Cunard: A Unique Experience
|In mid-January I sailed aboard Queen
Elizabeth for six days from New York to Curacao, on one of the first
legs of her world cruise. The purpose of the trip was to update me on
the Cunard product and at the same time, it let me sail on the ship I
had visited twice in its short life, but had never actually sailed on.
(The last time I was aboard for two days when she was named, but we
never left the pier.) This would be the full Cunard experience.
Early on, I decided that the article that would come from the trip wouldn't be a description of the ship and the cuisine. Instead, I wanted to examine what makes Cunard such a unique experience, one that is so rare in the world of travel. When you tell someone you just came back from a Cunard voyage, there's automatically a heightened level of interest. Usually the first comment is, "Oh, what was it like?"
I've already written about the passengers I encountered aboard, most of whom boarded in New York specifically to be aboard when the three Cunard Queens met in New York Harbor in front of the Statue of Liberty, just so they could say they were aboard for such a special moment. Being a segment of a world cruise, this was likely to have a higher than normal percentage of repeat passengers, but on any Cunard voyage, the percentage of past passengers is higher than you will find on most other lines.
That doesn't necessarily mean there's a level of snobbery that you find on many lines, among their past passengers. Instead most were very down-to-earth and interesting conversationalists, and therefore one of the things that creates that uniqueness of a Cunard voyage. They seem to come from all walks of life and from around the globe. People are willing to talk, as they did years ago when we lived in a simpler world.
In a way, a Cunard voyage is a step back in time, to those times we read about when transatlantic travel almost automatically meant traveling aboard an ocean liner. Yes, that means you dress up more, and you do things that people don't necessarily otherwise do today - like talk with your fellow passengers, or attend a lecture, or go to a formal ball.
One of the things I began noticing right away that first day I was aboard Queen Elizabeth is the quality in everything. I first noticed it when I went to the buffet. I wasn't really planning to have lunch; I was just looking it over, but they had small strip steaks that looked really good, so I got a plate - all in the interest of reporting, of course. On most lines, steaks you find on an embarkation buffet wouldn't necessarily be top quality, but I was amazed by this one. It was as good of quality as you find in premium restaurants on mass market lines, and as I would find out, it was fork-tender. As I looked farther on the buffet, everything has that same quality - the vegetables, the potatoes, the fish. The bean-counters hadn't been allowed to pinch any pennies.
That carried through into my accommodations. The place I first noticed it was when I washed my hands and found the towel to be extra thick and thirsty. Towels were replaced twice a day, and not once was there any towel in the set that was showing the slightest wear from constant laundering, as you find in even top hotels. Everything I came into contact with - from toiletries to the ballpoint pen on the night stand - when I examined it, was top-of-the-line quality.
Subtle, and one of the things, I discovered, that was an ingredient in the Cunard formula.
Over the next few days, I began to notice something else - how well everything was done. Not well - perfectly. The first place it dawned on me was while eating my second or third breakfast from the buffet. A fixture on the buffet was a large ceramic tray of hash brown patties. There were always probably a couple dozen fanned out in an attractive arrangement in the tray. I noticed when I took one, that it was just cooked just perfectly - exactly the right light golden color - just like the day before. Actually when I looked at the tray, there wasn't a one in there that was cooked any differently or that had gotten a little too crisp around an edge. Each one was done perfectly. (I don't know if the people cooking were really good at this, or they had a tremendous amount of waste, but the end result was the same. I never saw one that was any less than perfectly cooked.)
As I began to notice these things, I was amazed that people could be trained so well, and then execute each task equally well. There were the coffee cups that were set in front of me precisely the same way each time, and the counter in the bathroom that was reset exactly the same way each time the room was serviced.
Again, this was subtle. It was all done very naturally, and no mention was ever made. It was just part of this special fabric of the Cunard experience.
Another part of that fabric I began to realize was something regular passengers apparently knew about and utilized, but those of us who don't sail with Cunard that often would just come to discover, as I did. Apparently, whatever you want, you can have - as long as they have the resources aboard.
I was fortunate to have accommodations that allowed me to dine in the Princess Grill. One day at lunch, one of may tablemates made mention that the fish and chips they served in the pub looked really good, and she thought she was going to have those for lunch tomorrow. The waiter was at the table at the time, and without missing a beat, he inquired if she particularly wanted to go to the pub, because he'd be happy to have some prepared for her tomorrow if she'd rather dine at her usual table in the Princess Grill.
Regular passengers just assume that service will be there. On the first leg of the trip we were sailing from New York to Ft. Lauderdale. There is a patio available to Grill passengers wishing to dine outdoors in clement weather, and to access it you go out a door that lies just before you enter the restaurant. There's a large glass wall that looks out from the restaurant onto the patio. On the second day of the voyage we were just off the Georgia/Florida border, and it wasn't exactly what I would call warm, especially out at sea, but I noticed two older ladies who apparently decided that because they were in Florida they should dine outdoors, and opened the door and plopped down at one of the tables.
They hadn't been there more than a minute when one of the assistant maitre d's was walking by my table near that glass wall, and I saw him do the classic triple-take when he saw the ladies out there in their wool sweaters and slacks. He rounded the corner and was out the door instantly. I couldn't hear the conversation, but I saw him cranking open an umbrella over a table, and putting chair cushions down, and within another 90 seconds, there was a wait team out there setting the table and beginning the ladies' lunch service. The ladies assumed because they wanted to dine outside, that they could - and they were right.
Again, nothing was ever mentioned such as, "I'll see if we can do that," or "I think we can," the answer to the unspoken question was always, "Of course."
All this naturally comes with all the other elements of excellent service. It's always particularly impressive when the staff who serves hundreds of people each day remembers me and my preferences, but the Cunard staff takes that to new levels. I ran into a couple crew members who remembered me from previous trips, in one case, a couple of years in the past. If you order a drink from a crew member one day, chances are another day, in another lounge, they will remember how you like it.
Making it even more impressive is that most of the staff aboard Queen Elizabeth is younger than I would tend to expect. These aren't people who have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting what they are doing. Some are, but most are younger, and early in their careers, yet they already know how to do it so well. I suppose that fact tends to make the whole thing so much less stuffy than most people expect Cunard to be.
It makes me want to recommend Cunard to almost anyone. It shouldn't be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Cunard should be a line you choose whenever you want to treat yourself. The experience is going to be more low-key than many lines, so, of course, it has to be planned for the right time. But it could become habit-forming, and you could have a hard time returning to other lines.
Perhaps because I sat there for six days and analyzed the experience, it takes some of the magic out of it. Most people probably will never notice exactly what makes the Cunard experience so special. But for me, the closer I looked, the more amazed I am at how they do it.
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