|Cunard Queen Victoria - 2008
Maiden Atlantic Crossing and World Cruise to Los Angeles
The Queen Victoria is the latest addition to the Cunard fleet, named by the Duchess of Cornwall on 10 December 2007, and we had booked onto the start of her first world cruise before the news had been announced that the QE2 was leaving the fleet and going to Dubai. The Queen Victoria as a ship is covered in considerable detail in our new page An Introduction to the Queen Victoria which also has a summary of our other cruises on her. We have also spent a long time on the QE2 and details can be found at The Queen Elizabeth 2 Story and we have cruised on the Cunard Queen Mary 2. To complete the story we also stayed on the Original Queen Mary now a Hotel, Long Beach and are looking forwards to travelling on the Queen Elizabeth when she joins the Cunard fleet.
It was our first experience of the City Centre cruise terminal in Southampton; all our previous trips had been from the QE2 Terminal. To our surprise we joined a long queue. Normally our Diamond card gives us a fast track on check-in. The reason seemed to be that the x-ray process was set up to be before the ticket check-in, whereas in the QE2 terminal it is in the conventional order used by every other checkin we know.
Eventually we were invited to embark, had the standard photograph, and emerged into the Grand Lobby. This is a spectacular central area, extending over 3 decks, and reminiscent of a film set of the impressive staircases of the old Ocean Liners. There were however no staff to greet us or show us to our cabin and help us with our hand luggage on this cruise. We were directed to the lifts and told to find out own way to our cabins. We climbed the stairs; the Grand Lobby was on 2 Deck and we were on 6 Deck. We always walk everywhere on principal because it helps cancels the effects of all the food. When our luggage arrived one suitcase had lost its wheel so it went off to the carpenters to see if they had a spare. We hope we see it eventually in Los Angeles.
We found the Queen Victoria very simple to find ones way around, she has just three sets of lifts and stairs, labelled A, B and C. The rooms are numbered as if in a traditional hotel, with cabins on Decks 1,4,5,6,7, and 8. Deck A, with the medical centre, is below Deck 1, and then the decks continue upwards. The highest cabins are on Deck 8. Deck 9 contains public areas and pools and the public areas continue upwards to Deck 11. Once we got into better weather and down into the tropics we began to appreciate all the large public areas reminiscent of a movie set and the extensive deck areas at the top of the ship.
The world cruise started with an Atlantic crossing in tandem with the QE2 and the three current Cunard Queens met in New York and we left to a spectacular firework display. The QE2 and Queen Victoria continued to sail alongside as far as Fort Lauderdale where we gathered up the last of the world cruise passengers after which we went our separate ways although the two ships would meet again in Sydney. We had very mixed feelings as we battered our way across the Atlantic and getting a very rough ride whilst watching the QE2 alongside running on only 4 of her 9 engines to keep down to our speed.
We always enjoy days at sea, and were looking forward to having a quiet week with nothing to do between Southampton and New York. It is a good time to get to know a new ship. Unfortunately just before we sailed Pete had caught a virus, which began with a vicious sore throat then developed into a migraine and unpleasant blocked nose and sinusses. He was not well and at the end it erupted into a series of nosebleeds which eventually led to an evening spent in the medical centre followed by cauterisation the following morning. Pauline's version was not as serious but she still spent days sleeping, and did not want to eat - very unusual. For the whole crossing the ship was very cold, not unexpected because we knew there had been the same problem on the maiden Christmas Markets cruise in December. We wondered whether it would also be too warm when we got to tropical climates. As the cruise continued we found there were several air conditioning engineers from the shipyard making measurements and adjustments, we were told that fine tuning of the air conditioning was standard on a new ship.
We were up very early on the morning we were
due to arrive in New York. QE2 was ahead of us and we were to meet Queen Mary 2 so that all three Cunard Queens approached New York together. At the front was QE2, then QM2, with QV behind. It had been agreed that the line would be in order of age. As dawn approached our stately procession progressed up the Hudson River.
QE2 went on ahead to Pier 92 at Manhattan whereas QM2 was going to turn away to her berth in Brooklyn. We passed rather close to QM2. We berthed next to QE2 at Pier 88. We were disappointed that the old aircraft carrier and the museum, which had been nearby, was a construction site. We were both still sufffering from the virus and only left QV at the last minute to go through compulsary US immigration formalities before returning for lunch.
A special fireworks display for the three Queens was to take place at the Statue of Liberty, and at the appointed hour we reversed out of our berth, followed by QE2. QV handles very well in limited areas, benefitting from her three modern bow thrusters, and the two directional engine pods. The procession was led by QM2, then QV with QE2 at the tail. Having started fine, the weather deteriorated and by the time the first fireworks began it was raining.
After two days at sea, each day heading south and getting warmer, we arrived with QE2 in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. We had visited before, and had twice taken tours to the Everglades National Park for the airboat ride and the sightings of live alligators. We decided to simply relax on board and enjoy the good weather, and walked across to QE2 to take a few photos before the two ships went our separate ways. Although the two Queens were berthed next to each other, the security arrangements along the dock meant that we had a long walk. On our return we were each presented with a beautiful red rose, as welcome to Port Everglades.
From Fort Lauderdale our next port was Oranjestad in Aruba en route to the Panama Canal, whereas QE2 was off to Barbados and then around Cape Horn. Behind Queen Victoria we saw the Coral Princess, and next to QE2 was the Silver Shadow. Both these ships kept us company as far as the Panama Canal. When we left QE2 was still loading stores, and her aft deck was crowded with passengers wishing us a safe journey. Queen Victoria and QE2 will meet again in Sydney.
After two days at sea we reached Aruba. Aruba is a Caribbean island which was part of the Netherlands Antilles until its independence in 1986. There are three islands, Aruba Bonaire and Curacao hence the group is known as the ABC islands. We had already visited Bonaire and Curacao but this was our first visit to Aruba. We had originally booked a tour which was on a sailing catamaran and included snorkelling at a shallow coral garden and at the site of the wreck of the sunken WWII German freighter the Antilla. Still suffering from the effects of the virus we decided to cancel our trip and so spent a pleasant few hours wandering through the town of Orangestad.
The highlight of the trip - the Panama Canal - came next. Following the Califormia Gold Rush of 1849, a rail route had been built across the istmus between Colon on the Atlantic side and Balboa near Panama City on the Pacific. Building a canal was much more difficult. This is in contrast to the UK where the canals were built first and the railways followed. The whole canal is a marvel of engineering and had a whole run of engineering firsts when it was finally completed. The French tried first and failed whilst attempting a sea level canal - it cost them over 20,000 lives mostly to disease. The Americans then took up the challenge in 1904 and after clearing out the swamps and eradicating yellow fever eventually completed the canal in 1914 with 3 pairs of locks each side of the largest ever manmade lake - Lake Gatun. It remained the largest project completed by man prior to the Lunar programme. Even now it holds a few firsts including the largest lock gates ever made and most of the structures are original after 80 years. It takes a workforce of 8000 to maintain the structures, dredge the canal and carry out routine operations.
We had moored at Cristobal with QE2 in 2006 and had taken a shore excursion to visit the Gatun locks and explore the rainforest where the french canal had been dug. We had also a partial transit up through the Gatun staircase of locks rising 85 feet to Lake Gatun in 1999 on QE2 but this was our first complete passage. There are two sets of locks in parallel each consisting of three locks in staircase - where the locks run into each other with only a single gate between each. It is identical in principle to the Grindley Brook staircase on the Llangollen canal, except that here there is oneway traffic, with ships going up the locks from either end in the morning, waiting on the summit, then going down the locks on the other side in the afternoon. At busy times in the summer, Grindley Brook has a system of three up then three down, which operates all day.
The passage up the Gatun Locks takes several hours as the ship has to first be manoeuvered alongside the entry wharf by tugs and attached to 'mules', heavy electric railway engines with double winches which keep ships central whilst they go through the locks. There were two at front and back for a ship our size which only just fits. In addition, it was Queen Victoria's first passage through the Canal, so an Admeasurer boards, whose job it is to measure the ship, define its Panama Canal tonnage, and from that calculate the toll for each transit.The Queen Victoria is a Panamax sized ship which was designed to just fit the locks and so she has to pay one of the highest tolls of any ship - $290,000 for our passage. The highest ever toll was $313,000 and the lowest was 36 cents by a swimmer early last century. Sailboats are allowed provided they have the mandatory Panama Canal Pilot and a yacht of 50-80 ft pays $500. Container ships pay a surcharge of $48 per container, a small price to save a trip of 8000 miles round Cape Horn. Although expensive, it is still only half the price of transiting the Suez Canal, and that has no locks. The money has to be paid in advance, before the ship enters the Canal. There are a number of very profitable banks in the local area. Booking a timed passage is more expense and a number of ships who had paid the cheaper passage were waiting at anchor.
We had an early coffee, and by 0700 were settled in comfortable chairs in the Commodore Club, with excellent views forwards through the large glass windows. It was better than standing on the open decks, and we could go out to take pictures as necessary. We arrived at the entry to the locks on time at 0730, but progress was slow. The expectation was that we would be cleared through the staircase by 0920 but it was much slower. We wondered whether QV was wider than expected. Entry into the first lock was certainly very slow, and there seemed to be a slight nudge. We noticed that the two cruise ships ahead of us were Coral Princess and Silver Shadow, who had both been berthed nearby in Fort Lauderdale. We had a good view of Coral Princess as she was just one lock ahead of us, in the lock alongside. At Gatun Lake they both put down tenders and there was a steady service from the ship to the shore. We did not. Coral Princess was doing a 'partial transit' and so was going back down the Gatun Locks in the afternoon, and using the time at anchor to explore the area. Silver Shadow eventually followed us.
Throughout the day we had the benefit of a commentary from the Bridge by a local lecturer, Jose Fernandez. While we waited at anchor in Gatun Lake he gave a short presentation in the Royal Court Theatre, followed by a Q&A session. Special Panama Canal pilots were also on the Bridge throughout the passage.
At 1230 the anchor was raised and we set off again.
After three days at sea we arrived at Puntarenas in Costa Rica, followed by Silver Shadow who berthed alongside the same pier. There were 18 different tour options in Puntarenas, and we decided to avoid the jungle adventures and rainforests. Our coach took us south along the coast, to join a small private train for a journey into the interior along the historic Pacific Railroad. The tour was organised by the Swiss Travel Service, and they also owned the train. Pulled by a diesel locomotive, it had just two vintage carriages, with no windows, so it was excellent for taking photos. Unfortunately there were lots of small trees along the track and it was difficult to get good views of the countryside. The train stopped once to admire a group of black tailed howler monkeys perched in a distant tree. Fortunately we had brought our binoculars so we could see them.
Our coach met us at the end of the train journey and we continued to the Tarcoles River where we took a short cruise. We saw several crocodiles, ranging in size from the length of an arm up to a sleepy monster. We also saw two types of kingfisher, swallows, parrots, herons and white egrets, as well as iguanas. On return to the boat station we were served cold drinks, local beer and fresh fruit. It gave the chance to buy some of the famous Costa Rican coffee.
After lunch we explored the beachfront of Puntarenas. One tame plump pelican was sitting by the ship on the wharf. Even the little tourist train which ran from the ship to the gate did not disturb him. As well as typical souvenir stalls the town had a small supermarket. We were surprised that the wines were from Spain and were similar prices to the UK. There were no bargains and very limited choice. For example, the Freixenet Cordon Negro was US$16.
We were supposed to depart at 1900, but the gangway was still down and there were two lorries waiting to unload stores.
After two more days a
t sea we reached Acapulco. Our original schedule stated we would be at anchor, but we were actually berthed;
the Silver Shadow was at anchor instead. Acapulco is a popular seaside resort with beautiful beaches and we took a boat trip to see the
world-famous cliff divers at La Quebrada who dive up to 110' into water only a few metres deep. A couple of them swam out and joined the boat and came round to chat and for pictures to be taken.
In the afternoon we went round the fort and museum which overlooked the port and then walked down the shore.
It was 26 January and Australia Day which led to a riotous party in the Winter Garden in the evening.
We took a trip to see the remains of some temples and a volcano covered in cloud before a nice Mexican lunch and a visit to a cathedral and museum - details to follow.
En route to Los Angeles we noticed that we were very close to the coast, and were lucky to spot whales. We finally left the Queen Victoria in Los Angeles after 26 days. Our views are mixed on the ship, she is not a liner like the Queen Elizabeth 2 who is now on her last season in service and we would not be so keen to be on her in really bad weather but she is much more up to date and it would be nice to have an outside cabin with a balcony - almost all the cabins are of that type - for trips to the Caribbean or the Norwegian Fjords.
We stayed on the Queen Mary at Long Beach California for 3 days which was very enjoyable and met up with Joe and Jill who collected us from the Queen Victoria, joined us on board for several days, took us to watch the QV depart and to the new Getty Museum which is spectacular. I am normally not a great fan of modern architecture but we took the architecture tour which was most interesting and explained the philosophy behind Meyer's work.
The Queen Mary merits several days as there is a lot to explore and many excellent organised tours which came included in our 'package'. She was, of course, one of the two 'gray ghosts' which ferried over 2 million service men across the Atlantic evading all the U boats - she was faster than any possible escort and even the torpedos which could be fired at her. She is all old wood and rich veneers, a complete contrast to the plastic film set of the Queen Victoria - people on the QE2 always referred to it as coming home when they got back on board but never on the QV - we had the same feeling about the Queen Mary being homely despite it being a floating hotel.
The Queen Mary is covered more fully in a separate page - The Queen Mary - a floating Hotel at Long Beach California