It was like a maiden voyage in another era. As the Queen Elizabeth 2 eased away from dockside in Southampton, England, a crowd of 4,000 waved small Union Jacks, cheered uproariously, and joined the band of the Prince of Wales Regiment in fervent choruses of Rule, Britannia! and Pomp and Circumstance. "Shouldn't they be playing Nearer, My God, to Thee?" asked a rather addled woman standing next to the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale—but she was quickly shushed.

As the great ship steamed majestically down the Solent, past the Isle of Wight, hundreds of sailboats and other small craft convoyed her to the Channel, tooting, whistling and signaling greetings in an outpouring of private vessels and patriotic pride like nothing since the World War II rescue of the British Army at Dunkirk. By the time QE2 rounded Wight, it was drizzling, and when she arrived in Cherbourg, the umbrellas were unfurled and hardly anybody was on hand to greet her. A lone fireboat squirted a doleful salute in the rain.

The weather was like that for the rest of the five-day voyage—raining, overcast, foggy, with seas that rolled and churned. Only one morning did the sun come out briefly. But nothing could dampen spirits aboard the famous liner. There was something for every taste: gambling that ranged from bingo in the Queens Room to roulette in the casino; nightclub spectacles that changed every night, and Annie on the movie screen; a nursery replete with English nannies for stashing the kids; boutiques to shop in, seven bars that never seemed to shut, and four elegant restaurants with sumptuous menus. It was still a metropolis afloat. In 40 days she had been requisitioned by the British government for service in the Falkland Islands crisis, stripped of all her finery, converted into an austere troopship and sent off on her historic dash to the South Atlantic with 3,500 combat troops aboard, and finally returned to her home port and owners. After nine feverish weeks and more than $10 million worth of refurbishing and updating, QE2 rejoined the passenger fleet in time to catch the last half of the lucrative tourist "high season."

Veteran travelers on the liner had a hard time recognizing the old girl. From her formerly white smokestack—now painted red and black, the traditional Cunard Line colors—to her hull—a pale shade of gray where she had once been black—the great ship looked different. Inside, the changes were even more profound. Most of the 17 miles of bulkhead-to-bulkhead carpeting had been replaced. Several of the public rooms had been completely redecorated. Some seemed transformed: The Club Lido (née the Q4 Room) will eventually be incorporated with the adjacent swimming pool under a glass dome; the casino is renamed the Players Club and bristles with new slot machines. In the depths of the ship's hold, an erstwhile Turkish bath had been converted into a floating fat farm, a branch of the famous and pricey Escondido, Calif. Golden Door spa, with Jacuzzi whirlpool baths, a sauna and two heated pools. The classes of the Golden Door were not confined to the lower regions of QE2 but were everywhere to be seen, with weight watchers performing their calisthenics and aerobic dances. On a ship that prides itself on the lavishness of its food and drink (morning bouillon, high tea and midnight supper are regularly served each day, in addition to the customary three squares), a weight-reducing program seemed an anomaly.

The QE2 chuffed off from the French coast with a capacity population of 1,500 passengers and 1,000 crew. Among those aboard were some old hands, including Dr. Peale, 84, and his wife of 52 years, Ruth, 75, who were making their second trip as members of the ship's company: He paid for his passage with a Sunday sermon and a lecture and spent most of his time in his stateroom cramming his autobiography with positive thoughts. Prince Nikita Romanoff, in his late 50s, a New York-based businessman and great-nephew of Russia's last czar, with his Oklahoma-born Princess, Janet Anne, 40ish, and their son, Theodore, 7, were making their seventh crossing aboard QE2 after a visit with his mother in France. They were traveling modestly, by QE2 standards, in "Transatlantic Class," a euphemism for second class. (Fares aboard QE2 range from $1,095 double-occupancy in the off-peak seasons to $20,270 for one of the five split-level "penthouses" for four which were mostly occupied on the trip by a Saudi princeling and his large retinue.)

The saltiest veteran of the voyage, though, and something of a mascot for QE2, was Mrs. L. Kirk ("Lulu") Edwards, 62, who has made more than 30 trips on the liner. A convivial grandmother, the daughter of a former vice-president of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, she had often traveled the Atlantic sea-lanes but fell for the QE2 10 years ago when she gave her second husband a round-trip ticket as a Christmas present. Nowadays Lulu is welcomed aboard with ovations from the crew, gives cocktail parties for the officers after Sunday church services (one irreverent chaplain calls them "The Thirst After Righteousness"), and is given the job of marking up the bets for the Tote, which is the ship's pool to guess the daily mileage covered.

Presiding over this remarkable seagoing resort is a short, cool seaman who, as skipper of Cunard's flagship, ranks as the line's Senior Master. At 60, Capt. Peter Jackson has spent 44 years at sea. "I went to sea because I was interested in travel," he says. "My first interest as a boy was in railways, but then I discovered that railways end at the coast." At 14, he was taken to an English port city, where he saw ships from all over the world, and thereupon decided to be a sailor. "At 16," he reports, "I joined a ship and went to China and Japan." After serving as a midshipman on cargo vessels, he graduated to the big passenger liners, and has sailed with every Cunarder of his time except the Scythia. He was navigator aboard the two dowagers that preceded QE2, the Queen Mary and the first Queen Elizabeth, and, during World War II service in the Royal Navy, survived the sinking of his ship by a German U-boat. (He was rescued, oddly, by another future skipper of the QE2, Capt. Robert Harry Arnott.)

The highlight of Captain Jackson's maritime career, like that of the QE2 herself, was of course the Falkland Islands campaign. "The British flag would not be flying over the Falklands today," he says, "were it not for this great ship. Ultimately it would be flying there, but we would still be fighting a protracted war if not for the 3,500 troops who were brought in by this ship." News of the British government's conscription of the Queen, which was returning from a world cruise last May 3, was unexpected. "We were all very surprised," Captain Jackson recalls. "The news did not reach the ship until the day before she got into Southampton." Once in port, though, the conversion to troopship was effected in a brisk eight days, even though "it involved 300 tons of steelwork, and we landed all of the ship's soft furniture, including five grand pianos." Captain Jackson, an accomplished pianist, was especially sorry to part with the pianos. Also ashore went a half ton of caviar, 17,000 bottles of champagne and other wines, and a botanical garden of potted plants. In their place came prefab helicopter pads fitted over the outdoor swimming pools, 5,000 sheets of particle board to cover the carpeting, 20,000 cases of beer, and food supplies sufficient to last 90 days. Also up the gangway came 3,500 riflemen of the British Fifth Infantry Brigade, made up of Welsh Guards, Scots Guards and the fearsome Ghurka mercenaries of Nepal, who were guaranteed one curry meal a day in their contract with the Ministry of Defense. "The soldiers were in very fine physical condition, and they carried 60-pound packs," observes Jackson. But the sheer weight of the troops spelled ruin for the carpet and decks of the QE2.

Although the Ministry of Defence assigned a naval officer to be the titular master of the QE2 while she was on Her Majesty's service, there was never any question about who would guide the ship to her rendezvous with history. Peter Jackson was in command during the whole 26-day sortie. He was accompanied by 640 of his crewmen, all volunteers, and he was on the bridge during the entire voyage, periodically stepping into his cubbyhole alcove for a nap. Even then, he was roused "whenever there were two or three echoes on the radar, from unidentified submarines. We would alter course and get away from those ominous echoes."

The ship's course was set not for the Falklands but for Cumberland Bay, 800 miles to the east, off South Georgia Island, a bleak, virtually uninhabited British possession that had been retaken from the occupying Argentine troops. "If we had taken her into the Falklands," says Jackson flatly, "the ship would not be here today." After reaching Ascension Island in mid-Atlantic, where Maj. Gen. Jeremy Moore, the overall commander of the British ground forces, helicoptered aboard, says Jackson, "we took a secret route. The Argentinians were looking for us." Two Argentine submarines were known to be seeking QE2, and while Argentine aircraft were incapable of flying to South Georgia and back, the possibility of a one-way suicide attack was not ruled out.

"We had no escort—no ship was fast enough to keep up with us. We had no air cover. Once we got into the hostile area we fitted up a gun emplacement on each wing of the bridge with two five-inch Browning automatics. There was no real defense. Of course we did have more than 3,000 rifles aboard, and they could have given an airplane some trouble." In the end, foul weather and, ironically for a direct descendant of the Titanic, icebergs proved to be the best defenses for QE2. The overcast sky prevented the ship from being discovered from the air, and pursuing Argentine subs did not dare venture into the ice fields. En route, the ship made two or three secret rendezvous with tankers to refuel at sea—something that had never been attempted before. Finally, 15 days after leaving England, "we crept into South Georgia on an absolutely black night. There was no moon, and it was snowing. We anchored exactly on the designated spot, in 360 feet of water."

The sea was dead calm. The navy decided to disembark the troops immediately. But another hazard suddenly arose in the form of a 60-mph gale. It parted the lines of the trawlers, which clustered around the Queen to carry the men to the ships that would ferry them to the Falklands. With her own hawsers, and in the teeth of the storm, the liner-troopship managed to offload the 3,500 troops (39 of them, all Welsh Guardsmen, later died in battle), plus 2,000 tons of equipment, ammunition and food. Then 650 survivors of the ships Coventry, Ardent and Antelope, all casualties of the Argentine air assault, were taken aboard. The whole operation took place in less than two days. Then it was full steam for England.

Back safely in her home berth, the Queen showed signs of combat fatigue. The carpet coverings had been no match for the heavy boots of jogging soldiers. There were diesel stains on the wooden decks. "The ship suffered," admits Skipper Jackson, "but there was not one instance of deliberate damage." It took nearly nine times as long to restore and modernize QE2 as it took to strip her for war.

When the refurbished Queen steamed into New York Harbor after five days and nights of revelry, even the weather joined in the celebration. On a glorious August morning the city outdid itself welcoming QE2. Swarms of helicopters swooped like dragonfiies around her. Traffic on the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge beeped in salute, and on the pier a band of Scottish pipers wheezed out a welcome to the captain and his Scottish lady, Pamela Jackson. (Their married daughter, Marilyn, did not make the trip.) It was the beginning of the last hurrah for Peter Jackson, for he will retire next January 17, after 11 more transatlantic runs and 10 cruises at the helm of the Queen.

And what of the Queen Elizabeth 2 herself? Although the refurbishing she has undergone has brought her abreast of the times, it will not prolong her life. "They have not renewed her boilers and plumbing," says Captain Jackson, "and that is what determines her life." At the age of 13, QE2 is entering into middle age for ocean liners, which have a life expectancy of 25 years. "I think, fair enough, that she is halfway through her life," says Jackson. Will the world ever see her like again? No, he says. "It would cost $350 million to replace her." The Lord Matthews, chairman of the Cunard Line, concurs. Speaking aboard QE2 on the day she set sail for the U.S., he said, "It would cost too much to build another. Passenger ships of a different kind will always be with us, but not on this scale."