A huge, beautiful old Transatlantic ocean liner has appeared in Dubai’s Port Rashid and it’s certainly turning heads. Not that we don’t see cruise ships here – we see lots of those. But this one is the queen of all cruise ships – the QE2. It is now a HOTEL parked permanently on the Dubai shore. You can see it from Al Mina Road, past the Etihad Museum – its white hulk pulled up to the shoreline and its distinctive red and black funnel rising above.
But what is it doing here? Great question. There is no real nexus between Dubai and the QE2, not really. It may have sailed here before, but never regularly and Dubai was never a common stop on its routes. But here in Dubai we love the extraordinary, the different, and the interesting, and the QE2 is all of those things. So when the QE2 was put out of commission, Dubai Ports purchased the vessel and brought it to Dubai. But that was in 2008, the start of the global real estate crash, and so plans were put on hold and the fate of the QE2 was up in the air for a good number of years. In the meantime, there it sat in Dubai. Waiting.
At one time, there was a plan to move it to the waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa, but that did not work out. Many were worried for a time that the boat would end up in the scrap heap. But then in 2015 DP announced that the QE2 WOULD be restored and would be reopened. Three years later, it has happened.
My husband and I decided to check it out for his birthday – we were seeking something new in Dubai that we hadn’t done, and the Queen seemed to be just the ticket. So I made a reservation in the Queen’s Grill, which is the fanciest of the restaurants that are currently open. When I called, they offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse – for an extra 260 dirhams (about $70) we could stay overnight and have breakfast the next morning.
Throughout, staff members were quick to remind us that the Queen is not FULLY open yet; that this is a ‘soft open” and that it would be open “for real” this October. Which explains the room deal and the fact that there is no pool, no spa, no gym – in fact, a lot of things are not open yet. This was fine with us – we were excited to experience the ship with or without full amenities.
We drove to the QE2 on a Thursday evening (the days off here are Friday, which is the Muslim holy day, and Saturday, which makes Thursday the last day of the work week). It was my husband’s birthday. The drive to the QE2 is a bit spartan and depressing. After all, it is in a working port. The drive in is both barren and a site under construction. But it is not far from the main road and easy to navigate (the fact that you can see the large ship from the road definitely helps, as does the signage).
In front of the ship itself is a large reception building, which is cleverly designed in the shape of a ship, with wave shaped canopies. There is a portecouchere, just like most hotels, with valet. The parking is free, and valet is also free if you are coming aboard to spend money (eating, touring, or staying). Coming into the reception building you are greeted with “WELCOME ABOARD” (as we were greeted in every area as we entered, quite clever I thought). Everyone who works at the hotel is quite friendly and well trained to give great service. After check in with reception we were led to our room (which is a good thing, because it would have been difficult for us to find otherwise – the layout of the ship takes some getting used to, even though there is very good signage).
There are security guards everywhere, ready to direct you where you need to go. I have seen on some online forums that people question the security and whether it is oppressive or necessary. However, I will say that in Dubai service is a key focus and all hotels have many employees stationed to help guests (more than we are used to in the States). So the security to me appears to be more designed so that guests can be directed where to go rather than designed to make sure nothing happens to the ship, although I presume the guards serve a dual purpose. Many of them were able to provide history and comments about the ship, and offered to take pictures of us. I did not find them intimidating or oppressive at all.
We had not originally planned to stay on the ship. I didn’t think that we would like it. While I have never taken a cruise, I presumed that the rooms would be very cramped, tiny and uncomfortable. As it turns out, our room was small, but not nearly as small as I imagined and it was really quite comfortable. We had two portholes looking out towards the port, and a full sized bed with large mounted television. It seemed to be original furniture redone and the bathroom was original layout with new finishes. There was ample room, and it was fresh, clean, and comfortable.
In fact, the entire ship is kept in as original condition as is feasible. Carpet has been replaced, but with new carpet similar to the old. Many of the original furniture has been kept and simply recovered. It is truly like stepping back in time, and we loved it.
The hallways are narrow (it is a cruise ship, after all) with recessed fluorescent lighting. There were lots of paintings and prints in the hallway – Picasso, Klee, other masters – presumably not originals but impressive in their variety and number. We were placed on floor 5, which is the highest level “tourist class” floor. Around the corner from us was a large convenience store that had been a Harrod’s department store during the Queen’s heyday. We also passed by a closed beauty salon and photo shop. Obviously this was a very active ship at one time – almost its own city.
After settling in to the room we headed back to the reception building for the tour. Tours are offered at 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, and 7pm daily. For 150 Dirhams (about $40) you can take the tour and they will give you a 100 Dirham voucher for food and drink at any of the restaurants and bars. Because we were staying overnight, we could take the tour for free. When you do the math, it was less expensive for us to stay overnight and have breakfast than to buy two tickets for the tour (260 Dhs for overnight stay and breakfast, and it would have been 300 Dhs for the tour alone for two of us). Of course, the overnight deal was offered because we had a reservation at the restaurant, but still… if you are intrigued by the QE2, I definitely recommend eating dinner and staying overnight. It is quite an experience.
The tour was given by PETER, who had worked on the QE2 while it was in service and so Peter had amazing insider stories about “back in the day”. Unfortunately I did not get Peter’s last name. He was charming and informative and a great asset to the ship – who better to give a tour than someone who had been on the ship in its heyday? There were about 50 people gathered for the tour and so after the initial start of the tour in the museum in the reception building, we split into two groups.
The reception building has a museum which traces the history of the ship from the beginning to present day and which contains many artifacts from days gone by like a bust of the Queen, tapestries, artwork, ironwork, a Japanese costume gifted to the ship and other items. Anyone can come and look through the museum, but the added insider information given by the tour guide was intriguing, and of course on the official tour you get to visit the ship.
Peter explained that he had worked many trips on the QE2, and that the crew and visitors became close – like family. He says that at the end of a cruise, some crew members would cry because they weren’t ready for it to be over. He told us the story of one woman whose elderly husband died on the ship. The woman decided that she would spend the rest of her days on the QE2, and so simply stayed on the ship sailing wherever it sailed.
On the ship itself, Peter showed us the welcome lounge, the former library (now a conference center), the theater, the Queen’s ballroom, the Grand Lounge, other areas (including the shopping promenade) and of course the restaurants and bars. He showed us one of the more stately first class rooms (much larger than our tourist cabin – and more like a “real” hotel room). The tour lasts about an hour and is exciting and informative.
After the tour, my husband and I went for our dinner at the Queen’s Grill. It is an ornate and stately restaurant in gold tones. We were told that it is original décor but with new chair coverings and carpeting. The menu is a fixed six course menu and is 375 Dirhams per person ($101)(275 for vegetarian menu). The first course was an amuse bouche from the chef, then came the soup course (we chose lobster bisque) then appetizer course (I chose fois gras; my husband chose the salmon), then main course (we both had the beef tenderloin), then pre dessert then dessert (the house specialty is an apple tart with ice cream). Everything was superb, although I might have wished that it was a tad less salty.
The staff brought a special “happy birthday” plate to my husband and the tables around us joined in happy birthday, which I thought was absolutely wonderful and sweet. At the front desk when I had mentioned his birthday I had hoped that something special would be done, and the restaurant provided that. (If you book through the website it asks if you are celebrating a special occasion, so that’s another way to let the hotel know).
There is a gin bar attached to the Queen’s Grill and features an amazing variety of gins, and from the bar you can walk out on the deck. It was quite windy and hot the night we were there and so we did not spend much time outside. As we were on the ship in August (and before the “true” opening) there were no other outdoor areas open, which was a disappointment, but we just vowed that we would have to come back after the official opening in October. The weather will be much cooler then also.
The gin bar is quite small and cramped, so instead we went to the Golden Lion Pub – an English style pub that we were told was previously the “Theater Bar”. I should mention here that because the ship is a hotel, it is “licensed”, which in Dubai means that they can and do serve alcohol.
After our evening, we slept soundly. The ship is very quiet and the beds are clean, soft, and comfortable with extra blankets and pillows should you need them. Certain parts of the ship were very cold and others a little warm – I’m sure it’s not easy to keep the temperature regulated throughout. The ship seems to lean towards the “cold” side which in Dubai is typical and makes sense given our heat here.
The next morning we had breakfast in the Lido. It was a huge breakfast buffet (as in many hotels) and included healthy options as well as Arabic choices (hummous, etc) and even Asian (noodles, etc.) The Lido is delightfully retro. It is bathed in a shade of pale green with vintage chairs and wall murals. After breakfast we wandered around the ship a bit, and were guided by employees stationed in various areas. Even though the Yacht Club bar was closed a friendly employee accompanied us to see it after I explained that we weren’t able to see it the night before because of a private party. At all times on the QE2 the employees we encountered were more than helpful and obviously excited about where they worked. Most of the employees we met were from South Africa, which I find interesting. Perhaps because at one point the ship itself was to be docked in South Africa? I am not certain. But what is certain is that the staff is well trained and exceptionally friendly and helpful.
After taking our time walking around the ship on our own, it was time to go. Our entire bill (dinner, drinks, overnight stay, breakfast) was 1300 Dirhams ($351) which I thought was an exceptional value, especially for such an exceptional experience.
We will definitely be back for the “hard” opening of the QE2, and I cannot wait to enjoy the deck and outside areas during Dubai’s beautiful fall, winter and spring.