaped marble bar, as well as comfortable armchairs and some wonderful memorabilia like a model of the original Queen Elizabeth and a highly stylized mural of a map of the Atlantic Ocean. Waiters serve drinks in the Queens Room, too, which is where a lot of people gather in the early evening.
Otherwise, the bigger bars and lounges are on decks 9 and 10. On Deck 9, the Garden Lounge is inspired by the glass houses at Kew Gardens in London, with a huge glass semidome flooding the tiled floor and potted lilies below with light. It's a wonderful spot for snoozing in one of the squashy cane chairs or sitting quietly with a book. On cruises longer than our five-day outing, supper club dinners and dancing are held up there.
There are two evening venues on Deck 10 forward: the Yacht Club, a re-creation of the legendary nightspot on QE2, and the Commodore Club observation lounge. There's lots of wonderful Cunard memorabilia up there, too, including the bell and plaque of QE2 and the bell of the original Queen Elizabeth, as well as artwork by Robert Lloyd, the renowned marine artist. The plush gold and red Commodore Club has sweeping views of the horizon and a magnificent cocktail menu, with signature martinis from $9.95, as well as a huge array of other spirits and liqueurs. You can even book a mixology lesson up there ($20) or a malt whisky or vodka tasting ($25). We loved the spot early evening, when there's a pianist, complimentary hot and cold hors d'oeuvres and fellow passengers swapping stories of their days. There are two smaller rooms off the Commodore Club, the Admiral's Lounge, used for meetings and private parties, and Churchill's, a tiny cigar lounge.
Late at night, once the casino has died down and last orders have been called in the Golden Lion, the Yacht Club keeps going, with a live band and a DJ. This is another attractive lounge, with an inlaid-wood dance floor, more cream marble, and blue and gold soft furnishings.
During the day, there are plenty of activities (and more were added on the mini-cruise, as so many of the passengers stayed onboard all day), but a lot are unhosted -- paddle tennis, bridge, chess, solo travellers' gatherings, deck quoits and so on.
Cunard is well known for its enrichment program, which wasn't shown off to its full extent on our shorter sailing. There were several computer, iPad, Facebook and Photoshop seminars in the Internet centre (which also sells Apple products), as well as art talks -- proper ones, not just attempts to sell the art in the Clarendon Fine Art Gallery onboard. But normally, there would be guest lecturers as part of the Cunard Insights program, providing in-depth talks on the arts, architecture and politics. On a return cruise, there were insightful lectures on the Cunard line and a commentary on Crimean history linked to passing sights.
An interesting behind-the-scenes tour is the free galley visit, which provides an understanding of the logistics involved in the ship's catering operation, with an army of chefs providing food virtually round the clock. A behind-the-scenes ship tour was also on offer for $120 and, despite the price, over-subscribed. Only available to 16 people at a time, the three-hour tour includes the theatre back stage, medical centre, engine control room, foods stores, galley and bridge, all rounded off with a commemorative pin to say you've been there and done that.
Whilst all entertainment leans towards the tasteful, there was a fun Elizabethan Ball preceded by the opportunity to join a free crown-making workshop, with materials provided. Participants paraded their creations at the evening dance.
Shore excursions are previewed in the pre-voyage documents and graded into three levels, depending on the amount of walking involved. As with all cruises, if there are trips that catch your attention, it pays to book in advance to avoid finding them full when you embark. On the Black Sea itinerary, they ranged in price from $37 to $121, and private tours for small groups were also available. The excursions we joined were extremely well run, and the tendering operation, when needed, went smoothly with numbered tickets given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Queen Elizabeth Public Rooms
Queen Elizabeth's public rooms are located all along decks 2 and 3, as well as on the upper decks. The heart of the ship is the three-deck Grand Lobby, which has to be one of the most beautiful at sea with its curving staircases, ravishing marquetry panel by master craftsman David Linley -- nephew of the Queen -- and the extensive use of marble. People pause to look every time they come by this lovely spot.
The 6,000-plus-volume library is there, too, and it's slightly "Hogwarts" with its old-fashioned polished-wood panels and quirky spiral staircase linking the two levels. It's, without doubt, a superb library; the reference section is really impressive. However, you can only take out two books at a time and only when the librarian is present. A focal point is a large geographic globe, and the library's collection includes books in large print.
Deck 3 houses the Royal Arcade, a smarter version of the shops you'll find on other cruise ships, with Fortnum & Mason, Harris Tweed and Anya Hindmarch alongside the jewellery, logowear and duty-free merchandise. We loved the Cunard bookshop, tucked away next to the Midships Bar; it's perfect for gift-shopping, with fun vintage cards, some wonderful nautical books, calendars and memorabilia, as well as a more comical array of titles that include carb-counters, bridge tips and puzzle books.
Also on Deck 3 are two galleries: The Cunarders' Gallery, where you can buy vintage Cunard posters and prints, and the Clarendon Fine Art Gallery, which has changing displays; on our cruise, there was an exhibition of sensuous Latin prints by Fabian Perez and associated talks comparing and contrasting his work with that of U.K. artist Jack Vettriano. It's a nice idea having a proper art gallery instead of a tacky auction display, and artists whose work is featured there join some cruises to give talks. There's a huge photo gallery outside the Britannia dining room. The ship's photographers seemed to be everywhere, but photos were expensive. For example, an 8x10 print cost $24.95.
The Internet centre is on Deck 1, and there are Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the public areas. Internet packages are available from $47.95 for 120 minutes, and pay-as-you-go is $0.75 per minute. Other facilities include a medical centre, three meeting rooms and five passenger launderettes.
Queen Elizabeth Spa & Fitness
The Royal Spa on Deck 9 is run by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure. It's an extensive and peaceful space, if something of a rabbit warren. An area called the Royal Bath House includes the Thermal Suite and a proper indoor thalassotherapy pool; it costs $35 for a day-pass. There are also various other facilities, including three couples' treatment rooms, a beauty salon and a Wellness Centre for seminars, of which there were many, geared to selling treatments in the spa.
The gym itself is state-of-the-art, and there's a studio area for classes -- about four a day, half of them free. We did "Tour de Cycle," aka spinning, which cost $12 for 40 minutes, but it was a fun and satisfying workout. We also had two treatments and were pleasantly surprised by the lack of sales-speak from the therapists; they couldn't have been nicer, in fact. Prices are pretty much in line with other ships' spas: $125 for a 50-minute facial and $119 for a full-body Swedish massage. There are quite a few shorter treatments, too, which are a good idea for spa virgins: a 30-minute facial for $80, a 30-minute massage for $90 or a taster session of three mini-treatments for $129. A gratuity of 12.5 percent is added to all bills. Incidentally, it's made quite clear that there will be discounts on port days, so if you're wavering about what to try, hang out for the price reductions.
Queen Elizabeth offers some unusual and enjoyable fitness pursuits. Fencing lessons are held in the Queens Room at no charge, while there's a fine wraparound promenade deck for jogging and walking. The covered Games Deck is high up on Deck 11, with paddle tennis, short bowls and croquet. There are two pools on Deck 9: the Pavilion Pool, midship, and the aft Lido Pool, which is surrounded by a huge sunbathing area and serves as the venue for sailaway parties. Each pool has its own bar and two Jacuzzis.