The QE2 Is a Symbol of the Qualities That Once Made Britain Great. It's Also a Pretty Good Place for a Party

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The last time a member of my family travelled to America by ship was in October 1963. Girlie (my nana, so named since she was a small child) was aboard the Queen Mary. Still unaccustomed to the idea of air travel, the sea was the most logical way to voyage. A generation later it seems anachronistic, a way of life that has gone.

The QE2 is the ultimate symbol of the qualities that made Britain great - royalty, the Empire, our naval expertise, our mastery of the seas - and it is now an indispensable part of our heritage industry. At the port, rows of British flags adorn the ceiling. I enter into the spirit of the trip by collecting two authentic tea chests (tea still in them!) to pack the belongings I need for my year's sojourn in the States as a Harkness Fellow (just as the first fellows in the 1950s would have done). Outside, well-wishers, friends and family are present, some with their own British flags, to wave us off.

As the ship sets sail the local brass band majestically plays "God Save the Queen", the champagne corks pop, a jazz band begins to play on the open deck and people break into dance.

For much of the cruise I feel as if I am on a Hollywood film-set making the sequel to An Officer and a Gentleman. Uniformed officers adorn the decks by day and frequent the cocktail parties by night. On the first evening on which formal dress is requested, the captain and his officers host a cocktail reception in the Queen's Room. That afternoon I try on designer labels and contemplate buying a cut-price Frank Usher yellow sequined evening dress. The question is where else but the QE2 would I wear it?

At the reception I mingle with officers and other guests. The captain gives a champagne toast befitting the occasion, and I slope off for a pre-dinner drink with an officer and a true gentleman. (He bought the drinks.)

Steeped in tradition as it is, there are no lads and lasses on the QE2, only ladies and gentlemen. Nevertheless 1997 is an historic year for the ship, and something of a watershed as she celebrates her 30th anniversary and finally feels the force of the "genderquake".

This is most visible in the kitchen. Where once the only master chefs were men, now it's women who are dominating the show with a Culinary Summit at Sea, run by the US-based Women Chefs and Restaurateurs organisation. Of course it hasn't all been plain sailing. The new culture coexists uneasily with the old. On the first night wives are encouraged by the hosts to attend the cookery presentations by the celebrity women chefs, so that they can replicate the marvellous food at home and keep their husbands happy!

Throughout the cruise there is a varied timetable of events and activities: from bingo to the casino, from deck tennis to golf, from the Oxford Chamber Orchestra to the 1960s band Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. You can challenge former world darts champions Keith Deller and Eric Bristow to a game of darts. …