The floor of the ballroom tilts now and again--fore to aft, sometimes port to starboard. But the steps of the dancers remain steady. A diminutive 92-year-old dowager, resplendent in her pink ball gown, sparkling jewelry and a blond bouffant hairdo topped with a black velveteen bow, smiles on the arm of her young officer escort as he leads her through the traditional paces of the Gay Gordons. They are surrounded by a swirl of tuxedoes, taffeta and tiaras--a time warp on the water aboard the grandest dame of them all, the British ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2, the QE2.
Like many of her passengers these days, the QE2 is getting on. Commissioned in 1969, she has logged 4.7 million miles. But last year Cunard's elegant flagship had an $18 million refit in Bremerhaven, Germany, and as the new millennium dawned, she began her 23rd world cruise--a 104-day round trip out of New York City, calling at 37 ports. Of the 1,100 passengers participating in this global jaunt, about 500 signed on for the duration. Among the more popular short segments: the 15-day New York to San Francisco leg, which costs about $4,500 for an economy cabin, while a suite (the QE2 has two ultraluxurious, split-level penthouse apartments and a number of super-class master cabins and duplexes) fetches around $53,500. A suite for the entire cruise commands up to $400,000.
There are those who disdain such extravagance and the formality that goes with it. "Informal" dress at meals means jacket and tie; "formal" signals a tuxedo, or at least a dark business suit. At these prices, the QE2 tends to attract a certain class of traveler--the kind who, in an earlier era, coined the word posh (port out, starboard home), the preferred, indeed socially obligatory, cabin location for the well-heeled sailing out of London. But for the men and women who choose to sail the QE2, it just wouldn't be the same without that touch of class. "Some people may grumble a bit about dressing for dinner," says Reg, 68, a retired engineer from Aberdeen, Scotland, "but there's a sort of 'olde-worlde' feeling about it that's all too rare these days." It is a feeling that appeals to a certain age and type. "They call themselves snowbirds," says Thomas Quinones, the ship's onboard public-affairs director. "They sail around the world, keeping ahead of winter." Many are retirees who make cruise ships their semipermanent homes. Some have sailed first class on the QE2 a dozen times or more; they are known to the crew almost as family, donning their jewelry and dining frequently at the captain's table as part of the evening ritual that includes sundowners and dancing.
From costume balls to bingo, the QE2's entertainment package is pure nostalgia, often featuring performers like Tommy Steele, Des O'Connor and Fyvush Finkel, who, like much of their audience, have seen their best years but are still going strong. The ship's band plays classic Palm Court compositions from the romantic past. In the British-style pub, a sextet of middle-aged jazz musicians splendidly re-creates the New Orleans sound. Excerpts from Broadway and West End productions are scheduled to start in late May. "Where else," asks Scotsman Reg rhetorically, "can a wealthy senior citizen go on vacation, unaccompanied, in absolute security, surrounded by the best of service, for as long as the retirement funds hold out?"