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© Neena Bhandari


In the days when journalists used Olivetti typewriters and bromides to make news pages, merchant navy ships making port calls at Mumbai were a major attraction. The narrow pavements of Colaba and Fort would be dotted with hawkers selling the `imported’ Australian Kraft Cheese, the Italian Ferrero Rocher chocolates, American Lacoste Tshirts and airline socks on wooden boxes transformed into tables for displaying wares.

Today, along with cargo ships, many of the world’s renowned cruise liners regularly make port calls along India’s lengthy coastline. Cruising is fast becoming the choice of Indian travellers to explore the world for its all-inclusive nature, relieving the stress of constant packing and unpacking, checking-in and checking out. On a cruise, one unpacks on day 1 and packs on the last day whether travelling for days, weeks or even months.

It also gives travellers the opportunity to meet new people, make new friends and indulge in interests and activities that one otherwise doesn’t find the time for, be it playing chess, scrabble, cards or picking up a book, CD or DVD from the well-stocked libraries on the ship. One such “premium” cruise line offering affordable luxury aboard its fleet of mid-sized ships is Holland America. Its M S Amsterdam will anchor on March 29th in Mumbai en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (US).

It was on this majestic ship that this correspondent made her maiden sea cruise from Melbourne to Sydney a few months ago. The 12-deck ship’s classic interior, broad staircases and decks displaying Dutch heritage and tradition in original art deco pieces complement contemporary works. Built at the Fincantieri shipyard in Marghera, Italy, it blends the latest in shipbuilding technology and artistry with a signature sculpture at the epicentre, Planeto Astrolabium, soaring in a three-story atrium which tracks constellations, the planets, world time and ship time.

With 700 cabins, guests have the option of an inside, balcony, ocean view or suites, which are some of the largest on a cruiser liner ranging from 556 to 1,159 sq ft with a balcony. It was on the ship’s 12th deck, amidst the ruffle of dresses and couples swaying across the floor to the nostalgic notes of Sealed with the Kiss, that I met Shiv Charan, who is now Chief of Housekeeping on MS Amsterdam.

Over Pina Colada and Australian Sauvignon Blanc, Shiv recalled the intensive training at the Pusa Institute of Hotel Management and then working at two leading five star hotels that he decided to make the move to working in a cruise company. He joined the prestigious Carnival Corporation, which has nine different cruise liners, including Holland America, under its umbrella. “I have had the opportunity to manage staff from 85 different nationalities. Being on board together, sometimes for months at a stretch, involves constantly improvising ways to make the hospitality staff more productive”, says Shiv, who works every 4 to 5 months and takes two months off to be with his family in Delhi.

MS Amsterdam has a crew ratio of 1:2.4 guests, living up to its name for high-end service and hospitality. People are taking cruises for the relaxation and comfort they offer. For fitness enthusiasts, there are swimming pools, the gym, spa and salon offering a wide variety of wellness treatments. Internet is expensive and mobile phones can be inaccessible, giving one the opportunity to switch off from the wired world and enjoy nature’s wonders - sea birds and marine life, stars and shops.

Shafi Saboowala, who worked at the Taj in Mumbai, is the Manager of a boutique jewellery store on the ship. “Grand voyages are good for business. It has been a great learning curve and I hope to start my own enterprise someday”, says Shafi, who misses home-cooked food on long travels.

Although, MS Amsterdam  has elegant dining options and has established a Culinary Council comprising internationally renowned chefs including Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, Manhattan’s Marcus Samuelsson and David Burke, Jacque Torres and Holland’s top chef, Jonnie Boer.  Each night, the main dining room menu features signature dishes and desserts that showcase their expertise and specialties. It is also one of the first cruise liners to introduce full buffets for breakfast and lunch, where guests can request custom dishes prepared exactly to their specifications.

At 11 p.m. each night, the Lido restaurant features a different theme, including the Chocolate Extravaganza, in which the on-board pastry chefs serve dazzling pastry displays, chocolate fondues and other sweet treats. For those not wanting to leave the comfort of their cabin, there is always the option of 24-hour complimentary room service.

On its 112-day Grand World Voyage, MS Amsterdam is in Mumbai after circumnavigating Australia’s Top End, the dizzying skylines of Hong Kong and Singapore, south-east Asia, and Mangalore and Marmagao (Goa) in India. “Maiden ports on a world-cruise are always a challenge for navigators”, says Dominic Harrison, the 2nd officer Navigation, who hails from Mumbai. He said everything from life-saving, safety, navigation is micromanaged on a cruise ship unlike a cargo ship.

An Anglo-Indian, Dominic grew up in a building in the Fort area, where most people worked in the shipping industry. He joined merchant navy as a sailor after completing the seamen training from the Nhava Sheva port and then acquired a Nautical degree from the United Kingdom. While companies like P&O Cruises and Star cruises have been operating in India for a long period, Holland America is a new entrant.

As their spokesperson told this correspondent, “With the economic growth that is occurring in the country and interest in cruising developing rather rapidly, we are definitely poised for growth.  In fact, our business has grown over 100 per cent and we are expecting to see similar growth again in 2012”.

Holland America’s MS Rotterdam’s 37-day Passage to Asia departs Jan 9, 2013 and will make port calls at Marmagao (Goa), Mangalore, Cochin, and Port Blair, and the ship’s 90-day Passage to Far East will also stop at Mumbai. For Indians, shorter cruises within Asia are the most popular.

“Alaska is becoming quite a popular destination which matches up with our strategies and deployment as a company as well. Unlike in some markets, language is not a barrier as most Indians speak English. However, the challenge really is food.  A large percentage of the population is vegetarian and prefers Indian style vegetarian preparations.  Beyond this, there are some even further stricter vegetarian diets which often require specific ingredients or the ability to bring along a trained chef.  We’ve been working with our culinary department to come up with a strategy to address these dietary requirements”, the spokesperson added.

The number of global cruise passengers has increased from 13.6 million in 2005 to 18 million in 2010. By 2015, the total number of cruise passengers is projected to reach almost 23 million. It is estimated the Asia Pacific region will see some 1.5m passengers in 2012.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.comcontent is expressly prohibited without the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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