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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Time capsule QE2: how the majestic liner hasn't changed as much as you'd think

The ship is a third of the height of the Burj Khalifa - and its diesel engines once produced enough energy to power Fujairah

In the QE2’s Queen’s Grill, gentlemen are required to wear jacket and tie. Polished silver cutlery sits perfectly angled on pristine white tablecloths, while a five-course tasting menu including old favourites such as shrimp cocktail is served by polite waiting staff. But this is not the 1960s and we are not crossing the Atlantic.

The renowned British ocean liner has now been reborn in Dubai as a floating hotel at Port Rashid. It opened to guests yesterday. But what is most remarkable about its transformation is how little has changed since those glory days.

Hamza Mustafa is chief executive of PCFC Hotels, QE2’s new operators. “I can’t describe the sense of pride. No words can articulate the way I feel,” he told The National. “I’ve spent endless nights hoping for this day.”

A tour of Queen Elizabeth 2 on Wednesday revealed the fruits of a careful three-year restoration programme. Rooms have been revamped, Wi-Fi is available and people can check themselves in, but the ship has been tastefully upgraded to channel its glamorous heyday on the high seas. There are no radical changes and this is the new hotel’s chief selling point.

The restoration cost more than US$100 million (Dh367.25m) and required 2.7 million man hours. The main external change was the removal of the lifeboats but inside many classic elements have either been restored or replaced with the original design. There are 13 restaurant and nightlife venues but forget industrial exposed pipes now seen in every restaurant and coffee shop – this is all soft carpet, dark wood and 1970s kitsch.

The Golden Lion Bar looks exactly as it did when the last person left, pool tables are ready to be played while the veranda of the Yacht Club is reached via original heavy duty doors. The decks and famous Queen’s Room are still off limits but officials say to expect a similar nostalgia trip.

“If we ever had the pleasure of having the queen here, then it will be like the last time she stepped off,” Mr Mustafa said.

QE2 is a ship, museum and hotel. The old cruise terminal where guests board has been turned into a museum with artefacts from the liner, while her two huge propellers will soon be installed outside. The lifeboats were removed for space and safety reasons and will be turned into attractions across Dubai in the coming months. A new resort-style pool area is also due to open while Dubai Duty Free is operating shops on-board.

Yesterday, work continued on some of the ship’s 13 decks. Officials said 224 rooms are now available, which will rise to at least 600 by its official launch in October. Prices start at about Dh600.

QE2 is what is known as a “dead ship” and is connected to the power grid. The wiring, plumbing and much of the mechanics are new. Other parts of QE2 have been restored or replaced. Carpets are new but based on original designs.

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Read more:

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“You’ve walked into a time capsule. This is QE2 during her heyday – it’s a sense of nostalgia,” Mr Mustafa said.

QE2 was built by the John Brown shipyards in Clydebank, Scotland, and was launched on September 20, 1967, by Queen Elizabeth II. The length of the ship (294 metre) is a third of the height of Burj Khalifa, while the diesel engines once produced enough energy to power Fujairah. She had completed more than 800 Atlantic crossings and carried more than 2.5 million passengers when sold to Dubai in 2007.

The ship was the Cunard Line’s flagship, an honour that eventually passed to Queen Mary 2. As The National toured the ship on Wednesday, Queen Mary 2 sailed into Port Rashid. This was no coincidence and Captain Peter Philpott and senior officers from Queen Mary 2 visited the old ship.

Wednesday’s opening is the culmination of a decade of uncertainty, stalled proposals and concerns it would be scrapped. QE2 was originally supposed to open as a hotel off Palm Jumeirah but the financial crisis killed those plans. Keeping the legend alive during these barren years was Rob Lightbody and the members of The QE2 Story website he founded.

“We’ve had our concerns over the years but from what we’ve seen, the conversion to a hotel has been treated sympathetically and the temptation to radically alter the ship has been rightly resisted,” he said. “QE2’s unique design and style have been refreshed and can now captivate a new generation. We wish QE2 Dubai great success – some of our members have already made arrangements to stay on board in the coming weeks.”

The opening was also welcomed by tourism experts, who also cautioned that selling the QE2 as a hotel would not be easy and would need imaginative marketing.

Shaun Ebelthite is editor of trade journal Cruise Arabia and Africa.

QE2 Dubai will be a significant boost to tourism in Dubai, especially cruise tourism,” he said. “The ship’s first few months as a floating hotel are bound to be slow, because of the summer months. But when the new cruise season kicks off again in November, there’ll be a steady supply of day visitors.”

Gaurav Sinha, founder of Dubai tourism consultancy Insignia, said the supply of hotel rooms in Dubai had increased in recent years so it may not be an easy to sell the hotel.

“It will require engaging content programming and marketing,” he said. “But it’s Dubai and every­thing is possible. If an original experience can be curated with distinct uniqueness then the QE2 can be a successful new addition to the Dubai story.”

Some plans for the ship over the years would have put her in competition with the top hotels in the region. But the proposal to restore QE2 to her former glory won out. And walking the historic decks as the ship gently lists, it’s hard not to be transported back to a time when Queen Elizabeth 2 ruled the waves.