When we meet Yannis Kazalis dockside in the port of New Orleans, he is wired on Red Bull, cracking jokes and disarming us with his easy charm. As the hotel director on the Norwegian Star cruise ship, Yannis is responsible for some 4,000 passengers and crew — rooms, meals, drinks, laundry, entertainment … everything — for a week at sea. He is running down the list of amenities when he pulls out a string of worry beads and starts running his fingers over the dark bumps. He has three sets of worry beads, he says, laughing. When you are the hotel director on a cruise ship, you do a lot of worrying.
This Sunday is no different. While my husband, George, and I explore the ship, sip on martinis and try not to hit the buffet too early, Yannis, who has been up since 5:30 a.m., is making sure the Star’s 1,174 staterooms, 12 restaurants and nine bars are cleaned and ready for arriving guests — all within three hours of the last guests’ departure. He worries about the 6,500 pieces of luggage being off-loaded and the nearly 7,000 pieces of new luggage that must arrive in staterooms before dinner. He makes sure all the trash and recyclables get off the ship and that meat, fish, eggs, butter, fruit, canned goods, wine, booze and, yes, toilet paper — all provisions for a week at sea — are delivered. His first bit of bad news this week: The chicken shipment will not arrive in time. Hence, the worry beads.
That would be the least of Yannis’ worries, however, during our week cruising the Caribbean with extended family. (Paid for by my Uncle Robert!) We climb Mayan pyramids, bike through mud in the Belizean jungle, sunbathe, sleep on deck, eat, and eat again. (My favorite: Cagney’s Steakhouse.) By the time I catch up with Yannis six days later, he’s looking more relaxed despite three medical evacuations, two by helicopter and one in the middle of the night (a dramatic transfer at sea near Cozumel, Mexico). The chicken fiasco was easily fixed: He borrowed from other Norwegian Cruise Line ships when they pulled into port.
“You take things as they come. You cannot surprise me anymore,” Yannis says, downing yet another Red Bull in his shipshape office off the Spinnaker Lounge. He chuckles. There was the time the ship took a sharp turn and listed, sloshing saltwater from the pool on Deck 12 into nearby suites. (Dry within hours!) A few weeks before, the overhead water line in the main galley broke, dousing (and ruining) the cold appetizers — five minutes before the 6 p.m. dinner seating. “It was like Niagara Falls,” wails Yannis. Never mind; they threw everything out and remade it all in time. His cellphone rings so often, the brand name is worn off. “This is my girlfriend,” he says, patting it.
Knowing he sets an example for his crew of 950, he walks the ship every night before his 11:30 bedtime. “Yes, I’m tired but I’m leading a team. If I retire at 9:30 and they work … ,” he says, shaking his head at such a no-no. Yannis says that on our first night, he didn’t see many late-night revelers during his walkthrough, so he adjusted the ship’s staff schedule for early risers. Sure enough, in Belize, with its dazzling coral reef, he counted 2,100 passengers off the ship by 8:40 a.m.
Every day, Yannis walks the ship, starting at the Versailles dining room on Deck 6, then heading to the food-prep rooms on Deck 4 and the walk-in refrigerators on Deck 3: the cheese-and-butter fridge (his favorite), the meat fridge, the seafood fridge, the vegetable fridge, the fruit fridge and the thawing fridge. Everything is bright white, stainless steel and surprisingly spacious. Yannis cruises by the recyclables: big bags of crushed wine bottles, more big bags of compressed plastic bottles, and stacks and stacks of compressed paperboard. He stops by the uniform room, with its rows of white pants and tops and costumes for the shows. He peeks in on the seamstress. In the belly of the ship, on Deck 2, there’s even a room to fix upholstery.
Growing up in Piraeus, Greece, he always wanted to sail. His uncle Michael was a captain on a cruise ship, and he loved to regale the young Yannis with tales of the sea. “He was my role model. But I knew life on the bridge was lonely, and I’m a people person,” Yannis says. So he trained to become a hotel director, knowing he could be out talking to guests and crew. “It changes my whole mood. Maybe it’s a little bit my being Greek. You invite somebody to your house, you give them good food, a clean bed and bath, you entertain them. It’s not rocket science,” he says, saluting one of his stewards on Deck 12. “You run it from your heart.”