QE2 parties in style for her 30th birthday

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THE DOWAGER duchess of transatlantic cruising, the QE2, had a birthday party yesterday. Although technically only 32 - she was launched by her royal namesake on Clydebank in 1967 - the 30th anniversary of her maiden voyage to New York on 2 May 1969 was celebrated with a grandeur that might attend the Queen Mother's centenary.

Brass bands played in the departures hall at Southampton docks. A harpist and hundreds of blue, white and red hot air balloons decorated the champagne reception where a slew of media Michaels - Aspel, Buerk and Brunson - mingled with a smorgasbord of cheesy celebrities such as former MP Rupert Allason, broadcaster Shaw Taylor, television newscaster Carol Barnes and entertainer Jimmy Savile.

As the world's most famous ocean-going liner prepared for her 1,160th voyage to New York, a cascade of 1,159 balloons - one for each completed trip - was released from the deck as the ship sailed off, her stays creaking, her foundation garments groaning.

The ship's operator, Cunard, used the occasion to announce a pounds 20m refit, starting in November: pounds 12m will be spent on replacing the faded upholstery of the Queen's grill, the sad patterned plush carpets of the grand lounge, the tragically passe bedspreads of the pounds 1,800 porthole cabins. It is rather a shock to walk on board and find yourself in a Sixties museum, all aubergine puree decor and chrome pillars. But the new owners, the American cruise giant Carnival - which bought Cunard last June for pounds 300m - is determined to drag the elderly vessel into a zippy new future.

True, one of the three companies tendering for the pounds 20m makeover is the Hamburg-based firm of Blohm & Voss, who presided over the disastrous 1994 refit which left the liner putting out to sea with unfitted carpets, trailing cables and "dark brown water" seeping from taps and lavatories. But five years on, Carnival attaches no blame to Blohm & Voss.

At lunch time yesterday, seven of the QE2's nine captains since 1969 were brought on stage and a birthday cake, model of the ship ceremoniously cut. One of the two grizzled and storm-bearded masters of the vessel today, Captain Ron Warwick, is the son of the original captain, Commodore William Warwick, who died in February aged 86.

The ship's luxury-drenched passengers shift 20 tons of strawberries, 73,000 bottles of champagne, 14 tons of smoked salmon every year and one- third of the world's annual consumption of black caviar. But it has proved a useful vessel as well as a sybaritic one. In 1982 as the Falklands war broke out, it was requisitioned by the Navy and ferried 3,500 troops to south Georgia.

The QE2's owners look forward to an exciting new future for the liner as "an experience" rather than "a cruise". They are keen to attract a younger clientele - the average age on a Nineties cruise is 58. And they must come to terms with one ambiguous statistic - as Carol Thatcher, daughter of the former prime minister, pointed out, the most significant impulse towards the modern transatlantic cruise is the film Titanic...