The final voyage of the Queen Elizabeth 2, a 16-day trip from Southampton, England, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, leaving Nov. 11, 2008, sold out in about 35 minutes. The news had broken earlier that Carnival Corp., Cunard's parent company, had sold the vessel to Dubai World for $100 million, and that it would retire as a floating hotel and museum in Dubai.

The announcement was met with everything from tears to anger to relief, but above all, with a flood of memories of the longest-serving ship in Cunard's 167-year history.

Since it began service in 1969, the QE2 has carried 2.5 million passengers on more than 800 transatlantic crossings and has made 25 trips aroundthe globe. In interviews with Travel Weekly, a few veteran passengers, crew members, travel agents and Cunard executives recalled their experiences on the iconic liner.

First impressions

Photo courtesy of Cunard LineJohn Maxtone-Graham, a maritime historian who has sailed on the QE2 more than 40 times: The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary were rather similar ships, very majestic and traditional. Suddenly, here was QE2, with a pencil-slim, single funnel smokestack that was almost like a factory chimney, not the three, great towering funnels of the Queen Mary.

There was a terrible slogan they used when QE2 was coming into being, an ad that said, "Ships have been boring long enough," talking about their own ships.

Bill Miller, a maritime historian who sailed on the QE2 35 times, beginning 37 years ago: She looked so radically different than the old Cunarders that we used to know. She was so modern, with Formica and scoop chairs and lime green leatherette. She had this kind of Star Wars look. It's the late '60s, we still had these old ships around, and she was the new jet-set ship. She was the Concorde of her time.

Maureen Ryan, from London, who worked on the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth before joining the QE2 as social hostess in 1968: I was terribly shocked and found it very difficult to get used to. Instead of all the dark wood of the art deco-style ships in the '30s, suddenly you have this modern '60s ship done with all these garish '60s colors. I thought, "What have I come to?"

We weren't used to carpets. The 1930s ships had rugs and flooring. ... It was all carpets in very bright reds and oranges. It was a ship for the '60s, very state of the art. And, of course, now she's the old-fashioned one.

Maxtone-Graham: It was a time of swinging London. All the stewards wore turtlenecks, they were trying very hard to make shipboard life more hip. Not sort of fusty and old-fashioned. They tried to chuck out a lot of tradition, and over the years they found out that people who board the QE2 and want to cross the Atlantic on it are looking for exactly that kind of tradition. They cherish it.

The crew

John Duffy, hotel manager on the QE2 since 1981, from Liverpool, England: When I took the QE2 over in 1981 she was ... obviously the greatest ship in the world. ... I was very, very proud to be chosen as hotel manager.

In those days, you were really at the top of the tree. There was not a better ship. She was world class and world famous and there was nowhere else to go, really. So I stayed there, and the ship to me is so wonderful. I'm just very proud of it.

John Maxtone-Graham: Bil Warwick was the first master of the QE2, and his son Ron also became master. This is an absolutely unique thing in the merchant marine history of any line in any county. ... Ron went on to be commodore as his father was. The Warwicks are really indistinguishable from QE2. They both had whiskers; they were both bearded.

I remember one early cruise on the QE2, a beautiful, calm, not-too-hot day, just drifting along at slow speed, which is rare for the QE2, but Bil Warwick didn't need to make any time. He was a great seabird fancier. He loved watching through his binoculars, not the ships or islands we were passing, but the birds that were flying overhead.

I remember seeing him with his foot propped up on the deck house wall of the bridge, his head back, leaning up and looking at the birds in the sky.

Bill Miller: When I first started sailing on it, the whole crew was British. ... You don't have that anymore; you've just got the British officers. The rest of the crew is multinational. That was the tail end of that era. One of the things about the British crew is that they had great pride. It was their ship, the British flag, and many of them had worked for Cunard for years and years.

There was one man, a barman, named George Coleman; he worked for Cunard for 50 years. He started back in the 1930s. There were so many crew members with long stories and great histories. Their fathers worked for Cunard, and sometimes their grandfathers. It was like a tradition.

Ronnie Renken, a QE2 passenger for more than 25 years, from Garden City, N.Y.: The captains were English, the officers were English, and when we first started a lot of the crew was English. We had a gentleman named Peter Wheeler who was on for 48 years as a cabin steward. And he died in his cabin, on the ship. He had been on the first Elizabeth.

When we'd be approaching England and the sun would come out after crossing the North Atlantic,  I would always say, "I saw the sun, we must be near England," and their faces would light up -- even the crew that was not English.

Onboard life

 

Dorothy Remnick, Reid Travel, Boca Raton, Fla., a frequent passenger on the QE2: The tea time is a very big thing, like on all the English ships. It's an elaborate process with lots of choices of sandwiches and cakes and all kinds of different tea, and if you want coffee they'll give you coffee. They usually have music playing, a harpist or some string quartet playing. It's very classy. Not like a lot of other ships.

Bill Miller: I remember listening to so many wonderful speakers on the ship: Meryl Streep talking about movies, Ben Kingsley on the making of "Gandhi." ... Probably the best collection of lecturers I've ever seen.

Paul Largay, co-owner and president of Largay Travel in Waterbury, Conn., who sailed on the QE2 in 2002: You couldn't help but feel like you had stepped back in time when you were out on the deck, on the steamer chairs reading "War and Remembrance."

It was really like being an extra in a Humphrey Bogart movie. ... All of the outside world seemed to be able to be put on hold, and the ship became your viewfinder and all the quadrants of your compass. You really found a connection, not just with each other but sort of with humanity. All the white noise and distractions of everyday life seemed to be able to be put in your outbox.

John Duffy: In 1981, the world was a different place. You'd sail across the Atlantic and you'd maybe get about two or three messages the whole of the voyage across. Now, the world is different, and with e-mail there is a constant communication between ship and shore. But I think honestly the transatlantic to this day gives you that feeling. It started back in 1840 with Cunard, and it continues to this day. When you sail on a transatlantic, you really are out there. 

The QE2 during wartime

 

Dorothy Remnick: My husband and I were on the ship when she was commandeered to the Falklands Islands (in 1982 as a troop carrier). They dismantled the ship while we were onboard. We watched them put the helicopter pad out on deck, and they dismantled the shop, the casino. Everything just kind of disappeared. It was amazing. All the regular passenger facilities were shut down, and everything disappeared overnight. We arrived the next morning in Southampton and that was it -- the ship was taken to the Falkland Islands.

One of my nephews was a soldier who was sent to the Falklands on the QE2. He sent me a picture of where he sat in the dining room, and it was exactly where my husband had sat just a few days before. ... It was a story to dine out on forever, that he went to battle on the QE2.

Maureen Ryan: It came back, and then had a lovely refurbishment. It had 3,000 military personnel onboard, so it needed a bit of tidying up afterwards. And she went back into service. It was business as usual.

Bill Miller: I was in a terrible storm once coming back from South America on one of her earliest cruises, and everybody was sick. Hardly anybody was there, and I was sitting across from Elizabeth Taylor's mother in the dining room. The seas were lashing against the windows, and the ship was rolling, and people were ill. I'd been in other storms, but that was the worst I remember.

The one thing I felt was that ship was so strong, that everything would be fine. She has that solid feel like a battleship, that even the ocean can't beat her.

Celebrities

 

John Duffy: In the old days, we had a lot of famous people. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Rod Stewart, there are so many names. I've met the Queen Mother a couple times, and Princess Diana, Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, they've all been onboard QE2 for one reason or another.

When Dean Martin traveled, he had an entourage up in the penthouse, and they really didn't go anywhere except the penthouse and the Queen's Grill restaurant they dined in.  He was a very nice man, but one that didn't get around too much. George Harrison [and] Ringo Starr used to get around the ship.

One year, we had Nelson Mandela sail from Durban to Cape Town. That was wonderful to have him onboard, to chat with him.  He wrote me a very nice personal letter saying how much he'd enjoyed it. It's wonderful to keep that as memorabilia.  

Traditions

 

Bill Miller: Some passengers had their own maids. Before dinner time, the maids would go down to the purser's office and line up, and one by one they would go to the safe and collect the jewelry the guest wanted to wear that night when they dressed up. This was before safes were in the room. You put everything downstairs in the strongbox.

John Maxtone-Graham: I first crossed in 1970 when she was 1 year old. One of the things that was different about QE2 was that she had a dining room on an upper deck. QM and QE dining rooms were on sea deck. Now they were up high with big windows. It just so happened that the entire crossing, that five days, we were in fog all the time so we saw nothing but opaque white sheets. It was as though they had put white paper over the glass.

Maureen Ryan: It was an old, traditional voyage. Cunard always had ships on the North Atlantic taking people between the old and the new worlds. You don't see any other ships. You virtually see nothing. ... So you have this group of about 1,700 people traveling together for five days and there's wonderful food, wine, music and dancing and socializing, and then suddenly there's the horizon and it's over. The real world is at hand. It had a sort of charm about it. 

John Maxtone-Graham: One master was a man called Robin Woodall. He had a funny thing he used to do when he sailed from the Westside Piers [in New York]. We were backing into the Hudson and I was on the bridge, and he pounded the whistle as though it were a car horn. And that's a very loud noise. I said "Robin, what are you doing?" And he said, "I do this and set off all the car alarms of the cars parked on top of the pier." And it did. This was his little joke.

Buying a legend

 

Pamela Conover, president of Seabourn Cruises, who was involved in the acquisition of Cunard Line. She was Cunard COO from 1998 to 2001 and Cunard president from 2001 to 2004: When we acquired Cunard it was very clear that ... what we were really buying, the brand equity, was all in the QE2. The reason we really acquired the company was for the transatlantic trade, which was basically embodied in the QE2. The fascinating thing about the QE2 at that time was that it was a more recognized brand name than Cunard itself in many ways.

Maureen Ryan: [The mid-'90s] were not easy ... there was a question mark over the future for some time. It was all very uncertain. I don't know what would have happened if Carnival [Corp.] hadn't taken it over. Suddenly there was talk about building a new, huge ship, the QM2, and they invested money into QE2 and refurbished it. It was a godsend, really. I don't know what would have happened if Carnival hadn't done that. It was a very tricky time. We knew something would have to happen, but what?

Romantic notions

 

Paul Largay: With people like myself you can't help but extrapolate on the concept of my ancestors coming from Europe and landing at Ellis Island and [me] being able to do ostensibly what they did -- obviously in greater comfort. But there was a certain magical essence that surrounded the trip. 

Pamela Conover: People loved it. It embodied the romance of the sort of heyday of transatlantic liner travel. They enjoyed the formality of it and the experience of crossing for six days and being out in mid-ocean. The movie ["Titanic"] helped boost people's interest in it and made it appealing, the whole romance of it. Everybody wanted to be out there on the front of the bow doing that scene -- which, of course, you don't have access to.

Coming home

 

Ronnie Renken: We sailed back and forth to England every summer. It was really like coming home. We always had the same table in the Queen's Grill. We always had the same cabin, the same stewards.

When the millennium came along, my husband and I had booked the  cruise and unfortunately he passed away. ... I decided, because I figured that's where he wanted us to be, that I would go. But the big thing that helped me make my decision was I knew who was going to be there to take care of me. And although it was a little hard for me to do, they made it easy. 

I saw a steward named Oscar last year on [the Queen Mary 2]. We had a talk, and he said, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could turn back the clock and have Mr. Renken with us?" It was such a sweet gesture. ... But that's what [the crew] is all about. 

Maureen Ryan: She built up a clientele of people who were simply devoted to her. An enormous following. Enormous. People just loved that ship. Repeat business was huge. People would know me, and I would know them. You had a lot of people to catch up with. And the crossing goes very, very quickly. It speeds by.

Isabel Smith, who, with her husband, Larry, has been sailing on the QE2 since 2002: They were always there to welcome you back to the ship with a sign that said, "Welcome home." And all you'd gone off for was a day. It becomes like your home. We always had the same waitress, and one time when we didn't show up for breakfast and lunch she was very worried and asked our table mates if we were OK. That was very nice.

Ronnie Renken: When I heard on the news that she was being retired, which I was quite sure was going to happen, I just closed my eyes. And I knew every nook and cranny on that ship. Everything has to come to an end, and the last couple times I was on, you could see some signs that they wouldn't be able to continue keeping it. It just wasn't feasible with the mechanical parts, the engineering parts. It was a ship that had a lot of age on it.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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