Behind the scenes with Plancius Hotel Manager Sebastian Duma
A pleasant June evening, mild and warm – for the Arctic, that is. Outside the panoramic windows of the m/v Plancius observation lounge, peaks and glaciers and rolling white snowscapes glide past unhurried. Conversation has softened to a sated post-dinner hum, and the bar is almost empty except for the breathless comings and goings of Charlotte the bartender restocking cocktail glasses.
It’s so peaceful that it’s easy to forget our vessel is shoving through ice floes and frigid water on its path around one of Earth’s last uncivilized places: the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. In fact, the startling division between the comfort of this ship and the severe conditions outside has never seemed so clear-cut as now, making this the perfect time to chat up the man most responsible for making this ice-strengthened, diesel-driven ex-research vessel feel so utterly civilized.
The past lives of a polar hotelier
Hotel Manager Sebastian Duma has led a colorful life. Sit with him for two minutes and you’ll hear a list of the many countries he’s visited during his years in the cruise industry. Sit with him three minutes more and listen to that list grow. Born in Oradea, Romania, Duma served in the army during the Revolution of ‘89. Not long after that, in ‘94, he began his long and varied career on the seas. He started with Regal Princess as a buffet boy and open deck worker, working his way up the chain of command through numerous positions and equally numerous cruise companies. He’s earned two bachelor degrees, one in business and another in law, and filled leadership roles in hotels ranging from a small Florence boutique to the first international hotel in his home city.
Cruising the seas: why he loves it
Working on cruise ships, however, has always been Duma’s first love. “My favorite part of the job is having the opportunity to travel and meet so many people from all around the world,” he says, gazing at the passengers nearby, most of whom are conversing over coffee or watching for whales through the windows. “Though maybe I’d like a little more time for reading.” A confirmed history buff, Duma loves books about the distant past. His eyes brighten as he recounts the formation of the legal system in ancient Rome, a topic he developed a keen appreciation for during his university studies. But though he’s not able to devour books as voraciously as he would like, he considers his time on Plancius more than worth the sacrifice: “It’s nice to be at sea with only your colleagues, your guests, and your thoughts. It makes for good meditation time.”
From Antigua to Antarctica
Though his experience with warm-climate cruise lines is extensive, Duma is somewhat newer to the world of Arctic and Antarctic cruises. “The main differences are of course the sights: hot, sunny beaches as opposed to cold, glacial fjords.” Looking once more at the passengers, he smiles to remember another distinction: “It’s also the people. Tropical cruises draw the party crowd, Arctic cruises like this draw the expedition types, people with an eye for wildlife. It’s interesting to interact with such a different group here.” And after more than two decades interacting with the many groups that populate a cruise ship, Duma has developed a sharp an eye for telling them apart – as well as anticipating their needs and wishes.
The give and take of polar life
Indeed, Duma enjoys his position so much, he’s slower to confess the natural challenges that go along with it. “The most demanding part of my job is being the first and last person standing when it comes to accommodation, meals, and entertainment,” he says. “It’s usually guest-related, but not always.” Without question, he’s right: Duma’s role as the head of Plancius hospitality means that most passenger complaints, whether about a soup served cold or a towel left uncollected, end up on his doorstep. He and his indispensable assistant hotel manager, Sava, a man who knows Plancius inside and out, are also the most recognizable faces on the ship: there at breakfast serving toast, there at dinner delivering plates. This has its perks and its pitfalls, but to Duma it’s all worth it.
Whether Arctic or Antarctic, it’s the people
What makes it worth it? The experiences he’s had on the seas, he answers – too many to recount in a single evening. But when pressed, he’s able to produce one of them: “Maybe that time a nice American couple visited me, my wife, and my newborn baby daughter in Romania after being my guests on a cruise.” Without question, this is a touching and incredible visit. But knowing how much Duma loves his job (and how good he is at it), the story is not all that hard to believe.