NEW YORK – The three Cunard Queen ships — the Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth 2 and the new Queen Victoria — met in the waters off lower Manhattan Sunday night, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop and fireworks marking the once-in-a-lifetime event.
The three grand ships, twinkling in the winter darkness, lined up in front of the Statue of Liberty, holding their positions for a few minutes after 8 p.m. as fireworks lit the sky. Then they slowly moved across New York Harbor, the Queen Mary leading the other two.
Thousands of ordinary New Yorkers lined the waterfront to watch the spectacle. Manhattan resident Nadine Ellman, who sailed twice on the QE2, stood in the rain and watched the ships, saying, "This is for the die-hards. I'm having such a good time."
John Stella, of Staten Island, called the sight of the three ships "amazing."
"You'll never see it like this again," he said.
This is the only time the three Queen ships will ever meet. The QE2, one of the world's most famous ships, will be decommissioned in the fall and turned into a floating five-star hotel in the United Arab Emirates.
The Queen Victoria, which was launched just last month, crossed the Atlantic from England in tandem with the QE2 for Sunday's event. The ships arrived early Sunday and spent the day docked in Manhattan before heading down the Hudson River to meet the QM2, which homeports in Brooklyn.
Philip Naylor, a Cunard official who oversaw the choreography of the three vessels, said the event required coordination with the Coast Guard and other agencies to close the waters near the Statue of Liberty to other boats and position the ships just right.
"We had to try to get a show," he said. "The ships are huge."
The QE2 is the longest-serving vessel in the 168-year history of the Cunard line. Since launching in 1967, it has traveled more than 5 million nautical miles, including 25 trips around the world and more than 800 trans-Atlantic crossings with 2.5 million passengers. The ship was sold for $100 million to Dubai World, an investment company that manages projects for the government in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
All three Queen ships are black and white, with Cunard's trademark red-and-black smokestack. Inside all three have the iconic features like the Queens Room ballrooms, but there are important differences among the vessels.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, said the Queen Victoria is "more gorgeous than either of its sisters, possessing in some ways the best of QE2 and QM2."
Douglas Ward, author of the "Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2008," says Queen Victoria's "standard cabins are small and minimalist in decor in comparison with her two sister ships" but adds that the vessel does "provide passengers with a taste of the past, while being technologically and environmentally right up to date."
Queen Victoria's facilities include grand public spaces like a 6,000-volume, two-deck-high library, a light-filled spa, a casino, a Cunardia history museum and a show lounge that Ward compared to a London West End theater. The theater has private boxes.
The Queen Victoria and the QM2 have alternative restaurants overseen by celebrity chef Todd English, who greeted visitors personally Sunday afternoon aboard the Victoria.
"I'm here to tweak things," he said.
Spencer Brown said the QE2 "represents a previous era, in style and substance, of ocean liners, and it's an era that so many of today's younger, newer-to-cruising travelers will never see. It's an utterly unique experience with a dedicated class system onboard — four classes of passengers who dine in four different restaurants that reflect the fares they pay. The emphasis on sea days, with erudite lectures and elegant meals, including afternoon tea that's the best in cruising ... will probably not be mimicked so beautifully in my lifetime."
The 151,000-ton QM2, which began sailing in 2004, is the largest of the three, carrying 2,592 passengers in 1,296 staterooms, plus 1,253 crew members.
The 90,000-ton Queen Victoria, which will homeport in Southampton, carries 2,014 passengers in 990 staterooms, plus 1,001 crew members.
The 70,000-ton QE2 carries 1,792 passengers in 1,002 staterooms, plus 921 crew members.
Cunard Line, a unit of Carnival Corp., is building a new Queen Elizabeth at Italy's Fincantieri shipyard, which built the Queen Victoria, with delivery in 2010. The new vessel will be Cunard's second-largest after the QM2. It will allow Cunard to keep three Queens in service after the QE2 retires.