There's a slight problem as we wait to enter Britannia, the plush restaurant spread over decks two and three of the Queen Victoria cruise ship. It seems several of our party are sartorially challenged in that we are not sporting jackets and one of us is, gasp, wearing a short-sleeved shirt.
There are standards to be upheld, it seems.
In the end it is explained, in hushed tones, that we are media, on board for a two-night Melbourne-Sydney preview of what the 2016/17 season might hold. This is not in an effort to get special treatment. Instead, it is whispered in the voice you use to apologise for your idiot toddler and his failure to read the pre-boarding literature.
That literature, by the way, explains the "informal" dress code thus: "Jacket required, tie optional for gentlemen, cocktail dress, stylish separates or equivalent for ladies. After 6pm shorts and blue or worn denim (for men and women); sandals and sleeveless tops (for men) are not considered appropriate within the ship."
There's more but you get the drift; the Queen Victoria's nod to the 21st century is "tie optional".
The maitre d' finally agrees to let us in just this once, though from his expression – he looks like a chihuahua chewing a chilli — he is not happy.
Still, crisis averted we head through the stunning two-floor restaurant under the baleful glares of several (jacketed) guests appalled at our overly casual appearance.
This is by no means a complaint. It is simply an anecdote to give an idea of what to expect on board the Queen Victoria. It's what James Cusick, Cunard's Hotel general manager, calls the Downton Abbey effect – the increasing number of cruisers who "like the formality, like the white gloves at afternoon tea", who want the jacket and collared shirt rule, who like tradition and yearn for the days of politesse, elegance, grace and dress codes.
This, after all, is a ship of white-gloved waiters, staff in immaculate uniforms, of afternoon tea, bridge clubs, ballroom dancing and two seatings (6pm and 8.30pm) for dinner. None of this freestyle "lob-up-any-time-you-like" jeans and T-shirts lark that holds sway on some of the more informal cruise ships.
The Queen Victoria set off on its maiden voyage on December 11, 2007, joining sister ships the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Elizabeth in Cunard's royal trilogy. It's actually hard to believe it's that new. From the outside it looks like your common-or-garden beautiful cruise ship – all sweeping bow and sleek lines bristling up top with up-to-the-minute technological gee-gaws – but inside it's a different matter.
To step inside is to step back to a gentler, more tender, more civilised age. The 1920s or 1930s, perhaps.
The public areas look like the only things missing are Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple sticking their noses into the two-storey library with its spiral wooden staircase or sleuthing around in the Champagne Bar and the heady fug of the Cigar Lounge. There's wood – lots of wood – and marble and brass and chandeliers and bevelled mirrors all done in the classic art deco fashion epitomising, as it did then and this grand ship does now, luxury, glamour, high spirits and faith in technological progress.
There is even, pride of place in the Britannia restaurant, a huge rotating globe that could have been taken straight off the top of the Daily Planet newspaper in Superman's Metropolis (itself depicted as a strongly art deco, progressive city full of skyscrapers and optimism).
There are also terribly, awfully nice pictures on the walls everywhere, showing the sort of happy-go-lucky flappers who would have shaken a leg or jittered their bug at Jay Gatsby's little gaff on West Egg.
The Queen Victoria (never the Queen Vic, please) is the smallest of Cunard's ships. It weighs in at 90,000 gross tonnage, is 294 metres long, 32.3 metres wide and 54.5 metres high. It can take 1997 guests in 994 rooms on 12 decks and the crew complement is 981. In the great pantheon of these ocean-going behemoths it is way down the list in terms of size – but in terms of splendour, luxury and ambience it punches way above its weight.
It has seven restaurants, 15 bars and lounges, including the Golden Lion pub, which stocks a great selection of British beers such as Old Speckled Hen, Doombar and Theakston's Old Peculier. There are two pools, a well-equipped gym and a small sports deck on which you can play paddle tennis and quoits, a game popular on cruise ships in the 1920s (possibly because they didn't have the internet).
The Queen Victoria was named, obviously, after the 19th century monarch of the British Empire, a woman who, if the photographs clustered on board are anything to go by, never cracked a smile. It was officially named by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, whose portrait also adorns many a wall throughout the ship.
There is, sadly, no brig – a word that causes no end of consternation when it's mentioned. "What," I am asked, "is a brig?"
Dear me, have these people never watched Star Trek? Every captain of the Starship Enterprise throws someone into the brig at one point or another. A brig is the gaol, cell, hoosegow, on a United States Navy or Coast Guard vessel.
Second Officer Orry Crews shrugs; no, there is no brig on the Queen Victoria. But what would happen if a stroppy septuagenarian got stuck into the sherry one night and ran amok? What then?
The offender, explains Crews with a smile that says "yeah, right, like that's ever going to happen", would be confined to a simple cabin and a guard would be posted outside the door. Phew.
When this question comes up we are on the bridge as part of a whistle-stop behind-the-scenes tour (such tours can be had for $160 a head and take about three hours). Later in the tour we visit the Burma Road, a main passageway that runs the length of the ship "below stairs" as it were and just 2.5 metres above the water line.
We visit the dock where 6000 suitcases can be loaded in 90 minutes, the incinerator where a small bookshelf of abandoned and "rescued-from-the-fire" books are available free to the crew, to the kitchen where 12,000 plates are washed per day and where a coffee machine can knock out 40 litres of American-style joe in seven to eight minutes. This prompts one Australian passenger, used to our stronger, European-style coffee, to quip: "So this is where coffee goes to die." So rude – it makes you wish there was a brig.
Back on the bridge, as Crews points out the various features of the nerve centre of this $515 million vessel, my attention is drawn to a wooden stick on the console next the officer in the captain's chair.
It is about a metre long, with a bulbous head made up of white sticky tape, like the torches villagers set fire to before chasing monsters to their deaths in blazing windmills and the like. It is somewhat incongruous among the multimillion-dollar technology.
The stick, explains Crews, is called Excalibur and is used in conjunction with the Dead Man's Switch, an alarm that sounds every 12 minutes unless it is turned off. If not turned off, it eventually spreads to the rest of the ship, alerting all that everyone on the bridge is asleep.
It is also just out of reach of the captain's chair – hence the stick, which is used to reach across and press the switch before we all panic and jump overboard.
Later that night, as we watch a comedian go through his paces in the Royal Court theatre (the first at sea to have the private boxes in which we are seated, elegantly glugging champagne), I find my thoughts returning to the bridge and whatever officer is up there sitting in the hot seat, staring out at the darkened seas and, every 11-and-a-bit minutes, leaning across to stab at the high-tech Dead Man's Switch with low-tech Excalibur.
It is a curiously comforting thought. King Arthur meets Queen Victoria. A hit and a myth.
Keith Austin was a guest of Cunard.
The Melbourne-Sydney sector was part of Queen Victoria's 120-day World Voyage for 2016. She departed Southampton on January 10 and will return there on May 10.
In 2017 Queen Victoria will make history as the largest ship to sail the Amazon River, with a five-night cruise featuring as part of her 120-day world voyage, which departs Southhampton on January 5.
A 17-night sailing from Santiago (Valparaiso) to Auckland departing February 16, 2017, is priced from $3999 per person twin share. A 25-night voyage from Sydney to San Francisco departing March 11, 2017, is priced from $5749 per person twin share.
For more information and bookings visit cunard.com or call 13 24 41.
Buffet style complimentary dining from breakfast through lunch and on into the evening, this is the place to fill up big time. In the evenings parts of the Lido become specialty (seafood/steak, Indian and Asian) dining areas with table service for an extra $20 per person.
Contemporary French cuisine featuring a mouth-watering seafood trolley (aka Selection de fruits de mer de notre chariot), terrines, rillettes, escargots and the like. The three-course dinner menu is excellent value at $32 per person.
This grand two-storey restaurant with its curved staircase and art deco rotating globe is open for more formal breakfast, lunch or dinner. Only two settings for dinner (6pm or at 8.30pm) and don't forget that jacket. The service is exceptional.
THE GOLDEN LION
Fish and chips, ploughman's lunch, pies ... it's your typical pub grub at this really quite good copy of a British pub, complete with darts comps and trivia. Wash the food down with a Theakston's Old Peculier.
QUEEN'S GRILL & PRINCESS GRILL
These two restaurants are reserved for guests staying in the more expensive Queens Grill and Princess Grill Suites (butlers, concierges, exclusive access to certain ships areas). Breakfast, lunch and dinner (served whenever you damn well want from 6.30pm-9pm).