Sunday, May 15, 2011


It’s the first evening of my week-long cruise around the Baltic Sea on the MSC Orchestra. If you’ve never traveled on a luxury cruise liner, you need to, because it’s awesome, in the shameful yet indulgent way that dancing around your living room in your undepants at 2am to Smash Hits of the 80s is awesome.

Everything about this ship is laid on with a trowel. Every venue, from the theatre to the several bars, has two musical acts each evening. Every dinner has six or seven courses. The ship is 300 metres long, holds 2,500 passengers and has nearly 1000 staff and crew. Especially after the designer minimalism of Denmark, the brash, crass decor philosophy is like a blow to the head. The Savannah Bar, which was the location of the check-in procedure, looks like it was decorated by a Russian Mafiosi’s trophy wife, all fake leopard skin couches, shiny gold mirrors and life-sized ceramic cheetah lamps. The other entertainment areas of the ship are more luxurious renditions of the interior design at your local multiplex: a hundred clashing colours, fairylights all over the place, lots of reflective surfaces, and carpets so garish that they look like Rose Hancock Porteous threw up on them after eating her own weight in licorice allsorts. Which, given her jet setting lifestyle and substance abuse problems, she probably has.

Admiral Ackbar (and friend) in the glory that is the Savannah Bar.

For example, I've written my last couple of blog posts in cramped airliner seats or my downmarket hotel room in Copenhagen. This one is being written from a sleek art deco armchair in the L'Ilcontro Bar on Pianoforte Deck, sipping a cosmopolitan while a silver-haired gentleman named Igor plays 'Autumn Leaves' on a white lacquer and lucite grand piano, from a platform in the centre of an indoor pond fed from a three storey high waterfall.

And believe it or not, this is the most discreetly decorated bar on the ship.

Given the average age and socioeconomic class of the passengers (the average passenger is, conservatively, one hundred and twelve - I've seen six old ladies in wheelchairs and one child of any description) it’s not surprising that everything is imbued with a sense of the middlebrow, one so relentless that it forms a solid and looming wall that threatens to tip and crush any dissent that might be offered. As a case in point, take the short 'Salute To Broadway' show in the theatre this evening. Leaving aside the choice of songs, which were all from event musicals that your parents will have seen in the last decade ('Phantom of the Opera', 'Mamma Mia' and 'We Will Rock You' rather than 'South Pacific', 'West Side Story' or even 'Hair'), every song ended with the principal performer carrying the final note for an inhumanly long time, in a way guaranteed to make your mother coo, "Ooh, aren't they talented!"

And the truth is that they were talented, but we didn't need cheap theatrics like holding a note for longer than the Korean War to realise that.

So who are all these tacky people? I’m extremely bemused. The shipboard TV channel is full of Public Service Announcements of the Bleeding Obvious: wash your hands after using the toilet to avoid germs, don't throw your garbage into the sea, don't flush diapers down the toilet, don't set up a moonshine still in your cabin, and so on. I’m forced to wonder exactly what sort of semi-civilised mouthbreathers have signed up for this cruise?

But there's no denying the intoxicating sense of crude, flooding abundance on this ship, from the food to the cocktails to the decor to the entertainment. It isn't tasteful, but it is lavish, and it takes a disturbingly short time to get used to it.


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