Why would someone board an ocean liner to go nowhere? People do not pay for the pleasure of sitting on a motionless plane or inside a stationary car – not intentionally anyway – so what makes a ship any different?
The concept of the floating hotel has always been slightly contradictory but there are floating hotels and then there is the QE2. Other than the Titanic, she may just be the most famous liner in history.
Retired a decade ago after sailing further than any other ship – almost six million nautical miles in almost 40 years navigating the globe – the QE2 has returned to stationary service in the UAE. If you want a different view, you will need to cross the deck and swap the tranquil Arabian Gulf waters for the soaring Dubai skyline.
The QE2 is late on in life for such a radical career change but, lovingly restored, the hope is that the blend of British heritage and Dubai service will prove a hit.
The Queen Elizabeth 2, to give the ship her full title, was proudly launched in 1967 from the Clyde dockyards by Her Majesty as the ultimate flagship of the Cunard fleet. With her graceful curves and contemporary interiors, she breathed new life and style into ocean travel at a time when airlines were threatening to take over completely.
When she arrived in New York in May 1969 on her maiden voyage from Southampton, it was like a rock star had arrived. State governor Nelson Rockefeller came on board as she sailed past the Statue of Liberty to fireworks and a military fly-past as the champagne flowed. One thousand bottles were on board for every return crossing.
The QE2 was the ship for the swinging ’60s.The stewards wore turtlenecks, the waitresses in the coffee shop mini-skirts. “Ships have been boring long enough,” was the slogan she sailed by.
The stars descended upon her – David Bowie, Elton John, Neil Diamond, James Cagney, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor all spent time aboard.
Speedier than her larger transatlantic contemporaries, she could plough across the Atlantic in a comfortable five days. The ship’s co-designer, James Gardner, compared her functional elegance to that of a Bentley at sea.
She was a cruiser as well as a liner, and on one trip around the West Indies in 1971, she had to come to the aid of the stricken SS Antilles, which was on fire off the coast of Mustique, and rescued its 500 passengers and crew. In 1982 the QE2 was temporarily turned into a troop carrier to ferry servicemen to the Falklands during the conflict with Argentina.
But as the adventures on the high seas continued, the tide was turning against Cunard and with the company losing money, the QE2’s fortunes began to ebb.
In 1992 she ran aground off Martha’s Vineyard and 575 passengers had to be evacuated. Two years later a Christmas cruise had to be cancelled and the passengers returned to land after the ship failed fire-and-safety inspections.
She battled on to break Cunard’s record for the longest-serving transatlantic liner but by 2008, the writing was on the wall and the impending introduction of stringent new safety requirements, which she would have failed by a distance, was the final nail in the coffin.
After 1,429 voyages, carrying almost 2.5m passengers, the QE2’s time as an ocean-going liner was up.
As the Cunard flag was lowered at the completion of her final two-week cruise in September of that year, the QE2’s foghorn sounded 39 times, one for each year of service. It was the end of an era. Passengers and crew alike were in tears.
But there was life in the old liner yet. The Dubai government had bought her for US$100m with the aim of turning her into an opulent hotel on Palm Jumeirah, but the global financial crisis put plans on hold. In 2009 there was talk of sailing her to Cape Town to house fans at the following year’s football World Cup. Liverpool and London were raised as possible homes, then Victoria Harbour.
Finally though, behind the scenes, came movement. The original grandiose plans were reconfigured, her dock at Mina Rashid was made a permanent home and, 2.7 million man hours of painstaking restoration work later, the QE2 threw open her doors again in April 2018.
There was trepidation amongst traditionalists but the initial reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. QE2 enthusiast and former passenger Alex Tarry, and his wife Naomi, were one of the first to try her out.
“I cannot imagine a better outcome for QE2, in our opinion she is in great hands,” he said. “Most of her beautiful features appear to be present and correct, including her distinctive smell, which brings back all kinds of wonderful memories.”
The refurbishment bill is considerably more than the US$40m it cost to build her but it has been worth it. The look and, just as importantly, the timeless
feel remains intact. Even the The Queen’s Grill’s flavours are the same, with the restaurant offering a tasting menu featuring dishes that were available on the ship’s maiden voyage, eaten with the original cutlery. Partially re-opened at present, there will be a full all-singing, all-dancing launch in October when all 13 bars and restaurants will be open for business.
When she arrived in New York in May 1969 on her maiden voyage from Southampton, it was like a rock star had arrived
Her latest refit, like all her previous regenerations, has brought tweaks – this time with a local flavour. The UAE flag flies on board while alongside the portraits of a youthful Queen Elizabeth 2 and Samuel Cunard hang images of Dubai’s rulers. The Yacht Club serves shisha on its terrace. While the US and UK are an obvious target market for the one-time transatlantic liner, her owners PCFC Hotels – part of the Dubai Government’s Ports, Customs and Free Zones Corporation – report significant local interest too.
“It has taken a lot of passion and over 2.7 million man hours to restore her to former glory,” says Hamza Mustafa, the CEO of PCFC Hotels. “Our challenge was to walk the fine line between modernising her infrastructure without losing the charm and design aesthetics. This has taken some creativity – like recreating her original carpet designs – but overall we’re extremely proud of what we have achieved.
“We have hosted a number of passengers now who have had a fantastic experience onboard – and those who had stayed on her during her sailing years have been enamoured with the results.”
But while this new addition to the Dubai hospitality market might appear a shot across the bows of the competition, the reality is a little different. “The QE2 complements rather than competes,” explains Mustafa. “We fully expect tourists to Dubai to split their time between a more traditional beach or city hotel followed by a few nights onboard – discovering the history of the QE2 and all that she has to offer.”
While all that points to a harmonious arrangement, one thing is for certain: while onboard the QE2, guests will be set for a special experience. The 224 rooms have been brought up to date with flat-screen TVs and mobile phone key access. The accommodation ranges from snug standard cabins, initially priced at US$135 per night, to the two sprawling Royal suites – Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary – which are offered on an invitation-only basis.
If you are not on the VVIP list then you can always take the Captain’s Cabin and live like one of the 25 men to captain the ship – albeit minus the adventure on the high seas.
There is nostalgia in that of course and some may prefer to remember her in her ocean-going prime. But, in her new guise, she retains a unique presence that offers something different to Dubai’s tourism landscape.
The QE2’s days at sea may have gone, but it’s true what they say… style never goes out of fashion.