Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review of Cunard Queen Victoria Voyage to Hawaii over Christmas.

Introduction.  This blog is primarily focused on dogs, but sometimes their dog parents deserve some attention too.  This post is a review of our trip this Christmas (with Asta) on the Cunard Queen Victoria.
We sailed on the Cunard Queen Victoria 2-week Christmas voyage from Los Angeles roundtrip to Hawaii in the Queen’s Grill level of service this year – December 21, 2011 through January 4, 2012.  I have to say, the service, accommodations, food and itinerary were outstanding.  I have been a frequent traveler on Crystal Cruises (Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony) over the years.  In comparison, I would give a slight edge to Crystal for their fewer passengers on board, and better embarkation/disembarkation experience.  Otherwise, the Cunard experience was really really tremendous.

Stateroom Accommodation – I travelled with my mom and her service dog.  While I love my mom, we do like our space.  Also, although our service dog is small, a deck was essential. 
Our stateroom was QV4188.  The room was one of the larger Queen’s Grill “standard” suites (same price as most others), and had over 700 sq ft (including the balcony).  (Thanks to Joe at PG Travel who helped arrange this!)  It was at the stern of the ship on the 4th deck.  As a corner unit, it had an unusually large wrap around balcony.  The balcony was also deep.  The balcony easily held 2 lounges, 2 tables and 2 chairs – with lots of room to spare on the other side.  
Wrap-around deck outside of Stateroom QV4188
 on the Cunard Queen Victoria
Being at the back of the ship, we did get a bit more noise – perhaps from the stabilizers.  Certainly we got some noise from the anchor being lowered and raised.  Our neighbor passenger requested to move because of sensitivity to the vibration/humming, but we did not find this to be a problem.  I note that we did seem to roll on the waves a bit – other passengers commented on this too.  Not sure if we had rougher seas, or the ship’s size contributed a bit.  That said, my mom really liked being in this location, she says it was the best spot on the ship, as you could watch the wake, see the rainbows in the rain, and be lulled to sleep by the rocking. 
Inside the stateroom, we had a decent sized “living” area for the sofa, desk table and chair.  We had 2 twin beds, which was a bit cozy, but for 2 weeks we managed.  We each had separate closets and my mom used the separate dressing area/table just outside the bathroom.  The bathroom was rather large with 2 sinks, and tub with jets and a separate shower cubicle.  The room also had a nice granite counter, small cooler fridge and bar sink.  We were very comfortable.
Internet/Television.  The internet service was spotty at best.  Don’t even think about Skype – the bandwidth is just too small.  Honestly, the television availability was terrible – but you are not on a cruise to watch tv, right?  Bring DVDs.  (The library is very extensive, too, and has lots of books peruse and DVDs to watch).
The Queen's Grill Dining Room on the Cunard Queen Victoria
Dining.  I was very impressed with our dining experience.  In the Queen’s Grill, the facilities felt small and intimate.  We had our own table for 2, but were able to get to know our neighboring diner’s a bit without being “stuck” with them for 2 weeks.  The food was exemplary.  My favorite were the breakfasts.  I splurged and had eggs benedict with the eggs perfectly poached on most days.  Dinners were an event!  Being a native Californian, I did notice a scarcity of greens – fresh lettuces, broccoli, etc., but no worries.  We had an amazing Christmas dinner with all the trimmings – turkey, gravy and stuffing.  My mom is partial to caviar, and had it several times – properly served with all the trimmings!  Our sommelier was outstanding – I was able to try wines and send them back if not pleased – most of the time, I was very much pleased!  I did note a smaller selection of European wines than available on the Crystal.

Afternoon tea is very special.  Tea is served in the Queen’s Room – a beautiful room – and accompanied by a string quartet (quite delightful).  Usually the tea service is packed.  We visited on the “Ensenada” day when most people were out on the town.  The scones lived up to English expectations.
Lounging.  Queen’s Grill and Princess Grill passengers had their own designated bar/lounge area.  This was especially nice at cocktail time, as we got to see the same people and get to chat with them a bit.  We also had our own private deck areas to lounge in so that you didn’t have to “fight the masses” for a deck chair near the pool.
Service.  The service for Queen’s Grill guests was super.  We had a butler, and butler’s assistant who were very good.  With me, my mom and a dog, we were a handful.  (I took care of all of the dog’s needs, including potty clean up).  Everything was tidied up and fresh towels available twice per day.  We had fresh flowers in the room, canap├ęs delivered every afternoon (around 5 pm) to give us energy for the evening activities. 
A special note about Cunard and my mom’s service dog.  The service and accommodation we received was commendable. The advance team was generally helpful and tried very hard to facilitate our departure. The Chief Purser, himself, greeted us at the embarkation area to help sort out getting us on board, and also made valiant efforts to help us with governmental officials in Hawaii.  Most of the staff were delightful to us all, and my mom’s service dog received lots of affection and attention.  Note that travelling with a service dog is doable, but not a trivial task.  Other posts in this blog give practical tips about cruising with your service dog, my experience with Cunard in particular, and the trials of dealing with governmental regulation in Hawaii. 
Spa & Salon.  The salon was pleasant and huge! considering this was a cruise ship!  There were 3 chairs for hairdressers (who were constantly busy), a manicurist station, waiting area, plus a whole labyrinth of rooms or spa treatments.  My mom visited the hair dresser 3 times during the trip – they were adequate.  I visited the masseuse twice – she was AMAZING!  All services are pricey, but good.
Cunard Queen Victoria Arcade with Shops

Shopping.  Ok, I like to shop.  Because of the ship’s size there was a surprisingly good selection of goodies, clothing, jewelry and books – all of very good quality.  I especially liked that they tried to feature goods made in England, including  “Harrod’s” items, jams, chocolates, and some leather goods (including  Radley of London).
Live Entertainment.  Top rate talent, and lots of it!  Live string quartet every day at tea, concert pianist , cocktail pianists, bands and Broadway/West End level shows. 

3 Floors in the Main Gallery of the Cunard Queen Victoria
Decorated for Christmas!

Christmas Activities.  The efforts by the Cunard staff were amazing – they brought a wonderful holiday spirit to the entire cruise.  First, the decorations were abundant!  The main lobby area banisters were festooned with garlands over three decks.  There were lighted Christmas trees in almost every public space.  Special activities on board included gingerbread house making (a favorite with the younger “Under 10” set), Christmas carol singing (many of the crew and lots of passengers participated), a special non-denominational Christmas service (select crew read relevant passages from the Bible, and we had LOTS of singing of Christmas carols), and of course, a visit from Santa!  There were also professional photographers almost at every event, and happily took your photo in front of a Christmas tree or with Santa for next year’s Christmas card.
Embarkation & Disembarkation.  This was truly a disaster.  On embarkation, we were in the cruise departure area – a massive room holding all 2000 passengers - it seemed simultaneously.  Though Queen’s Grill passengers, we had to queue up for a solid 45 minutes – even though in a separate line.  Admittedly, there was some problem with the computer system, but this was ridiculous for my mom to be expected to stand that long (she did sit down, although others were told they could not).  Disembarkation was a free-for-all.  First, we had to completely leave our room by 8 am, and sit in one of the large public rooms.  Again, even though we were Queen’s Grill, since we were taking the Cunard-provided-bus transportation to the airport, we had to sit with the other 1000 or so others doing the same.  We sat there for a solid hour and a half.  Then, off we went to the massive cruise terminal; I raced across to find our bags and haul them to where I could flag down a porter.  The bags themselves were definitely beaten up and mishandled (I can imagine the luggage crew hurling them off the deck into the bins). The porter was super, I must say.  He got us out to the bus, and on we went.  We got to the airport – 3 hours early.  I only blame Cunard in that we should have been taken to a nicer place to wait as Crystal Cruises does, if we had to get off so early.
Using the tenders at one of the ports was also unpleasant.  While Queen’s Grill passengers have priority to get on a tender, I didn’t know this, and waited 45 minutes to get off.  Also, at the other end, we were stuck waiting in a line of about 100 other passengers in the hot sun to get back.
In sum, the Queen Victoria is a big ship holding 2000 passengers and 900 crew.  (In contrast, Crystal Cruise ships hold around 800 passengers and 500 crew).  The Queen’s Grill level of service, accommodation and dining are absolutely comparable to Crystal.  Some of the features of a big ship are wonderful, including more variety.  Some of the features are not so wonderful – you will have to deal with crowds at some point – embarkation/ disembarkation/ tenders, and certainly, don’t go to the Lido Buffet at lunchtime!  I have to say overall, this was one of the most memorable and most wonderful cruises we have taken.  Certainly over the holidays, it is quite special.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Your Dog in the Ship's Dining Room

Different dogs have different ways of coping in a new environment. Your service dog is there with you at all times to assist and protect you - even in the ship's dining room.  But, you want to make sure they are not inconveniencing other passengers, and you also want your dog to be comfortable in the enviroment.

If you have a larger dog, she is probably accustomed to plunking down on the floor next to you in a restaurant or other public venue where you are sitting.  For smaller dogs, it can be a bit more challenging, as they tend to get over-looked by other patrons, and kicked or hit when they are not seen. 

Asta is a small (12 lbs) shih tzu, and has her own "pillow" whenever she goes to a public venue.  This has 2 huge benefits: (1) she knows her "spot" and is comfortable and safe there, and (2) it creates a designated area on the floor that is less likely to be stepped on by an unwitting fellow passenger. 

Tote Bed by Jennifer Brooks
Stake Your Dog's Spot!

Asta's pillow is a self-contained tote bag by Jennifer Brooks.  It is light, just rightly-sized, and zips up in half with handles, so as to be easily and less obtrusively carried.  I can walk into the dining room in an evening gown with this and not feel totally out-of-place.  Unzip it and slip it under the table on the floor, Asta hops on, and we are ready for our dining experience without worry!

While you and your dog can go anywhere and do anything together on board, always be sensitive to your fellow shipmates and their concerns.  Some dog owners put their dog in their lap or in their chair.  We chose not to do this, as it would be uncomfortable for us, and, in my view, not appropriate in a formal dining room with other passengers that may not understand.  In my view, your service dog should be unobtrusive, especially in dining areas. 

Under no circumstances should you feed your dog outside the room (usually this is expressly prohibited by the cruise line), and certainly not in the dining room.  One message board poster related the following:  A couple of years ago on the Statendam there was a small service dog in the main dining room, the guests even ordered a meal for the dog!!! The dog never got out of its pet carrier, but the carrier was placed on a seat and the owners fed it right at the table and "that did cause some raised eyebrows." While you and your service dog may be welcome, don’t abuse the privilege.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Special Planning for Cruising to Hawaii

This post is especially dedicated to travel with your service dog to the State of Hawaii.  The Hawaiian regulations are especially demanding, and good preparation is required to get through all the bureaucratic red-tape, and actually be able to get off the ship with your service dog.
Hawaii is especially concerned about the rabies virus entering the islands.  Hawaii is rabies-free, and has a population of animals that may be especially susceptible to eradication by the rabies virus, including the "Hawaiian squirrel", the Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus). Often seen running across the road, the mongoose was brought to the Hawaiian Islands in 1883 to control rats.
Under the "modified" program for Guide and Service dogs, there is no required quarantine or waiting period.  In contrast, typically, dogs and cats have to be quarantined for up to 120 days on arrival, unless they qualify for the newer “5 days or less” quarantine program.  Note that only dogs serving a medical disability are allowed to enter under the “modified” no-quarantine program.  This does not include dogs that are for emotional support, comfort, or therapy; the latter must enter as regular pets under Hawaii’s “5 day or less” program as they are not classified as service dogs.
In order to qualify under the no-quarantine program, about 3 months before your trip, you should start getting the paperwork in order.  In order to be admitted into Hawaii under the “modified” program for Guide and Service dogs (no quarantine or waiting period required), here is what you will need (effective as on January 1, 2012):
At least 3 months Before Embarkation:
Microchip.  Your dog must have an electronic microchip implanted for identification. (AVID, Home Again, or Bayer ResQ are preferable - if using another brand of microchip please check if it will be accepted with the Hawaiian system).  See also my blog post: Making Sure Your Dog Has Identification Tags!
Rabies Vaccination.  Your dog must have current rabies vaccination. (Documentation of the vaccination must include the product name, the lot or serial number, and the expiration date of the lot.) See also my blog post: Health Certificates and Other Required Documentation
Rabies Test.  Most cruise lines and other transportation companies do not require a rabies test, but some destinations do!  Specifically, Hawaii requires that prior to arrival the dog must have passed one OIE-FAVN test after 12 months of age, with a level of 0.5 I.U. rabies antibody or greater.  A passing test result is valid for three (3) years.  The laboratory will not perform the tests unless the microchip number accompanies the test request form. What they didn’t tell me, was that the test requires 25 days to complete!  I found out the hard way, that … for an extra fee… the test can be expedited, but still takes approximately 14 days for the expedited results.  (By the way, the test isn’t cheap!  Count on at least $200 for the test, and an extra $100 for expediting!) My strong recommendation is that this special test be performed at least three months in advance of your travel to allow enough time for test completion, and allow enough time, just in case something goes wrong with the test! See also my blog post: Health Certificates and Other Required Documentation
14 Days Before Embarkation
Flea and Tick Control.  While most destinations do not require this, Hawaii does require certification by your veterinarian of your dog being treated with a long-acting tick controller.  Hawaii requires a health certificate issued not more than 30 days prior to arrival, attesting that the dog was treated within 14 days of arrival with a product containing Fipronil or an equivalent long-acting product labeled to kill ticks.
USDA Health Form 7001. Hawaii also requires the USDA Form 7001 signed by your dog’s veterinarian. Basically, the USDA Form 7001 is a restatement of all the information found on the normal veterinarian’s health certificate, but on a government form:  USDA Form 7001.  Hawaii does not require the form to be endorsed by the USDA. See also my blog post: Another Form! USDA Health Form 7001
Physician’s Statement of Your Disability.  For a service dog, there must be a letter from your physician stating the need for the animal and what it does for you to mitigate or service your disability.  It needs to be on the Doctor's letterhead and not on a prescription pad. (OR a certificate of training of the service dog by a training program accredited by Assistance Dogs International, Inc., or a service dog training program with equally rigorous administrative, operational and training standards.) Again, the dog must serve a medical disability, dogs that are for emotional support, comfort, or therapy will not qualify.See also my blog post: Health Certificates and Other Required Documentation
Vet Health Certificate - Recommended (not required):  A signed health certificate by your veterinarian in addition to the Form 7001 above.
7 Days Before Embarkation
Fed Ex, or fax all your paperwork with your itinerary to Animal Quarantine Station Hawaii:  Animal Quarantine Station, 99-851 Halawa Valley Street, Aiea, HI 96701 or fax to (808) 483-7161. They do require original signatures on everything.  Double check you have met all the requirements posted at
If you are entering Hawaii on an island other than Oahu, you will be required to obtain Neighbor Island Inspection Permit. You must request this when you are submitting your documents to quarantine.
The day you arrive (if in Honolulu), you will be met by a Hawaiian governmental authority from the AQS Hawaii Agency.  S/he will check your dog’s microchip and the paperwork: Make sure you have the originals with you if you have not already sent them ahead, and be sure to carry copies!  The process should take no more than 10 minutes, and you are on your way!
A Cautionary Tale:  If you do not arrive in Honolulu, or you arrive on a federal holiday, you may face additional hurdles.  I sorted through all of the above requirements for Asta, and got all the paperwork in on time!  Yet, when our cruise ship landed in Hilo on the island of Oahu on December 26th (the day after Christmas), Asta was not allowed to disembark… nor the day after in Kauai.  Government bureaucracy!!  Grrr.
The 26th was a federal holiday, so there was no one available from AQS Hawaii to come to the ship. AQS Hawaii had advised me that I would need to hire a properly certified veterinarian to come to the ship to check Asta out, but the only certified veterinarian in Hilo was on vacation.  In Kauai, there was no certified veterinarian on the island.  We did hire a nice veterinarian on Maui who met us at the dock, and sorted Asta out.  We were free! And free of $400 more for the cost of the veterinarian to come and clear Asta.  Frankly, I am not sure this is legal under the ADA, but we did get clear to enjoy our final days in Hawaii.
If you are overwhelmed by all the requirements, you may want to contact a veterinary service in Hawaii directly to walk you through.  As I mentioned above, we hired a private certified veterinary service who was very good (although pricey):  South Shore Veterinary Care:
They will take care of all the paperwork for you in advance. Aloha!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Life on Board with your Service Dog.

Life on board the cruise ship with your service dog should be delightful.  You and your dog can go anywhere and do anything together, but always be sensitive to your fellow shipmates and their concerns.  Under no circumstances should you feed your dog outside the room, and certainly not in the dining room.  One message board poster related the following:  A couple of years ago on the Statendam there was a small service dog in the main dining room, the guests even ordered a meal for the dog!!! The dog never got out of its pet carrier, but the carrier was placed on a seat and the owners fed it right at the table and "that did cause some raised eyebrows." While you and your service dog may be welcome, don’t abuse the privilege.
One way to help set expectations for your shipmates is to join a cruise message board (such as Cruise Critic) and join the Roll Call for your voyage.  You can let your shipmates know about your service dog coming aboard with you.  In my case, I received a warm welcome.

Many many passengers (and crew) will welcome you and your well-behaved dog.  People miss their own dogs at home or miss their dogs since passed away, and your dog my provide them some pleasure.  Expect lots of questions about how you were able to bring your dog on the ship (they may not understand she is a service dog), what kind of medical disability she serves (only say what you feel comfortable revealing), and where she goes potty!  We got these questions a lot!  Also, don't be surprised if one or two passengers look at your dog in disgust - with the view that dogs are not welcome: if needed, state firmly that she is a service dog and walk away.
While your service dog is a working dog, meaning, she has a dedicated job to perform for you at all times, do remember, she is a dog.  Even working dogs need some “down time.”  While you probably can’t play outside your room, you should be able to enjoy a walk together on deck, to smell the roses so-to-speak.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Getting Your Dog’s Things on Board – Shipping ahead.

Cunard allowed me to ship a box of dog stuff ahead of time. 
The box should contain only supplies for your service dog:  food, pee pads, etc.  All other personal items must be shipped using their White Star Service – if you choose to ship ahead. 
Call the cruise line about 4 weeks ahead to get the ok to ship, and to get the proper address instructions.  Note that you probably cannot ship your box from the ship back home; the logistics are too complicated.