Our departure from Oslo was magic. The fortress and castle that dominate the seafront were illuminated, as was the twin-towered City Hall. Along the quay, oil lanterns had been lit every so many yards, and a few brave souls bore flaming torches. While the ship departed quietly with very few on-lookers on shore, we left behind a Christmas card scene of flickering winter lights.
Last night, I dined at my table for the second evening (my tablemates kindly told me they had missed me). We had a new busboy. The old one had disappeared without explanation. Service remained slow. The Japanese gentleman at our table, an attractive man, smartly turned out, ordered four appetizers, two entrees and three desserts. (In case you are wondering, he is thin.) I had put down our slow dining service to his multiple courses, but I have heard tales throughout the ship of understaffed stations in the Britannia Restaurant. Onboard friends related the story of their waiter dealing out plates of lobster to get them on the table while they were still hot. (There was no gracious tableside removal of shells.) Even with our fully staffed station, we were served coffee and petits fours before dessert and cheese. We still cannot manage to finish dinner in time for the 10:45 p.m. show.
Each day that I have lunched in the Britannia Restaurant has required two and a half hours to eat three courses. The service is glacial, but the food is attractively served and hot. I went to breakfast this morning in the Britannia Restaurant and was well served. People with whom I was seated, however, told of their experience a previous morning when everyone was brought the same cooked English breakfast, no matter what he or she had ordered: fried eggs, bacon, two kinds of sausage, mushrooms and tomato. When one passenger told the waiter he was a vegetarian, he was told, "Just eat what you can and leave the rest." I've heard enough of these stories to give them credence.
And service in the Lido Restaurant continues to deteriorate. There simply are not enough stewards to clear tables and set places with napkins and silver. God help you if you try to bus your own table. You are told there is simply no more room for dirty dishes at the serving stations. My experience at breakfast of searching for a seat, I am told, is not unique, and it is much worse at prime lunch time. Queen Victoria's Lido Restaurant was meant to answer criticisms of the lack of tables and spotty service in the Kings Court on QM2, but while smaller, it is no better organized.
On the off chance that passengers hadn't gotten enough time to shop on this Christmas markets themed voyage, this sea day -- as we begin to wind down -- surely provided a worthy antidote. In the daily program delivered to cabins last evening, Cunard announced "Maiden Voyage Mania," the sale of logo merchandise marked "maiden voyage," beginning at 8:30 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., queues were already 30 people strong, all waiting patiently for the shops to open. The shop assistants placed the goods on tables lining the balcony of the Royal Arcade. At the appointed hour, people rushed at the tables, pushing and shoving their way. They scooped up T-shirts ($30), polo shirts ($40), caps, mugs and sweatshirts. They didn't pause to check sizes. They just gathered bundles of the stuff and made their way to the cash registers. They advised each other not to remove items from packaging for resale on e-Bay. (What do you suppose the mark-up online of a $30 T-shirt can possibly be?) Within an hour and a half, all the goods marked "maiden voyage" had been sold -- not one thing was left. Only the not-as-limited stock of "maiden season" items remained.
The cynical thought has crossed my mind that Cunard has advertised multiple maiden voyages for Queen Victoria (maiden crossing, maiden inaugural and so forth). Do you suppose additional caches of "maiden voyage" ware have been hidden away to be brought out on subsequent "maiden voyages"? If so, the bottom could drop out of the eBay resale market quite suddenly.
Speaking of maiden voyages reminds me of postage. On QE2 and QM2 one can buy postage stamps and imprint letters and cards with rubber stamps that read "Posted on Board QE2" (for example). On the maiden voyage of QM2, there was a stamp that read, "Posted on Board the Maiden Voyage of QM2." Passengers were looking for the same facility on Queen Victoria. Alas, QE2 and QM2 are royal mail ships. They are floating post offices that can sell stamps and cancel them. Queen Victoria is not. Like most other cruise ships, Queen Victoria uses a mailing service to handle its mail. The Purser's Office does not sell stamps; it sells a service that will take your mail ashore, stamp it and post it. On QE2 and QM2, the cost of mailing a letter is the cost of postage. On Queen Victoria, it is a fixed fee set by the mailing service and more than twice the cost of postage. (On this voyage, it costs 93 cents to mail a postcard or letter within Europe and a whopping $2.27 to mail a letter to the United States.)
And the ship does not have a stamp that reads "Posted on the Maiden Voyage of Queen Victoria." (It does have one that reads, "Posted on the Maiden Crossing of Queen Victoria," but that is in January and small consolation to us.)
Another understaffed facility on Queen Victoria is the Purser's Office. No matter what the time of day, there is a queue waiting to speak to the one or two persons staffing that desk. As the Purser's Office no longer handles foreign exchange (there is a machine for that) nor encashment of checks (there is an ATM for that) nor the selling of postage stamps (see above), I cannot imagine why so many people need to speak to a purser. When I entered the queue to ask about postage, I was the seventh in line. When I exited the line, there were 12 people behind me. This is White Star Service?
I took a tour of the shops onboard with an eye toward items that are particular to Queen Victoria and her maiden voyage. The Bookshop has a large selection of books on ships and the sea, as well as a considerable selection of books, puzzles and games for children. There is a limited edition poster of the three Queens for $125, a Robert Lloyd print of Queen Victoria leaving Venice for $220 (Lloyd, a U.K.-based maritime artist, was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint an oil for the ship; it hangs in the atrium), and a pencil sketch of Queen Victoria by Simon Fisher for $80. Less expensive items include playing cards for $10, a wooden jigsaw puzzle for $50 and a voyage diary (in pleather) for $18.
The Cunardia Shop offers high-end souvenirs. Here there are nautical instruments, reproductions of Faberge pieces, Swarovski crystal and Lladro figurines. Of interest to souvenir hunters might be Staffordshire pill boxes with Queen Victoria painted on the top that range in price from $135 to $350. And H. Stern jewels are sold. Many years ago on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, I took the workshop tour of H. Stern and have always been glad I did so. I am dazzled by its displays of semi-precious stones, and I always like to have a look in on its shops at sea. (A note to H. Stern: why don't you carry anything for men -- like cufflinks or studs?)
The ship also has the usual array of shops that sell watches, perfumes, sundries, dress clothes and logo items. The selection of these items is no better and no worse than any other ship's. Shipboard shops always remind me of the departure lounge at Heathrow. (Is that enough to discourage you?) In the sundries shop there are some modestly priced souvenirs: key chains for $6, packages of three T-shirts for $30, a box of fudge in a nice box for $6 and fruit drops in a metal tin for $6. Nicer still are etched crystal glassware. A decanter with the ship's name etched on it costs $120, while two double old-fashioned glasses will set you back $100. There is one small aisle of gifts from Harrod's: towels, teapots, fancy food.
In addition to a fine slate of enrichment-oriented activities, today is also known as "Repeaters Day." Cunard Line loyalists, of which there's a huge number onboard, have been deluged with invitations. First, there was the Cunard World Club Party. Open to anyone who has sailed at least twice before on a Cunard vessel, this took place at noon in the Queens Room. (This was not well attended, as it conflicted with lectures and lunch in the Britannia Restaurant.) At 3:00 p.m., there was a wine tasting open to Platinum and Diamond Cunarders of the Cunard World Club (7 or 15 voyages, respectively). This event was chaotic, planned for the oenophile and attracting the free booze hound. This evening, the captain and senior officers will entertain Platinum and Diamond Cunarders at cocktails in the Queens Room. It would have been nicer had these events been scattered throughout the voyage, rather than bunched up in one day.
Tomorrow, we dock in Hamburg, Germany. At lunch today, those of us who sailed together on QM2's maiden voyage recalled with fondness the ecstatic reception that ship received in port after port. So far, Queen Victoria's maiden voyage has not been so well received. Rumor has it that the Germans will turn out in force to welcome us though, or at least our ship. I look forward to seeing if that turns out to be so.