Queen Mary 2 – Southampton to Dubai January 2015
This is a review of the first leg of the QM2 world voyage 2015 from Southampton to Dubai. As there are already reviews that deal with the delayed departures and changes to the itinerary, I have focused this review on three other themes that I hope readers will find informative when considering a cruise, or should I say voyage, on Queen Mary 2:
1. Is Queen Mary 2 a good warm weather cruise ship?
2. Does the Queen Mary 2 deliver the Cunard brand promise?
3. How, in my experience, does the Cunard service we received compare with other main stream cruise brands
This was our first long cruise with Cunard, but having had a very good experience on Queen Elizabeth last year, we were looking forward to this first leg of the 2015 world cruise and the transit of the Suez Canal in particular. The weather for the first half was not very kind to us and the second half was spoiled by disruption at the Suez Canal which delayed the ship and resulted in Aqaba being missed and all of the Suez Canal transit taking place at night. The main feature of the cruise, for us, was lost and we ended up with 9 consecutive days at sea. Whilst recognising that this was all beyond Cunard’s control, it was a big disappointment.
We visited Muscat in Oman as an alternative to Aqaba, which for me was a very enjoyable substitute. The visit to Muscat became the highlight of the cruise as we took a wonderful local taxi for a 4.5 hour tour for five of us for €120, a real bargain and an amazing day’s visit. Captain Wells did a good job of keeping us informed about our progress, or lack of it, as we waited at anchor off Port Said and throughout the voyage. He must have been as frustrated as the rest of us but be maintained a good sense of humour throughout.
Overall we were disappointed with QM2. Whilst she is a very capable liner, something we were grateful for on the rough days at sea, she is nowhere near as elegant as Queen Elizabeth and is clearly showing her age in many ways. QM2 is a very large ship with lots of space but in many ways has very little room in the popular public rooms such as bars and entertainment venues. It was frequently difficult or impossible to get a seat at popular events unless you arrived 30+ minutes early.
I felt that the Cunard cruise experience is not up with the premium competition in many areas of service and product quality. In reality it is increasingly difficult to differentiate the Cunard product from the traditional P & O ships like Aurora and in some areas my experience of P&O is better, especially for dinner in the main dining rooms.
Based on my recent experience, QM2 falls some way short of Celebrity Cruises for the overall cruise experience whereas I felt that Queen Elizabeth, whilst different to Celebrity, offered a comparable premium cruise experience.
Accepting that QM2 is a grand liner, I do not feel that she is a good warm weather cruise ship and, at times, the overall atmosphere on board could best be described as dull. To be fair this may, in part, be down to the passenger profile attracted to this leg of the cruise. With only about 10% of the passengers doing the full world cruise, this was really just a point to point cruise to Dubai with over 90% of the passengers being British. One of the big issues for me is the limited opportunity to eat in the open air and the upper decks, whilst very roomy, lack any ambiance and many areas were closed off on sea days because of strong winds over the decks.
Whilst we had an enjoyable holiday, we were disappointed with changes to the itinerary, QM2 and the overall cruise experience. I do not believe that what we experienced lived up to the Cunard marketing promises neither did it compare favourably with other premium cruise lines.
The Review in Detail
We had been looking for a cruise through the Suez Canal and into some winter warmth so the first leg of Queen Mary 2’s world cruise (or is it a voyage?) from Southampton to Dubai looked to fit the bill very well. This is our third time on QM2, but it is a few years since the last time we were on her and she has had a refurbishment during that time.
We drove to Heathrow on Friday the 9th January and parked our car ready for our return flight from Dubai. West Quay Cars picked us up for the rest of the journey to Southampton and an overnight stay in the Premier Inn West Quay meant that we had plenty of time before our allotted check in time of 14.30.
Check In and First Impressions
We arrived at the QEII terminal at the appointed hour to find an enormous queue zig zagging outside the terminal. Check in and embarkation was nothing short of appalling, quite the worst we have ever experienced in over 30 cruises. We were standing in lines for 1 hour and 45 mins even though we had arrived at the requested time.
There were no signs to indicate where to go, very few seats and no coffee or beverages available and most of the queue was outside the terminal in January! There were only a few officious staff “guiding” you. When one fellow guest asked why it was taking so long to check in she was told “it is the world cruise you know”.
When we finally got to the check in desk, the check in process was little different to any other cruise. The one difference was that we were told that the ship would keep our passports.
The check in staff made us feel very uncomfortable when we asked for a receipt for the passports. The check in person had to go and find some receipts as “most people do not want one”. Every guidance I have ever seen says you should never hand your passport over without a receipt.
Having got our sea passes it was back into another long line for security, still no seats and no refreshments and some less able guests were clearly suffering discomfort.
I was left wondering how Cunard could get this process so badly wrong on their prestigious world cruise. Royal Caribbean regularly embark many more guests much more quickly and with minimal queues and fuss. We are regularly on board their ships in 20 to 30 Minutes.
Departure activities were not well notified and the band on the quay was spoilt by all the cranes and fork lift trucks, you could hardly hear the band and our balcony was just above them.
Queen Mary 2
This is our third time on QM2 and there is no doubting the fact that she is a very impressive ship that stands out from the crowd and makes a grand statement of her presence. Being a traditional ocean liner, she has very good sea keeping capabilities, as we found on our first two days. Her stabilizers do a great job of reducing roll, but any ship will pitch somewhat in 10 meter seas. At no time was the ride uncomfortable, all the more impressive given that she was maintaining an average speed of 23 knots. This probably should not be a surprise as QM2 was designed for the Atlantic crossings, but I wonder how well suited her design is to warm weather cruising as we pass through the Suez Canal and approach the Indian Ocean. We have never experienced her in these hot and sunny conditions before.
Queen Mary 2 is a long rather than tall ship, by comparison with many modern cruise ships, although she does still have 14 decks. The length of the ship can be a challenge but the design incorporates 4 major stair and lift wells with around 22 different passenger lifts serving various combinations of decks. This makes vertical movement within the ship very easy at all but the very busiest times such as embarkation and after a major show.
One down side that we encountered a number of times is that many of the bars and lecture venues do not seem to be large enough to cope with the demand. Getting a seat for a drink around 20.00 can be very challenging and we tried to get a seat for a couple of the insight lectures and found there to be standing room only up to 30 minutes before the scheduled start.
Our cabin, on deck 5, was well presented, nice and bright and airy and the sheltered balcony was much larger than some of the usual glass balconies. Given the weather and rough seas on the first two days we were glad to be down on deck 5 and the sheltered balcony worked well on some of the windy days in warmer weather when some decks were closed off… We chose deck 5 as there are cabins above and below us and we usually find this makes for a nice peaceful location. We had been warned that deck 6 suffered from noise from the promenade deck above, something our table guests confirmed. One down sides of our cabin was that the stewards service area was almost opposite so they were clattering glasses and other items on and off trolleys most afternoons.
Having used the bed for a couple of nights we started to realise that it was not as comfortable as on other recent cruises. I think this is because there does not seem to be any strength in the edge of the mattress and you tend to roll out of bed. There is, however, good storage under the bed for at least 4 suitcases.
There is good wardrobe storage space and the bathroom, whilst traditional in layout, with a shower curtain rather than screen, works reasonably well. The shower cubicle is of a good size so the curtain was not as much of a pest as on some other ships although it was not the high quality “waffle” curtains that we have experienced on Cunard in the past and it was too short so water got out of the shower tray to wet the bathroom floor.
The cabin layout is traditional, that is to say that you enter between the bathroom and the wardrobe. The bed is next to the bath room so the small seating area is next to the door to the balcony. This, for me, is a much better layout than having the bed next to the balcony door. The enclosed balcony is of a good size but the two chairs and small table are quite basic by modern standards. On the positive side, there are no overhanging decks or obstructions to block out the sun.
One point to note for the ladies, the hair dryer provided is, I am reliably informed, next to useless as it is so under powered.
Staff overall are very smart, friendly and reasonably efficient, but some lack the skills and experience that we remember from past voyages with Cunard. One noticeable difference was the Sommeliers who seemed to have little special wine knowledge and were nothing more than drinks waiters. Some Cunard “Veterans” (those with over 5 years; service with Cunard) were especially helpful and proficient and very proud of the company they worked for. On our last Cunard cruise we noticed the truly international mix of staff, this now seems to have been overtaken by a predominance of Asian staff.
Britannia Main Dining Room
The entrance into the Britannia Dining Room is very grand and the room is well furnished, if a little dark at times owing to the dark wood. We had an OK table for 6 on deck 2, the lower deck of the dining room. We had 4 enjoyable table colleagues so conversation was brisk. The menu was ok but nothing special, on some nights I was struggling to find something that appealed, but on a few nights I found it hard to decide what to have. This was possibly not helped by the fact that I do not eat fish and there is no “Always Available” menu to fall back on. The dining room service was, however, poor at dinner as our allocated waiters seemed to lack experience, often forgetting what we had ordered. At no time during the cruise did any head waiter or Maire’d check that our service was as expected.
The Britannia Dining Room is a good venue for a relaxing breakfast or lunch, but they seem to have a problem getting food to you at the right temperature.
Kings Court is probably the worst buffet layout we have experienced on any ship. There are 4 separate service areas spread over about a quarter of the length of deck 7. Whilst many items are on multiple service areas, the daily specials are usually only on one (stir fry dish, pasta of the day, roast of the day) so you have to walk around all 4 sections to see the full range of options. After recent experiences with Celebrity buffets, the Queen Mary 2 buffet is a disappointment in terms of choice, ease of service and seating environment, although the hot food that is available, especially the daily specials, is usually well cooked and served at the appropriate temperature. We had a number of enjoyable meals in Kings Court so that we could select what we wanted and get it at the right temperature. There are however few window seats and they are hard to obtain, the other seating is rather drab and dark. There is no outside seating for the buffet.
There are some nice touches in the buffet like a choice of juices, tea and coffee available 24 hours. Early light breakfast starts at 04.00 for those who cannot sleep and there is soft scoop ice cream available for most of the day. It is a shame that there is not a bit more variety in some of the choices, especially as we were on board for 20 days. For example, the ice cream was always vanilla or chocolate, the muffins were always the same two choices and the salad selection lacked variety.
We like to try alternative dining so we searched out all the options and had a look at what was on offer in each. There are a number of alternative options for lunch and dinner.
The main alternative Restaurant is Todd English which is located at the stern on deck 8. We tried this on our last voyage on QM2 and were not that impressed. I believe that The Veranda on Queen Elizabeth is a much better option. Maybe Cunard will bring that to QM2 one day. We did not book there this voyage as the current menu is very fish biased, something that I do not eat. That having been said, some other passengers we spoke to enjoyed a meal in Todd English.
Little Opportunity to dine al fresco
A big disappointment on Queen Mary 2 is the lack of opportunity to dine outside in the sunny warm weather. There is the Boardwalk cafe which opened lunch time but that is rather basic with burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches. Some basic salad items, a few desserts and beverages complete the offer. On the first sunny day, there were far too few seats available. By most other ship standards this is a very basic facility, especially when you consider that it is not easy to take meals from the buffet outside. Both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth offer a much better opportunity to dine al fresco.
There are some tables and chairs outside Todd English so we thought that lunch out there might be rather pleasant, however, they do not serve outside as those tables are reserved for smokers. What a waste of a great dining opportunity, especially as the buffet in Kings Court is on deck 7 and therefore has no outside seating either. I am sure this is not an issue on trans-Atlantic voyages but it does not make QM2 a very good warm weather cruise ship for those who enjoy al fresco dining on warm sunny days.
Kings Court Alternative Dining
Most evenings saw one of the sections of the Kings Court transformed into a waiter service alternative dining venue with four different themes, each of which runs for 3 or 4 nights on rotation. The staff do their best to hide the buffet service areas and the table settings and service were very good and different for each theme.
Lotus – Asian
We did not try this theme as the menu was once again very fish biased, to the extent that all starters are fish. This was a shame as this theme ran for a total of 8 nights on this cruise and we love Asian food.
La Piazza – Italian
The Italian menu is quite limited and there are no choices in some areas. The antipasto was a set mix of items served in a pastry case, there were 2 soups, 3 flat breads and 4 entrees to choose from, followed by a set plate of 4 taster desserts.
The food was well prepared and presented but much of it was very rich, which for us meant that three courses would have been plenty, particularly when all four desserts come together! The food quality was good and the service excellent. There is a $15 cover charge which we felt was good value.
Coriander – Indian
The Indian menu is again quite limited in range with 4 starters, 3 main dishes 3 side dishes and three desserts. In Corianda, the four starters arrive together as a sampler, accompanied by poppadum’s and chutneys. You can choose one of the main dishes or have a smaller sample of them all and you get all three side dishes. You then choose one of the three desserts. All of the food was excellent, probably the best meal we had on the ship and the service was also excellent and friendly. You do not leave hungry and the $15 charge is great value for a very enjoyable evening.
The menu is also limited with 3 starters, 4 main dishes, accompanied by a choice of any three side dishes per table, and 3 desserts. Once again all of the food was exceptionally good and the service effective and friendly. A very welcome and good value ($15) alternative to the Britannia Dining room.
Food in the Golden Lion
The Golden Lion pub offers a small range of traditional pub meals at no extra cost, but getting a seat can be something of a challenge as this venue seems to be very popular and it was difficult to get a seat at lunch time so we did not sample the food there.
Afternoon Tea in the Queen’s Room
Afternoon tea is served at 15.30 on most afternoons in the Queen’s Room. This consists of sandwiches, cakes and scones together with tea or coffee. Champagne is always available if you wish to splash out. Cunard seem to make a fuss over this service, but I am not sure why as it is not that special. Maybe it is for this reason that it sometimes gets very busy and tables are at a premium. The same tea is available in the Kings Court where you can serve yourself, but I am reliably informed by a tea drinker that the tea is better in the Queens Room.
We found Sir Samuel’s is the place for a quality coffee and the friendly staff start serving at 07.00 so I could pick up a quality coffee and pastry for a relaxed wake up back in the cabin. Great coffee, that you pay for, and a full range of other drinks is available all day and there are a small selection of light snacks appropriate to the time of day on offer that you do not pay for. This was a great place for a good coffee and a croissant for a light breakfast as well as a quieter spot for a pre-dinner drink.
Apart from the Golden Lion pub and Sir Samuel’s, the other main bars are the Chart Room and The Commodore Club which is located at the front of the ship on deck 9. Both these venues were very popular and getting a seat for a pre-dinner drink could be challenging. The Commodore Club is probably the most attractive of all the bars, especially during the day when the blinds are up and you have a fantastic view over the bow of the ship. One down side of this bar is that the starboard side is adjacent to the cigar lounge and the smell of tobacco permeates much of this side of the Commodore Club. The last bar is the Champagne bar which is located at the atrium on deck 3. This small bar runs into the Chart Room and it never seemed to be that busy, possibly owing to the limited range of higher price drinks on offer.
The library is possibly the best at sea, a beautiful room with a fantastic selection of books and really spectacular views over the bow of the ship. The adjacent book shop is also very well stocked with an interesting range of cards and books.
The Ships Photographer
We decided to find out what the camera club was all about so went to meet the photographers and see if it was of interest. Our expectations were not high as we usually avoid the photographers on the American ships as they seem to be all over the ship pestering you for photographs. Having cruised a good few times, we seldom buy photographs. However, I have to say that the team that we met on QM2 were very welcoming, friendly and helpful. Maybe it is something about the fact that The Ships Photographer seem to employ well qualified Brits and Aussies by and large. The series of lectures that they ran as part of the camera club were very well presented and informative. They also took some very good photographs and we never felt that there was any pressure to be photographed. We did in fact buy a few very good pictures, something we have not done for about 5 years.
There are a range of different shops on board, many of which offer designer labels at designer prices. There is a reasonable stock of Cunard and QM2 logo wear and a small duty free drink and tobacco store which also sold the daily essentials. There was also a range of table sales on the sea days, but the same products seemed to be coming out with monotonous regularity, possibly due to the 9 sea days in a row.
Our previous experience with Cunard formal evenings had always been very good as most guests do follow the prescribed dress code, something that is badly enforced on many of the American cruise ships. We were pleased to see that the Cunard standards are still being maintained for the formal evenings, but informal was less consistent as the cruise progressed. We are not hung up about formal nights, we enjoy them when standards are maintained, but we are also very happy with county club casual where there are no formal nights. We do not appreciate the cruises where they suggest formal and very few comply as you look a right Charlie all dressed up amongst so many who are not. Well done to Cunard for maintaining this cruising tradition of elegance so well.
We used the shuttle provided by Cunard at Barcelona and found it to be an excellent service. There was no queuing either way and the payment process was very slick as they scan your sea pass as you board the bus. This means there is no need to queue to buy shuttle tickets and you only pay for what you use. This is one of the easiest shuttle experiences that we have experienced. The shuttle in Muscat was also very easy to use with no queues and it was free.
Is QM2 suited to warm weather cruising?
As QM2 spends a good proportion of her time in the Atlantic and northern waters, I embarked wondering how well suited she is to hot weather cruising. My conclusion is that she does not provide a very good warm weather cruising experience. I mentioned above the lack of opportunity to dine outside, whilst there is a great deal of open deck space, there are far too few loungers and the use, or rather lack of use of them, was not well policed so people just reserved them even when they were not around. The decks lack character and the loungers are very basic by comparison with other premium cruise lines. Other than the few tables outside the Boardwalk cafe, there are very few upright tables and chairs in the sunshine and even less small tables for drinks etc. Given the speed of the ship, any extra wind can result in the upper decks being closed off putting much more pressure on the rear cascading decks. These are better equipped with softer loungers and the only outside bar in use during our cruise was on one of these decks, but the down side is that both the smoking areas are on two of the rear decks rendering some areas much less attractive than others.
We booked Cunard shore excursions at some of the ports of call and made our own arrangements at others. Overall, the Cunard excursions were well organised and they operated a very good system to check you in in the theatre and then get you to the bus with the minimum of fuss and hassle. Yes, you pay a bit more, but we felt that those in Malaga and Civitavecchia were reasonable value overall.
The excursion in Khor Fakhan was a real waste of time and money. There is not much to see and 4 hours in a coach to see a fish market with 12 stalls and a “Friday Market” that operates every day is not a great excursion in my mind.
At Muscat, the alternative port to Aquaba was fantastic. We took the free shuttle and then found a local taxi who gave us an excellent 5 hour tour at €25 per head for 5 of us to include the wonderful Grand Mosque.
At Dubai we took the evening dhow dinner cruise organised by Cunard. It was a great evening on a lovely dhow with a sumptuous buffet and really good entertainment, all as you sail down the Dubai creek in the open air on a lovely warm evening. Looking at the cost of the dinner cruise alone, the Cunard package was good value as it included return transport from QM2. The wine and drinks prices were also very good compared to those on QM2 and in Dubai hotels.
How does the Cunard brand compare?
We have travelled with Oceania, Celebrity, RCI, P & O and Cunard in the last 18 months and have therefore had the opportunity to compare the cruise experience of them all. They all have strengths and weaknesses and it is probably not fair to compare the others with Oceania as they are more expensive and much higher quality in every way. The others companies were all around the same price per night on board so are a better comparison. When we travelled on Queen Elizabeth we felt that Cunard and Celebrity (Celebrity Equinox) were both delivering a premium experience although they are very different. Now having had 20 days on QM2, Cunard seem to be struggling to keep up with P&O (Aurora) and have fallen behind our last RCI experience (Independence if the Seas). I wonder if standards have just fallen on QM2 or whether they have fallen across the Cunard fleet.
In our experience standards have been falling across most brands over the last 10 years as capacity grows and competition gets tougher. The good news is that we have plenty of choice so there should be a cruise out there for everyone. The key is to do your research and match what is on offer with the things that are important to you.