On the face of it, the very question might seem risible to some. Many savvy, well informed and even better travelled people peruse this blog. You know who you are, and you know your stuff.
But what if you’re a neophyte, dipping your toe into the cruising arena for the first time, and not really cognisant with the nuts and bolts of maritime history? A premise which, if we’re honest, covers by far the greater number of people in the cruising stream these days. That’s not meant as a snide dig- it’s just a fact.
How would you explain the concept- and the reality- of Cunard as it is, to them? How would you rank the line to other UK operators, such as P&O cruises, Fred. Olsen, and Cruise and Maritime Voyages?
For what it’s worth, here’s my take;
The main difference comes in the form of cabin accommodation, graded to different dining areas. The Grills- Queens’ and Princess Grills- create a separate enclave within each of the three Cunard ships- Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2, tied to the most exclusive (and expensive) accommodation on board each ship.
Many people do not like either the theory or the actuality of this, as it creates what they perceive to be a ‘class conscious’ ship, harking back to the old, three class North Atlantic heyday. But, in fact, it’s a scenario also beginning to resurface even on supposedly more egalitarian lines, such as MSC and Norwegian- the ‘ship within a ship’ where those who can afford to pay for more privacy, space and exclusivity, complete with more polished, personalised service, are happy to do so.
On Cunard, the Grills are open seating, whereas the main dining rooms operate on a two sitting basis for dinner.
If your tastes and bank balance stretch to the Grills, then you will enjoy fine dining. gracious service, and a very elegant, elevated overall voyage experience. And, if you are spending all that money, you are frankly entitled to nothing less. But still, the entire notion creates resentment in some quarters. If that’s the case, you need to look at a different product. There are plenty of options out there.
The dress codes on Cunard are unquestionably more formal than on any of the other British lines, and especially so on the Atlantic crossings of the Queen Mary 2. But stripping Cunard completely of its formality and elegance would be like gutting the Ritz, and turning it into a fast food outlet.
The whole notion of timeless elegance at sea is endemic to the experience of Cunard; without it, the voyage would, indeed, be a much poorer experience. An anaemic aberration that would dilute everyone’s sense of pleasure and anticipation.
Truth be told, there has been a slight unbuttoning of the dress codes in the last few years, though it is still probably too formal for the ‘sun and fun’ brigade. And, if you really don’t want to dress up for dinner after a hard day’s carousing in the Caribbean- and I fully get that- then there are other, more causal lines out there.
But, my word, the sheer fun of getting done up in your evening glad rags for a night of Cunard- style dining and dancing is a fabulous, giddy fairground ride in it’s own right. And nobody- and I do mean nobody- does formal events, such as the Captain’s Cocktail Party, better than Cunard.
More than anything, however, Cunard’s 175 year history and priceless heritage renders it as a thing apart to the rivals (honourable exception: P&O, which is even older at a sprightly 178). As much as anything, Cunard has always been an idea in the public eye; an ocean liner sailing under a sky full of glittering stars, where millionaires and movie stars in full evening dress dance on deck to the music of a big band.
For some, the idea of being part of that storied history is compelling, and reason enough alone to book. But, of course, you need to be aware of that history to really ‘get’ it in the first place.
That’s where the ‘heritage trails’ laid out through all three ships of the current Cunard fleet form such a fascinating backdrop; evocative and informative by turn, they wind through each ship like some kind of timeline; a line of seamless, golden thread that really links the past to the present. A kind of easy to absorb maritime primer, if you will, the somehow seamlessly absorbs itself into your psyche over the course of a voyage.
There is nothing else quite like this at sea on any other fleet; for the very simple reason that no other company has a history like that of Cunard. And, more than anything, that is the real deal about sailing on this most illustrious and storied of British lines.
Whether that makes Cunard the best choice for your own personal tastes is, of course, for you to decide. But, as an experience overall, the Cunard brand- even today- continues to put clear, blue water between itself and its competitors.
And there are many people out there still more than happy to pay for distinctiveness, whatever from that may take.