THIS IS GOING TO BE HUGE
Bigger, better, best is the mantra of the brand spanking new Symphony of the Seas
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.
EATING AND DRINKING
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.
WHAT ABOUT US?
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.