What's it like to mix drinks on a cruise ship? In the May issue of Travel+Leisure, writer Bruno Maddox tells all in I Was a Cruise Ship Bartender.
Maddox has already practiced his brand of immersion journalism by working as a Las Vegas hotel concierge and renting a private island for T+L, but we wanted to know what it was like to be among the crew chasing down fluttering napkins and serving up Baileys Banana Vanilla Thrillas on a massive floating hotel.
Here are some of Maddox's insights:
What was your first thought when you got this assignment?
Bruno Maddox: Well, it was December, and the thought of a sunny cruise in the Caribbeandid obviously hold some appeal, but the job itself sounded pretty bad. I knew there'd be uniforms. There would also almost certainly be mandatory grooming, shaving, etc., which is always a nightmare, and then there was going be the pure living hell of having your photo taken, for hours, in a crowded public space... and if all that weren't bad enough I'd be making high-degree-of-difficulty cocktails for people primed to expect flawless service. But you know. This is what I do. It's like being a soldier. When your commanding officer tells you to go, you go.
What did your cruise ship bartender training entail?
To Celebrity's credit, they were never going to let a reporter pass himself off as an actual staff member without going through the months of training that the real ones do. Every passenger I dealt with was told who I was and what to expect, or not to expect, and this freed me up to go pretty light on formal capital-T training. Basically it was just a few evenings of me sitting at the various bars with a notepad asking the bartenders things like, "What is that? Is that a refrigerator or just a cabinet?" Then I'd write the word "refrigerator" on my pad and underline it. By this method, over many hours, I was able to build up a lush and incredibly detailed picture of life as a cruise-ship bartender.
What was the hardest part of the job?
Every part of the job became much, much harder after I went ashore in St. Kitts and got a sunburn. It made no sense at all, and was frankly unfair. I have a history of burning, so I'd worn long-sleeved everything, roughly three pairs of blackout sunglasses, and a ludicrous hat the size of a beach umbrella. I basically looked like a bearded Audrey Hepburn on a daytrip to Venus, and was probably exposed to the sun for no more than eight seconds, scuttling back and forth between a taxi and a beach umbrella even larger than my hat. Still, somehow, I ended up burned beyond recognition. Back on the ship, riding the plate-glass elevator back to my stateroom, I inadvertently gave a sunburn to the person standing next to me, just by the glow from my skin, and then in the shower I found several places where the sun had burned clean through my flesh so you could see the bone. That evening's shift down at the Martini Bar...well, it was pretty heroic, even if I say so myself. Even just smiling was pure agony...I mean it's always pure agony, obviously: smiling. But there was a physical component to the agony now.
You were very careful not to reveal what goes on in the staff areas, but can you tell us something? Or are you bound by the maritime equivalent of omertà?
I only got a glimpse or two of life below decks, when I went for my uniforms, but I can tell you it's very clean down there, everything's painted white, and there are posters all over the place telling you not to do drugs and setting out precise blood-alcohol levels for how drunk you're allowed to get. I've lost the piece of paper where I wrote them down but as I recall you're either allowed to get twice as drunk drinking in the ship's crew bar as you are when you go ashore, or it's the other way around. There was also a poster listing, in very small type, every single weapon and weapon-like object that you weren't allowed to bring onboard. This included things like guns, crossbows and machetes, obviously, but also those elasticated spear-fishing guns that scuba divers use, and also—I was gratified to see— "cricket bats." This might sound overly paranoid to a U.S. audience, but having grown up watching cricket in England I can tell you those things are no joke. If a terrorist armed with a cricket bat somehow got onto the ship's bridge he could have the whole crew bored into a deep, drooling sleep within about ten minutes.
You've been a Vegas concierge and a cruise bartender: What job do you want to do next and how are you prepping for it now?
Ideally I'd like to do something where there's no possibility of having my photo taken, as I've something approaching an actual phobia of it, but that's probably going to have to wait a few years until people start traveling to black holes, other dimensions where there is no light, etc.. Failing that, I'd like to try one of the travel-related jobs where they don't make you wear a uniform or wash your hair or anything. I've pitched the editors "I Was a Travel Industry Entrepreneur Working From Home," and I'm still waiting to hear back. They're pretty busy, I think, this time of year.