December 15, 2007

The duchess christens Queen Victoria

The Duchess Christens Queen Victoria
What's New With Queen Victoria?

If the bubbly fell flat when Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall pushed the button meant to release the good luck bottle of Veuve Clicquot against Queen Victoria's hull, well, today's ceremony was still a great sendoff.

It was perhaps fortunate that christening planners had Plan B in effect; as the ritual bottle of Champagne lay flat on the hull just beyond the giant V for Victoria, a young crew member on deck whipped out a spare and did the honors successfully by hand, the old fashioned way.

Indeed the incident in which new age contemporary technology needed just a bit of help from tradition sums up the appeal of Queen Victoria. It's a ship that beautifully marries the best qualities from "ye olde" times of cruising with just enough of the accoutrements necessary for today. And the series of performances that sparked the ceremony fit in just right too.

Some 2000 invited guests streamed into a custom-built dockside theatre for the hour-long event today. The dress code provided beforehand suggested "day dress, suit or trouser suit" and also noted that it "is presumed that many ladies will wear a hat to the Naming Ceremony, however it is not required."

Most didn't wear hats, though the parade of sporadic hat-wearing women was an enjoyable spectacle. More entertaining of course was the ceremony itself, which officially began with "The National Anthem," heralding the entrance of Camilla; her husband, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, followed right behind her. Carol Marlow, Cunard's president, welcomed all and sundry.

As a graphic of the three queens -- Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and the soon-to-be-built Queen Elizabeth -- was displayed on a huge white screen, Marlow referred to Cunard's explosive expansion. "Three new ships in six years ... this, ladies and gentlemen, is a revival. Cunard's lion does roar again."

What's not roaring, apparently, is the line's most venerable ship. Queen Elizabeth 2, which departs the fleet in 2008, wasn't even mentioned.

Otherwise the ceremony, at least Act 1, was more like attending a fantastic first-rate variety show than a symbolic sendoff for a new ship. Sir Derek Jacobi, a British film and theatre star, started out by assuming the persona of Phileas Fogg, the main character in Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." He transported us on a charming tour of Cunard's history from the vantage point of the Victorian era. Did you know, for instance, that Cunard's Berengaria, which operated during the time of prohibition in America, created cruising's first ever "booze cruise" from New York to Cuba?

Next stop was an anything but traditional gypsy dance to Bizet's "Carmen." Katherine Jenkins, a prominent mezzo-soprano, provided the ear-piercing lyrics. The most electric part of the ceremony came as the dancers clad in gypsy costumes in hues of bold oranges, reds and greens, were just finishing their act as the white screen behind them rose to reveal the hull of Queen Victoria, accompanied by fireworks. Nature performed on cue: The sun on this unusually gorgeous December day was setting, and could be spotted in a triangle of space underneath the tip of the hull, between land and sea.

If Act 1 was joyful and exuberant in tone, Act 2 transformed the ceremony from raucous to regal. Ship's officers and crew filed neatly onto the stage. The choirs of The Winchester Cathedral sang and The Lord Bishop of Winchester said The Prayers of Blessing. And then, with the customary drum roll, Captain Paul Wright escorted Camilla, followed by Prince Charles, Micky Arison (chairman and CEO of Carnival Corp., Cunard's owner) and Carol Marlow. Camilla, clad in a lavender dress coat with a hat to match, smiled bravely, looking straight ahead, while Prince Charles, just behind her, was significantly more relaxed, grinning and looking at the ship's staffers as he passed by.

Camilla intoned the standard sendoff -- "May God bless her and all who sail in her" -- and pressed the button that was rigged to the bottle on the hull's port side. After the backup bottle was successfully smashed, the ship's whistle blew, fireworks erupted and confetti dropped down from the ceiling.

And so it begins. Queen Victoria is officially welcomed into the fraternity (sorority?) not only of passenger vessels cruising today but also to the elite family of Cunard ocean liners.

Queen Victoria sets sail tomorrow on its maiden voyage -- a 12-night Christmas markets cruise to Northern Europe. Stay tuned as we'll debut new Queen Victoria features, including a virtual report from an onboard correspondent, throughout this week and next.

Gary Bembridge
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