by Lynn Holliday
August 1, 2008
CRUISE REVIEW -- CUNARD QUEEN VICTORIA -- SOUTHAMPTON TO VENICE, AUGUST 1 -- 13, 2008, Stateroom 5054 Cat A5
This was a much-anticipated cruise for me and my two children age 20 (son) and 15 (daughter). It was our 8th cruise, with previous voyages having been onboard Holland America (old Westerdam, new Westerdam, Zuiderdam), Royal Caribbean (Enchantment, Adventure), Carnival (Destiny), and Celebrity (Galaxy).
My daughter was attending a 4 week program in the UK to obtain a high school credit. Our selection of Queen Victoria depended heavily upon the following criteria: embarkation in England, timing coincided with the end of my daughter's course, and the itinerary included Florence, Rome, and Venice among other ports.
In other words, we weren't specifically looking at Queen Victoria or Cunard cruises. But I will admit we were far from disappointed when we realized the ship and itinerary that best suited our criteria was the newly commissioned Queen Victoria. I still remember the tone of reverence in my son's voice when he realized I was giving serious consideration to this ship -- just the way he said, "ooooh, Cunard!" told me he hoped I would pony up the funds and get us onboard.
Our enjoyment of this cruise proved to be predominantly a function of the quality and variety of the ports we visited. Sadly, I cannot say that Cunard or Queen Victoria met our expectations. These expectations, courtesy of Cunard's own intense, frequent (and, based on our experience, excessive) marketing of its "legendary White Star Service" were set quite high before we even boarded the ship.
A few days following our return home at the end of the cruise, I read an extremely well-written, painfully accurate, and somewhat humourous member review of a Queen Victoria voyage. I recall the writer, a gentleman, referring to Queen Victoria as "Carnivalized".
I beg to differ; Cunard would have benefited from that process had it occurred.
We sailed with Carnival onboard Destiny several years ago. Our expectations of that cruise were actually rather low in terms of food and service quality but we booked it because a premium cabin was available, the itinerary was perfect, the timing was right, and the price was reasonable. Our expectations were handily exceeded by Carnival in virtually every respect. There is no question we got at least what we paid for, and considerably more than we expected in many areas.
We do not feel that way about our experience onboard Queen Victoria. Every element of their marketing, before and after you board, focuses on the concept that their service is a cut above. They never forego an opportunity to point this out. This focus on their superb service is merely wishful thinking on their part.
Cunard has many inherent weaknesses in their systems and procedures (or lack thereof) that prevent them from delivering on their promise of legendary White Star service. Our experience and my observations of other passengers suggest they need significant improvement and better coordination in the delivery of their product.
I had already set up a prepaid onboard credit in a significant amount prior to my departure from home. I had received confirmation from Cunard that this amount was received and credited to our stateroom onboard account. I knew it was unlikely we would exceed the amount of this credit so I declined at check-in to provide a credit card.
"But I cannot see ANY credit set up under your stateroom account", the check-in agent said. Little did she know how accurately she was defining one of Cunard's greatest administrative weaknesses. Quite simply, the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing.
Repeatedly during our 13 day voyage it became clear that information in the Cunard database was seldom available to the departments that could benefit from access to it.
In any event, I provided details to the check-in agent regarding the timing and the magnitude of the onboard credit I had set up. Eventually she sought the advice of a manager who indicated I should proceed to the Purser's Desk once onboard the ship in order to determine whether the credit was properly allocated to my stateroom. We were issued our ship's ID cards and carried on.
Other reviewers have already commented about the lack of drawer space in the staterooms. We had a balcony stateroom and in fact ours was the largest square footage offered in this category (472 sq. ft). Throughout the stateroom it was easy to see the missed opportunities for more efficient storage. Each night table had one very small shallow drawer -- they could each have had 2 or 3 larger drawers and that would have been very useful.
The flatscreen television on the writing desk could easily have been wall-mounted. Inexplicably, a few feet of its electrical cord sat on the desk tangled up with our laptop cord throughout the cruise. Neither the TV nor its cord should have been allowed to take up space on this already miniscule surface.
There was one each of US, British, and European electrical outlets. Since we had a supply of electrical adapters with us, we were able to take advantage of all three styles for digital camera and cell phone and laptop charging.
The water closet (and I use this term quite literally in terms of the size of the facility) could have had a mirrored medicine cabinet configuration with sliding doors or glass shelving as we've seen on other ships to accommodate personal care items, toothpaste, lotions and potions, etc. Instead there was literally no room for these items except a shelf below the counter about 6" above the floor. A far from convenient location. Regardless of the class of stateroom we've booked, we have never had a smaller bathroom onboard a cruise ship.
Our cabin had the advantage of an unusually large balcony which we enjoyed many times during our cruise. It was a triple cabin, and occupied by 3 people, so a third chair would have been appreciated. The balcony was more than large enough to accommodate 3 (and indeed even 4) chairs. Bear in mind that most balcony staterooms had substantially smaller balconies than ours.
We found the beds to be very comfortable, with premium mattresses, linens, and pillows. Temperature control of the stateroom was easily accomplished.
I didn't go into the Library as it was almost claustrophobically small despite the spiral staircase to a second floor. The internet lounge was generously sized and well laid out but the satellite signal was among the slowest I've experienced and for at least 2 days there was no service at all. Strangely, Queen Victoria separated the charges for access within the internet lounge vs. wireless service available on the ship if one brought a wireless device. I purchased a substantial package of minutes for our cruise knowing that I would need to keep up with email. Those minutes could only be used by me personally and only in the lounge. We have never before seen this requirement on a cruise ship. Ordinarily we can purchase a package as a family and share the minutes and use them in the internet lounge OR on our own wireless laptop.
During the 2 days when the internet lounge was closed (literally, locked, due to lack of signal), the wireless system performed very well. I was charged 50 cents per minute to check my email on my own laptop using the Queen Victoria wireless system. Meanwhile, I disembarked at the end of our cruise having about 100 unused minutes left in my "internet package". This makes no sense.
The Cunardia displays were interesting and I spent some time reading about the role of the Queens in carrying troops during wartime.
The theatre was truly beautiful, the largest and the nicest we've seen on any ship. The seating was very comfortable. The theatre was truly designed to be a theatre, not a lounge, and so there were no tables for drinks and no drinks offered prior to the performance. Not an issue for me. The private boxes were well utilized during the gala nights but otherwise were easily accessed on a first-come basis. However, the clear acrylic in front of each box somewhat distorted the view of the performance.
The shops on board were not especially interesting. Their window displays were attractive but the merchandise was just not that enticing. They had their daily sidewalk sales of a variety of kitsch (inexpensive watches, the usual assortment of sparkly costume jewelry, colognes) which I really hadn't expected to see onboard Cunard.
The absence of constant announcements was welcome; Celebrity does the same thing, with only a brief morning announcement and everything else to be seen on the "Cunard channel" or in the daily printed program. The lack of constant calls to Bingo and other activities means I can pretend I have nothing to do and hunker down with a book instead.
The sleeping decks of the ship each feature a Laundrette which is free to use. We used it on our first sea day as we arrived onboard Queen Victoria after a week spent exploring Glasgow and London and so our laundry needed attention. It was the only opportunity we had, and we were only a half dozen doors away from the launderette.
After the 2nd day, the laundry room became the protected territory of a group of laundry vigilantes (I kid you not, everyone was talking about it) and they were pretty much camping in there full time. Who does that? Why pay for a cruise and live in the laundrette? The same people were in there all day every day, and fighting would break out over use of the washers, the dryers, the ironing board, just ridiculous! I don't know how these folks even managed to get their clothing dirty enough to launder in the short intervals between visits.
Occasionally we'd see them going in and out of the laundry room in their Cunard robe, as presumably they'd exhausted their supply of dirty clothes and could only clean what they were already wearing. It was the weirdest thing! I kept an eye on the laundry room thinking we could do a quick load at some point but after about 4 days of keeping an eye on it, I realized the laundry vigilantes were never going to leave until the doors were locked at night. When we needed additional laundry services, we simply filled out the laundry slip in the room and let Cunard handle it. I gather the laundry vigilante situation is a common experience onboard as other reviewers have mentioned it. We never have seen this onboard other ships.
They fall short of their own marketing and consequently fell short of our expectations. They also fall short of the service experience we've enjoyed when cruising with Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, and Celebrity. I would have expected service to be on par with Celebrity but it wasn't on par with any of our past experiences.
I spent more time at the front desk (purser's desk and excursions desk) on this cruise than on our preceding 7 cruises combined. (See, "our adventure" later in this review for details.)
Our cabin steward frankly did not seem to enjoy her job at all nor was she particularly friendly. She rarely greeted us if we passed her in the hallways, kept her eyes down and never smiled. We've had great cabin stewards and poor ones and a couple in between; she was probably the worst of the bunch.
She also didn't take advantage of opportunities to show us she was paying attention to our habits. Usually after one or two days at sea, a capable cabin steward will have noted the preferences of a stateroom's occupants and will organize the room accordingly. In our case, my daughter slept with an extra blanket on her bed every night of the cruise. Not once was that blanket placed on or near her bed when beds were prepared for the night. It wasn't lack of time, clearly, as our cabin steward attempted to do something artistic in arranging my pajamas each night. (This, quite frankly, I found rather weird as it's not exactly a "towel animal" -- it's my personal nightwear!)
We fared somewhat better in the dining room as our waiter (Zaldy) and his assistant were friendly and reasonably capable; however, our waiter's command of English was limited which sometimes hampered the process of ordering our meals. He did always manage to get it right in the end and on the one occasion when my daughter's meal arrived undercooked (gnocchi, almost raw in the centre) he quickly had the meal replaced and the head waiter for our section checked soon after to make sure she was happy with the replacement.
Interestingly, neither of my children were ever offered a beverage other than water in the dining room. This is unique in our experience!
Usually my son would have a daiquiri (virgin daiquiri when he was younger, regular now that he's 20) and my daughter might do likewise. At the very least, my son would probably consume a diet soft drink with his meal. None was offered at any time. I have no idea why this would be the case. With the automatic gratuity applied to every order from the bar, be it soft drink, mixed drink, or wine, the bar steward could have earned some revenue from two kids who routinely order at least a daiquiri each at dinner.
Front desk staff were for the most part professional and courteous and attempted to be helpful but it seemed they often were in the dark about policies and procedures. I spent a lot of time at the purser's desk on this cruise and had the opportunity to observe literally dozens and dozens of passengers raising a variety of what seemed reasonable and common issues without deriving much satisfaction from the experience. If not for my determination and persistence in resolving our issue with Cunard, I would have ended the cruise feeling equally frustrated.
I would give approximately the same ranking to food onboard Carnival and Royal Caribbean. I would give a ranking of 4 to Holland America and 4.5 to Celebrity.
That said, our voyage on Cunard was more expensive than any of the afore-mentioned cruise lines. I would have expected more quality, variety and capability from the kitchens and particularly in a dining room that requires gentlemen to wear a jacket every single night of their cruise.
We dined in the Britannia restaurant every night with only one exception, which was an evening spent in the reservations-only (surcharged) restaurant "Todd English". The food in the Brittannia ranged from "OK to good" according to my son. Fair comment. Sometimes we engaged in serious contemplation of the possible presentation of a particular food. That resulted from an early dessert in which a "parfait" arrived as a pyramid-shaped jelly-like mousse. Desserts were generally not terrific; my kids took to ordering the ice cream with every dessert as a no-fail backup plan.
Unlike other cruise lines we've experienced, Cunard did not mention "alternative" options in the event that no menu items appealed. Celebrity, for example, offers Caesar salad, grilled salmon or steak in addition to the menu items and this is noted on the menu on a nightly basis. If Cunard offers something similar, it was not mentioned at any time by our waiter nor was there any indication printed on the dining room menu.
One evening my daughter ordered pasta from the menu, asking that mushrooms be omitted. It arrived without any discernible sauce whatsoever. As it was the only item that appealed to her at all on the evening's menu, she soldiered through about ¼ of it. If alternatives to the printed menu had been offered it would have been helpful.
After the 3rd or 4th dinner in the Britannia dining room, we came to think of the meal as more of a refueling stop than "fine dining" because the food quite simply wasn't of that calibre. This was the first voyage of 8 cruises that my son was required to wear a jacket each and every night. (Cunard's "elegant casual" dress code requires jackets for the men.) My son commented that this restaurant was simply "not good enough" to require men to wear a jacket every night. He's right.
We made reservations for dinner one evening at the Todd English restaurant onboard. We had visited Olives at Bellagio in Las Vegas and had a thoroughly enjoyable meal, and prior to embarkation onboard Queen Victoria had enjoyed Zuma and Gordon Ramsay in London, so we were hopeful of another taste treat.
Todd English onboard Queen Victoria is decidedly a step up from the Britannia experience, but in no way a match for its land-based sister, Olives. The food was much better than anything the Britannia was serving but the service seemed impersonal, almost mechanical.
We felt that the Lido restaurant did a very capable job at breakfast and in fact was probably the best organized breakfast buffet we've seen on any cruise ship. Some ships scatter the necessities for breakfast across so large an area that the pancakes are long chilled before syrup can be found. If you started at the beginning and proceeded to the end (which not every passenger did), you would systematically have assembled on your tray absolutely everything needed for breakfast including the appropriate condiments. I have never seen a more logically put together buffet. The food was generally good and the "cooked to order" omelettes, pancakes, and waffles were very tasty.
Lunch was much less predictable. The sandwich station had the same boring sandwiches day in and day out. On most cruise ships I am easily satisfied with a good sandwich but these were just plain uninspired. They could have prepared them in advance; there was no advantage to having the sandwiches made to order as they lacked interesting fillings and variety and basically just kept making the same things again and again for days on end.
The pasta and pizza stations were a better bet, with some customization possible. The pasta chef had fun one day with my daughter and I making a "pink sauce" out of his alfredo and arrabiata sauces and adding an array of chopped vegetables. The resulting creation, which we shared, was absolutely delicious. Generally I restricted my lunch time visit to the Lido to a salad and soup as these were fairly no-fail options. Sometimes it was tricky to find a table at lunch time but perseverance always paid off.
The room service menu was probably the most limited and boring we've seen on a cruise. It went virtually unused by us.
The Golden Lion Pub provided a welcome change at lunch from time to time. Generally it wasn't busy if one arrived fairly promptly at noon and the meals, although limited in variety, were delivered piping hot and were reasonably tasty. I'm a serious fish and chip lover and the Golden Lion Pub didn't disappoint in this area! It was nice to sit down and have a simple meal with my kids a couple of times during our cruise and not have to face the lines and the trays in the Lido.
They have apparently invested considerably in absolutely first-rate equipment for sound and lighting and a great deal of it! He was very impressed by the investment made to ensure that every show could be lit to perfection.
However, the cast of the production shows seems uninspired much of the time. There was no strong female singer and no strong male voice. They had 4 "decent" vocalists but no one who could really put out a powerful vocal. Usually we find that there is one particularly powerful voice for each of the male and female performers and there are usually ways to showcase those voices within the production shows.
As I said to my son after the first production show, "I am having a lot of trouble connecting with the show, the performers, with any of it". I felt the shows had no real story (beginning/middle/end), lacked energy, seemed more than a little disorganized, and the lighting was sometimes all over the place. In one instance the lights were aimed straight at the audience, forcing many people to cover their eyes. Not a smart idea.
We later learned that this was a changeover cruise for the cast which had been onboard since the maiden voyage. Their contracts were finally coming to an end and their replacements embarked when we did and were frantically in rehearsal every hour of the day. That probably explains the lack of energy of the departing cast! The final production did seem more put together and the cast must have felt inspired to go out with a bang because it was a far higher energy performance than any of the preceding shows. They should have begun the cruise with an equally strong show and put the less organized, weaker shows in the middle with the powerhouse at the end.
The walk-on entertainers were all musicians or vocalists. One gentleman played a wide range of instruments, had a very pleasant singing voice, and the audience responded very enthusiastically to him. His show was my favourite of the cruise. There was a female vocalist who almost managed to put the audience to sleep; many people got up and left mid-song (which I personally think is offensively rude) and she performed two shows (one too many). There wasn't enough variety in the walk-on performances; they were all vocalists and musicians, with no illusionist, comedy, magician, etc.
On non-production show nights the late show was poorly attended, in fact I don't think more than 20% of the seats were occupied for most of the shows. I don't think I've been on a ship previously where the late seating of dinner had an after-dinner show. Usually the late diners see an early show, the early diners get the later show but both shows are usually finished by about 10 p.m. Our show didn't start until 10:45 p.m., and generally wrapped up about an hour later. With port arrivals at 7 and excursions at 8 a.m., that's just plain too late!! I missed at least 4 or 5 shows as a result.
Walking around the ship, I heard and enjoyed some very competent pianists and a harpist who was very good.
I always talk with staff members about life on board the ship because both of my kids are studying for careers that will likely take them onto a cruise ship after they graduate (technical theatre production, and hotel management).
By chatting with the spa staff, I learned a few things onboard Queen Victoria that were of interest. First, the staff on this ship lacks deck privileges. They are not permitted on passenger decks when they are off duty, not even to sit and have a coffee in a lounge and interact with passengers.
Other ships we have sailed (Holland America, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean) definitely had staff members circulating. They are required not to drink on passenger decks, to comply with the dress code, and to act professionally as the representatives of the cruise line, but they are up there on passenger levels. I gather the restriction of deck privileges was recent and there were staff members who had come onboard when deck privileges were extended. Many were not planning to renew their contracts now that these privileges were revoked.
In fact, none of the staff members with whom I spoke expected to renew their contracts on the same ship again.
Gibraltar: We took the ship's excursion "Walking Tour of the Rock" and were carefully briefed by our guide about the Barbary Apes. They are very precocious and especially the teenagers will try and snatch anything they can, particularly food! There is a 500 pound sterling fine for feeding the apes but the apes are not fined for stealing YOUR food! However, it can get a little tricky so it's best not to rustle wrappers, reach into bags, etc. because they associate those movements/sounds with food.
One young boy came out of a souvenir/snack shop with a newly-purchased ice cream bar on a stick. The wrapper was no sooner removed than an ape grabbed the ice cream bar out of the boy's hand, climbed onto a roof, and demonstrated a good working knowledge of how to thoroughly savour an ice cream bar. He licked the stick on both sides, then climbed down. Very cute, we took photos!
Many of the mini-vans used for the tours had apes climbing onto and into them. The apes seemed to be particularly fond of the horn and would reach in and press and hold it for minutes at a time. It sounded like rush hour at a gridlocked intersection but it really was just the apes having fun with their own version of an orchestra.
The same excursion includes a visit to the caves and this was worthwhile also. From one vantage point we were able to see the Gibraltar airport which is of interest because there is a major road running right across the runway!!! There are only a handful of take-offs and landings each day and automated arms (like at a railway crossing) have been installed to prevent movement of vehicles and pedestrians across the runway for a few minutes before, during, and after it is in use. We were fortunate to see the road closed at one point for an inbound aircraft, watched the landing, and then a few minutes later the road re-opened and traffic was transiting the runway once again. A very unusual setup, but it seems to work.
Cannes: We were fortunate to be able to book the services of a fantastic and highly recommended private guide. I had read of this gentleman in numerous cruise reviews and bulletin boards, Michel of Revelation Tours, and we were not disappointed. He really hit the ground running, with wonderful commentary that brought to life the history of the area, and helped us understand and appreciate everything we were seeing. He had a very comfortable Mercedes van, soft drinks and bottled water on board, and did everything to make our day enjoyable, educational, and we really crammed a lot in! We visited Monte Carlo/Monaco, Eze (charming!), St. Paul de Vence (have to go back there some day!!), and lunch in Nice. The three of us agreed that he is our all-time best private tour guide providing superbly paced and interesting commentary. If I find myself in the south of France again, I will be in touch with Michel.
Florence/Pisa: We booked a private tour with Rome in Limo and had requested Carlo for both Florence and Rome tours. However, their local driver Gianmarie met us at the ship at the port of Livorno. He quickly got us away from what must be the ugliest port area I've ever seen. I'm sure the town is pretty but Livorno's economy is all about shipping so anything within a mile of the pier is strictly related to that and very unattractive as Gianmarie pointed out!
He was a terrific tour guide, young, personable, interesting, with lots of good information to share with us, a good sense of humour, and he kept the commentary moving so we were never bored. Gianmarie was an excellent choice of guide for the dynamics of our family.
We started with a visit to Pisa and really you only need about an hour for this. It's mainly a photo opportunity and as we drove through Pisa, Gianmarie pointed out that it wasn't exactly the only "leaning tower". Pisa just doesn't have the substrate needed to keep a tower standing straight!
Gianmarie had made a reservation for us at the Accademia so I finally met the famous "David" who is every bit as good-looking a man now as he was when Michaelangelo discovered him!
Best of all, he took us to a fantastic restaurant in Florence for lunch -- "La Posta" -- we had the most wonderful pasta, the owner looked after us personally and told us all kinds of cute stories of comical customers. My son says he would go back to Florence specifically to dine at that restaurant again. Me too.
Rome: We spent 3 days exploring Rome before our last Mediterranean cruise onboard Celebrity Galaxy in August 2006. This time we elected to have a private driver and we had a specific list of places we wanted to go. Again our booking was with Rome in Limo and this time we had Marco as our driver. Marco was driving a Mercedes minivan with half of the rear seats facing backward. These were not useful for our purpose so we sat in the back row of seats which were facing forward; unfortunately that made it difficult for us to hear his commentary, which I'm sure he noticed since I needed him to repeat almost everything he said. I later learned he could easily have turned the rear-facing seats to a forward-facing position and I'm not sure why that wasn't done, considering how far back we ended up sitting in a half-full minivan.
Marco did not offer a great deal of commentary; that may have been because we told him it wasn't our first visit to Rome. Having said that, he was interesting and with good English skills, and he paid attention to our comment that we would like the opportunity for a really nice lunch, and to take some interesting and different photos. Unfortunately, that second statement of preference ended up costing us $2,000 before we were even halfway into the tour.
He took us first to the Colosseum as this was our number one request (we only saw the exterior on our last visit to Rome). Then he embarked on a mission to "surprise us" with hidden gems and panoramic views.
Unfortunately at one such stop, a panoramic view of a large part of the city taken from the Aventine Hill area, we were out of the vehicle for about 10 minutes and returned to find items we had left inside the car, gone. The vehicle was locked, parked on the street outside a church in a quiet residential area, but the vehicle's security had been defeated, probably by a screwdriver inserted under the covering of the driver's door handle to short the electronic locking system.
My camera bag (with an SLR lens, spare battery, charger, and assorted camera accessories), my daughter's bag (with a digital camera and a digital video) and our driver's jacket (with his wallet, all ID, driver's license, and credit cards) were all gone! About a $2,000 loss for our family which I have since learned is not substantial enough to merit an insurance claim so we have to write this off to experience.
We spent about an hour at the police station to file a report before declaring a lunch break. Marco was very upset to have such an event occur on his shift, but we did all recover somewhat after a nice glass of wine and wonderful lunch, consumed at a restaurant he indicated was his favourite in the city.
Our afternoon stop was at Vatican City, primarily to see the Sistine Chapel. Earlier I had been asked by Rome in Limo if I wanted a private guide to take us into Vatican City and I had declined because the cost was 150 euro and I didn't think my kids would be sufficiently interested in the Vatican Museum's art to warrant a detailed explanation of it. In fact, given their "druthers" they would probably elect to get through the Vatican Museum as quickly as they decently could!
However, the owner of Rome in Limo was waiting for us at the entrance to Vatican City to express his condolences on the loss of our items earlier in the day, and to offer us the complementary services of one of his private guides, Catherine. She was terrific! Young, knowledgeable, interesting, funny, quick paced, kept things moving, and we benefited hugely by having her accompany us.
We especially appreciated the time she spent familiarizing us with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel so that when we stepped inside (where silence is required and photography is banned) we knew what we were looking at and had a better ability to appreciate and understand the nuances. Catherine's tour and commentary was definitely a highlight of our day in Rome.
We enjoyed our day in Rome and we realize that a theft can and does occur in any place in the world. We travel frequently and we bring some expensive toys (cameras) with us, and electronics are always tempting targets. We arrived in Rome already in love with the city and nothing has changed that.
However, we do offer this caution: Do not assume a locked vehicle is safe even for 5 minutes. Apparently Rome in Limo requires their drivers to remain with their vehicle but in our case this requirement was ignored and really in only a very few minutes in a quiet residential area, the vehicle was emptied.
I did notice in Florence/Pisa that no matter where we went or how long we were gone, anytime we glanced back at the Mercedes minivan we could see Gianmarie standing right beside the driver's door. We thought it a bit comical, actually, but we now understand exactly why he was doing this. Our driver in the South of France, Michel, did exactly the same thing at all times. Clearly they know there is a risk of a Mercedes minivan being spotted as a "private tour vehicle" with perhaps some personal effects or cameras inside.
Messina: Our home has been under renovation for about 10 years, one room after another, and the imaginative, talented contractor with whom I've worked on all of this is originally from Sicily. I showed him our options for our day in port and he said "Go to Taormina". It was terrific advice. Taormina is beautiful!
We had about a 45 minute ride in a very nice coach with a wonderful tour guide whose name I've forgotten but I could pick her out in a crowd by her voice. She had a very distinctive manner of speech, a bit slow paced and very theatrical. This served her well as it seemed to keep everyone quite engaged and listening to her commentary. We had ample time to wander around Taormina that day; sadly, it was extremely hot but she had great advice for refreshment: granita, a kind of lemon slush that is eaten with a spoon.
We found a sidewalk restaurant that offered granita, enjoyed it thoroughly, and searched for it every hour of every day for the balance of the cruise, with no success. I guess we will be going back to Sicily if we get desperate enough for granita.
I bought a painting from an artist in Taormina, very reasonably priced at 300 euro. The painting is very detailed and whenever I look at it, it reminds me of the beautiful views that were literally around every corner in this town. Our guide referred to Taormina as "magical" and I think that's a fair comment.
Corfu: We took the ship's excursion to Acheillion Palace, a Monastery, and Corfu town. The Palace is a complete waste of time. There are a few sculptures and paintings but after FLORENCE???? No comparison. Much of the Palace appeared to be closed to the public and what was open was just not that beautiful. I found it small, sparsely furnished and with a few interesting pieces but having just come from Italy and its treasures there was little here to impress the observer. Visiting the palace necessitated a lot of driving on very narrow congested streets for no good reason. For this tour we had such a pedantic, boring tour guide that many of the passengers actually fell asleep in the bus on the way to the palace!
The Monastery was situated in a beautiful area on the coast with stunning beaches and beautiful scenery. Although it wasn't all that interesting in itself, the drive to and from the Monastery was beautiful and we took some lovely photos of the ocean and beach.
When we got back to Corfu town, many people (including my son) opted to go straight back to the ship, but my daughter and I stayed in town, feeling thirsty and in the mood for a snack and people-watching. We sat on the sidewalk at a restaurant for refreshment, and had delicious greek salad and moussaka and wine served very promptly and at a reasonable cost. We did a little souvenir shopping and then it was time to get back to the ship.
Dubrovnik: We did a ship's excursion primarily of the Croatian Riviera. This is a port I had under-estimated and frankly wasn't all that terribly interested in when I made the booking. However, the Croatian Riviera is stunning. Beautiful, peaceful, no big crowds, we went to Cavtat with its population of 2,000 and as soon as we were one block from the waterfront, we were enveloped in peace and serenity. I could definitely enjoy a vacation here!
The excursion continued inland to a restaurant where we were served a glass of wine (choice of red or white, the white was delicious) and a small snack of local home-made bread, cheese, sliced cured meat, and freshly sliced tomato. It was an extremely pretty location and well worth walking around to enjoy the scenery.
From there we stopped in Dubrovnik, the old town, where we wandered around for a couple of hours, had some very tasty pizza (and a very un-tasty glass of rose wine that I couldn't drink), and then were taken back to the ship. Others who came into town without an excursion had to queue for the ship's shuttle and it was clearly pandemonium as the shuttle arrived and was set upon by many more Cunard guests than could possibly fit on the coach. We were glad to be able to take the excursion coach back to the ship and not have to contend with the line-up for the shuttle as Dubrovnik was very hot the day we were in port.
Venice: Venice was the #1 reason we booked this cruise. I'd been warned a few times about a funky smell but didn't notice it. What I did notice was the beauty, the romance, the history, the water.. water .. water everywhere! It takes a few minutes to assimilate that really there are no roads. All the usual types of transportation -- limos, taxis, buses -- are available, but all of it involves water!
We did the ship's excursion of the Doges Palace and St. Mark's, both of which were interesting although I suspect my kids would have happily done without both. From there we proceeded to the gondola and were seated with a family of 3 and off we went!
There was much jockeying for position as initially the gondola embarkation area was very congested; the canals were almost equally busy with the gondolas proceeding in a "nose to tail trailride" formation for the entire length of the trip. Meanwhile, the gondoliers shouted and laughed back and forth between themselves in Italian (probably commenting on their hapless guests who were taking pictures of every brick along the way) but it was nonetheless interesting and I wouldn't have wanted to forego the experience. (Possibly the attractiveness of the gondoliers is at least partly responsible for this.)
Later we set off on our own to buy some tourist tat (sorry, couldn't help it!) including a beautiful Venetian mask for 25 euro (seemed very reasonable). We sat down at a sidewalk restaurant for wine and snacks and people-watching. However, we couldn't stay in town too late because it was "packing night" (that very dreaded event) and we had a great deal of luggage to sort.
The following morning we again stepped off the ship to spend some time sight-seeing in Venice. I had it in mind that we would go to Murano and perhaps buy a piece of glass. Finding ourselves again in St. Marks Square, we were almost immediately approached by a gentleman who indicated that we could have a free water taxi ride to Murano if we would visit a specific glass factory. I didn't have any problem with this, asked how long it would take, and we hopped into the taxi.
This gave us an interesting ride and it was about 20 minutes to Murano as I recall. We were greeted as we stepped off the boat by one of the representatives of the factory, welcomed, told we could feel free to take pictures of the demonstration we would see, and in we went.
The demonstration was a glass master first blowing a glass vase and then sculpting a glass horse by pulling on a ball of molten glass to create a head, body, legs, and tail. It was amazing, just a few pulls with something that looked like pliers and there was a horse! "Master" is definitely the word!
The tour of the showroom (where photos were not allowed) was equally amazing; we had lots of questions and our factory representative explained the various processes used to create such intricate, amazing glass pieces of art. Some were absolutely huge, others very small, some of the chandeliers were indescribable, and it was definitely a very worthwhile morning.
There was no chance I'd leave without purchasing something, the only problem was narrowing down the choice, but in the end we arranged a piece that will be shipped. It's a crystal branch with 3 birds on it (we are a family of 3) and we each chose a colour for "our" bird. It will be a beautiful and a wonderful memory of our time in Venice when it arrives in about six weeks' time.
We saw gentlemen being turned away from the Britannia restaurant because of the lack of a jacket or tie. I've always disliked seeing people in the dining room on a formal night who refuse to even try to conform to the evening dress code. This didn't happen on Queen Victoria.
We requested a "small table" but were seated at a table for 6 with a delightful couple (Pam & Nick) from the south of England. We never asked them but it's possible they had requested a table for two. There weren't very many such tables in the Britannia and I know that many passengers who requested a table for two did not have that request accommodated. We have a lovely photograph taken of the 5 of us at dinner to remind us how much we enjoyed their company.
Our past experiences with large tables were not always favourable, with table companions who dined at the Lido on all the formal nights, leaving us in the awkward position of being only 3 at a large table half of the time. This time our dining companions attended dinner every evening as we did. (excepting our one meal at Todd English). They were delightful and we had some great conversations, sometimes lingering at the table well after coffee was finished.
I enjoyed the music broadcast over the ship each time we sailed from a port but I wish it had been themed a little more closely for some of the ports (sometimes I really couldn't understand the choice of songs) and it was a little too loud. Anyone out on deck or on their balcony to enjoy the departure would be hard-pressed to have a conversation.
At one port there was a bit of a whistle competition between our ship and Ocean Village. Each ship blasted away numerous times with Queen Victoria the clear and impressive winner.
The half bottle of sparkling wine in our cabin for sail-away was much enjoyed but I think a small basket of fruit would also have been welcomed; it is something we've grown accustomed to in our cruises with Holland America, it costs the ship very little, and it's a nice welcoming touch.
I believe Queen Victoria was in most of the ports of this itinerary for the first time. Our tour guides in each port commented on how beautiful the ship is, and this is true. The Queen Victoria looks stately and handsome in port, very much the ocean liner, and the red stripe at the water line and dark livery of the ship's hull really set her apart from all those white (almost plastic-looking) cruise ships that shared the port facilities with us during our itinerary.
By the time we leave home to embark on our trip, the bookings made as a result of all of this research are synthesized into a spreadsheet format which provides "at a glance" information about the commitments, reservations and plans we've made. All this planning actually makes the trips more relaxing as it is easy to keep track of the day's plan by consulting this chart.
This cruise had a port-intensive itinerary and that is why we chose it. There were a lot of ports, and they were wonderful ports, most of which we had not previously seen. Thus, we wanted to ensure we saw everything we could. I never quite understand the people for whom a cruise is "just a boat ride" and they either don't get off the ship when it's in port, or they are back on again by lunch time. I'm usually among the first off and last to return! My son jokes that they can throw a rope over the side so I can swing back on -- it has never come to that but I am certainly going to eat in Rome when I'm in Rome!! In my view, there is no ship so wonderful that it can eclipse the treasures and culture of the ports it visits.
5 months before we sailed I had booked all of our shore plans with the exception of Venice. For 3 ports I booked private drivers. For 4 ports I booked a ship's excursion because I couldn't justify the cost of hiring a driver everywhere and yet I don't just want to walk off the ship and poke about a few shops before re-boarding.
The most important factor in our decision to book Queen Victoria was the opportunity to spend the last 2 days of the cruise in Venice. It was therefore important to us to have a good plan for exploring this fantastic city, both on our day of arrival and the following day after sleeping onboard the ship in port.
Queen Victoria was arriving in Venice at noon on Aug 12 and we would not disembark until Aug 13 so that would give us about 6 hours in the city both days. I had to keep some time available the evening of Aug 12 for packing as luggage would be picked up by midnight, as always happens on cruises.
I booked a shore excursion for the afternoon of August 12, which was "walking tour of St. Mark's and Doges Palace and gondola ride", leaving several hours free afterwards for wandering and exploring. For August 13, what we needed was a "tour/transfer" commonly offered by ships on the disembarkation day. What that accomplishes is safe storage and transportation of your luggage to the airport while the day can be spent touring and then reuniting with the luggage at the end of the day in order to fly home.
Cunard was offering 3 tour/transfers for Venice on their website. One was a visit to the islands of Murano and Burano, one was the Villas of Brenta, and the other one was of no interest and consequently I cannot recall the description.
None of Cunard's shore excursions could be booked online. I haven't encountered this with any previous cruise; normally they can be booked online and paid with a credit card and confirmed many months prior to departure.
Cunard does not offer an on-line booking facility, so the shore excursions were booked directly with Cunard by my travel agent, Sheila.
For reasons that were not explained, when we booked the other 4 shore excursions, Cunard had not yet priced the Venice tour/transfers. Sheila was told to call back in two months' time at which time Cunard would be able to finalize the arrangements. She did so in March and was told to call back in May. When she called in May, she was told that the tour/transfers for disembarkation day in Venice could only be booked at the excursions desk after I came onboard. I'll admit I felt this was a loose end and wasn't entirely comfortable with it, given that on the strength of Cunard's tour/transfer offerings I had booked an evening flight out of Venice on August 13.
Sheila sent me copies of the tour/transfer options, which I put in my cruise trip file and brought with me. My first day onboard the ship, I went to the excursions desk and picked up the leaflet of tours because the line was absolutely enormous. The leaflet made no mention of August 13. The following day, a sea day, I went back and took my place in line. When it was my turn to be served, I explained that I wanted to book a tour/transfer for August 13. I was told that these tours had not yet been uploaded to the computer and they were therefore unable to make a booking. They expected to see the tours within 48 hours and suggested I come back in 2 days' time.
I went back two days later, after we sailed from Gibraltar. Then I was told that the tours were in the computer still BUT that all staterooms would be receiving printed information about August 13 within the next day or two and I could make my selection when that occurred.
The next day we had a leaflet for "disembarkation" delivered to our stateroom. It offered 4 options. No transfer arrangements at all. Transfer to the airport. Transfer to the rail station. Transfer to a list of hotels. None of these were tour/transfers and I was horrified! I certainly didn't want to be transferred to the Venice airport at 9 in the morning and spend the day there waiting for an evening flight. Nor did I want to choose "no transfer arrangements" and be responsible for figuring out how to get our luggage from the ship to the airport. It certainly couldn't be pulled around with us for a day.
Back to the excursions desk I went, to wait in the line again. It was another long line. This time I brought with me the hard copies provided by Cunard of the tour/transfers they were offering in Venice. The excursions desk personnel took a look at this and said they had NO information about these tours and that I should speak with the purser's desk.
At the purser's desk I spoke with Nel. I showed her the hard copies of the two tours/transfers in which we had an interest. I told her that the Excursion Desk had no knowledge of these and that the options being offered for transfers on August 13 were not acceptable to us due to our booking of an evening flight based on the offerings I held in my hand. I explained that as recently as late May my agent was told by Cunard's office that we would be able to book a tour/transfer once we were onboard.
Nel noted that these were clearly produced by Cunard and said she would show them to the tour manager who was presently out of the office. She committed that she would get back to me later in the day to let me know what arrangements could be made.
She called our stateroom several hours later to advise that these tour/transfers would not be offered at all on this sailing.
That left me in a quandary! How were we to get off the ship with our 7 pieces of luggage, spend the day in Venice, and get ourselves and the luggage to the airport at the end of the day for our flight? Where would the luggage be stored? How would it get physically off the ship? Suddenly it seemed I was to handle a logistical issue with no assistance when Cunard's office had been assuring us for months that a tour/transfer would take care of everything!
I tried seeking information online but the ship's internet service was so slow that it literally took 5 minutes for the google search page to load. At that rate, I was never going to find a private arrangement.
I emailed my travel agent who was well aware of what Cunard had promised, asking her to contact Cunard and see if they could assist. She then forwarded to me the reply she received from Cunard, essentially that they were very sorry to hear of our situation but that they were not in a position to handle what had become an on-board matter and that we should pursue it onboard.
In a binder in our stateroom there was a supply of stationery including some little note cards (size of post cards) for comments and concerns regarding "White Star Service". There wasn't much space but the card did indicate it was for bringing to Cunard's attention anything that would make our cruise more enjoyable. With only a few lines to work with, it wasn't easy to outline our situation, but I did my best and deposited the card at the front desk. The pre-printed small text on the card indicated that these White Star Comment cards were delivered directly to the hotel manager.
Within hours, I received a response from the hotel manager which basically confirmed receipt of my White Star Comment Card, thanked me for bringing my concern to her attention, acknowledged the sharing of my comments with the relevant departments, confirmed that combined tour/transfers would not be offered in Venice, and wished me an enjoyable cruise. A 3 sentence response that offered absolutely nothing.
I spent a few hours thinking about this. If Cunard had never offered tour/transfers, I would have organized this privately as I did with 3 other ports. I would have done that with the luxury of time and high speed internet. Now I had no time to work with, the slowest internet in the world, and something we had verified again and again and again with Cunard was simply pulled off the table. Yet on the strength of their assurances, I made flight arrangements enabling us to enjoy Venice for as long as possible. Was I supposed to be happy at the prospect of enjoying the hospitality of the Venice Airport instead? NO!!!!
The same binder that contained the stationery held all manner of ship information, room service menu, the usual details of shipboard life. The front page was a 12 point statement of "White Star Service". I had read this upon embarkation and thought it a rather lofty goal but nice to see upfront what the ship expected from its personnel.
I re-read the points of White Star Service, took out a full sized sheet of Cunard stationery and wrote to the hotel manager. I began by saying "Point #12 of the White Star Service program, which is detailed in the binder in every stateroom onboard, states "We never say no -- we always offer alternatives". I am writing to you today to ask what alternatives you are prepared to offer my family".
I then outlined our situation more comprehensively and chronologically, starting with the phone calls between my travel agent and Cunard, the hard copies of the tour/transfers for August 13 that I had brought on board and surrendered to Nel at the purser's desk, and finally the booking of an evening flight out of Venice on the strength of Cunard's offer of tour/transfers which offer now appeared to be nothing more than smoke.
I clearly indicated that I understood the tour/transfer option was gone. So be it. What I was now asking from this premium cruise line with the vaunted and legendary White Star Service was standard fare for any 3* hotel to offer a departing guest.
Specifically, I requested the following: Safe storage of our luggage, the ability to leave and explore the city, return and be reunited with our luggage, and a transfer to the airport at the end of the day.
Literally any hotel will do this. A cruise ship is just a floating hotel and what I was requesting was absolutely within their capability to do.
I hand-delivered my letter to the purser's desk and it was addressed by name to the hotel manager. I waited for a response.
For four days.
On the fourth day we were getting perilously close to Venice and we still had no disembarkation plan. Back again to the purser's desk I went, realizing that at this point I had probably invested something like 9 or 10 hours in lining up over this one issue, more hours spent in line in one cruise than in all of my previous 7 cruises combined.
Fortunately, the receptionist available when it was my turn was Nel, and she remembered me and my hard copies of the tour/transfer options. I updated her quickly with respect to my correspondence and indicated I was not satisfied with silence. When a customer has a valid concern -- and I had documented mine already -- a response is required. This is a simple Customer Service 101 protocol. The tone of my letter was polite and my request was reasonable. Any mid range hotel and certainly every cruise ship we've sailed would cheerfully accommodate the same request.
The failure by the hotel manager to respond (or even to delegate to someone else, for response) was rude and unreasonable. Frankly I was by this time quite fed up with the legendary White Star Service which is a lovely phrase that means absolutely nothing tangible on board Queen Victoria.
I asked Nel if she could assist me in obtaining an appointment with the Hotel Manager. I also indicated that I knew there were many passengers onboard the ship with an issue similar to ours, because I had overheard similar conversations at the purser's desk each time I lined up to address this and I also overheard conversations on the subject in the "relaxation room" of the Spa. The Cunard customers discussing the Venice disembarkation and lack of arrangements for passengers with late flights were certainly not "relaxing" but in fact were quite hot under the collars of their spa robes.
Nel returned after a few minutes to indicate that the Tour Manager would meet with me. He introduced himself and suggested we sit comfortably in the lobby area near the purser's desk. He was aware of my letter and asked me to recount the situation chronologically, which I proceeded to do. I made my request once again for safe storage of our luggage, the opportunity to explore Venice, and transfer at the end of the afternoon to the Venice airport.
In conclusion, I reminded him that even the most moderately priced hotel would cheerfully make such an arrangement for a departing guest and I expected nothing less from the premium cruise line that Cunard claims to be.
He thanked me for my time and indicated he would see what could be done and would respond to me by the end of the day.
By late afternoon, I had a message from Tanya who I believe is the purser, indicating that she would call back and provide disembarkation details. She did call our stateroom again about an hour later and set out for me the plan for August 13 for our family.
Essentially, they agreed to everything I had requested. We were given Gold #1 luggage tags and told to put our luggage in the hallway the night before disembarkation as is customary. It would be taken to the airport the following morning and held in a safe area for us to claim in the afternoon prior to checking-in for our flight home.
Our hand baggage could be brought on the morning of August 13 to the Connexions lounge where it would be safely stored and we would be given receipts for it. We were to be provided with visitor cards so that we could re-board the ship on August 13. (Ordinarily on disembarkation day the passenger cards are cancelled in the system, making it impossible to re-board at a later time.) We were told that we would be accommodated for our transfer to Venice Airport at 3:30 p.m. with the group of passengers who were taking the "Cunard Charter Flight to Gatwick".
I was also specifically asked not to mention these arrangements to any other passenger onboard the ship because an exception was being made for us and could not be offered to anyone else.
We complied with this request. However, I know for a fact that there were many other passengers in a situation similar to ours who should have been properly accommodated. When we arrived at the Venice Airport later in the day, we met people who had literally spent their entire day at the airport following an early morning transfer from Queen Victoria. They had not expected this and, like us, had booked a late flight hoping to enjoy Venice for as long as possible. They were not happy campers and I suspect gave their travel agent an earful to relay to Cunard upon their return home.
I suspect the biggest difference between our fate and theirs on August 13 in Venice was my persistence. Another contributing factor was the fact that I remained polite and reasonable in my request for "alternatives". It was also beneficial in supporting my contention that Cunard got us into this mess and Cunard should get us out of this mess, that I had brought with me hard copies of the offered tour/transfer excursions. This made it difficult indeed for Cunard to deny having offered such arrangements to us, and explained our willingness to rely on these plans when making our air arrangements to return home.
Would I cruise with Cunard again? Not likely. This cruise was enjoyed primarily because of the quality of the ports (which has nothing to do with Cunard).
Our cruise experience was also enhanced by those individuals (our dining room waiter, various spa personnel, Nel at the purser's desk, the tour manager, and the purser who provided a solution to our disembarkation issue) who, in an otherwise nondescript service environment, provided caring, quality service.
Many departments onboard a cruise ship report to the hotel manager. True leadership in service excellence can only come from the top down, and my personal experience in service with the hotel manager gave me no comfort in this regard.
Given the hotel manager's response to our initial expression of concern regarding disembarkation arrangements (essentially, "thanks for your note, no we can't help you, enjoy your trip") I am not surprised that service standards onboard Queen Victoria in virtually every area that can impact a guest's enjoyment of a cruise were the poorest we have experienced during our 8 cruises to date.
If Cunard can find a way to get the majority of their onboard crew, staff, and officers to a level of genuine willingness to satisfy the passenger, they will legitimize their use of the phrase "White Star Service". Until then? Not so much.