Sailing away from Rotterdam last evening seemed oddly low-key for a first-ever visit by a new Cunard ship. As we pulled away from the dock, the chorus, accompanied by an accordion, sang "Merrily We Roll Along" and "Jingle Bells," which, in a lovely way, we could still hear long after we had sailed. Still, there were few on-lookers lining the docks and only a handful of those tell tale flashes of light that alert you to people taking pictures in the dark. It's a lot different from our departures from maiden voyage ports of call on Queen Mary 2 when throngs would line the waterfronts to see that iconic ship. Even so, our departure from Rotterdam was an interesting sail out to the North Sea as we passed mile after mile of docks, refineries and mills.
Today is our first sea day, and it's time to see how Queen Victoria fares as a cruise ship. I awoke late this morning for the second day in a row. These must be the quietest cabins afloat, and the mattresses must be the most comfortable. I can't get over how attractive the linens -- crisp white sheets, a cotton duvet and sunflower yellow comforters -- look and how luxurious they feel. It's a temptation to spend the day in bed.
I made my first visit to the Royal Court Theatre, Queen Victoria's principal show room. It's a wonderful theater, decked out in a red plush and gilt design scheme, and the three-story space is festooned with Victorian gas lamps. There are no bad seats in this house. Before I boarded, I had scoffed at the pretension of "royal boxes," but to see all 12 of them populated reminded me of going to West End plays. They seem so right for this space.
One thing was abundantly clear: Queen Victoria's designers had listened to passengers' comments, both positive and negative, about QM2. As a result, Queen Victoria is a refined, smaller version of her earlier sister. The most striking enhancements? They scaled down the Lido Restaurant, moved the Golden Lion Pub next door to the Royal Court Theatre (for a quick pint before or after a show), placed the Princess and Queens Grill rooms and lounge en suite, and moved the Todd English Restaurant to a central location off the atrium. Another example: the Library and Bookshop, which have been twinned together on both QE2 and QM2, are now separate. (A historic tidbit: Brought together when the former first class card room on the QE2 was turned into a bookshop, the combination of the Library and Bookshop was maintained on the QM2). On Queen Victoria, the spaces are not even adjoining, and each shines as its own space; on QE2 the function of bookshop overwhelms the Library, while on QM2, they coexist uneasily: the Library demands quiet, while the Bookshop is a place of trade.
Likewise, QM2's Winter Garden is located on a middle deck and marred by a low ceiling, lack of natural light, and faux flora and fauna, which combine to create a rather bleak, underused space: large, dark and indoors. Here on Queen Victoria, it's the complete opposite: the Winter Garden is off the pool deck and has a Magrodome ceiling; not only does this glass top let in natural light in bad weather as well as good, but it can also retract when weather's pleasant, to create an indoor/outdoor space.
Another change for the better involves the aforementioned Grill restaurants (smaller, cozier venues for the ship's top-paying passengers). The Princess and Queens Grills are rather long, uninspired spaces on the QM2 where, surrounded on the outside by a promenade deck, passers-by peer in the windows.
On Queen Victoria, on the other hand, access to the Grill rooms is by elevator, keyed by a stateroom card, much like the concierge floor of a hotel. The elevator opens onto a lobby with the Grills' lounge immediately in front. The two Grill restaurants open off the lounge. Each Grill room seats over 100 diners at tables for 2, 4 and 6. (There is one splendid table for 8 with a rear facing view.)
All tables have sea views, and both Grill rooms have bowed windows over the sides of the ship. These are truly lovely spaces. On the same level, there is an enclosed patio with lamp stands and a wall fountain. It is set with tables and chairs for al fresco dining -- though of course on our Christmas markets themed cruise, it's been a bit too nippy to sit there.
Above the patio and the Grills is a private deck, reserved for Grill passengers, that has tables and chairs, sun loungers and whirlpools. What works is that the area is private. It's open only to residents of Princess and Queens Grill cabins. What also works is that it's out of general view -– and so does not serve as a reminder to other passengers that there are areas of the ship off limits to them.
The Todd English Restaurant on the Queen Victoria has been moved from a tricky and hard-to-find location aft on QM2 to a central, you-can't-miss-it space just off the atrium. The bar is oddly located though; it's tucked away at the back of the restaurant. That's no big deal for those who are sipping a pre-dinner drink before they dine at Todd English. What's a tad awkward though is that the bar, which is very much open to anyone who wants to sample its tapas and cocktails, not just patrons of the restaurant, requires people to stroll through the restaurant to get there.
The decor is simple (well, exotically simple, it's still got the flamboyantly festive ambience of its QM2 sibling) with curtained pillars providing privacy between tables. For a romantic outing, try to book a booth -– there aren't many tables for two. And Todd English's new and improved location does have one minus: there's no space here for an alfresco terrace.
Last night we dined at Todd English, which has lost none of its polish in its new branch. The menu offers Todd English signature dishes with a Mediterranean flare: roast rack of lamb with black olive jus, seared yellow fin tuna with black olive spill, roast duck confit with ginger carrot cannelloni, pan seared swordfish with chermoula grilled shrimp. The service was deft, yet personal.
The Cunardia museum, which will feature a series of changing exhibits (every two years or so) on Cunard Line history, occupies a strange nook. It's located smack dab in the middle of the corridor between the atrium and the Royal Court Theatre rather than in a room to itself. Still, the current exhibit, detailing the history of the four preceding Cunard Queens, is an entertaining distraction. Cunard has scoured its archives for memorabilia from its ships (a telephone from the Queen Mary, an ashtray from the original QE2) and paired them with brochures, luggage tags and posters, recalling the eras in which they sailed.
The space also has a display of products by the Russian company that produces replicas of the work of the Romanov court jeweler, Faberge. Off the museum is a shop that sells high-end souvenirs (the inevitable Swarovski and Lladro, but also some nice Staffordshire china), Faberge replicas (Tatiana Faberge is on board to lecture about her family's business) and high-end Queen Victoria memorabilia (such as a pill box, thimble, demitasse).
It took a while, but I have finally run into people I've met before at sea. One couple I met on the QM2 maiden voyage has a custom of asking people they meet on cruises to sign a canvas tote bag. I had no trouble finding my previous comment and signature, written four years ago. Most of the passengers are British and of late middle age or later. I have learned that the voyage did not sell out early, and British passengers were offered cabins at £999/person –- another difference from the debut of the iconic QM2.
The dress code for this voyage was printed in the passage ticket: one elegant casual night, five informal nights (coat and tie for men) and four formal nights. But last night, for the second night in a row, the ship's program called for "elegant casual." Dress ranged from T-shirts to coat and tie for men. (Women are always better dressed than their escorts.) Tonight calls for formal, so it will be interesting to see what will be the norm.
This sea day provided an opportunity to sample afternoon tea, one of Cunard's signature offerings. It's offered in the Queens Room, a truly lovely space. While it is not as large as the Queens Room on QM2, here it is a very large, two-storied room. There is a balcony overlooking the (generously sized) dance floor, so that passers-by may watch (and perhaps be tempted to join) the merrymakers below. As always, white-gloved stewards served finger sandwiches and sweets from trays, while other stewards filled teacups. There was a wait for tables, which would not happen in temperate climes (when people tend to say out of doors), but will likely recur every winter sea day. Still, the service was prompt and smiling; there were sufficient stewards to serve; and table captains filled in empty seats as they became available. A harpist entertained with light melodies. It could not have been more pleasant.
It's natural for those of us who are not only Cunard veterans but also maiden voyage repeaters (far more, of course, experienced QM2's debut than QE2's inaugural) to compare the two newest models. One thing's for sure: Queen Victoria's maiden voyage is no QM2 rerun (you may recall that QM2 did not enjoy an easy first year, and much has been done to overhaul service and food quality issues, in particular). But Cunard has done its homework on this one. It does not want to hear horror stories for months to come, nor does it want to have to overcome bad word-of-mouth.
As such, most staff on this voyage are already Cunard veterans (70 percent have worked for QE2 and QM2; most of the rest came from Princess Cruises, a sister line).
So far, there have been few of the service glitches that so marred the QM2's maiden voyage. When QM2 made her maiden voyage, Cunard had only a ship and a half (QE2 and Caronia) from which to recruit to roster the giant QM2. Staffers on QE2 were reluctant to move to the new ship. Now, QE2 is being sold, so QE2 staffers had an incentive to find berths on the Queen Victoria. (I have heard only one report of a waiter and busboy leaving the ship in Rotterdam; on QM2's maiden voyage, there were defections at every port).
My guess is what Queen Victoria apparently lacks in drawing QM2's crowds, it more than makes up for in a smooth, satisfying cruise experience -– right from the start.