When American ship designers want to project an upmarket image, they raid the dressing-up box of European culture, working on the assumption that European is `classy,’ hence synonymous with visions of Venetian gondoliers, French shepherdesses, Roman emperors or Greek gods.
All the cruise lines are in the business of spinning dreams from scraps of seafaring history and promises of romance at sea. From the sleek mega-yachts to the mammoth cruise liners, the ships slip into their seductive sales pitches. Most cruise companies deliver the glamour and glitz, even if some go overboard on the latter. While subtlety sometimes slips out the porthole, the sheer scale of the razzmatazz compensates for any churlish quibbles about quality. The captain’s cocktail party, the sail-away rituals, the spectacular carnival parades, the surreal themed evenings, the celebratory parties, the gala dinners – all form part of the `showbiz at sea’ approach that characterises contemporary cruising.
By definition, a ship is neither a destination nor rooted in any culture, so ship designers have carte blanche to transport passengers into a fantasy world. The result is a knowing parody, an ocean of kitsch redeemed by panache. Designers are committed to themes but these are capacious enough to encompass every whim. With a wave of the wand, a cavernous shopping mall is transformed into the Champs Elysées, or an idealised Main Street USA. Come evening, it is a stage set for a Disneyesque parade of circus clowns, stilt men, Mickey Mouse, or Marilyn Monroe lookalikes in drag.
A more sophisticated version of Americana is available on Celebrity Cruises ships such as the Mercury, with the Manhattan restaurant decorated in a lavish tribute to its namesake: amid the glitzy allusions to the metropolitan high life are Art Deco staircases and screens depicting New York’s Flatiron Building. Yet even Celebrity can’t resist resorting the gleaming chrome, fake zebra skin, futuristic marble, and wing-back armchairs that supposedly symbolise the golden age of cruising.
On the megaships, in particular, American heritage becomes a glorious dressing-up box, conjuring up Vegas gambling palaces, Hollywood film sets, Wild West saloons, or halls of fame encrusted with sporting heroes or stars of the silver screen. The recreation of a 1950s diner comes complete with singing and dancing staff who deliver French fries with a rendition of West Side Story. To dance the night away, there may be a garishly decorated disco inspired by the Expressionist work of Jackson Pollock. Even an internet café may be incongruously cast as an old-school English gentlemen’s club (minus the fireplaces but complete with creaky leather armchairs).