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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Cruising behind the scenes

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The Crown Princess, which sales to the Western Caribbean from Galveston, Texas January through April, offers an Ultimate Ship Tour wherein passengers get a behind-the-scenes tour of the colossal ship and a chance to appreciate the inside story. [Photo courtesy of Princess]

Anyone who has cruised in recent years will tell you the same thing: a cruise ship is a floating luxury resort of behemoth proportions, with every onboard amenity you could possibly desire. But it’s not until you take a behind-the-scenes tour of a cruise ship that you can begin to understand and truly respect the operations that make this gigantic hotel-at-sea work seamlessly. 

My Ultimate Ship Tour of the Crown Princess left me with precisely this sense of awe. The vessel, which sails from Galveston, Texas, to the Western Caribbean January through April, has the inner workings of a fine Swiss watch, each department ticking away in such perfect unison with the rest that for the 3,000 passengers on board, the operations side is utterly invisible. Until you step backstage, that is.

We peek into the engine room, where controllers are at the helm of a sophisticated computer system that delivers exact data on everything from fuel to water consumption. Here we learn that at full speed our vessel is consuming 200 tons of fuel daily, which means our weeklong cruise will use an estimated $700,000 worth of fuel. The 2,400 cubes of water loaded onto the ship at the start of each weeklong cruise will cover the 230 litres per day each passenger is expected to consume – water that, once used, will be treated and pumped back into the ocean. The same deep blue seas will provide the water required to cool the ship’s engines. 

For anyone whose daily chores involve laundering clothes, the ship’s laundry is a place of wonder and amazement. I find myself mesmerized by folding and ironing machines that look much like printing presses, taking wet towels, napkins, tablecloths and bed linens and in a matter of seconds, rendering them hot and creaseless. The machines run 24/7 so that the 86 stateroom stewards have a ready supply of linens around the clock.

On deck four, close to the bowels of the Crown Princess, Dr. Dylan Belton shows us around the ship’s medical centre, which houses separate clinics for passengers and staff. “This is the one place no one truly wants to have to see,” quips the British doctor who has worked on board for the past six years. The seven-bed centre sees a variety of ailments, mostly coughs, colds, forgotten medication, respiratory illness and heart attacks. But it also serves the crew, vaccinating the 1,200 crew members for influenza and assisting them with weight loss, smoking prevention and diet modification. “This is a working ship, so we have to be able to deal with trauma,” he explains. “We even have a morgue, since the days of burial at sea are long gone. I’ll show you that on your way out,” he jokes. 

To get a sense of how the kitchen works I sign up for the Chef’s Table, an eight-course meal that begins in the galley with a series of appetizers, and continues in the dining room with a menu customized by Giuseppe Di Gennaro, the ship’s executive chef. It’s 7 p.m. and just beyond the galley doors there are 1,100 guests dining on a three-course meal in two massive dining rooms. You wouldn’t know it by stepping into the kitchen, though, where every surface is spotless and 60-odd members of the wait staff move soundlessly along polished floors, loading dishes of salads and entrees onto large trays. Dishwashers are humming as 6,000 plates move through the galley in the course of an average meal. But a sense of calm prevails, one that belies the sheer amount of food being prepared on the ship’s nine galleys each day. 

We’re led past vats of soup and sauces large enough to bathe in, to a white clothed table decorated with food art: turnips dyed and sculpted into roses, watermelons carved to resemble a woman’s profile. As its name suggests, the Chef’s Table is unmistakably in the chef’s quarters, and he presides over it with pride, offering a customized menu that showcases his culinary talents. A series of delicate, bite-size appetizers appears accompanied by flutes of champagne. As we move to the dining room, to a candle-lit table decorated with a large floral arrangement, other passengers look on with interest. It’s clear we’re getting the ‘special treatment’ – beef flambéed tableside, servings of potatoes carved to resemble toadstools and each course paired with fine wine, carefully chosen by an attentive Chilean sommelier to accentuate the meal.  

Earlier, in our behind-the-scenes tour, we’d glimpsed the food storage facilities and watched as fruit and vegetables were unpacked, peeled, chopped and readied for the galley in the preparation station. Heavenly aromas were emanating from the bakery as some of the 24,000 buns baked daily emerged from the oven. 

“We go through an average of 225 tons of food each day, and we always carry enough for at least a day or two extra, just in case,” says Giorgio Pisano, maitre d’hôtel. A picture of elegance in his handsome suit and Italian-accented English, Pisano started bussing tables for the Island Princess in 1976 while still a teenager, and never looked back. Today he presides over the Crown Princess’ nine dining facilities, somehow managing to be everywhere at once while still appearing utterly unflustered.

“It’s organized chaos,” he jokes, as I marvel at the precision of operations in the galley. More like that Swiss watch, I’m thinking. Each movement so impeccably synchronized, rehearsed and orchestrated that for passengers, the inner workings of the cruise ship are entirely invisible.   

For more information, visit princess.com

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