MARK PALMER: I served guests on a luxury cruise ship for a week… My encounters with the ‘Frightening Five’ proved they’re anything but plain sailing!
- Mark Palmer worked on the Uniworld S.S. Catherine for one week in various roles
My uniform fits snugly. Hair is brushed, shoes polished – but it’s certainly not the best of starts.
‘Can you tell me where the nearest ladies’ washroom is, please?’ asks an American guest.
‘I’m awfully sorry, but I can’t.’
Thierry Altuna, the French cruise manager (Terry to the Anglophones), takes me to one side as we line up for the Captain’s welcome speech.
‘You have your badge on the wrong way,’ he says. ‘It should always be on the right-hand lapel of your jacket.’
I move to make the switch but the magnet on the inside of my shirt – which holds the badge in place – falls and ends up somewhere near the top of my trousers. Retrieving it will require a partial striptease.
So, badgeless, I stand next to Thierry and listen to the Captain as he thanks all 107 guests for choosing Uniworld at the start of this luxurious Rhone river cruise from Arles, in the south of France, to Lyon, on board the 135-metre S.S. Catherine, named after the actress Catherine Deneuve.
Mark joins Capain Pascal Rech and crew on the top deck to navigate the low bridges and locks on the River
Pictured is Mark being a wine waiter serving guests aboard the cruise ship Uniworld S.S. Catherine
Sportingly, but with understandable apprehension, Uniworld has agreed to let me join the crew for what can best be described as work experience.
There are 51 other crew and we’re an international bunch, including 13 from Bulgaria, 11 from Romania, nine from France and just one from the UK. Two, if you count me.
Thierry then takes over from the Captain, holding the microphone like a seasoned pro – and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about cruise managers, it’s that they love an audience.
Thierry asks all those from America to raise their hands (43 of them); then wants to know how many are from Britain (27 in total), and so on.
After which, he waxes lyrical for 30 minutes about the various excursions, during which a smartly dressed passenger with a bouffant perm sidles up to me and whispers: ‘He never mentioned Ireland, and there are five of us here, you know.’
‘Thanks for that, I’ll have a word,’ I tell her. This formidable woman turns out to be Eleanor Walsh, a widow from Dublin, who is here with four other widows, three of them in their 80s.
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By day two I refer to this gang as the ‘Frightening Five’, because they prove to be the most demanding passengers on the ship. Or as the hotel manager, Alexandru Marinescu, puts it more tactfully: ‘They are the ladies who need special attention.’
First, Mrs Walsh complains to me that the walk from the airport terminal at Marseilles to the coach was far too long in the 42c heat; and, second, that bottles of water should have been given to everyone upon boarding the coach.
I report this back to Alexandru the next morning at the daily heads of department meeting and he jots it down in a notebook.
Also in his book goes a note about a particular guest from the U.S. He’s been seen at the front desk naked from the waist up.
‘He must be asked politely not to do this again,’ says Alexandru – although it’s not entirely clear who will do the asking. Mind you, topless from Texas is a novice compared with Jan and Bush Hanna from Knoxville, Tennessee.
It’s the couple’s 14th Uniworld trip and it comes as they are about to celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary.
As I replenish the Hannas’ glasses with water one evening, I ask them what they make of the political situation in America. ‘Let’s not mess about – we’re for Trump,’ says Mr Hanna.
‘Would you back him if he is running the country from prison?’
Pictured is Mark in the galley of the ship chopping, dressing and preparing food, as well as washing up
‘Do you not think he’s brought politics into disrepute?’
There’s been one other complaint during the first 24 hours. Apparently, the restaurant staff have not been coming round with wine fast enough.
I’m particularly mindful of this because, this evening, I shall be assisting the sommelier during the Gala Dinner.
But, first, I am on morning duty at the front desk with Adriana, from Croatia. I like her telephone manner and copy every word, just substituting my name for hers.
‘Thank you for calling the front desk. My name is Mark. How can I best assist you today, Mrs Rosenberg?’
I know it’s Mrs Rosenberg because her cabin number flashes up on one of three screens hidden from view. It’s just a matter of matching the name to the number.
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She wants one breakfast tea, one yoghurt, one slice of brown toast and one poached egg delivered as soon as possible.
‘Within 30 minutes, Mrs Rosenberg. Thank you so much and have a wonderful day.’
There’s a strict hierarchy on cruise ships. The Captain is the big boss, of course, and on the S.S. Catherine we all answer to Captain Pascal Rech.
He’s been sailing on the Rhone river all his working life and this is his 18th year with Uniworld.
‘Every day is different and I never get bored,’ says Pascal, 55, who met his wife on a river cruise ship when she was working as a pastry chef.
I join him in what’s called ‘the wheelhouse’ (similar to the bridge of an ocean cruise ship) as we leave Avignon and head upstream in the direction of Viviers.
MARK PALMER: I would also struggle to toil for long in the laundry room, where I am tasked with ironing guests’ clothes (pictured)
Amid all the technology and flashing lights there’s a sign that reads: ‘Work like a captain, play like a pirate.’
Second most senior in the pecking order is hotel manager Alexandru, 45, who is married with a 15-year-old daughter. He’s in charge of everything on board apart from piloting the ship.
I’m particularly grateful to him because he makes sure that my shift in the kitchen, working with ten chefs and three washer-uppers, with little room to move about, lasts no longer than is absolutely necessary.
I would also struggle to toil for long in the laundry room, where I am tasked with ironing guests’ clothes (bed linen is changed every three days) while simultaneously mopping my brow.
Uniworld has a fleet of 17 ships worldwide. The company is privately owned by the South African Tollman family, which also has in its portfolio the Red Carnation group of hotels.
Guests on this trip are paying anything from £3,000 to £8,000 per person for eight nights, all-inclusive, with as much alcohol as they want at any time of day or night. The long corridors display more than 460 works of art, including original paintings by Richard Scott and signed lithographs by Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso. But the pièce de résistance is the Murano glass horse in the lobby, which was specially commissioned and cost £200,000.
READ MORE: I’ve sold my home to live full time on a luxury cruise ship so I can travel the world – and it will save me £20,000 a year
Crew are billeted on the lower deck, two per cabin – unless you are a department head in charge of a team, which warrants a single room – all with their own ensuite shower rooms.
Before the Gala Dinner, the captain asks me to line up at the door to the lounge and greet guests as they file in. I clink glasses with a few of them, which seems a little forward but I notice Pascal does it in a refined sort of way. Follow the leader.
Then I report to the Bulgarian sommelier, Nedko Nikolov, who places a white napkin over my left arm and says I should hold a bottle each of the red and the white wine in my left hand, before pouring with my right.
‘The labels must be clearly visible to the guests and never let the bottle touch the glass,’ he tells me.
All goes well until I reach a table where a group of Australians are seated.
‘Could you tell me the name of the vineyard where the white wine comes from?’ says a burly man who seems to be the leader of this group. ‘I need to get back to you on that,’ I tell him.
‘I think you should know,’ he says.
Pictured is Mark dancing as part of a 1970s themed disco night onboard, where he is wearing glasses, a peace necklace and a tie dye headband
I seek out Nedko, who comes up with the name, and I return with it to the Aussie.
‘You’ve spilt a couple of drops on the table,’ he says.
The correct response to this would be to apologise and dab the drops with my napkin. I master the dabbing but not the apology.
‘You’re just smarting because the England football team knocked your lot out at the Women’s World Cup,’ I tell him.
It must be a sackable offence to speak to a guest in such a manner, but I move on quickly and there are no repercussions.
A highlight of the cruise is ‘Seventies Night’. Several guests have brought with them flower-power shirts and T-shirts; some of the men wear wigs in the style of John Lennon.
The ‘Frightening Five’ take to the dance floor with gusto – and then Alexandru suggests that I should join them. ‘You have my permission,’ he says. ‘But don’t go mad.’
Working on a cruise ship is hard work. But there’s also a lot of camaraderie and you pass through some wonderful scenery. The level of service from the crew has been exemplary.
Uniworld’s motto is: ‘You deserve the best.’ I can’t honestly claim that I have been the best, but I’ve got away with it – and stood no nonsense from a bellicose Australian, who may or may not report my insolence to the Captain.
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