Captain, Please Pass the Salt

Captain's Night aboard Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas, when passengers dress formally and the captain joins them for dinner.
Captain's Night aboard Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas, when passengers dress formally and the captain joins them for dinner. (By Hugh Stewart -- Arnold Worldwide)
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By Rebecca Boreczky
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 5, 2008

The knock on the door was a surprise. It came midway through the cruise my husband, Steve, and I were taking on Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas, and it was the cabin steward. I saw the envelope in his hands as he said, "It's from the captain."

Tucked inside was an invitation: "Enchantment of the Seas Captain Per A. Kjonso cordially invites you to join him for cocktails and dinner. Your RSVP requested." The last line read, "Dress: Formal or Jacket & Tie." When I called to accept, I was told we should meet Kjonso in the Champagne Bar on Deck 4 at 5:45 that evening.

Not every cruise line is so formal with its invitations. For instance, Norwegian Cruise Line is all about freestyle cruising and therefore has a looser approach. AnneMarie Mathews, Norwegian's director of public relations, explained that "instead of a formal dinner with the captain, we allow our captains to decide who they dine with and where."

When we met Kjonso he was dressed in his captain's jacket, with gold bars atop his shoulders. He led us to a large table, where we were offered cocktails and appetizers. There were 10 of us, and we engaged in small talk with him. One obvious question I had was, Why us? "I choose my dinner guests personally," Kjonso said. "Sometimes it is a special celebration for them or they are a loyalty member. Sometimes I think they just sound interesting."

Each cruise line captain makes decisions like that. Capt. Lars Bengtsson of Norwegian's Pearl sometimes finds his dinner guests while walking around the ship. "Now and then you run into people who are so nice that you decide to dine with them on the spot," Bengtsson said.

Sometimes captains must follow company policy about whom to invite to dinner. "VIPs are to be entertained, on orders of the company," said Erik Elvejord, director of public relations for Holland America Line. "Those who cruise on a regular basis, along with friends of the captain and even those needing a little TLC, are sometimes chosen."

On Norwegian, attendance at the captain's cocktail reception is by invitation only. "We invite guests staying in suites and villas and guests celebrating a special milestone," Mathews said. "We also invite Make-a-Wish children who are terminally ill, VIP guests and dignitaries." The same holds for Celebrity Cruises.

Is there a way to capture the attention of the captain or the cruise line? Perhaps. Cruise companies request that special information about guests be faxed or mailed to their public relations office by the guests or their travel agent. The information goes to the ship's hotel director or concierge. According to Mathews, "Typically the NCL captain relies on the concierge to recommend guests he should dine with."

Joining a cruise line's loyalty program increases your chance of being chosen. "Our hotel director provides a list to the captain of loyalty members," said Lyan Sierra-Caro, senior executive for brand communications for Royal Caribbean International. "A lot of times the individuals at the captain's table are guests who have sailed on numerous occasions, and the captain knows them."

More captains means more chances to be invited to dinner. "Disney Cruise Line is set apart from all other cruise lines," said Jonathan Frontado, spokesman for the line. "We have up to four captains onboard our ships at any given time. We have Captain Mickey, Captain Hook, Captain Jack Sparrow and captain of the ship."

Back in the Champagne Bar, I asked Kjonso how the tradition of the captain's dinner began. His version: "In the 19th century, immigrant passengers crossing the North Atlantic had to bring their own food for the voyage. They often ran out of food, and steamship owners provided it. This kindness was called the captain's dinner."

Capt. Albert Schoonderbeek of Holland America told a slightly more humorous version of the story. "Captains have been dining with passengers as far back as the 1850s. When ships got bigger, the captain and purser would have their tables in the first-class dining room. It was not unusual that passengers tried to bribe the dining room staff to get seated at those tables."

Aboard the Enchantment, we made our entrance on the lower level of the two-story dining room. The other passengers were seated at their tables and watching for the captain to arrive. They peered over second-floor railings and gazed over shoulders to catch a glimpse. I felt like royalty.

We walked to a table in the center of the room, directly under the crystal chandelier and in front of the grand staircase. The captain was seated to my right. The table glittered with white Royal Doulton china trimmed in gold, crystal, nine pieces of silverware at each setting, place cards and menus.

Raising his wine glass, Kjonso said, "To new friends."

My own enchantment of the seas was complete.

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