If absence makes the heart grow fonder, passengers familiar with Cunard will fall deeper in love with the Queen Elizabeth when the stately ship makes her post-pandemic return to Australia in the late spring.
From November 7 to March 1, the QE, which last sailed in this corner of the world in 2019, will raise anchor for 24 different itineraries ranging in length from three to 28 days. Ten of those routes are roundtrips split between Sydney and Melbourne, and half go to New Zealand.
QE’s most exotic sail to or from Australia this year will undoubtedly be the repositioning cruise that begins in Barcelona on October 10. The 36-night, one-off itinerary visits Greece, Egypt, Oman, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Indonesia before reaching Perth, the first of four Australian ports, on Nov. 7. The five-week odyssey comes with 24 sea days, but with the exemplary hospitality, accommodations and perhaps the best steakhouse at sea – all part of what the 184-year-old line calls “White Star Service” – seeing more water than land during the month and change should be considered a bonus.
Proper, dapper, cultured, worldly – all the cultural stereotypes bestowed on the British – are well accounted for on the Queen Elizabeth, a regal, 2,092-passenger vessel that, like its namesake monarch, looks fabulous for her age – not that the Cunard ship is all that dated at 12 years old.
For this long-time cruiser yet Cunard virgin, first impressions of the line were smashing on a recent jaunt on the QE from Southampton to Barcelona. The ultimate step off the gangway that officially begins your holiday is a sensory experience unmatched except perhaps on QE’s near-identical twin Queen Victoria and the larger Queen Mary 2. Both ships, incidentally, will be sailing in and out of Sydney from January to March, the latter also in Perth.
With Australia being the third-biggest market for Cunard after the United Kingdom and United States, the line is making it a habit for the entire fleet to sail these waters in the same season. Perhaps a fourth ship will follow suit in 2024; bookings begin this month for the inaugural season of the 3,000-passenger Queen Anne, now under construction in Italy.
Back on the Queen Elizabeth, piano music and bouquets of fragrant flowers welcome arrivals in the stylish Deck 1 lobby where the congenial purser’s office and shore excursion desk are located. The atmosphere makes for a delightful welcome. Also lovely is an honest-to-goodness library graced with a spiral staircase, nearly 10,000 books and plenty of pulp-perusing patrons.
Brilliant as all this sounds so far, let it be known that the Queen Elizabeth isn’t for everyone, and nor does it want to be. In other words, the wild and crazy, and the young and restless might be happier elsewhere. You won’t find adult comedy shows and risqué hairy chest contests listed on the paper-only Daily Programme, for example. Basketball or a rock climbing wall aren’t on QE’s canopied games deck. Croquet, paddle tennis and short mat bowls, an English version of Italian bocce, are the more leisurely sports offered to passengers, most of the septuagenarian set.
This isn’t to say that the Queen Elizabeth doesn’t know how to let her hair down. There’s nightly karaoke and DJ music in the Yacht Club. Inside the Golden Lion pub, free-flowing pints of Guinness and live folk music make every day St. Patrick’s Day.
Turning to more refined activities, ballroom dancing to a live orchestra is extremely popular at afternoon tea. Music and dancing is also heard and seen in the stunning Royal Court Theatre, the largest venue for stage productions and headlining world-class artists. Adding to the elegant environs, Cunard is one of the last bastions of the traditional formal night, or “Gala Night” as the line calls these twice-weekly evenings. A blazer and no tie is standard for dudes on megaships, but on the Queen Elizabeth nearly every gent donned a tuxedo with a lady dressed to the nines on his arm. I actually felt underdressed wearing a dark suit and tie.
“It’s really what you’re comfortable in, but we find that the majority of guests love dressing up because that’s something we don’t tend to do as a society,” said Sally Sagoe, the ship’s London-born entertainment director. “It’s quite unlikely you’re going to wear a beaded evening gown for dinner at home. Well, unless your life resembles ‘Downton Abbey.’”
Highs: Poshness without pretentiousness is a wonderful attitude for a luxury cruise to have in the modern era, and Cunard emulates this on the Queen Elizabeth.
Lows: Additional specialty dining options would be nice if the main dining room is going to serve as many misses as hits.
Verdict: No cruise is perfect, but the ship follows Cunard’s “White Star Service” commitment nearly to the letter, ensuring an enjoyable, memorable and luxurious experience for all. And if something isn’t right, the problem is usually rectified promptly.