A roller-coaster called Cunard Queen Elizabeth

I hate roller coasters. I’ve hated roller coasters my entire life!

I’ll allow you a moment of recovery as your jaw is most likely still on the floor in shock. It’s a ridiculous statement, I know. Hate roller coasters? Impossible! Nobody hates roller coasters! And what’s the idea in the headline when Queen Elizabeth is one of the 3 queens under the flag of Cunard and doesn’t have on board a roller-coaster

Well, is quite simple. My recent 12 days on board of Queen Elizabeth sailing from Southampton to Madeira, Canary Island and Lisbon was like a ride on a roller-coaster: sometimes bringing me high, very high and suddenly dropping me very low (lower than some of my previous experiences and expectations)

Don’t be surprise but the key is all in perception. Let me explain: for me, the absolute worst feeling one can possibly experience on God’s green earth is the dropping feeling you get in your stomach when you’re plummeting down a 180-degree drop after being somewhere “on top of the world” (aside from getting a limb ripped off. Or getting impaled with a metal rod. Or childbirth. But as I’ve never experienced any of these, I’m just going to go with stomach drops for now).

Still “lost in translation”? No worries, I will explain you my feelings after my Q737 voyage step by step.

I decided to spend a night in Southampton before the cruise just because I was scared by the weather report and the traffic on M25 and to be honest I didn’t fancy to wake up too early in the first day of my holiday. This time was @Novotel Southampton on Quay Road (https://www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-1073-novotel-southampton/index.shtml). An excellent choice; for £125 for one night I got a nice, clean, comfy room with breakfast included. Perfect way to start my voyage on Queen Elizabeth. More important, the check-out time was 12.00PM (all the other options in Southampton ask you to leave the room at 11.00AM) which give you the right amount before the official boarding time for Cunard.

The departure point was Ocean Terminal, maybe the best terminal in Southampton easy to find due to multiple signs on the road and designed for a hassle-free check-in. I booked the parking with APH (Airport Parking and Hotels) which, again was a excellent choice with a fast, reliable and efficient service. We dropped the luggage first and after that parked the car in the APH drop-off point just couple of meters away for the terminal’s entrance.

The drop-off the luggage was a little bit hectic with nobody explaining what to do and where to go and with some Hi Vis Jacket men shouting at you when you took the initiative to walk in a certain direction.

Finally, only with my hand luggage I entered the terminal and in 40 minutes I was opening the door of my cabin. Of course, could be less than that if some of my fellow passengers will understood that boarding a ship involves the same security level as boarding a plane.

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: get ready for queues and be patient when the same passenger will return 3 or 4 times due to pens, coins, phone, keys left in his pocket when passing the metal detector. And don’t expect too much courtesy from the check-in lady: at the end of the day YOU are going in a cruise, she there for another long busy day at work!

The Queen Elizabeth is the youngest and second largest ship which was built for Cunard. It has been put into service in October 2010 and offers space for 2058 passengers. The ship has been refurbished in 2014 and is now schedule next year for a new cosmetic intervention. Due to its classy style, this ship is also called the New Queen. The Grand Lobby as an example impresses with its generous luxurious furnishings and its curved stairs.

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT:  Created to evoke the heyday of Hollywood glamour and elegance with her wood panelling, gleaming chandeliers, marble flooring, iridescent pearls and elaborate carpets need for sure a realignment with the new expectations for modern luxury. Queen Elizabeth is, at the moment, more a lovely museum populated with moving statues, than a strong competitor on 2000s cruise market. But we will talk about that later.

My cabin was a Q4 Penthouse strategically located between two staircase and lifts giving an easy access to all ships areas. 7109 was Cunard style decorated (Queen Elizabeth is the only Queens which didn’t get yet a cosmetic surgery intervention), featuring floor-to-ceiling windows with glass doors that open to a decent size private balcony. The cabin had a super comfy king-size bed which may be converted to twins, and marble bathroom with whirlpool tub (love it!) and shower. There was large living area with sofa bed and dual height coffee table and a working area with enough spaces for my 2 laptops. The refrigerator was stocked to my preferences (and I was ask about that in less than 1h after my arrival, when I meet for the first time my assistant butler, Marvin and my butler (lovely Christina) gladly attended to my every whim during the cruise. Thoughtful amenities include robes with matching slippers, a hairdryer, safe, direct dial phone, nightly turndown service with pillow chocolate, 24-hour room service, an interactive TV system with DVD player, daily shipboard newspaper, priority embarkation and disembarkation, pillow concierge, Bon Voyage bottle of champagne and strawberries, personalized stationary, complimentary bottled water, flower arrangement in-suite, and daily fresh fruit on request.

Great ambience for my 12 days cruise!

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: What I do hope is that, when the ship will enter the 2018 planned refurbishment, somebody will think seriously about the storage space in the room. Taking in the account the duration of the voyage, the dress code on board and the expectations raised by the Queens Grill Experience definitely you need more space; the content of my 4 suitcases were quite squeezed in the walking-in wardrobe. Actually for my next trip with Cunard (V836 November 2018 on Victoria) I decided to have a double booking: a Q4 and for another £849 the opposite inside cabin, grade IF to gain some space.

The housekeeping team was absolutely amazing! Christina our butler was simply PERFECT: friendly, professional, with excellent manners and unobtrusive, she anticipated every need and created lifelong memories with individual touches not found in any manual. The assistant butler was Marvin, always smiling and genuine, keeping pristine our cabin paying attention to every detail. They are, for sure, a huge asset for the housekeeping team on board Queen Elizabeth!

As a Queens Grill guest, you experience the finest food in the Queens Grill restaurant. Couple years ago, an acquaintance, told me that the only reason to book a Cunard cruise is the dining experience in Queens Grill restaurant. I was smiling there and then, but now, I do believe so. Indeed, using refined ingredients and sophisticated techniques, the chefs working on Cunard Line’s ocean liners offer magnificent cuisine that will leave you stuffed every night. The food is complimented by a great classic service.

The most formal of all of Cunard’s restaurants, the Queens Grill offers an a la carte menu with items such as Beef Wellington, Roast Loin of Venison and Chateaubriand. Here you’ll always be greeted warmly by name, and appreciate the ultimate interpretation of high quality service during breakfast, lunch and dinner, served when you wish between 6.30pm and 9pm. You can order for dinner whatever you want, from Caviar to Lobster Thermidor, just talking with your waiter 24h in advance. As the weather was excellent I decided twice to have dinner in the lovely patio between two restaurants Princess and Queens Grills and, if I ignore the rolled eyes of the Maître D, the dinning under the stars experience was unforgettable. The restaurant staff was very close to the expected White Star Service. The waiter, assistant waiter and sommelier were the A-team: flawless efficient service, with perfect balance between communication and genuine attention, timely, memorable, and remarkable; none of them was in the way of the others, never overlapped each other and always having ready a set of knowledge based recommendations if I got lost in the menu. While food quality is incredible in Queens Grill restaurant, it was the experience I had from the minute I walked in the door to the minute I exit that counted for Sumodg, Jeffrey and Srdjan.

Don’t ask me what was my favourite from the menu, just because the answer is obvious: EVERYTHING. Chef Catalin Baba from Romania, in charge of both Princess and Queens galleys is real Master Chef at sea and for every lunch and dinner his creations were top of the charts. Don’t forget that Queens Grill restaurant has a genuinely ‘on demand’ service, where you can walk in and ask for whatever you desire to be prepared for you. One evening I requested a typical Romanian dish (as a result of a sudden home sickness) and the next evening Chef Baba surprised me with a perfect Romanian dinner: beef sours soup (Ciorba de vacuta), stuffed cabbage rolls (Sarmale) and sweet dumplings (Papanasi). Was like being home in Pitesti eating my Mom’s dinner. Capital!

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: Everything was almost perfect in Queens Grill restaurant, but the management was from a “different movie”. The Head Maître D’ – Raul had the signs of a too long career with Cunard, ignoring most of the passengers every evening and concentrating his grace and attention to the “big tippers”. You expect somebody like him to be an old fox and play the right hand all the time but fishing around one or two tables proved to be the wrong decision and at the end the gratuities popped from a different direction or not at all. Raul spoke with our table “en passant” once or twice, without any genuine interest or eye contact, like a waiter in Nando’s checking the guest satisfaction while hunting for his favourites in the restaurant. The Assistants Maître D’: Anton and Zoltan still had some drops of genuine guest excellence, especially when the Boss was not there, but I am afraid that they learn the lessons quite fast!

My itinerary included 6 days at sea from 12 and, without expecting an extremely lively and busy daily programme, I was looking forward for what was offered during the sailing days. Looking at the activities planned every day you can’t ignore the fact that Cunard planned everything on board for 70+ market: book club discussions, dance classes, needlework & knitting, bridge lessons, watercolour art class and plenty of quizzes and trivia. Sometimes I was walking around the decks and public spaces and I have the feeling that was a ghost ship with lifeless wax figurines holding a book or a kindle and trying to feel up the time between the main meals when the ship got live again. Maybe Cunard can look in to the fact that in 10 years’ time or less their current market will not be interested in travel anymore and who’s now in the 40-50s demographic area will move to somewhere were the daily programme moved with the times and trends. Why to have beginners Facebook or e-mail classes when almost everybody on board was reading from a kindle or taking photos with an iPad?

I did like the classical concerts in the afternoon or evenings (despite the fact that the Winter Gardens is not a good venue for a Strauss concert due to the acoustic and the location of the place) and I enjoyed the dance lessons.

Facing an important shortage of staff (got involuntary this information from a next-door table conversation between John and Ashley, both entertainment hosts on board, in La Palma) and a lack of enthusiasm the entertainment team was hardly interested in bringing back to live the ship, day or night despite the obvious efforts of Entertainment Manager Amanda Reid

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: competitive cruise lines pay a huge attention to on-board lectures using independent agencies like Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing and Compass Speakers and Entertainment, Inc. to have on their cruise ship lecturer who will be able to catch the audience with interesting topics during the sea day. In our previous trips with Cunard I enjoyed a lot the port lectures and presentations on different topics performed by very strong public speakers. On my last voyage on Queen Elizabeth Cunard failed on a dramatic scale. The port lecturer, Anfisa, was literary reading from some old-fashioned designed slides information downloaded from Wikipedia with poor quality photos – the result of an “intensive research” on Google search. To be honest if I didn’t know the ports of call I will be tempted to stay on the ship instead discovering the destinations based on the zero-enthusiasm and knowledge brought on stage by the port presenter. Even the famous Cunard “Insights Lecture” were place quite high on the scale of failures. Maybe was the cost saving the explanation for the presence of uninspiring lecturers in the Royal Court Theatre. Fair enough, the topics were interesting despite of being very niche (WW2 and old-time police stories) but the massive failure come from the speakers.  Cpt. Kim Sharman, Commander Jeff Tall or Ian Brown manage to read from notes 60+ minutes in a monotone, old-fashioned, sleep-induction tailored style. Both the hard (power-point presentation for a beginner class) and the soft (presentation and public speaking skills) components of this lectures made a good part of the audience to leave, another to sleep and the rest was, once again, waiting for lunch.

On board Cunard ships, the evenings are always an event. And was, more or less, the same this time on Queen Elizabeth. The dancing in the Queens Room with the big band and excellent vocalist Michael Burke, the 3 balls organised during the voyage (“Black and White”, “Roaring 20’s” and “Starlight Ball” and the fantastic musicians performing in various venues (Tom Yarwood, Andrew Law and Carolyn Mayer) were strong points of evenings and night on-board.  Of course, the “crème de la crème” was the live band Synergy: great performance, fantastic stage presence and impeccable repertoire – what a privilege to have them in Yacht Club, Winter Gardens or Lido bar due sail-away parties.

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: The easiest, in theory, job on board brought another big disappointment of this cruise. DJ Michael manage to win the title “WORST DJ AT SEA”. I was praying while in Yacht Club for his shift to finish and Synergy to come back on stage. DJ Michael was trying hard and most of the time succeeded to keep the dance floor empty. If everybody was enjoying dancing on ABBA or some 80’s disco music, DJ Michael thought that was a good idea to switch to Rolling Stones or Beatles. If nobody was dancing, the volume was loud enough to cover any conversation in the bar; if the dance floor was full the music was like the background in a shopping mall.

Royal Court Theatre is, with no doubts, one of the gems of Queen Elizabeth. Cunard created on its ships the only venues at sea which give you the feeling of an elegant, lavish, real theatre. More than that guests have the chance to expand this unique experience booking a box for some of the shows. Is a “must do” treat when you are on-board: a host welcomes you before the show with a champagne cocktail, canapés and sweets, escorts you to your private box where fine chocolates, a bottle with champagne and a photo souvenir are waiting to complete this magic moment. One single advice: ignore Concierge recommendation of “the best box”; do you one research in the theatre and after that choose what you like. On this voyage the Concierge suggested a box which actually was the worst one, so, be in charge and enjoy the show.

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: even though Cunard never invested time and money in their on-board show like NCL, RCL or MSC, I always found one of two shows during previous voyages which were worth watching. This time on Queen Elizabeth I booked a box for two of Cunard’s productions: “Palladium Nights” and “Hollywood Nights”. With fantastic lights and costumes, great stage production and an amazing live orchestra, both shows could be a hit. But the performance of the cast (both dancers and singers) gave me the feeling that I was in the audience of a graduation show for a second hand performing arts school. The dancers, despite an excellent choreography, never manage to be synchronised creating for each movement an involuntary “time-lapse photography” image. The 4 singers, great for a karaoke night out or a trivia like “guess the tune”, were less performing and more competing in cover the other voices.

All passengers on board during this 12 days voyage were running away from a wet grey December back in UK and the weather was great during my trip. Therefore the sail-away party hosted in the back of the ship in Lido Pool area were the highlights of every early evenings, when Queen Elizabeth was leaving the port. The stunning views, the warm evenings, breathing sunsets and the fantastic live performance of Synergy transformed each departure in a unforgettable moment. Great idea to offer for passengers the possibility to buy a glass with champagne, complimenting excellent a perfect evening. Actually, you will need maybe 2 or 3 glasses to give you the strength to ignore the bored faces of Assistant Entertainment manager Edward Moffet and his team which supposed to be the heart of the party. Fortunately, Synergy music was bringing everybody on the dance floor of th sail away party with no need for help for the entertainment team

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: For sure the best sail-away party was the departure from Lisbon with stunning views, a nice warm evening and the excellent idea of the Entertainment Manager to give a British touch to the sail-away from Lisbon. The Union Jack flags and British music plus the crowd ready for a good party in the last warm evening of the voyage were the perfect ingredients for what could be a great party. Unfortunately Amanda had her evening off and her assistant  Andrew left in charge. Bad move! After some 20-25 minutes the huge crowd with festive flag waiting in the announced area for the party, was “blessed” with the presence of Mr. Moffet announcing that due to bad weather (!!!!!!!!!!!) the sail away party will take place indoor with lovely views of the glass walls of the Winter Gardens. When one of the guest expressed the disappointment the “courteous” assistant manager replied that was his decision for everybody comfort. The result: everybody was watching the incredible passage of Queen Elizabeth out of Lisbon on a December night with 19⁰C, while Synergy were playing indoor for a bunch of crew waiving enthusiast-less the Union Jack flags. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

To help you experience the very best of your destinations, Cunard offers in all voyages a diverse selection of excursions ashore, from leisurely sightseeing to exciting activities. Taking in the account my previous experiences with Cunard is clear that shore excursions are created by a team of destination experts who work closely with carefully selected, reliable local operators and are designed to suit all ages, interests and abilities. According to Cunard, once you’ve booked your holiday, you’ll be able to browse through excursions tailored to your specific cruise and purchase your tours in advance through Voyage Personaliser. Is exactly what I did and was very excited about my 3 shore excursions in Funchal, La Palma and Tenerife; for the rest of the ports of call I decided to explore the city myself, as I was many times in Lisbon and Grand Canaria.

The tour in Funchal – “The cave of Sao Vincente” was far above expectations with a very knowledgeable guide and a extremely interesting itinerary. Nothing was to much: the explanations of the guide given not to fill the driving time but to create a background of the tour, the stops which didn’t target souvenirs shops or pointless sites and the time frame of the tour, made this excursion one of the best I ever took while cruising.

ROLLER-COASTER MOMENT: Two of the excursions pre-booked were cancelled based on a minimum number which was not reach with on-board bookings. While I totally understand the financial reason behind the cancellation I can’t stop wondering about how Cunard can’t get the idea that not everybody on-board need a “guided leisurely slow walk”. Is exactly what I was talking a bit earlier: passengers looking for more active or independent tours will move away from Cunard which target only a certain segment of the market. What about lowering the minimum number for more dynamic excursions to satisfy active guests on board and cover the cost with the number of passengers looking for the leisurely options. Age is just a number and some couples that I meet during the cruise were the perfect example for this.

Looking back, my 12 days voyage on Queen Elizabeth to Madeira, Canary Island and Lisbon was a very pleasant experience, a successful getaway from the English weather. For me Cunard will always be an option when I choose a cruise, but not more that once or twice a year, which is not a lot considering my 7-10 cruises yearly. I already booked Queen Victoria for the same itinerary in December 2018. Something needs to be done to attract and keep the passengers which in their fifties and sixties look to something which mix traditional with the trends of cruising in 2000s. Some caviar, a tuxedo and a cha-cha-cha lesson are not enough. Competitors are doing a bit more.

The Cunard roller-coaster still have a strong place on the cruise market, with ups and downs, targeting a certain segment of the market, quite strong at the moment. But what will happen in 5-10 years?

Watch my Video Diary of voyage VS737 on Cunard Queen Elizabeth

~ by leonard69 on January 9, 2018.

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