Life On Board A Modern Cruise Ship
Julian Fellowes' glorified portrait of sullen stokermen, second-class servants and snobbish countesses, as portrayed in the mini-series Titanic, feels a world away from contemporary cruising. A hundred years ago it was ne'er the twain shall meet; now it's access all areas and good riddance to class divisions.
Some ships are increasingly open to inviting guests on galley tours or to quiz the captain on moorings and routes. If security permits, some lines even allow bridge visits to see how the ship is navigated, or encourage their guests to climb the rigging or stand watch with officers.
Cruise lines including Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line and P&O Cruises conduct 'behind the scenes' tours to reveal the ship's secret life.
On a bridge tour of Celebrity Infinity, second officer Vasilis Lolos pointed out a passing whale before admitting the friendly rivalry between the Bridge and the Engine Room: "They think they're in charge but we know we are. I'm closer to my ship than to my girlfriend." The Greek master, Captain Sempurous, chipped in: "But remember, I'm in charge, even when I'm asleep."
Oswald, Infinity's food and beverage manager, guided guests through the galleys, "the heartbeat of the ship, with 100 waiters at work over dinner, and around 95 chefs – look at the height of the chefs' hats, it's the egos". But the ship's hierarchy does filter its way down to the kitchens: "Each colour-coded hat represents a different class of chef and each hat has 54 folds."
While a century ago the Titanic promised to ply well-heeled guests across the Atlantic, the square-rigged clippers – now aspirational sailing ships in their own right – were still in trade.
On Star Clippers' Royal Clipper, rank is irrelevant when a sleepless passenger runs into the bosun playing an impromptu saxophone solo, or spots an off-duty officer dozing in the bowsprits.
On lines such as P&O and Crystal Cruises passengers can take part in cake-making, whisky tastings and mixology sessions or sign up for cookery classes with celebrity chefs or sommeliers.
On Star Clippers, the crew talent show gives the ranks a chance to shine – from an Elvis-impersonating Chinese deck-hand to an Indonesian glass-eating waiter. In this celebratory 'downstairs' world, such occasions sweep away any sense of seniority or status.
Back upstairs, class is increasingly being replaced by privilege, privacy or exclusive passenger 'clubs'. The official line, as expressed by Crystal Cruises, is that "there is no class system on board and all guests receive the same six-star service"; which was not the case in the days of the Titanic, where the social strata into which you were born dictated whether you were in first, second or third class on board.
As early as 1844, P&O Cruises, the former steamship company, played host to novelist William Thackeray. Now dubbed Britain's first cruise-writer, this dissector of society manners found inspiration on a cruise line that finally abolished its onboard segregation in 1974.
Although cruising is no longer strictly class-bound, subtle gradations of status still provide a frisson of upstairs-downstairs privilege that isn't restricted to the British heritage brands. It may be about joining the chosen few at the Captain's Table or indulging in a private tour of the Bridge with Celebrity Infinity's proud new captain.
Or, as with Holland America, booking the best suites affords such glamorous fripperies as "complimentary corsages and boutonnieres" on formal nights.
Moreover, despite the meritocracy of contemporary cruising, numerous British dowagers, European aristocrats and New York society figures continue to cruise for months at a time on their favourite ships, with several practically living on board, including on Cunard ships.
While, at the other end of the formality scale, silver service and dressing for dinner are increasingly optional, with strict dress codes scrapped on Azamara, Celebrity's sister cruise line, exclusivity is making a bit of a comeback; in the case of MSC Cruises this takes the form of a "ship within a ship".
The pioneering MSC Yacht Club, set on the sought-after foredecks, affords its VIP guests dedicated butlers, designer suites, personal shopping and a private pool. Likewise, Celebrity Cruises offers suite butlers and is expanding its healthy-living Aqua Class, where spa-goers can relax on a dedicated deck and dine in private.
Certainly, Celebrity's private cocktail parties, bridge tours and butler-served afternoon teas are all the rage.
Purnomo Santoso, a butler on Celebrity Infinity, personifies both the ship's dedication to service and a (relative) rags-to-riches story worthy of Dickens: "Madam, I am Slumdog Millionaire: I came from the streets of Jakarta and now I travel the world. I can serve stars and simple people and I love my job."
The truth is that cruising is as classless (or as class-bound) as we are. Whether the move towards a "club within a club" transcends class or coats it in a contemporary veneer is for cruise-goers to decide.
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This article was written by Lisa Gerard-Sharp from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.