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Das Cruise

Trying out a voyage on a small, elegant German vessel with virtually no American passengers results in a unique cross-cultural experience


KIEL, Germany — Docked in any port on the Baltic Sea, from this city in northern Germany to Russia's St. Petersburg, the Deutschland is a swan among gulls. Built in 1998 and operated by Peter Deilmann, a German company known for European river cruises, it spent last year circumnavigating the globe, and this spring began offering two-week cruises in areas as far flung as the Baltic, Mediterranean, South Pacific and Far East.

It is also a member of a select group of cruise ships bucking the bigger-is-better trend that has brought us those humongous floating resorts, carrying as many as 3,000 passengers, with everything from water slides to microbreweries on board.

Quality, not quantity, is what the Deutschland is about. It has room for only 513 guests and a staff of 240, two little pools, three restaurants, a crystal-chandeliered ballroom, a shopping arcade, health club, spa and sun decks. It is assiduously--almost obsessively--maintained. And it is German.

This passage is from the brochure:

"MS Deutschland has been created primarily for the Northern European traveler. However, discriminating individuals from around the world are invited to enjoy her gracious ambience as well."

These lines caught my attention only after I'd returned from a 10-day Baltic Sea cruise on the Deutschland in early June. I'd have read them before leaving, but Peter Deilmann Cruises had just begun marketing the ship in America, and the brochure hadn't yet been translated from German to English. (Eventually the company hopes that 20% of the guests on the Deutschland will be from North America.) English signs are being added, a new hotel director has been hired away from Cunard and the Deutschland is looking for an English-speaking social director. Still, the agent who booked my cruise at the company's U.S. office in Alexandria, Va., told me that almost all the other passengers would be German-speakers, though the staff was fluent in English.

So if I had a yen to cruise on a small, deluxe ship, why didn't I choose, say, a Crystal or Holland America vessel? Because this trip seemed to promise a rich cross-cultural experience, far more interesting than cruising with a ship full of Americans. Then, too, the Deutschland's early June Baltic Sea itinerary appealed to me, including cities like St. Petersburg and Gdansk, Poland, which aren't all that easy to visit on your own. Places like these have a different historical meaning for Germans than they do for Americans, and on the Deutschland I'd get to see them through German eyes.

Sure enough, all the guests were German except for one couple, Hans and Joann Rose, travel agents from Milwaukee who often cruise for free in order to check out ships before recommending them to clients. German officers, like Capt. Heinz Dieter Schmidt, and upper-level staff members spoke English, as did the Filipino busboys and brass polishers. But English fluency seemed limited among other staffers. The mandatory first-day meeting about emergency procedures and most announcements on the public address system were in German only (including frequent reminders about time zone changes--we crossed and recrossed them--which is why I kept showing up for activities at the wrong hour).

On the third night out, my waiter, Mario, who'd been making a valiant effort to translate the German for delicacies like shiitake mushrooms and caviar, proudly showed up at my table with a brand new menu in English, vastly improving my ability to order dinner. From Day 1 there was an English edition of the daily activities program, but it didn't include all the activities listed in the German version, so I almost missed my chance to tour the bridge, and the slide presentations on the ports we visited were exclusively in German.

I don't speak a word of German beyond Gesundheit. But while on board I made a concerted effort to be pleasant and sociable, hoping this would make my fellow passengers accept me. Between daily activities, however, I closed up shop, swaddled myself in a blue blanket on a wood chaise longue and felt the Baltic sunshine on my face as I snoozed and read.

For literary diversion, I took along "How German Is It?," a novel by Walter Abish. Fellow passengers who could read English did double takes. At one point in the book, the protagonist expresses the desire to "live somewhere they spoke a language he could not understand"--a sentiment I can appreciate because it leaves you free to be completely alone.

To reach Kiel, an unremarkable city that was nearly leveled by bombs during World War II, I flew into Hamburg and rendezvoused with a group of fellow passengers at a downtown hotel. Before our bus took us to Kiel--about an hour away--I had just enough time to tour Hamburg's Museum of Arts and Crafts, where I concentrated on the elegant furniture and glassware in the Art Nouveau rooms.

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