High Tea on the High Seas aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth
By Ludmilla Alexander
Photos by Dimitry Bobroff
British history and culture have always fascinated me, so booking passage on Cunard’s newest ship, the Queen Elizabeth, was an easy decision. The ship’s 12-day itinerary, named “Pearls of the Black Sea,” included Olympia, Mykonos, Santorini and Istanbul, as well as maiden calls at the Black Sea ports of Odessa and Yalta in the Ukraine, and Nessebur in Bulgaria.
My excitement, however, was mixed with some trepidation. Would we Americans fit in with the British? Would we understand their accents? Would my department store ballgowns be elegant enough for the four Royal Nights formal evenings? Would we have fun on a ship with no waterslides?
Our first impression of the 2,000-passenger Queen Elizabeth was a positive one. Anchored in Venice, Italy, the ship, first launched in 2010, was a gleaming white beauty with a traditional red and black smokestack and hull. The elegant public rooms had lots of wood paneling, lush carpets, chandeliers, paintings, and a bronze bust of a young Queen Elizabeth. The Garden Lounge on the top deck resembled the glass houses at Kew Gardens with its vaulted glass ceiling and large palms.
Our accommodations in Britannia class provided bathrobes and slippers, satellite TV, a refrigerator and Gilchrist & Soames toiletries. Because my husband and I enjoyed having breakfasts on our balcony, I was happy to see that our balcony stateroom looked out on land and water and not on lifeboats.
Cunard: Huge expectations
Of course, we had huge expectations for the cruise. The Cunard line has been sailing the high seas for over 170 years. The first ship was a paddle-wheeled steamer, called the Britannia, delivering mail from Liverpool to Halifax to Boston every two weeks. As people learned that the transatlantic voyage had been cut short by four weeks, thanks to the steamer, they clamored to get onboard. After Cunard started building passenger ships, two-and-a-half million immigrants emigrated to America from 1850-1900 on these ships.
During the first half of the 20th century, the British government subsidized the company with the expectation that the ships would become troop carriers in time of war. In fact, many American soldiers were transported to Europe on Cunard ships during World War II. Prime Minister Winston Churchill credited Cunard ships with shortening the war by a year.
The 1950s were the glamour years for transatlantic crossings. The jet age had not yet arrived so royals, movie stars, politicians, athletes and wealthy businessmen crossed the Atlantic, enjoying first class dining and accommodations.
Today, Cunard is owned by Carnival Corp., but still preserves its British heritage. It has three ships — the Queen Victoria, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary 2. The Queen Mary 2 continues offering transatlantic passage from New York to Southampton and back. All three ships will be on World Voyages in the first four months of 2013.
What we noticed immediately upon boarding the Queen Elizabeth was the quiet. Music played softly in the background. Passengers greeted one another with a “good afternoon” or “after you.” The staff hovered nearby, ready to be of assistance.
Dining: We had a lively table of ten
We requested a table for ten during second seating. Our dining companions turned out to be four retired couples from England. All were enthusiastic travelers, favoring Cunard ships. One couple was on their fourth cruise that year “to get away from the weather at home”.
They greeted us warmly, their “token Americans” (our words). During dinners at the Britannia Restaurant, we discussed politics (especially the U.S. election), the European Union, the economy of Greece and our experiences on shore. Dimitry, my husband, impressed the Brits when he remembered that Lord Tennyson wrote the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which described the Crimean War. A shore excursion to this battlefield was offered in Yalta.
The menu offered international entrees, such as Roast Duck a l’Orange with hazelnut croquette potatoes and Filet of Beef Wellington with pommes dauphinioise and perigourdine sauce. In addition, a three-course spa selection was included every evening with nutritional information. One night, I ordered Crab and Mango Salad 150/5/2, Chicken Breast au poivre 315/13/3 and Apple Frangipane Tart 135/7/1.
I ate every bite, guilt-free.
The quiet was also noticeable in the Dining Room. No one had to shout across the table. But as wine bottles were opened, passengers became better acquainted with one another, and birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated, the noise levels rose.
During the evening, there were lots of choices
After dinner, all of us would retire to the Royal Court Theatre to watch performances by the Royal Cunard Singers and Dancers or individual artists. On both sides of the two-story theater were box seats, a first for a cruise ship. During formal nights, these box seats could be reserved for a fee. Bell Boys would offer finger desserts and champagne cocktails in a private lounge, then serve chocolates and champagne during the show. When box seats remained empty, Jim and I occupied them, feeling very royal.
Another popular evening pastime was ballroom dancing in the Queens Room. All three ships have very large dance floors for formal dancing. Couples who love to dance spend much of their time taking dance lessons and twirling around the dance floor to music played by an orchestra. There are even four hosts in white dinner jackets who circulate around the dance floor, inviting single women to waltz or to tango.
Although Dimitry and I know how to ballroom dance, we were intimidated by the impressive dance steps performed by many of the couples. So we watched and admired, retreating eventually to the Yacht Club where a DJ played music by ABBA, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. During the Strictly Starlight Ball, a dance contest was held in the Queens Room with the winner being, to my surprise, from California!
So, how formal was the formal attire? It varied widely. Men were dressed primarily in tuxedos. Some wore dark suits. A few Scots dressed in kilts. Women’s ballgowns ranged from expensive designer creations to mother-of-the-bride dresses brought from home. In other words, I worried for nothing. No one was ostracized for improper dress. The dress code was strictly enforced, however, after 6 p.m. when passengers who did not wish to dress up were required to dine at the Lido dinner buffet.
British traditions abound on the Queen Elizabeth
Another British tradition that we enjoyed was the four o’clock tea in the Queens Room. Started by the Seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840, the afternoon tea became a tradition on Cunard ships over 150 years ago. Today, passengers are served a blend of Assam, Kenyan and Ceylon teas, or they can choose Earl Grey or Darjeeling. In addition, servers, wearing white gloves, offer sandwiches, freshly baked scones, and little cakes with the tea.
We also watched a number of tournaments with strange names, Baggo, Short Mat Bowls, and Quoits. The rules of the game were not always clear to us. We also observed ladies making crowns for themselves to wear during the London Ball. During that formal night, they paraded onto a balcony and waved to the crowd below like Queen Elizabeth herself.
Our ship was paying maiden calls to three new ports on this itinerary, and we were curious to see if the townspeople would be excited to see a Cunard ship sailing into view. Would there be a special ceremony at the dock or a plaque presented to the captain from the mayor of the city?
It was a sunny, warm Saturday morning when we sailed into Odessa, Ukraine. The harbor was full of families and young people looking curiously at us. A local band played enthusiastically on the dock while we disembarked and met our tour guides. Walking through the city with our group, we saw wedding parties being photographed by their families, proud high school students performing a changing of the guard ceremony in front of the Unknown Sailor memorial, even a large group of young people doing the “Chicken Dance,” publicizing their cause of “Odessa Without Orphans.”
As the ship was departing in late afternoon, hundreds of people lined the dock to wave goodbye. Some families even ran to the lighthouse to keep the ship in sight as long as possible. Not knowing the Ukrainian word for goodbye, I yelled out, “Dosvidanya” in Russian. Several voices yelled back, “Bye-bye.”
Our maiden call in Yalta, Ukraine, did not excite the townspeople, but it did excite the passengers onboard the ship. Many of us were eager to see where Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met during the Yalta Conference to discuss Europe’s post-war reorganization. The British Prime Minister was prominently pictured on the ship, so it was almost like following the footsteps of a favorite uncle.
Our local Yalta guide did an excellent job of taking us first to Vorontsoff Palace, where the British delegation stayed, then to Livadia Palace which was once the summer residence of the last tsar of Russia. We saw the actual round table where the three leaders held their discussions, as well as the second floor living quarters where, decades earlier, Tsar Nicholas Romanov and his tsarina spent summers with their five children.
Brisk winds hampered our third maiden call in Nessebur, Bulgaria. The old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is known for its unique architecture, especially of ancient churches. But on this cold, windy day, the popular tourist destination was deserted. Tasting local Bulgarian vintages during a wine tasting demonstration cheered all of us up.
By the end of the cruise, we could understand why our dining companions liked Cunard so much. While there were no onboard activities to excite children, teenagers, or even young adults, the elegance, service, and yes, the quiet, were very appealing to us.
Ludmilla (Millie)Alexander is the travel editor of a regional lifestyle magazine in Silicon Valley (San Jose, California). She is married to Dimitry (Jim) Bobroff, a freelance travel photographer. They have been on 45 cruise ships in many parts of the world. Her website is www.ludmillaalexander.com.