Boarding a ship is always a very exciting occasion for me, especially a Cunard ship. This was my first time on Queen Victoria and it was a beautiful day when we set sail. I find that a day or two at sea to begin with, as we had, is a great way to orient yourself on these majestic liners. You can be as busy or as relaxed as you like - and Butlins Holiday Camp it is not! There are so many beautiful and different public areas that you never feel like you are on a ship with 2,000 other people. I particularly enjoyed the treasure-trove of original art works, artefacts and historic photographs reflecting Cunard's proud history. In the three-storey Grand Lobby is an extraordinarily flattering oil portrait of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who launched Queen Victoria.
I love Cunard ships because they take me back to an era of luxury and grandeur. Queen Victoria, like her sister ships Queen Elizabeth and the grande dame of the fleet, Queen Mary 2, all offer a unique experience that makes you feel very special. At the same time they are elegantly casual. If you like dressing up in the evening these are the ships for you. Dress codes are advised in advance of your voyageand the black-tie nights create a very special ambience. If you don’t feel like dressing up, more casual options are available at the Lido Restaurant or simply by dining in your stateroom (it's complimentary and available 24 hours). A tip: if you are cruising in a warm climate it's well worth paying a little extra for a Balcony Stateroom.
After a couple of days at sea and an enjoyable day stop at the island of Aruba in the Dutch Antilles, we headed for the Panama Canal. In over 40-odd years of extensive travel this experience would have to be amongst my top ten travel highlights and you can only truly experience the Canal by ship or yacht.
The Panama Canal is considered one of the seven wonders of the industrial world and since 1914 more than a million ships have transited the Canal. We entered the Canal at Colón on the Caribbean side of the 77-kilometre-wide isthmus and exited at the Pacific port of Balboa. At either end you see ships lined up waiting their turn to go through: the Canal is like a mini-highway.
Our transit was a leisurely affair which lasted from 7am to 5pm and many passengers spent the day out on the decks watching our progress through the six locks and lakes. Excellent commentary was provided by a local expert who joined the ship for the day and some guests were able to access zones at the bow of the ship that are usually for the crew only. It made for spectacular viewing.
Among the highlights of the transit for me was passing close to El Renacer Prison, where Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator, is now incarcerated. It's a very basic-looking prison and we were so close you could see bare-chested male prisoners gripping the fencing (topped with barbed wire) to get a view of us as we sailed majestically past. The view of the very modern-looking Panama City skyline at dusk was another highlight, as was sailing under a lookalike Auckland Harbour Bridge, part of the Pan American Highway. We also saw the construction work under way for a second canal that will run parallel to the existing one and which will be wide enough to allow transit by Queen Mary 2 and other larger ships. The new canal is expected to be completed this year.
As we left the Canal behind us, cocktail hour beckoned in the Commodore Club (my favourite bar lounge on Queen Victoria) where I compared notes with two new-found friends from the US, Cindy and William. But transiting the Canal was not the end of the highlights: the next three ports of call were all in Central America - new territory for me and all well worth a visit. Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala all offered fascinating stops and touring opportunities and each was very different from the other. They all whetted my appetite to return and take a longer visit. That's one of the beauties of a cruise holiday: you get a taste of destinations and if you choose, you can go back at another time and explore more thoroughly.
From Central America, Queen Victoria continued up the Pacific Coast, stopping at the charming Mexican Ports of Huatulco (pronounced wah-TOOL-co) and Manzanillo. Margarita fix dealt with, we sailed on to the conclusion of our wonderful cruise experience at the port of San Pedro in Los Angeles. After an enjoyable day's shopping in LA, a comfortable overnight flight took us home to Auckland and the end of a truly memorable journey.
Have you been on a cruise before? Where would you like to cruise to? We would love to hear from you in the comment section below.