Big­ger, bet­ter, best is the mantra of the brand spank­ing new Sym­phony of the Seas

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - CRUISING - SU­SAN BUGG

It’s an of­fer you can’t refuse: The chance to sail on the world’s big­gest cruise ship – be­fore any­one else. Be­fore the $US1.5 bil­lion Royal Caribbean In­ter­na­tional ves­sel sails from Barcelona on her first “of­fi­cial” seven-day cruise into the Mediter­ranean, jour­nal­ists and travel ex­ec­u­tives from around the world were in­vited on board for a two-day pre­view of the float­ing city and its fea­tures.

Over 43 hours or so, we range over the ship’s 18 decks, rid­ing 24 el­e­va­tors to eat and drink at some of the 22 restau­rants, try out 24 pools, slides and wa­ter at­trac­tions, watch stage shows and com­edy, play ar­cade games, sing karaoke and go be­hind the scenes in one of the 33 on-board kitchens. Some of us sleep, too.

And we queue and queue and queue some more to get a first-hand look at a new fea­ture for the 25-ship RCI fleet, the Ul­ti­mate Fam­ily Suite. This much-hyped, two-floor ad­di­tion, lo­cated at the rear of the ship on the 17th deck, can ac­com­mo­date up to eight peo­ple in 125sq m of floor space (in com­par­i­son, my bal­cony cabin was 17sq m). It has a bright or­ange slide down from the up­per-level kids’ bed­room to the liv­ing room be­low, a mini climb­ing wall, air hockey, video games, bal­cony with whirlpool, and right from the bright red front door, is dec­o­rated in eye-pop­ping block colours in­stead of the typ­i­cally con­ser­va­tive state­room colour pal­ette. A fam­ily of six has re­port­edly al­ready paid a hol­i­day pre­mium $US85,000 (about $109,500) to stay and play here on a week-long Caribbean cruise at Christ­mas.

Sym­phony of the Seas will cruise the West­ern Mediter­ranean un­til Oc­to­ber, when it leaves for its home port Mi­ami to sail the Caribbean.


We first glimpse Sym­phony of the Seas from the rooftop of our ho­tel a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres from the port in cen­tral Barcelona. And yes, she is large. If you need the num­bers to prove it, she is about 230,000 gross tonnes, 362m long – more than twice as long as the MCG play­ing field – and 65m wide. At ca­pac­ity she can carry 6680 pas­sen­gers stay­ing in 2759 state rooms, at­tended by 2200 crew from 160 coun­tries.

Royal Caribbean chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive Richard Faine says the com­pany did not set out to cre­ate the world’s largest ship. It was a nat­u­ral re­sult of pro­vid­ing peo­ple with the breadth and diver­sity of ameni­ties, ac­tiv­i­ties and en­ter­tain­ment they wanted to pro­vide.

“We set out to build the best, and it turned out to be the big­gest,” Mr Faine says. “We wanted to build some­thing more akin to a city with a plethora of things to do.”

Set around a cen­tral light-filled “canyon”, the ship is di­vided into seven zones, or “neigh­bour­hoods” if you want to adopt the ur­ban anal­ogy. Bars, cafes, shops and restau­rants line Cen­tral Park and the Royal Prom­e­nade; there’s a youth zone, pool and sports zone, and the en­ter­tain­ment zone has a the­atre, ice rink/laser tag arena, night­club and casino. The banks of ex­er­cise equip­ment in the Vi­tal­ity at Sea Spa and Fit­ness Cen­tre would be the envy of city gyms and the Board­walk – with its carousel, all-new Su­gar Beach sweet and ice cream shop and Johnny Rockets burger bar – has a retro hol­i­day at­mos­phere. An­other new fea­ture, the Play­mak­ers Sports Bar and Ar­cade, is also here.

All the ship’s in­for­ma­tion and sched­ules are on an app that cruis­ers can down­load on ar­rival, al­though the Cruise Com­pass daily plan­ner is still de­liv­ered to cab­ins to help with plot­ting out the next day’s ac­tiv­i­ties, a task made chal­leng­ing by the sheer num­ber of things to do.


We’ve al­ready heard about the whizbang wow Ul­ti­mate Fam­ily Suite. There are other pre­mium suites – var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions with the ex­tras that come with pre­mium prices, along with great views over the Aquathe­ater at the aft of the ship.

But like fly­ing, most of us travel cabin class. These rooms range in floor space from 16 to 18sq m. Many have bal­conies fac­ing ei­ther the ocean or in­ter­nal pub­lic spa­ces, or a video screen show­ing the ocean, which is called a “vir­tual bal­cony”. Solo trav­ellers will like the op­tion of a sup­ple­ment-free stu­dio sin­gle.

The decor is in shades of grey, stone and cream, with teal blue high­lights. The bed was su­per comfy and pil­lows su­per fluffy. The bath­room is on the larger side of tiny but there’s room to store toi­letries and the shower is hot and pow­er­ful. I did eye off the L’Oc­c­i­tane bath­room prod­ucts in the pre­mium suites with some envy, and was glad I’d thrown in my own rather than rely on the sup­plied soap and wall-mounted all-pur­pose sham­poo.

There are USB ports to power up the mul­ti­ple de­vices needed to up­date so­cial me­dia with on-board In­sta-friendly mo­ments. The ship has Wi-Fi at a price, a su­per-fast ser­vice dubbed VOOM. It proved a lit­tle patchy dur­ing our trip though this could be be­cause of the sev­eral hun­dred me­dia send­ing sto­ries and pho­tos back to their point of ori­gin.


Of the 22 places to eat on-board, two are new to Royal Caribbean: Hooked, a New Eng­land-style seafood res­tau­rant, and El Loco, a Mex­i­can cafe­te­ria set next to the bas­ket­ball court on the sports deck.

Wind­jam­mer and So­lar­ium buf­fets cross meal times, cuisines and calo­rie counts. In the name of re­search, I lunched in both. On the same day.

The three-level main din­ing room has set din­ing times on two floors and free din­ing on an­other. Chops Grille is a favourite on-board RCI ships and is one of the eater­ies that re­quires an ex­tra cost to dine.

Like a cou­ple of other Royal Caribbean ships, Sym­phony has a Bionic Bar, where two ro­bots, Rock Em and Sock Em, mix cock­tails as or­dered via an app. It’s fun to watch and the mixes are po­tent. Ex­pect to drink straight from the cup be­cause as part of its en­vi­ron­men­tal strat­egy, the cruise line has banned plas­tic straws.


For me, much of the plea­sure of a cruise hol­i­day is ly­ing pool­side with a good book or in a hot-tub with a drink. But for many cruis­ers – es­pe­cially the much tar­geted mil­len­nial mar­ket – a hol­i­day is about ex­pe­ri­ences, and the more adren­a­line-pump­ing they are, the bet­ter. Want to go rock-climb­ing? You can. Want to zip line? You can. Want to surf ? You can, on the FlowRider sim­u­la­tor. A 10-storey slide, the Ul­ti­mate Abyss, curls like a gi­ant drink­ing straw from Deck 16 (45.7m above sea level) to Deck 6.

If it all sounds too thrilling for words, tra­di­tional cruis­ers will still find minigolf, trivia and art auc­tions.


Sym­phony has live bands, com­edy, an es­cape room, street pa­rades, an ice show (with chore­ographed drone light dis­play) and even a pro­duc­tion of Hair­spray to ri­val Broad­way. But of all live shows – on stage, on ice, even in a pool – Nick Weir, Royal’s head of en­ter­tain­ment, aka cre­ator-in-chief, seems most ex­cited about the new stage show, Flight. That’s not just be­cause of its sto­ry­line chron­i­cling hu­mankind’s fas­ci­na­tion with flight or be­cause for­mer astro­naut Clay­ton An­der­son helped with set de­sign, but be­cause it cli­maxes with three­d­i­men­sional dy­namic fly­ing. What’s that, you might ask. Ba­si­cally, com­puter-con­trolled winches al­low a recre­ation of the Wright broth­ers’ his­toric Kit­ty­hawk flight. Flight is yet to de­but on board, so we rely on Nick’s en­thu­si­asm as en­dorse­ment.

But we do see an ex­am­ple of 3D fly­ing in The AquaNa­tion, a com­bi­na­tion of highly en­ter­tain­ing trick div­ing, ac­ro­bat­ics and syn­chro­nised swim­ming. An ac­ro­bat, sus­pended by har­ness and wires, moves through the night sky above the Aquathe­ater pool, spin­ning in all direc­tions and dip­ping into the wa­ter. Royal Caribbean is the world’s largest em­ployer of show divers and the troupe in­cludes two Aus­tralians: high diver Rhi­an­nan If­fland, from New­cas­tle, who also com­petes for Red Bull on the world cliff-div­ing cir­cuit, and spring­board diver Jor­dan Wey­mark, from Caloun­dra.


Royal Caribbean al­ready has the dis­tinc­tion of sail­ing the largest cruise ship in Aus­tralian wa­ters: the 348m long, 41m wide, 50m high

Ova­tion of the Seas. Part of RCI’s Quan­tum class fleet, she car­ries about 5000 guests.

So will Aus­tralians ever get to ex­pe­ri­ence a larger Oa­sis class ship like Sym­phony of the Seas in home wa­ters? RCI se­nior vi­cepres­i­dent in­ter­na­tional, Aus­tralian Gavin Smith, says not yet, but it’s not out of the ques­tion in the fu­ture.

“It’s a mat­ter of prac­ti­cal­ity,” he says. “Our ports would need sub­stan­tial en­hance­ments to ac­com­mo­date a 350m ship with 6500 guests. But it’s our am­bi­tion to see an Oa­sis class ship in the Asia Pa­cific. We talk about ports be­ing ‘Oa­sis-ready’.

“It might take eight to 10 years, but it will hap­pen.”


Cen­tral Park is a fo­cal point aboard Sym­phony of the Seas; a sec­tion of the Ul­ti­mate Fam­ily Suite; ac­tiv­i­ties and art abound.

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