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, canapés 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.

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