The Line in a Nutshell
The most venerable line in the cruise industry, Cunard is a classic, providing a link to the golden age of passenger ships. Sails to: Caribbean, New England/Canada, transatlantic (plus Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, world cruise).
The Cunard of today is not the Cunard of yesterday, but then again, it is. Formed in 1840 by Sir Samuel Cunard, the line provided the first regular steamship service between Europe and North America, and was one of the dominant players during the great years of steamship travel, which lasted roughly from 1905 to the mid-1960s. In 1969, long after it was clear that jet travel had replaced the liners, the company made what some considered a foolhardy move, launching Queen Elizabeth 2 and setting her on a mixed schedule, half-crossing, half-cruising. Through sheer persistence, the ship proved the critics wrong, and thrived throughout 40 years of Cunard service, even if the company endured some rough times.
Today QE2 has been retired from the Cunard fleet, departing in late 2008. Her replacement, the 151,400-ton Queen Mary 2 (QM2), is as modern as ships get, and was bigger than all the others until Royal Caribbean's giant ships came along. QM2 also pays homage to all that went before, designed with oversize grandeur and old-world formality in mind, and even a dose of blatant class structure: Some restaurants and outdoor decks are set aside specifically for suite guests only, if you please. Same story for the Queen Victoria, which is essentially a sister ship to the new Queen Elizabeth -- both are in the 90,000-ton-plus category, carrying just over 2,000 passengers. And, unlike QM2, they can transit the Panama Canal. Note: QE was still being built at the time of this writing.
In general, Cunard attracts a well-traveled crowd of passengers mostly in their 50s and up, many of them repeaters who appreciate the line's old-timey virtues and are more the 4-o'clock-tea crowd than the hot-tub-and-umbrella-drink set. That said, the hoopla that surrounded, and still surrounds, the QM2 (and to a lesser degree the QV and QE) is attracting a much wider demographic, especially on summer Atlantic crossings when families travel together and about 50% of passengers might be from the U.S. British passengers make up the next largest percentage, and usually several hundred passengers hail from various other nations, making Cunard one of the few truly international cruise lines.
Once upon a time, Cunard ruled the waves. Its ships -- first Mauretania and Lusitania, later Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth -- were the fastest and most reliable at sea. Then somebody invented the jet airliner and the whole passenger-shipping business went to hell. Numbers dropped. Ships went cruising for their bread. Cunard stuck to its guns, though, keeping QE2 on the Atlantic until sheer doggedness gave her a certain cachet as the last of the old breed. Fleetmates came and went, including the little Sea Goddess yachts (now with SeaDream) and a number of midsize ships acquired from other lines, but QE2 soldiered on and managed to carry the company, and its reputation, through some rough times.
An almost 3-decade-long period of corporate troubles and shuffling ownership ended in April 1998, when Carnival Corporation acquired Cunard from the Norwegian company Kvaerner Group. To some it seemed a comedown for the venerable line, but Commodore Ronald Warwick and other Cunard employees saw it as an unqualified boon. "To my mind," Warwick told a group of journalists, "Carnival Corporation were the white knights that saved us from demise, and when the planning of the Queen Mary 2 was announced, I experienced a feeling of pleasure and relief."
Today, Cunard is again very famous indeed after all the media attention that accompanied QM2's launch in 2004, but it's hardly the old British brand that its advertising might lead you to believe. In late 2004, for instance, the company was swallowed whole by Carnival Corporation subsidiary Princess Cruises. Its operations and staff were absorbed into Princess's at the latter's suburban Los Angeles headquarters, which meant crewmembers and officers would be rotated between the two lines -- a move considered blasphemous by many hard-core Cunard fans -- but frankly, something that the average passenger won't realize or even mind.
Cunard's newest liner, the Queen Victoria, debuted in December 2007 and a third fleetmate, the new Queen Elizabeth was set to debut in mid-2010. (The QE2 was retired in 2008.)
Preview: Queen Elizabeth -- The 92,000-ton, 2,092-passenger Queen Elizabeth is the second-largest ship Cunard has ever built, just slightly larger than Queen Victoria but essentially her sister. The first Queen Elizabeth, which sailed from 1940 to 1968, was one of Cunard's greatest ships, and the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 was no slacker either, so it follows that Cunard has designed the new one to reflect a similar traditional grandeur, decor, and style, but with a modern take on dining, entertainment, and activities. The QE's exterior will boast the classic black-and-red livery that differentiates a Cunard liner from a modern-day cruise ship, while inside, grand and elegant double- and triple-height public rooms with an Art Deco flavor will be outfitted with rich wood paneling, intricate mosaics, hand-woven carpets, and gleaming chandeliers. As the namesake of her two illustrious ancestors, she'll also have a permanent exhibit of photography, memorabilia, and exhibits about Cunard's storied maritime history and royal connections.
Though positioned as an ocean liner, the QE, like QM2 and Queen Victoria, will do regular cruise itineraries as well as ocean crossings.
Traditional -- Cunard is the last bastion of the old steamship tradition of segregating passengers according to category of accommodations, though for the most part, the practice is limited to dining hours. This means that passengers are assigned to one of the three reserved-seating restaurants according to the level of cabin accommodations they've booked: Suite-and-above passengers dine in the Queen's Grill; passengers in the next levels of accommodations dine in the Princess Grill; and everyone else dines in the Brittania Restaurant -- decor-wise, the most beautiful of the three and a fitting heir to the grand restaurants of the past. The two Grills are always single seating at an assigned table, while the Britannia has early and late seatings for dinner and open seating for breakfast and lunch.
To make matters a bit more confusing, in spring 2007 aboard the QM2, Cunard introduced the Britannia Club, an intimate section of the Britannia Restaurant seating around 100 passengers who are booked in the deluxe balcony cabins. Thanks to the Club's single-seating dining, and more table-side preparation and enhanced menu choices, those dining here won't have to pay the significant fare hike to dine in the Grills, while still having a more personalized and leisurely dining experience. Overall, the ships' cuisine sticks close to tradition, with entrees that might include pheasant with southern haggis and port-wine sauce, roasted prime rib, grilled lobster with garden pea risotto, and scallion wild-rice crepes with mushroom filling and red-pepper sauce. On our recent Cunard cruises, food and service were very good, roughly on par with what you might experience in the main dining rooms of the Celebrity ships. The Grill restaurants also allow the option of requesting whatever dish comes into your head -- if they have the ingredients aboard, someone in the galley will whip it up for you (caviar is available on request). Otherwise, it's the intimacy and cachet of the Grill restaurants that set them apart more than the food does, as many of the same dishes are served in the Britannia as well. At all three restaurants, special diets can be accommodated, and vegetarian dishes and health-conscious Canyon Ranch SpaClub dishes are available as a matter of course.
Specialty -- Both QM2 and QV have a Todd English restaurant, a small Mediterranean dining spot that echoes the original Queen Mary's Verandah Grill, one of that ship's most legendary spaces. Created by celebrity chef Todd English, the restaurant serves elaborate and often very rich lunches ($20 per person) and dinners ($30 per person), with some truly amazing desserts. On coauthor Heidi's QM2 crossing, she enjoyed her best meal at Todd English.
One deck down on the QM2, adjacent to the buffet restaurant, is the contemporary Chef's Galley, which serves only two dozen guests (no cover charge) who get to watch the chef prepare their meal via an open galley and several large monitor screens. Just don't expect to be dazzled by the decor -- it's minimalist.
Casual -- Almost a third of QM2's Deck 7 is given over to the massive King's Court, a large buffet restaurant that stretches out for nearly half a deck along both sides of the ship. The somewhat overwhelming cluster of food stations runs down the center of the area, with many small, cozy areas along the sides; there is no outdoor seating. At night, the space is partitioned off into three separate casual restaurants for round-the-clock noshing: the Carvery, serving carved beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, along with gourmet English favorites; La Piazza, serving pizza, pasta, and other Italian specialties; and Lotus, a Pan-Asian restaurant blending Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian influences. All are free, but reservations are recommended at dinner. The causal restaurant on QV is fittingly smaller and has a more typical location, up on Deck 11. Though its food items are not as extensive as QM2's, the QV's buffet venue is way more expansive than the industry's usual "lido" cafe.
Snacks & extras -- On both ships, the Golden Lion Pub serves English pub grub, while w-a-a-a-ay up on QM2's Deck 12, you can get standard burgers and hot dogs at the outdoor Boardwalk Café, weather permitting. Traditional afternoon tea, usually accompanied by a string quartet, is served in the Queen's Room, the most classic, traditional space aboard both ships. The selection of more than 20 teas includes Darjeeling, jasmine, and Japanese green tea. The elegant room hearkens back to the dramatic ballrooms of yesteryear, with a high arched ceiling and crystal chandeliers. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
With their classy uniforms and cordial, gracious efficiency, crewmembers exhibit a polished sort of British demeanor -- even when they're actually from the Philippines. That said, they do their share of rushing around and keeping up, just as aboard all the other huge cruise ships today.
The line's automatic gratuity policy adds a fee of $11 per person, per day to the accounts of guests in standard cabins, and $13 per day for suite guests.
As you would expect, Cunard ships have a more distinguished variety of activities than most other big liners, especially its Fun Ship cousins at Carnival. Rather than "woo-hoo" good times, Cunard concentrates on learning experiences and the arts, with a healthy dollop of pampering to keep things light.
Central to the onboard experience is Cunard Insights, the line's lecture program: Instructors, celebrities, and other learned authors and super-accomplished authorities present talks on literature, political history, marine science, ocean-liner history, music and pop culture, modern art, Shakespeare on film, architectural history, cooking, computer applications, languages, and many other topics. On crossings, there are so many worthwhile lectures that you may find yourself sitting in the theater all morning long. Cunard has even managed to attract a handful of stars, with Uma Thurman, Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz, Richard Dreyfuss, John Cleese, and others having sailed, and some lectured, in the last few years. On our last crossing, we had no problem filling up the 5 days at sea with "highbrow" things to do.
QM2 passengers who prefer book learning can take advantage of the largest and by far the most impressive library at sea: a huge, beautifully designed space that actually looks like a library, unlike the typical rooms-with-a-few-bookshelves on most megaships. Next door on QM2, a bookshop sells volumes on passenger-ship history, as well as Cunard memorabilia. The library on QV is smaller, but still carries an impressive 6,000 books and is staffed by two librarians. Other shops aboard the ships sell everything from high-end Hermès to low-end souvenirs and jewelry, some of it sold in a rather undignified way from long tables set up in the public corridors. Continuing the marine history topic, both ships offer museum-quality memorabilia from Cunard's 170-year-history. It's called Maritime Quest on the QM2 and it's a history trail with a timeline set up in various places throughout the ship; on QV, it's called Cunardia, and it's more like a mini-museum exhibiting Cunard artifacts and vintage souvenirs.
A visit to QM2's attractive Canyon Ranch SpaClub is another popular activity. The pleasant decor combines nautical undertones with a modern minimalist motif to create a most relaxing space that includes a thermal suite, a beauty salon with wonderful ocean views, and more than 20 treatment rooms clustered around a coed thalassotherapy pool and hot tub reserved for spagoers. The spa is a refreshing break from the Steiner-run spas on most ships; it offers some truly different therapies -- for example, the Ashiatus massage incorporates the therapist's feet -- and far less of Steiner's pushiness to sell skin-care products. The QM2's gym, which wraps around the bow on Deck 7, is surprisingly small and uninspired for a ship this large and well conceived, but it does what it needs to do and has treadmills and stationary bikes with flatscreen TV monitors. Classes include Pilates and yoga. On QV, the Cunard Royal Health Club has all of the usual spa, salon, and gym facilities, but perhaps the most enjoyable and unusual is the Turkish Rasul chamber for a traditional hammam steam/mud bath.
Aside from all these interesting options, you'll find a number of less cerebral pursuits as well, from wine tastings to art auctions to scarf-tying seminars.
Entertainment runs the gamut from plays featuring graduates of Britain's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) to some pretty run-of-the-mill song-and-dance revues. The former perform generally from April to November as part of a partnership between Cunard and the school, with RADA graduates and students also giving a variety of readings and workshops, including acting classes. Besides theater, a wide variety of music is heard throughout the ships' many lounges, from string quartets and harpists to jazz groups and high-toned dance music in the gorgeous Queen's Ballroom (with gentleman hosts on hand to partner with single ladies). Both ships have a disco and a casino, which are more Monte Carlo than Vegas, with refined art and furnishings rather than the usual clangor of an arcade. Aboard the QV, there's an unusual show lounge arrangement where the best box seats can be reserved in advance for special performances and are first-come, first-seated for other shows.
Whereas most ships have one theater, QM2's lecture program is so busy that there are two. As the secondary theater, Illuminations is smaller than the Royal Court Theatre, but is probably the most used room on the ship. It serves triple duty as a lecture hall, a movie theater, and also the world's only oceangoing planetarium that shows 3-D films, some of them created in conjunction with noted institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
A Cunard cruise is more than high tea and stiff upper lips. Finger paints and cartoons are just as much a part of the ship's activities as ballroom dancing and quoits. Though you might not expect it from a grand liner that (one imagines) is filled with sophisticated seniors, QM2 especially has great digs for kids; the QV also has a decent kids' program, though not quite as impressive as the QM2's. Called the Zone on both ships, it's open to kids ages 1 and up -- an extraordinarily young minimum age shared only by Disney's ships. (Most ships with kids' programming welcome kids ages 3 and up, a few ages 2 and up.) The ages 1-to-6 set occupies half of a bright, cheery, and roomy area with lots of toys, arts and crafts, a play gym and ball pit, and big-screen TVs (and the staff do change diapers). On the QM2, there's also a separate nursery with 10 crib/toddler-bed combos for napping tots. Bring a stroller if your kids are young: Remember, the QM2 is really long, so getting from one end of a deck to the other is a hike.
Both ships also have an outdoor play area just outside the playroom, along with a wading pool and a regular pool. The other half of the play area is reserved for kids ages 7 to 17, with the ages 7-to-12 crowd usually occupying a play area with beanbag chairs, lots of board games, TVs, and a number of Xbox video-game systems. Activities for teens -- including ship tours, movies and production shows in the theaters, and pizza parties -- are usually held elsewhere.
The kids' program is staffed by certified British nannies, plus a handful of other qualified activity counselors. The best part? Aside from 2 hours at lunchtime and an hour or two in the afternoon, the playrooms provide complimentary supervised activities and care from 9am to midnight, so you have ample time to enjoy adult company and know that your offspring are being well cared for (on other lines, you must generally pay an hourly fee after 10pm). On Queen Mary 2, you can take your kids to eat earlier in the Chef's Galley, a special section of the King's Court buffet-style restaurant, reserved for a children's tea daily from 5 to 6pm (of course, it's not really tea that's served, but the standard kiddie favorites of pasta, chicken fingers, and the like).
Though the ships' kids' program is awesome, there are rarely more than 250 kids aboard any given sailing and usually fewer (compared to the 800-1,200 kids and teens typically aboard similar-size ships). This is a plus: Fewer kids means more attention and space for the ones who are there. Keep in mind, though, if a sailing is especially full, the counselors reserve the right to limit participation and will ask parents to choose either the morning or the afternoon session; everyone can be accommodated during evenings.
On top of everything else, the ships have impressive medical centers, which came in handy when Heidi's son got an ear infection on a QM2 crossing.