It was billed as an "Enrichment Panama Canal/Mexican Riviera Cruise." And during 15 days on the 5 1/2 -year-old, 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity, we attended almost-daily lectures by experts on a variety of topics: avoiding seasickness, jet lag, insomnia and heart attacks, covering the war as a foreign correspondent, selecting a competent physician and avoiding midlife and late-life sex problems.
Lecturers included a former Mayo Clinic physician, a retired Los Angeles Times foreign editor, a British TV news announcer, a caricature artist and a former hospital administrator.
Key West, Fla.; Aruba; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; and the Mexican resorts of Huatulco, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas, my wife and I also joined others at complimentary computer classes conducted by crew members.
You could say it was like being in school again, only this time there was no homework or tests to worry about, and attendance was strictly voluntary.
Speakers used video and slides to make their points, graciously answered questions and stuck around afterward to answer more questions and mingle with passengers.
Small luxury cruise lines are frequently traveling this route, offering interesting, entertaining and life-altering information to passengers who want to widen their horizons and, perhaps, rub elbows with a celebrity speaker or expert.
"For celebrities, we use quite a few," says Kristin Turner, Crystal's corporate entertainment manager. "Marlin Fitzwater, the only press secretary in U.S. history to work for two presidents [ Ronald Reagan and Bush senior], has been doing two cruises a year with us as a lecturer. Among others, Art Linkletter; Linda Ellerbee, the prize-winning TV newscaster and cancer survivor; Fox news analyst and Middle East expert Marc Ginsberg; and Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler who's a regular on MSNBC."
Speakers aren't paid, she says, but receive free luxurious accommodations for themselves and a companion. That seems to be standard cruise-line policy, a survey of competing shipping companies indicates.
"Depending on tenure, qualifications and length of the speaker's assignment, we may pay the speaker's airfare as well," Turner adds. "We look for . . . persons in the public eye who easily can connect with guests. I may contact them directly or work through a manager. I try to line up people you're likely to see on TV or read about. That's what makes this job so interesting and challenging."
Current events and celebrity talk usually draw the biggest audiences. "We've had everyone from Walter Cronkite to Michelle Phillips to Tom Van Essen, who was New York City's fire commissioner on 9/11," says Bruce Good, Seabourn Cruise Line's public relations director. Discussions about the ship's destinations and sightseeing suggestions are popular too.
Silversea, Regent Seven Seas and Norwegian cruise lines also work with talent agencies or speakers' bureaus to line up speakers.
"We've had bestselling authors, distinguished scholars, business and political leaders, explorers, pilots, artists and photographers," says Gina Finocchiaro, a Silversea spokeswoman. "Ones that come to mind include Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space; Judith Miller, former New York Times reporter; and the former speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd."
Passengers apparently like interacting with experts, although the outcome is far from scripted.
During a cook demonstration, a passenger "insisted on tasting a super-hot habanero pepper even after I warned her," says James Reaux, the former executive chef at the five-star Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida and a frequent guest chef and lecturer. "Needless to say, she threw up in front of the entire crowd."