Three Cunard Queens Salute the City of Liverpool

It’s not often I need an excuse for a party but when I read that Cunard would be celebrating their 175th anniversary with a special ‘Three Queens Salute’ in Liverpool this year, I decided that it was one party I didn’t want to miss. Hence, I found myself aboard Queen Mary 2 back in May 2015, centre stage on the River Mersey, for what was to be a unique part of maritime history – for the first time ever, all three Cunard Queens, Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria would be in Liverpool together and we had been promised a truly spectacular event.

As a dedicated cruiser, it wasn’t a difficult decision to book my holiday to coincide with the birthday celebrations. I’ve been on Queen Mary 2 a number of times before and always enjoyed the experience but I did receive some odd looks when telling friends that I was on a cruise from Southampton to Liverpool, albeit with a number of ports in between!

Now, when I say ‘cruise’, I really should say ‘voyage’. Cunard, with its long tradition and maritime heritage don’t really do cruises; they do voyages and the company emulates the golden age of liner travel when Hollywood film stars and world leaders could regularly be seen aboard its ships. Their ships are a cut above your average cruise ship in style, luxury and engineering. Indeed, Queen Mary 2, a proper ocean liner and a ‘greyhound of the seas’ is the largest and fastest true liner in service today. With her sheer scale and specially designed and strengthened hull, she is ideally suited to racing across the North Atlantic – a journey I have done myself in good weather and bad, and when it’s been the latter, you really do appreciate being on board a ship specifically designed to handle the worst that the Atlantic can throw at her.

Fortunately, on my ‘voyage’ from Southampton to Liverpool, we encountered no rough seas, even though we did enter the North Atlantic as we pulled out of the English Channel before heading north to our first stop, the port of Cobh in Ireland. From Cobh, we sailed to Dublin and then onto Oban and Greenock in Scotland and then, the highlight of the trip, our entry into the port of Liverpool.

Crowds turned out to welcome us – lining the shore line as this vast leviathan docked at the city’s cruise terminal, almost right in front of the famous Royal Liver Building. Liverpool is the ancestral home of Cunard – it was there ‘home port’ from the company’s inception until 1967 when they changed to Southampton – and it was from Liverpool that, in 1840, the line’s first ship, RMS Britannia, a wooden panel steamer with a cruising ship of 9 knots, set off for Canada and the United States on her maiden voyage to Halifax and Boston. More contracts were awarded and more ships ordered. The rest, as they say is history but as passenger traffic increased, ships became more and more luxurious as developments in engineering and ship manufacture allowed. Liners with names such as Aquitania, Mauretania and Lusitania followed; names that would earn their place in history.

Samuel Cunard, who founded what was originally called The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company with four others but by whose surname the company quickly became known, had won a contract from the British Admiralty in 1838 to carry the North Atlantic mail and so he set about commissioning the building of his first ship. He wanted “a plain and comfortable boat” with “not the least unnecessary expense for show”. Britannia could carry up to 115 first class passengers, 89 crew, 600 tons of coal and, of course, the Atlantic mail. Also on board were live chickens, a cow to provide fresh milk!

How times have changed! Today’s ships are veritable floating palaces offering five star hotel luxury, but with a view that changes constantly. Queen Mary 2 can accommodate over 2,600 passengers supported and looked after by a crew of around 1,250. With nearly 4,000 people on board, you might think that things get rather crowded – well, not a bit of it! At 1,132 feet long (that’s almost a quarter of a mile), there is plenty of space. As well as comfortably appointed cabins (staterooms on Cunard, please!), there are beautiful and spacious public rooms, from bars and lounges, to two theatres, one which features the only Planetarium at sea, and a huge ballroom. And, of course, there are acres of open deck space, swimming pools, a gym, a spa, a shopping arcade and even an English pub. With a full programme of lectures, shows, demonstrations, wine tastings and the like, there is plenty to keep people occupied on sea days, provided you can find the energy to keep up with it all…..

What I haven’t mentioned yet, and what might have a bearing on your ability to engage fully with the programme, is the dining experience. Now, if you were so minded and have the constitution for it, you could eat continuously for 24 hours a day. There is a self-service café, Kings Court, where it is possible to pick up anything from a light snack to a multi-course meal at any time of day and most of the night. It’s particularly busy at main meal times, as you would expect, but also keeps fairly busy at other times as well and it even draws people in after midnight when most of the live entertainment ends. You’ll often find me in there having a nibble and a cup of tea before retiring for the night. It’s a good place to have a chat with fellow passengers to discuss the highlights of the day. You can also order light snacks in some of the bars and lounges at different times of the day and, if you get really stuck, 24-hour room service is also available.

The main restaurant on board is the rather spectacular Britannia Restaurant and this is where most passengers will have dinner. Furnished and decorated in the Art Deco style, it is over two decks high with a glass atrium roof and can seat around 800 passengers at one sitting. You are allocated to a table, usually based on your personal choice at the time of booking, be it a table for two or for a larger group, early or late sitting, and your waiters for the voyage will introduce themselves to you. They very quickly get to know your likes and dislikes and can help you with special diets although these should be drawn to the company’s attention at the time you make your booking. As a vegetarian, I find myself very well catered for – there’s even a separate menu from which you can choose special dishes although you do have to order these the night before – but at least that means I get a sneak preview of the lunch and dinner menus for the following day to help inform my choice of whether to order a special or stick with the chef’s menus for the day.

Food quality is very good and there’s plenty of choice. You can work your way through three or four courses, and even more if you are really peckish. There are low-calorie options for the health conscious and the full-fat creams and sauces for those who want to ‘push the boat’ out, so to speak. Portions are not overly large but with so much food available during the day, this is not a problem. You are more likely to add weight than lose it while on board: some passengers end up having to shop for clothes in a larger size before the end of the cruise although it’s apparently nothing to do with weight gain: it’s the on-board air conditioning that makes your clothes shrink!
For those willing (and able) to upgrade to the ‘grills experience’, you will find yourself with a larger and better equipped stateroom – anything up to a full suite – and with a butler to look after your every need on board. You will also dine in one of the Grills dining rooms; more intimate than the Britannia Restaurant and with extra menu options. There are also speciality restaurants to choose from with themed nights, although these are at a supplement.

After 6 pm, the ship’s dress code is (more or less) strictly enforced in the restaurants and elsewhere throughout the ship. On ‘formal nights’, that means black tie for the gents and cocktail dresses and ball gowns for the ladies. On ‘informal nights’, gents are still expected to wear jackets but ties have recently become optional, no doubt catering for the more relaxed dress standards of the modern age (I’m pleased to report, however, that many men do still don ties on these informal nights!). Anyone not wanting to dress for dinner can dine in Kings Court but I have to say that to spend an evening on board a ship where over 2,000 passengers have made an effort to dress the part is a rather magical experience. With the décor, the clothes (not to mention some of the jewellery!), and the orchestras and pianists playing around the ship, it’s easy to imagine that you are in scene from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical.

But back to the 175th anniversary celebrations.

We sailed into Liverpool on the Sunday morning and, once we had docked at the cruise terminal, we had the day at our leisure to explore the city, go off on one of the organised excursions or just kick back and enjoy the facilities on board. At 10 pm that evening, we were treated to a special sound and light show when images were played against the architecture of Liverpool’s Three Graces on the waterfront, followed by a magnificent fireworks display. Thousands and thousands of people had gathered on the quayside to enjoy the show while we on deck had an unrestricted view of the festivities.

The following morning, Spring Bank Holiday Monday, Queen Mary 2 cast off from the quayside and sailed out to the estuary of the Mersey to meet the other two ships, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. All along the shore line stood people watching, waving and taking photographs. On the beaches of Wallasey and Crosby, hundreds of people had gathered to witness the spectacle. Then, emerging from the mist, we saw them, the two Cunard sisters waiting for their turn in the limelight.

Slowly, our captain turned Queen Mary 2 around through 180 degrees to face back inland. Never has a manoeuvre been so carefully and slowly executed. With sandbanks visible all around us, it was important that nothing went awry at this stage! But we made the turn and then waited for the Elizabeth and Victoria to sail past us in procession with much sounding of the ships’ whistles (horns) in salute. Once past, we followed the sisters back into Liverpool where all three ships lined up in front of the Three Graces, which fittingly, includes the Cunard building. Then it began. All three ships commenced their ballet, turning slowly around to face back out to sea. Again, although the Mersey is a wide river, these are long ships and the turn was completed very gently. Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria then sailed alongside Queen Mary 2, one ship on each side of us. Again, whistles of salute reverberated between the ships and with other vessels in the river. We then waited. At just after 2 pm, the Red Arrows flew overhead and that flypast signalled the time for Queen Mary 2 to set sail to her next port of call, St Peter Port in Guernsey, so slowly we sailed away leaving the slightly smaller sisters to continue their celebrations in Liverpool.

I’ve read various reports of how many people turned out to watch. Some say nearly a million people were there, others that the number topped a million. I’ve since spoken to people who were on the quayside and they tell me how marvellous it was. Others have watched clips on tv and on the internet and remark that it was a sight to see. Well reader, it was a great experience both to see and to be a part of. Look carefully at the photos of Queen Mary 2 and there, on the top deck as the Red Arrows fly over, just in front of that distinctive red funnel, you will see me: waving, and yes , smiling!

Travelling in Style – the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

In 2014, my partner and I were standing on platform 2 at Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station, along with 178 other people, admiring the shiny blue and white carriages of the Orient Express (or, more correctly, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express). The journey back to London on this iconic train was the culmination of a remarkable holiday to celebrate a rather special birthday.

Our allocated cabin was right at the end of the 17-coach train, in the very last cabin. It did mean that we were very well placed for the loo – there is a shared toilet at each end of each coach but no showers anywhere on the train. However, worry not! There’s a washbasin with hot and cold running water in each cabin and it’s amazing what you can do with a flannel (and where it will reach!).

The cabins are a bit on the small side, consisting of a couch, fold-down table, the aforementioned washbasin and some coat hangers, and it’s true that experience of caravanning would come in handy. Fortunately, most of our luggage was stored in the baggage car and on taking our seats we could really appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. Lovingly and painstaking restored, with highly lacquered woods and polished brass fittings, this art deco masterpiece is redolent of an entirely different age when great craftsmanship and service were synonymous with luxury.

A discreet knock on our cabin door signalled the arrival of our liveried cabin steward, Claudio, who offered us complimentary cocktails as the train pulled out of the station, bang on time at exactly 11.01 am.
Our next visitor was the maȋtre d’ who came to ask what time we would like lunch – with 180 passengers, they operate two-sittings for each meal. We chose the later sitting of 2.00 pm and were given a ticket with our restaurant car and table number. We then made ourselves comfortable to enjoy the passing scenery.

At around 1.50 pm, an announcement was made to summon us to lunch with the polite reminder to dress appropriately, which during that day meant smart casual (no jeans allowed). The restaurant cars and bar car are located in the centre of the train, so we only had half a train length to travel but even then, it’s around an eighth of a mile from the back of the train to the middle! The walk did, however, give us chance to inspect the other parts of the train. No two carriages are exactly the same having been built by different manufacturers in different countries (including England!) at different times. Similarly, each of the three restaurant cars is unique, with different colour schemes that extend to the matching china used in each car.

Lunch followed a set 3-course menu (including a set vegetarian menu), followed by coffee and petits fours. You can go à la carte if you wish but will need to be prepared to pay a supplement. Wine is not what you’d call cheap – we paid 50 euros for half a bottle and that was at the lower end of the price range. The food and presentation, I have to say, were exquisite and the service exemplary.

After lunch, it was back to our cabin where Claudio served us our afternoon tea. The maȋtre d’ whom we were getting to know quite well by now, made another appearance to see what time we would like dinner. We chose the later sitting at 9.30 pm, which gave us time to relax before changing into our tuxedos (there’s an art to this in a confined space, but we managed). By now, the train was moving through the spectacular snow-capped mountains of Austria.

Rigged out in our very best, we headed to the bar car. There is one bar car for all 180 passengers so it’s a bit of a crush, ameliorated to some extent by having two sittings for dinner. Fortunately, we were right next to the bar so I was able to order my Cosmopolitan.

By the time we made it back to our cabin after dinner, it had been transformed into our rather cosy bedroom with two bunk beds. The train was travelling at full tilt (the maximum speed is around 90 mph), so I was glad of the straps to grab hold of as I climbed the ladder into bed. Sleep is possible although it rather eluded me for a good while. Sometimes, it felt as if the train had taken wings, and the next thing we would be stopped somewhere while locomotives were changed. The blinds had been drawn shut and we left them that way, so it was pure guesswork as to where we were.

I awoke early, noticing that the train had stopped, washed (making good use of that flannel!), dressed and then stepped into the corridor to allow my partner to do likewise. Although it was only around 7am, Claudio was there to convert the cabin back to day use. Then he brought us our continental style breakfast. A tap on the door and it was our old friend the maȋtre d’ again, this time asking what time we’d like brunch, 10.30 am or 12 noon? We chose the later one again.

On arrival at Calais, we climbed aboard luxury motor coaches to be offered drinks. A large glass of red wine? Well, it would have been rude to refuse. We drove onto the Euroshuttle and, once through the Channel Tunnel, it was on to Folkestone station where we boarded the British Pullman for the last leg of the journey to London.

The British train is also made up of individually designed and decorated 1920s art deco coaches, this time in a livery of brown and cream. Each passenger has an allocated carriage and seat number. No sooner had we taken our seats than a waiter asked if we would like a glass of sparkling Rosé to accompany our afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and lashings of tea. By the time that had been consumed, we were approaching London’s Victoria station. On arrival, we were reunited with our luggage and then it was into a taxi for an overnight stay in a London hotel. Reader, we slept well that night! The following morning, we checked out and caught a train back to Wakefield, the holiday truly over.

Was it worth it? Definitely! Having seen the train on TV and in films so many times, there was a slight sense of unreality about the whole expedition. I couldn’t help but expect to see David Suchet around every corner and even though he failed to make an appearance, the spirit of Poirot and Agatha Christie was almost tangible.

There was no murder on the Orient Express while we were aboard, but it was murder to leave it!