On a recent Caribbean cruise aboard the MSY Wind Surf -- the largest yacht among Holland America's upscale Windstar fleet -- the talk on deck was about war, nannies and the country's best Catholic schools. Sunburned blondes lingered over a four-course dinner, featuring dishes such as bacon-crusted salmon and fresh pasta with shellfish.
In the understated, elegant dining room, Matthew Shollar, black kippah lost in a tangle of brown hair, sat too, eating a prepackaged glatt kosher meal with plastic cutlery. He spoke of the day a decidedly different clientele will board the ship: kosher-observant Jews, who will soon be able to -- pardon the expression -- pig out in the same manner as their non-Jewish, yuppie brethren, Tods bags and tzitzit in tow.
That day is coming soon: "The Chosen Voyage" will set sail this month, inaugurating the world's first entirely kosher Caribbean cruise. While in recent years more and more cruise ships have specialized in trips offering frozen glatt kosher food or a separate kosher dining room, Shollar's Chosen Voyage is to be the first luxury ship to be made entirely kosher, from bow to stern. For five weeks this winter, the 308-passenger Wind Surf will be transformed into an upscale frum paradise, featuring single-sex swimming, three kosher restaurants (two dairy and one meat) and an elegant lounge that will double as a synagogue on the Sabbath.
"The kosher-observant community has never been given a luxury of choice," Shollar said. "All the dilutions we've taken in the past -- let's do away with that and get treated as a customer for the first time."
The cruises are but the latest thing for a clientele that, either for lack of opportunity or by conscious choice, used to stay home. As Baby Boomers age, Jews and non-Jews alike continue to work, play and spend in manners different from those of their parents, opting for items more costly and luxurious. In the observant Jewish world, according to Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Integrated Marketing, "there's no question there's been a dramatic increase" in high-end kosher products. In recent years Passover tours, kosher restaurants, even ritual baths, have all gone upscale.
Shollar is a self-described "serial entrepreneur." His favorite word is "product" and he has a tendency to revert to e-speak such as, "We're building a luxury brand into this space."
His passion for cruising is almost ironic. He started his first business, Ecruise, "an online cruise loyalty system," he calls it, without ever having set foot aboard a cruise ship. In order to walk the walk, he and his wife were sent on a three-day Bahamas cruise -- where a kitchen gaffe forced the couple to eat snacks brought from home for half the journey.
On a recent sailing of the Wind Surf, Shollar served a dinner of frozen glatt kosher food -- unidentifiable lumps of chicken, veal or turkey, paired with spinach and potatoes -- to an assembled group of journalists from Jewish newspapers. Passengers aboard the Chosen Voyage, however, will be treated to the full WindStar menu -- minus pork and shellfish dishes, of course -- prepared in kosher kitchens.
The ship's first-rate amenities include two swimming pools -- allowing for single-sex dips -- a spa and an onboard "marina" for water sports such as sailing and water skiing. The rooms are spacious, with ample storage space, and loaded with extras such as a CD player and VCR. The crew-to-passenger ratio is high: 191 crew for 308 passengers.
When the Chosen Voyage is sailing, the ship's business center will be converted into a Judaica library and the wine list will be entirely replaced with kosher wines. Daily minyans will take place in the conference room, and on Shabbat the Wind Surf lounge and casino next door will be transformed into a sanctuary -- with the slot machines and blackjack tables discreetly obscured, of course.
It all represents a rising trend among the Orthodox community, which is increasingly mirroring the tastes of American culture at large while staying within -- or stretching, some argue -- the bounds of tradition. It's a phenomenon that Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman calls "the theory of the leisure class, with a religious twist."
"Among the ultra-Orthodox, leisure time is a problem," Heilman said. "Time should be spent studying the Torah. Jewish tradition doesn't have that concept. It's an American concept; it comes from wealth."
As such, kosher travel among the Modern Orthodox is increasingly big business.
"This year, 33,000 hotel rooms in the United States will be doing Passover programs," said Lubinsky. "Look back 10 years ago and it was half that."
As for cruising, the market "definitely is growing," said Josh Post of Suite Life Kosher Cruises. Last year, he said, a single company sent 250 people on a kosher cruise to Alaska. "This year, between three companies, we have over 300 booked already. At this point last year we had 80 people booked."
According to industry estimates, Jews constitute about 30 percent of cruise travel -- despite being less than 3 percent of the American population. While more and more ships are taking steps to accommodate observant vacationers, making an entire ship kosher is no easy task -- especially for a staff that has had little, if any, contact with observant Jews.
"First of all, what is kosher, hmm?" said Geert De Meyer, the Wind Surf's Belgian food and beverage manager, of the preparations for the Chosen Voyage. "I didn't know. The staff is very eager to please. They're looking forward to doing something different."
De Meyer has already received a manual from Kosher Supervision of America; soon, the ship's chefs will fly to Miami for hands-on training.
Roughly 30 percent of Wind Surf's business comes from charter cruises, and the crew is certainly familiar with an unusual clientele; among the specialty cruises each year are gay and lesbian cruises, musical cruises, even a nudist cruise.
Regardless, "this one will be a challenge -- there are a few challenges, actually," said the ship's hotel manager, Francois Birada, with a nervous laugh. "This is new for our crew. It's something we never did before."
Shollar is nonetheless moving ahead full throttle. The Chosen Voyage's first cruise will be for Chabad-Lubavitchers -- Shollar's community -- and with the remaining four weeks, he aims to attract varying groups of singles, young families and groups such as federations and synagogues. By 2004, he hopes to take the Chosen Voyage to other markets, such as a summertime Great Lakes cruise.
Since establishing the Chosen Voyage last summer, Shollar has spent a handful of nights aboard the ship, which he now looks upon as a second home. In spite of long working days -- and a family of six to care for -- Shollar recently took a brief moment to enjoy the Caribbean sun as the Wind Surf docked alongside the island of St. Martin.
"It's nice just sitting here knowing I'll be surrounded by people who I may not know but who are my guests," he said, motioning to the empty tables at the ship's Compass Rose lounge. "That's a powerful feeling for me."
For more information, please visit www.chosenvoyage.com .