A Day at Cruise World

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel

03.24.09 | 9:55 AM ET

Photo by Tom Swick

Every March I drive down to Miami Beach for Seatrade, the cruise industry’s annual gathering, which is always more interesting and, to me, more fun than actually taking a cruise.

This year Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises, began the “State of the Industry” debate with a short video of cruise ships accompanied by a tape of Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma.” The purpose, Sasso said, was to show that “there’s an art form to our industry.”

He admitted that cruising, like everything else, has been affected by the recession. But he and the panel of top cruise line executives were unanimous in asserting that they’d come through it OK. “Tout va bien,” (“Everything’s dandy”) the French ship broker sitting next to me said, with classic Gallic sarcasm.

Exiting the debate and entering the exhibition hall is always a bit like leaving the bromides of a cruise director for the streets of your first port. Here, under one roof, are most of the world’s non-landlocked nations—including Slovenia which, its tourism rep told me, has only 44 kilometers of coastline.

A Swede in a toque was placing shot glasses of smoked salmon in well-ordered rows while, over in Finland, a man in a red cap and a long synthetic beard handed me his business card. “Mr. Ilkka Lankinen,” was written on the front and on the back, “Official Santa Claus of Finland.” Finland, Santa told me, is the only country in which December has no name other than “the Christmas month.”

Martinique was pouring rum for stoppers-by and, a short distance away, two West Indians danced on stilts.

The two women at the Isle of the Jersey booth told of the events being held this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gerald Durrell’s arrival to the island whose zoo he single-handedly put on the map. “There’s going to be a ball,” one woman said, “and a teddy bear picnic.” Which seemed appropriate, as Durrell had a fondness for small mammals.

Next door the Port of Tyne had set up a little pub. “We have virtual darts,” the man said. “We had a real dart board all ready and someone said, ‘You know, I see a lawsuit coming.’ Somebody could have missed and hit China.”

Nearing Ireland I saw a man in green tie and kilt. “I’m Scottish,” he explained. “The Irish wear kilts, but of only one color. They don’t have the tartan.” I asked if the green tie was in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

“No, I always wear green,” he said, then added: “The Scottish and the Irish get along fine. We’re both Celts. And,” he said laughing, “we both hate the English.” Virtual darts seemed very sensible.

I approached Iceland with some trepidation, but these might have been the happiest people in the country. “The cruise business in Iceland is going up,” one man told me, while his coworker exhumed a bottle of Brennivin. “We call it Black Death,” Liz Gammon said. “You’re supposed to drink it with putrefied shark, but I couldn’t get that into the country.” I told them about Eric Weiner’s book on the happiest countries and that their country had ranked very high.

“Because of Black Death,” Gammon said laughing.

With difficulty, I pulled myself away and headed upstairs for a Cunard press conference. In the fall of 2010 the company will introduce the Queen Elizabeth, which—with its Art Deco flourishes, Ivor Novello piano bar, lawn bowling, country house parties—sounds like something dreamed up by The New Yorker’s Bruce McCall.

Back in the exhibit hall I headed over to the food area. Cusano’s Bakery of Hallandale Beach sat a few doors away from La Brea Bakery of Los Angeles, both offering an impressive variety of breads. The wine-flavored ice cream people were absent this year; appearing for the first time was RiceWrap MFG of Henderson, North Carolina. “We make 2,000 sushi logs per hour,” Richard Clark said proudly, putting a few samples out for tasting. Nearby stood a booth of Demasa—Hearts of Palm Division.

It was a tough slog through the technical section: Clear Shield, Kalmar Decorative Lighting, TransCanada Turbine, Bianchi & Cecchi Services, specializing in lifeboat maintenance. Seatrade is a staggering reminder of how many people are connected to cruising.

The pastor at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church booth confessed that—with the decline of Norwegian-owned cruise lines, and the higher wages in Norway—there are fewer and fewer Norwegian seamen.

A small crowd gathered at STX Europe to gawk at the model of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas. When it debuts later this year, with 16 decks and a capacity for handling 5,400 passengers, it will be the largest cruise ship in the world. Looking over the meticulous detail, I couldn’t ignore the fact, especially sad in the age of supersized vessels, that ships always look better in miniature.

I wandered into furniture land—chaise lounges, dining room chairs, bar stools. “We make furniture for the abusive side of the market,” Jan Fenelius of Holsag said with a smile. “Cruise ships, restaurants, universities, colleges. We have the obesity factor to consider ... and testosterone.” European beech, he said, had the right mix of strength and flexibility.

The folks at SolarWhite were demonstrating a product that, they claimed, whitened your teeth while you sat in the sun.

It was a relief to find myself back among nations. Italy—like Germany and Spain—took up a large area, and Maurizio Caruso Frezza from Calabria had ingeniously turned the recession into a marketing tool. “We can live very well without money,” he said of his fellow Calabrians. “We can teach everyone how to live better with less. In this crisis, we are your experts.”

Over in Holland, 4Tuoze Matroze was setting up. The quartet had added two women—a tall blond violinist and a short raven-haired accordionist—since its appearance two years ago. But the singer-guitarist was familiar, gangly and wide-eyed in his large Russian navy cap.

As always, a delighted crowd gathered. I grabbed a satay in peanut sauce and a plastic cup of Grolsch. A curly-haired man in a business suit danced with a pretty young blonde. The man next to me said: “The text is very Dutch, but the music sounds Russian.” I recognized one song, Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” though it too was sung in Dutch.

At 6 the music stopped, but people lingered. I talked to the singer, Cees Koldijk, who told me that he wrote all the songs, with the exception of “Amsterdam.” He and the accordionist were writing a symphony. I told him some of the music reminded me of klezmer.

“We play world music,” he said. “The philosophy of sailors is to take music from all over.”

Security came around and gently urged us to leave. “Wouldn’t you rather be outside?” the young guard asked solicitously. No one said yes. Once again, against all odds, Seatrade had made Miami seem dull.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

2 Comments for A Day at Cruise World

Julia Ross 03.24.09 | 10:35 AM ET

Loved this, Tom. Who knew a cruise convention attracted such characters?

Sophia Dembling 03.24.09 | 10:59 AM ET

What do I take from all this? More proof that Finnish is the world’s strangest language.

Also, I’m game to try the tooth whitener.

Much fun to read, thanks!

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