pays a highly personal tribute to the QE2

It would be inconceivable to any of his fourstriped cohorts that The Admiral would be absent from the valedictory grand voyage aboard QE2. During his sojourn on what is billed as ‘The South America, Pacific and Orient Odyssey’ this old shellback took his seat at the most celebrated cocktail bar on the high seas and gleaned a wealth of information from fellow shipmates as they became ever-more loquacious with Martinis shaken by the ship’s gentle motion, the conversation stirred by acerbic observations on fellow passengers. Had I embarked on a voyage with a ship of fools or is this legendary liner a repository for the greedy, eccentric and downright bizarre? Had some higher power brought together the flotsam and jetsam of God’s waiting room?

Or had these characters – as unique as the creatures of the deep – been hived off for the winter after a whipround by uncaring relatives back home?

Prim Miss Prothero wouldn’t consider ordering her lunchtime oxtail soup before quaffing a couple of glasses of fine champagne; a lurid cocktail of the day was the appropriate accompaniment to the midday jazz sessions; and those denizens of the disco couldn’t face the next day without a Bloody Mary concocted with enough spice to jump-start their mortal coils back into life.

Did the octogenarian habitu´┐Ż of the Queen’s Room really see herself as Norma Desmond when she adorned her overly-long tresses with garnish more suitable for highballs than haute couture? Was the angry man at the Crystal Bar so unloved he couldn’t find a nice word to say about anyone? These were but a few of the topics under discussion by my cruising comrades during the nightly happy hour. Dutch courage overflowed in the Golden Lion Pub many-a-night when the most unlikely candidates signed up for Karaoke. The curious man who embarked in Singapore and would sit by the pool playing solitaire by day suddenly found fame, if not fortune, when he gave a rendition of Elvis’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘The Wonder of You’. His performance brought the audience to their feet. Mary, a veteran of 11 world cruises, might enjoy nothing more than assisting the social staff to stuff envelopes with those ubiquitous cocktail party invitations, but she’s no coloratura. Her choice of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ was not only off-key, it was also off-beat and awfully funny. Still, as I didn’t muster the courage to embarrass myself, I shouldn’t criticise.

I would have thought there might have been more than a few romances on this world cruise, but, try as I might, I didn’t encounter one poule de luxe – that delicious French term for a ludicrously expensive trollop.

However, some did a pretty good impersonation without knowing it, especially after that most sacrosanct event, the World Cruise Society Ball.

If ever there was a venue to feed my people-watching habit, the Yacht Club was unsurpassed. Dapper 30-something blades engaged in polite small-talk with elegantly attired blondes old enough to be their grandmothers. By the wee small hours, caution was thrown to the wind, with remarks of a more amorous nature being thrown around with gay abandon above the beat of Abba.

At the bar, the posse of gentlemen travelling alone increased in size as any pretence of machismo was abandoned. Shrill screams in polyglot tongues pierced the air as ‘Dancing Queen’ echoed around this stylish room.

Decorum was restored when the suave Night Hotel Officer made his rounds and the bar’s shutters were finally drawn at 3am, bringing another night of revelry to a close – or so I presumed.

A slow amble forward on Upper Deck brought me to the Casino. Here, the Baccarat table was just closing as its most loyal supporter – who had played every night since New York – proffered a generous tip in recognition of his good fortune. At the Blackjack table, a gentleman of indeterminate age was being ignored by Lady Luck. Suddenly, three renegades from the Yacht Club appeared like refugees from a distillery and made the fateful decision to take this opportunity to discover the intricacies of the game.

What ensued was highly amusing for dealer and observer alike. The unskilled play was too much for the more experienced gambler from Texas but the Casino Manager was delighted to take the interlopers’ contributions and the table stayed open for another record-breaking hour.

Just in case I missed any of my more noteworthy shipmates, regular visits to the array of photographs taken periodically by the ship’s photographers were de rigueur.

Bloated, pillar-box red bodies in ersatz sailor-suits stared back at me from the chromolithic montage, as did bouffon’d divas clutching the arm of some unsuspecting gentleman host (that rare species employed by the cruise line with a remit to escort single ladies around the public rooms). Truly, this display was an insight into ‘your fellow cruisers’ the brochures never show.

During the first few days of any cruise, newcomers spend an inordinate amount of time getting acquainted with their floating caravanserai. You can’t help but notice them, blank expressions one and all, deck-plan in hand, embarking on a tour to nowhere. But, for regular world cruisers, a pan-global voyage aboard QE2 really is their annual escape from inclement climes – although, sadly, for the last time.

Perfidious as it may seem, the ultimate success of a world cruise turns on one’s fellow travellers rather than the variety or beauty of the ports of call.

Whilst characters abounded and the idiosyncrasies of the few intrigued the many, the majority of my fellow observers of humankind in this floating behemoth were self-assured without being stuffy, self-indulgent without being showy.

Many veterans of the ultimate global circuit went as far as regarding the crew as an extended family. But, for one and all, the sign slung above the gangway into the ship’s mighty hull encapsulated the zeitgeist of cruising on this dowager duchess of the world’s oceans. It simply said: ‘Welcome Home’.