A bumpy maiden voyage for a queen


ABOARD THE QUEEN VICTORIA - "Welcome to my office," Capt. Paul Wright said as he opened the security door to the bridge of the Queen Victoria. Through the expanse of windows, the ocean seemed endless, glimmering in the sun.

It was, as it turned out, the calm before the storm.

The captain, a genial chap from Cornwall, England, was soon laughing about the rumors aboard Cunard's newest ocean liner.

No, he assured me, no one had been lost overboard. And had I seen the reports in the British tabloids blaming every glitch on this, the ship's second voyage, on the "Curse of Camilla," Prince Charles' wife, the first non-monarch to christen a Cunard queen in nearly 75 years?

This Queen Victoria did have its share of bad luck, but that aside, I preferred it to the Queen Mary 2, which I accompanied on its maiden voyage to the Caribbean in 2004.

Yet the two ships share a common trait: elegance. If Cunard can't yet replicate the graciousness of the 1930s in this age of inelegance, those who sail its ships - myself included - hope it keeps trying.

Only the most superstitious - or the most ardent Camilla bashers - could blame the problems of this voyage on the Duchess of Cornwall, even if the champagne bottle did fail to break at the christening.

Nor could Cunard be blamed for an outbreak of a highly contagious stomach virus that struck just before Christmas and ultimately sickened about 140 aboard. Ship personnel responded quickly to contain the bug, thought to have been carried on when we boarded Dec. 21 at Southampton, England. Hand-cleaning before entering dining spaces was mandated, and passengers were advised to avoid public restrooms.

Neither could Cunard be faulted for canceling a stop at Casablanca, Morocco, on advice of the British and U.S. governments - "for security reasons," the captain said. And Gibraltar had to be scratched when gale winds made it too dangerous to dock. Several days of rough seas followed.

Misfortunes aside, not everyone was thrilled with the cruise, for which passengers paid from $4,100 each for an inside cabin for two to $34,000 for the grand suite in upper class. Passengers had expected lavish Victorian Christmas decorations but got little more than a pair of towering trees in the Queens Room and some greenery here and there.

Others described the food in the handsome, two-deck Britannia dining room as merely adequate. It wasn't on a par with the food in the intimate Todd English restaurant, where a supplement - $20 per person for lunch, $30 for dinner - was charged.

Veteran Cunarders criticized the uneven service: missing cutlery, mixed-up orders, largely invisible wine stewards, the feeling of being rushed through meals. One night, I asked for a tall J&B Scotch and got a short Tanqueray gin. (Some of the multinational staff seemed less than fluent in English.) But I have only praise for Vivian, my cabin steward, who anticipated my needs and never made me feel as if I had to plan my day around her schedule.

Almost everyone seemed to agree on one thing: The Queen Victoria is a beautiful ship with elements of Victorian decor - marble and mosaics and crystal chandeliers - and touches of Art Deco and Art Nouveau. It's smaller and cozier than the Queen Mary 2. The Queen Victoria occupies a different niche, the captain said: "It's intimate, a ship where people can get to know people."

Lessons learned from Queen Mary 2 influenced the design. Mary's library is tucked away on Deck 8, but it is a showpiece on the Victoria - an inviting Deck 2 space with a spiral staircase, a skylight and leather chairs. The Royal Court Theater, all red plush and gilt, has private boxes ($50 a night per couple). Many passengers liked how most of the Queen Victoria's bars and lounges were clustered on Deck 2 around the three-deck Grand Lobby.

There's a casino, of course, but unlike on the Queen Mary, it doesn't abut the Britannia dining room, so it is much less jolting. The popular Commodore Club, forward on Deck 10 with wraparound windows, is clubbier than the Queen Mary's.

The Todd English restaurant proved such a winner on the Queen Mary 2, where it is on Deck 8, that it was moved to Deck 2 on Victoria. The Golden Lion pub, larger than the one on the Queen Mary, attracted a noon lunch crowd keen on fish and chips. During the day, it was a hangout for team trivia addicts; at night, the destination of karaoke fans.

Several of the Queen Victoria's shortcomings are not open to debate. Standard outside staterooms (like mine) are a good size for a cruise ship, about 180 to 200 square feet. But there's little drawer space, and baths are so small there's barely room to turn around in the shower. Malfunctioning toilets also were a problem.

Sixteen days makes for a long cruise, especially with two ports scratched and seven at-sea days. But the entertainment staff worked overtime to keep passengers amused, even though the paucity of big-cast productions disappointed some.

The Brits onboard (1,165 of the 1,880 passengers) loved the Victorian music-hall show, but it seemed to leave many Americans bewildered.

Along with elegance, Cunard sells Britishness. It clings fiercely to British traditions, including afternoon tea - cucumber sandwiches and scones, served by white-gloved waiters.

But some Cunarders seemingly can't forgive the company for becoming American. (Miami-based Carnival Corp. bought the line a decade ago and later moved Cunard's U.S. headquarters to Valencia, Calif.)

Roger and Janet Birkin of Derbyshire, England, were among the unhappy voyagers. (It didn't help that Roger got the stomach virus.) Janet found it "quite vulgar how they're trying to extract every dollar out of you. They're exploiting the Cunard name."

There's some truth to that. We had to buy our drinks at the sail-away parties. Shore excursions cost as much as $129 per person. But the two I took - to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain and to Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais in Portugal - were well organized, with excellent English-speaking guides and first-rate lunches ashore.

The ship's 24-hour computer center charged 50 cents a minute (with discounts for frequent Cunarders and package deals, such as $480 for 32 hours). WiFi, widely available, also was 50 cents a minute.

Daily activities included fencing classes, napkin folding, whist (similar to bridge), line dancing, and electronic photo editing. Some were free; some weren't. There were lectures by British actress Sylvia Syms (the queen mother in the 2006 movie The Queen) and racing driver Jackie Stewart.

I met happy passengers as well as disgruntled ones, including Lorcas Martin, a psychiatrist and self-described cruise addict from Dublin, Ireland. As Martin, who had already booked the ship's cruise to Russia in May, said: "When she gets her character, she'll be fantastic."

Victoria Takes to the Sea