The tremendous media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic generated by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton this spring has created a global surge of interest in all things British. Fresh from covering the royal wedding for the BBC in London, I had set sail around the Mediterranean on the grandest of British seafaring traditions by embarking on the newest ocean liner in the Cunard fleet. Christened by her namesake, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II last October, the Queen Elizabeth, like all Cunard vessels, upholds its British heritage and would satisfy even the most ardent Anglophile.
The ship's elegant interiors feature rich wood paneling, sweeping staircases and Art Deco touches reflecting the original Queen Elizabeth. There are also many pieces of memorabilia reflecting Cunard's history and its links to the British royal family, including models of former Cunard ships, old menus and daily programs and murals inspired by views from royal palaces. Throughout the ship, there are busts and Cunard-commissioned portraits of the Queen, as well as royal Christmas cards and photos of members of the royal family onboard a Cunard liner.
The piece-de-resistance artwork is a stunning 18.5 foot marquetry panel which spans two-and-a-half decks in the grand lobby. Commissioned from fine furniture-maker David Linley, who also happens to be the Queen's nephew, it's crafted from nine panels of different woods and depicts the port bow of the original Queen Elizabeth ship seen from sea level.
The three-deck high Royal Court Theatre evokes the feel of a London West End theatre and features 20 private "royal boxes", which guests can reserve in advance. There's even a Queen Elizabeth theatre company of singers and dancers - the only resident theatre company at sea.
My 15-day sailing from Southampton took in many of the popular ports of call in the Mediterranean including Gibraltar, Livorno (Florence) and Barcelona, but also some less visited but charming destinations such as Ajaccio in Corsica and Santa Margherita on the Ligurian Coast. Ajaccio is, of course, best known as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte but there's also some striking scenery such as the Calanques de Piana -- a stretch of rose and red-colored granite cliffs along the coast which plunge dramatically into the azure sea. The island is also known for its fragrant honey, flavored nougat and figetelli liver sausage, as well as Corsican pastries so it's well worth browsing at the food markets.
From the port of Civitavecchia, many head for Rome but I like that the ship offered some interesting alternatives for those who have visited the Eternal City before. For instance, there's an excursion to the ancient town of Viterbo in the Lazio region of central Italy where the Pope once had his country residence. Or you can visit the hillside town of Bracciano, dominated by the 15th century Odescalchi Castle which has made the headlines in recent times as the site of extravagant celebrity weddings -- with Tom Cruise tying the knot there in 2006, and British heiress Petra Ecclestone this year.
I decided to go to Rome again and was lucky enough to arrive at St Peter's Square during Mass, and be in the front row at the precise moment that Pope Benedict went by in his Pope-mobile. Talk about fortuitous timing! There's something surreal about seeing up close such an iconic public figure as the Pope - the closest feeling was when I met the Queen. It's a spine-tingling moment, whether or not you're a Catholic or a royalist.
Back onboard, there's the most English of traditions every day -- the afternoon tea, which on the Queen Elizabeth is served in the majestic Queens Room ballroom by white-gloved waiters while a musical quartet serenades the guests. Very civilized - although somewhat lacking in knowledge and finesse. When I asked one waiter what kind of tea he was about to pour, he replied, "Normal tea".
Otherwise, it's hard to fault the dining and the general excellence of the service, especially if you're booked in one of the higher class categories of accommodation (there are a total of 32 price categories) with enables you to dine at the more intimate Queens Grill and Princess Grill restaurants instead of the 878-seat Britannia main dining room. I especially love the attentive service at the 132-seat Princess Grill (where I dined most evenings), and the classic British and Continental menu selections such as Dover Sole and Beef Wellington.
I highly recommend the Verandah, an alternative restaurant available to all passengers (reservations required) which offers superlative French fine dining on par with any fine French restaurant on land, and wine selections from the Rothschild collection. The Degustation Menu created by Chef Zimmermann encompasses many regions of his native France such as Magret Duck, Baked Brie de Meaux Brioche, Escargot Alsacienne and an innovative Roast Pigeon Breast with Bitter Chocolate Sauce.
For those looking for a more casual venue, there's the Golden Lion Pub, which serves such traditional British pub food as beer battered fish and chips with mushy peas, and steak and ale pie. There's also the classic English dessert spotted dick (don't ask, only a Brit or a true Anglophile knows what this is).
During days at sea, many passengers took advantage of the sunshine and gathered by the two outdoor swimming pools and whirlpools, or shopped at the Royal Arcade -- a collection of seven shops selling products from Fortnum & Mason and other quintessentially British brands such as Harris Tweed, Penhaligons, Aspinal of London, Anya Hindmarch and Clogau, the Welsh jeweler which supplied the gold wedding rings for the royal family. To celebrate the launch of Queen Elizabeth, three brands including Clogau have launched specialty items for the ship. Ahh - we can all have a little piece of Britain while onboard a luxury ocean liner.