What will they think of next?

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - HE­LEN HUTCHEON

In my re­cent mem­oir, Away with Words, I rem­i­nisce about ship­board en­ter­tain­ment in the 1960s. We had great fun at race meet­ings with wind-up wooden horses, fancy dress balls and cross­ing-the-line cer­e­monies.

As ships be­came big­ger and big­ger, cruise com­pa­nies be­came more and more in­no­va­tive. In 1999, Royal Caribbean In­ter­na­tional raised the bar when it launched Voy­ager of the Seas with a 9.14m-high rock­climb­ing wall. By pop­u­lar de­mand the wall was in­tro­duced through­out its fleet and the com­pany con­tin­ues to lead the way with ac­tiv­i­ties never dreamed of in the 60s. Who would have thought then that we would go ice-skat­ing and sky­div­ing at sea?

Royal Caribbean brought Ova­tion of the Seas to Syd­ney in De­cem­ber for a maiden 2016-17 sea­son of su­per-cruis­ing that ran un­til last month. Car­ry­ing al­most 5000 pas­sen­gers and a crew of 1500, it is the big­gest and most tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced ship to sail in lo­cal wa­ters and it re­turns in Novem­ber.

As well as its ice-skat­ing rink and sky­div­ing wind tun­nel, the $1.3 bil­lion Ova­tion of the Seas has a surf sim­u­la­tor, bumper (or dodgem) cars and a Lon­don Ey­eesque ob­ser­va­tion pod that soars more than 90m above the ocean and has earned the Guin­ness World Record as the high­est view­ing deck on a cruise ship.

Speak­ing of view­ing, there are vir­tual bal­conies for in­side cab­ins pi­o­neered by Royal Caribbean. A floor-to­ceil­ing, high-def­i­ni­tion LED screen shows real-time video of the ocean just out­side the ship, beamed from dig­i­tal cam­eras mounted on the bridge, stern and sides. The screen is even framed with real cur­tains and in­cludes a vir­tual rail­ing to pro­vide a sense of safety, just in case, we must sup­pose, the pas­sen­ger is wor­ried about walk­ing out through it in the mid­dle of the night.

Noth­ing could have been fur­ther from my mind way back in the 60s than snow dur­ing a trop­i­cal voy­age. Now some ships have snowflakes fall­ing from the ceil­ing to make snow grot­toes where pas­sen­gers chill out after a ses­sion in the steam rooms. An­other pro­vides fur coats to wear while im­bib­ing in the ice bar in­spired by those igloo ho­tels in Scan­di­navia.

Pil­low fights astride a greasy pole over the ship’s swim­ming pool were the high­light of wa­ter sports in the early days of cruis­ing and the pas­sen­ger who col­lected most spoons dur­ing a sin­gle dive won a tro­phy at the prize-giv­ing night held at the end of the voy­age.

Crys­tal Cruises has taken “wa­ter sport” to the next level with a two-pas­sen­ger deep-sea sub­ma­rine aboard Crys­tal Esprit. Many mod­ern ships have aqua parks with slides that thrill rid­ers with dropout floors and twist­ing fun­nels that ex­tend over the side of the ship.

The Ul­ti­mate Abyss aboard the 5497-pas­sen­ger Har­mony of the Seas, launched in June 2015, has the cruise world’s tallest slide. Ac­cord­ing to “thrill en­gi­neer” Pro­fes­sor Bren­dan Walker of the Thrill Lab­o­ra­tory in Bri­tain, the Ul­ti­mate Abyss, which is ac­tu­ally a “dry” slide, is the most thrilling ad­ven­ture to be had at sea. Start­ing at 45.72m above sea level, it is a 28m drop that takes 13.14 sec­onds from go to whoa.

If all this makes you feel in need of a stiff drink, head to the Bionic Bar aboard Ova­tion of the Seas where robots mix your favourite cock­tail.

Away with Words by He­len Hutcheon cov­ers her 60-year ca­reer in jour­nal­ism, in­clud­ing seven years with P&O. Avail­able at bookde­pos­i­tory.com ($24.95).

En­trance to the Ul­ti­mate Abyss slide aboard Har­mony of the Seas

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