QE2 docks at new home today

The Queen Elizabeth 2 will dock passengers for the last time, bringing nearly 40 years of maritime travel to an end.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 passes through the Suez Canal on the way to its new home in Dubai.
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It has crossed the Atlantic more than 800 times and given 2.5 million passengers the seafaring trip of a lifetime. But today the Queen Elizabeth 2 will dock passengers for the last time, bringing nearly 40 years of maritime travel to an end. The QE2 is scheduled to arrive this afternoon in Dubai, where it will undergo a multimillion-dirham refit to turn it into a luxury hotel. The ship iss to be met by a flotilla of 60 yachts, including the 160m Dubai, the world's biggest yacht, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai.

Even it would be dwarfed by the 70,000-tonne, 293m QE2, whose arrival was being marked with fireworks and a low-flying Emirates Airline A380. "It will be fantastic," said Manfred Ursprunger, the chief executive of QE2 Enterprises at Nakheel Hotels, the ship's new owners. "Life begins at 40. This is not an end, it is merely the beginning for the QE2. There are few vessels in the world that have this kind of future.

Most retired ships "go to the breakers' yard", he said. "We will cherish her history and her heritage." The QE2's refit is expected to take as long as three years. Its cabins will be replaced with hotel rooms at least twice the size, the distinctive red 89m-high funnel will be dismantled and replaced with a copy containing a deluxe 4267-square m suite. The walls will be taken apart and reassembled with a new electrical and air-conditioning system and anti-condensation double glazing to cope with Dubai's humidity.

Some traditionalists are disgruntled. But Nakheel Hotels, the subsidiary of Dubai World which bought the QE2 from Cunard for Dh276 million (US$75m), said it was the only way the ocean liner could survive. "The ship has come to the end of her life after 40 years of hard work but she will be in the best possible hands," Mr Ursprunger said. "We will recreate the experience of being on board an ocean liner for many more people.

"Visitors will be proud to come to Dubai to see her. We have planned a unique tribute to a maritime icon. Even down to crossing a gangway to get on board, we want to give guests the experience of walking onto the QE2 and seeing what the great days of transatlantic ocean liners were really like. "We have to pull her apart and rebuild her to make her viable as an entertainment venue for at least the next 50 years."

Areas which will be preserved and restored will include the Queen's Room ballroom, the Queen's Grill, the welcome rotunda, the captain's bridge and the engine control room, which have barely changed over four decades. They will be included in a heritage tour of the site. The original funnel will be displayed in an onshore maritime museum on the north-eastern side of the Palm Jumeirah. The engine will be removed and replaced by a 500-seat theatre where West End and Broadway shows will be staged. A 16,459 sq m health and fitness centre will complement the liner's swimming pools.

The ship's casino, however, will be scrapped in line with Dubai's anti-gambling laws. Michel Roux, the Michelin-starred French-born chef, will design the menus and interiors for the QE2's five new restaurants. The venue's 200 hotel rooms, which start at 164sq m, will more than double the current standard size of the QE2's 1,000 cabins, which range from 45sq m to 82sq m. Another 130 residential apartments with between one and three bedrooms, each measuring up to 823sq m, will be created and sold leasehold.

"She has gone through many refurbishments over the years," Mr Ursprunger said. "A lot of the infrastructure needs to be changed such as the plumbing and electricity." The QE2 has been around the world 25 times and is still the fastest luxury cruise liner, with a top speed of more than 60 kph. It has the largest floating library, with 6,000 books, and cost Dh160 million to build. Named after the late Queen Mother (the 2 refers to the fact it replaced the original Queen Elizabeth), it was Cunard's flagship vessel until the Queen Mary 2 was launched in 2004.

Not everyone is thrilled by her refit. Residents of Southampton in the UK, its home port for 40 years, have collected 2,000 names on a petition demanding that the funnel be returned to the city. Glenn Hipwell, 31, said: "Ever since I was a child I can remember looking out of my bedroom window and seeing a red funnel towering over the docks. "We cannot let this piece of Southampton's heritage be ripped off."

Beatrice Muller, an 89-year-old widow who has lived on board for the past nine years, is also dismayed at the prospect of finding a new home. She has spent Dh20,000 a month being pampered and enjoying the range of on-board entertainment from dinner dances to drinks gatherings. "I am looking for a new home at sea," she said. The QE2, which was briefly converted into a troop carrier for the Falklands War in 1982, was set to arrive at about 2pm, when it is to be led by the Dubai on a tour of The World islands before travelling to Port Rashid, accompanied by British Royal Navy and UAE Navy ships and the flotilla.

At 6pm fireworks were due to be set off after the Airbus fly-past at 1,000ft. None of the 1,000 passengers and 1,000 crew on board will disembark until tomorrow, when the Nakheel flag will replace Cunard's. They set sail from the UK on Nov 11 after briefly running aground in docks - which some said was a sign it was not prepared to leave without a fight. tyaqoob@thenational.ae