She’s the first and, at £365 million, the most expensive Jubilee present the Queen is likely to receive.
And as the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s reign draws near, Cunard’s new liner the Queen Elizabeth is about to meet its namesake — and there’s tension in the air.
Hidden away in an Italian shipyard, a work-force of more than 2,000 has been feverishly labouring over the past few weeks to bring this epic new ship to readiness and seaworthiness.
Monarch of the seas: The new Queen Elizabeth is sailing to Southampton to be named by the Queen
Royal connections: Her majesty will be greeted by Lord Linley's frieze in the Grand Lobby
They’re laying carpets, polishing brass, swabbing decks, dabbing paint —and will continue to do so until just hours before the Queen officially names the ship in Southampton on Monday.
It’s already dressed in the familiar black and red Cunard livery. In pride of place, dominating the swirling three-storey Grand Lobby, is a personal tribute from the sovereign’s carpenter nephew Viscount Linley: an impressive 18ft-high marquetry frieze in the art deco style depicting the bow of the first Queen Elizabeth, which sailed between 1938 and 1968. It will be the first thing to take Auntie’s eye as she steps aboard.
Linley’s pleased, and hopes the Queen will be too. ‘Though we’ve made fittings for luxury yachts in the past, this is the first seagoing work we’ve done on this scale,’ he says. ‘I recall my father Lord Snowdon saying the interior design on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 made one proud to be British, so I’m hoping our achievement on the new ship will make him —and others — equally proud.'
Taking the waters: The main swimming pool and sunbathing area on deck
... and for those seeking something a little more refined - the Royal Bathhouse
To those still unfamiliar with the world of cruising – the fastest-growing sector in the multi-billion-pound holiday market — the fuss over the naming of yet one more ship may seem a touch over-the-top.
But this is something special — for the Queen especially. One of the iconic moments of her reign was the day in 1967 she launched the fabled QE2 at the John Brown shipyard on the Clyde. As a floating advertisement for royalty and Britain, the liner was unsurpassed for the next four decades.
Now comes her replacement, alas not built in a British yard, but in every other respect as British as they come. Her Majesty is said to be ‘thrilled’ to make her acquaintance.
Indeed, even though they don’t quite have a By Royal Appointment sticker over the front door of their London offices, the 170-year-old Cunard line like to think of themselves as the blue-bloods of the cruising business, decking out their ships with an understated British elegance.
They claim their staff-passenger ratios are better than most, and their personal service is legendary — 80 per cent of passengers on the Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage are returning customers from previous Cunard ships.
Which raises the thorny question of the QE2. For 40 years she sailed the globe, yet suddenly in 2008 she disappeared — dispatched to the Middle East where now she lies, mothballed and silent, in a lonely dock in Dubai.
Many avid Cunarders (and there are tens of thousands, just check the tribute sites on the web) felt short-changed, and found themselves bereft — you might say at sea — when they tried out the ship’s immediate replacement, the Queen Mary, with its long, long corridors and colossal bulk.
The shipping company has taken steps to mollify its faithful clientele by bringing over a treasure-trove of memorabilia from QE2 — after all, ocean cruising’s as much about nostalgia as it is about seeking new ports of call. And as the naming ceremony in Southampton approaches they are aware of the pressures on their reputation. ‘The world is watching,’ said one executive at the Trieste yard where the ship has been built over the past 18 months. ‘We’ve got to get this right.’
So have they? Only time will tell whether the new Queen proves as popular as its predecessor, but the early signs are encouraging.
Lessons have been learned from her sister ship, the Queen Victoria, named by the Duchess of Cornwall a couple of years ago (the champagne bottle inauspiciously failed to break over the bow).
This new ship, though similar in size and construction, has finer attention to detail with more decorative art, redesigned bars and decks, and a theatre company bigger than many in the West End. Stepping into the grand lobby which contains Lord Linley’s frieze, you see a new portrait of the Queen, commissioned by Cunard and painted by Isobel Peachey, at 31 the youngest artist to have officially portrayed the sovereign. The static work is a touch redolent of Madame Tussauds, but a welcome gesture.
Hitting the High Cs: The grand 'Royal Court Theatre' where passengers can enjoy shows from a company of entertainers larger than many in the West End
Ultimate comfort: The Rostron, one of four Grande Suites onboard. It is named after Arthur Rostron, a legendary commodore of the Cunard line in the last century
Around the ship are constant reminders of the Queen’s 60-year reign, in display cabinets, in busts and objets d’art, photographs and memorabilia. I lost count of the murals depicting royal castles and palaces.
It stops short of being a shrine, but it may be gratifying to Her Majesty as she tours the ship that her name and reign are so well-represented on what is, when it comes down to it, a commercial enterprise.
‘This is a tribute to her and her incredible reign, from a company that has proudly borne the royal name Elizabeth for the best part of a century,’ says Cunard’s president Peter Shanks, and you sense a genuine thrill among the company at their royal endorsement.
Book a place: The elegant Ship's Library houses 6,000 books
At the Fincantieri shipyard in Trieste, however, the pressure has been mounting in the past few weeks as shipwrights have battled against the clock to finish the commission. The ship is now on its way to Britain for the naming — but last-minute checks are taking place on the sea trials which precede its arrival in Southampton.
Gold and marble decorations are being stripped of plastic shrouds, hand-made carpets are down, and the space-age bridge has only recently had its protective casing taken off.
Along the corridors which contain the 1,046 staterooms, stickers are steadily being peeled off the doors which have been checked and passed by punctilious Hotel Inspector types. There are still a few to go.
There’s a palpable sense of urgency as lines of beavering workers, resembling a scene from Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis, are driven on by their royal deadline.
The ship’s 1,000-strong crew has been flown out to join their new home, and are familiarising themselves with the layout and procedures which will govern their daily lives from now on.
And the 2,092 lucky maiden- voyage passengers who snapped up the first tickets are writing out their luggage-labels and jauntily poring over the itinerary — it took just 29 minutes 14 seconds for the voyage to sell out, a seafaring record.
The first voyage is a ten-day hop round the Mediterranean, while later in the year there’s a 23-night tour of the Caribbean.
For those who still have cash in these straitened times, it’ll be possible to circumnavigate the globe using all three Cunard ships — Elizabeth, Victoria and Mary — in succession. Cheapest fare is £10,317, while those who ignore the old saying ‘Those who pay the most, sway the most’ can shell out £119,317 per person for a top cabin. Against that, you can take a short ‘voyage’ — Cunard don’t like the word ‘cruise’ — for less than £500.
here is always an understandable affinity between royal ladies and the ships which bear their names. In the QE2, the present monarch had a floating ambassador which took her name around the globe countless times during her reign: wherever the ship came to rest, crowds gathered and celebrated.
And even in these agnostic times the Queen can expect a fanfare of trumpets and a roll of drums wherever in the world her ship puts into harbour.
That’s not bad for the royal brand. And from Cunard’s point of view, that’s not bad for business.