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Review of the Queen Victoria
Cruise Date: August 2009
Our First Cruise - Queen Victoria in the Med
Western Med on Queen Victoria: July2009
Although my parents loved cruising, this was our first taste of this sort of holiday. After shopping around we found a fair deal from a broker and signed up for 14 nights on Cunards Queen Victoria covering Vigo, Lisbon, Palma, Barcelona, Rome (the high spot for us) Ajaccio and Gibraltar.
Im not going to cover the individual ports of call here, as I want to focus on what new cruising folk can expect on their first cruise its quite a different sort of holiday.
We got a lot of information from the Cunard call centre. Unfortunately most of it was conflicting, ambivalent and quite a bit of it was downright misleadingly incorrect when we got on board. There is also a lot of stuff with cost implications that they dont tell you about until its too late for you to plan for it. Certainly some things that we had to pay for we didnt hear about until we were actually on board the ship.
Arrival at Port
A huge plus here is the way that you are treated as an individual, not as a lump of Easy-cargo. Ill never fly again. You arrive at a time to suit you, you drive right up to the ship, your luggage is unloaded by porters and carried direct to your stateroom, your car is driven for you into the nearby quayside car park. All you have to do is present your tickets in the nearby lobby and saunter on board, where you are greeted by wonderful live music as you check in at the Pursers desk for your photo-key card. This latter also serves as a credit card, so you dont need any money while on board just sign for your purchases and settle up at the end of the cruise.
Well, this is a fantastic vessel. Its quite new, so everything is in good order and works. The style and finish is simply exquisite. It holds 2,000+ passengers, but the careful design and layout mean that it doesnt give the impression of being crowded at all. The several bars are very intimate and well appointed and the overall atmosphere very select and genteel. There arent many facilities for children, so if you dont want to be overrun with kids this ship isnt a bad choice; I dont think it will be attracting many families, but for those who go as a family the kids space is out of the way on deck 10, with dedicated staff, facilities and activities for the various age groups. They are secure, safe and out of the way while mum and dad can enjoy some time on board. Because of deck 10 we hardly saw any children, and those that we did see were very well behaved.
The cabins are called staterooms in the Cunard blurb, and you will pay according to a hierarchy of tariffs. Inside cabins are the cheapest option, then cabins with a window view, then cabins with a balcony. Of these latter you pay more for bigger rooms, of course, but even in the standard sized rooms you pay more for being in the middle of the ship, and more for being on a higher deck. In the med I dont think it matters where your room is, but on rougher seas you will definitely notice the pitch and roll if you are in a front or rear stateroom. The layout and interior design touches are broadly the same for each room, irrespective of location. Tasteful creams and golds, with navy highlights in the form of cushions and curtains, blond wood finishes to laminate surfaces.
We had a balcony, thinking that the stateroom room would be airier, and had visions of sunning ourselves on our private deck sipping cocktails for long periods of time; but speaking to seasoned cruisers on our dining table they were also very happy with their inside cabins. The lighting is so good that you dont feel cooped up, everything is climate controlled, and on a balcony you only have room for a small table and 2 sitting chairs anyway, and you dont seem to spend much time in your cabin. We paid quite a bit more for the balcony compared to inside cabin rates, and only used it a few times, but enjoyed it when we did. The savings would buy you quite a lot of on-board credit though, so work out what you want from your cruise carefully before you order your voyage. Quite a few of the rooms have views obstructed by tender boats etc, and it would be a pity to end up with one of these. We really enjoyed looking out over the various ports we berthed in.
All of the ship is fully air conditioned. So its nice and warm on the way out in the Bay of Biscay, and lovely and cool when in the hot climes. We never left the balcony door open for ventilation not necessary, and far too noisy from the funnel din. The Air-con has some sort of de-humidifier built in to it, so you were almost instantly dry when you came out of your luxuriously appointed and spacious wet-room en-suite shower, although this also contributed to a bit of a dry throat while on board . The shower was the dial a temperature type, by the way. Perfect.
The beds were really, really comfortable. There were some weird places for light switches in the bed head, though, so occasionally you would turn over and find the room lights going on as you inadvertently pressed a switch. And in our room we had a panic button in the middle of the bed headboard, which was positioned right behind your pillow. It was so easy to inadvertently press it, that we had several calls from the Pursers desk to make sure we were all right. Irritating, and easily remedied if they would just move the switch panel a few inches higher.
There is a TV in the room, but the choice of programming isnt great, and what there is repeats itself time after time. I was quite bored with it long before the 14 nights were up. The ship did put on a feature TV movie every day at 2pm, but for various reasons I never managed to see one. The late night programming when you finally get back to your cabin is probably the time you will see a bit of telly as you settle down for the night, and Im afraid it really is pretty dire. There are film channels in Spanish, German and French as well as English. The TV was also used for ship information the captains midday address was on channel 47, and we could also see information about our location, weather and sea conditions there. The most useful programme was the early morning Breakfast with Warren. Warren is the Entertainments Director, and he went through the highlights of the day for you every morning from 6:00 (Cue Hi-de-Hi chimes). Nice to wake up to with your morning cuppa. Otherwise we pretty much left the music channels on for the brief periods we were in our cabin. Sorry, stateroom.
You will appreciate the fridge in the room too. First trip ashore we came back with a few bottles of excellent and inexpensive Cava which kept us going for the rest of the voyage.
The staterooms are kept spotless by your highly efficient steward/ess. Really on the ball, as soon as you leave your room the beds are made clean sheets every day - , the en-suite is cleaned, new towels etc laid out. Immaculate. If you have a siesta snooze in the afternoon when you leave the room afterwards the bed is remade almost instantly by the magic bed-pixie. Quite amazing service. There is also a turn down service, so when you come back to your room at night your bed is inviting, the Cunard choccy is awaiting you on your duvet, along with the ships newspaper and programme of events for the following day. If we left a bottle of Cava out on our table we would also find it ready for us on our return chilled in an ice bucket, with two flutes ready and waiting next to it. They really do try on Cunard.
Whichever way you go when choosing your room, you wont be disappointed with your stateroom on this ship. There isnt a bad room in the place.
Food & Drink
One of the key differences for a cruising holiday is that quite a lot is included in the price of the cruise, and this goes a long way to justifying the price of cruising for many passengers.
That especially applies to food on board, and the first fact of a cruise is that you are never hungry, never more than a few minutes away from a meal, and that the range and quality of food on the ship is very impressive indeed. Prepare to put on pounds on this holiday.
You will be allocated a table & a time to eat in the formal Britannia dining room on the ship, and you can have all of your meals there if you wish at that regular set time. We asked to be put on a table for six, and had a great time; we got on really well with the folks we met there. We picked up a lot of tips from the seasoned cruisers on the table too. The dress code is a bit more formal in Britannia, so we only ate there in the evening. The standard of food and service there is faultless. There is plenty of choice on the menu, and we never saw the same dish twice in our 14 days on board. I never had a poor meal there, and it really did compare favourably with top local restaurants we have been to. How they do that while catering for up to 1,000 people on a sitting is amazing.
The Lido occupies most of deck 9. Its a huge area for self-service informal dining, and is located close to the sun decks and miniscule swimming pools. It opens at 6:00 for breakfast, and is serving food of various kinds right through until 4am the next morning. Its pretty good stuff too, for self service, and the salads, fruit and patisseries are incredible and always on hand. The bread is freshly baked on board 24 hours a day and is alsways fresh, always excellent. There is a huge variety of breads from around the world and it all tastes amazing. There is a Mediterranean food bar where you can get a pasta or pizza cooked to order for most of the day, hot buffets with plenty of choice during extended key meal times, and a creative sandwich service into the wee small hours. There is also a burger bar at the back of the lido near the pool for a quick snack. The home made onion rings there looked superb. There are a couple of ice cream machines there too, so you can wander in from the pool, help yourself to a free vanilla or chocolate soft ice cream cone then wander back to the poolside loungers. Complimentary tea and coffee is also to be found here more or less round the clock, and sweet fruit juice drinks (Cranberry, Orange or Grapefruit) also provided during most of the day. The Cold water machine also dispenses ice, which was very welcome. I did find these fruit drinks to be far too sweet and syrupy for my taste, and the coffee was absolutely dire cheap instant coffee- but happily we brought our own fresh coffee and cafetiere with us just in case, so made our own when we went to eat - much to the envy of others around us in the Lido. The range of teas was impressive, though, and you wont be disappointed there. They serve a choice of full fat, skimmed, and hot milk for your drink. Oh yes, they also have Horlicks and Ovaltine!
Finally, there is room service. This is 24 hours a day. Tea and what passes as coffee on board can be ordered from your room free of charge, along with a wide choice of meals or snacks, also free of further charge. You can have breakfast in your room of course, but we also had crisps, olives and nuts sent up to go with our drinks, and late night snacks are also on tap. You really wont be hungry on this sort of holiday. When you feel like a nibble, club sarnie or a cuppa just pick up the phone, day or night. The speed and quality of the food varied a lot. Often it would be quick, just 10 minutes or so for a simple order. But at peak times you wont even get through on the phone to order you would be just as quick to pop up to the Lido (which I did several times) and in busy periods you can wait 45 minutes for your by then - tepid food and soggy fries to arrive. My tip is to keep to croissants or pastries, fruit plate and cold sandwiches for your room order. The hot water for the tea comes in vacuum flasks, so isnt so much of a problem. Next time we are taking a kettle with us, though, to save the wait. (I wouldnt want to drink their coffee anyway).
There is one more eating opportunity to mention, and that is the afternoon tea ritual which happens in the ballroom every day from 3:30. Crisp white table linen, perfect cups of tea served with sandwiches, cakes, scones, cream and jam all to the background music of a superb chamber orchestra. Wonderful. If we had been ashore that day we found it relaxing and refreshing to get back by 4:00 and to head into afternoon tea.
So plenty of food on board, and enough free cups of tea or cold iced water to keep you going in hot climes. I still cant get over the slightly odd sensation of walking up to a food counter at almost any time of the day, picking up a wedge of pizza or a plate of food and just walking off with it without paying, or stewards walking into your room, placing a load of nosh down and walking out again without me having to sign a bill!
You will pay for drinks in the bars, though, even tea and coffee, and this can be costly if you are not careful. Ive covered the costs of these in more detail below.
I would also like to say how impressed I was with the cleanliness and hygiene on board when it comes to the food areas (actually, everywhere was pretty spotless, actually). We never had a problem, never found cutlery or crockery less than perfectly clean, never even saw a single fly on board! Whenever you entered a food area there were staff poised with hand gel and making sure you took a dab as precaution against norovirus.
Facilities Entertainment & live music
I thought Id be snoozing away in a sun lounger or reading a load of books like a typical beach holiday, but in reality there is never a spare moment. I didnt manage to open a book in the whole two weeks.
In the day time there is a whole series of activities and events laid on for the entertainment of passengers. You can jog around the decks with the active set at 6am, or join in the various deck games during the day, or go to lectures on various topics, or play board games, card games or pub games/quizzes. Everything is provided. You can develop computer skills, learn how to dance the samba or waltz, or pick up beauty tips. There are also special demonstrations by the catering staff on fruit carving, chocolate moulding, cake creations, making canaps and more. Every afternoon there is a feature film in the main theatre, and in the evenings a whole load of formal and informal entertainments bring the ship to life. There is a theatre show laid on every night, about an hour long show, with talent ranging from very good to absolutely excellent. Dancing is on in the ballroom every night for lovers of the foxtrot, or in the night club for a more disco atmosphere; and there are dozens of bars for a drink and chat with the new friends you will undoubtedly be making on board. Oh yes, and you can sit in the sun and read a book if you really want to. And if you havent got a book, the ship will lend you one from the library. All of this entertainment (except the drinks) is included in the price of your cruise. Just turn up and be entertained. Even with 2,000 people on board, we never had to miss an event or be turned away because it was full.
One of the things I really appreciated on the cruise was the frequent exposure to live music. As well as the theatre orchestra (all eight of em, bless em)there is a resident dance band, a calypso band, a classical harpist, a chamber music quartet, several cocktail lounge pianists, and a mix of jazz musicians. You would just be walking along, turn a corner and there would be some live music, as if just for you. Wonderful. On our first evening on board we sipped champagne cocktails in the Chart Room bar as the sun went down and while the chamber orchestra played all of our favourites, including all of our special requests. Wonderful. For the price of a couple of drinks it was like having your own private concert.
Solo travellers are well catered for, with lots of social activities aimed especially at the singleton, and so are single-sex couples who also have a special daily programme of events in what is a non- judgemental setting.
This is the area where Cunard really let us down, I feel. When you book your cruise you shortly afterwards receive an impressive printed booklet customised with your name on the front - detailing all the shore excursions that the cruise can offer. The collection is impressive, and it all looks good in the brochure. We poured over it for a week, and booked one tour, at $198, as the highlight of our trip. The trip was to see the Forum in Rome, with some free time to do the Trevi and Spanish Steps in the afternoon. Alas the tour was not delivered as described, ran late because of frequent unscheduled stops en route, and we got to see neither the Forum nor the Trevi. What a waste of money. Cunard werent really interested, and the Tour Manager avoided us for a few days hoping it would all die down. When it didnt, and we persisted they gave us a token $20 back as good will for our feedback. We will see what Trading Standards have to say about that.
We would have been much better off taking the train to Rome 9 Euros return for the day, including 1-day bus passes in Rome itself and taking a sightseeing tour bus while there in the afternoon 18 Euros. By comparison a simple unescorted transfer by coach to Rome from the ship was $79.
This actually became the model for our ports of call. You only get a few hours in port anyway, so its pointless to expect to do very much. We usually let the mad rush disperse at around 8:00, had a nice breakfast then took ourselves ashore mid morning. They dont advertise the fact in the blurb, but every port of call had free transfers from the ship to the centre of town. They ran every few minutes and it was an excellent service, so you could come and go as you wish. A few hours exploring, a nice coffee or a beer while we watched the world go by, and usually an open topped bus tour for a few Euros gave us what we needed for our visit. We never ate on shore, btw; the food on the Vic was much better, and the standard of cleanliness clearly superior to what we saw on shore. We got back for 4pm and enjoyed an extensive afternoon tea instead!
Arriving at the ship is a delight, but less so the disembarking. Your luggage is taken away into storage the night before you disembark, then next day after a hearty breakfast in the Lido (only) you are called to leave the ship in relays, deck by deck. Upon gaining land you are left to identify and rummage for your luggage amongst the rest in a huge hall, load it onto a trolley yourself, and then push it all through the rest of the hall, on through customs, then out into the street, across the road and into the car park a further short walk away, where you can then pick up your keys and hunt for your car!
The brochure cost of your cruise is but one element of your total cost.
One of the main extra costs will be your drinks bills. On the Queen Vic this is all paid in dollars, with a soft drink, tea or coffee in the bar costing $2, a basic bottle of beer costing $5, a cocktail or Martini is $6-$11, a glass of wine at dinner is $6-$10, or a cheap bottle of wine $25-$30. You can pay considerably more for a bottle of wine, though, if you wish! To these prices will automatically be added a service surcharge of 15% on every order.
If you wish you can pay $4 a day (plus 15%) for the full cruise duration (including the days you are ashore)and have unlimited soft drinks from the bar. Cunard encourage you to buy your drinks on board, btw. If you buy a bottle or two from their duty free shop, they wont let you have it until the night before you leave the ship. (So best to take a bottle of your nightcap tipple with you, or pop into the local offy when you first go ashore)
You will also pay a daily hotel charge which Cunard says goes to the pool of staff tips. Its not inexpensive at $22 per couple per day thats $300+ a couple you need to find before you depart the ship. I didnt begrudge the charge actually. The service is fantastic, and there is a higher ratio of staff to passengers on Cunard than many other cruise lines. I do wish we had been told about it before we boarded so we could have put some further on board credit on our account. ( Other cruise lines we were looking at since we got home charge about 8 Euros per day per person.)
You will also want to tip your steward/ess $20, as the service for the staterooms in simply incredible.
Cunard are clearly facing a bit of pressure at the moment. Seasoned Cunarders told us that while in the past everything was included, gradually extra charges are creeping in all over the place when you are on board. They certainly want to help you unload some money while you are on board, and not just form the gift shops and jewellers on board. If you want to use parts of the spa facilities, its an extra charge, so are some of the class activities spin fitness classes for example. You will pay extra to eat in one of the restaurants on board, or to order fish and chips in the onboard pub, or 50 cents a minute to use the on board internet. It all mounts up and its hard to see a logic in the extras charges sometimes. Mobile calls, btw, are 1.80 a minute using the onboard maritime network. If you want to take some photos back from the formal evenings, portrait pictures will cost you $175 for five, or double that if you want it in a Cunard frame. Ive already mentioned how exorbitant the shore excursions can be.
Your credit card will be charged at the end of the cruise, at the rate your bank is charging on the day. You can improve on this by buying on-board credit before you start the cruise, and as well as fixing the rate this gave an advantage of a 10% improvement in rate, from 60p per $ to 56p. Anything you dont spend, though, you lose when they close your account.
There is no doubt that we could have had a cheaper cruise experience, but not significantly so, and I doubt it could have been a better on-board experience. Many of those on board we chatted to have been loyal Cunarders for donkeys years, and would never dream of going anywhere else. That has to say a lot in this fickle consumer world. We found it to be a very pleasant and totally relaxing experience on board. The atmosphere was easy-going and not at all stuffy (as we feared). Everywhere we went we experienced friendly passengers and crew, enthusiastic and approachable musicians and entertainers, and a total commitment to excellent service and willingness in all that was done on our behalf. I can see why Cunard can be a lifestyle and loyalty choice for many, and yes, we too will be going again. But next time we will be handling our own trips ashore!
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