Mr W and I recently returned from the most wonderful of holidays, cruising the Norwegian Fjords in style, aboard Cunard’s flagship liner, the Queen Mary 2. Built primarily for transatlantic crossings, but doing her fair share of other voyages (including a 3 month world voyage every year), the QM2 is not a cruise ship per se, but rather an ocean liner, although on board she offers the absolute best in luxury and entertainment. Along with her sister ships, the Queen Victoria and the Queen Elizabeth,and her predecessor the Queen Elizabeth 2, she provides what some would say are the most elegant and refined cruising holidays available. I’d challenge anyone not to be blown away by at least something about our holiday experience – whether the service, the constant and varied entertainment, the stunning scenery, or simply the sheer scale of the QM2 herself.
I could blog for hours about the cruising experience – the nightly theatre shows, dancing in ‘the largest ballroom at sea’, the wonderful views from our balcony as we cruised the Fjords (the sailing out of Geirangersfjord being particularly noteworthy and one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life), sitting in the hot tub on deck as we sailed, enjoying Cunard’s unique ‘White Star Service’ and lots more besides – but this is, after all, a food blog, and one of the biggest areas of appeal to me in booking the holiday was the food and drink experience on board. I wasn’t disappointed!
All three Cunard liners operate what is effectively a class system on board, perhaps loosely similar to First, Business and Economy, which governs the restaurant to which you are allocated. The majority of the staterooms on board allow passengers to take breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Britannia restaurant, an awesome feat not only of design and engineering, but of pure logistics as well – with around 1800 people dining every night in two sittings. One of the entertainment highlights of our visit was a walk-through tour of the main galley, where you can see first hand the scale of the operation behind the scenes to ensure that everyone in the Britannia restaurant is fed efficiently every day. Some of the numbers – for example 1500 eggs per day, and 50 tonnes of fruit and vegetables for a 6 day cruise – were truly mind blowing, and I would be fascinated to learn more about how the actual service, as well as the food preparation, is managed. Britannia passengers also have the opportunity to take afternoon tea in the Queen’s Room – the ship’s main ballroom. We looked at the Britannia menu on several occasions, and it was certainly quite appealing, given the mass catering that is inevitably taking place. Mr W has eaten in there on a previous voyage and said that the food was very good. One of the things that put me off this dining option, however, was the two sittings – 6.30 and 8.30. We don’t like to rush or be rushed when eating, so this wouldn’t have worked for me, and I’m pretty sure I would have been late every night! Diners can choose (at the beginning of their holiday) to have a table on their own, or to share with other diners, up to a group size of 8. Once you’ve been allocated to your table, you are stuck with it for the rest of the week – although I am pretty sure in extreme cases you could ask to move, but you’d need to be prepared for accusing looks from the people you’d moved away from! There is also a Britannia Club restaurant – a bit like a Premium Economy option!
The other grades of accommodation are the Grill Suites. Princess Grill suites, of which we had one, are effectively junior suites – not large by hotel standards, but very spacious by cruise ship standards. We had a balcony, a closet/dressing room area, a small lounge area and an impressive amount of storage space (I suppose unsurprising when you consider for some world cruisers, this could be their home for up to three months!) Some people just love the ship and the cruising experience so much that they’re happy with whatever room is on offer, using it only as a place to sleep. For me, however, the balcony was really important, especially with the voyage we chose being one of the more scenic ones. I also appreciated having somewhere to sit and relax in our room, rather than either having to lie on the bed or go and sit in one of the communal areas. At the top of the ‘food chain’ (literally!) are the Queen’s Grill suites, some of which are duplexes with multiple bathrooms and look to be truly amazing – with prices to match. Grill passengers each have their own restaurant – the Princess Grill and the Queen’s Grill. There are no split sittings, and you can dine any time from 6.30 p.m. through to 9 p.m. You can also opt (before you travel) to share a table. We decided it would be interesting to meet some fellow travellers and opted for a table of 6, but only one other couple ever turned up! We were very lucky with the company we had, and couldn’t help but wonder if there’s more to the seating allocation than just a random selection as we seemed to have been matched up very well with our fellow diners. The only downside of the single seating is that you may find yourself arriving at the table just as the other diners are on their dessert, but this wasn’t a problem for us or for them, and meant we had the best of both worlds – company sometimes, and time on our own at others.
The menus in the Grill restaurants are similar, but with a few added extras in the Queen’s Grill, such as Chateaubriand – and a genuinely ‘on demand’ service, where you can walk in and ask for whatever you desire to be prepared for you there and then! Queen’s and Princess Grill passengers can take afternoon tea in the Queen’s Grill Lounge, a more intimate venue than the ballroom, but without the live entertainment (often a harpist, string quartet or pianist) that is on offer there. Finally, there is an exclusive Grills Terrace, with its own hot tub.
You could, if you wish, take all three meals of the day in your allocated restaurant. We ate dinner in the Princess Grill every night – and the food and service in there will be the subject of a dedicated blog entry coming up later this week! We lunched in there several times, but on the days that we ate afternoon tea, having lunch as well would have been too much! Afternoon tea certainly deserves a mention, with a small army of white-gloved waiters dancing attendance with pots of fresh leaf tea and plates of finger sandwiches, mini open-faced sandwiches, mini cakes and, to finish, a separate individual plate with a scone, jam and cream. I loved having the tea served, rather than being brought over in one go on a cake stand, as is generally the case at home.
Unfortunately, we never made it to breakfast in the restaurant (we’re not morning people, despite a rather rude awakening from the Commodore on ‘port’ days, announcing our arrival over the tannoy at a very ungodly hour!) but we heard that the Eggs Benedict was particularly good! Instead, we ordered breakfast in the room each morning – always very good, but it took a few days for us to get our ordering right so that the items on the tick list actually came in the right combination on the right plates. For the first couple of mornings, the number of separate plates we received must have made it appear that we were having some sort of breakfast party in our suite! On the breakfast menu, as with many other places on the ship, a strong American influence was felt (probably around 50% of the QM2’s passengers are American, although not on this particular voyage), with numerous ‘fat free’ options on offer, and – my personal favourite – American crispy bacon, which went down very well with both of us (alongside pancakes and maple syrup in Mr W’s case, and the more traditional eggs in my own!)
For those passengers who don’t want to dine in their allocated restaurant for every meal, the QM2 offers numerous other dining options – and of course, the option on ‘port’ days to go on shore and eat, although with Norwegian food and drink prices, combined with the fact that the food on board is delicious and all-inclusive, we limited ourselves to drinks only when we explored the ports of call (Stavanger, Alesund, Geiranger and Bergen – if you’re interested!) I’m pleased to report that what they say about prices in Norway is true, having paid around £17 for a small glass of house wine and half a lager in one particular bar!
Supposedly the best on board is the Todd English restaurant, which takes bookings, and is subject to a cover charge of $30 per head for dinner and $20 for lunch. Todd English is a well-known American chef and the food is supposed to be fantastic. I can imagine that if you are eating in the Britannia each night, this would make a lovely treat once during the week, but we were enjoying the food and service so much in the Princess Grill that we didn’t feel the need to make a booking. We did check out the menu, but found it to be extremely focused on the American market, with – horror of horrors – one of the desserts featuring Nutella, and a bizarre-sounding dish called “Todd’s Love Letters”, which was a bit twee for my liking! This really didn’t seem in keeping with what purports to be a fine dining experience for me, so I was not unhappy that we gave it a miss!
There are a few other eateries on board and I can understand why people say you need to take clothes with an elasticated waistband with you on a cruise holiday. The King’s Court is a self-service buffet restaurant during the day and late at night, with a carvery, Chinese buffet, burgers, self-service ice cream a la Pizza Hut, and just about anything else you could imagine. This, to me, felt a little bit like being in a BHS cafeteria or similar – unfortunately, we kept finding ourselves having to walk through the King’s Court on the way to our restaurant (I never did quite grasp the layout of the ship!) and I was never very impressed, although I can imagine if you were travelling with children, or just on a longer voyage where you couldn’t face three courses every single day, it could be a nice occasional option to have what you fancy, when you fancy it. In the evening, it offers table service and a choice of Italian, Chinese or British carvery – each with a $10 cover charge. There is also the Chef’s Galley, where diners can watch their food being prepared, and the Golden Lion pub, which serves – unsurprisingly – British pub-style lunches.
Drinking options are also numerous, with a range of different bars, including the aforementioned Golden Lion, Sir Samuel’s Wine Bar (named after Sir Samuel Cunard), a Veuve Cliquot champagne bar, the Chart Room bar, casino bar, ballroom, G32 night club (home to one of the most appalling DJs I’ve ever experienced!), and our favourite, the Commodore Club, at the front of the ship, near the top, with impressive views and an even more impressive cocktail menu featuring numerous selections developed by Cunard’s own mixologists, which I worked my way through over the course of the week. It also has Churchill’s Cigar Lounge next door – a popular venue with smokers on board (I never saw anyone actually smoke a cigar in there though!) Favourite cocktail for me was the Bagheera – fresh ginger, fresh basil, vanilla syrup, Grey Goose vodka, all topped up with ginger beer. I also tried one of their ‘Molecular’ drinks, a Molecular Cosmopolitan, which came with a very thick, almost blancmange like froth piped onto the top. It looked good, and was innovative, but was very difficult to drink, and not really an improvement on the classic!
Most of the bars would offer complimentary canapés with your drinks. Unfortunately, although all meals are included on board, sadly drinks are not – and the prices were as you would expect with a captive audience. All in dollars, cocktails ranged from around $7 up to £11 (or much more with the luxury range of spirits!) and wine started at around $30 a bottle, again ranging up to much more expensive if you so desire. All of the food and beverage venues are cashless – you just swipe your card (which doubles as your room key and your passport on and off the boat when it port), so it’s very easy to lose track of what you are spending – but hey, it’s holiday money, it doesn’t count!
Back soon with a blog all about our Princess Grill dining experience.