For many of us, mention of the word "cruise" brings to mind the behemoth ships of the kid-friendly sort, climbing walls reaching to the sky, pools teeming with children, bars populated by pleasantly inebriated vacationers who seem to have decided, en masse, to drown their quotidian doldrums in sweet tropical cocktails throughout the voyage. And, really, you'd be forgiven for making the association, because that side of the cruise industry has, in this country at least, spent serious time and advertising money in perpetuating the pina-colada-frothy vision of life aboard their ships.
It's the kind of cruise I grew up enjoying; some of my finest childhood memories were formed on the decks of those boats. But at this stage of my life, as a mid-thirty-something writer with his own child at home, the thought of spending a week at sea with other people's screaming kids is about as attractive as a turbulent flight or dinner at Chucky Cheese.
So when Cunard contacted me last winter, offering to show my wife and me the sort of experience that the new Queen Elizabeth offers, I jumped at the opportunity: A week away from the duties of parenthood? On a ship (launched in 2010) whose predecessor—the justifiably famous QE2—was synonymous with the elegance and glamour of a bygone era of ocean travel? Sign us up!
Smart decision. The new Queen Elizabeth—the third Cunard ship with a version of this moniker—exceeded every expectation, and confounded all my preconceived notions about what kind of experience a cruise was capable of providing.
Even before the QE set sail from Southampton, England this past July, en route to the fjords and waterfalls of western Norway, it was immediately clear that this would be unlike any other ocean voyage we'd ever taken. Our room, a spacious, beautifully appointed Princess Grill Suite, was gracious enough to make us actually want to spend time in it. With two televisions, a living-room area with a coffee table, couch, and reading chair, a comfortable bathroom about the size of the one in my Philadelphia apartment (but much better decorated), plenty of closet space, and a balcony, this eighth-floor suite fully justified the added expense of what Cunard calls the "Grills" experience.
That experience, in fact, isn't limited to the accommodations. It also affords Grills guests a dedicated table in either the Princess or Queens Grill, impossibly welcoming spaces where the table is yours alone for the week, and where you can dine, at your leisure, without worry of having to hurry up for the next seating...there is none.
And while the level of service is impeccable in the Grills (as it is throughout the ship), and while a deep sense of respect and elegance pervades so many facets of it, the entirety of the experience still maintains a sense of unfettered enjoyment. Whether we were hitting golf balls into the net on deck, playing table tennis at midnight by the light of the setting Norwegian sun, dancing to the orchestra, or enjoying an on-board comedian, our week aboard the Queen Elizabeth provided as much pure enjoyment as we've had in a long time. Even the Michelin star-worthy Verandah restaurant, a fine-dining destination of remarkable character and passion, finds a perfect balance between a sense of occasion and the kind of relaxation that only top restaurants typically do.
As for the destination, Norway is a must-visit for passionate travelers. Bergen is home to a fish market that may permanently change the way you shop for salmon and caviar. Stavanger, an old fish-packing city whose fortunes now soar on the success of its oil and natural gas industry, is a charming, quirky town made for walking. Geiranger and Skjolden are home to fjords whose soaring heights beg to be hiked, and whose crisp waters are perfect for kayaking.
Just a few hours after pulling into port at Geirangerfjord, in fact, my wife and I were in our two-person kayak, paddling away with the rest of the group, past the hulking mass of the Queen Elizabeth, beneath the prows of other ships docked nearby, and out to the Seven Sisters Waterfall, a sight that would be at home in any postcard or movie screen. Later in the week, after a hike in Skjolden, we soothed our aching muscles in the ship's Golden Lion Pub with chicken tikka masala, fish and chips, and Guinness.
It was all as far away from the cruise commercials on television as possible, and a perfect way to spend a week away from our ordinary lives. I have a feeling we'll be Cunard regulars for years to come.
Photos courtesy of Stephanie Freedman