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SPECIAL CRUISE ISSUE

A queen, all the same

Not all aboard are happy with an early cruise on Cunard's newest ocean liner. Still, the Victoria is an elegant ride.

January 20, 2008|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

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.

Like the Mary, the Victoria is an ocean-worthy liner (a liner generally makes oceanic crossings and may not return to its port of embarkation for some time), rather than a cruise ship (which generally leaves from and returns to the same port or one close to it). Purists sometimes dismiss cruise ships as clusters of floating flats.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Queen Victoria: A story in Sunday's Travel section on the new Queen Victoria ocean liner incorrectly referred to passenger Michelle Grant of Santa Monica as a travel manager. She is a talent manager.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 27, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Queen Victoria: A story in the Jan. 20 Travel section on the Queen Victoria ocean liner incorrectly referred to passenger Michelle Grant of Santa Monica as a travel manager. She is a talent manager.

The Victoria's signature black and red livery and elongated bow identify it immediately as a Cunard ship, but it is no mini-Mary.

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.

Let the others have their casual dress, free-choice dining and rock climbing. Formality is fine with me, and, flaws and all, a Cunard voyage is special.

PROBLEMS, PROBLEMS

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. (The 24-hour virus, common in enclosed places, causes vomiting, diarrhea and cramps but is rarely fatal.) 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-force winds made it too dangerous to dock. Several days of rough seas followed.

With time to kill as we headed back to Southampton, the ship slowed, which also made for a more comfortable trip. The Atlantic was choppy, the horizon shrouded in mist. Waves 11 feet high crashed against the hull. The captain reported "rogue swells" of up to 30 feet that caused the Victoria to creak and shudder as it rose and fell.

The good news from the bridge: "The ship has handled these big ocean swells very well" on this, its first real test, said Wright, who kept passengers abreast of the big waves and the bad bug.

VICTORIAN TOUCHES

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 a person for lunch, $30 for dinner -- was charged.

Veteran Cunarders also 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 though I had to plan my day around her schedule.

On one thing almost everyone seemed to agree: 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, Wright said: "It's intimate, a ship where people can get to know people."

Alastair Greener, the ship's entertainment director (a new Cunard title replacing cruise director), said: "A lot of people didn't like the size of the Queen Mary 2. The Queen Mary 2 is big and grand," the Ritz-Carlton of liners; the Queen Victoria is more like "a five-star luxury country hotel."

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