Cruising 

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Backstage with the cruise director

It's 10 minutes to midnight in the Crow's Nest lounge of the MV Ryndam, somewhere between Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan on Mexico's Pacific coast.

Michael Rowland takes the microphone and announces that Chuck and Eloise, on their third Holland America cruise, are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary that day.

He calls them forward, hands them a gift and tells them that they're being treated to lunch next day in the Pinnacle Grill, the ship's upscale restaurant, which passengers usually pay a premium to eat in.

Then Rowland moves around the room, greeting people here and there, often remembering names and hometowns. He's such a bundle of energy it's hard to believe that he has been on the job since 7:30 this morning, without a break.

Rowland is the cruise director, the person who, probably more than any other, is the public face of a cruise ship. Before the end of the voyage pretty well everyone aboard — in this case more than 1,200 passengers — will recognize him.

Many of them "know" the job from the TV series The Love Boat (1977-86), in which actress Lauren Tewes played perky Julie McCoy, cruise director on the fictional Pacific Princess. Julie always greeted guests, and before the cruise was over you could be sure she'd have kindled at least one romance and maybe solved some minor mystery or family drama along the way.

"That's not what it's really like," says Rowland. "No, I don't get involved in people's lives and loves."

For one thing, he doesn't have time to. On a typical day he'll be in his office before 8 a.m., going through the day's activities with his staff. By 8:30 he'll be on the PA, telling the early risers what to expect.

After grabbing a coffee and chatting to breakfast patrons in the Lido Restaurant it's off to the atrium to introduce, and putt the first ball, in an indoor golf contest.

At this time he's wearing a sports shirt and chinos. Before the day's out he'll probably have half-a-dozen costume changes.

"I have three full suitcases," he says. "I need tuxes, sportswear, chinos, pumps, ducks. The right clothes for every occasion."

On an average day Rowland will probably be supervising or moderating such diverse events as wine tasting, bingo, basketball, pool games, bocce and cake decorating, plus a dozen more.

Sea days — that is, days on which the ship doesn't make a port call — are busiest, for everyone is aboard all day, meaning more activities are expected.

"Stamina. That's what's needed," he says, glancing at his watch before bounding upstairs to host the afternoon trivia competition, one event he looks after personally. "It's my favourite of the day."

Rowland, a native Californian, began his career as a writer and animator for the Hanna-Barbera studios. When animation work began to be sent overseas, he joined Holland America, working his way up to head the cruise-activities team. He works a seven-day week for up to two months at a time, then takes a month's break at home in Laguna Hills, Calif.

Good life afloat even better with a butler

Aboard Crystal Serenity Cruise lines pamper their passengers. But for some, routine pampering isn't enough. They want the royal treatment. That's where Ural Korkmaz and his team come in.

Korkmaz is head butler on the Serenity, which is itself at the high end of the cruise market. He and his seven associates — and a parallel team on sister ship Crystal Symphony — make sure that the people who occupy the luxury penthouses want for nothing. I can vouch for their service, for I was fortunate enough to get upgraded to a penthouse on a Mediterranean voyage.

(Penthouse accommodation with butlers doesn't come cheap. Top rate for, say, a 12-day cruise is about $30,000. But you can sail for much less, even on Crystal. That same 12-day cruise in the bottom category — no butler, of course — comes in at about $4,500.)

"We're on call 24 hours a day," Korkmaz told me as he and Mahir, our personal butler, escorted my wife and me to our suite, the size of a small condo apartment (sitting room, bedroom, bar, verandah) at the beginning of the voyage from Rome to Barcelona.

Every morning Mahir (he preferred no other name, the way butlers do) would ask if there was anything he could do to make our cruise better. Every afternoon he appeared with canapés. And always he stressed that he was just a touch of the bell away. To be honest, we didn't call on him much.

We didn't even let him unpack for us. But other passengers expect more. They want their man to lay out their clothes (casual in the morning maybe, elegant for afternoon tea and formal for dinner), shine their shoes, do their laundry, organize their shore excursions.

Maybe you want a little pre-dinner cocktail party or a nightcap with friends you've met on board. Your butler will arrange the drinks and the hors d'oeuvres and be on hand to serve.

A good butler remembers not just his guests, but their likes and dislikes: how much popcorn they like when watching a video, who wants to chat and who prefers to be left alone. Repeat guests often ask for the same butler. On occasion, Crystal's butlers have been so well liked that guests have hired them permanently.

"Ask and we'll obey," is the motto, no matter how wacky the request. For instance, "on an Alaska cruise a guest wanted to go by helicopter on to a glacier," Korkmaz tells me. "We arranged it. Then he asked for a butler to come to the glacier and serve him chilled champagne. We obliged." Another time a passenger wanted to swim with sharks in the South Pacific. Korkmaz set it up.

The butlers all come up through the ranks, mostly from wait staff. Korkmaz's career is typical. He joined Crystal in 1995 as an assistant waiter. His enthusiasm was soon noted and the company sent him to a school run by Ivor Spencer, one-time butler at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. It's hard to imagine a better pedigree.

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