Masters and Commanders

A cruise is a great way to take a break as long as you're not belowdecks

The M/S Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship floats amid the turquoise reefs of Cozumel, Mexico, and passenger Kathy Henehif lounges on the pool deck. She wears a Margaritaville T-shirt, braids tipped with dozens of red beads, and a grin that has grown by Friday into a nearly permanent imprint on her face. All frowns were forgotten at the Men's Sexy Legs Competition, Kamikaze Karaoke and the all-you-can-eat Midnight Fantasy Chocolate Buffet.

But what elicits the biggest smile from Henehif is the service. Her cabin steward transformed her bathroom towel into a monkey, which he adorned with her sunglasses and draped on a coat hanger in her room. A waiter brought her a piña colada before she even knew she wanted one. And to top it off, the workers did it all with smiles as big as hers.

"They seem like they really, really have a good time," she says. "Having people that smile at you wherever you are, that say hello, whether they know you or not, I think it's just the way you would want life to be."

Cruise vacations are becoming so popular that many 
shores in the Caribbean now look like cruise ship 
parking lots.
Cruise vacations are becoming so popular that many shores in the Caribbean now look like cruise ship parking lots.
Country-western night aboard the Rhapsody. 
This cowboy is from the Philippines.
Country-western night aboard the Rhapsody. This cowboy is from the Philippines.

Many Houstonians agree. Since the first cruise liner sailed from Galveston three years ago, the region has become the industry's fastest-growing beachhead. Five ships in the area now serve up to 9,000 passengers a week. Galveston's fleet rides the tide of a nationwide rise in cruise trips -- a 10 percent jump last year -- even as other tourism sectors remained stagnant. The floating vacations are now so popular that U.S. Representative Tom DeLay proposed last month to use a cruise ship to house delegates at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

As the Rhapsody departs from Galveston Bay on a blustery Sunday and passengers sit down for their first dinner in the gently rocking banquet room, it becomes clear that service with an extra dollop of good cheer is the ship's forte. After flawlessly presenting the first three courses, the waiters disappear and re-emerge in single file clapping to the theme from Rawhide. They assemble on a central staircase surrounded by Texas flags, where the head waiter grabs a microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, "it is my pleasure to introduce to you my pride and joy, coming from 34 different countries, our waiters and assistant waiters!"

They launch into a spirited rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," tinged with a Lithuanian accent. Many come from countries in Eastern Europe -- as well as South Africa, Turkey and the Philippines -- where they would be lucky to earn a fraction of what they earn here.

After the final refrain, they jog back to their stations, waving and beaming to their guests, who eagerly snap photos. Most passengers return to their cabins, and before they doze off to sleep, some of them read a letter left on their beds. "Welcome to the M/S Rhapsody of the Seas," it says. "The Friendliest Ship on the Seas."

But others choose to stay awake a bit longer and spill into the casino, where they try their luck with the more fickle friendliness of the blackjack tables and roulette wheel. Andre Martin, a young waiter wearing a pink dinner jacket, hovers behind them silently, waiting for calls for beer, scotch and rum.

Like most servants on the ship, he works almost entirely for tips, and he offers his own explanation for why everyone is so friendly. "They have to be," he says. "They're working."

Martin serves drinks that evening until the casino closes at 2:30 a.m., then reports back to work at 8:30 the same morning. While passengers aboard the ship might feel they are still deep in the heart of Texas -- a happier Texas than they ever knew in Houston -- the reality for cruise workers is quite different, one of ten-hour workdays seven days a week, where U.S. labor laws don't apply.

Martin hasn't had a single day off in more than 120 days.

Last year more than a quarter-million people departed on cruise ships from Galveston. By the end of this year, the number is expected to grow by another 100,000. Most passengers are Texans, who come for the convenience of not having to fly, for the novelty of being at sea and for the cheap tickets. Cruises are no longer for the wealthy. A week aboard the Rhapsody goes for less than $800, and shorter cruises are cheaper yet. But more than bargains, what lures many passengers back is the prospect of being pampered.

"You always think of a cruise ship as a place where you are treated like a king. Most definitely you go for that," says a construction superintendent from Ovilla, Texas, who is on his third cruise. His blond wife pinches another cigarette between fingers heavy with stones and silver.

Allowing guests to feel like they're royalty requires incredible manpower. The Rhapsody retains nearly one employee for every three passengers. These include 71 cooks, 140 waiters and 68 cabin stewards. The cruise industry in Galveston and Houston employs nearly 4,000 onboard workers. Given that cruise lines also supply free food and entertainment, aboard vessels that cost, in the case of the Rhapsody, about $275 million, it's a wonder they earn anything at all.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets