WITH ROD AND RACHEL ABOARD QE2

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Do some very smart marketers sniff money out there on the North Atlantic?

Maybe so. Which was one reason why last month I found myself aboard the Cunard liner QE2 in New York harbor amid a small flotilla of great naval vessels (it was Fleet Week) and what seemed to be dozens of young Mennonite women in traditional garb sailing off to visit relatives in the old country.

We (the Mennonites and I; the navy would depart later) sailed on a cool gray afternoon and directly after we'd slipped past Ellis Island, I found my way to a cocktail in The Chart Room Bar (where I could study our projected course and latest reports from the Ice Berg Patrol). Dinner was in The Queens Grill, not more than a few yards from where Rod Stewart, the British rock icon, and his covergirl wife Rachel Hunter and her sister, another honey, were dining. Mr. Stewart, now 51, who once listed his favorite things as, "soccer, drinking, and women, in that order," has let his dyed blond hair revert to a more natural tone, sports a gold earring in his right lobe, and affects a salt & pepper beard.

Rachel looked splendid as well. And when their nanny appeared with two beautiful children in tow, it occurred to me that, like all of us, Rod has settled down to a comfortable middle age. Also aboard, redheaded Tony Award-winning actress Peggy Cash; best-selling mystery author Donald Bain (he's hard at work on a "Murder on the QE2" mystery for the Signet series he writes with the collaboration of "Jessica Fletcher," a person who exists only on TV); Town & Country Editor Pamela Fiori and Editor at Large Michael Cannon; plus journalists from London's Financial Times and The Guardian.

What has people interested all over again is the luxury trans-Atlantic steamship trade.

It has been years since the French Line sold off its magnificent flagship France to Norwegian Cruise Lines which promptly (and with not much originality) renamed it Norway and turned it into a cruise ship. Now, on Sept. 3, Norway returns to trans-Atlantic crossings in what seems a toe-in-the-water market test. They'll sail from New York to Le Havre and then to Southampton, England, with outside cabins starting at $1,399. I suppose if there's healthy demand, Norway may be back in the trans-Atlantic business to stay next year.

QE2, of course, does this sort of crossing from the States to Europe and back month after month from April to December, when it breaks off for a lengthy world cruise. But the parent company of Cunard had recently been sold to (other) Norwegian interests and people were asking about the future of the great ship itself and of the entire Cunard operation. I had a chance to talk with Captain Ron Warwick and Cunard VP Priscilla Hoye during the crossing and to hear them talk, QE2's great days are anything but behind her.

For one thing, and this is a novel approach as we race toward the next millennium, QE2 will be going deliciously slower. A normal crossing of five days next spring becomes six. As Captain Warwick put it, those who prefer steamship travel to jet flight, will have an extra day to luxuriate, while the ship burns less fuel and has the flexibility to seek out the sun and smooth water. Instead of a maximum 1,900 passengers they'll carry only 1,500 with single seatings in all restaurants. A "family crossing" July 22 of this summer already had 67 children signed on (with parents, natch) and could become a regular event.

As to QE2's own future, the skipper said, "QE2 should be good well into the next century. Another 15 or 20 years from a physical standpoint. Will it be commercially viable, that's another question." One which at this moment, the Cunard people believe they can answer.

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