Brief fling with Queen of the seas

KATHRIN GOLDSWORTHY
Last updated 11:29 28/03/2012
FAIRFAX MEDIA

Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth brought its unique brand of luxury to New Zealand ports this summer.

Queen Elizabeth
The Queen Elizabeth.
QE
FLOATING POOL: Deckside swimming, dockside in Auckland.

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The only thing I know about cruise ships is entirely based on the 1980s TV classic The Love Boat. Frolicking in the pool, cocktails in the sun at the outside bar, laughs and japes with the friendly crew, dinner at the captain's table.

But the Queen Elizabeth is a whole different world. This is luxury, and then some.

At 294 metres long and as tall as a 21-storey building, the ship houses 1046 rooms, almost a dozen restaurants, an art-deco Grand Lobby, a three-storey theatre, a library, a shopping mall and a spa. And a games deck, a ballroom, 12 bars and clubs, two outdoor pools (both disappointingly small) and loads of other things I no doubt missed during my couple of nights on board.

That means a lot of walking and, if you're me, a lot of going up and down stairs and lifts, and getting lost.

With almost 1000 crew there is about one staff member for every two people on board.

And yet coming on board I found myself wondering where everyone was. And what did they do with all the young people?

The Cunard line is definitely aimed at the older and wealthier market and its newest liner, the Queen Elizabeth, is designed and fitted out for those who like the best of the best. The average age on board seemed to be 70-ish and there is a whiff of the good old days of Empire in the decor as well as the decorum.

The QE is on its second 107-night, round-the-world voyage including a short journey around New Zealand beginning in Auckland.

My stateroom was smaller than I expected, but I suspect the long walk the length of the ship down a narrow corridor had made me a little claustrophobic. The ceiling may have been low, but the bed was huge - almost the size of the room - and the small but perfectly formed balcony offered the perfect spot to sit in the sun and watch the country drift by. A "welcome" bottle of Veuve Clicquot also helped the settling in process no end.

After setting sail on a fantastic Auckland evening as twilight set in, it was time to for drinks and dinner. Most of the liner's bars offer entertainment in some form - matinee concert, pianist or harpist, string quartet or ballroom and Latin dancing. Or you could pop up to the very top deck and the Commodore Club, famed for its 300-plus different martinis - which sounds like an evening's entertainment in itself.

The QE has a lot of rules, including a very strict dress code for the three types of dining: elegant casual, semi-formal and formal. It is made very clear, repeatedly, that the latter is formal with a capital F - tuxedos for the men and long evening dresses for the ladies. And no jeans, ever. It's a little intimidating but does sum up the tone of the cruise. This is silver service.

Each guest is assigned a restaurant and table for their stay, though you can lobby for a change during a two-hour window each day, presumably in case you've been lumbered with a bore and need rescuing?

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Like everything else on board, dinner service is run with the precision of a military operation. Two seatings each evening, two hours apart and no dilly- dallying. I found the wait staff a little overbearing and over attentive - we had barely opened the menu before being pounced on for our orders. However, the food's excellence and the sommelier's knowledge more than made up for it. Diners can choose from a set menu or a la carte, both of which change daily.

For anyone who can't be bothered dressing for dinner, which is bound to happen after several weeks on board, there are other options including the downmarket Lido buffet, Thai, Indian - or room service.

All this focus on food is important, as I do suspect if you were on board for any amount of time - and this is a round-the- world trip - your day would soon narrow down to a tight schedule of eating, lying in the sun and walking around the boat.

My big question about cruising has always been what do you do all day?

Incredible effort has been put into activities and the daily programme delivered to your room each night includes a extensive list of amusements, from fencing and line dancing, to wine tasting and art classes, to a pub quiz (in the traditional English pub) and a table tennis tournament. And of course bingo. Which is good news, as there is only so much walking up and down the deck one can do. I do feel that, after a few weeks, it would be very easy to slip into a slower pace and those activities would soon be forgotten.

Our voyage from Auckland to Wellington took not quite two days, at a fairly leisurely pace. By the time we sailed into a miserable day in the capital I was more than ready to get back on land, and not only because I had failed to find my sea legs. The QE is a beautiful boat, with staff well trained in answering your every beck and call. But when it comes down to it, it felt like sailing in a hotel.

The writer cruised courtesy of Cunard.

The Queen Elizabeth next visits New Zealand in 2013, when it will sail from Southampton in England on January 6 and travel across the Atlantic to the Americas. After passing through the Panama Canal it will continue down through the Pacific to arrive in Auckland on February 20, then travel on to Napier, Wellington and Christchurch. There are four departure ports for the voyage: Southampton, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and Auckland.

Prices:

Southampton to Auckland - from US$8629 to US$27,209

Fort Lauderdale to Auckland - US$$6469 to US$20,249

Los Angeles to Auckland - US$3149 to US$10,079

Auckland to Los Angeles - US$4569 to US$14,309

Auckland to Southampton - US$9559 to US$30,579

More at cunard.com

- The Dominion Post

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