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Will Queen Anne usher in a new golden age of cruising? A first look as Cunard crowns its new £500m monarch

Ahead of her maiden voyage, Benjamin Parker spends a night aboard Queen Anne – finding the iconic British cruise line’s long-established grandeur has been given a jolt of contemporary panache

Friday 03 May 2024 15:18
The red and black funnel has long been a fixture of Cunard ships
The red and black funnel has long been a fixture of Cunard ships (Christopher Ison)

A crisp spring wind whipped over the River Test, skimming the water that flowed on its path to the Solent. From my open-air viewpoint metres above water, the sunless sky is punctured by one thing only: the hulking red and black funnel that has crowned Cunard ships for almost two centuries.

On Tuesday evening, Southampton welcomed Queen Anne, the latest monarch to join Cunard’s fleet. There was much fanfare in the south-coast city, with crowds watching her sail in through the arcs of a water salute, Cunard’s first female captain, Inger Klein Thorhauge, at the helm. The following day, I was among the first to step onto her decks as she docked at her home port, where the line’s vessels have been based since 1919. In a swell of container ships and the concrete jungle of the port, Queen Anne beamed as a diamond in the rough.

Even the most reluctant of cruisers should appreciate Cunard Line; it’s a brand that transcends the industry and peppers history books. Since its first transatlantic crossing in 1840, its ships have been considered the height of luxury at sea – its designs drawing comparisons to The Ritz hotel at the end of the 19th century. Names, from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain to Judy Garland and David Bowie, have sailed under those famed funnels. Cunard’s Carpathia steamed to the stricken Titanic to rescue survivors in 1912.

Queen Anne makes her grand entrance into Southampton (Christopher Ison)

Jumping forward to October 2019, I was at the Fincantieri shipyard in Castellammare di Stabia, southern Italy, to watch the steel-cutting ceremony – the cruise equivalent of a ground-breaking celebration – for an unnamed ship that would become Queen Anne. Built at a reported cost of £500m, it’s the company’s first new vessel in 14 years (sailing two years later than planned).

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And while the 3,000-capacity Queen Anne (plus space for 1,200 crew members) is the 249th ship to sail under Cunard’s flag, what makes this such a milestone is her joining the coveted ranks of Cunard’s ‘queens’, which themselves hold a special place in cruise culture, as well as British consciousness.

She expands the current trio – Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria – into a quartet, and is an echo of its regal predecessors. Two are now decommissioned and sit as floating hotels (Queen Elizabeth 2 in Dubai, Queen Mary in California); the original Queen Elizabeth retired to Florida before sailing to Hong Kong, a blaze destroying it in the harbour in 1972.

The challenge for Cunard with Queen Anne has been to successfully juggle that heritage with modernity – something that has been done with aplomb across the 13 decks. While the exterior does little to push boundaries, inside is a sensitive homage to the traditions given contemporary zeal. The concept began in the line’s archives at the University of Liverpool, rooting this new addition firmly in the past. Old brochures, fabrics and posters gave inspiration but designers – including London’s David Collins Studio – were determined not to end up with a pastiche.

The Grand Lobby – fit for a queen (Christopher Ison)

Art Deco nods are found across public spaces, such as the curvaceous central ballroom, and the sheen of metals is paired with a palette of more muted – and more modern – colours. Gaudy carpet patterns, always a concern on cruise ships, cannot be found; my favourite were the blue designs that seem influenced by the water surrounding the hull or the air that would have blown the sails of bygone ships. While anti-cruise snobbery often sees noses turned up at ship accommodation, aboard Queen Anne, the calming tones sit against wooden furnishing and the Art Deco style seeps in; if this was on land it would be a hotel at the higher end of the scale.

Some of the best touches are clear attempts to bring the ship into the 21st century. Take the gallery, where work by Banksy was revealed on Wednesday – yours for a cool £125,000 – to sit alongside pieces from Thierry Guetta, better known as the LA-based Mr Brainwash. There’s simply no room for mass-produced dross in the “reimagined, elegant spaces”, as Cunard president Katie McAlister puts it. While elements such as the white-glove afternoon tea service remain, they’re bolstered by a Himalayan sea salt sauna or DJ booth around the pool.

Even the most reluctant of cruisers should appreciate Cunard Line; it’s a brand that transcends the industry and peppers history books

A huge coup is the work from chef Michel Roux Jr, who ran the two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London before it closed in January. He has revamped the offering inside this Golden Lion, Cunard’s pub-at-sea concept that can be found on all the ‘queens’, adding what he called “little details that make a huge difference”. He labelled the haddock scotch eggs (I think best served with a pint of Cunard Gold lager) as “bang on”. Rubbed his belly talking about getting the fish and chips just right.

For me, the most exciting thing is that the chef has brought with him a slightly tweaked version of the laden, three-cheese stovetop toasties from The Wigmore (another pub setup, at the bottom of The Langham hotel in central London, that Michel was tasked with elevating from the ordinary). The other girls in the fleet need not be jealous; Michel’s approach is being rolled out across the fleet. If you want a sublime dining experience on the water, there are two Le Gavroche at Sea residencies (with Michel on board and behind the pass) on Queen Anne this year, plus two more on Queen Mary 2.

Mine’s a pint: The Golden Lion pub-at-sea (Christopher Ison)

As for today, the debutant is getting ready to leave Southampton this evening, sailing to La Coruna in Spain and Lisbon in Portugal (with days at sea bookending each port) before returning home to England. Then it’s off to the Canary Islands before the 14-night British islands itinerary – including a stop for a naming ceremony in Liverpool, the spiritual home of Cunard. From then, the Med and the fjords beckon; however, cruise fans tell me they’ve got their eyes set on Queen Anne’s maiden world voyage in 2025, stretching over 111 days.

Waking up yesterday after a night moored in Southampton, I stepped out onto the balcony to more of the same rain. What warmed me – even more than the previous long night of champagne and martinis – was the thought of voyages yet to come.

I’m too young to know the ‘golden age’ of cruising, but Cunard has taken a step forward into its renaissance. Long live Queen Anne – and happy holidays at sea for all who sail on her.

Read more: The best Caribbean cruises for a holiday on the water in 2024/2025

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