A very regal retirement

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The Independent Travel

Both my grandfathers knew her intimately, back in the days when they were all young. When the Queen Mary was in the King George V dry-dock in Southampton, my "Little Granddad" (so called because he only just topped 5ft) would be one of a team who would get her looking shipshape. They would scrape the barnacles off her bottom, then, on wooden planks lowered by ropes, they would swarm over her like locusts, devouring the rust then repainting her until she looked as good as new.

Meanwhile, in her bowels my "Big Granddad" (well over 6ft) would be busy clearing the soot out of her boilers. In her middle years my Dad (5ft 10in), a shipwright, would often work on her, corking her decks and repairing the lifeboats. In Southampton, she is still known as "The Mary", a happy ship to work and sail on.

The Queen Mary made 1,001 transatlantic crossings from her maiden voyage on 27 May 1936 to 31 October 1967 when she left Southampton for the last time, bound for Long Beach.

She's an old lady now. It's a long time since she sailed the seas but her legend lives on. She is now a hotel, moored at Long Beach, California. She looks great on the Long Beach skyline, sedate in her old age. I couldn't wait to get on board.

Our cabin was on A deck. We made our way along the corridor lined with English sycamore and Australian walnut. Our cabin, a stateroom we booked for a ridiculously low price on the Queen Mary's website - currently as low as $122 (£70) per night - was everything we'd hoped for.

Some of the cabins have been modernised, but all retain the glamorous Art Deco styling that she is so famous for. Like children let loose in a sweetshop, we explored our cabin, opening and closing the clever, semi-circular cupboards and sighing over wonderful wooden veneers, so rich that any further decoration was, frankly, just showing off.

In her heyday, the passenger list included Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Laurel and Hardy, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were such regulars that a suite is named after them.

The Promenade café is quite posh; the Chelsea, even posher; and the Sir Winston poshest of all. In each, the prices were reasonable, the food was good, the service attentive.

The view from all of the restaurants on "The Mary" is of Long Beach which is not as impressive as the view of "The Mary" from Long Beach. After dark, she sparkles from bow to stern; during her Second World War service, these lights were extinguished. She was known as the Grey Ghost and transported thousands of American troops to Europe. On one trip, more than 15,000 troops were on board. She was a constant target for U-Boats but she zigzagged her way safely across the seas. In 1946 she brought thousands of GI brides and their babies to the States.

When, on Thursday, Queen Elizabeth II launches the Queen Mary II, the finest years of the original "Mary" will be overshadowed. But there is still a corner of a Californian coastline that is close to the hearts of descendants of the craftsmen of Southampton.

The Queen Mary is moored at 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach (001 562 435 3511, www.queenmary.com). She is open to day visitors as well as hotel guests; admission is $24.95 (£15) per person, though you can print off a $5 (£3) discount coupon from the website. You can fly from London Heathrow to Los Angeles on Air New Zealand, American Airlines, British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic. Alternatively, fly to Boston or New York and transfer to jetBlue (most easily booked on www.jetBlue.com) for a non-stop flight direct to Long Beach.

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