I am sitting on the upper deck of the Queen Elizabeth 2, sipping a glass of wine. There’s a sprinkling of other guests, relaxing in loungers, chatting, ordering drinks. The sun is about to set into the sea, and the light is beautiful, casting long slanting shadows. I close my eyes and it feels like I am sailing on the legendary QE2—except, of course, she is now docked permanently in Dubai, reborn as a hotel. But her magic is intact—she rises elegantly, a massive 13-storeyed presence, the signature orange-and-black funnel slanting cockily to one side, as if an old picture postcard has come to life. You sense the history and romance of a bygone era, when people still crossed the Atlantic by ship, dressed up in tuxedos and evening gowns for dinner, and had the time to watch sunsets while sipping martinis.
Now docked at Dubai’s Port Rashid, the QE2 had a soft opening last month after undergoing an extensive restoration-cum-renovation process. It is already welcoming guests—224 of the 600-odd rooms are ready, and some of the restaurants and bars are open, like the Queen’s Grill, and the Golden Lion Pub, which is now the “oldest-newest” bar in Dubai, having first opened in 1969 when the QE2 went on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Prestigious events have already been held on board—for instance, the launch of hyperloop company DP World Cargospeed by Richard Branson and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
But here’s the thing—Dubai has swankier hotels than the QE2, more happening restaurants and bars, far trendier neighbourhoods than Port Rashid, and yet there is something irresistible about the QE2 which pulls you over, and holds you in thrall. What is it about this seasoned, come-out-of-retirement “lady” that charms you? It is the history, of course, the stories that live within these spaces, but, as I slowly discover, it is also an invisible but huge storehouse of unconditional love, bordering on frantic devotion, that lives within the hearts of former crew members and passengers. Considering that she carried 2.5 million passengers in her almost 39 years of service, that’s a lot of love out there.
To get an insider’s take, I meet Kenneth Todd, who sailed on the QE2 for four years as a young man—and is now back as director of sales, thrilled to be “reunited with my lady after 17 years”. Did he think of her during the intervening years? “All the time,” he shoots back, so much so his wife complains the QE2 is his first love. He has been in constant touch with former crew and passengers—he sees them as a far-flung family all over the world—plus, there are umpteen online forums, very active at that, which keep the love afloat.
There is plenty to love, for the QE2’s list of accomplishments is impressive. She has travelled long—totting up six million miles (the equivalent of going to the moon 12 times) while completing 806 Atlantic crossings, as also world cruises which had her circling the globe 25 times. She was quick—with a top speed of 34 knots, she was the fastest cruise liner of her time, and once held the record for crossing the Atlantic in just three days, 20 hours and 43 minutes. She was strong—built to withstand the extreme conditions of the North Atlantic, including icebergs, and Todd tells me she has sailed within a mile of where the Titanic went down. She was also nimble—the largest liner to squeeze through the Panama Canal, with less than a foot clearance on both sides.
But it is her softer accomplishments, the unique atmosphere on board, the buzz if you will, that has generated so much affection. The who’s who of the world has been on board—starting with the woman after whom she was named, and much of the royal family, including Princess Diana—the likes of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, Rod Stewart and David Bowie, as also The Beatles’ George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Even the entertainment on board was remarkable—for example, the famed chef Julia Childs giving a demonstration, or Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell giving talks on the royal family.
Who’s the most interesting passenger you remember, I ask Todd, and get more than I bargained for. Beatrice Muller, an American widow, made the QE2 her permanent home for nearly a decade. She used to sail regularly with her husband—it was their favourite ship—and when he died, sadly on the QE2 while sailing from Mumbai, she figured the ship was a better place than a retirement home. The logic was strong—a new country every week, new friends all the time, playing bridge every day, dancing every evening, good medical care on hand, and a wonderful crew that loved and spoilt her—so she sold all her property and moved on board. She stayed till the last voyage in 2008, when the ship was handed over to Dubai. Muller was 89 when she disembarked.
“The QE2 was always known for her crew,” Todd says, and it was their friendliness that pulled in repeat customers in big numbers. Todd describes friendships that carried on beyond the ship. “I’d finish a contract, get off the ship at Southampton, and then go to London to meet former passengers, have dinner with their families, even meet the grandchildren,” he says. I can sense the same friendly service taking shape today—it is a young crew, still very new at their jobs, but everyone I meet goes out of their way to chat, to share information openly, managing to tread the careful line between respect for a guest and family-style informality.
It is time to leave, and I ask Todd one final question. If the QE2 was a person, who would she be? “Ingrid Bergman,” he says in a blink. Why? “Elegant, reserved, beautiful.”
Author: Radha Chadha