ABOARD THE QUEEN VICTORIA -- The anecdote has been rattling around Cunard Line for decades, with plenty of debate as to its veracity. It concerns how the original Queen Mary got its name.
Cunard's ships had always been distinguished by the "ia" at the end of their names -- Mauretania, Lusitania, Carpathia. In 1934, speculation ran rampant that the next ship would be christened Victoria, the first in the line to be named after British royalty.
Ken Behrmann, a ship's officer and occasional tour guide on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, relates the tale: "The director (of Cunard White Star) went to King George V and said, 'We'd like to name the ship after the most gracious queen England has ever known.' And George V said, 'My wife
And thus, supposedly, the grandest ocean liner of its day came to be named not for a monarch who presided over a sweeping empire but for the obscure consort of a king. "Some people swear it's true," said Behrmann. "Others say of course not."
Well, true or not, all these years later Victoria has finally gotten a vessel named after her. It is the latest cruise ship from Valencia-based Cunard, christened in December. And yet, in the cruelest of twists, Queen Victoria has yet again been upstaged by Mary -- in this case, the Queen Mary 2.
The Queen Victoria is currently on a maiden around-the-world cruise, a segment of which was sampled on the ship's recent run up the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Los Angeles. It was evident right away that the QM2, in service since 2004, primarily for transatlantic crossings, is much grander and elegant, with a superior on-board experience for the passenger.
The majesty of that ocean liner sent expectations soaring for the debut of Victoria, perhaps unfairly so, and the newcomer suffers in the comparison. To begin with, the Queen Vic -- she's already got a nickname -- is significantly smaller: 167 1/2 feet shorter, 29 feet narrower, 61,000 tons lighter.
Furthermore, there is much less attention to the fine touches of detail -- at least in the staterooms.
"They're calling her the queen without drawers," chortled a Brit from Cambridge at breakfast one morning. Hey, we noticed that, too: The stateroom closet has no drawers for your clothes, and is even a bit short on shelf space.
Also, rather than the fine cabinetry of the QM2, the cabin is constructed of low-grade woods
For the most part, it appears the decor money was poured into the public spaces -- but not entirely. The promenade, Deck 3, is constructed not of teak but of a synthetic, vinyl-like material made to look like deck planks. Neither does this promenade deck go all the way around the ship; exercise walkers have to pass through the interior.
Inside the ship, the public rooms, though snug, are impressively turned out, with fine, dark woods, comfortable furniture and some superb artwork liberally exhibited: a bronze relief of the ship in the three-deck-tall Grand Lobby, evocative paintings of ships and
The scaled-down size of the Queen Victoria makes it infinitely more manageable. It can pass through the Panama Canal (the QM2 has to go around Cape Horn), and will be able to tie up at the small ports of the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Scandinavia and Russia -- the regions where most of its cruises will be concentrated -- without having to ferry passengers ashore with tenders.
Queen Vic's maneuverability was never more evident than in leaving Manzanillo, Mexico. It eased sideways away from the dock, then made a slow, 360-degree revolution, as if on a dime, and headed out of the harbor bow-first. "We could have just
Life on the Queen Victoria is much different than on most cruise ships. This derives from Cunard's popularity with British and Australian seniors, who desire a refined experience on board, one that harkens back to the golden age of travel. Formal nights are frequent, and jackets are requested for men even on casual nights; compliance is nearly total.
When Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata is being played by a string quartet in the Grand Lobby before dinner, it's not just background music; it's not unusual to see two dozen people lingering to listen, as if to a recital. And I'm convinced that no matter where you go on this ship, and at whatever hour, you have a real good chance of hearing Frank Sinatra singing one of his classics on the sound system.
As for diversions, don't expect a belly-flop competition at the pool. Instead, there is fencing instruction, a two-story library with a spiral staircase, a museum with artifacts from some of the storied ships in the line, a card room that actually gets used for that purpose, and white-glove afternoon tea daily.
The fencing instruction is provided in homage to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband and an enthusiast of the sport. Passengers dress up in the full regalia -- white tunics, masks, sword-hand gauntlets -- arm themselves with blunt-tip foils, and learn the basics of footwork, lunges and parries. The real fun comes when two students are allowed to whale away at one another for a minute or so, and it's particularly entertaining to watch a husband-wife duo have at one another. After a 90-minute session here, I was surprised how sore my legs were from all that lunging and retreating.
The Cunardia museum tells stories of maritime lore with photos, artifacts and information panels. On display here is the zig-zag clock from the Queen Mary's bridge when the ship was transporting troops across the Atlantic in World War II, and regularly altered its heading to foil German U-boats. A section of deck rail from that era has the carved initials of GIs. Also exhibited are glassware and china from other liners of yesteryear.
But one of the best features of the Queen Victoria is the number of nooks it has for sitting in a comfortable chair, gazing through a window at the ocean, and quietly reflecting, reading, playing a board game or napping. Bars and lounges that are dormant by day become impromptu gathering places. Padded steamer chairs on deck are popular, too. And it's refreshing to be on a ship that doesn't have high-energy music piped in to every corner, and a hyperactive member of the entertainment staff making public-address announcements every five minutes.
Passengers are treated like adults, and left to their own amusements.
That said, the Queen Victoria still has its shortcomings, related almost entirely to service. It has the feel of a ship for which the crew didn't receive adequate training in the fine points of passenger satisfaction.
-- We went to dinner at the Britannia Restaurant one evening and informed a maitre d' staffer that we were looking for a particular table number. "It's downstairs," he said, dismissively, without looking up from the podium. We looked for someone a bit more senior once we got downstairs; he dropped everything and escorted us to the table.
-- We repeatedly encountered food-service workers who would barrel down a hallway and expect passengers to part for them like a sea, even elderly ones who weren't particularly nimble.
-- In our stateroom, two twin beds were made up separately and shoved together, with a twin-sized duvet thrown over each at night. We felt like Ward and June Cleaver. On our next-to-last day, upon passing another cabin that was being made up, we saw that it was configured as a queen bed, with a pillow-top positioned over the two mattresses and a single bottom sheet tying it all together. When we quizzed our steward about it that evening, he said the queen-size configuration is an option, but you have to ask for it. How would we have known to ask?
-- On the final morning, when I attempted to pay for our ship-board charges, I told the Purser's Desk clerk that we had left credit-card imprints there when we boarded. He fixed me with an insolent gaze and said, "No, you didn't."
Some kinks can be expected on a cruise ship that has only been in service for two months -- a bit like visiting a new restaurant in its first week. But there are a lot of kinks here. Many of the service-related ones can be overcome by stepped-up training. As for other issues -- the Ikea decor in the staterooms, the fake wood of the deck, the low ceilings in the dining room -- what you see is what you get.
This much is certain: The Queen Mary 2 still reigns supreme over this ship, over this line and, arguably, over the cruise industry.
George V would surely be delighted.
IF YOU GO
The Queen Victoria is currently in the midst of a maiden world cruise, which will conclude April 22 in Southampton, England, its home port. The ship will then embark on a 10-day Canary Islands cruise (from $1,775 per person, double occupancy), followed by a four-day Spring Getaway to France, the Netherlands and Belgium (from $995), and a 14-day cruise of the Mediterranean (from $2,975). It will spend the late spring and early summer alternately making cruises of Scandinavia and Russia, before spending the late summer and fall in the Mediterranean, with some departures from Venice, Italy; Barcelona Spain; and Rome.
ACCOMMODATIONS: The ship has capacity for a little more than 2,000 passengers. Eight-six percent of its staterooms are outside, and 71 percent have balconies. Balcony cabins range up in size from 242 square feet, inside cabins from 151 square feet. At the top end are grand suites, ranging up to 2,131 square feet.
PREMIUM DINING: Surcharges in the Todd English restaurant are $20 per person for lunch, $30 per person for dinner.
INFORMATION: www.cunard.com; (800) 728-6273.
DINING OPTIONS AS FAR-REACHING AS A QUEEN'S EMPIRE
ABOARD THE QUEEN VICTORIA -- On land, restaurants are leaning more and more toward seasonal fare, building their menus around fresh ingredients from farmers markets, fishmongers and butcher shops. Who says a cruise ship can't do the same thing?
On Cunard's just-launched Queen Victoria, executive chef Jean-Marie Zimmerman vows to hit the local markets during port calls and tweak the on-board menus accordingly. "I look forward to meeting the local growers to sample and buy some of the world's most intriguing native ingredients," he said, adding that his goal is to "keep the menus fresh and exciting."
With the Queen Victoria scheduled for European itineraries after it completes its maiden around-the-world cruise in April, Zimmerman should have plenty to pick over in the seaport towns of the Mediterranean, the Baltic and Scandinavia.
The chef has also pledged to incorporate ethnic stylings into the menus. This might present some challenges for the kitchen staff.
On a recent segment of the world cruise, the ship's lunchtime buffet was devoted to the cuisine of Mexico as it cruised along that country's Pacific Coast. You haven't experienced culinary amusement until you watch an Eastern European cook assemble a taco: guacamole smeared on the tortilla like mayonnaise, followed by another layer of refried beans, and then your choice of chili con carne or an Asian-style chicken stir fry.
The dining room fare aboard the Queen Victoria was found to be first-rate: succulent lobster, pan-roasted duck breast, juicy prime rib, savory pastas with mushrooms. It was also refreshing to find portions of reasonable size for all courses. There are ample opportunities to eat on a cruise ship; no need to be overwhelmed with massive servings at any one sitting.
The service, as on the rest of the ship, was a little rough around the edges -- a bus boy thrusting an arm under your chin, for example, to place a roll on an opposite bread plate. And the sommelier was stretched far too thin, a chronic problem on cruise ships, it seems, when waiters aren't allowed to serve drinks.
The Queen Victoria marks Cunard's second dining venture with Todd English, chef of the impressive Olives restaurant in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood (and other locations, including Las Vegas). This restaurant is a premium option, with a per-person surcharge of $30 for dinner, $20 for lunch.
English's inimitable touch is evident here. We delighted in a beautiful baseball cut of grilled tenderloin, served with toasted garlic spinach, country ham, peas, carmelized red onions and a Roquefort cream. Another impressive entree was roasted lamb rack with a confit of lamb shank. A starter of Maine crab cakes and a dessert of Thai coffee tiramisu both scored highly, too.
As in the dining room, however, service here was pretty rocky -- surprising, given the premium tier and the surcharge to match.
For alternative dining, a section of the Lido buffet area is converted into a cafe each night, with first-come service beginning at 7 and the room closed when it fills up. The menu alternates from Italian to Asian to Swiss and other ethnic offerings.