Anyone contemplating a QE2 crossing or cruise should keep in mind that when you select your cabin, you are also selecting your restaurant--a vestige of the class system that long ago was the rule on the great liners. When the QE2 first entered service 31 years ago, she was divided into first and tourist classes, (mostly designated by signs rather than closed doors, as was the case aboard the previous Cunard Queens). Tourist class later became transatlantic class, and the first-class-only signs gradually died away.
Today, one books a cabin category that is matched with one of five assigned restaurants using letter prefixes: In descending order of cost, these are Q for Queens Grill, P for the Princess and Britannia Grills (normally, a P1 is Princess and P2 is Britannia, but passengers may request the opposite, space available), C for Caronia and M for Mauretania. The pricing differentials between categories can get complicated--check the brochure for specifics.
In nine months, I have dined in three of the QE2's five restaurants--the Caronia just after the ship's latest refit in December 1999; the Queens Grill on a cruise this past July; and the Mauretania on a transatlantic crossing in August. But it's the Britannia Grill I have sampled most since an inaugural evening in 1991, when it opened as a near-twin to the Princess Grill, always the ship's most popular restaurant.
I made my first QE2 crossing in June 1969, one month after the liner's maiden crossing, and I have 16 subsequent voyages. As a dyed-in-the-wool transatlantic aficionado, I admit to a love-hate relationship with the ship in the 1970s, but after her 1987 refit, re-crewing, and re-engining, the experience is again a most happy one. It's not blind love--the Queen has her faults, and her fiercely loyal followers can be some of her worst critics. Since the vast majority of my QE2 experiences have been on the North Atlantic, I will keep my comments to what I know best.
The transatlantic crossing is expensive compared to a cruise, even a QE2 cruise, but she faces no direct competition on her express liner run. For most travelers considering taking the Queen to or from England, the choices of cabin and restaurant will be between the Mauretania and Caronia categories.
The Mauretania is a sprawling two-seating restaurant with dinner scheduled at 6:15 and 8:30, no different from the principal dining rooms aboard Celebrity, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, or Princess ships.
Attractively partitioned with etched glass panels, the Mauretania's best tables are near the big windows, while the center is somewhat oppressive under the low ceiling. The menus are the same as in the higher-priced Caronia category, though some appetizers and entrees may not appear on the same night. At the first seating, service may be a bit more rapid but not rushed if it is efficiently paced; second sitting has no time constraints.
I have not found the service any different in either, but the Caronia, with its one open seating, is certainly the more grand and spacious of the two. The December 1999 makeover turned what had been a dowdy space into a sparkling first-class restaurant that might be found in a classy London hotel. The white ceiling, large square wooden columns and leafy Murano glass chandeliers make for a very handsome room. The Caronia provides a sense of occasion, where people enter on an upper-level platform and descend to either side.
Both dining rooms have good and not-so-good cabins assigned to them, and there are more of the latter in the lowest Mauretania grade. However, Four and Five Decks have the advantage of nicely redone corridors whose wooden wainscoting and handrails look infinitely better than any of the upper decks. Five Deck and Four Deck forward cabins may have the portholes covered with deadlights (metal covers) in bad weather.
Aft cabins aft suffer from some vibration and engine noise (the QE2 is a 25-26 knot express liner); cabins all the way forward will be quieter, but with pronounced pitching in head-on seas.
Most Caronia cabins are long, narrow and L-shaped, providing a measure of privacy for two people dressing at the same time, or for an early riser, and the higher-grade Caronia cabins have full bathtubs with showers. If you have the money, I'd suggest upgrading to Caronia for the nicer dining room and cabin, but don't expect much difference in either the food or service.
The three grills (Queens, Princess and Britannia) are what make this ship pay, and pay dearly those passengers do. When the ship was new, the 100-seat Princess Grill was the only grill, a hold-over from the Verandah Grill aboard the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. It started out as an extra tariff restaurant, but then Cunard learned that passengers were willing to pay substantially more for a cabin to be able to dine there exclusively (and enjoy the cozy Princess Grill Bar, reached via a spiral staircase). In fact, it was so popular that the ship had expensive verandah cabins added to the highest decks, and even added decks, to satisfy the demand. Hence, the much larger 225-seat Queens Grill was created up on Boat Deck.
Some people prefer the Queens Grill simply because it is the QE2's top restaurant, and one can more readily order off the menu, though this practice seems now to be less encouraged. The Queens Grill has its own kitchen, which means something, and its Grill Lounge is a pleasant hideaway overlooking the Boat Deck. The lounge is also open to Princess and Britannia Grill passengers but is otherwise off-limits--the only public room that is.
The Queens Grill suffers from restricted sea views, and those dining in the lower center level (in my words, "the pit") have no view at all. Both the Princess and newer Britannia Grills have floor-to-ceiling port or starboard side windows, and both have tiered seating for just 100.
My favorite arrangement is a table for four, but set for two, in the Britannia restaurant, facing out to sea at breakfast and lunch and inward at dinner when it's dark. Service in both grills is unhurried and gentle, and one feels completely removed from the rest of the ship as access is via a private set of stairs. On occasion, I have booked a Queens Grill cabin on One or Two Decks and elected to eat in the Britannia Grill, while others I know prefer the Princess Grill.
Passengers may put in a request for a specific area in the restaurant or even a specific table number, as some do, if they know the ship. With so many repeaters, a neophyte may not get what he or she wants at the first go. In any event, go to the restaurant at sailing time and check the seating arrangements. It's amazing what the maitre d' can do for you with a personal call.
My favorite cabins on any ship are the Q3 cabins on One and Two Decks: wood paneled (some with wood even in the ceiling), satin walls, walk-in closets and dressing room and large marble bathrooms that can be entered via two doors. Two people can chase each other in circles! When the QE2 was built, the Q3s were the ship's largest cabins, and two could be combined into a suite. These accommodations, amidships and midway above the waterline, are very stable in rough seas.
The newer staterooms high up on Sun and Signal Decks have a private entrance; they were added to fulfill the demand for more top-grade accommodations with verandahs. While some people swear by these, they are certainly less desirable on a North Atlantic crossing than on a calm-weather cruise. For me, they also suffer from not being original to the ship, and thus not possessing that true "ship cabin" atmosphere on the last true ocean liner afloat. I'll take my Q3 any day!
But here's the bottom line on dining for the bulk of QE2 passengers: Upgrade to Caronia, if possible; the Queens Grill is not really worth the extra money, unless status is important to you.