Alongside Carnival and Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line is, traditionally, thought of as one of the big three mass-market lines. The company came to prominence in 1979 when they refurbished the mothballed ocean liner S.S. France into the cruise ship S.S. Norway which, for many years, was one of the largest vessels in service.
However, while both Carnival and Royal Caribbean spent the 1980’s and 1990’s rebuilding and expanding their fleets around large builds of standard ship classes, the Norwegian fleet has, until more recently, been something of a mixed bag, including oddities, such as Pride of America, the only “American built” ship able to cruise between the Hawaiian Islands and the massive, uniquely ugly, Norwegian Epic.
The current owners have, however, started to simplify matters with six ships in the Breakaway and Breakaway-plus class entering service up to 2019, followed by at least four, slightly smaller, “Project Leonardo” vessels.
Where Norwegian has led is in the complete abandonment of long-standing cruising traditions, such as formal nights and fixed dining. Building on the experience of Star Cruises, an Asia-focused line with the same parent group, Norwegian pioneered the concept of multiple dining venues and specialty restaurants with flexible dining times.
As well as a large operation in the Caribbean, Norwegian also offers sailings in Europe, Alaska and Asia. Furthermore, if you want to tour Hawaii by ship, thanks to the Jones Act, Norwegian’s Pride of America is your only choice.
If you were to tell us that we were departing on another Cunard cruise tomorrow, we would be genuinely pleased - that’s not something we can really say about any of the other lines we’ve sampled (with the possible exception of Carnival). Indeed, we’re more than a little intrigued by the notion of a seven day crossing to New York, with nothing but the endless expanse of ocean to keep us distracted from the ship itself.
Well, as we’ve said before, both the food and drinks were excellent and there were things to do that didn’t seem as if they’d been lifted directly from an episode of Hi-Dee-Hi. On top of that, every staff member we encountered was enthusiastic, keen to help and, it has to be noted, remarkably well turned out.
In contrast to other ships we’ve been on, Queen Elizabeth felt very spacious and quiet, even on the, usually manic, embarkation day.
Overall, both Cunard and Queen Elizabeth receive a ringing endorsement from us, for all that’s worth.
Avid readers may recall that, back when we boarded, there was some confusion surrounded the confiscation of passports. This continued on arrival at Southampton, when all passengers who had joined in Hamburg (some had remained onboard from an earlier voyage) were asked to collect their passports before disembarkation from one of the meeting rooms.
We thought we had arrived early for this process, only to find that half the ship was already waiting in line, where we then spent half an hour standing and waiting. While we appreciate the border control formalities are outwith the sphere of Cunard’s influence, it would have been nice if the whole process, and rationale behind it, had been explained in a letter. As it was, there was an unnecessary level of confusion and anxiety among many passengers.
That being said, once our passports were retrieved, the rest of disembarkation was a breeze and we were sitting on a train at Southampton Station in a matter of minutes.
Of all the lines we’ve cruised with, Cunard had, by far, the most diverse passenger manifest. There were large tour groups from Japan and the USA, as well as large contingent of Germans. Of the Brits, there seemed to be a high proportion of young couples, although that may be something that’s unique to these shorter, less expensive, cruises.
Overall, the crowd were quiet, polite and friendly. There are, however, exceptions to every rule…
There were a number of, what can only be described as “golf club bores” - the sort of people you’d expect on a Cunard cruise if you were a devotee of Keeping Up Appearances. On the whole, they are easily avoided, however, beware of Cunard’s seating algorithm (if such a thing exists), which does insist on group all Brits together, as some sort of collective punishment for the vulgarity of a few. If you’re unfortunate enough to be sat next to these people at dinner, prepare to endure several hours of being talked at by an amorphous mass of badly fitting dinner suits, sequins and costume jewelry, determined to tell you all about their many, MANY, experiences on various ocean liners.
On-board activities are one area where there is a clear difference between Cunard and some of the other large-ship lines we’ve cruised with before.
Yes, there are still the dreadful sales presentations dressed up as “nutrition seminars” or “back care information”, but there were also more genteel daytime pastimes.
Cunard has a reputation for staging excellent factual lectures. While, on this short cruise, the lectures seemed to be focused on the history of Cunard itself, the were well attended and, clearly, well thought out.
When not being used for lectures or afternoon tea, The Queens Room also hosts ballroom dancing lessons during the day, preparing those who want to participate for the night ahead.
Trivia quizzes also seem to take place in both the day and night - the latter in The Golden Lion pub and, in our experience, excellent fun.
We have no photos of the spa - there didn't seem to be any way to take one without looking like perverts.
There's also not a great deal to say about the spa - it provided us with some excellent massages, at the higher end of the price scale, with too much hard-sell of products.
A nice facility, but nothing outstanding.
It is worth nothing that while the spas on Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria are pretty generic, Queen Mary 2 features a Canyon Ranch spa facility; our experience of them on another line was outstanding.
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.