The Shapiros are in their 70’s and having their annual medical check up. When Mrs Shapiro goes in to speak to the doctor, he leans back in his chair and says, ‘You’re fine. Mr. Shapiro’s fine, but he did tell me of one problem when you’re making love. he says the first time is all good, but the second time he sweats everywhere and soaks the bed.’ She says ‘That’s right. The first time is in December. The second time is in June.’
(From ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’)
It’s December, as the big white boat ploughs its plumb-line southward course from New York, I look out over the steely sea of grey before me. White frothy curls occasionally punctuating the silvery peaks, as they bob and eddie. And as I muse over this endless view of hair, I think ‘How long does it take these people to decide what kind of bacon to have?’
Bob and Eddie. Norm and Sylvia. Jeff and Barbara. They are many gently ageing, silver-capped Jewish seniors on the Celebrity Silhouette’s cruise of the Caribbean, and they’ve all arrived at the infinite buffet at the same time for breakfast. To be fair, they don’t all choose to go for holiday trayfe*. (*The opposite of kosher, dear gentiles. Ed)
At the Ocean View restaurant, there is literally a smorgasbord aboard. And so this floating cornucopia, which never closes, offers our (generally) mature passengers anything from omelettes, herrings, smoked salmon, meats, cereals, sushi, breads, pastries, cheeses, full Englishes and Canadianses. The bountiful and delicious flow of sustenance is the hallmark of Celebrity and whilst the sector may have had some, er, unfortunate ups and downs on lesser cruise lines in the last six months, I can happily report that this vessel represents the very well-steered and gleaming face of ocean-based vacationing. Owned by parent company Royal Caribbean and based in Miami, the Celebrity Silhouette is, even to a hardened cynic, an immensely impressive piece of kit. Spanking new, carrying 2,886 passengers and weighing 122,000 gross tonnes, this 12-storey behemoth is a dreadnought dedicated to indulgence. She’s so stable, that it takes a good few seconds upon waking to realise you’re travelling at quite a lick. The incredibly comfortable king size bed helps. At the end of the cruise, with two million gallons of fuel used, I reckon the passengers collective weight gain would equal out the diesel lost. Jesus, is there enough food here. And Celebrity’s clever use of customer analytics allows them to keep adjusting their ships’ layouts, offerings and environment to ensure one’s palette (both visual and degustational) is never allowed to become jaded.
Thus, unique amongst its three siblings in the Solstice class, the Silhouette has been fitted with the Lawn Club, a half-acre grassy space on the top deck of the ship, with hammocks and huge Adirondack wooden chairs added for amusing Lilliputian fun. After a game of bocce ball and crochet, one can retire to the Alcoves, one of eight cabana-style private retreats designed to isolate and pamper for civilised outdoor boozing. They also provide WiFi.
I said I was a cynic. And for most of us with a fear of the predictable, cruising seems like a horrific compromise when there is so much choice in the full service high-end market. However, the travelling misanthrope soon realises two things. Firstly, that there is a very strong value for money argument for putting oneself in a self-contained destination that provides cinema, two brilliantly immersive spas, gyms, art classes, eight restaurants, beauty salons, live theatre and entertainment (stand up comedy and dance, for example), library, lectures on all sorts of topics, specialist bars, ‘Enomatic’ wine tasting – in which you can sample many vintage wines by glass, luxury tax-free shopping (including a mini Apple Store) and did I mention restaurants. And as much ice cream as one can eat. Really, how much food am I supposed to eat? It must be the sea air giving me this appetite.
The second realisation is that mixing with fellow passengers, although never enforced, is part of a good cruise’s very civilising experience. There are, of course, plenty of young couples, families and alluring cougars on board. I met and chatted with them many of them. Yet what is remarkable is how seeing older people, still happily (or at least, quietly) enjoying each other’s company can reignite your own hope in long-term relationships. That and seperate beds.
One night, the press trip are guests of honour at the Captain’s Table in the two level Grand Cuvee dining hall. More on him in a minute. At our table, guests of honour for the night, are the Melnicks. A retired dentist, originally from Brooklyn, Fred is a tanned, healthy and dapper gent in his 70’s and his wife retains a contagious cackle and a svelte figure. Fred did the teeth, Bobbi ran the front of house. Over some classic French cooking, the veteran discerning travellers tell me they have written their own guides to hidden Paris. Quite the bon viveurs, this is their umpteenth cruise on Celebrity and they’re here to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. They are as energetic and content a pair as one could wish to meet and give the lie that cruising is for the unadventurous or non-eclectic holidaymaker. One intuits that a large amount of Sinatra and Manilow gets blasted at Chez Melnick. Our host is a man of equally stirring qualities.
Nicholas Pagonis is hewn into big solid, Greek features, with imposing height, a foppishly long black fringe and a rakish grin. Charming and in control, unlike other ‘captains’, he certainly wouldn’t fall into a lifeboat after buggering up a show off manoeuvre to impress a call girl. He has that disarming talent of remembering your name and using it whilst holding steady eye contact, demonstrated when we visit the gleaming state of the art bridge the next day. He explains that the ship does not have traditional props, but flipping fans that merely turn to create drag and steer.
‘So the gyroscopic props mean you don’t need to use reverse thrusters to stop?’, I pretend to ask, stroking my chin. Pale eyes widening, he coos in an almost Bela Lugosian baritone, ‘Why, yes, ROB, that is RIGHT.’ Nick is chatting to our fellow journo and photographer, lil’ Kim from Ireland, and showing her his charts. I go over to join the party and notice that since leaving New York, we have not deviated an inch from a straight line, thanks to super smooth computerised navigation. I also note that we’ve just passed Puerto Rico and have in the last 30 minutes cleared an area of sea marked on the map by a pencil-drawn triangle.
‘Is that the Bermuda Triangle?’ I jokingly ask.
‘Yes, ROB. It IS…’ The smile widens.
‘WHY IS THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE MARKED ON YOUR CHARTS? WHY?!!’
I’m begining to freak out and am looking for a landing craft to abandon ship on.
‘I drew it myself, ROB. To impress KIM.’
Like Roman Abramovitch’s Playstation console, there are a myriad of buttons and joysticks and he can tell I’m getting trigger happy.
‘How do you steer the ship?’
‘With this,’ he replies, pointing to a small toggle. ‘It’s improbably small…’ I crack.
We are quickly led out.
One thing that really impresses me about Cap’n Nick is his trim physique, because after all, he works on a floating cream pie factory. Stop me if I’m getting repetitive, but I have never seen this much food contained in one physical structure. The lower deck stores are a maze of produce, both fresh and packaged. Here are the numbers: 170 chefs working 24/7 to provide about 12,000 dishes per day for the passengers and crew. Celebrity Cruises reports the following supplies are consumed on a mere seven-day cruise. They get through:
Tenderloin – 4,000 pounds
Whole chicken – 15,000 pounds
Chicken breast – 2,600 pounds
Rack of lamb – 4,000 pounds
Pork loin – 2,500 pounds
Lobster – 1,300 pounds
Salmon – 2,500 pounds
Tuna – 4,000 pounds
Heavy cream – 2,000 litres
Fresh eggs – 3,500 dozen
Butter – 3,800 pounds
Potatoes – 20,000 pounds
Onions – 2,600 pounds
Carrots – 2,000 pounds
Romaine lettuce – 1,500 pounds
Cookies – 3,000 pounds
Ice cream – 1,000 gallons
Fresh fruit – 75,000 pounds
And it’s all delicious. The ship has a number of restaurants that are charged separately from the main inclusive ticket. The iPad ordering, modern tapas of Qsine is both fun and educational. High tea at Murano is indulgent and luxuriant. The Lawn Grill offers alfresco fresh pizzas, and healthy and light salads. But it’s back to OceanView for the never-ending Escher staircase of munching that means every breakfast is a sea-based war I’m fighting with my own stomach. The Battle of Midrift, if you will.
Thankfully, before I can gain too much ballast, we are made to walk the plank at St. Marten, our first port of call. We wave the Silhouette goodbye, impressed with the palatial vessel, but also with her passengers, who have found, amongst their kvetching and gentle teasing, peace and contentment aboard. I just couldn’t imagine any of them being capable of anything frisky after another day of abundant grazing. But, hey, it is December.