Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part VI

On this, our final full day, I will conclude with several observations about:

*The "gentlemen dancers" who steer unescorted women around the dance floor (and, yes, such a convention still exists). These six gents, somewhere between their late fifties and early seventies, wear tuxedos, have impeccable manners, and evince the old-fashioned courtliness of another time. They are unfailingly patient, whether squiring an ancient lady or showing an awkward girl some basic steps. I find them charming and touching.

*The international flavor of the staff. Some 42 nationalities are represented; as I mentioned previously, Russians and South Africans appear to predominate. For the most part, they are beautifully trained and quite pleasant.

*The band singer Michel who accompanied the small orchestra and jazz combo. He looks like a young and perhaps more compact Kevin Spacey and sounds eerily like Chet Baker. He has a meltingly sweet voice and impeccable phrasing. Given the penchant for electronic music and hip-hop, I don't foresee much of a future for a honey-mouthed singer crooning old standards--outside of a cruise liner such as this.

*The unpredictable nature of dining companions. We didn't realize that you can request special seating arrangements when booking the voyage. Cunard seated us at a table for six for lunch and dinner. Our dining companions were pleasant enough but boring as mud. Making conversation was difficult if not impossible. By the third day, we pleaded with the maitre'd to secret us away to a corner of the restaurant, which he was kind enough to do.

*The absolute luxury of room service and dining in. Now I understand entirely why moneyed characters in 1930s movies bounce around merrily: they have servants. Breakfast arrives magically to our suite, beautifully hot and handsomely presented. Our steward makes certain everything is tidied up whenever we leave. We always return to a clean room, replenished fruit bowl, and fluffed pillows. Most terrifying is how quickly one adapts to this luxury.

*The pleasure of seeing people dressed up. Like most Americans, I inhabit social spaces where casual clothing is customary. The notion of "dressing for dinner" went out decades ago. On Cunard, though, everyone dresses, even in the lower class of service. I came to enjoy very much seeing men in dark suits and evening dress and women in cocktail dresses and formal gowns. Last night, for instance, I saw a striking woman in her seventies wearing a gorgeous cowled organza blouse over a long black skirt that fell into sinuous folds of material. Her white hair was beautifully coiffed, and she accessorized her stunning outfit with striking, bold jewelry. I hope I look half as good at her age.

*Our wonderful South African dancing instructors, Mel and Alain. Both hail from Durbin, where they ran a studio and performed. Outgoing and straightforward in the typical manner of South Africans, they're living a dream, as Mel put it, sailing around the world and doing what they love. Like several staff we chatted with, they feel extraordinarily lucky to be employed by Cunard. Staff enjoy full room and board in addition to salary and benefits. Some use their earnings to help family back home; others save toward purchasing a house (like Mel and Alain) or sending children to prep school.

*The seeming infinity of the ocean. Although I grew up on the Pacific and frequently went deep sea fishing, I have never spent several uninterrupted days at sea. We have seen other vessels only twice in six days. Mainly one looks out upon a blue-grey sea that goes forever.

*The dog kennel on the 12th deck. Unbelievably, you can arrange to have your beloved dog or cat do an Atlantic crossing too. We visited the facilities and were impressed by the care. Only 10 animals are permitted per voyage, and they get 2-hour blocks of play time throughout the day and early evening. There's an indoor playroom for bad weather and an outdoor run as well. When we stopped by, several owners were tossing balls for their dogs or cuddling them. Everyone looked pretty happy.

Would I do this again? I'm not sure about a conventional cruise, where one skips from island to island or scampers from one tourist site to another, disembarking for a few hours and then clambering back on board. Generally I like going somewhere and staying put for several days in order to walk and explore. As a mode of transportation, however, a cruise liner can't be beat. We will arrive tomorrow, refreshed and relaxed, in Southampton: no jet lag, no exhaustion, and, best of all, no airports and their attendant insanity. We've met several folks on board for whom this too is a maiden voyage; like us, they're exploring the option of sailing to Europe annually rather than flying. If one can forgo the upper class of service, the cost is surprisingly reasonable given what airlines now charge. For half the price of a business-class seat, you can cruise the Atlantic for six days, enjoying good meals, fine surroundings, and fun entertainment. We're certainly thinking about it for the future.

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