The boat used to take people to the ill-fated Titanic is set to welcome passengers on board again after a £7 million refurbishment that took seven years to complete.
The SS Nomadic - the last remaining vessel of the White Star Line - opens its doors to the public for the first time this week and is expected to attract more than 44,000 visitors over the next year.
Built by Harland and Wolff shipyard workers in 1911 at the same time and using the same Thomas Andrews designs as its mighty big sister, the Nomadic is Belfast’s latest offering to the lucrative Titanic tourist trail.
The refurbished ship, which was bought at auction in France in 2006 for 250,000 euros, still retains many of the original features.
Denis Rooney, chairman of the Nomadic Charitable Trust which was behind the restoration campaign, said: “Visitors can walk in the footsteps of the passengers who boarded Titanic.
“They can touch the same materials, enjoy exactly the same experience. The only other way you can get this close to the Titanic experience is to go on a submersive expedition and see the wreck.
“This is the real deal.”
The Nomadic is now a permanent fixture at Hamilton Dock - beside Belfast’s new £90 million Titanic museum - from where it made its maiden voyage to France in May 1911.
Tourists enter through the first-class lounge, which is decorated with ornate plaster work and detailed wood carvings the same as would have been seen on the Titanic.
The floor covering is an exact replica of the lino laid down more than 100 years ago and was pieced together from a scrap of the original floor covering unearthed below layers of carpet and concrete.
“We are delighted to have been able to find that because there would not have been records of those sorts of coverings,” said Mr Rooney.
The space has been left open for visitors to mill around as they would have done during the short journey from the shallow waters of Cherbourg harbour out to the Titanic, which was moored offshore in deeper sea.
A number of interactive displays detailing the history of the White Star Line and the Nomadic’s journey have been installed. Visitors can also get a glimpse inside some of the luggage passengers brought on board.
Ring for service at the bar - an original piece of furniture that was kept in storage by Nomadic’s former French owners - and up pops Pierre the virtual first-class bar steward with an offer of a Tom Collins cocktail and anecdotes about the wealthy passengers he served.
There are also period costumes and crew uniforms in which guests are invited to dress up.
The first-class lower deck includes original bench seating, table legs and table tops which have been painstakingly put back together.
A valuable piece of White Star Line linen, photographs of Titanic survivors making their escape in lifeboats and postcards sent by passengers from Cherbourg port are among the items of memorabilia on display.
“It is a massive addition to the Titanic offer that Belfast has. The perfect visitor experience is to see the beautiful Titanic Belfast and its magnificent interpretation and then to come to Nomadic and see the real thing. It completes the story.
We said we were not going to do a half-ob on this. We were going to it to the highest standard. And that is the attitude now in Belfast, which is becoming very ambitious in how it presents itself, having come through very difficult times.
“I think the Nomadic falls in with that spirit,” added Mr Rooney.
Second-class passengers board from a different gangway. The embellishments inside are not as ornate but still of a high standard.
Further back in the third-class passenger area, stories of six passengers are offered.
The tour goes behind the scenes into the crew quarters in the metal bow of the ship.
Just one of the original White Star Line portholes has survived, but the restorers were able to trace the English manufacturers who replicated the design.
Similarly, the only surviving light fitting was used as a model before being re-installed.
Visitors can also see and touch the rivets in the bow, which were identical to those fitted on the Titanic.
“When James Cameron came to visit us last year, the first thing he did was go over and touch the rivets. He said it was a very emotional thing to do. He has also promised to come back and see the re-vamped ship,” said Mr Rooney.
The bridge and upper decks have been cleaned up and re-painted.
“Everything has been designed so that it is possible to put engines back in again. Obviously it was totally unaffordable for us for all sorts of reasons but it is possible,” said Mr Rooney.
The Nomadic took 159 days to build. It measures 233.6 feet long and 37 feet wide - exactly a quarter the size of the Titanic - is 1,273 tonnes and was able to reach a speed of 12 knots.
While its most famous task was taking passengers to the Titanic, the vessel also served other great transatlantic liners until 1968 and had many famous passengers including Charlie Chaplin, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Pickford and Marie Curie on board.
Its survival has been against the odds. Nomadic was used as a mine sweeper and troop carrier during the First World War and as an escape vessel in the evacuation of Cherbourg in the Second World War.
It was also saved from the scrapyard on countless occasions and spent years as a floating restaurant beside the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Restoration work, funded by European and National Lottery grants, was meticulous and involved removing tonnes of barnacles and scraping off layers of toxic paint.
Mr Rooney said: “We have overcome a lot of cynicism about the ship. There was criticism, particularly when people saw the state of the ship when she came home.
“I could not over-emphasise how many challenges there were putting a project like this together but it has all been worth it and hopefully the thousands of visitors will get a very special experience from it.
“You can feel the excitement mounting day by day.”
Tickets for the Nomadic are priced at £8.50 for an adult.