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Insider: World's Largest Cruise Ship

The chef doesn't actually create recipes or menus—that's all done at Princess headquarters in L.A.—but he does estimate daily needs and help set food orders. He sends his wish list via E-mail to L.A. 10 days before each cruise; the Grand's order is consolidated with those of other Princess ships in the Caribbean, then put out for bidding by food suppliers. (When you're buying 3,900 pounds of butter a week, you have a right to bargain.) To keep quality consistent, all the food on board (except certain fruits from Latin America) comes from the United States, even when the ship is in Europe.

I asked food and beverage director Andy Hiscox what the deal was with the bananas. How do they keep them all perfectly ripe throughout the cruise?

"First, we buy them at varying degrees of ripeness," Andy says. "But you can also speed up the ripening process. We place them in the fruit room near citrus that's been gassed with ethylene, and in just a few hours they're yellow."

A Nasti Job
In a locked room behind the meat freezers is a strange and terrifying device. It appears to be just a four-by-four-foot metal box, but this is The Most Powerful Microwave Oven You Will Ever Come Across. It cost three-quarters of a million dollars. It supplies 40,000 watts of pure power, defrosting 80 pounds of pork in 60 seconds. It is perhaps the only microwave oven that asks you to PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD before operating.

The man with the code is a 52-year-old Italian named Nasti the Butcher. (I'm sure he has a first name, but everyone just calls him Nasti the Butcher.) Nasti stands about 4 foot 10 and has a laugh like a tommy gun. He first went to sea in 1966 and has been everywhere from Dakar to Rio to Fiji, all of which were blessed with "lotta nice girls." He told me he'd worked on the Achille Lauro just before the terrorist takeover—lucky for the terrorists. I pictured him decimating the hijackers with his gleaming cleaver and machine-gun laugh.

In a single day Nasti and his seven assistants will slice up an entire ton of beef, 1,000 pounds of chicken, 300 pounds of veal, and 500 pounds of fish. Apparently his schedule goes something like this:
5 a.m. Wake up
6 a.m.-2 p.m. Cut meat
2-4 p.m. Eat; nap
4-11 p.m. Cut more meat
11 p.m. Eat; stop into crew bar for one (1) drink
12-5 a.m. Sleep
Repeat seven times a week for six months.

The Iceman Carveth
If I could take any job on a cruise ship I would definitely choose ice carver. Uldarico Afurong, a 39-year-old Filipino who goes by Eric, is the Grand's master sculptor. Eric grew up in Paete, an artisan village in the Philippines famous for its carvers, who used to work in ebony but now often get jobs on cruise ships carving ice. Nearly all the ice carvers in the Princess fleet are from Paete. They're the ones who make those shimmering frozen mermaids that recline suggestively in the atrium. Ice is not their only medium—today they mainly use blocks of Styrofoam, but I suppose "Styrofoam carver" isn't as mythic a job title. Eric works 11 hours a day on this stuff. He can carve something out of anything: a floral relief from a watermelon, a Botticelli angel from a wheel of Parmesan.

Julie McCoy Never Sang the Blues
Keith Cox is the Grand's cruise director, and one of the few Americans on a largely British-run ship. (You can't trust the business of fun to a Brit, for God's sake.) Keith claims he's from Knoxville, but his accent is more Epcot Center—he has the kind of voice that might tell you to secure all belongings and take small children by the hand. His pants are whiter than the ship's hull. He can sing the blues and recite disembarkation instructions and make them seem equally exciting.

Keith has been with Princess since 1986. Just before his daughter, Mozelle, was born in 1994, the company broadened its policy regarding families accompanying crew, so Keith and his wife, Sarah, share a spacious corner suite on the Grand with Mozelle, who sleeps on a futon in the living room. Starting this fall, Mozelle will be homeschooled on the ship by her mother. The Coxes return to Tennessee every four months for a two-month leave, when Keith looks forward to "going to the grocery store, doing yard work, and grilling hamburgers." (Employees are forbidden to keep even a hot plate in their cabins.)

The C.D. and his assistants pack the day with so many activities that merely perusing the schedule is an endorphin boost. The cruise department staffers lead karaoke hour with the intensity of Springsteen in concert; they form conga lines with utter earnestness; they are, in short, human exclamation points. On the Grand it takes 120 shiny happy people to offer such a range of distractions. Among them (deep breath): six Chinese acrobats, five stagehands, four Trinidadian musicians, three aerobics trainers, two comedians, one hypnotist, 18 dancers, six Hungarian balladeers, two lighting designers, two teen coordinators, two rumba instructors, two scuba instructors, one port lecturer, one disc jockey, one art auctioneer, and a Filipino troubadour named Arthur who can perform any song in any language at the clink of your spoon: "Guantanamera," "O Sole Mio," "La Vie en Rose." Arthur barely speaks English but sings it perfectly; his theme song is "The Great Pretender." One night he dared me to trump him with a request, so I asked for "Aqualung" by Jethro Tull. "Sitting on a park bench!" he cried in his gorgeous tenor. Arthur was amazing.

Billions and Billions…
Fifty-nine thousand wooden coat hangers, 51,000 pieces of flatware, 23,000 bedsheets—after a week exploring the Grand I felt as if I were at some Carl Sagan astronomy lecture ("Billions and billions of menu tassels…"). I learned that the ship's bars and restaurants print 53,000 receipts a week; that the "able-bodied seamen" (A.B.'s) who constantly repaint the hull with rollers attached to flimsy 10-foot poles go through about 20 gallons of white paint a day; that galley workers use 27,500 pairs of latex gloves in a single week; that the ship's hydro-evaporators can produce 90 tons of water per hour, and that passengers and crew will consume 50 in the same amount of time. Like I said: It's a really, really, really big ship.

In spite of this, everything is orchestrated to feel comfortably small-scale, from the tables for two at Sabatini's Trattoria to the butlers who call you by name. And though the service is as obsessively directed as a Woody Allen film ("When talking on the telephone, ensure the mouthpiece is positioned near your mouth and not in midair!"), it rarely comes off as stiff or scripted.

Bigger, yet more intimate; super-efficient, yet personalized; initially overwhelming, yet surprisingly manageable, the Grand is a floating contradiction. Still, you might follow the lead of the passenger I met in the gym, who'd brought two walkie-talkies so that he and his wife could stay in touch:

"Honey, rendezvous for daiquiris on Lido Deck, fourteen-hundred hours."

"Roger that, sweetie. Love you. Out."

Grand Princess, 800/774-6237; www.princess.com. Seven-day Caribbean cruise departs from Fort Lauderdale weekly October 31 through May 14; doubles from $899 per person, not including airfare. The 12-day Mediterranean cruise departs from Istanbul or Barcelona in July and August; doubles from $4,414 per person, not including airfare…

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