QUEEN OF THE SEAS

The world’s most historic cruise line is steadily attracting new cruisers from Asia keen to tap into Cunard’s rich traditions.

There’s nothing quite like leaving your home town by ship, if only to gain a unique perspective. Whether that ship is a regal old ocean liner or a modern metropolis with climbing walls and bumper cars, there is majesty in that departure, and in the silent, slipping panorama that’s at once familiar and exhilaratingly new. The Queen Victoria’s recent midnight departure from Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal was just such an occasion; the towering skyscrapers, backed by the brooding profile of Victoria Peak, make for a stunning retreat from one of Asia’s most famous ports but quickly we’re engulfed by the darkness of night on the South China Sea.

It’s beautiful and unforgettable cruise experiences like this that first forged the Cunard brand, helping the 175-year old line become a household name, on either sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Bolstered by its popularity with well-heeled British and Australian cruisers (the latter recently announced as the line’s second largest market), this most historic of lines is now turning its attention to affluent new cruisers in Southeast Asia and China, keen to tap in to all that rich heritage and tradition.

“It’s just like I expected a cruise to be,” says one Hong Kong first time Cunard cruiser I meet on the top deck as we navigate the length of Victoria Harbour. “My wife can’t wait to dress up, sip champagne and waltz in the Queens Room. It’s all very exciting.” A total of 1,400 guests, a mixture of Australians, English, and many first time Cunarders from Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, had boarded Queen Victoria in Hong Kong. They joined almost 300 guests enjoying the 120-day World Cruise, a Cunard staple that’s been on offer for 80 years. One Yorkshireman I encounter on the way to dinner that first night was celebrating his 2,000th day at sea with the line.

It’s also my first Cunard cruise and this means I bring with me – founded or not – the expectations garnered by a brand that transcends generations. My grandmother coos when I tell her I will travel with Cunard from Hong Kong to Singapore and crowds line the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui to photograph the magnificent Queen Victoria at berth. It’s an important day on the line’s marketing calendar; dubbed the Three Queens Party, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth will all visit Hong Kong within 24 hours, a sign of things to come as Asian ports increasingly feature on Cunard’s iconic world cruise itineraries.

After suffering through the confusion of Ocean Terminal, literally a shopping mall with cruise facilities absent-mindedly added later (and thanking my stars I wasn’t boarding at the new Kai Tak Terminal at the other end of the harbour), I pace long corridors onboard, eventually finding my balcony category room on the 5th deck, starboard side.

The Queen Victoria boasts 1,003 cabins, made up of 143 inside, 146 oceanview and 581 balcony staterooms. There are a total of 10 wheelchair accessible cabins across the varied room categories, which include Cunard’s coveted Princess and Queens Grill suites, and several single cabins for solo travellers, an increasingly popular amenity for Cunard diehards.

My balcony stateroom is elegant, quiet and functional. There’s a double bed made up of two slim singles; a small bathroom with marble vanity and shower; a small work desk with flat screen television; a two-seat couch, and a generous balcony with two chairs. The room is dressed in clover honey with accents in royal blue and gold. There’s plenty of wardrobe space and it’s blissfully cool. Each evening my steward William performs the turndown service, topping up the Penhaligon’s Quercus toiletries and returning the room to order, making the space a delight to return to at the end of a long day of exploration.

Of course, to sample the real Cunard cruise experience you need to book into either one of the 58 Princess Grill Suites, which are basically larger versions of a standard balcony cabin and range from 335-513sqft; or the Queens Grill suites, which range from 35 Penthouses and 16 Queens Suites through to four Grand and two Master Suites. In addition to some in-room perks, from extra wardrobe space and full sized bathtubs to terry cloth robes and king-sized beds, these spaces offer cruisers access to dedicated lounges, courtyards, and intimate dining rooms that don’t uphold the sometimes-frustrating restrictions of the main dining room downstairs. It’s classdefined cruising at its best.

“I love the Princess Grill dining room,” says Hong Kong cruiser David Leung. “They really go the extra mile to look after you up there and the space is intimate and inviting. Downstairs it’s a whole different story.” Ideal for longer itineraries and for well-heeled cruisers looking for respite from the crowds as well as a little extra pampering, the Queens and Princess Grills are British luxury cruising at its best. Queen Victoria will also add a new Britannia Club category in 2017.

Cunard is the epitome of Old School British cruising; there’s the pomp of the afternoon tea, served in the sumptuous Queens Room and accompanied by live music; the daily fencing classes; and regular ballroom dance recitals. There are artifacts, posters, and models exhibited like museum pieces throughout the ship, and even the informal nights are as formal as some ships get.

Consequently, Cunard has undoubtedly created its own niche with American and European cruisers, one that’s attracting an increasing number of affluent Asian travellers looking to experience the famed White Star service for themselves. Some of these cruise newbies seem to adopt the old world nature of Cunard quickly, learning to waltz and shuffleboard. Others struggle with the rigid dress codes, restrictive dining times and language barriers (there are very few Chinese-speaking crew evident). It’s apparent that Cunard suits a particular style of cruiser; one that’s less fussed with signature dining and activities and one that’s still amoured with the golden era of ocean travel, who enjoys the serenity of the sea and the elegant communality of the dining room, who revels dressing for dinner, and who likes to take things blissfully slow.

There’s also no doubt that the Queen Victoria is a beautiful ship. From British sculptor John McKenna’s relief sculpture panel above the grand lobby staircase, to the pastel-hued Queens Room with its intricate parquet floor, the ship is a joy to cruise on. There’s room to embrace the sun and room enough to tantalise the taste buds; there are bars and lounges galore, and room to retreat. During the day the heart of the ship is deck 9, home to the Lido all-day dining restaurant, two pools wreathed by sun loungers, the intimacy of the Winter Garden, the surprisingly popular Cunard Health Club, and the spa, all of which are packed with holidaymakers every day of our short sprint to Singapore.

As the sun begins to settle, the sun-worshippers reluctantly leave their pool-side posies and the heart of the ship shifts to decks 2 and 3, which are shared between the Britannia Restaurant, the ship’s main dining room; an extensive library; the voluminous Queens Room; the Golden Lion pub, a favourite with trivia fans; a small but lively casino; and the retail options of the Royal Arcade. Like cruise ships the world over, dining is an important component of the cruise. Rather than split the dining experience across a vast array of outlets, Cunard consolidates and then innovates. There are two main dining outlets onboard: the Britannia Restaurant, a regal and beautifully-appointed two-tier dining room inspired by the Golden Arrow train that once linked London and Paris, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner complete with the line’s iconic White Star service. The Lido Restaurant on deck 9 offers 24 hour buffet dining and, at dinner, a revolving specialty restaurant that allows guests a chance to tour the globe with their taste buds.

“I love the pageantry of the Britannia Restaurant,” says Emily, an avid cruiser from Sydney bound for Cape Town. “It’s a chance to see new friends, to digest the day’s activity, and dress to impress. We don’t come down every night but when we do we always enjoy it.” In addition to these two mainstays, there are traditional pub lunches – think beef pie and fish and chips – in the Golden Lion; cakes and pastries at tea time at Café Carinthia; and elegant French fine dining at the beautifully-appointed Verandah restaurant overlooking the ship’s main atrium. Queens and Princess Grill suite guests have access to their own dining rooms as well as all other restaurants, although there are surcharges at Verandah (US$24) and Lido’s specialty restaurant (US$15) concepts.
Champagnelaced Enhanced Afternoon Teas are sometimes served in Verandah for a surcharge of US$29.99.

However, you could be forgiven for wanting to save your money as the complimentary daily afternoon tea, served in the Queens Room, is one of the most popular events of the cruise and for good reason. The cheerful white gloved waiters and waitresses (who are far more attentive than those at the pool deck or dining room), complimented by a string quartet and the beauty and vitality of the Queens Room, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Of all the activities on board – from bridge and language classes to shuffleboard and ping pong competitions, beauty seminars, fitness courses and the memorable fencing classes of the Queens Room – the afternoon tea is the most popular, with guests arriving an hour or more before hand to nab the right table.

The afternoon tea is also one of the little pockets of the Queen Victoria in which the timeless elegance of Cunard is really captured. Another is the Commodore’s Club which, unlike many of the other bars on the ship, has an ambiance that’s both regal and lavish, with crisp service, live piano jazz and well-made martinis drawing guests again and again.

Cunard has been a mainstay of ocean travel for generations and new itineraries and world cruises that pass through Asia will allow even more travellers the chance to voyage with the best of British luxury. www.cunard.com

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