QUEEN ELIZABETH 2
by Paul Kennedy
July 18, 2005
This was the sixth cruise for my partner and myself and our third on QE2. We chose this cruise partly for the itinerary, but more importantly for the ship and the fact that there were five sea days, including three on the return voyage. The cruise was roundtrip from Southampton, calling at Gibraltar, Barcelona, Cannes, Livorno (for Pisa and Florence), Naples and Civitavecchia (for Rome). We had an unexpected halt in Gibraltar on the return voyage to tender ashore a sick passenger.
We drove the 150 miles from the East Midlands to Southampton and the journey took two and a half hours. We left too early and arrived far too early, but when we got to the entrance to check in at 11 a.m., our luggage was taken away immediately. I moved the car to the valet parkers (about 100 feet away) and then we had a few minutes wait for check in actually to open.
Last year, we arrived at a similar time to board Queen Mary 2 and we were on board by midday. This time, 2 p.m. boarding was enforced so we had a long wait in the departure lounge (our fault entirely). We were the first to check in. However, we quite enjoyed watching our fellow passengers arrive and surmising what deck they might be on and which restaurant they would be dining in. Arriving early had its benefits in that when boarding commenced, we were first to board after (we presume) Grill passengers and platinum World Club members. Also, our luggage was already in the cabin and we were able to unpack immediately.
Our outside cabin (3131) was on Deck 3 and slightly aft of mid-ship. Being on QE2, it did not have a balcony, but it did have two portholes, which caused a great deal of amusement and banter with one-porthole table companions! The cabin was 242 sq. ft., the largest size in C1 grade and, surprisingly, larger than many Princess Grill cabins.
Entrance to the cabin was via a passageway off the main corridor, useful for avoiding corridor noises. Immediately inside the door was a walk-in closet with a huge amount of space; a separate curtained closet containing fridge, safe and two bathrobes; and the bathroom. The bathroom was a very good size, with bath and shower fully tiled; the basin had a marble surround.
The cabin itself was separated from this "utility" area by another door, which further cut down external noises and especially the annoying light that spills in under the main door. The twin beds (firm but very comfortable) were side by side, although not made up as a queen-sized bed. They were high enough that we could store our very large suitcases underneath. There was plenty of drawer storage in three four-drawer units, and in the dressing table that ran the full width of the cabin. The TV stood on a box that once contained a VCR. Also waiting were two bottles of sparkling wine on ice, complements of Cunard World Club, of which we are gold members.
This cabin was the best we have had on any ship, including QM2 and Galaxy, on which we've sailed in the last year. The dark wood paneling was a bit heavy but it felt more like being in a grand hotel than a plastic motel. As a judgment of how nice it was, our one-portholed (C2) table companions have booked this cabin for a 21-night cruise next year. A couple of photographs will be available once I get them posted.
Dining and Food
Having a C1 cabin, we dined in the Caronia Restaurant, assigned to a window table for six (table size was at our request). Again, the ambience was more of a grand hotel and certainly not glitzy. The food was superb and the service impeccable. We had worried from reviews we read that with the transfer of some staff to QM2, service had slipped. We did not find this to be true. On this cruise I had some of the best food I have had on any ship (and some of the best food I have ever had). Steak was beautifully tender, the lobster was moist, full of flavor and tender as well.
Diners in the Caronia Restaurant are allocated a table for all meals, and although there were three couples at the table who tended to come at slightly different times, we generally had most of our meals together (except when shore trips dictated Lido dining). I much prefer an allocated table as this allows you to get to know your table companions, and of course the staff. I think service is the better for it and it avoids the strain of sitting with strangers at every breakfast and lunch. Of course, we were lucky - we had wonderful table companions.
Menu choices were varied, and although there were some unusual options, there was plenty to choose from. On days when I felt I had overeaten, I would have a starter, soup and another starter instead of a main course. Although I never asked for a larger portion of the second starter, it usually was.
I thought the quality of the food was excellent, presentation was perfect and the quantities just right (I am not a particularly big eater, but with starter, soup, entrée, dessert, sorbets and ice cream, cheese and biscuits, and petit fours, even the largest appetite would be satisfied). There was an element of themes for dinners - Spanish dishes were available sailing out of Barcelona, French out of Cannes and Italian out of Italy - but there were always alternative dishes.
We only used the Lido twice for early morning breakfast and once for lunch on the day we embarked. We were early on all three occasions and so it was a relaxed experience, although it got very busy at all meal times.
QE2 is a formal ship, so men were expected to wear a jacket and tie every night, with one exception. One night we could wear a collared shirt, but the jacket was still mandatory. There were four formal nights, two outbound and two homebound. Dress during the day was casual, and we did wear shorts to breakfast and lunch, as did many other people. Our table companions, however, changed into or stayed in long trousers.
A lot of reviews I read in recent months complained that the QE2 was getting shabby, but we found completely the reverse. Everywhere, there was evidence of new carpeting, new or reupholstered furniture, and areas both inside and out being repainted. Mysteriously, half way across the Bay of Biscay on our return journey, all the (indeed very shabby) sun loungers on the Sun Deck were replaced.
We had to cruise at quite high speeds (27-29 knots) from time to time to get between destinations, and the ship managed this effortlessly without noticeable extra vibration or noise. Admittedly, the cabins do creak and this was worst in the Bay of Biscay outbound when there was a heavy swell. One couple did ask to change their cabin because of engine noise, but they were on the lowest deck aft, which is noisy on any ship.
QE2 has most facilities that newer ships have, although perhaps not as grand and flashy (as we rarely used most of them, it didn't really matter; and therefore we can't comment on them). We used most of the bars, and service was good (sometimes a little slow in the Yacht Club, which has to service the deck areas as well). The shops were fine for what we wanted and we didn't use any of the sports facilities. We went to the night club in the Yacht Club one evening and enjoyed the live band, Opus, very much. They also performed at the sail-away parties at each port, although the choice of a Caribbean band on a Mediterranean cruise was slightly odd.
The ship was completely full, but none of the public rooms was ever crowded and it was always possible to find a quiet spot to read, talk or just sit and watch the sea. Even on sea days, it was never crowded; and best of all, it was always quiet. Any activities in the lounges were always low-key, and except in the Yacht Club, there was no piped music. Announcements were at a minimum - a safety announcement midmorning and the Captain's broadcast at midday - and these were not in the cabins. Occasionally, there were additional announcements - whales on the port side, or why we were calling in at Gibraltar for a second time (to land a sick passenger).
The ship's photographers were everywhere for every occasion and at other times besides, but photographs were far too expensive. If they took fewer photographs, fewer would be rejected, the cost would come down, and more would be bought. At around $25 each, we only bought a couple. We did buy the video, though, as we appear in it!
In one word - excellent. The staff was friendly and helpful, displaying none of the sullen attitudes we found on QM2 last year, or the over-enthusiasm we saw on Galaxy. The Maitre d' or one of his assistants came to our table every day and asked after us, and served or cleared if they spotted a need. Let me offer special praise to Sudeepp and Celeste, our stewards for the voyage, and to Vijay, our sommelier.
Our cabin was immaculately looked after by Fidel. It was always spotless and tidy, and no matter how often we stopped by to use the bathroom, the towels were always folded and straightened on our next return. Do they have movement sensors in these cabins?
There was a variety of entertainment on offer: evening stage shows, pianists and singers in the bars, a harpist and a classical music trio. We went to a few of the shows and there is a limitation to what can be put on in the Grand Lounge. However, the Cunard Singers and Dancers coped well with the restrictions and put on very professional performances.
On days at sea, we attended some of the guest lectures, a cooking demonstration, and the port lectures. They were all very good. We were slightly perturbed to learn that there were 150 children on board, but the children's entertainment must have been very good because most of the time there was no sight or sound of them.
There were several other daytime activities, but these didn't interest us as much as sitting on deck (in the shade) with a book. Since this was a warm weather cruise, the decks were particularly busy, but it was always possible to find a spot to sit.
Ports of Call
The itinerary for this cruise was Southampton - Gibraltar - Barcelona - Cannes - Livorno - Naples - Civitavecchia - Southampton. We took organized tours in each of these places and as some of them were full day tours, it was very expensive - in excess of $1,200. However, in the end, they were well worth it and interesting. A half day in Gibraltar allowed us to see the Rock and the apes, but low clouds and poor visibility hid all the views. In Barcelona, we had a general tour of the city in the morning that gave us a sufficient overview to stay in town and do our own thing for the afternoon.
From Cannes, we had a day traveling along the French Riviera to, among other places, Nice and Monte Carlo, where we had lunch in the Café de Paris. Livorno is the port for Florence and Pisa, and most people opted for Florence. I had been to Florence, so we went to Lucca and Pisa. Lucca is a medieval walled city and much larger than we expected, with a lot of interesting architecture and narrow streets. It was a Sunday, so most things were shut - unlike Pisa, where all the tourist shops were open. We only had a short time there, which was perhaps just as well, as it was very crowded and very hot.
Our next excursion was from Naples to Pompeii and "romantic" Sorrento.
Our guide had been very informative in Pompeii, but after showing us where we were having lunch, he more or less abandoned us. Sorrento turned out to be much larger than we expected, so after lunch we spent our time aimlessly wandering the streets. On our return to Naples, we were taken to a "factory" making cameos from seashells and shown two old men scratching at pieces of shell before being shown into the showroom. As before, we went outside as quickly as possible. We felt this had been a major waste of money, and reported this to the tour office, although no action was taken by them.
The final stop was Civitavecchia for Rome. I spent two weeks there as a teenager and it was interesting to see all the sights again and compare them with what I remember. This excursion included lunch in a nice café on the Piazza Navona, which was a welcome break after walking around with the temperature into the nineties. Rome was also very crowded, and I would say one ought to avoid being there in the height of summer in the middle of tourist season. Perhaps one of the excursions to more rural locations would have been advisable.
By chance (after having said I would not go back to the Mediterranean again) we are doing almost the same cruise next year. This time, we will go ashore on our own in Gibraltar, Barcelona and Cannes where the dock or anchorage is close to the town, take excursions (half day) in Vigo and Lisbon which are new ports of call for us, and possibly not go ashore at all in Italy. Livorno and Civitavecchia have nothing to offer in themselves (Civitavecchia is 50 miles from Rome), although from what we've heard from other passengers, taxis are available.
After six hot and hectic days ashore, the three-day return passage to Southampton was very welcome. One added bonus of the return trip was calling in at Gibraltar unexpectedly just before dawn one morning. Unlike our visit earlier, the weather was crystal clear and we were able to get some nice photographs of the Rock.
Gratuities were included on our bill, but on this occasion, they were added to the ticket bill we had to pay before embarkation, so we ended up paying them several weeks in advance. We were not asked about this, so it was a bit naughty of Cunard, but in retrospect, with the size of our onboard account, it turned out to be a relief that something was paid up front!
Disembarkation is organized in order of various groups going to airports or on Cunard transfers, and the remainder by deck starting at the top of the ship. We vacated our cabin just before 9 a.m. and took a seat near the Crystal Bar. We bought that day's newspaper to read and I reviewed on my laptop the photographs I had taken. We were called to disembark at 10:45 and it took precisely 12 minutes to get off the ship, find our luggage, exit customs, find the car and start the engine! This is exactly the same time it took last year disembarking QM2 and we had hoped to beat the time, but we had a delay in finding one of our bags!
Weather conditions throughout the cruise were good, although there was considerable swell crossing the Bay of Biscay outbound. There were a few spots of rain on a couple of occasions, but otherwise it was very hot throughout and the seas were calm. Some passengers hoped for a rough return trip across the Bay of Biscay, but it remained a millpond all the way!
After the reviews we read, the ship exceeded all our expectations in every way, but it surprised me how many first-timers said they wouldn't be returning on board (a show of hands in the Grand Lounge before the first show suggested about 60% of passengers were first timers). The usual reason seemed to be they preferred the glitz of the modern ships, Broadway-style shows and poolside games. One couple told me they preferred the large pump action bottles of all-in-one shampoo, shower gel and conditioner to the individual sized soaps, shampoos and shower gels provided on QE2!
Having been on modern ships for our last two cruises (QM2 and Galaxy), we were a little worried about what it would be like to be back on an old ship again. We shouldn't have. It was wonderful - quirky, intimate, comfortable and although still a large ship, it didn't feel that way.
We would recommend this ship without a doubt. Certainly, it pays to have a higher grade cabin, as they are larger and have better facilities; and while some people love open seating, we will always plump for the Caronia Restaurant (we're very unlikely to make it into Grill class territory). However, having said that, we have had to opt for a cruise on QM2 next year because other commitments prevent us taking a QE2 cruise. We'll have to grin and bear the open seating!
How would we score this cruise? The ship was wonderful, the service and food excellent, the shore excursions interesting (with that one exception in Sorrento), so we’d give it 10 out of 10, or five stars.