m/s Queen Elizabeth 2
Review by Joe Koshuta, TravelPage.com
The story of Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2 as she is commonly referred to, begins in the early 1960's. At that time Cunard Line had developed a project to build a replacement for the aging QUEEN MARY. The new ship's project name was Q3, and she was expected to be a giant three-class liner, suitable only for the North Atlantic run. But alas, the times they were a changing. Air travel had replaced ocean travel as the primary means of crossing the Atlantic and it didn't take all that long for Cunard to abandon plans for the possible Q3, and set to work on something much less ambitious - the hybrid that evolved into the QE2.
This one, a 65,000 plus ton liner was planned to replace both QUEEN MARY and QUEEN ELIZABETH, each of whom was losing over one million dollars a year. Given the working nickname of Q4, this would be a two-class liner, and was conceived to do double duty, that is to work the North Atlantic in summer, if a buck could be made. Otherwise, to cruise from New York in particular to places where the sun would shine and the temperatures be conducive to sunbathing.
QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 debuted in 1969 when mod was in and fashion was Carnaby Street. Although Austin Powers never crossed on this ship he would have felt comfortable with the gaudy colors and groovy decor of the new liner. Plastic chairs in the first and tourist class dining rooms and what can best be described as a "patio furniture theme" decor in the Windows of the World restaurant were especially appalling.
Not surprisingly then, over the past three decades, QE2 has had more facelifts that a Hollywood plastic surgeon's best customer. One of the more intriguing changes came about during a multi million-dollar refit in the mid-1990s, when the first class dining room became the tourist class dining room and the tourist room became first.
While each of the refits has focused primarily on one or two specific areas of the ship, the common theme throughout has been the gradual whittling away of open public areas in favor of higher density, revenue generating venues. If you follow the changes by comparing deck plans over time, you cannot help but notice how a number of fine lounges and open deck spaces have been replaced by a combination of high-end accommodations, new restaurants, a shopping arcade and a spa.
All these changes have created a larger ship with more passengers and less deck space and public areas than she had when she entered service. When the weather is fine and passengers have full access to indoor and outdoor spaces it is not that bad. But when rough seas or cold weather force everyone to find someplace to go inside, you may end up fighting for a place to sit down.
With so many changes over the past thirty five years, you might wonder just how great this ship was to begin with and why Cunard has always charged such a premium for sailing on her.
QE2 passengers either love her or loathe her - no one seems to come off this ship without an opinion. At least Cunard is a bit more honest than some competitors, admitting that the QE2 is a multi class vessel. Suite passengers will receive a higher grade of food and service than passengers in standard cabins.
As she was built in the 1960's only a handful of cabins have verandahs - and those were added during various refits beginning in 1972 when the first ten penthouse suites were dropped in behind the bridge. The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth Suites were added in 1977 and the final set of suites was added in 1986 when she was converted to diesel electric power and her newer, bulkier funnel were added.
While QE2 is indeed a fine piece of maritime engineering - she is showing her age. Her hull and external features still look fine, but throughout her interiors it is far too easy to notice the wear and tear. This is true even in the higher-end accommodations as we noted peeling ceiling paint and ripped naugahyde dresser tops in a Q-grade cabin on our most recent cruise. Our own C-grade cabin, while roomier than expected, also suffered from chipped furniture, broken drawers and closets that didn't quite close.
Another problem that seems to be common among older ships is inconsistent air conditioning. It always seems to be too hot or too cold. Maybe they had the cold air turned down because of the high number of UK passenger on our trip, but the temperature throughout the ship was steamy most of the time and it became especially uncomfortable on formal nights when everyone was dressed up.
Over the past three decades QE2's public rooms have been redesigned and reconfigured too many times to count. Whole rooms have been converted from lounges to dinning rooms, stairwells have been ripped out and shops and other money making ventures have been wedged in wherever possible.
Getting around on QE2 can be interesting - with her eight MC Escher-inspired stairways and 13 passenger elevators of varying size and speed. While we have never had to wait for an elevator, we have found that you need to be careful about which elevator you choose - as some only operate between certain decks and others pass by decks without stopping. There is also the odd manner in which the deck indicator lights in a couple of the elevators run from right to left instead of the left to right in other 11 lifts, Go figure. Stairways D, E and G are probably your best bet for getting from here to there without having to stop and start all over again.
Let's begin our tour of QE'2's public areas on the top most deck, the Signal Deck. The ship's most expensive accommodations are located up here. As these cabins were added at various times after her initial construction they tend to "move about" even during moderate seas. I was surprised by the amount of creaking I heard when walking down the hallway on a relatively calm day. There is no public outside deck access from Signal Deck.
The next deck below is the Sun Deck, which consists of a large forward facing observation area located under the bridge, twelve additional suites and a large open deck area behind the funnel. The children's nursery (under 5 years old) and the dog kennels are also accessible via a long narrow stairway from this deck.
The forward observation area on Sun Deck is a great place to be when the ship is arriving or departing from port and is accessible via a set of stairs from the Boat Deck below. When QE2 is up to speed or when the wind is blowing this area is often closed due to high winds.
A large part of the open Sun Deck area behind the funnel is protected by wrap-around windscreens. This is also the place where you can reserve a deck chair for the length of your trip. The chairs are the aluminum and elastic contraptions that appear to have been put on the ship when she was first built. On a 6-day crossing you can reserve your very own chair for about $17. So if you don't want to fight for a chair by the pool this might be an option to consider although the chairs are packed in fairly tightly.
There is also a small bar tucked into the front of this area where bartender Anthony and the rest of the staff attend to your every need. This deck also serves as the helicopter landing area in the event that a passenger or crewmember needs to be airlifted from the ship.
The aft stairs take you down to the Boat Deck and the outdoor "Sports Centre". Incredibly modest by today's standards, the Sports Centre consists of a couple of shuffleboard courts, a paddle tennis court, a putting green and a net-covered square of astro-turf that serves as a golf driving range. If you are looking for rock climbing or an onboard roller-blade course, you are on the wrong ship.
What this area lacks in amenities though, it more than makes up with in atmosphere. A teak deck chair on the Boat Deck on QE2 is probably my most favorite place on any ship to curl up with a thick book and take in the passing sea. It reminds me of the crossings of my youth and is the perfect place to spend a day at sea. Unfortunately, due to QE2's limited deck space, this area can get crowded on a sunny day so it is best to stake out a chair early or wait until lunch or early afternoon to find that perfect spot.
The Royal Promenade shopping area takes up the aft area of the Boat Deck and despite it's regal sounding name, the block of shops looks like it could have been cut from any one of a thousand neighborhood shopping malls. As the shops extend forward they shrink what is left of the balcony area overlooking the Grand Lounge below into a narrow aisle which can be difficult to navigate when a show is in progress below.
Moving forward you pass by a number of Q-grade cabins that look out onto the promenade before arriving at the balcony of the theatre. While the understated decor of the theatre consists almost entirely of gold painted silhouettes on cream-colored walls, the sound quality is excellent and this is a great spot to take in a lecture or classical piano recital.
A meeting room, the Board Room, is located to the left of the Theatre while the Queens Grill Lounge is located on the right. One of the few public rooms with restricted access - you are supposed to be a Grill-class passenger for admittance - the Queens Grill Lounge occupies a long hallway that formerly served as the ships Coffee Shop. With tables and chairs spread out along the narrow length of the room, the room is not the most conducive place to get to know your fellow Grill-class passengers.
There is a small bar at the far end of the lounge right before the entrance to the Queens Grill Restaurant. The decor of the Queens Grill is subdued and formal, although the blond wood and gold accented ceiling keep the room from getting too serious. A central palm tree harkens back to the Palm Courts on the great Cunard liners of the past. Tables are tiered on three distinct levels, which ensures that everyone gets a chance to at least see their fellow Grill passengers. The tables on the outermost tier are situated below windows that look out onto the deck. While touted as the top restaurant on board, we prefer the ambience and service in the more intimate Princess Grill two decks below.
The forward portion of the next deck, the Upper Deck, is occupied by the Mauritania Restaurant, which is the only restaurant on board with two seatings. Here the decor is lighter, with blond woods and distinctive sunbursts etched in aluminum and glass throughout the restaurant. The red and green patterned rug gives the space a splash of color and large windows fill the room with sunlight during the day.
Moving aft from the restaurant brings you to the Crystal Bar, which is a popular destination to meet for cocktails before dinner or quiet piano music later in the evening. A series of back lighted glass panels featuring winged stallions dominates the large circular bar at the forward end of the room.
The lower level of the theatre occupies the midships portion of the Upper deck and is accessed via the indoor promenade running the length of the remainder of this deck. Past the theatre, the ship's Casino tumbles along the port side promenade. The Golden Lion Pub is situated just past the theatre on the starboard side of the ship. I was a bit skeptical the first time I heard that they had added pub to QE2 but when you see the place it turns out they actually did a pretty good job. The dark wood, hand drawn Carlsberg and Hardy's beer plus authentic Victorian-style decor make this a great place to relax or meet people after dinner. There is also nightly entertainment consisting of a solo guitarist or small groups of musicians.
The Photo Gallery is squeezed in between the Golden Lion Pub and the Grand Lounge. While the Grand Lounge is the largest public room used for entertainment, it cannot compare to the muli-level theatres found on many modern cruise ships. With the center of the Grand Lounge dominated by row upon row of red armchairs, the room appears to have been set up for some sort of corporate-wide meeting rather than a venue in which to enjoy a nightly show. More comfortable seating is located along the outer perimeter of the room but the view from those locations is often obstructed.
At one time - before the shops were wedged into the balcony of the deck above - this area was known as the Double-Down room and the upper and lower levels were connected by dual sweeping stairways. In that incarnation it worked much better with a central dance floor occupying the area directly in front of the bandstand. Now the stairways are gone and the Grand Lounge has become a room full of red chairs - lots of red chairs.
If you have had enough of the Grand Lounge you can continue your stroll aft which brings you to the Yacht Club, which is probably the most popular late-night spot on the ship. The entire club area was prefabricated in Hamburg, Germany in 1995 and added to the ship during her 25-day refit that year. As you might expect, the decor of the club is patterned after an elegant yacht with polished timber, stainless steel finishes, and a number of stretched fabric, sail-like panels attached to the room's bulkheads and the bar.
The Yacht Club's popularly as a late night destination on QE2 is no accident. During the 1995 refit, a new lighting system was installed throughout the public areas of the ship. This system is used to gradually dim the lighting beginning with the bars and lounges at the forward end of the ship. As the evening progresses, the lighting changes are designed to encourage passengers to move aft towards the Yacht Club and the Lido Restaurant below where the late night buffet is served.
The Lido, which is located on Quarter Deck, is well designed with dual buffet lines, a stand alone dessert/sandwich island and a number of specialty food tables during lunch. Make sure you walk around before getting into the buffet lines as you may find some of the more interesting foods elsewhere. The decor of the Lido is pleasant enough with cream-colored walls, green columns, tile floor, recessed lighting and sturdy tables and chairs. Unfortunately, it can get crowded and tables can be hard to find if you show up towards the end of mealtime. Another thing to note is that when they say "no shorts" during dinnertime, they mean it. We saw both seniors and young children turned away when they showed up wearing long shorts for alternative dinner dining.
Stairs from the back of the Lido, lead down to the Pavillion Grill and then out to the One Deck swimming pool. QE2's indoor and outdoor simming pools are even large enough to swim a few very short laps. Mens and womens showers are tucked in under the stairways on either side of the One Deck pool. Both the outdoor and indoor pools are filled with salt water and both are heated - a bit too warm in my opinion.
Exiting the Lido and moving forward brings you to the Queen's Room which serves as the central gathering spot for passengers on formal nights such as the Captain's Reception. It is also the place to be for those interested in dancing the night away.
Despite numerous refits over the year, with it's fluted columns and honeycombed ceiling the Queen's Room cannot escape it's 1960's roots. With the recent addition of high-back, blue velvet chairs, and dome lighting on the railing surrounding the dance floor, the room now appears to be the result of a collaboration between Martha Stewart and a group of retired NASA engineers.
If you are into dancing though, this is the place to be as there is nightly music by a visiting band or the ship's own orchestra. In addition, there are always a number of "gentleman hosts" for the ladies traveling solo, especially during the extended cruises that usually attract an older group of passengers.
The QE2 Library and Book Shop are located on the port side just past the Queen's Room. The Chart Room Bar is located on the starboard side. The library on QE2 is probably the largest at sea and includes a great selection of titles and an especially good collection of maritime related books. It's the perfect place to find that special book to read while relaxing in one of those teak deck chairs up on the Boat Deck. The Book Shop also has a great selection of books for sale plus assorted Cunard memorabilia and posters. As a special bonus, for $20 you can now buy one of the canvas bags that Cunard used to provide for free when you first arrived at your cabin.
While we may have issues with the decor of some of the other public rooms on QE2, we have no complaints about the Chart Room Bar. The nautical decor includes Caronia-green walls and chairs plus wood accents on the bar and ceiling. An illuminated 19th-century map of the Atlantic Ocean marked with winter and summer crossing routes dominates the wall behind the bar. A piano that was originally on board the original Queen Mary has been restored and serves as a centerpiece of the seating area to the side of the bar. The upper walls in this area feature a specially-commissioned calligraphic frieze by artist Brody Neuen-schwander. It is well worth taking a moment to gaze up and study the quotations by various authors about sailing and crossing the oceans.
As you walk forward towards the main stairwell, you pass the table with the community jigsaw puzzle for your particular cruise. Although I rarely see anyone actively working on the puzzle, it always seems to get done by the end of the cruise.
Along back wall of the stairwell is a beautifully restored 14 ft. model of the Mauritania of 1907. In addition to this model, there is a wide variety of Cunard memorabilia and ephemera displayed throughout the ship as part of the Cunard Heritage Trail.
Moving forward, brings you to the Caronia Restaurant, which is the largest of the single seating dining rooms. At other points in the ship's history this area has also served as the tourist-class dining room and the tourist-class dining room was the first-class dining room. Don't ask.
In it's present incarnation, the decor of the Caronia Restaurant attempts to recreate the glory days of transatlantic travel with dark wood paneling on the walls and flowing Murano glass chandeliers suspended from a white ceiling. A mural of the English countryside takes up one of the room's interior walls and a split staircase provides diners with the opportunity to make a grand entrance. There is not much space between the tables so getting to your table when the place is full can be an exercise - literally - as you twist and turn to navigate your way through the maze. The outside tables are situated beside large windows that provide a nice view of the passing scenery during breakfast and lunch.
The two smaller grill restaurants, the Britannia Grill and Princess Grill are located on either side forward of the Caronia restaurant. The main entrance to both is via a staircase from the deck above. While the Princess Grill was the original top-end restaurant on QE2 as the Grill Room, the Britannia Grill was added more recently. As such, the Princess Grill has a small bar hidden one deck below which is connected to the main dining level by a spiral staircase. This area now serves as a Champagne Bar and is open to the all passengers.
Both of these restaurants are more intimate than the other venues on the ship, each seating only 100 passengers. The layout of each restaurant is similar with small groups of tables seperated by low partitions. The bench seating against the back wall and some of the partitions looks out on floor to ceiling windows. The combination of original red velvet chairs and burgundy carpet combined with light wood accents works well to give the Princess grill a formal yet comfortable feel. Two large statues of a man and women rising from the sea dominate each end of the room. The layout of the Britannia Grill is similar although blue is the dominant color here.
Internet access from QE2 is available through the Computer Learning Center on Two Deck. The charge is $.95 per minute but you can compose your e-mails or attachments on the computers at no charge prior to connecting to the web.
The Medical Center and Fitness Center are located on Six Deck and Seven Deck respectively and can be accessed via Stairway C. The Fitness Center is relatively modest by today's standards and is noisy and very hot (it is located just above the engine room). There are a number of Cybex machines plus three treadmills and three stair stepping machines. An indoor pool is located on this level between the weight room and the aerobics floor. It is fairly good sized for a pool on a ship and is rarely crowded so you might want to check it out if you are looking for someplace to swim laps without bumping into people.
The QE2 Spa is located on Six Deck and is accessible via Stairway F. This is where you go for massage and other spa treatments including thalasso-therapy - which looks like a jumbo Jacuzzi to me.
Where you sit for meals and where you sleep at night are linked, as the cabin you select will determine the restaurant you are assigned.
Just how much more selection does a diner in the Caronia (first class) restaurant have, over those in the two sitting Mauretania (tourist class)? Well, both have four hors d'oeuvre choices, although caviar will be served in Caronia. You will have a choice of three soups in both restaurants and five entreés in tourist versus six in first class. After dinner you will have an extra choice of dessert in Caronia.
Though there are separate kitchens for these restaurants, and the cooking style is supposed to be similar, in reality the quality and presentation of the food varies widely. Also, the service in both restaurants can be dicey, ranging from fantastic to totally inept.
On our most recent trip, there was a mysterious shortage of menus in the Caronia Restaurant. On more than one evening, we sat at the table for ten minutes or more, imagining what might be served that night before our waiter was able to secure menus for the table. As passengers seemed to wander in at all times throughout dinner the staff was rushed and never seemed to settle down to a comfortable pace. Little things that I found disappointing include plastic water pitchers, generic silverware and a lack of table-side flambé service which is available in the Grill restaurants.
On a transatlantic sailing, there's a hefty price difference between the most expensive Mauretania graded cabin and the least expensive Caronia digs making it difficult for some to justify the cost difference of booking a Caronia grade cabin. Our recommendation is to do so if at all possible because it may just end up being the difference between having an enjoyable crossing on a classic liner and wondering why you paid so much to sleep in a closet.
The Princess and Britannia Grills, located between the first class kitchen and the Caronia Restaurant, are favored among travelers in the know because they offer quiet and seclusion and are a little less stuffy than the Queen's Grill. The food and service in all three grill rooms are, for the most part, on par with any of the top end restaurants found on smaller more exclusive ships.
While we were a bit disappointed with our most recent experience in the Caronia restaurant, we have nothing but praise for the quality of food and service in the Princess Grill. One of the benefits of dining in the Grill restaurants is the possibility that you might end up with one of the few remaining Cunard veteran waiters. On our most recent cruise we ran into Michael Hays, our Princess Grill waiter of twelve years ago. He has been on board for more than 25 years and is both a consummate professional and a link back to the days when Cunard was British.
One annoyance that you'll find on a Cunard Queen's Grill dinner menu is the suggested bottles of wine (often at absurdly high prices). Though almost all cruise lines print a suggested wine, most have the courtesy of printing them off to the side in a corner of the menu. But Cunard sticks them in bold print in between food selections. From a menu we sampled two years ago, we note that had we enjoyed a bottle of the recommended white wine and red wine and two glasses of dessert wine, we would have spent in just one meal $110.00!!! And these wines could be purchased at your local liquor store for no more than $30.00!
For those in search of a more casual atmosphere, the Lido offers typical cruise ship breakfast, lunch and midnight buffets. You'll find burgers and such at the Pavilion, one deck below by the outdoor pool.
The room service menu is quite extensive and the quality of the food was very good. You may not always get enough flatware if you order for more than one person but for some reason that seems to be a universal room service problem and not just a problem for Cunard.
There were literally hundreds of QE2 veterans on our most recent cruise, as many as 800 sailing on the full 21 day round trip from Southampton - New York - Bermuda - New York - Southampton. Many had been on the ship 20 or more times and there were quite a few that had sailed on her during her maiden season. Almost all agreed that service has declined since the Carnival takeover of Cunard in 1998 and listed automatic gratuities and the introduction of measured drinks as two of their top peeves. According to some staff, the recent change of automatically adding the tips to passengers onboard accounts (which passengers can adjust by visiting the Pursers Office) has actually reduced the overall amount of money the crew members make on each voyage.
Choosing a cabin on the QE2 is a difficult task. Even within the same restaurant grade there are so many variables to consider. The cabins range in size from 99 to 765 square feet, not counting connecting en suite cabins. And of course, the higher up you go, the more amenities you'll find in a cabin.
If at all possible, try to get your hands on one of the old QE2 deck plans that show the details of each cabin to help you make your cabin choice. There are so many different shapes AND sizes within the same category that you could really end up being disappointed if you leave the decision to someone who does not have experience with this ship.
If you do your homework you will find that there are lower priced cabins that are actually larger than higher priced cabins because of their location. Recently, while sailing in Caronia class our cabin (4005) at 212 sq ft was almost as large as the Princess Grill cabin we had paid twice as much for years earlier.
On that same trip, I met a dentist and his wife that had booked through a travel agent who had assured them that their Caronia grade cabin would be the same as the one they had honeymooned in a few years earlier. Well, while the cabin was technically in the same category - C1 - the configuration was such that the beds were fixed on opposite sides of the room and much of space consisted of a long hallway. The wife told me she sat on the bed and cried the first night because there was nothing they could do about it. Once again, it pays to do your homework or book through someone who has experience with this ship.
All cabins have televisions, hairdryers and phones although a fair number only have two power outlets available. For most people this may not be a problem but it may require some equipment swapping if you bring a laptop or need to recharge the batteries for your camera.
For passengers who have elected to travel in a "Mauretania" grade, the two grades of inside two bedded cabins and the least expensive outside cabin are about 121 square feet each, a bit cozy for ships of today. All Mauretania grades and the least expensive Caronia cabins have a shower, the rest of the cabins have tubs as well. Double cabins in the Caronia grade are just short of 200 square feet and larger.
There is plenty of room in the deluxe cabins, whose occupants will dine in any of the Grills. These rooms contain double or two bedded quarters starting at almost 260 square feet giving you tons of room to relax. All but one of the cabins up on Sun and Signal Decks have a balcony - not a feature that would get guaranteed use on the Atlantic run. As well, these cabins have butler service, a gaggle of additional amenities not offered to the others, and room service prepared by the chefs in the Queens Grill.
A six-day winter crossing in one of these cabins, including port tax and gratuities is $16,560.00 per couple.... that's just $2,760.00 a day!!! Well, at least that also covers your one-way trip by air between London and New York - but it's economy class!
Quoted from an old Cunard manual..."When sailing on QE2, they are more than passengers...they are ladies and gentlemen...genteel, refined, civilized". Well, we won't dispute that, but QE2 also caters to those who simply won't fly across the Atlantic, as well as families relocating to other continents and Europe bound tourists taking advantage of attractive stand by fares and of course, plenty of the aforementioned ship lovers eager to squint their eyes and pretend to relive the past.
Many of QE2's shorter cruises depart from England, so it follows that they'll be heavily trafficked by Brits as well. Some sailings from New York, just a few days in length, are popular with first timers and those seeking to get away from the city for a while. The world cruise gets an ever dwindling number of "regulars" while the segmented parts of that trip attract all manners of voyagers.
Year in, year out, the QE2 sprinkles transatlantic sailings among cruises varying from three to 104 days in length. In January, she leaves on her world cruise, returning to North America in April. A number of times each year she cruises from New York to the Caribbean, Bermuda or New England depending on the season. From Southampton, once again dependent on the time of year, she makes trips to the Mediterranean, Scandinavia and the Canaries.
When QUEEN MARY 2 entered service in 2004, QE2's regular transatlantic service ended. She still does an occasional crossing but most of the time she is sailing out of Southampton catering primarily to the UK market.
If you've sailed on her and love her, good for you!!! Enjoy! If you haven't taken her, and are considering a cruise, then be careful - there's not enough deck space for everyone, and there are wildly varying levels of cabins, service and quality of cuisine.
If you're looking for a blast from the past, and can get a deal on a transatlantic crossing, go for it. Keep in mind though, on QE2 more so than on any other ship, the higher cabin grade you go for, the better off you'll be.
For more pictures of QE2, check out the following photo galleries:
QE2 Deck Scenes
QE2 Public Rooms - Part I
QE2 Public Rooms - Part II
QE2 Exterior Shots
QE2 Caronia Cabin Shots
To learn more about QE2, check out one of these books from Amazon.com:
QE2/the Cunard Line Flagship, Queen Elizabeth 2
QE2 : Cunard's Flagship
QE2 Queen Elizabeth 2 Cookbook
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