Jewish Journal


December 19, 2002

Cruise Vacation Worth the Weight


A roadside food stand in St. Maarten displays Jewish solidarity.

A roadside food stand in St. Maarten displays Jewish solidarity.

Here's a tip to non-Jewish travelers looking for a low-cost vacation cruise.

Pick your cruise dates to include the Jewish High Holidays in September or October, because then the ships offer their deepest discounts to fill the empty berths left by the noticeable absence of Jewish passengers.

On the other hand, Jewish vacationers might consider booking dates that include Passover or Chanukah when the ship's chefs whip up elaborate -- and strictly kosher -- seder feasts or stir up batches of crisp potato latkes.

We gleaned this information during a gluttonous 11-day cruise in November aboard the $200 million Crystal Harmony. Our voyage started at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stopped over at the Caribbean islands of St. John, St. Maarten/St. Martin, Antigua and Aruba, passed through the Panama Canal and terminated at the Costa Rican port of Caldera.

Hubert Buelacher, our ship's food and beverage manager, recalled that two years ago, during another Caribbean cruise, his kitchen made latkes for 200 out of 900 passengers.

It is possible that some knowledgeable non-Jews might have tried to pass as members of the tribe to join the feasting. By way of illustration, we were tipped off that kosher chicken was a specialty of the house and we ordered a couple for ourselves and three other couples who were our traveling companions. The other couples, all old friends and none Jewish, gave the kosher chicken their highest rating.

Buelacher, a sturdy Austrian, conducted us through the separate kosher galley of the huge kitchen and proudly noted that he had become a kashrut maven while supervising Orthodox wedding banquets when he was working as a chef in France.

He reeled off his typical seder meal, consisting of chicken consommé with matzah balls, roasted chicken, carrots, green peas, almonds, roasted potatoes and kosher wine.

Any passenger, at any time, can order a kosher meal in advance, while some Orthodox groups have brought along their own mashgiach (kosher supervisor) said hotel director Herbert Doppler, another Austrian.

For cruises encompassing Passover or Chanukah, a full-time rabbi is on board the Crystal Harmony and the same goes for its sister ship, the Crystal Symphony.

On our November cruise, the ship's bulletin called for volunteers to conduct Friday evening services, and Alan Iselin, an investment counselor from Albany, N.Y., led some 20 worshippers.

For the occasion, a small Torah and lectern were placed on the stage of the ship's theater and a sidetable for yarmulkes and prayer books also offered challah, gefilte fish and kosher wine.

Admittedly, this report so far has been mainly about food, but as every cruise veteran knows, life on board ship is a freser's (glutton's) delight.

There were elaborate dinners, where the dress code alternated between formal, informal and casual, hefty breakfasts and lunches, specialty Japanese and Italian restaurants, and high teas and evening snacks in between.

The danger in all this, of course, is an expanded waistline, but there are remedies, consisting of a full-scale gym, a feng shui and aerobic spa, swimming pools, Jacuzzis and promenade decks for walking and jogging.

For the more dedicated, there is a golf driving range, a paddle tennis court -- where we engaged in spirited matches -- and for the really obsessed, a "personally developed cuisine program for the health conscious."

There are other opportunities to work off some fat in long walks and other physical activities during day-long shore excursions.

At a stop at St. Maarten, the Dutch-ruled part of the binational island, we were startled to pass a roadside restaurant proudly named Beth El and a large Star of David spouting from the roof.

We asked the black owner for an explanation and he responded, with considerable dignity, "I am a descendant of Abraham."

Crossing over to St. Martin, the French part of the island, we encountered another Star of David, this one atop an open market stand dubbed the Coconut House. We inquired again and were told, "Oh, it's just for decoration."

A final chance to slim down before heading home came when our party decided to stay over a couple of days in Costa Rica and visit the Arenal National Park.

There, a four-hour hike through the dense rain forest to the foot of the active Arenal Volcano brought us almost back to our fighting weight.

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