Cruising for a Cause

By staff July 1, 2005

After umpteen seasons of fabulous benefits and balls (yawn), the canap├ęs start to taste like cardboard and the champagne loses its fizz. So how do Sarasota's glitterati get their gala back? They take the show out to sea. Some of Sarasota's best parties now have a backdrop of blue skies and open seas, as patrons have moved the party off the pier to luxury cruise ships that sail to some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

In the last few years, those cruises have generated thousands of charity dollars. The Van Wezel and the Asolo have had such success with their cruises that they now offer several different voyages each year. In May, supporters of the Sarasota Film Festival sailed to the 58th Cannes Film Festival. The Animal Rescue Coalition has partnered with Asolo Theatre Company for an Amazon riverboat expedition this fall, and Van Wezel supporters had such fun sailing the Caribbean that another cruise was planned during the bus ride back home.

Here's how it works. Dream up a romantic destination and select an upscale cruise line. Collect 50 or so of your nearest and dearest and talk up the trip over cocktails. Pack your St. John suits in tissue and stuff the Guccis in soft cloth bags. Fly to Hamburg, Peru, Rome or Stockholm and meet up for pre-parties. Settle into your luxurious stateroom and set sail for exotic ports of call. Return home with a few extra pounds, a tax deduction, cameras filled with snapshots and a boatload of memories and gossip.

"The groups partner with a travel agency or tour company and the cruises are booked through them," explains Julia Guzman, public relations manager for the Asolo Theatre Company. "The organization gets a special deal, but participants pay the same rate they would pay if they booked the trip on their own. As we book each cabin, the organization gets a percentage. Just like selling candy bars."

Howard Phillips, a current member and former president of the Asolo board, points out that this is a painless way to donate to your favorite cause. "You can make a sizeable contribution while having the time of your life," he says. "There's a tax deduction allowed for a portion of the cost, and these events raise tens of thousands of dollars. I tell everyone, bon voyage!"

Shipboard Romances and Other Salty Stories

Stories abound about the antics that occur on (and below) the decks. Marriages ruined when hubby sat in the hot tub a little too long with a skinny young thing in a thong. Friendships severed because someone's stateroom was more luxurious than any other. The desperate housewife who perched on the bow railing and contemplated jumping, and the brave heroine who saved her by hanging on for dear life to the woman's feather boa. Unsubstantiated blather blurred by the drink and exaggerated with the passage of time? Perhaps.

But there is documented evidence that Bev Marsh, Dr. Susan Winkle, Elle McComb and Rita Greenbaum once performed an onboard version of Shop In The Name of Love complete with choreography; Rita also gave an expert imitation of Michelle Pfeiffer singing Making Whoopee on the piano during an impromptu talent show. One hears that Cary Findlay's nickname is "Cary-Okee," and it's common knowledge to the cruising crowd that Findlay is a fabulous singer and general merrymaker.

"We were with Cary and Koni [Findlay] on the Sea Goddess II and Cary put together a karaoke night, but the ship didn't exactly know where to put us," remembers Rita Greenbaum. "They settled on an empty lounge; and my husband, Ron, and Cary were performing Frank Sinatra's My Way when a couple wandered in looking for the after-dinner entertainment. After listening for a moment, they left in a huff, with the woman complaining that the ship's level of entertainment had really declined. We were hysterical."

Wendy Mann Resnick, executive director of UCP, and boyfriend John Abbett can verify that champagne flows, hot tubs overflow and parties last until the wee hours. "We did the Asolo's 'Regal Riviera' cruise aboard the Seabourne Legend, and it was a rare time," says Resnick. "Everyone clicked, and we stayed up until two or three or four in the morning. One night, after finally giving up, we were asleep in our cabin when friends pounded on our door and told us to wake up and get back out there. We actually got out of bed and partied some more."

Dream Ships and Destinations

A charity cruise is only as good as the ship, so organizers vie to book ultra-luxury vessels with romantic itineraries. Van Wezel's cruise aboard the Crystal Symphony sailed to St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Barts, St. Lucia and Antigua, but the 58 friends aboard were so relaxed and comfortable that many never left the ship. "Everything was absolutely lovely," says Dottie Baer Garner, Van Wezel foundation board member, "and the ship was a cut above. Our meals were delicious and the entertainment was very good. The costumes, the staging and the talent rivaled some of the best shows Bob and I have seen in Las Vegas."

Other boats of note include the Silver Sea's Silver Shadow, which on a recent voyage offered an "Alaska Adventure" and on an earlier cruise took 12 couples from Hamburg to Copenhagen through the North Sea; and the Silver Whisper (new in 2000), which cruised from Sweden to Estonia, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Copenhagen. Both of those cruises benefited the Asolo, and the latter raised more than $50,000 on its own. For its Amazon cruise this October, the Asolo booked a romantic and classically styled ship that can navigate small waterways and explore remote locations. And the Sarasota Film Festival used its ship, the Seabourne Legend, as a prime location for stargazing when it docked in Cannes.

"We invited celebrities and industry guests to hop on board and join us for cocktails," explains Jody Kielbasa, the festival's executive director. "With our prime location dockside, the ship was an ideal venue for mixing and mingling with some of the biggest names in the film industry."

Taking over an entire ship is a wonderful thing, and with some of the smaller vessels, this can happen. Resnick says that's what made their cruise along the Italian Riviera so sublime. "Our entire ship was from Sarasota; and if we didn't know people when we boarded, we certainly knew them when we left," she effuses.

Seas of Champagne and Oceans of Calories

Cruise lines build reputations upon delectable dishes and elegant dining. The finest wines, sinfully rich desserts and cuisine inspired by accomplished chefs create meals to remember. Resnick describes one cruise where the caviar was so delicious and plentiful that guests heaped spoonfuls atop their hamburgers at lunch. Elaborate pyramids of confections and pastries, rich cream fillings and dark chocolate cakes with homemade ice cream grabbed Resnick's attention, validating her long-ago decision to eschew alcohol in favor of dessert. "I prefer to eat my calories," she says. "Hot fudge beats chardonnay every time."

Roy Yamaguchi (of Roy's restaurants) was the chef chosen to create a feast for the Cannes opening-night celebration at the Carlton Hotel's internationally famous restaurant on the beach. But his real star turn? The exclusive menu he prepared for the Sarasota Film Festival cruisers to welcome them to Cannes in style.

On one charity cruise, somewhere between Portofino and Monte Carlo, Rita and Ron Greenbaum enjoyed a bouillabaisse that still has everyone talking. "You were served a bowl of steaming broth and then the freshly prepared seafood was just dumped out all over the table," says Rita. "You chose what you wanted and built your own bouillabaisse. It was incredibly delicious."

Phillips makes sure that all Asolo cruises are completely inclusive, allowing guests to order drinks without diving into their wallets. "People cruise to relax," says Phillips, "and they don't like having to carry their money everywhere they go. We arrange for everything to be included."

High Fashion on the High Seas

Gossipy tales of competitive socialites vying for the best-dressed award at sea don't hold water with Sarasota's seasoned sailors. There's a tacit agreement among women to wear paste and keep the genuine jewelry safe at home in the vault. Jeans and T-shirts with a light jacket or blazer are de rigueur for sightseeing. Jody Kielbasa and company opted for hip, casual clothing in Cannes, a look he describes as "Hollywood chic with a bit of French flair." Dottie Baer Garner swears she never noticed a bit of competition, adding that everyone looked relaxed and dressed for comfort. Rita Greenbaum notes that nobody looks cute in a life jacket, because "the vests are all orange and square and ugly and they flatten women's chests down as if everyone is having a mammogram."

Still, most guests do dress for dinner, sometimes with men in black tie and women in gowns, all floating around the dance floor and surrounded by candlelight. Even then, Resnick says, she doesn't dress to impress. "These cruises are not my events, so I don't feel a need to look glam every minute," she says. "Wardrobe on a ship is a practical thing for me."

Exotic Adventures Ashore

To keep patrons signing on, each cruise needs to top the ones before, so planners keep dreaming up new and exciting activities and excursions. In February, Asolo patrons sailed to South America and around Cape Horn with scheduled stops at the towering volcano Mt. Osorno. In late May, the theater offered a London theater tour via the Queen Mary II. Following a luxurious trans-Atlantic crossing, passengers checked into the deluxe DeVere Cavendish Hotel in Mayfair with tickets to six performances on the London stage.

The Sarasota Film Festival cruise featured performer Lainie Kazan aboard for the entire trip, along with a cocktail party in Cannes at Zee Club on a lush rooftop terrace directly across from The Palais and overlooking the red carpet. The Van Wezel's Crystal Symphony cruise featured a number of private receptions and parties along with special tours of the ship's galley and backstage areas.

Since 1999, when Howard Phillips took over cruise planning from Charlotte Vick, he's been delighting guests with unexpected surprises. "In Sicily, we rented the house where The Godfather was filmed and ate wonderful Italian food," remembers Phillips. "In Venice, we hired out a villa on the Grand Canal and served drinks on the terrace. People arrived by gondolas. And in Stockholm, our farewell dinner featured the exact menu served at the 1901 Nobel Prize presentation. We replicated the dishes and served them in the identical order."

Friends Aboard and Forever

Insiders agree: The ultimate make-or-break factor is not the ship, the itinerary or the activities; it's the passenger list. "The first question anyone asks will always be, 'Who else is going?'" reports Phillips. "You try to get a core group of people and a large part of your board and then you spread the word and advertise to fill the cruise. A group of familiar faces is key for the comfort level."

Dottie Baer Garner began by calling a few friends; soon, 50-plus people were boarding the Crystal Symphony. "Bob and I knew about 50 percent of the people we went with and got to know everyone else while on the cruise," she says. "What a beautiful blend of people! There were no cliques and people just sat where they wished and moved around each night." Van Wezel's executive director John D. Wilkes and his wife, Patty, who floated to each and every table during the Van Wezel cruise, also noticed the camaraderie. "Our people mixed and mingled so easily," says Wilkes, "and we eagerly anticipated the follow-up reception to share photographs. On the way home from Fort Lauderdale aboard our private bus, the talk centered on the next cruise."

Rita Greenbaum says the leisurely pace of shipboard life allows you to form real friendships. "We go to a number of events during the year in Sarasota," she says, "but unless you're seated right next to someone at dinner, you really only get to exchange about 10 words. On a cruise, there are hours to talk."

"Some people might think it sounds crazy to travel with those they already know, but I really like it," says Resnick. "You're all together, doing something for a cause you support together. You always leave with new friends because you sit down and really talk to people. And there's something about sharing adventures with people you care about. That is what makes the cruise for me."

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