This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at Cunard's plans to return to a three-ship fleet and the differences between Cunard and the other mass-market cruise lines.
The Three Queens
"The Cunard Line will make maritime history on January 13, 2008, as its newest ocean liner, Queen Victoria, departs New York simultaneously with Cunard's esteemed ocean liner, QE2, for their world cruise voyages".
So in 2007 Cunard will have a three-vessel fleet once again. They have not had this since 2004 when the charming Caronia was sold to UK's Saga Cruises to sail as 'Saga Ruby'.
While Cunard will indeed have three ships in their fleet in 2008 I must take issue with the claim that Queen Victoria will be an "ocean liner". While the marketing folks can claim that she is an "ocean liner", the reality is that she will be a cruise ship. Her design is based on the Carnival developed Vista-class of ship of which there are many. Unlike a true liner, she will not be built for the rigors of the North Atlantic, high speeds or line voyages.
Over the past several years, Carnival has used the Vista-class design to meet the new build demands of their many cruise brands. The current Carnival, HAL, Costa, and P&O fleets each have at least one Vista-class vessel, which suggests a lack of imagination on the part of parent company Carnival - but more about that in a future "Cruise Views".
Looking at the current Cunard fleet, I must admit that for at least five years now I have been saying that Queen Elizabeth 2 is at the end of her life. After all she's 37 years old now and has sailed more than 5.3 million nautical miles - that's more than any ship in history. While I seem to have been wrong about the fate of Queen Elizabeth 2 so far, with each passing year I am nearer to being right.
I'm sure that if pressed on the matter of Queen Elizabeth 2's retirement, Cunard would say that they plan to continue operating Queen Elizabeth 2 as long as she is profitable. Queen Elizabeth 2 has certainly had more multi-million dollar refits than any ship afloat. In fact ten times her original building costs have been reinvested in her.
As a result, she's in very good condition, but surely she will reach a point in the near future when her maintenance costs escalate beyond those of the income generated. In addition she may loose some of her appeal as she begins to feel outdated in terms of accommodation and facilities. For example, some of her cabins are little bigger than the dog kennels on board Queen Mary 2.
When Queen Mary 2 replaced Queen Elizabeth 2 on the 'classic' Transatlantic run in 2004, I figured at the time that once Queen Mary 2 had been established for maybe a year, Queen Elizabeth 2 would be withdrawn. However both ships have been operating together, be it on different itineraries, for more than two years now. I was wrong again!
My latest speculation is that the Queen Victoria is Queen Elizabeth 2's replacement. Under this scenario, Queen Mary 2 will continue to specialize in the transatlantic cruises. After all, she is a real 'Ocean Liner' built for the North Atlantic passage, and QV will be dedicated to cruising. However I do not have any inside knowledge and I've been wrong before.
I find it hard to imagine Cunard would allow another cruise line to buy and operate the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2. I also am not convinced about speculation that she will become a floating hotel/museum. Floating hotels do not tend to be very successful.
Take for example the original and beautiful Queen Mary, which has struggled in Long Beach over the years with issues of profitability, maintenance and renovation. In addition, any hotel or museum ship in the UK will be exposed to the wet British climate will probably deteriorate very quickly. Of course the alternative to a floating hotel is almost unthinkable.
If you have never cruised with Cunard, it is certainly an experience. The whole on board ambience is steeped in tradition and is more formal than the mass-market cruise lines. Cunard have a very loyal following and many of the passengers have a very keen interest in maritime history. In fact the corridors of the vessels are lined with maritime artifacts and oil paintings of past Cunard ships.
Regular passengers love dressing for dinner in tuxedos and evening gowns. They are more than happy to line-up by the hundreds to meet the Captain's during his welcome aboard cocktail party. Much of the entertainment is more highbrow that you will find on other ships including: Oxford University lecturers, Shakespeare on stage and ICT workshops. There is not a belly-flop competition in sight.
Interestingly, Cunard has the only ships at sea that still maintain a rigid class-structure for dining. Only us British could preserve such an archaic concept. However, for Cunard such tradition is a unique selling point.
Queen Elizabeth 2 has four grades of dining, hence four separate dining rooms: Mauritania (Basic) Caronia, Princess Grill and Queens Grill (up-scale). The dining grade is linked to your cabin grade/fare. The 'Mauritania' dining room is the largest and not a particularly attractive room. In contrast, the 'Grills' are intimate rooms with a high level of service and fine food.
Some members of our Cruise Talk forum have suggested that the Cunard product is overpriced. In particular, the accommodation, food and service in the 'Mauritania (M) grade' have been described as poor to mediocre. My problem with the Cunard 'grading' system is that it gives them the perfect excuse to use junior waiters, inexperienced Chefs and second-rate ingredients in the 'Mauritania' dining room. (If the waiters excel for example, they get promoted to the 'Caronia' grade and above).
If you complain about the M-grade, someone will tell you that you should have paid for a higher grade. However, you probably pay more for Cunard's 'M' grade than on any mass-market ship, which often offer higher standards of food and accommodation. While M-grade on Queen Elizabeth 2 has its fair share of detractors, almost everyone agrees that the Caronia grade is very good and the Grills are excellent, although very expensive.
On a ship with one class dining (just about all other ships) there is every incentive to keep the standards of food and service high for all guests, irrespective of the size of their cabin or bank balance, for that matter.
In Cunard's defense, I have found the basic dining grade on board Queen Mary 2, the 'Britannia' to be excellent in term of both food and service. The dining room is absolutely stunning and is reminiscent of the original Queen Mary's decor. It is much more attractive than Queen Mary 2's two Grill class dining rooms. Likewise her accommodation ranges from good to breathtaking.
Cunard have got it right on Queen Mary 2.