The royal waves

Susan Kuro­sawa sails aboard Cu­nard’s new Queen Vic­to­ria

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: Sally Feld­man

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

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