Docked in any port on the Baltic Sea, from this city in northern Germany to Russia's St. Petersburg, the Deutschland is a swan among gulls. Built in 1998 and operated by Peter Deilmann, a German company known for European river cruises, it spent last year circumnavigating the globe, and this spring began offering two-week cruises in areas as far flung as the Baltic, Mediterranean, South Pacific and Far East.

It is also a member of a select group of cruise ships bucking the bigger-is-better trend that has brought us those humongous floating resorts, carrying as many as 3,000 passengers, with everything from water slides to microbreweries on board.

Quality, not quantity, is what the Deutschland is about. It has room for only 513 guests and a staff of 240, two little pools, three restaurants, a crystal-chandeliered ballroom, a shopping arcade, health club, spa and sun decks. It is assiduously--almost obsessively--maintained. And it is German.

This passage is from the brochure:

"MS Deutschland has been created primarily for the Northern European traveler. However, discriminating individuals from around the world are invited to enjoy her gracious ambience as well."

These lines caught my attention only after I'd returned from a 10-day Baltic Sea cruise on the Deutschland in early June. I'd have read them before leaving, but Peter Deilmann Cruises had just begun marketing the ship in America, and the brochure hadn't yet been translated from German to English. (Eventually the company hopes that 20% of the guests on the Deutschland will be from North America.) English signs are being added, a new hotel director has been hired away from Cunard and the Deutschland is looking for an English-speaking social director. Still, the agent who booked my cruise at the company's U.S. office in Alexandria, Va., told me that almost all the other passengers would be German-speakers, though the staff was fluent in English.

So if I had a yen to cruise on a small, deluxe ship, why didn't I choose, say, a Crystal or Holland America vessel? Because this trip seemed to promise a rich cross-cultural experience, far more interesting than cruising with a ship full of Americans. Then, too, the Deutschland's early June Baltic Sea itinerary appealed to me, including cities like St. Petersburg and Gdansk, Poland, which aren't all that easy to visit on your own. Places like these have a different historical meaning for Germans than they do for Americans, and on the Deutschland I'd get to see them through German eyes.

Sure enough, all the guests were German except for one couple, Hans and Joann Rose, travel agents from Milwaukee who often cruise for free in order to check out ships before recommending them to clients. German officers, like Capt. Heinz Dieter Schmidt, and upper-level staff members spoke English, as did the Filipino busboys and brass polishers. But English fluency seemed limited among other staffers. The mandatory first-day meeting about emergency procedures and most announcements on the public address system were in German only (including frequent reminders about time zone changes--we crossed and recrossed them--which is why I kept showing up for activities at the wrong hour).

On the third night out, my waiter, Mario, who'd been making a valiant effort to translate the German for delicacies like shiitake mushrooms and caviar, proudly showed up at my table with a brand new menu in English, vastly improving my ability to order dinner. From Day 1 there was an English edition of the daily activities program, but it didn't include all the activities listed in the German version, so I almost missed my chance to tour the bridge, and the slide presentations on the ports we visited were exclusively in German.

I don't speak a word of German beyond Gesundheit. But while on board I made a concerted effort to be pleasant and sociable, hoping this would make my fellow passengers accept me. Between daily activities, however, I closed up shop, swaddled myself in a blue blanket on a wood chaise longue and felt the Baltic sunshine on my face as I snoozed and read.

For literary diversion, I took along "How German Is It?," a novel by Walter Abish. Fellow passengers who could read English did double takes. At one point in the book, the protagonist expresses the desire to "live somewhere they spoke a language he could not understand"--a sentiment I can appreciate because it leaves you free to be completely alone.

To reach Kiel, an unremarkable city that was nearly leveled by bombs during World War II, I flew into Hamburg and rendezvoused with a group of fellow passengers at a downtown hotel. Before our bus took us to Kiel--about an hour away--I had just enough time to tour Hamburg's Museum of Arts and Crafts, where I concentrated on the elegant furniture and glassware in the Art Nouveau rooms.

The Deutschland offered its own strikingly handsome designs. The ship's interior is Art Deco with lots of Germanic touches, like sculpted busts of Schopenhauer and Bach, paintings in the style of Klimt and Kandinsky, gold banisters, etched glass and lustrous wood paneling. The ship has 10 decks, and on the Lido deck near the top there's an outdoor pool, buffet-style restaurant, cafe/bar, tearoom and cushioned chaises aplenty, with fresh towels and plush blankets tucked on them each morning.

Other popular spots are the woody Lili Marleen Salon and Old Fritz Pub (where I saw Germans drinking beer at all times of the day, including breakfast), the Kaisersaal ballroom (with red velvet banquettes, a mezzanine, a dance floor and stage for shipboard concerts and shows) and two coed saunas (which I felt too prudish to use, though I loved the adjacent multi-spigoted Vichy showers). The health club was small (with free weights and a handful of machines), but that didn't matter because generally I was the only one using it.

Aficionados of megaships might not be impressed by the limited range of facilities. But those who appreciate quality will take a shine to the Deutschland. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the cabins. Mine was on the fourth deck, with a big window and a surprisingly spacious feeling. It had blue-patterned carpeting, creamy walls with pretty paintings, gold sconces, a couch and firm single bed, a desk and upholstered chair, full-length mirrors, plenty of closet space, a TV, a mini-bar and a night table with locking drawers.

The bathroom was small but extremely well outfitted, with gold fixtures, a shower, lots of cubbyholes, Nina Ricci toiletries and a terry-cloth robe. But what I liked best about Cabin 4012 was the European bedding, featuring a freshly covered duvet instead of a top sheet. Here I had room service breakfasts while rusty Baltic freighters passed in front of my window.

There are a few cruise lines, like Seabourn and Silversea Cruises, completely devoted to service, with passenger-crew ratios as high as one to one. "If you order a martini at the bar," says Lisa Haber, president of Cruise Professionals, a Baltimore travel agency, "you can expect the bartender to be mixing another one for you the next time you walk in."

With a passenger-crew ratio of roughly two to one, the Deutschland doesn't reach that level of tender loving care, but the staff is unfailingly helpful and polite. Cabins are serviced twice a day (with fresh towels and Pellegrino water restocked), two waiters are assigned to each table at dinner, and when you make a request at the purser's desk for anything from currency exchange to news faxes in English, it is eventually filled.

I never took a stroll around the ship without seeing a crew member touching up a wall with fresh white paint, or washing a window. One fellow seemed to be permanently assigned to polishing the gold fittings along the steps, because he was at it every time I passed. The young woman who served me morning tea in the Lido Terrace routinely told me how many minutes it had steeped by the time she served it, and when I sent my dingy white exercise T-shirt to the laundry, it came back bleached and pressed (for a couple of dollars).

There were a few glitches, however. The entertainment--provided by opera singers, a few Vegas-style dancers, a magician and an orchestrawasn't particularly exciting, and the phone/fax system malfunctioned. Though I'd reserved the 8:30 dinner seating in the Berlin Restaurant, when I boarded I found that I'd been assigned to the early seating. Happily, changing it posed no problem.

I favored the buffet in the Lido Restaurant (with no assigned tables) for breakfast and lunch, and had dinner in the Berlin. This was routinely a seven-course affair, with three kinds of cold hors d'oeuvres offered; two soup selections (all the bouillons were intense and superb); several different hot appetizers (maybe pasta or a souffle); a little dollop of sorbet in marvelous fruity flavors; a main dish (with choices like cod filet, roast duck or prime rib); desserts as enticing as you'd expect on a German ship, or cheeses; coffee (Mario called decaf "diet coffee") and marvelous homemade chocolate truffles (which I stockpiled).

The wine list was extensive, but I usually ordered a little carafe of the daily house wine (about $6). And twice I made reservations to dine in the intimate Four Seasons Restaurant (at no extra charge), where the service was extremely polished, the atmosphere hushed and the recipes even more elaborate than in the Berlin.

I almost always ate by myself, except when I ran into the Americans, the Roses, or one of the two German women I got to know who could speak English fluently. Like me, both of them were cruising alone. One was an elderly widow from Hamburg with an extremely sour disposition (I kept trying to get her to lighten up by pointing out eligible bachelors). The other was a deaf woman from Berlin who could read lips perfectly and seemed to be overjoyed to find a friend who, unlike her German countrymen (as she pointed out repeatedly), paid no attention to her disability.

At afternoon tea, musicales and the captain's reception, we made something of a funny threesome. I was far and away the biggest oddity on the ship, younger than most (not counting the one child on board, the average age seemed to be about 60), not as rich (as evidenced by my lack of a cruise wardrobe), alone and American. Several liver-spotted dowagers made a habit of turning their noses up at me, staff members kept asking what I was doing there and Capt. Schmidt always looked puzzled when I passed him in the corridor.

They noticed the way I kept showing up at activities and taking photographs, which is why they thought I was a travel agent or a spy for a competing cruise line. On the night before I left the ship (one day early, in Copenhagen), Capt. Schmidt noticed me sitting alone in the Lili Marleen bar and asked me to join top-level staff members for dinner. At a big, round table, they grilled me with questions. So I finally solved the mystery by explaining that I was a writer. Thereafter, the wine flowed freely, the conversation grew relaxed, and by the time coffee arrived the captain was asking if I'd be interested in taking a job as the Deutschland's English-speaking social director.

All in all, I really enjoyed the cruise, not even counting all the shore excursions I took. It has always seemed to me that cruising isn't the best way to get to know foreign cultures. When the ship reaches a port, you only have a limited amount of time to spend seeing the sights. And when you take a shore excursion with a group, you rarely meet locals and never stumble on wonderful surprises the way you do when you're in a city on your own.

On the other hand, shore tours were a fine way to see the Hermitage and Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, and Malbork Castle in Poland, built by the Order of Teutonic Knights around 1280. In Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia), I walked around on my own. And in Visby, a lovely little town on the Swedish island of Gotland that was once part of the Hanseatic League (a powerful trade association in the Middle Ages), I toured by bike.

Spring had come to the Baltic, with lilac bushes bursting and little old ladies selling lilies of the valley in city squares. It got warm enough to sunbathe on deck. In Riga I bought baubles made of amber, and in St. Petersburg a Russian doll for my niece.

And by about Day 5 of the cruise, even the dowagers smiled when I said "guten Tag."



A Different Kind of Cruise

Sailing on the Deutschland: For a brochure, contact Peter Deilmann Cruises, 1800 Diagonal Road, Suite 170, Alexandria, VA 22314; telephone (800) 348-8287 or (703) 549-1741, fax (703) 549-7924, Internet http://www.deilmann-cruises.com or contact a cruise-specialist travel agent. (Note: The cruise line just began marketing the Deutschland in North America, so some travel agents may not be familiar with it.)

This summer, the Deutschland will be offering 10- to 17-day cruises in the North Sea and British Isles (including three transatlantic crossings). It will be in the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the fall, Asia in the winter.

With 16 cabin categories,. the least expensive inside twin is $2,490 to $6,925 (assuming double occupancy); grand suites are $6,425 to $16,925. There are special rates for children and repeat customers.

Air transportation to and from the port of embarkation is currently included in the cruise price for North American passengers.

Peter Deilmann also operates the 420-passenger Berlin (Mediterranean, Caribbean, South American, Arabian and Baltic itineraries); a luxury sailboat, the Lili Marleen (Mediterranean and Arabian ports); and six ships that cruise European rivers.

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