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Queen Victoria's Maiden Voyage
Day 1: Embarkation and First Impressions
Day 2: We Can’t Help But Compare the Queens
Day 3: Overnighting In Copenhagen
Day 4: Copenhagen Redux
Day 5: Moving On to Oslo
Day 6: At Sea
Day 7: Hamburg
Day 8: Final Day at Sea/Zeebrugge
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Day 8: Thursday, Final Day at Sea/Zeebrugge
Final Day at Sea/ZeebruggeSince boarding in Southampton, I have heard scuttlebutt (shipboard gossip) to the effect that the Germans would pull out all stops and our reception in Hamburg would be enthusiastic. As the maiden voyage has progressed and our presence in three ports has been low key, to say the least, anticipation for our port call in Hamburg has only built among us passengers. And the Germans did not disappoint.

As I noted in one of the first virtual dispatches from Queen Victoria -- seems like eons ago! -- most ports of call offer some kind of ceremony whenever a ship makes its first visit there. In most cases, it's a matter of local government officials presenting the captain with a plaque commemorating the visit (an event which is generally not witnessed by passengers). But in some others, particularly when ships have iconic status as did Queen Mary 2 (seemingly right out of wet dock), a huge celebration ensues.

As I chronicled, Queen Victoria, alas, has not been as heralded in its new ports -- well, not until now! Hamburg's citizens already have a legendary fascination with Queen Mary 2 (indeed, many in this port city cruise on the ship during its occasional Hamburg-based sailings).

At 9:50 p.m. (as advertised and precisely on time), fireworks illumined the sky on the starboard forward quarter of Queen Victoria. We were still docked; the fireworks were set off from a stationary barge in the harbor. The display, which lasted 15 minutes, alternated between rockets that whistled as they ascended, then burst into white balls of light and trailed tails of sparks, and those rainbow-colored, crowd-pleasing umbrellas of light that climb higher and higher before bursting once, twice, three times in streamers of falling stars. Most of the fireworks were pure white, but some were signature Cunard red. Crowds of passengers cheered and applauded the display and agreed they surpassed the fireworks in Copenhagen and failed, only slightly, to match those in Southampton.

At 11 p.m., Queen Victoria saluted Hamburg with a long blow on its ship's whistle. Using bow thrusters, the ship put out into the river. Passengers, who had watched the fireworks on the starboard side, rushed over to the port side to behold an incredible sight: hundreds of small boats, all lighted in white, had come to see off Queen Victoria.

Among them was a paddlewheel steamboat, improbably named "Mississippi Queen," which served as the flagship of the informal flotilla. For an hour, Mississippi Queen accompanied Queen Victoria for her sail out to the North Sea. All along the coast, on piers and in shore side buildings, were thousands of spectators -- it was night time and below freezing -- their tell tale camera flashes lighting up the sky for brief moments. For mile after mile, the Queen Victoria sailed past cheering crowds, past truck drivers on roads flicking headlamps, past every vehicle that could make a sound and made one. Queen Victoria responded to each and every salute with a blow of her ship's whistle. (I have never heard a ship's whistle used as much as the Queen Victoria's last night.)



It is now the last day at sea. I began by wondering how much I had charged to my shipboard account. I turned on the cabin TV (flat panel) to check my account -- to no avail. I flipped through the channels and surprisingly -- especially for a state-of-the-art system -- there's no menu for onboard services. I even got out the instruction manual (when all else fails, read the manual), and there was no mention of interactive television. Unlike QM2 TV (on which you can check your onboard account, take a look at menus for -- and make reservations in -- alternative restaurants, investigate and book shore excursions, preview merchandise from the shipboard shops, and even gamble), there is no menu function for any of these activities, which seems strikingly retro for a ship as modern as Queen Victoria. There are, of course, movies, local television (when in port), weather information, the view from the bridge and a myriad of channels devoted to Cunard Line products.

I contained my curiosity, knowing a trip to the Purser’s Office would be an ordeal.



Queen Victoria's spa is franchised out to Harding's, the same people who run the shops onboard. This means that each of Cunard Line's ships has a different spa operator: Steiner on QE2, Canyon Ranch on QM2 and Harding's on Queen Victoria.

The suite of rooms occupied by the Royal Spa and Fitness Centre on Deck 9 forward is very impressive. At the very forward part and spanning from port to starboard, overlooking the bow, is a complete gymnasium. (I have never seen so many spinning machines all in a row, and the ski simulators, jogging treadmills, stationary bicycles and weight training machines are numerous and state of the art.) When we left Southampton, the speeds for the jogging tracks were all in Italian -- the ship was built in Italy -- but instructions are now pasted over in English.

In addition to a salon, which has provision for hair, nail and foot care, there is a lovely suite of rooms for spa treatments. There are saunas, a resting room with tiled loungers, and a large whirlpool. There are individual treatment rooms for massage, hot stone therapy, mud therapy and aroma scrubs. Each treatment is priced separately or available as part of a spa package. In-port prices offer discounts from at-sea prices. There are three onboard treatments that are new to me (though perhaps not so new to more devoted spa-goers): there is a dentist onboard who supervises teeth whitening ($350); there is a computerized program that purports to show you how you will age over 10 years with and without CosMedix skin treatment (Does anyone ever look better without the treatment?); and there is an acupuncturist. I'm not sure a moving ship is the ideal venue for this ancient Chinese treatment, but what do I know?

John and Mary Maxtone-Graham gave their popular revue of Travelers' Tales in which they act out amusing, true stories about life at sea. I bring this up because I decided to watch them from a Royal Box in the Royal Court Theatre. Looking up at them from the orchestra, I had not realized that the boxes had chest-high plastic shields that rise above the rails. These distort (to some degree) the view of the stage of occupants seated in the boxes, require constant cleaning, and, being plastic, will fog over time (think of Amtrak windows). Why are they there? I can think of only two reasons: to keep the "rowdy" Royal Box patrons from pelting folk below with bon bons or perhaps to prevent doddering folk from falling over the rail. Who knows?

Over the years, one of Cunard's key clienteles has been ballroom dancers. Queen Victoria also has the Queens Room for dancing. Every evening and all evening long, the ship's orchestra plays dance music, and there is never a time the dance floor is not filled with whirling couples. (Cunard still employs "gentleman hosts" to dance with ladies traveling solo or whose companions prefer not to dance.)



Last evening, my fourth in the Britannia Restaurant (and second with the same busboy), our table finished dinner in time (for the first time) to attend the Royal Court Theatre production of "Victoriana." Let me say at the outset that the singing and dancing were of a high quality, and the costumes, sets and special effects were outstanding. However, the plot, if such it could be called, bewildered me. The evening began with a series of English music hall (similar to American vaudeville) turns, sing-along tunes with audience participation (handkerchief waving): all rather jolly. Next there was a scene in which Sherlock Holmes investigated (through dance) a garden croquet party while a Salvation Army Band played the Maine Stein Song ("Raise a glass to dear old Maine": Rudy Vallee's hit, set with different words). Then the scene changed to a leather romp (the seamier side of Victorian society?).

Not having quite assimilated this yet, we were rushed into a modern ballet that purported to celebrate the invention of electric light -- each dancer had a glowing bulb on the front of his/her costume. Then, there was a ghoul's wedding. (I kept waiting for the singers and dancers to break into the "Time Warp.") Then a couple in Victorian dress sang about the invention of the railways, while dancers on Heelys (sneakers with wheels in their heels) roved around the stage (was this inspired by "Starlight Express"?). Then, up from a stage elevator came Boadicea and Admiral Lord Nelson, backed by a Union Jack shield, to a snippet of words and music from "Rule Britannia," and we were wafted to "Last Night of the Proms" (an annual concert at the Royal Albert Hall that ends on a patriotic note).

The singers broke into a song about Queen Victoria and the British Empire while dancers, dressed in the garb of distant lands (a Canadian Mounty, an Egyptian, an Indian, etc.), paraded around the stage. The singers sang a bit of "Land of Hope and Glory" ("Pomp & Circumstance" to Americans). The whole ended with the finale of the "1812 Overture" with sparklers and falling streamers. (The "1812 Overture" is Tchaikovsky's variation on the Russian tsarist national anthem.) What an incredible mishmash. The crowd loved it, but I came away thinking it the oddest show I'd ever seen on stage.



This morning we awoke to an ice storm in Zeebrugge, Belgium. A risk one takes traveling in northern Europe this time of year is the weather of course. Our luck has held with the weather until today -- it's been cold, but clear and sunny. We could have had ice, snow (or, at least, rain) in every port.

Today, however, we cannot see our hands in front of our faces. All is lost in a white haze.

But it is our last day onboard as we return back to Southampton early tomorrow. It is time to pack and put our bags out for collection. It is time to thank staff who have made this a memorable voyage. It is time to say farewell to old and new friends, and to promise to keep in touch.

As I packed, I thought back to the jumbled week on this maiden voyage. Shipwise, my prediction is that Queen Victoria is a winner with a long and prosperous career ahead. What service glitches there have been are all part of the maiden voyage experience (or rather lack of experience) and no doubt they will be remedied with time and attention.

More specifically, I thought the public areas of the ship were magnificent. There were service issues, but nothing compared with QM2's maiden voyage. I heard rumors about discontent among the staff, but no one was willing to talk about them with me. I thought Cunard did a splendid job learning from the maiden voyage of QM2. They didn't make the same mistakes—they made new ones.

While glad to have experienced Queen Victoria on its maiden voyage, celebrating the solstice with dark mornings and afternoons was not my cup of tea. I would have preferred a crossing with more sea days, when I could remain on board and prowl. This was too port intensive (for me), and, with the exception of Hamburg, I didn't think the Christmas markets lived up to their billing.

In ports, the highlights were leaving Hamburg and leaving Oslo. On board the highlights were the public rooms: Queens Room, Royal Court Theatre, Golden Lion Pub. The cabins are small for a world-roaming vessel, and the Lido Restaurant needs a complete revamp.

Would I sail on Queen Victoria again? Yes, and I would look forward to doing so, but she is not a replacement for the QE2 in purpose or speed. Still, I think this ship is the most attractive ship of her size afloat. The decor and attention to detail are remarkable. She is comfortable and offers lots of public space. If only Queen Victoria were the ocean liner that Cunard insists it is.
Day 7: Hamburg red arrow  

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