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|Cunard Queen Victoria - 2008|
|Maiden Atlantic Crossing and World Cruise to Los Angeles|
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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 was that the x-ray process was before the ticket check-in, whereas in the QE2 terminal it is in the other order.
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 no staff to greet us or show us to our cabin and help us with our hand luggage. 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 because it 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.
Queen Victoria is much simpler 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 until the highest cabins on Deck 8 and the public areas on Decks 9, 10 and 11.
The best staterooms are large suites, their restaurant is the Queen's Grill, and there are special restricted lounge and outdoor areas. There are also a number of cheaper Princess Grill staterooms, with access to their own restaurant and to the common Grill lounges. QV and QE2 are therefore very similar. On QV it is only the Grill cabins which have baths; all the rest have only showers. Towards the end of the trip we met a couple who had one of the Q2 Master Suites and we were able to visit their stateroom.
We had an inside cabin, 6021 and grade D6 on 6 Deck. Standard inside cabins are 152 sq ft. This is larger than on QE2, and the two beds can be arranged as either twins or a double. We had two good size wardrobes, with a shelf on top containing our life-jackets. We used the space for all our woollies and T-shirts, and stored the life-jackets on the floor under our little coffee table. There was another, shallower cupboard, with space for a row of shirts, three deep shelves and an adequate size safe. Pauline's handbag fitted inside with space to spare. There is a nice fridge, similar to the better grade of cabins on QE2. It is small and the bottle of Pol Acker to welcome us had to be stored inside flat. The desk has a drawer for keeping papers, and there is another small drawer above the fridge, as well as two bedside cabinets. It is good for a short cruise but passengers on the full World Cruise need more drawer space and we heard later that some passengers had brought their own folding chests of drawers. Our four empty suitcases slid easily under the beds.
The larger bedroom space was at the expense of the bathroom. The basin is too small for hair washing and there is no bathroom cabinet, just an open shelf under the basin unit. Fortunately we brought a lot of 4 litre plastic tubs which fitted on the shelf. Beneath there is space for a row of shoes. A cheap cotton bathrobe and cotton slippers are provided, as on the better QE2 cabins. The toilet system is a vacuum system and easily got blocked. We had one morning when it did not work at all, and we were told that the entire front of the ship was in the same situation. We met passengers who said their toilet had not worked for 5 days, so we were lucky. The shower itself is exceptionally small with a curtain instead of a proper door and only a narrow rim prevents flooding the bathroom floor which has no visible drain. Only Grill cabins have proper baths so most passengers will have this small standard bathroom. The shower area is smaller than on our boat and is less than 80cms by 70cms, but we can manage. The bathroom doorway is very narrow too, just 55cms. Fortunately we are slim.
Deluxe inside cabins are larger at 207 or 211 sq ft and appear more spacious; they have an additional sofa. There are also some special cabins for disabled passengers. Most cabins have balconies and although their size is nominally larger the actual usable room area may be no larger.
During the Transatlantic crossing there were a lot of loud bangs and 'oil can' noises as we pitched through the waves. Somewhere on the ship below us there was a problem. Other passengers had much more noise and there were lots of complaints. Queen Victoria is not a liner designed for the North Atlantic in January, and fortunately the weather was reasonable and she did very well. We would not want to be on board in really bad weather. Her best cruising speed is much slower than QE2, and the crossing takes much longer when it is limited to 20 knots. From Southampton to New York took 6 full days at sea, departing on Sunday evening and arriving on Sunday morning. Throughout the trip QE2 travelled alongside, on the port side on one day and then moving to the starboard side for the next. We heard she was running on just four of her nine engines for us to keep up! This meant that everyone with balconies had a good view of the beautiful ship as she kept an eye on us. She kept us company until Fort Lauderdale, then went her separate way. We miss her.
Boat drill took place soon after we left Southampton and our muster station was in the Royal Court Theatre. This gave us the chance to look at the theatre which we had only seen on the TV at the naming ceremony. The theatre is where all the lectures take place, as well as the shows in the evening, so it is a combination of the Grand Lounge and the Theatre on QE2. It is very large, with capcity for over 800 people, and the two rows of boxes on each side give the impression of a nice traditional theatre on shore.
Britannia Restaurant: Our inside cabin meant that we were allocated to the Britannia Restaurant, which is a large two-storey restaurant on Decks 2 and 3 at Stairway C. We had expressed a preference for eating at the second sitting at 2030, and a table for 2. We found we had been allocated to a table for 6 persons, and 2 of our new companions were French and spoke no English. We arranged to move to a table on our own, but for the early sitting at 1800. After New York we had to move again, and this was back to the late sitting, and with a table for 2. There are very few tables for 2, and most are tables for 6. It was a pity we had to move; our waiter Luciano on the early sitting had worked for Cunard for many years and gave good advice on the menu and provided excellent service. The new waiter does not speak English very well and on our first meal was confused between pheasant and chicken. We noticed that generally the waiters do not speak very good English, and they often speak their own language even when they are with passengers. Cunard White Star service guidelines forbid use of a foreign language, but it is not yet enforced on Queen Victoria.
Todd English restaurant: Having cruised for more than 150 days with Cunard we are Diamond members and one of the benefits is that we can have one lunch in the Todd English restaurant at no additional charge, and so we arranged to do so. Unfortunately we both developed a flu virus and had to delay the lunch until after we left New York. The supplement for lunch is $20 and for dinner is $30. The lunch menu is a subset of the dinner menu, and neither changed during our trip. The wines are off the standard restaurant list. Only the Waterford wine glasses and gold decorated plates and coffee cups were distinctive. Lunch is a simple three course meal. It began well, with a few olives, dips and breads. As starter we enjoyed the Maine crab cake with fiery sweet and sour tomato sauce. One main course was lobster salad, which comprised pieces of lobster served inside a croissant on a bed of lettuce, acompanied by a bowl of homemade crisps. The other main was swordfish, which was good and accompanied with large shrimps, but it sat on a pile of soggy greasy chips. It was not a success. For dessert, the mandarin orange creme brulee was pleasant, and compared to eating in the restaurant it had the additional decoration of a few berries. Overall we were not impressed, and would not pay the supplement to eat there again.
The Lido is an airy self-service restaurant which extends between Staircases B and C across Deck 9. It is open 24 hours, serving breakfast from 0400, followed by lunch from 1130, then afternoon snacks, dinner from 1800 until 2330 and finally evening snacks until breakfast begins. One consequence of the 24 hour opening is that there is no Midnight Buffet, more specifically there is no celebration Gala Midnight buffet with all the ice carvings and the carved fruits and vegetables. When we embarked in Southampton lunch was being served and there was a pizza and pasta station, as well as a carvery, several different hot dishes, rice, noodles, steamed vegetables and steak cooked to order. At breakfast there is the usual cereals, fruit including an endless supply of strawberries and fresh pineapple, cold meats and cheese and traditional cooked breakfast with omelettes cooked to order. It has slightly better choice than on QE2, but there is no waiter service for carrying trays or bringing water and coffee. There is only orange and apple juice and anything else has to be requested and it is then brought to the table. The coffee is almost undrinkable and comes from a tap like you find in a pub. To get decent coffee you now have to go to a bar and buy it, or eat in the restaurant. Throughout our cruise the ice-cream machine had problems and there was no commercial ice-cream. Service is very different from the Lido on the QE2 and waiters only clear tables. They do not offer to carry your tray and they do not provide a service of hot and cold drinks.The actual food is however the equal or better than on the QE2 and the surroundings even more light and airy.
The Golden Lion Pub on Deck 2 also does food. It is styled as a typical British pub with classic pub grub: fish and chips, chicken korma, steak and ale pie etc. Here and in the bars the draught beer is Bass and the lager is Stella Artois. We were pleased to find that all restaurants are completely non-smoking, although the area outside the Golden Lion and near the Casino is the only public indoor area where smoking is allowed. When we remember we avoid the area. There is also an enclosed Cigar Lounge on Deck 10. We wish QE2 would make their Golden Lion pub and the Chart Room non-smoking.
Afternoon tea is served in the Queen's Room, and this is the typical Cunard White Star and white gloved service. The area is closed while the tables are set and a queue forms at the only entrance. The room has a gallery on the starboard side, and stained glass windows on the port side. It is therefore similar to the Grand Lounge on QE2, but with only one corridor and one upstairs gallery on the starboard side. The port side of the room can only be accessed from the starboard corridor. During the day the room is used for a variety of activities. On our cruise there were fencing classes, lunchtime concerts, dancing classes and Bingo. These can be a distraction because of the very loud amplification system. We presume this is so that the older and deafer passengers can still join in. When the music for line dancing started we had to leave, or else get ear defenders. In the evening there is an orchestra for dancing, and it is lively and busy on the special themed evenings.
The Winter Garden is between the Lido restaurant and the Deck 9 pool area and has a roof which can be opened in good weather and has a lot of very comfortable seats and tinted picture windows the whole length on both sides. The sliding doors were under repair on our trip.
There is a bandstand where the Caribbean band plays at various times and the area was also used for a cocktail mixing demonstation which Pete lurked on the edge of. The demonstration covered 7 popular cocktails including the Mai Tai which we discovered in Hong Kong and is about the only one we ever indulge in. The Mai Tai originated in Taihiti where Victor Bergeren (Trader Vic) created the drink for his clients who greated it with the words Mai Tai which very loosely translates as 'the greatest'.
We always do a lot of reading on days at sea. On Queen Victoria the library and bookshop are on opposite sides of the ship and on different decks. The bookshop is on Deck 3, and has limited stock and no windows. There was a lot of space for books by on-board lecturers but no space for books by other authors on board. The librarian sent details of my book to Cunard but they refused to approve it and although I had prepared a lecture there was no opportunity to give it. It was such a contrast to QE2 where I was asked to give a lecture.
The library is a pretty two storey copy of a private library from Victorian days, with a spiral internal staircase. It is however, like much of the ships fittings, very insubstantial and poorly fitted - many plastic plugs into unnecessary holes have already fallen out. There are entries on both Deck 2 and 3 although the upstairs one is often closed off at quiet times meaning one has to use the internal stairs.
Both the bookshop and the library are organised by Ocean Books, who also set up QE2.
There are five self-service passenger laundry rooms, near cabins 4068, 5070, 6068, 7042 and 8060. Each has 3 standard Maytag machines and tumble driers, and one iron and ironing board. The laundries are open from 0730 to 2100. Laundries can be noisy, so it is best not to have a cabin opposite. At present use is free, and detergent powder is provided.
In calm seas and with good weather there are lots of impressive deck areas for sitting, either in full sunshine or in the shade. two outside swimming pools are larger than on QE2 and Pauline swam for only the second time ever on board ship.As a floating hotel the deck facilities are very good. Even with almost 2000 passengers there is always somewhere to sit; on QE2 the similar deck areas are limited and always more crowded. We presume people stay in their cabins on QV and sit on their private balconies, so do not compete for public sun lounge areas.
The cheapest inside cabins are larger than on QE2, but for this cruise we wished we had paid the small additional cost to get a larger midships Deluxe cabin, or even an ocean view cabin on Deck 1. In the caribbean or the mediterranean it would be perfect to have an outside cabin with a balcony. In January and with choppy weather it is better to choose a lower deck.
The food in the restaurants is consistently very good, generally better than on QE2. Seating in the Britannia restaurant at breakfast and lunch is as an open sitting, with the Maitre D' organising the allocation of tables. This is nice because it is possible to sit at a different table each day, and with different people. Dinner is always at the allocated tables. Some items are missing - for example there is no citrous sorbet as an option between courses, the cheese is only available as a plated selection of four cheeses, and the homemade petit fours do not include the chocolate truffles which we like. Some days even the crystallised ginger is not available. Provisioning on the World Cruise is a problem with shortages between ports, and even the amounts loaded resulted in delayed departures.
Would we cruise on QV again? It would depend on the destination, and the prices. Certainly we are already committted to two cruises on QE2 in 2008, but we might think of another cruise in the Autumn of 2009 or a segment of the 2010 World Cruise, as well as joining the new Queen Elisabeth later in 2010.
Having boarded just after 1330, found our cabin, and grabbed a quick light lunch we had plenty of time to explore before scheduled departure at 1700. The band of the Hampshire Constabulary was on board and they played on the quay as we left the berth.There was a pretty firework display and then we were on our way. QE2 was berthed at the QE2 Terminal, just ahead of us and we passed her in the fading light, exchanging whistles. The whistle on QV is more like a grumbling throaty raspberry, and is not in the same class as QE2. To celebrate departure we settled onto a sofa in the Commodore Club, with a good view forward on Deck 10, and ordered two MaiTai cocktails.
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.
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.
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 which is under preparation - The Queen Mary now a floating Hotel at Long Beach California
| Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Most recent significant revision: 15th January, 2015