What will they think of next?
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