By David G. Molyneaux, editor, The Travel Mavens
A gilded ballroom and serious shuffleboard tournaments. A two-story library with 6,000 books. Well dressed gentlemen hosts for single women at the daily afternoon and evening dances. A classical orchestra. White-gloved waiters serving afternoon tea. Knitting and watercolor classes. Passengers gladly gussied up, in gowns and tuxedos for dinner and their own private boxes at the theater.
Most ships today are built for a new style of cruising, which, like so many personal relationships, is casual and quick. Picture rock-climbing walls and the beat of rock music.
Queen Victoria is old world, a 2,000-passenger ship designed for people who crave yesterday's style, cruising as it used to be -- fancy, refined, formal and slow.
Music in the lobby of Queen Victoria
Passengers on the Queen seemed to love this retro style, at least all of the men and women I talked to during a January seven-night segment of the world cruise, between Aruba and Acapulco, Mexico.
Me, too. My wife, Judi Dash, and I loved the romance of it all, taking fencing lessons for couples, renewing our wedding vows, listening to a harpist in the lobby, dancing after dinner.
Victoria is the latest of Cunard Line's English ocean queens, following in the wake of two Elizabeths and two Marys. She is a richly appointed, well endowed vessel -- classy, with dark wood trim and cozy with an abundance of nooks for reading, talking, taking tea. The ballroom is grand, the theater the first at sea to have private boxes that can be rented for an evening, with champagne.
Alas, the Queen also displays an irritating dual personality. She is an upstairs-downstairs vessel with two environments for dining, depending on your cabin class. This class differentiation, occasionally thrown in your face by ship employees, is bound to irritate some passengers, mostly Americans I suspect. We downstairs folks from the colonies tend to bristle at being treated as lesser, even if we didn't pay as much for the cruise as the gentry upstairs who are lapping up the champagne and caviar.
Passengers relax, above, in the two-story library
Separated by cabin class
Queen Victoria is a hybrid ship, as if Cunard had two ships in mind when the company built only one, starting with something like the traditional environment of a mass-marketed Holland America vessel, then placing a more luxurious product on top for high-paying passengers.
Unlike the old ocean liner days, depicted in scenes from the movie "Titanic" where passengers of different classes were separated by iron bars, Queen Victoria looks more egalitarian -- no iron bars separate the classes.
Luxe suites and standard cabins are mixed and spread throughout the ship, so a standard cabin passenger might see his suite neighbor in the hallways, the ballroom dance floor and theater lobby, but not while eating and seldom on deck, as passengers in suites have their own dining room, lounge and sunning areas at the top of the ship.
Once you have bought your cruise ticket on Cunard, your dining status has been set: one of the two Grill rooms serving suite passengers at a single seating or the main Britannia Dining Room for everyone else at two seatings. You may not eat in either of the other two rooms.
Top suites get the Queens Grill. Passengers in the next group of suites eat at the Princess Grill, above.
The Grills, across a hallway from each other and sharing a kitchen, are accessible by private elevator with a key card or a stairway with a sign that reminds other passengers that these steps are for use by Grill guests only, left.
Eating ala carte
The concept that some passengers eat at a more expensive restaurant is not in itself unusual. Many ships have alternative restaurants that charge an extra fee if you choose to eat there rather than in the main dining room where meals are included in the cruise fee. On Victoria, passengers may choose pub food in the Golden Lion, buffets in the informal Lido or, for $20 at lunch or $30 at dinner, gourmet fare at the 87-seat Todd English.
But it is the main dining room, where the majority of passengers eat at assigned tables, that sets the standard for judging the quality of food on a ship. The key to acceptance of Cunard's dual dining system is for the Britannia room to be an exceptional eating experience. The question is: Are the Grill Rooms a step up from the Britannia or is the Britannia a step down from the Grill Rooms?
During my week at sea, I felt as if I had stepped down. In Britannia, neither the menus nor the food reached close to the qualities I experienced recently in main dining rooms on cruises aboard Carnival, Princess and Norwegian (NCL) ships. Socializing on the pool deck
Britannia's menu, with a choice of five entrees and appetizers each night, and two salads, was uninspired. Unlike menus on other cruise ships, Britannia's menu did not offer any ala carte possibilities, such as a steak or salmon, a caesar salad or a shrimp cocktail -- though my waiter did bring me a caesar salad when I asked for it.
Main dishes, from fish to beef, were bland, with few choices for healthy, diet-conscious travelers and nothing that seemed special, such as lobster or perhaps a Beef Wellington.
Where's the Beef Wellington?
"Not for our Britannia guests." That was a response I heard often from employees on Queen Victoria. It seemed to be a put-down and was contrary to the graciousness traditionally associated with Cunard service.
The phrase popped up at the oddest times. For instance, when my wife asked a cabin attendant in the hallway for an additional bath towel from her cart, the attendant responded by asking my wife her cabin number. When the attendant realized we were in a standard cabin instead of a suite, she refused to part with a fluffy towel from her cart, as these towels were destined for the cabins of Grill passengers.
Then, there was the case of the missing Beef Wellington, a favorite dish of Winston Churchill. It is a labor-intensive entrée that is served on many ships, including Queen Victoria, but not to Britannia guests.
Upstairs in the Princess and Queens Grills, where passengers ordered ala carte or off the menu, Chef Jean-Marie Zimmermann told grand stories about dinner choices and flaming entrees. As he was showing off his seven kitchens, I asked him whether Beef Wellington might make its way downstairs to Britannia.
"Will we ever have Beef Wellington in the Britannia dining room?" responded Zimmermann. "Yes," he said.
When? I asked. He shrugged. This was six weeks into Queen Victoria's cruising season, and Beef Wellington remained an upstairs entrée.
Fixing flaws, improving menus
Most flaws are fixable, some relatively easy, such as the ordinary dining experiences in the Britannia room.
Queen Victoria docked at Puntarenas, Costa Rica
"People don't realize what it takes," said Zimmermann, 52, the head chef. "We have lists of things to do." One item on Zimmermann's list was getting rid of all the micowave ovens on board. "I have a ship full of microwaves, and I don't use them," said Zimmermann.
Other flaws require some imagination and rebuilding, such as the lack of storage space for clothes in standard cabins. The cabins are of typical new ship size, but without a makeup (or shaving) mirror, sufficient shelves to store toiletries in the tight bathroom or adequate storage drawers for clothes.
The missing drawers were a joke during the early stages of the world cruise (See: The case of Queen Victoria's missing drawers). Cunard has said that the storage issue was remedied somewhat in April (2008) when the ship returned to Southampton.
You might also practice your ballroom dancing, right, as well as your shuffleboard playing, surely a lost art. If you knit, bring your latest project. Pack your formal clothes, as passengers on Queen Victoria dress up for the evening about twice a week, and look ready for a country club outing on other nights.
And consider taking fencing lessons. Classes include a padded uniform that provides protection to your upper body from the rubber tips of swords. My wife and I had great fun stabbing each other. We learned how to take off the gloves, slap them across each other's faces and demand a duel. It's an opportunity you won't find on any other cruise ship.