November 5, 2006

The QE2's still sailing into the sunset -- every day

With the Queen Mary 2 in the spotlight, and the Queen Victoria on the horizon, some wonder about the Queen Elizabeth 2's future.

Special to The Miami Herald
ROYAL VISAGE: Wilhelmina and George Glanville of New York walk up a stairwell on the QE2 with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth behind them.
In 2004, the dowager liner of the ocean, Queen Elizabeth 2, was dethroned by her ingenue sister, Queen Mary 2, which took over regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings between England and New York and became Cunard Line's flagship. What ever happened to the QE2? (Please answer true or false.)
1. The QE2 was sold to the Japanese.
2. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum bought the QE2 to become a floating hotel in Dubai.
3. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II requisitioned the QE2 as the British royal yacht.
4. Steve Wynn purchased the QE2 and floated it up the Colorado River to Las Vegas, where it will become his latest eye-popping casino resort.
5. None of the above.
If you chose No. 5, you are correct.
Although the 1,791-passenger QE2 has remained in the shadows of the glitzier 2,620-passenger cruise ship QM2 -- at least in the U.S. cruise market -- the legendary luxury liner still sails the seven seas, calling this year at 96 ports.
The last great British-built ocean liner, the QE2 has garnered a following of passengers who love the classy ship for what she represents: the nostalgic, glamorous golden age of travel when a ship was used as transportation, the only way to cross the ocean between Europe and America.
On a crossing, passengers can relish six days at sea without stopping. The ship itself is the destination. During nearly four decades of sailing, the QE2 has almost 800 trans-Atlantic crossings under her hull.
But when the $800 million QM2 jumped into the sea more than two years ago, making a bigger splash than a pod of breaching whales, the QE2 sailed out of the spotlight.
The ornate silver Boston Cup was transferred with a lot of hoopla from the QE2 to the QM2. Presented by the residents of Boston in 1840 to company founder Samuel Cunard, the cup commemorates the maiden trans-Atlantic crossing from Liverpool to Boston by Cunard's first ship, the Britannia. It traditionally sails in a glass showcase of honor on Cunard Line's flagship.
The QE2's nearly two dozen scheduled trans- Atlantic crossings annually were taken over by the QM2, and the QE2 went to Southampton, England, to cruise in Europe for a mostly British market, in addition to her annual three-month world cruise. This may account for obscurity among a multitude of Americans because they no longer see the QE2 regularly at her trans-Atlantic berth in New York and think she no longer is operating.
''Locals (the Brits) have recaptured the ship from the rest of the world,'' says Diane Porter of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was on the QE2's Iceland and Norway cruise in July, when the passenger list included 1,198 from the United Kingdom and only 189 from the United States.
More U.S. residents seem to sail on the QE2's annual world cruise. Of 825 passengers who did this year's entire world cruise -- passengers can opt to take one of five shorter segments, from six to 31 days -- 517 were North Americans.
The 2007 world cruise -- 108 days on five continents beginning Jan. 8 -- will mark the QE2's 25th anniversary world cruise.
''She is doing extremely well on the world cruise,'' says Carol Marlow, Cunard Line president and managing director, based in Southampton. ``For the last two years there have been a record-breaking number of passengers going on the entire world cruise. For 2007 it looks like we will beat that again.''
The QE2, which has traveled more than 5 million nautical miles and has carried some 2 million passengers, will celebrate another anniversary in September 2007 -- 40 years since Queen Elizabeth II launched the $69.8 million liner on Sept. 20, 1967, at the John Brown and Co. Shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland, near Glasgow. An eight-day England/Scotland cruise Sept. 15 will include special receptions, dining menus and entertainment, plus military bands, fireworks and flotillas.
''She is a real icon of British history and heritage,'' Marlow boasts of the old grand dame of the sea.
But with Cunard's new 2,000-passenger Queen Victoria making a grand entrance in December 2007, everyone is wondering about the QE2.
In addition, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea has adopted certain fire-protection requirements, to go into effect in 2010, which ban the use of combustible materials in cruise ships. This could mean costly renovations, if not the graveyard, for many older ships, but Marlow said the requirements shouldn't prove a major problem for the QE2.
``She doesn't have that much wood. There's wood, and then there's wood paneling. We don't think it will be too onerous.''
As for the Queen Victoria, Marlow believes the new ship will enable Cunard to broaden its worldwide itineraries. ``It gives our guests more choice.''
So, what is the future of the QE2, on which Cunard has spent more than $675 million throughout the years for refits and refurbishments?
''At the point in time where our guests no longer want to sail on her and pay a sensible price, or whenever we can't maintain her from a cost-effective standpoint, then we will say goodbye,'' Marlow says. ``Neither is the case now. She is doing extremely well. There is no other ship like her.''
Porter agrees. She has sailed on the QE2 more than 30 times since the 1980s.
What is it about the ship for her?
``It's the warmth of the staff. You take it for the history and the bar staff and the maitre d's. They recognize me. That keeps you coming back. It's not the management. They have done things to discourage Americans. The UK gets different pricing and brochures. It is quite frustrating. I get a brochure a week for the Queen Mary 2. Nothing on the QE2.''
Porter, 64, was on the QM2's inaugural trans-Atlantic sailing in January 2004. ''It's improving, in my eyes, but it's not this,'' she says. ``You never have a sense you're on a ship. It's a hotel.''
Lisa Campbell, 53, of Palm Beach Gardens, also sails frequently on the QE2. She first went with her father in 1975 and, after his death in 1994, waited five years to sail on the ship again. ''It was something that Dad and I did. I was afraid it would be too emotional. But there was only one way to find out,'' she says.
Campbell notices subtle differences on the QE2 since Carnival Corp. bought Cunard Line in 1998, such as salt and pepper packets instead of shakers in the Lido informal buffet dining room. ''That's not Cunard. That's Carnival,'' she says.
And although the QE2 has one of the dressiest dress codes of any cruise ship -- even ''informal'' nights mean coat and tie for men and cocktail dress or suit for women -- Campbell notices passengers aren't dressing as elegantly as they used to.
''It's come down a peg or two. But it's still a wonderful ship or I wouldn't keep coming back,'' she says.
Constructed for the unpredictable North Atlantic weather conditions with a sturdier hull and sleeker bow to break through the waves, the QE2 is still the fastest passenger ship afloat -- 28.5 knots average, 32.5 knots maximum. She was the first ship built specifically for both cruising and trans-Atlantic service.
The QE2 is different from the latest mega-ships seeking to appeal to younger, more active vacationers. It has no five-story atrium with glass elevators and blinking neon, and its staterooms have no balconies, except for a handful. It has no ice-skating rink, no climbing wall, no surfing pool, no miniature golf course.
The QE2, however, has two things not found on many ships -- an honest-to-goodness movie theater, where first-run flicks are shown, and a synagogue.
Michael Leonard of McAllen, Texas, and his wife, Renee, both 50, are younger than most QE2 passengers. And while they enjoy a mix of ages, they would prefer to be with more people their own age.
''I'll say this,'' Michael Leonard says. ``Unlike other ships that I've been on, people continue to keep going on this one over and over again.''
''There's some kind of attachment to this ship itself,'' Renee adds. Michael interjects: ``I'm not real sure what the attachment is.''
Renee jumps back quickly: ``It's a historical ship. Down the road we're going to be really glad we can look back on this and say we did the QE2.''

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