Call me Etienne.
This is, after all, a sea story, and with a decidedly French twist. Like Ishmael, my wife and I thought we would "sail about a little and see the watery part of the world," in this case the Caribbean. Unlike Ishmael, who had little or no money in his purse, we had a credit card with which to book a week's passage aboard the Club Med 1, the "sailing" ship operated by those antidote-for-civilization people at Club Méditerranée.
Club Med, which just turned 40, is a French Foreign Legion even farther flung than the French Foreign Legion, what with 110 villages dotting the globe, each staffed by friendly, energetic, talented gentils organisateurs, or G.O.'s, or congenial organizers or, if you will, camp counselors (♫hands up, baby, hands up♫). Their job is to make sure the gentils membres (G.M.'s, congenial members, campers) have a great time. Personally, Club Med never appealed to moi, perhaps because I knew that the pleasures of Camp Van Schoonhoven could never be recaptured.
A traditional cruise ship appealed to me even less than a Club Med did. I am highly allergic to the hokey-pokey—that's what it's all about, I thought. Then somebody told me about the Club Med 1. It wasn't like a Club Med. (Uh-huh.) It wasn't like a cruise. (Uh-huh.) You could go on assignment and take your wife. (We'll pack tonight.)
G.M.'S LOG, SATURDAY, DEC. 1, 1990.
LONGITUDE: UNDER NOVA SCOTIA, BUT ONLY GUESSING.
LATITUDE: QUITE A BIT SO FAR.
The Pequod she is not. She is, in fact, très belle, all 617 feet from stem to stern. From the outside the Club Med 1 is overwhelmingly white, but it is a soft, sea-foam white. Her most arresting feature, perhaps, is her seven sails, which magically unfurled to catch the evening breeze as we left port. Her polished decks are handcrafted from Burmese teak. Inside, Art Deco touches recall a time of sophistication and elegance. The tastefully decorated cabins, each an unusually spacious 188 square feet, feature hand-rubbed mahogany cabinetry, twin portholes, blue canvas bedspreads, a minibar, television, ship-to-shore telephone, hair dryer...pardon me for getting carried away. It must be the wine. Or the half-dozen Club Med 1 brochures I've read today. I bet Ishmael didn't have 24-hour room service.
Our trip began at 8 a.m. at Kennedy Airport in New York City, where we boarded Club Med's charter flight to Fort-de-France, Martinique, our point of embarkation and disembarkation. The flight was remarkably smooth, save for the ironically chosen in-flight movie, The Hunt for Red October. Thank goodness it wasn't The Poseidon Adventure.
Once aboard the ship, we were ushered into the Salon Calypso, where we were given drinks, photographed, booked and fingerprinted (just kidding). We were shown to our cabin by a G.O. who refused our reflexively American gratuity—no tipping, says Club Med. Then we explored the eight decks, A to H, each one named after a Club Med village. We discovered five bars, two restaurants, two pools, one casino, one disco, one fitness center, one shop (dutifully duly-free), one beauty parlor and the wonderful hall nautique, a minimarina that comes down from the stern like the rear flap of a union suit.
In our English-language orientation session this evening, we were told, among other things, that the ship can accommodate 386 passengers and that of the 275 G.M.'s on board, about 200 were French. I thanked my lucky stars that ma femme speaks the language very well. The Club Med 1, we also learned, is a kind of 40th-birthday present for and from Club Med. She is the fourth and latest in a line of luxury liners with automated sails and was built in Le Havre, France. In this, her first full season, she will sail the Caribbean in winter, alternating northern and southern routes, and the Mediterranean in summer. We were also introduced to Francky, our chef de village—head of the G.O. staff—and a man of immense charm, not to mention diminutive stature.
At dinner tonight in one of the restaurants, La Louisiane, we found ourselves at a large table with several middle-aged French couples. Our smiles were not returned. I elbowed my wife. "Give 'em some French." Our hopes of a Franco-American exchange were dashed, however, when she elbowed a glass of red wine onto the white slacks of France's answer to Ernest Borgnine. The waiter rushed over and said something in French as he sopped up the wine. I thought he was reassuring Commander McHale that the stain could be removed, but my first mate set me straight: "He told him red wine was the hardest stain of all to get out." Our pitiable looks of apology were not returned. We finished our eighth course in utter disgrace.