A whistle. Then, boom. Seven short blasts and a long hoarse boom. The Baltic Sea was frigid, the breeze bitter and the sunbed on my private deck the colour of a doleful Danish sky. After a long flight from Mumbai to Copenhagen, I had put my feet up on a 1,46,000 tonne, 1,068-ft long Norwegian Getaway cruise liner, when the maritime distress signal roared. My mind immediately remembered vignettes of drowning men, floating dinner plates and chaos aboard the doomed Titanic. Boom. I had to run to the muster point, F9. I wrapped a scarlet dourukha (shawl) and ran down the staircase. At F9, women in little black dresses and pearl chokers were sitting crosslegged with goblets in hand, men were guffawing and stewards looked relaxed. This did not smell of any catastrophe. “There is no emergency. This is a mandatory drill”, a guttural voice bellowed.
With that began my eight-day, 1,992 nautical mile cruise through six cities in Europe and Russia. After the drill, I plonked on a white Chesterfield and ran through the itinerary — sailing from Copenhagen (Denmark), docking in ports of Warnemunde (Germany), Tallinn (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland), St Petersburg (Russia), Nynashamn (Sweden) — and two days entirely on the sea.
But before I could feel blue about the sea-bound days, there was an array of services to choose from. Swim in a heated pool on deck 15; slough off urban malice in the spa; get butt-numb in an ice bar, sitting on an ice chair and sipping out of an ice glass; pick from 22 eating joints manned by 233 chefs; watch movies on two-storey high television screens. The to-do list on the ship was unending. The Norwegian Getaway resembled a tony town with 4,000 guests and 1,650 employees to man it.
In that tony town of a cruise ship, every morning there was a near mass exodus. After a large breakfast, one had to line up in the theatre space, a yellow ticket in hand, to get a bus number glued to your chest. Then, down the stairs to listen to the instructions and off for the day trip. On Day 2, it was a three-hour train ride from Warnemunde port to Berlin where the bus meandered through iconic buildings, including the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Neue Synagogue, Kaiser Wilhelm Church (where the walls are made of a concrete honeycomb containing 21,292 stained glass inlays), the Berlin Wall, now covered in graffiti), and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with 27,111 concrete slabs that resemble coffins. The unnamed coffins look strangely bare — no epitaph, no tears, no flowers, no votive candles.
It had rained in Warnemunde. The wharf was slippery but the painted mermaid on the hull looked gleeful. Berlin was a burden on my heart — I would have retreated to my room, but for a song that lured me to Deck 7, where a man in black was belting out an Elvis Presley number. A teppanyaki chef ensured giggles as he juggled three eggs on a spatula and pulled a toy chick out of his toque.
By Day 3, I was a pro at the morning exodus. Following the guide like an obedient school girl, I strolled in the rainy city of Tallinn — where a tower is called Fat Margaret and WiFi is considered a human right. Another day, the ship hooted to a halt in Helsinki. The routine repeated in St Petersburg and Stockholm. Sadly, I had barely half a day in Stockholm. If I could stretch time, I would have happily booked a seat in Teater Dur och Moll, Europe’s smallest theatre that can only seat 20. Or, booked a table in Restaurant Stadshuskällaren that serves Nobel Prize banquet meals with menus dating from 1901 to now.
On the last day, someone had left chocolate-dipped strawberries in my room and Mukhtar Liu, the housekeeper, had turned a towel into a baby elephant. I swam in the heated pool, ordered risotto, and peeked at expensive watches and gleaming jewellery at the onboard bazaar. Eight days at sea, the Norwegian Getaway never felt like a cruise liner. Instead, it was one happy, bustling neighbourhood.