|Cunard Queen Elizabeth - 2012
A Summer Getaway Voyage in the Princess Grill
This cruise was booked at very short notice, as a special offer direct with Cunard. Normally we would be away on our own boat in June, but the weather has been bad and the River Thames had red Strong Stream warnings. It was similar to 2007 when we spent 3 weeks unexpectedly moored at Fenny Compton near Banbury. This year our boat was still at home so we had different options. A short break away would be perfect and after looking at prices for a variety of holidays it was cheaper to take a short Getaway cruise with Cunard. The special offer meant we paid in full at the time of booking and the fare was non-refundable. It is also a booking for a Guarantee stateroom and we would not know which cabin until shortly before sailing. In the past we had booked cabins which were linked to the Britannia restaurant but for this cruise we paid extra and had a stateroom which was one level above and linked to the Princess Grill. For just £399 each for three nights away we were paying the same as for a nice 3* hotel but getting a much better experience. Full price for a Princess Grill stateroom was £1176 to £1232 each so we had a real bargain.
Our first sight of the Queen Elizabeth was on 10 October 2010 when we had the opportunity to explore and have lunch onboard prior to her maiden cruise and written up as . Our first cruise was our Cruise on the new Cunard Queen Elizabeth to New Zealand in 2011 - which including the Maiden Atlantic Crossing in tandem with the Queen Victoria, the meeting of the Three Queens in New York, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, Mexico, Los Angeles and Pacific Islands as far as New Zealand. This was followed by a Caribbean Odyssey 2011 - A cruise on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth starting late November from Southampton to the Caribbean via the Ponto Delgada in the Azores to Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts, Tortola, St Maarten and back via Madeira to Southampton with all the Christmas preparations onboard. This write up includes visits behind the scenes in the Theatre and into the galley.
The Cunard Getaway special offers are a reduced version of the standard fare and everything is electronic with no paper. It is described as an automatic E-Documentation initiative. Our booking number gave us access to our Cunard Voyage Personaliser where we had to provide standard information – address, passport, next of kin. Our luggage labels were there too, and we had to print them. Gone are the neat plastic wallets with information about the ship and luggage labels. There were no brochures about the voyage and the port excursions, and these are now only provided online too. While that is OK for most passengers it would be nice if those in the Getaway Grills could have a better quality of documentation.
Often there is free parking by Cunard at Southampton but not for this fare. We decided to drive down and visit the New Forest and stay one night in Southampton. The trio of Accor Hotels in the Western Esplanade are good, and we stayed in the Etap which is basic and good value. Parking there is £5 for a guest and £6 for other days. For a 3 night holiday we paid 4 days at £6 – they do not work on a 24 hour clock. We arrived in the New Forest in the early afternoon but everywhere was very soggy and our favourite walking areas were too wet to explore. Hotel check-in was easy and we looked in a few shops in town before walking out to the Admiral Sir Lucius Curtis – a Wetherspoons pub – for dinner. It has become a tradition with us to eat there when we are in Southampton, especially because the food is cheap, the beer is plentiful and being a Curtis-pub it feels almost like home. We also have a few Wetherspoon shares and like to support the company. www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk/home/pubs/the-admiral-sir-lucius-curtis
The Queen Elizabeth arrived in the early hours of the morning at the Ocean Terminal, Dock Gate 4. We booked a taxi and arrived at 11.15 – our time for embarkation was 12.00. We always get advance embarkation because of our Cunard World Club Diamond status, but this time had Grills status as well, and were directed towards a reserved seating area to wait for the check-in desks to open. All Grills passengers are treated equally – whether it is a Princess Grill or Queens Grill suite. Grills have 'suites' not 'staterooms' or 'cabins'. We moved through check-in to another area to wait, which quickly filled to overflowing. It had a banner proclaiming the beautiful P&O cruise ships which we persauded staff to remove and look for something about Cunard instead. It seemed there were a lot of Platinum/Diamond people as well as all the Grills on this trip. Listening to others speaking it was obvious we were not the only people who had seen the special offers and booked at short notice. One lady only decided to travel at 1600 the evening before, but she seemed to be running a small tour group so perhaps that is the explanation. The security area opened on time and there was a steady procession through screening, most taking short cuts to avoid the photographers who were waiting to capture the moment. On board there were queues for the lifts but we took the stairs. It was good to be back – but a pity the old traditions of taking everyone to their stateroom had been abandoned.
We had been allocated stateroom 5001 which was the best of the Princess Grill suites, class P1. It is at the front of 5 Deck, and is large. We had two flat screen TVs, a large balcony on the side and a window forward overlooking the bow. The bathroom, with a bath and shower, was a good size although we were disappointed that the walk-in wardrobe space seemed the same size as standard basic cabin wardrobes. Most Princess Grill suites are 335 sq ft including the balcony, which is a good size and much bigger than inside staterooms at 152 sq ft. Our suite was 513 sq ft and most of the extra space was inside the room, although the balcony was wider than normal. The position at the front of the ship meant that there is a risk of motion in heavy seas as the bow rose and fell, but this cruise was little more than two channel crossings and we had no fears of sea sickness. We sail and have never suffered in the past.
The first difference in the Grills is that our restaurant is open for lunch on embarkation. Cheaper staterooms attached to the Britannia restaurant can get lunch, but only at the self-service Lido. We were shown how to use our stateroom door key to take the lift up to the exclusive Grills deck. Pete took the stairs but Pauline was suffering from her recent foot operation and preferred the lifts. We took out our restaurant card, entered the restaurant and were greeted by our good friend Kruno. We have known him for many years since he began working on the QE2. On our previous QE cruise he had been responsible for the Britannia Club restaurant and now he was in the Princess Grill. This was very good news and he had given us a nice table for 2, with a view onto the inner courtyard. The Princess Grill and the Queens Grill restaurants are on different sides of the ship, with the courtyard between them. When the weather is good it is a popular place to eat. All our meals would be eaten at our table; this has advantages but also means that if we wanted to eat with other people then we had to go elsewhere. While we like to have a table for 2, sometimes it is nice to join a group for lunch. The menus for lunch and dinner in the Grills are delivered to staterooms each morning, so we know in advance what will be on offer.
There was plenty of time to re-acquaint ourselves with the Queen Elizabeth, and looking down from the open decks we had a good view of the the historic working steamship Shieldhall moored nearby. Shieldhall was laid down in October 1954, launched 7th July 1955 and entered service in October of that year. Built by Lobnitz & Co. of Renfrew, she is of special interest as she was built on older classic lines with a traditional wheelhouse, of riveted and welded construction with a straight stem and a cruiser stern. Shieldhall's machinery, boilers and Bridge equipment are almost identical, to those on “Titanic” and ships of that era. The engine-room and Bridge are normally open for visitors during excursions from her berth in Southampton. More information, and sailing schedules, is at www.ss-shieldhall.co.uk.
We soon had a better view of another interesting ship, the Patricia as she approached and berthed neatly. The Patricia belongs to Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales, with responsibility for nearly 600 Aids to Navigation, from traditional aids such as lighthouses, buoys and beacons to the latest satellite navigation technology. In addition it inspects over 10,000 local Aids to Navigation provided by port and harbour authorities, and those positioned on offshore structures. The Patricia works around the coast of England, Wales and the Channel Islands undertaking aid to navigation maintenance work, towing, wreck location and marking amongst other projects. During her work she also offers passenger accommodation and has six cabins. There is a Cunard connection because Captain Ian McNaught, the last Captain of the QE2 and with a significant career on Cunard ships, was appointed Deputy Master of the Corporation of Trinity House and Executive Chairman of the Lighthouse Authority when he left Cunard in 2011. At about the same time HRH The Princess Royal succeeded HRH The Duke of Edinburgh as Master of the Corporation of Trinity House.
When everyone had embarked, and most had eaten, the next priority was the Lifeboat Drill. It is a legal obligation to carry out within 24 hours but on Cunard ships it takes place before departure. Being at the front of 5 Deck our Muster Station was in the Theatre, together with what seemed to be half of all the passengers. Cunard always muster indoors, not at the lifeboat stations on deck. There was just time to go back at stow away the lifejacket before joining the Sail Away party on deck. We had been given two bottles of Pol Aker sparkling wine, so did not need to buy drinks. Both were put away in our fridge for the future. The only other task was to unpack our suitcases and get ready for dinner. Our Daily Programme showed the smiling face of Commodore Christopher Rynd to welcome us, and we noticed that Dr Peter Hawthorne was Senior Medical Officer, Jacqui Hodgson was Hotel Manager, Anton Nootenboom was Food and Beverage Manager and John Cartledge was Security Officer. - all familiar faces from previous cruises.
The first evening is traditionally Elegant Casual dress, although in practice this means long skirts or long frocks for ladies and a jacket and tie for men. There are many excellent public rooms on the QE, but we decided to keep to the exclusive Grills areas. The Grills Lounge is a pleasant bar area for pre- and post-dinner cocktails, and there is a concierge at a desk to help with queries or make bookings. The lounge leads outside to an extensive private Grills area around the funnel with comfortable sunloungers and woollen blankets for when it is cold.
Dinner in the Grills restaurants involves making choices between the selection on the Daily Menu and the A La Carte list. On a short cruise we decided to choose our favourite dishes, and this evening it was Dover Sole and Duck for main courses, both from the A La Carte. The Daily Menu is similar across all the restaurants, although the presentation and ingredients often differ. It all depends on the chefs. In the Britannia restaurant the food is always plated whereas here the food presentation involves the Maitre d' and his Head Waiters. The duck was flambed at table, and the dover sole was taken off the bone. When the sommelier asked about wine we said Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. It was very nice although now is US$62 plus 15%. We remember the days when it was US$33, and there were more US$ to the £ too. Overall dinner was excellent with a good cheese trolley and we knew we were going to be very happy with the restaurant food and excellent service.
Overnight the clocks changed one hour forward to Belgian time. Our stateroom was a delightful and spacious refuge and we had no problem spending most of our spare time there. It was windy and the weather was bleak although sunny. The free shuttle bus to the coastal beach resort of Blankenberge had no appeal. We had been there previously on a winter cruise. The tour coaches rushed off to Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Flanders Fields while we enjoyed our breakfast in comfort in the restaurant. Freshly squeezed orange juice is so much better than the concentrated juice in the Lido.
The library was open and we soon found new books and settled down to read, disturbed only by the need to get up from our suite and have lunch. It was sunny and sheltered in the Courtyard and soon all the tables were occupied with escapees from the Princess Grill, but we preferred to eat indoors.
On a typical cruise the first and last nights are always Elegant Casual, and nights when the ship has been in port are usually not Formal. However, this cruise was only 3 nights and tonight was the only opportunity for the Commodore to meet the passengers and have thousands of photos taken. Indeed he and his officers were hosting three cocktail parties; two in the Queens Room for the two sittings in the Britannia restaurant and one in the Garden Lounge for Grill passengers. Having paid for a GetAway fare we had no information about the dress code for the cruise, and when we asked at Cunard we were told that tonight was going to be Semi-Formal, which translates as a suit/jacket and tie for men and a nice cocktail dress for the ladies. However we know the Cunard style and so we also packed a dinner jacket and an evening dress. This was fortunate because the dress code in the Daily Programme was Semi-Formal/Formal. The ship sailed late from Zeebrugge and when we reached the receiving line we found the Hotel Manager, Jacqui Hodgson waiting for us. The Commodore was busy on the Bridge. We collected our drinks and circulated in search of other officers. The Commodore arrived eventually and gave his welcome and introduced the senior staff. We were able to spend a few moments meeting him; although he has been on many Cunard ships, and we have taken many cruises, we had never been together on the same ship. Commodore Rynd was born in New Zealand, and we talked about our travels and various places we both knew. Hopefully we will meet him again.
The Captains cocktail party always precedes a good menu for dinner – Grilled Lobster, Duck a l'Orange and Steak Diane were the main choices, as well as all the choices from the A La Carte. We wished we had not chosen the duck from the A La Carte menu the previous evening. After several cocktails we were not tempted by more wine, although a nice glass of Pinot or Shiraz was very tempting.
Before we left Southampton we had looked at a weather forecast and knew it was possible that the second port, St Peter Port in Guernsey, would not be visited. It is often a difficult port, especially because ships are at anchor and it has to be a tender operation. The weather needs to be calm for the tenders to be used, and passengers do not like rough tender rides and the Captain does not tolerate risks to the tenders which are also the lifeboats. We had arranged with family who live on Guernsey that we would meet them if the Queen Elizabeth arrived. It was no surprise to hear that the weather was considered too rough and the Queen Elizabeth would be going to Cherbourg instead.
The cruise terminal at Cherbourg is at the old historic transatlantic harbour station, with a display of old pictures and models of ships. Cherbourg was the first stop of RMS Titanic in 1912 after she left Southampton. We got onto the shuttle bus to go to the centre of town and it started to rain. We drove slowly towards the Quai Gal Lawton Collins and waited – the Swinging Bridge was being opened to let ships into the Bassin du Commerce from the Avant Port. Fortunately we were dropped at the Informaiton Centre which is close to the Theatre and the Place du General de Gaulle. The theatre was built in 1882 and is a good example of italian architecture in the style of the Paris Opera. This morning the Place du General de Gaulle was filled with market stalls and we could meander and browse. Our idea of souvenirs is to purchase local delicacies, and we found cheeses and foie gras to keep in our fridge and take home.
The rain reduced and we walked around the town, visiting the Basilica of the Sainte Trinite in the Place de la Republique. The church, built on the ruins of a previous church, was completed in 1466 in the gothic style. In the 19th century it was restored and a square tower 26 metres high was added. In 1921 it was formally declared a basilica by the Pope and since 1944 it has been classified as a historic monument. It is next to one of many pretty waterfront parks.
Passing pavement cafes we had a final walk around the market before catching the shuttle bus. Although we could see the Queen Elizabeth it was just too far to walk back. We deliberately got back too late for lunch and although it was possible to go to the Lido and collect a lite snack we decided to wait and have a serious afternoon tea in the Grills Lounge. Our timing was good and we found the last empty table. When the Queen Elizabeth is full then there are not enough seats in the Grills Lounge, even when people have two sittings.
Although tonight was the last night, and therefore should be a simple Elegant Casual evening, it was also the only opportunity for the Farewell meal and the traditional Baked Alaska dessert. In the Britannia restaurant there is a procession of chefs, but here it was quiet. We had booked a Theatre Box for the performance of Vanity Fair and so knew that we would be having a champagne cocktail, then more champagne at the start of the performance, so again we avoided wine with dinner. The Pol Aker went home with us.
It was almost midnight when our final clothes were put into the suitcases which were then taken outside. We would see them again in Southampton.
The clocks changed back overnight and the extra hour was useful after the late evening entertainment. After a leisurely breakfast it was time to disembark – we had priority because of the Princess Grill and Diamond status. Then it was just a short taxi ride to the hotel car park, for the drive home. We had ordered some venison in Lyndhurst which we collected and were soon on our way.
Overall an excellent short cruise, marred only by the weather, and with very good food and service in the Princess Grill. We liked the P1 suite very much and would try and book it again for short cruises. It would be wonderful for a World Cruise unless the weather was rough, but is more expensive than our usual options. We will be watching for bargains !