TRAVELING in style : Character...

Slater is a Los Angeles writer.

I've always suspected that British novelist Somerset Maugham made so many cruises throughout his lifetime because he found most of the raw material for his stories aboard ship. Certainly, his most famous short story, "Rain," was developed from a shipboard encounter he observed between a repressed Scottish missionary and an American prostitute on a voyage between Hawaii and Samoa.

Although you're not likely to run across the Rev. Davidson or Sadie Thompson on a cruise ship these days, you occasionally encounter some equally colorful characters leaning against the rail, perhaps because a cruise ship--one of the few places remaining where a traveler is regarded as an individual of consequence--encourages eccentricity.

Novelist John Jakes, a frequent cruise passenger, once told me about a character he had met aboard a Queen Elizabeth 2 world cruise (a person whom Jakes had not yet used in his Civil War novels)--an eccentric Midwestern man, in a tuxedo so ancient it had a green patina, who delighted in stopping elderly ladies, asking, "Have you seen this?" and then pulling a balloon from his pocket and inflating it into a graphically obscene animal.

The world cruise is by its very nature a hothouse for human foibles. More than any other form of shipboard existence, such a cruise reinforces a comment by writer Geoffrey Bocca: "Travel by sea nearly approximates the bliss of babyhood. They feed you, rock you gently to sleep and, when you wake up, they take care of you and feed you again."

During a world cruise aboard Holland America's gracious liner Rotterdam, which made its last long voyage in 1987 before settling down into a life of shorter sailings, I first realized that money can buy happiness as I watched the longtime regulars create their own utopia within the confines of the ship. They'd return each year to the reassuring rituals of a sheltered world they knew and loved, with familiar and faithful stewards and staff ready to serve them. There, with their calling cards and printed invitations to private cocktail parties and luncheons they gave for each other, their afternoon concerts and black-tie dinners, the seven-course meals they only nibbled at and the white-gloved waiters who called them by name, they could escape a world grown loud and fast-moving and ugly.

They had no need to go ashore in Singapore or Abidjan; they'd seen it all before. But they did demand a consistency of form, a ritual of excellence, year after year. I remember watching one grande dame summon the hotel manager to her table one morning at breakfast. "Mr. Zellers," she said firmly, "come look here; the bananas aren't as yellow as they used to be."

It's easier to meet interesting people in the egalitarian atmosphere aboard cruise ships than anywhere else you can visualize: film stars such as Richard Dreyfuss, who went ashore in search of an acupuncturist (and found one) when the Rotterdam dock- ed in Istanbul; Eva Marie Saint on a Stella Solaris shore excursion in Santorini, hurrying to board the cable car on a bet that she would beat her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, who was walking down the 587 steps, back to the ship (she lost); Barbara Bel Geddes hopping out of a Golden Odyssey tour bus in Shanghai and doing a Chaplin-esque turn with a street sweeper's broom to the applause of passengers and the mystification of the Chinese workers; Barbara Rush performing a spontaneous eye-makeup demonstration aboard the World Discoverer, after which the ship's shop sold out of eye shadow; Stewart Granger wandering around the Royal Princess, sharing a pitcher of Bloody Marys made to his own recipe with delighted tipplers on deck.

But there are also the people that I call The-Man-Who, because that's the way passengers identify them to each other: John Marion, North American chairman of Sotheby's, the man who auctioned off the Duchess of Windsor's jewelry collection; and Stephen Dachi, the U.S. consul in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the man who helped identify the skeletal remains of Joseph Mengele through dental detective work, both lecturing aboard the Royal Viking Sea about their accomplishments; Julius Gold, a Connecticut delicatessen owner traveling on the Illiria, the man who was in litigation with Paul Newman about a salad dressing's profits; George McGovern, the man who once ran for President, and Charlie Barnett, the man who used to lead a band, both sailing aboard the Rotterdam.

Salt air is usually blamed for shrinking garments, since after a few days at sea most people find their clothes suddenly too tight, but it also seems to loosen tongues and inhibitions as people unwind. Novelist Dominick Dunne used this quick intimacy to good effect in the beginning of "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," in which a noted recluse talks about a murder case she was involved with years before to a seemingly sympathetic shipboard companion.

Even usually circumspect citizens succumb to the bizarre fascination of watching a male nightgown contest on one of the Carnival ships, for example, or people dressed like California raisins or packages of M&Ms; parading on a Royal Caribbean masquerade night or the erstwhile lounge singers clutching microphones during the talent show on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway.

Some of the most interesting travelers are aboard the adventurous vessels of Society Expeditions and others. Most of them, no longer young, are deliberately going to extremes to test themselves or to see something others can only dream about. On the World Discoverer, a Los Angeles man celebrated his 50th birthday year by going both to the Antarctic and across the Arctic through the Northwest Passage; he was one of the youngest passengers on either sailing.

There was a stowaway on the latter cruise, a young man who seemed desperate to make the journey. Even the passport he carried did not appear to be his, but he had somehow persuaded a disembarking passenger in Nome to give him an ID badge, which got him aboard the ship but not assigned to a cabin. A crew member discovered him asleep in a lifeboat and he was summarily put off the ship by the German captain at the next port of call, which happened to be Little Diomede Island, three miles from Siberia on the Bering Strait. The chief of the Eskimo village on Little Diomede said the man could stay until the twice-a-month supply plane arrived, "'but until then he'll have to work to pay for his way."

The week before, novelist James Michener--another great fan of cruises--had been aboard another Aleutian Islands sailing, and when word he was in Little Diomede got out, he was shepherded from house to house to sign copies of his books. Time went by rapidly, and he missed the last launch back to the ship. As Capt. Heinz Aye described it, "We heard a great shouting and looked out to see a sealskin umiak with an outboard motor bouncing over the water with all the Eskimos yelling and Mr. Michener hanging on for dear life."

Whenever I think of going ashore, I remember a laconic guide named Denny in sleepy little Prince Rupert, British Columbia, who took a busload of elegantly groomed Royal Viking Sea passengers on a city tour highlighted with a walk through a cold-storage plant where fish are frozen. All day, guides and passengers had been joking about the Norwegian captain's stern warning that any latecomers would be stuck in Prince Rupert until the ship came back in two weeks, so when time came to return to the ship and the bus wouldn't start, there was discernible panic aboard. Denny finally commandeered another bus that got passengers to the ship just before the gangway was pulled up. In the frantic rush to the bus exit, one middle-aged man paused to slip a $5 tip to the guide, whispering, "Thanks for the biggest thrill I've had in years."

People take cruises for many reasons. One of the most fascinating is the apparent need of some travelers to reinforce the idea that home is the best place of all, overlooking what Michener said about travel--"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

Once, off Fiji, standing at the rail of the Royal Viking Star with a Beverly Hills self-made millionaire who was regaling me with stories of the eight world cruises he had made, I asked which port of the hundreds he must have seen was his favorite:

"Naples, and I'll tell you why. When you sail into that bay and you see all that military hardware flying the American flag, by God, you know where your tax dollars have gone."

But the one I hope to work into a book someday happened aboard an all-day coach tour of Eternal Rome from the Royal Odyssey, docked in the port of Civitavecchia. By special arrangement, the Sistine Chapel had been opened in the afternoon for the passengers from the ship. In hushed awe, we tiptoed into the chapel and stood, staring up at Michelangelo's masterpiece. The silence was broken by a woman standing beside our guide. Nudging him, she trumpted out in pure California tones, "You think this is something? You ought to see Hearst Castle!"

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