The royal waves
Susan Kurosawa sails aboard Cunard’s new Queen Victoria
WHEN the magnum of Veuve Clicquot refused to break, the British press had a field day. It was December 10 last year and the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles’s missus, Camilla, was naming Cunard’s newest ocean liner, Queen Victoria. ‘‘ The bottle was supposed to hit on a spike,’’ the ship’s captain, Paul Wright, tells me. ‘‘ But something went wrong . . . maybe the bottle was too heavy.’’
It is a well-held seafaring belief that if the bottle used to christen a ship doesn’t smash, it’s a bad omen. The tabloids screeched about ‘‘ the curse of Camilla’’ when Queen Victoria’s first cruise, at the height of the British winter, was marred by an outbreak of viral illness.
Queen Victoria is now following the sun on its maiden world voyage — a 106-night circular sailing from Southampton — and all is sharp, shiny and shipshape. On a three-day sector from Lautoka, Fiji, to Auckland, I feel anything but cursed. Curiously, though, my clothing seems afflicted with shrinkage. Buttons and zippers that obediently snapped and zinged earlier in the week now refuse to co-operate. Note to self: cruising requires a complete wardrobe of elasticised garments, including Bridget Jones-style big knickers. Note to knicker designers: consider the return of the drawstring.
This is the second largest liner in the Cunard fleet. Big sister Queen Mary 2 entered service in January 2004 and Queen Victoria will soon replace the much-loved Queen Elizabeth 2, which sails away in November to become a floating hotel in Dubai. It’s a stately kind of retirement and one that suits a grand old Cunard lady: the original Queen Mary, now at Long Beach, California, is also a hotel and museum.
Those who’ve sailed aboard QM2 will find Queen Victoria to be a scaled-down version, but with no diminution of elegance. There are 1007 staterooms — QM2 has more than 1300 — and many of the restaurants, public areas and bars bear the same names as Victoria’s big sister.
There’s a cigar lounge and art deco-inspired Veuve Clicquot bar aboard both ships (think tanned Americans in Ralph Lauren casuals comparing holiday homes in the Hamptons) and a village-cosy Golden Lion pub (more a matter of Poms talking football over lager on tap and settling in for ‘‘ pub lunch melodies’’ over fish and chips). Both ships also have a Todd English restaurant; English is a Boston celebrity chef with franchises across the US, and dining in his swish surrounds on Queen Victoria attracts a surcharge of $US20 ($22) for lunch or $US30 for dinner.
It’s well worth the cost. While meals in the main dining room, the gilded two-level Britannia, are perfectly fine and beautifully presented, the food at Todd English is joyously, decadently good. His signature dishes include a New England lobster chowder with whipped parsnip, black truffle and potato, and Maine crab cakes with a fiery sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. It’s Valentine’s Day while I am aboard and Todd English is fizzing with pink: special menu cards, champagne, raspberry martinis, rose petal rossini cocktails, sugared berries. Naturally, the most popular entree on February 14 is English’s renowned baby ravioli-like truffled potato love letters.
Other components the two Queens have in common are the Wintergarden conservatory, with its potted parlour greenery and cane chairs (Queen Victoria’s, on deck nine, has a retractable roof), and a preponderance of cabins with balconies. Both ships display collections of maritime memorabilia and fine paintings, etchings, sculptures and glassware; an iPod can be borrowed from the Queen Victoria purser’s desk for a self-guided art tour. Framed photographs of trans-Atlantic sophisticates of the ilk of Gary Cooper and Deborah Kerr peer at passengers; a young Debbie Reynolds looks splendid in a perky pillbox hat and ruffled blouse. Under glass in the Cunardia Museum is a display of homage books, including Enid Blyton’s sweet little 1951-published The Queen Elizabeth Family and the corpse-filled Murder SheWrote:MurderontheQE2 by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain.
Queen Victoria’s accommodations also have a similar feel to QM2’s: gold and royal blue decor, pale wood, quality toiletries, good beds and an avalanche of soft pillows. But while on QM2 it’s almost necessary to scatter a trail of breadcrumbs or unfurl a ribbon from the doorknob of one’s cabin to find it again, Queen Victoria, with 12 passenger decks, has just three banks of lifts and staircases along its 294m length. Fold-out pocket map in place, it is relatively simple to navigate one’s daily course.
And what a busy day that could be. Taking at random one of the daily activities sheet, here’s how you could set yourself a cracking pace. Start with a stretch and relaxation class, then a ‘‘ Latino-inspired salsa aerobics’’ session and acting workshop with members of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Sashay to a shuffleboard tournament, off for a bingo bout, ‘‘ improver’s bridge class’’ and enrichment lecture (historian Geoffrey Blainey is on board this week talking on Australian and New Zealand topics; he has lectured on QM2, too).
And it’s only noon. Time for a navigational announcement from Captain Wright. He informs passengers of all the salient facts, from distance covered to weather report, cruising speed and temperature. With a Benny Hill-style delivery, he keeps this patter ever so bright and lively. On the balcony of his cabin, and on the starboard corner of his Star Trek -gadgety bridge, the ship’s master keeps several fake parrots. They bob on wooden hoops, listing crookedly like tiny pirates.
Captain Wright runs a tight ship. There seem to be relatively few complaints among the passengers I speak to. The recurring gripes are to do with insufficient drawer space in the cabins, slow internet connections, the spa therapists who try to up-sell expensive products when all you want is a manicure, long lines at the purser’s desk and terrible coffee. If you pay extra for a so-so espresso or cappuccino in Cafe Carinthia, you may experience, as I do, astonishingly surly service and bangeddown saucers by a certain waitress from one of what a fellow passenger rather purposefully refers to as the tractor countries. Her attitude is out of kilter with the ship; it’s a floating town of cheery greetings and can-do attitude.
A few tips: most cruises have plenty of at-sea days so make the most of the ship by keeping the daily activities sheet to hand and booking well ahead for the Royal Spa; consider an early or very late appointment (it opens from 8am to 10pm) so the flow of the day isn’t interrupted. A spa appointment gives entry to steam and sauna facilities, hydrotherapy pool and relaxation lounge as well.
Buffet lunches in the Lido can be elbowy, with long queues and, if it’s too cold or wet on deck for outdoor dining, you may need to wait for a table. So get in early — say, just before noon — and then you may just be peckish enough for high tea at 3pm in the Queen’s Room, a gold-leafed and chandeliered salon with portraits of Victoria and Albert.
This formal tea really is a don’t-miss event, with waiters lined up in white jackets, all holding silver trays groaning with trimmed sandwiches, teeny tarts and pots of strawberry jam and cream to slather over raisin-studded scones.
It sounds stuffed-shirt but it’s more stuffed trackpants, in fact.
Britannia’s dinner sittings are at 6pm and 8.30pm. But Grill-class passengers — those who are ensconced in the top suites — may repair to the Queens or Princess Grills any time after 6.30pm; caviar, silver domes, tableside trolleys, flambes and optional Tuscan-inspired courtyard dining await.
After dinner, do catch a show at the 830-seat West End-replica Royal Court Theatre with its plush red decor. The acts are very professional affairs. Perhaps a mini- West Side Story or an appearance by an old-school showman such as Milan-born and Las Vegas-based Rudi Macaggi, who describes his profession as acromedian’’. In a nutshell, this means he can tell jokes in several languages while hanging upside down or flying about stage like Peter Pan.
There’s a $US25 surcharge a person to book one of the 16 balcony boxes at the Royal Court but, again, worth the extra: a flute of Veuve Clicquot (one tugs at the butler’s cord-pull for more), ice creamfilled chocs, plump strawberries piped with chocolate tuxedos, and the chance to feel terribly regal and, perchance, allow a wrist-flick’s wave to the ordinaries seated below.
One of the technical crew allows me to lower my plebeian posterior into the Royal Box, as it were. So for a few seconds I pretend I am indeed the
not; Duchess of Cornwall, maligned by the press, endlessly compared unfavourably with goddess Diana by the public, but defiantly adored by Charles, even when the couple has been exiled by the ruling Cromwell Party to an exclusion zone on a beastly council estate.
But wait, I am daydreaming. Throughout this short cruise I have been devouring Sue Townsend’s rattling spoof Queen Camilla . The entire royal family has been banished, Prince Harry has banged up his super-breasted slapper girlfriend, Chanel Toby, and the Princess Royal is married to a short, fat cockney named Spiggy.
But Prince Charles is surviving stoically, as it is one’s duty to do, steadfast in his love for the Duchess of Cornwall, even when she throws her fag ends in his chicken pen, rather upsetting the organic diet of his chooks, Eccles and Moriarty. In fact, they take up smoking, dangling ciggies from their beaks.
I have brought the book aboard; such reading matter would hardly be gracing the well-polished shelves of Queen Victoria’s grand spiral-staircased library. I relax with Queen Camilla on my balcony as blue-grey waves surge and a pair of frigate birds dips and disperses. It is my afternoon companion in a steamer chair on deck; it is tucked under my left arm as I practise quoits.
I have just finished the book before interviewing the charming George Kirk, a widowed octagenarian from Massachussets and one of Queen Victoria’s 10 gentleman dance hosts.
His brief, he says, is to dance, dance, dance and always behave like a gentleman’’. Later I see him at the Valentine’s Day Ball, gliding around the floor, radiating charm, his posture almost as perfect as it must have been during his competitive ice-dancing days. Overadorned single ladies are waiting their turn; George has wings on his heels. Dance instructors Dmytro and Tetiana suddenly explode from a cluster of heartshaped balloons and writhe like cobras into a ballroom samba. Time to repair to my cabin and let out my stays. Susan Kurosawa is the winner of the International Cruise Council Australasia’s 2008 media award. See her winning feature on QM2 at www.theaustralian.com.au/travel.
Queen Victoria has 1007 wellappointed ensuite staterooms, 71 per cent of which feature private balconies. It will undertake a series of 12-night Mediterranean and Aegean voyages from August to September and fly-cruise deals are available. A limited number of special packages feature savings of up to $1500. More: 132 441; www.cunardline.com.au.
Slightly smaller, still perfectly formed: The Queen Victoria may be a scaled-down version of the Queen Mary 2, its big sister in the Cunard fleet, but don’t expect any diminution in onboard elegance