Queen Mary cruise ship in Long Beach, California, US: The golden age of cruising lives on, even if the ship doesn't move

This is the most superb buffet I've ever had afloat. It's also the most elegant dining hall of any cruise ship I've ever experienced.

Let's start with the fresh berries and pineapple from the healthy counter, followed by the salad bar, with a dozen dressings. It's hard to go past the seafood counter: lobster, oysters, mussels and prawns. And the cold food counter looks so enticing: charcuterie and cheeses from around the planet. Then there's the all-day breakfast, with omelette-chef taking orders, and a tempting array of international favourites from China, India and Italy.

Eventually, I opt for the smoked Texan brisket from the carvery – leaving just enough room for the enormous array of tempting "really, I shouldn't" desserts.

This Sunday "Champagne Brunch" is accompanied by sparkling Californian wine and a swing band playing the hits of Porter, Mancini and Sinatra.

We could have been cast back by a time machine to the golden age of ocean liners. Except for the dress code. This is a Sunday in 2018 and my fellow diners aboard Queen Mary – once the largest, fastest and most luxurious trans-Atlantic ocean liner, temporary home to kings, queens and movie stars – are dressed casually for a sunny day in southern California.

When the City of Long Beach put in the winning offer to buy Mary in 1967, many felt it would end in tears.

Mary, however, turned out to be perennially popular. Since it opened in 1971, the ship has become one of Long Beach's two most visited tourist attractions (along with the annual IndyCar Grand Prix) and attracts about 1.5 million visitors each year.

Long Beach had planned, from the start, to turn Mary into a floating hotel, museum, restaurant hub and exhibition centre.

I stayed for one night in one of its fabulously evocative art deco wood-panelled cabins and saw three temporary, onboard exhibitions: Titanic: Artefacts & Images; Diana: Legacy of a Princess, an exhibition of the Princess of Wales' dresses and scrupulously polite correspondence; and my favourite, Their Finest Hour, featuring three sets from the Winston Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour.

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During World War II, Churchill travelled across the Atlantic four times for meetings with wheelchair-bound President Franklin Roosevelt and other world leaders. It was a risky time to be travelling given Hitler had guaranteed a reward for any submarine that managed to torpedo either Mary or her younger sister, the Queen Elizabeth.

The two Queens, however, were the fastest vessels afloat. Painted grey and stripped of their finery, they became troop carriers. Famous photos show the two "grey ghosts" in Sydney Harbour, ready to transport Australian troops to battlefields on the other side of the world.

Churchill signed the order for D-Day aboard Mary. A suite has been named in his honour, as has a restaurant that serves three of his favourite wartime dishes: beef Wellington, chateaubriand and Dover sole meuniere. So much for rationing.

Churchill said the two Queens – with their ability to outrun the U-boats and deliver troops and equipment – shortened WWII by at least a year.

But back to brunch. Commodore Everett Heard, who has worked aboard Mary for 37 years, joins me. His duties include conducting marriage ceremonies, posing for selfies with passengers and explaining why a Californian beachside suburb within a $US1.75 Metro ticket of Downtown LA is still defined by a three-funnelled luxury liner that last set sail half a century ago.

"This ship had a providential kiss placed on its head at birth," he says. "She has survived four crises: the Great Depression, World War II, the Jet Age and the breaker's yard. That's some record, some reign."

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham was a guest of The Queen Mary, Long Beach.

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STAY

The 346 First Class state rooms and nine suites – featuring art-deco fittings, artwork and wood panelling – now form the hotel part of the ship.

VISIT

It's free to step aboard The Queen Mary, but there are charges for guided tours and exhibitions.

EAT

The Queen Mary has a range of restaurants and bars, including the Chelsea Chowder House & Bar and Sir Winston's Restaurant & Lounge. The Sunday Champagne Brunch, 10am-2pm, costs $US59.95 per adult.

See also: Scrapped, sunk or reborn: Where old cruise ships go to die

See also: Cruise ship insider secrets revealed: 25 things you never knew about

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