In the final days of February 2017 I stepped aboard the Cunard Line cruise ship Queen Elizabeth for a trans-Tasman voyage between Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. The last time I cruised was almost a decade ago and I've never travelled with a luxury line so this was an entirely new experience for me. I went in thinking that Cunard might be a bit too upmarket for my tastes, but by the end of the cruise I discovered something entirely unexpected.
This is the second article in a series looking at life aboard the Queen Elizabeth and exploring what it's really like to cruise with Cunard. This piece focuses on one of my personal highlights over the course of the voyage: food and drinks.
One thing is for certain: you'll never go hungry or thirsty when you're cruising with Cunard. Not only are there a multitude of different dining options onboard, but the vast majority of them are remarkably high quality and frankly damn tasty.
An iconic part of the cruising lifestyle is relaxing with a cocktail by the pool, and you better believe I indulged in this a few times during my time on the Queen Elizabeth. You'll never be far from somewhere to pick up a refreshing drink, whether that's in the classy yet low key environs of the Midships Bar, the Lido Bar by the pool, or in the Yacht Club nightlife venue. All drinks are paid for with your cruise card, like everything else aboard ship, and prices are relatively reasonable - though it's worth noting that everything is listed in US dollars. Of course, staff are always happy to bring you iced water free of charge and there are some fruit juices which are included in the cruise fare. You can find more info on drinks at specific dining venues below.
Cruising is well known for its buffet dining, and the Lido Restaurant is Cunard's answer to this phenomenon aboard both the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria (Queen Mary 2 has the King's Court as its buffet option). To a certain extent, once you've been to one buffet you've been to them all, and the Lido Restaurant doesn't go a long way to distinguish itself from its peers.
Having said that, the breakfast options in particular are pretty good in a hearty comfort food sort of way. I had no trouble piling up a traditional â€˜big breakfast' for myself with scrambled eggs, sausages, juicy English and crispy American bacon, hash browns and so on. They even had black pudding, which is something of a rare treat for those living Down Under. There were also plenty of healthier options: a generous range of cereals, fruits and yoghurts awaited those more health/waistline conscious than I. Tea and coffee are a given of course, and there was a small selection of fruit juices available as well. I was less impressed with the lunch spread which was heavy on roast veges, pasta and Salisbury steak (pro tip: this isn't steak).
Dinner again was pretty standard buffet fare (although in my opinion better than lunch) however the Lido Restaurant has something else up its sleeve for dinner time. While half of the Lido remains in the usual buffet format, the other half transforms to offer specialty dining options. This changes night by night, giving cruisers the chance to try Asian, Indian and Mexican cuisine, among several others. There is a cover charge for these specialty options.
For those who are seeking something a little more refined than the buffet, the Britannia Restaurant is your go to solution aboard Cunard ships. Britannia is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times. For dinner there are two different sittings, one at 6:00 pm and one at 8:30 pm - you'll be able to decide before you embark on your cruise which sitting you prefer. If you're staying in a Britannia class stateroom, you'll have a meal card waiting for you in your room when you arrive, stating your sitting time and table on it. You'll be guided to your table by restaurant staff on your first arrival at Britannia and this will be your table (for dinner at least) for the duration of your cruise.
Breakfast at the Britannia Restaurant is a great opportunity to meet your fellow cruisers, as you can choose to sit at randomly mixed table. Otherwise if you're with a group you can also choose to be seated together. I found the breakfast portions a little on the small side, but tasty and very nicely presented, plus if you're still hungry you're free to order more. I didn't get the chance to try lunch at Britannia, but they do have a generous selection of appetizers, entrees (effectively mains) and desserts.
Given that Britannia dining is included in the fare, I was impressed at how sophisticated and well presented the dinner courses were. That's not to say it was haute cuisine with tiny portions served in a ridiculously artsy fashion - everything was just very professionally put together. Each meal consisted of three courses, entree, main and dessert, and while each course seemed smallish by itself, I was always full by the end, and I have a fairly substantial appetite. Some of the dishes were a little ho hum, but others were an absolute taste sensation and you always have the option of choosing something else if you discover that you aren't a fan of your initial meal choice. I was particularly impressed by their dessert cheeseboards, and the petit fours (mini sweet treats) offered after dessert are a nice touch.
You can order drinks with your dinner, including wine by the glass or the bottle. Clever cruisers order by the bottle, as the staff will hang on to this bottle for you and bring it out at subsequent dinners. This works out a fair bit cheaper in the long run. Don't forget, while all food at the Britannia Restaurant is included in the fare, drinks generally are not.
It's certainly not fancy, but this was one of the low key food highlights of my cruise. This is the place to get burgers, hotdogs, german sausages, fries, onion rings and so on - and they're actually pretty good. Located poolside, you can have a burger grilled up for you to enjoy in the shade after a swim or a soak. I tried a couple of meals there, and the turkey burger in particular was delicious. I did make the mistake the first time of missing the salad station with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, pickles and so on, so I thought the burger was a bit bare. I discovered my somewhat embarrassing mistake the next time I visited and subsequently built myself a burger worthy of the gods.
Golden Lion Pub
Cunard's English heritage is evident throughout their ships, from the names themselves to the numerous paintings of British royals, to the excellent afternoon tea (more on that in a minute). But few spaces onboard are as quintessentially English as the Golden Lion Pub. There are plenty of British beers on tap (not included in the fare of course) as well as a selection of other beverages, but the highlight here are the pub lunches.
Fish and chips with mushy peas was my personal favourite but the ploughman's was good too, and I was informed by a fellow cruiser that they do an excellent tikka masala curry. All meals (including the dessert of the day) are included in your fare. The decor here is on point, perfectly evoking the classic English pub, and there was even English sport news on the telly just to complete the picture.
I loved Verandah. If I could have, I would have gone there every night. Verandah is Cunard's contemporary French cuisine restaurant and it is superb. It's not included in your cruise fare but I would recommend paying a little extra to experience the impeccably presented and invariably delicious dishes at least once.
Onboard the Queen Elizabeth, Verandah is open for both lunch and dinner, and you'll need to pre-book a table. Dinner also comes with two different options: a standard three-course meal, and a five-course degustation menu. I didn't get the chance to sample the degustation menu, but I would 100% make it a priority on my next Cunard cruise given the quality of their standard menu. A particular highlight for me was the escargot entree in garlic butter and parsley foam. Having never partaken of snails before, this served as a pretty impressive introduction. Honestly though, every course was stunning, and the service more than matched the quality of the cuisine. While the portions weren't large, the food was very rich and I was definitely satisfied by the end.
This is more of a regular event than a dedicated venue but it's one of Cunard's signature features and definitely worth a mention. If you're in the mood for a dose of pure English charm, head to the Queen's Room around 3:00pm.
White gloved staff bring around sandwiches, including the white bread cucumber ones with the crusts cut off, sliced into little triangles - the kind of thing that sustained the British aristocracy as they planted flags and annexed wide swathes of the globe. This was accompanied of course by Twinings special â€˜Afternoon Tea' blend, which was diligently refilled whenever my teacup ran low. I was then presented with sweet treats including macaroons and some sort of cream filled pastry confection. This was followed by the most perfect, melt-in-your-mouth scone I have ever tasted (strawberry jam was provided, of course). Meanwhile in the background, a live quartet serenaded me with classical compositions of everything from Handel's Wassermusik to Seal's Kiss from a Rose. For an extra measure of indulgence, you can also enjoy a glass of Veuve Clicquot champagne with your afternoon tea.
Cunard really goes the extra mile with their room service. All room service meals are free 24/7, and the selection is pretty decent. You can also order a wide selection of drinks, though these do cost extra. I tried a few different room service meals over the course of my cruise and each one was tasty and arrived in under 15 minutes. The portions were mid-sized - I would often order room service as a pre-dinner meal to tide me through to the 8:30 sitting at the Britannia Restaurant.
There is also a Breakfast in Bed room service option, which allows you to custom build a breakfast from individual components, meaning you get exactly the kind of meal you want. Not a bad way to start the day, especially if you're sitting out on your balcony looking out across the endless oceanic expanse as you tuck into the most important meal of the day.
I didn't have the opportunity to experience the dining at Cunard's Grill restaurants first hand, as this is reserved for those staying in Queens and Princess Grill suites. This the top tier dining aboard Cunard and goes the extra mile to provide next level White Star Service to the line's most valued cruisers. There's a strong emphasis on preparing meal elements in front of diners, and while all meals aboard Cunard are high quality, the Grill restaurants really go all out with gourmet cuisine. The menus between the two are fairly similar, though Queens Grill passengers do have a slightly more indulgent selection. You can also dine â€œoff menuâ€ if nothing catches your eye.
As you can see, eating and drinking is a huge part of any Cunard cruise, and you are completely free to dine in whatever way suits you best. If this has your stomach rumbling, don't forget that the Queen Elizabeth will be homeporting in Australian waters for a couple months in 2019 - take a quick look at the upcoming Cunard cruises to see if anything catches your eye.