Port of call: Peter Warwick's extraordinary journey aboard the QE2
After 17 years away, the former tour director has docked in Dubai and says 'it's like coming home'
As Peter Warwick strides the length of the historical Chart Room, he runs his hand along the leather armrest on the bar, touching the original wood and iron stools, pointing out the nailhead trim and original details. “This place was always much-loved, and it was so very nostalgic when it reopened. I mean, look at this; all of this is authentic from back in the day when I was in service. It’s just incredible, it looks exactly the same.”
He nods towards a “North Atlantic Crossing” map encased in glass, which traverses the entire back wall of the bar, and he points out the metal strips embedded within the map. “This map, I absolutely love,” he says. “Those strips show the Atlantic routes we took – they’re metal – and every four hours, the man on duty had to move a miniature magnet of a QE2 ship along the strip, to show where we were as we crossed the Atlantic. I just love that.”
The Chart Room – a renowned lounge aboard the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 that’s now permanently docked at Dubai’s Mina Rashid port – just recently reopened aboard the ship, and Warwick, a QE2 veteran from back in the day and its current tour director, considers it one of his favourite spots on board the world-famous vessel.
He reaches the end of the Chart Room and stops in front of a wooden chest of drawers. “This is just a chest of drawers, but it was here back in 1995 when I was doing this tour all these years ago, and it looks exactly the same. Not a scratch, not warped, just incredible. It contains maps of different ports that we sailed into and anyone can come and have a look,” he says. Then, he leans against a table closest to the chest of drawers and steps back into the past.
“In fact, a couple I loved would sit right here,” he reminisces. “They were regular world cruisers. Mr and Mrs Rosenberg. They would buy the crew a drink for their wedding anniversary every year, on the 5th of January. A drink for 1,000 of us! They were lovely, Michael and Jocelyn. So generous. They just loved the Chart Room.”
It’s these details that make Warwick a treasure trove of tidbits and anecdotes on the days when the legendary QE2 was out sailing the world, shepherding her passengers from port to port, all the while overseeing the fun on board.
Warwick, 52, joined the QE2 as crew staff in 1995, flying to Barbados from London to board the ship. Later, he became deputy social director and press liaison officer, before assuming the role of deputy cruise director and then cruise director, in charge of all entertainment on board. However, his mother’s death and the need to look after his father meant he had to leave the ship in 2001.
Warwick’s history with the QE2 began years earlier, when his parents surprised him with a cruise on board the ship for his 21st birthday. In the years that followed, Warwick and his parents and friends became regular passengers. “I was a passenger for 10 cruises before I even thought about joining the staff,” he says.
Today, 17 years after leaving the ship as cruise director, Warwick is back as head of heritage on the cruise-liner-turned-hotel, supervising and training a group of tour guides who take guests through the ship and provide an introduction to its history, sharing stories, providing a glimpse into original rooms and artefacts and giving guests a taste of what it was like to be on such a historic vessel. And it’s Warwick’s past with it that provides such a personal flavour to the tour. “I was away 17 years, then saw the ship again just a few months ago when I landed in Dubai. I took all of a minute to decide when the job was offered to me. It’s like being home again; those 17 years just paled into insignificance,” he says.
Throughout the course of his service on board, Warwick has had the privilege of meeting leaders and celebrities from across the world. From shaking the hand of Nelson Mandela to listening to Buzz Aldrin speak about what it felt like to join Neil Armstrong as the first men on the Moon, and from attending concerts on board by Shirley Bassey, Elton John and Aretha Franklin to singing karaoke with Jim Bowen and Bobby Davro, Warwick has met and catered to notable figures throughout his years of service. Even before his employment on the ship, when he was just a passenger with his parents, he got to meet Queen Elizabeth II herself and be part of a historic moment when she became the first British monarch to sail on a commercial ship with passengers.
“Her Majesty loved the ship, she visited it often. But on that particular cruise – it was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Cunard Cruise Line – the Queen came on board for part of it and sailed with us to Southampton. I was collecting autographs that day. I got to meet Her Majesty – we actually share a birthday.”
But Warwick says of all the famous people he met that day, no one made as big an impression as Millvina Dean, the youngest survivor of the Titanic tragedy. “She’s the one; that true touch of history that I got to meet,” he says. Dean was only two months old when the Titanic sank and she lost her parents. She was the youngest passenger aboard, and was the last surviving passenger from 2007 until her death in 2009. “I met and danced with her, we had coffee in the Queen’s Room. I’ve met Mandela, the Queen, President Bush. Who haven’t I met? But Millvina was the most special memory for me,” Warwick says.
It is the stories of the people on board that make Warwick’s blue eyes twinkle and his voice take on an excited rush in the retelling. “We had a lady whose husband died in Hong Kong while on a world cruise, and we had to keep his body in the morgue until we got to New York and the funeral was sorted out,” he recalls. “She said to me, ‘I am going to sell my apartment in New York and move on board with you,’ and I didn’t believe it. But that lady sold her apartment in New York and lived on here for 14 years, non-stop, at the cost of £3,500 [Dh16,160] a month.
“We have a motto, a slogan, in our training. ‘This is a monumental destination.’ And it really was. A lot of us, including me, didn’t care where we went, as long as we were on the ship. We could be in Cape Town, Norway, Sydney; we didn’t care. The ship was home for so many of us. It had an inexplicable draw.”
There’s no question how much Warwick loves the ship; there are memories around every corner, of the days he would watch his mother and father glide across the dance floor, or winning a game of Bingo with his mother, or when he’d join his father at the Golden Lion pub. Especially now that they have both died, Warwick values living and working in a place that holds so many memories of his time with them. “What I don’t miss is the rough seas, they were a blustering nuisance,” he admits. “But I’m thankful that the ship looks exactly like it did, because it feels like I’ve come home.”
Today, he lives on board the QE2, and regularly conducts tours of “his” beloved ship. The wealth and extent of his knowledge is astounding. He knows how many library books were on board: 6,000. He knows that the ship’s bell would be used to ring out the old year and ring in the new, and that it was sometimes turned upside down, filled with water, and used to baptise children on board. “Two babies were baptised when I was in service,” he says. He knows that back in the day, the ship used 2,500 tea bags a day, 20 tonnes of lobster in a year and five tonnes of caviar annually. “The hotel stores were absolutely monumental,” he says. He knows about each of the eight refits that the ship had in her life, and that she embarked on 212 transatlantic crossings, carrying 2.5 million people more than 6 million miles, under the guidance of 25 captains in total.
And he was there on September 7, 1995, when the QE2 was headed to New York, sailing in calm waters, when out of nowhere, a wall of water “more than 90 feet high” hit the ship straight on.
“We tried to avoid it, but we couldn’t divert more than 200 miles. It was frightening, it really was. The double-thick steel hull was severely battered, the mast was bent out of shape, the fog horn at the front got ripped off and was found at the back. Our captain said it was like driving into the White Cliffs of Dover. Can you imagine? The windows on the upper deck were shattered and we still had two days to get to New York! That was the worst I’ve ever experienced. We had to calm the passengers down and we couldn’t show our fear, it was really difficult, to be frank. It was frightening but we survived it.”
A few weeks ago, the QE2’s signature restaurant, The Queen’s Grill, reopened its doors. It offers a refined selection of British fine-dining dishes as well as a tasting menu that recreates a classic selection of plates from 1969 that was always a favourite of passengers.
Warwick welcomed a gentleman to the restaurant soon after it reopened. “He came in and asked to sit at a specific table,” Warwick says. “He told us that 23 years ago, he had been a passenger on the ship and sat at this same restaurant, at the same table, and had one of the best meals of his life. He wanted to recreate the memory.
“He had that much of a hold on our passengers. It’s hard to explain, but I understand it. There is something about being on the QE2. It’s iconic.”
Published: December 14, 2018 09:30 AM