Queen of the sea, time in her wake

Liner: For those fortunate to know them, the Queen Elizabeth 2 and her only resident are a voyage into a passing era.

July 12, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

ABOARD THE QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 - The last two weeks of Robert Muller's journey aboard the world's most famous ocean liner he was dead. Which is just the way he wanted it. And that is just the way his widow, Beatrice Muller, hopes to go, too.

Her husband died at age 85 aboard the QE2, as it is known, as it sailed off Bermuda in 1999, then was transported in the ship's mortuary to Southampton, England, where he was cremated and, eventually, buried at sea. Now, Beatrice Muller, 83 and as cheerful as a sunrise, says she has no plans to leave the ship until they wheel her out, too. In 2000, she sold her home and became the QE2's only full-time resident.

"I'll leave when I'm dead or when I get bored," she says as the ocean liner cuts a foamy blue line in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on its way from New York to Southampton. "And one thing I know for sure, I won't get bored on this ship."

Since the QE2's maiden voyage in 1969, it has been the queen of the sea. It is now the only liner to make regular trans-Atlantic voyages, pampering the well-to-do traveling from England to the United States and back again, and with occasional excursions around the world.

Soon, though, Muller's home will no longer make the trans-Atlantic trek, marking, at least symbolically, the end of an era in transportation history.

As Britain's Cunard Line, the ship's owner, was commemorating its 162nd year, workers in France last week began building the megaliner Queen Mary 2, scheduled to take over the trans-Atlantic route in 2004.

The QE2 will not be retired, but will instead carry passengers on round-the-world voyages and shorter jaunts. And Muller will not move from her boxy home in the middle of Four Deck but will instead go down, she insists, with the ship.

"She's got a good 15 years left in her. The new ship will be beautiful, but right now it's just an idea," she says. "The QE2 is a ship with history in its walls. You can't build history - and you can't just give it up."

Even to those who have never boarded the QE2, the name conjures up images of an era of international travel far more civilized than being shoe-horned into an airline seat between oversized passengers, one with an irresistible urge to remove his shoes. Nothing is crammed aboard the QE2, save the extra helping of cherries jubilee to top off a black-tie dinner.

Just as at the ship's birth, passengers are a mix of Old Money and New Money (and, perhaps, a person or two of Company Money). Most sprout hair of gray or little hair at all. Some have made the trans-Atlantic crossing on several occasions, with six days to spare to get to their destination and attracted by a pace that entices napping at any hour.

Others are hyperpretentious - people engaged in "diamond and fur competitions," as Muller describes them. They are known to crew members as the people aboard not so much for the journey but for the opportunity to return home to dinner parties and proclaim, "Yes, we went aboard the QE2. Fabulous. Simply fabulous."

Which it simply is.

Built for about $70 million but with $675 million in upgrades over the years, the ship includes nine bars, two swimming pools, a luxury spa, seven restaurants, a basketball court, a computer room with Internet access, a library, two theaters and a casino open at all hours.

Cabins for a trans-Atlantic trip go anywhere from $1,800 each for two people, to $36,000 each for a split-level apartment-like suite large enough for a party. (Two of those cabins are rented yearly for a world cruise by a British businessman and his wife, who together pay a half-million dollars for their trip. They rent two cabins, the story among crew members goes, because the man does not like to share a bathroom.)

Truth be told, Cunard's queen is beginning to show her age. Leaks spring more frequently in water pipes. Electronic gadgetry in demand by business travelers is aboard the ship but only sparingly. Last week, the exhausted air conditioning unit in the casino left blackjack players sweating over more than whether to hit or hold.

"Yes, it's an old ship," Andy Dinsdale, the QE2's British cruise director, says without apology. "That's part of why we love her. If anyone wants to experience the old days on the water in comfort, this is it."

The ambiance, not the amenities, after all, is what distinguishes the QE2 from the party liners that blare their way from Florida to the Bahamas.

On the QE2, men are required on most nights to wear a tuxedo or dark suit to dinner, and ties are always required for the evening meal. Women wear gowns or risk being tossed overboard.

The staff is incorrigibly friendly and just as steadfastly professional. Last week, a woman with eyebrows lifted to mid-forehead admonished a waiter because, she insisted, he had put too much ice in her water. He apologized with great sincerity and asked how many cubes she would like in a replacement glass. ("You're the waiter," she huffed in reply.)

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