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
WE’RE SOMEWHERE BETWEEN SINGAPORE AND BANGKOK WHEN THE DANCEROBICS STARTS.
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 IMAGINED THE CAPTAIN WOULD BE A TOM HANKS TYPE, BUT HE LOOKS MORE LIKE A SKINNY CHRISTOPHER WALKEN. HE’S DANISH, AND LIVES IN THE LANDLOCKED US STATE OF ARIZONA.
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; royalcaribbean.com.au
THERE ARE 18 PLACES TO EAT, INCLUDING A JAMIE’S ITALIAN AND A BUFFET WITH 40 VARIETIES OF BREAD.