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Insider: World's Largest Cruise Ship

First, let's get one thing straight: this is a really, really, really big ship. Fifty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, too damn wide for the Panama Canal, capable of carrying three 747's and a space shuttle (hypothetically speaking, of course), the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess is an absolute beast. The original Love Boat could squeeze into the top-deck dining areas; a thousand harbor seals could dwell comfortably in the five swimming pools; a blue whale could curl up in the atrium; and I personally am convinced the thing's got wheels on the bottom so it can skip the buoyancy issue altogether and just troll along the ocean floor, though no one will confirm that.

This is a ship whose employees are known to complain about their morning commute.

I might also add that it has the largest casino afloat, the first wedding chapel at sea, and a wicked huge storage room containing, among other things, 800,000 folded paper towels and 50,000 swizzle sticks. (I counted them myself.)

Built by the Fincantieri company in Italy for $450 million—the highest price tag ever for a passenger vessel—the Grand Princess made its debut last year to raves from reviewers, all of whom struggled to find synonyms for "really, really, really big." The Grand is just the first of several new megaliners in the Princess fleet; it will be joined by two sister ships in 2001. Meanwhile, the race for superlatives is on: in November, Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas will up the ante to 3,100 passengers (and don't forget the climbing wall and the ice-skating rink).

But the new wave in cruising isn't just about scale—that would be too easy. The latest ships offer a level of personal service that belies their enormous size. After all, today's cruise ships are competing not only with one another but with beach and ski resorts, where service has become an obsession. Cruise lines are taking the hint. You want 24-hour dining?Sure. Golf clubs polished overnight?No problem. A butler in tails to serve tea and scones on your balcony?Fine—who cares if it's 90 degrees out?

These special touches are part of what Princess calls "Grand Class Cruising," which aims to make you—a tiny speck of a passenger inside this hulking giant—feel like You, the Only One Aboard. The Grand has a slightly higher crew-to-passenger ratio than the fleet's smaller ships, and though you won't see more than a quarter of the staff during your cruise, those you do encounter will often remember your name.

I joined the Grand Princess for a seven-day Caribbean cruise during which I saw almost none of the Caribbean, as I was usually belowdecks, hanging with the crew, opening unmarked doors, exploring rooms labeled DANGER or 21° BELOW CENTIGRADE. From what I heard, the Caribbean looked very nice that week. But I didn't care about sunsets and water polo. I wanted to learn what goes on behind the scenes, out of the passengers' view. For instance: How do they keep the bananas just this side of ripe, day after day at sea?Where do all those used swizzle sticks end up?Who carves the mermaid ice sculptures?Where does the crew go after work—is there even an "after work"?And what is it like to be employed on the world's biggest cruise ship?

In the Belly of the Whale
You see them at all hours, scurrying down corridors, going about their mysterious business. They disappear through hidden passages like so many White Rabbits, only to emerge with an armful of linens or a sack of volleyballs. Where are they going? you wonder. What's down there?

If the Grand's passenger areas seem overwhelming to you, consider what the crew must deal with: a tangle of stairwells and mazelike corridors twisting through decks you didn't know existed. I have no idea how they find everything—after a week of traipsing everywhere from the engine room to the meat lockers I still could never tell where the hell I was.

The only landmark I consistently recognized was a wide alleyway running through Deck 4 that the British officers call the M-1, after the motorway in England. You could race three forklifts down this thing (it's been done). Off-limits to passengers, Deck 4 is the functional heart of the ship, where the baggage is loaded, engines monitored, food stored and prepped, photos developed, bouquets arranged, menus printed, garbage burned, ice sculptures carved—all the important stuff.

I started my explorations at the Crew Office, smack on the M-1. (Outside was a bulletin board with a notice reading MOUNTAIN BIKE 4 SALE.) Serving 1,150 employees from 35 countries, the Crew Office has its hands full—handling payroll, booking flights home, exchanging currency, publishing the perky staff newsletter. Since the Grand's employees alone could fill a major Las Vegas hotel, a whole sub-crew of 50 is required just to clean their quarters and cook their meals. Then there's the task of keeping the staff entertained, or at least occupied, during their off-hours: for those bored with the crew TV channels (including one of all-Filipino programming), the ship arranges bingo games, movie screenings, blues and Latin nights in the employee disco, and midnight revues for the crew in the Princess Theater.

It's Not Just a Job, They're Indentured
Employees stay on the ship for four to 10 months, then take a month or two off without pay before renewing their contracts. They certainly earn the downtime: crew members work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, though they'll sometimes get a free afternoon when the ship's in port and the restaurants and passenger services aren't so busy. Many work split shifts—busboys might cover breakfast and dinner on the same day—and have a few free hours in between; they mostly use the time to sleep.

What's a 70- to 90-hour week worth?Salaries vary dramatically, even within ranks and departments—the complex pay scale factors in everything from workers' past experience to the country in which they were hired, so that two galley cooks with identical jobs might earn different wages. Employees who rely on tips are barely paid at all by the ship. One waiter told me he earns a base wage of $83 a month, but averages $600 a week in tips. While some workers opt for payment by check or wire transfer to their home bank, many are paid in cash, which has its drawbacks: last year, when a Grand employee got off the ship in Fort Lauderdale carrying $20,000 in earnings—and neglected to declare the cash—U.S. Customs seized half of it.

A Tale of Two Cities
The entire fore of the ship—everything ahead of the bridge, up to Deck 14—is set aside for crew quarters and recreation areas: passengers aren't allowed here. Top-ranking officers are given single cabins or suites; the remaining 1,100 employees, mainly scattered across Decks 2, 3, and 4, share their quarters in groups of two or three. Sounds grim, yet the veteran workers I talked to say the Grand has relatively spacious crew cabins. If you've seen an Amtrak sleeper car you have an idea of what most are like (minus the windows, usually).

On the eighth and ninth decks, right at the prow, are the "crew rec areas," including an enviable sundeck, a 20-foot outdoor pool, a library, a gym, six slot machines, a disco, and a bar selling discounted drinks until 1 a.m. All meals, however, are served in the crew mess, all the way aft on Deck 5. A cabin steward told me few of his co-workers bother trudging up to the bar after dinner—it's almost a quarter-mile walk away.

One night I was invited to the crew disco to get jiggy with a group of waiters, who have a reputation as a partying crowd. For some reason a whole bunch are from Romania; there are also Filipinos, Czechs, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Italians, Portuguese. Despite this diversity every waiter or busboy I met had a name ending in o: Lubo, Claudio, Carmelo, Generoso, Rogerio, João. When I arrived at midnight 10 of them were clustered on the dance floor. At the opposite end of the room a few engineers stared sullenly at a Steven Seagal movie. (Scenes like this reminded me that the crew is 80 percent male.)

While longtime Princess employees approve of the swank crew areas aboard the Grand, some miss the tightly knit social scene on the older, smaller ships, where departments would easily intermingle. Here, Lubo told me, the waiters rarely hang out with the carpenters or the linen-keepers, to say nothing of the dancers and the acrobats.

So I asked Lubo what he thought of the ship as a whole. Though he'd been on the Grand for months, he confessed he hadn't really seen all of it. Waiters aren't allowed in passenger areas when off duty. "Deck privileges" are granted only to high-ranking employees and certain other staff; they can use the nicer passenger gym and jogging track during slow periods, sunbathe on the upper decks, shop at the boutiques, dine at the Italian trattoria (for a $3.50 fee). But most crew members are confined to their work spaces and cabins and the crew rec areas—some barely visit the top decks at all during their time on board.

How to be Nice, in 12 Easy Steps
Despite the long hours and the months of confinement, the staff seems the picture of levity. Ask a butler or an ice cream server how he's doing and the unvarying answer is "I'm fantastic, sir! How are you?" In fact the entire Grand crew was so smiley and friendly that I wondered if maybe they'd been brainwashed. To investigate the matter I got my hands on some employee training videos.

The dozen tapes follow two fictional passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, through every aspect of their cruise. Each episode contains six service mistakes for employees to identify: waiters serving from the right, bartenders neglecting to refill peanut bowls, and other unforgivable blunders. Each time someone screws up, a little bell goes off and a caption pops up to reveal the mistake. The maître d' greets the couple at dinner by shaking Mr. Smith's hand. DING! Maître d' should have acknowledged female passenger first!

A buffet cook whistles "Dixie" while dishing out scrambled eggs. DING! Food purveyors should not whistle around food areas!

Mrs. Smith asks her manicurist how long she's been on the ship. "Five long months now," the poor manicurist sighs. DING! Employees should not complain about the length of their contracts!

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