It's a mercy that this voyage was only two days long, otherwise we may have come down with some mild liver failure; Cunard know how to serve a drink.
Throughout the ship, drinks service is fast, efficient and well-informed - even in the buffet, care was taken by waiters to discuss wine options.
Queen Elizabeth's Commodore club has to be one of the finest watering holes afloat. In addition to great views a excellent martinis, there is a really imaginative cocktail menu, themed around the favourite tipples of past Cunard captains - some of which look potent enough to stop a horse. Even better, before dinner, cocktails are accompanied with complimentary, and substantial, hot canapes.
Other venues on the ship are well thought out, from the airy Garden Lounge to the Golden Lion Pub, which hosts an excellent pub quiz and just about manages to stay on the right side of twee.
We've had good food on other ships, even MSC managed to serve decent pizza, but it's never been consistently good throughout the cruise; Carnival came close, but we are still haunted by thought of Cheerio-coated French toast. What has been consistent on other cruises is our general distaste of buffets, so the biggest surprise on Queen Elizabeth was that the buffet, where we headed for lunch after embarkation, was shockingly good. It was busy, but we found a table and were then treated to a cavalcade of delights:
Normally, we only visit the buffet once on a cruise so that we can writer about it here. On Queen Elizabeth, we returned voluntarily.
Dinner in The Verandah, Queen Elizabeth's extra charge restaurant, was absolutely first class in every respect - great service, lovely wines and wonderful treats. The trolley of petit-fours that was wheeled over with the coffee was particularly welcome. Pictures below.
Breakfast in the Britannia Restaurant maintained the high standards of service and food - even the pastries were crisp, which hasn't been the norm on other ships.
As a point of comparison, see the pastry, grapefruit and kippers served on Queen Elizabeth (above) and the same order served by P&O on Ventura (below)...
Lunch in The Britannia (pictures below) was tasty and well presented, but the staff were insistent that we share a table, despite there being no shortage of space.
Dinner that evening was fine, but paled in comparison to the food in The Verandah, although the baked Alaska was lovely (pictures below).
We're headed north. If online forums are to be believed, we will be surrounded by the elderly. Suddenly, this sounds less like cruising and more like Game of Thrones.
With a spot of luck, we'll receive a warmer reception than Jon Snow did, but follow us live to discover how it plays out.
WiFi permitting, we'll be posting to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Our standard balcony cabin on Queen Elizabeth actually exceeded expectation. Aside from being well presented and comfortable, the cabin also included a decent sofa and a usable desk - as people who aren't great fans of sitting, eating or working in a bed, this was all to the good.
There is a large TV, positioned sensibly (this is not a given, we have been in cabins where the TV is really only viewable from an awkward corner.
The balcony itself felt more spacious than on most ships, while the bathroom was also sensibly proportioned and furnished with Penhaligon's toiletries.
Throughout Queen Elizabeth, the facilities were attractive and well thought out. Clearly, there are no waterslides or surfing simulators, but there are some lovely spaces and unusual facilities, like croquet, lawn bowls and paddle tennis. Special mention should go to the really excellent, and staffed, library.
We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves...
After landing in Hamburg, we took a taxi directly to Hamburg’s modern cruise terminal, although, beware of confused taxi drivers, it seems that the terminal used by some lines, including Aida, is quite a way from the one Cunard use.
In many ways, Cunard aced the embarkation process. At the terminal, it took minutes to check in and be issued with a Cruise Card. On board, there was a split of Champagne waiting in the room - the perfect refresher before a muster drill which was well organised and fast. Then, there was an excellent sail-away party, featuring complimentary currywurst and Champagne (for a fee).
Nothing is perfect though, and there was some unease about the fact that Cunard kept our passports at check-in - as a group who travel constantly for work, this did not sit well. It would have been better if Cunard’s terminal representatives could have explained why this was happening and how we would retrieve the passports, but none of that was forthcoming.
In the last post, we touched on the ocean liner vs. cruise ship debate which so enrages many Cunard traditionalists.
As a cruise ship, what Queen Elizabeth offers that Queen Mary 2, the liner, struggles with, is a high proportion of cabins with balconies - you can’t have (and wouldn’t want) a balcony for a sailing through the waves of the North Atlantic in November.
There are, however, nods to Cunard’s heritage, such as the chests on deck and the comfortable, padded, deck furniture, which sets them apart from more mass-market lines.
Does Cunard require an introduction? The line has an illustrious history of operating express liner services between the UK and the Americas aboard ships like the Queen Mary and the original Queen Elizabeth. As airlines undermined the business of ocean liners, Cunard launched the QE2 in 1969 to operate both express service to New York and cruises.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s Cunard, under a variety of owners, operated QE2 alongside a motley selection of other cruise ships, varying dramatically in style and quality, until the business was bought by Carnival in 1998.
Carnival’s investment saw a complete replacement of the Cunard fleet with three new vessels - this is where some people become a bit sniffy.
The first new ship for Cunard was the Queen Mary 2, purpose-built to continue express service across the inhospitable seas of the North Atlantic. At launch, she was the first true ocean liner built in decades, the largest passenger ship afloat and cost Carnival Corporation a fortune.
There is, however, a limited market for week-long crossings between Southampton and New York, more than adequately served by a single ship. Therefore, the next two ships built for Cunard were based on Carnival’s “Vista Class” cruise platform - ideally suited to their roles shuffling around the Mediterranean, Caribbean and East Asia.
Purists are not amused. Online, all bemoan Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth for being “cruise ships pretending to be ocean liners”. I’m not sure what that means, neither are offering any sort of liner service, they are cruising. The interiors do lean towards art deco and reference illustrious predecessors (see above), but this is just the house style, or brand positioning, of Cunard within the Carnival group. Yes, personally, I’d prefer to see the modernist style that QE2 launched with (below), but it’s clearly not what the target market want and, frankly, I’m glad to see at least some notion of identity - it avoids the cavalcade of cheap horrors that is P&O - a railway pub on one floor and a Tuscan village above.
Today, Cunard offers semi-regular service between Southampton and New York aboard the Queen Mary 2, as well as a wide variety of cruises aboard Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary 2. All three ships complete an annual World Cruise, or Grand Voyage, but also offer short holidays, even 2 and three night sailings from Southampton.
It should be noted that Cunard has always maintained some semblance of class distinction on its ships, something that’s now being re-introduced by other lines as, increasingly, “suites class” guests enjoy access to dedicated restaurants and pool areas. On Cunard, “Grills Class” passengers have dedicated restaurants and a private deck area. Some cabins are also designated as “Britannia Club” and come with seating in a smaller dining room - everyone else uses the cavernous Britannia main dining room.
If you’ve read any of our previous posts about MSC Magnifica, it will come as no surprise that, overall, we’re not massively positive about the whole experience.
Plausibly, we can see that if you were visiting Europe and short of time, a port-intensive itinerary might be an economic way of ticking various big tourist draws off the bucket list; just looking at Summer 2018, a week on MSC Fantasia would let you see Rome, Portofino, Cannes, Barcelona, Palma and Majorca. I’m sure that, under normal circumstances, it’s an efficient mode of transport, the cabins were both comfortable and clean and you could just ensure that you did most of your eating on land.
This is not, however, a leisure company and won’t be until it undergoes some significant cultural changes - it is not something that can be achieved be spending untold billions on new tonnage, as initial reviews of MSC Meraviglia seem to confirm.
We’ve racked up a fair few miles at sea now, with a variety of cruise lines at a range of price points. In comparison to every other cruise we’ve taken, three things, completely unrelated to the unfortunate incident, really stood out on this sailing:
A quick search online suggests that MSC, particularly this ship, may have some staff welfare issues, but similar things are said about other lines.
Oh, and finally, I should say that, after some too and fro, MSC did fully refund the cost of my Eurostar change fees.