Five days of fun, food and more food aboard one of the largest cruise ships on earth.

OK, so it’s re­ally a ship. A su­per­cruiser, in fact. A float­ing apart­ment block of 18 storeys, and our home for five days of food, fun, and more food. So much food.


The main theatre, packed across both floors, be­gins gy­rat­ing with the force of what must be a cou­ple of hun­dred re­tirees, as they step to the side-and-back and side-and-back. Soon, they’ll con­verge on the all-you-can-eat buf­fet or the 11.30am lunch sit­ting in the main din­ing room. But for now, that’ll have to wait. Un­der the di­rec­tion of Kather­ine, a South African twen­tysome­thing who will later at­tempt to sell us sou­venir tiki cups at the bar, they’ve trans­formed into a tech­ni­colour blur of ca­sual polo shirts. We’re on the first day of our voy­age aboard Ova­tion of the Seas, a vast cruise ship en route to Thai­land. Over the next five nights we’ll see a live stage per­for­mance, star­ring a panel of six danc­ing mo­torised TV screens. We’ll hear a record­ing of mum-friendly Cana­dian crooner Michael Bublé per­form­ing a cover ver­sion of Nir­vana’s grunge classic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. We’ll learn how to sky­dive. We’ll drink many dif­fer­ent kinds of cock­tails in ex­otic colours. We’ll fail to ever truly grasp which di­rec­tion is aft, for­ward, port or star­board. And we’ll spend more time than is prob­a­bly healthy ei­ther eat­ing or think­ing about eat­ing, or think­ing about all the things we’ve just eaten. We’ll also be­gin to won­der if, per­haps, there’s such a thing as too much fun. If hav­ing no fewer than 86 sep­a­rate daily events, in­clud­ing an ab boot camp, a mid­morn­ing trivia ses­sion, karaoke, a free treat­ment for un­der-eye bags, a nap­kin­fold­ing work­shop and a Vegas-style show called ‘Live Love Legs’ presents an ar­ray of ways to en­joy one­self or a creep­ing anx­i­ety about never truly be­ing able to do them all. We de­cided to find out. MS Ova­tion of the Seas is owned by cruise com­pany Royal Caribbean and is the se­cond-largest pas­sen­ger ship in its fleet. Con­struc­tion started in Septem­ber 2014 and was com­pleted some 19 months later, at a cost of just over $1.3bn. It is, as you’d ex­pect, enor­mous. The ship has ca­pac­ity for 4905 guests and 1500 crew, weighs 168,666 tonnes, is 41m wide and 347m long. The sense of its scale is dif­fi­cult to con­vey, not least be­cause the me­dia kit we were given chooses to use com­par­isons that are even harder to vi­su­alise. Flip it ver­ti­cally and it’s “al­most as tall as Uluru”. If for some rea­son you felt com­pelled to fill the ship en­tirely with man­goes, we’re told, you’d need 843 mil­lion of them. De­spite the fact we keep ac­ci­den­tally call­ing this a “boat” – some­thing that clearly irks the staff, but which they po­litely pre­tend not to have heard – Royal Caribbean is not even sat­is­fied call­ing it a ship. To them, Ova­tion of the Seas is a “su­per­cruiser”. It has 18 decks, of which num­bers six to 10 are de­voted to guest rooms. It has 18 dif­fer­ent places to eat, in­clud­ing a Jamie’s Ital­ian, pizza bar and steakhouse. There’s a casino, dodgem car track, video ar­cade, li­brary, day spa and gym, two in­door pools, two out­door pools, a rock-climb­ing wall, theatre, med­i­cal cen­tre, glam­our pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio, re­tail stores in­clud­ing Cartier, Kate Spade and Michael Kors, a bar staffed by a pair of ro­bots, a kind of wave pool called the Flowrider where you can pre­tend-surf, and a kind of ver­ti­cal wind tur­bine called the ifly, where you can pre­tend-sky­dive. It is the big­gest ship to have ever ar­rived in Aus­tralian waters. Be­fore we boarded at Sin­ga­pore’s cruise ter­mi­nal, the first thing we no­ticed were the ship’s lifeboats. Per­fectly framed by the gang­way, they’re bright yel­low and as big as buses. From the out­side, Ova­tion of the Seas looks more like an apart­ment build­ing than any­thing that could pos­si­bly float on wa­ter. Yet it does, sit­ting like a glis­ten­ing tro­phy of hu­man en­gi­neer­ing. Once we passed through the ter­mi­nal – a gi­gan­tic hangar of a build­ing – it be­came clear the ship’s pas­sen­gers fall roughly into two cat­e­gories. The first group are Sin­ga­pore­ans well into their twi­light years, and who take and re­take many shots of one another with what ap­pears to be pro­fes­sional-grade pho­to­graphic equip­ment. They’re also se­ri­ous cruis­ers, with many hav­ing be­tween five and 10 trips un­der their belts. One group is made up of around a dozen women who are clearly not here to fuck around. They board the ship dressed in match­ing camo out­fits, like some kind of elite cruis­ing squad. The other pas­sen­gers are Aus­tralians, who are out­num­bered at least 20 to one. The men all look like Har­vey We­in­stein, if the Hol­ly­wood big­wig dressed ex­clu­sively in short-sleeved ging­ham shirts tucked into what we imag­ine were sold as ‘dress shorts’. The women, all named Deb, look to have en­joyed their time in the sun and are so short and wide as to ap­pear prac­ti­cally spher­i­cal. When Ova­tion of the Seas ar­rives back in Syd­ney in De­cem­ber, this pas­sen­ger na­tion­al­ity ra­tio is likely to re­verse.

Ar­riv­ing on­board gives a strong idea of what it must feel like to be fa­mous. The crew are all warm greet­ings and big smiles, as they ask you to sign a lot of things and then beg to take a photo with you, as if you’re Ken­dall Jen­ner at the Met Gala. Ex­cept if you were fa­mous, they prob­a­bly wouldn’t later of­fer to sell these pho­tos back to you for a pack­age cost­ing more than $300. A man also squirts our hands with sani­tiser. We’re stay­ing in a State­room on deck seven, which sounds very ex­clu­sive, but in fact all the rooms are called State­rooms. In­side, it has a sort of Alice in Won­der­land qual­ity, where ev­ery­thing seems shrunken yet per­fectly pro­por­tioned. It’s slightly smaller than a typ­i­cal ho­tel room, but still very neat and com­fort­able. The car­pet is blue spi­rals on two dif­fer­ent shades of brown, the kind you might find in a casino. There are lots of sur­faces that look like wood but are not ac­tu­ally wood. The walls are cov­ered in a kind of vinyl. It has a dou­ble bed, a sort of chaise longue, a desk and chair, and a TV. The bal­cony has a pair of blue deckchairs with footrests, and is ac­cessed through a door that we spend two min­utes try­ing to push and then pull in­wards, be­fore re­al­is­ing it’s a slid­ing door. The air-conditioning is de­ac­ti­vated when the bal­cony is un­locked and its de­fault set­ting is: arc­tic. The bath­room brings to mind a lar­gish aero­plane bath­room, and has a clear cylin­dri­cal shower cu­bi­cle. There’s a hair dryer but no iron, which, we’re told, is a fire haz­ard and strictly not per­mit­ted on­board. When we ar­rive in our State­room, the TV is on and play­ing an in­die gui­tar num­ber about wash­ing your hands (“Wash your hands, it’s the right thing to do / It’s eas­ier, when you only have two”). Wash­ing your hands, it’s reg­u­larly pointed out, is very


im­por­tant. At ev­ery stair­well and at the en­trance to ev­ery bar and restau­rant on the ship is a stand that dis­penses au­to­mated doses of Purell, a hand sani­tiser. Given the hor­ror sto­ries of en­tire ships’ pop­u­la­tions fall­ing vic­tim to bouts of de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness, the crew is en­thu­si­as­tic about keep­ing up at least the pre­tence of ex­treme ger­mo­pho­bia. The ‘Wash Your Hands’ song sug­gests do­ing it “like, 50 times a day”. Cruise ships, it seems, are not places for re­cov­er­ing ob­ses­sive com­pul­sives. Here to tend to our ev­ery need is Yunus, a short, be­spec­ta­cled man from In­done­sia, who over­sees guest ser­vices in our sec­tion of the ship. Yunus is ex­tremely friendly and is pre­sum­ably re­spon­si­ble for sur­rep­ti­tiously en­ter­ing our room when we’re out and mak­ing small but thought­ful ad­just­ments. Tidy­ing things, de­posit­ing small bot­tles of sham­poo and con­di­tioner or, on one oc­ca­sion, skil­fully ar­rang­ing a pair of tow­els on the bed in the shape of a pig and adorn­ing it with our sun­glasses. On our first evening, we head to a place called the North Star bar on the top deck. This is the most im­pres­sive space on the ship, over­look­ing the main pool area, the sea of empty blue deckchairs around it, as well as the ac­tual sea be­yond that. Two Aus­tralian women re­main at the North Star bar ev­ery night of our cruise, as does a very chatty older man with a mous­tache, who’s al­ways push­ing a stroller but never with a child in it. As well as a bar, the top deck is also home to the ifly, the Flowrider and an ob­ser­va­tion pod at­tached to a gi­ant me­chan­i­cal arm that lifts it 92m above sea level for a view of, well, the sea. There’s also a run­ning track, which takes us 5min 34sec to walk around, and which at the front of the ship be­comes a vir­tual wind tun­nel, chan­nelling and con­cen­trat­ing air flow with fe­ro­cious, toupee-threat­en­ing ve­loc­ity. At the North Star bar, a wait­ress ap­proaches with a col­lec­tion of ex­oti­clook­ing cock­tails on a tray. “It’s called a Caribbean Sun,” she an­nounces, be­fore ex­plain­ing that while drinks are in­cluded in our Deluxe Bev­er­age Pack­age, the sou­venir glasses they are served in are not. These, we later find out, are avail­able to pur­chase for $5 each, or three for $13. This sense of grat­i­tude about be­ing of­fered things, im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by a sus­pi­cion of their true cost, is a sen­sa­tion that will last the du­ra­tion of our voy­age.

De­pend­ing on how many times you’ve seen 1997’s Os­car-win­ner Titanic, it might be easy to imag­ine that cruis­ing is an ex­clu­sive af­fair, all for­mal wear and hat­boxes. But some­one could get on­board this ship for un­der $800 – a steal for a five-day hol­i­day. This would en­ti­tle them to ac­cess most ar­eas, the main buf­fets and some drinks. Any­thing be­yond that is paid for with a Sea­pass – a kind of on­board credit card – which is set­tled be­fore dis­em­bark­ing. We imag­ine it’s easy to go hard on those sou­venir cock­tails when you don’t need to face the bill un­til your hol­i­day is over. And it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine this fact was over­looked by Royal Caribbean, which took home $11.4bn in rev­enue last year. The stark­est dif­fer­ence be­tween cruise routes seems to be the pas­sen­gers’ di­etary pref­er­ences, which is fit­ting, since so much about cruis­ing re­volves around eat­ing. The colos­sal mind­fuck of or­der­ing the right amount of food for ev­ery­one is mostly done

by com­puter, with a bunch of com­plex al­go­rithms that de­cide how much of each thing they need for a par­tic­u­lar voy­age. This de­pends greatly on which coun­tries they’re trav­el­ling be­tween, as some places are larger con­sumers of par­tic­u­lar in­gre­di­ents. It’s prob­a­bly no sur­prise, for in­stance, that Amer­i­can routes ne­ces­si­tate truly awe-in­spir­ing quan­ti­ties of fried chicken. Or as one se­nior mem­ber of staff told us, with a straight face, cruis­ing in China re­quires them to stock “rice and noo­dles up the yin yang”. But Aus­tralians, al­though we failed to con­vince any­one on the crew to ac­tu­ally say the words, are clearly fuck­ing glut­tons, de­vour­ing food at a pace that out­strips even our US coun­ter­parts. In fact, the only thing that out­per­forms our hunger is our thirst for booze, de­scrip­tions of which bring to mind tales of ob­scene deca­dence not seen since the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire.

The main buf­fet area is called the Wind­jam­mer Mar­ket­place, and this is where the se­ri­ous eat­ing hap­pens. But be­fore pas­sen­gers can pile their plates high at sta­tions serv­ing cu carved meats or 40 va­riet bread, they are herded th wash­basins. This rit­ual d jail­house feel to it, but it’s peo­ple forced to com­ply w of per­sonal hy­giene when po­ten­tial to spread ill­ness with wild­fire pro­por­tions We don’t ac­tu­ally eat at be­cause our Deluxe Beve us ac­cess to the ship’s fan These in­clude Jamie’s Ita called Chops Grille (wher eat a T-bone the size of a Won­der­land, a He­ston Bl af­fair of small but vis­ually The menu in Won­derla blank sheet of paper that with brushes dipped in w in­vis­i­ble text ap­pear. The into five cat­e­gories – ‘sun ‘earth’; the lat­ter of which as “dishes grounded in wh course con­sists of small sp spheres de­scribed as “liq­uid man­zanilla olives”, the sight of which makes the Royal Caribbean rep­re­sen­ta­tive join­ing us re­coil in hor­ror. “This one made me gag,” she ex­plains, and it’s not hard to see why. The olives de­liver an ini­tial note of sweet­ness, fol­lowed by a sud­den ex­plo­sion of in­tensely salty liq­uid. A bit like if you took a grape skin and filled it with mashed-up oys­ters. Other dishes in­clude a minia­ture ice-cream cone stuffed with av­o­cado and crab meat, and some­thing called Buf­falo chicken eggs, which look a lot like reg­u­lar boiled eggs, but are served in a glass dome filled with smoke There’s also a main din­ing room called Grande, which has an old-world el­e­gance, and whose sta­tus is some­where be­tween Jamie’s Ital­ian and the Wind­jam­mer. Din­ers have a choice of a starter, main and dessert, but these ar­rive with such light­ning speed it’s clear they’re not ac­tu­ally made to or­der. We later tour the kitchen and dis­cover that dishes are pre­pared fresh, but then kept warm un­der heat­ing pan­els, so they can be served quickly. This ex­plains why Grande needs a one-anda-half hour ser­vice win­dow for meals.


We’re not in­vited to the Cap­tain’s Ta­ble, which is re­served for VVIP cruis­ers. Still, we meet him any­way, on tour­ing the bridge – the ship’s cock­pit. We imag­ined the cap­tain would be a Tom Hanks type, but he looks more like a skinny Christo­pher Walken. He’s Dan­ish, called Flem­ming, and lives in the land­locked US state of Ari­zona. Flem­ming is best de­scribed as un­flap­pable and softly spo­ken, ex­cept for the times when he makes an­nounce­ments over the ship’s PA, dur­ing which he adopts a kind of game-showhost-meets-wiz­ard of Oz tone – draw­ing out cer­tain words to comic ef­fect. “Gooooood moooorn­ing, ladies and gen­tle­men,” he drawls, clearly en­joy­ing him­self. Flem­ming won’t be pushed into de­scrib­ing what his cap­tain’s quar­ters are like, ex­cept that he only has a “five-step com­mute” to work. The bridge is a real Star Trek af­fair – a pair of high-back chairs be­hind a raised bank of screens that brings to mind the con­trol panel from Homer’s workspace on The Simp­sons. Flem­ming ex­plains the func­tions of the many screens and di­als, which dis­play ev­ery­thing from in­com­ing rain­fall to the ship’s lo­ca­tion. It’s a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing to find there’s no ship’s wheel. In­stead, it’s mostly on au­topi­lot, ex­cept when de­part­ing or dock­ing at port, when the ship is con­trolled by a joy­stick so small it seems like it must be an ac­tual joke. It’s about the size of a match­stick. By far the most in­ter­est­ing thing to come from our con­ver­sa­tion with Flem­ming is that Chi­nese ac­tress Fan Bing­bing is this ship’s god­mother. This is ap­par­ently a thing that ships have. Other Royal Caribbean celebrity god­moth­ers in­clude Whoopi Gold­berg and Glo­ria Este­fan, who we learn is an avid cruiser and oc­ca­sion­ally per­forms im­promptu sin­ga­longs in the bar. Though given the sort of peo­ple we’ve seen at this ship’s bar, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Este­fan – who’s sold more than 100 mil­lion al­bums world­wide – spend­ing much time among them, with­out se­ri­ous money chang­ing hands. In 2015, ri­val Nor­we­gian Cruise Line chose singer Pit­bull as the in­dus­try’s first god­fa­ther for its ship Nor­we­gian Es­cape to re­in­force the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion for “non-tra­di­tional cruis­ing”. Pit­bull also re­leased a cruise-themed song called ‘Free­dom’, which in­cludes the lyrics: “Let me show you how a liv­ing leg­end live, baby / Let’s be free, baby, and cruise the world”. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­sic video is es­sen­tially a thinly veiled ad­ver­tise­ment for Nor­we­gian Cruise Line and has been viewed more than 14 mil­lion times on Youtube. Even in the con­text of the many spec­tac­u­larly aw­ful Pit­bull record­ings in ex­is­tence, this is pos­si­bly the worst song we’ve ever heard.

Even at the top man­age­ment lev­els, work­ing on a cruise ship does not seem like an easy gig. The ship’s cruise di­rec­tor, Mike, looks af­ter all en­ter­tain­ment and works from 8.30am un­til mid­night, seven days a week. This colos­sal shift fin­ishes with him record­ing The Morning Show With Mike & Raphael, about which the less said the bet­ter, ex­cept that it in­volves him as­sum­ing a Kochie-like per­sona and de­tail­ing the day’s on­board ac­tiv­i­ties while dressed in a tuxedo and bow tie. He is Aus­tralian and works 16 weeks on, eight weeks off. A Filipino waiter called Noriel de­scribes spend­ing months at sea and re­turn­ing to find he’d been away so long, his young chil­dren had taken to call­ing him kuya, the word for an ‘older brother’, in­stead of tatay, or ‘dad’. But he loves his job. He col­lects mag­nets from ev­ery port to dis­play all the places he might not oth­er­wise have seen. Re­cently, one of his sons ac­ci­den­tally knocked them off the fridge and they all broke. We’re told there’s a zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy to­wards frater­ni­sa­tion be­tween crew and guests, which seems re­dun­dant. In the nicest pos­si­ble way, there are no good-look­ing pas­sen­gers. It’s not that ev­ery­one’s hideous, they’re just not what you’d call at­trac­tive. The staff, how­ever, are all young and tanned and very at­trac­tive. The sky­div­ing and surf­ing staff are par­tic­u­larly smok­ing hot. And while they’re un­likely to shack up with guests, you can’t help but imag­ine in­ter-crew shenani­gans be­ing a cer­tainty. We’ve been given a $130 voucher for the Vi­tal­ity Spa, which of­fers ev­ery­thing from fa­cials and pedi­cures to Bo­tox and fillers. Most of the treat­ments are out of our bud­get, so we opt for a 50-minute Swedish massage. Our masseuse is a lovely Filipino lady and af­ter she’s fin­ished, she sug­gests we pur­chase a mus­cle oil and anti-in­flam­ma­tory gel that’s sort of a Deep Heat to bet­ter ease our aches and pains. To­gether, they cost about $160. We also sign up for pub trivia, dur­ing which dancerobics in­struc­tor-turned-quiz mas­ter Kather­ine causes a vir­tual riot by an­nounc­ing Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s real name was Norma and not Norma Jeane (“It’s what I have on the card!” she pleads). But the high­light of our time on board would have to be the ifly, which repli­cates the ef­fect of sky­div­ing. Our in­struc­tor is a very tanned, at­trac­tive Brazil­ian man who is ex­tremely good at ifly­ing. He can per­form tricks and stunts, loop­ing up­wards and plum­met­ing down to­wards the base, like a dol­phin in wa­ter. Our group of five can’t do any of these things. As with most sports, the ifly is a lot harder than it looks, and even stay­ing level takes se­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion. One of the men with us en­ters the tube and im­me­di­ately be­gins spin­ning wildly, his tech­nique roughly ap­prox­i­mat­ing that of a stray plas­tic bag on a windy day. None of us is much bet­ter. It’s at this point, be­tween the dancerobics and the pre­tend-sky­div­ing, that cruis­ing presents some un­com­fort­able ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions. Namely: are you do­ing enough? Are you hav­ing enough fun? Are you eat­ing enough? Have you been surf­ing? Or roller­skat­ing? Have you played trivia to­day? Are you hun­gry? Would you like a massage or a set of black-and-white glam­our por­traits? Would you like to go for a run or eat a three­course lunch at 11.30am? Do you want more em­panadas? Are you sure? Wine? Would you like a sou­venir T-shirt or key ring or hat? In cruis­ing, as in life, there is a nag­ging worry that you’re miss­ing out, not ful­fill­ing your true po­ten­tial. This sense is mag­ni­fied when we dis­cover it’s pos­si­ble to board this ship for a 52-day cruise from Southamp­ton in the UK to Bei­jing. This epic voy­age stops by Barcelona, Rome, Dubai and Viet­nam. We can only imag­ine that once pas­sen­gers reach their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, they have to dis­em­bark with the as­sis­tance of a fork­lift. Still, af­ter five days aboard Ova­tion of the Seas, it be­comes clear there are two kinds of peo­ple in world. There are those who find cruis­ing to be an af­ford­able way to take the fam­ily on hol­i­day. Who en­joy hav­ing ac­cess to the full buf­fet of life’s joys, from danc­ing and conga lines to cock­tails, glam­our pho­tog­ra­phy and ac­tual buf­fets. Whose ideas of travel are syn­ony­mous not with lux­ury but con­ve­nience. Who think that travel is bet­ter not when you’re ex­posed to for­eign cul­tures, but when you can sim­ply nav­i­gate the globe, tak­ing your own fa­mil­iar com­forts with you. And then, of course, there are other peo­ple. Those who do not. Royal Caribbean of­fers a num­ber of cruise op­tions aboard Ova­tion of the Seas, de­part­ing Syd­ney from De­cem­ber 2017; roy­al­


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