Live concerts, zip lines and art worth billions: the Harmony of the Seas is a voyage of a lifetime, finds out Shreeja Ravindranathan
The world’s largest cruise ship, Harmony of the Seas, truly is la-la land. Friday goes on board.
‘Is this the same size as the Titanic?’
I felt goose bumps erupt across my skin despite the balmy, luminous November afternoon at Port Everglades – in the kind of sunny weather that travel brochures about the Sunshine State of Florida peddle to the retired, spring-breakers and cruise trippers. We
belonged to the last category; a band of eight journalists from the UAE, some, like myself, trepid rookie seafarers. So, surely the hisses and glares we threw our fellow traveller for his comparison of the vessel we’re about to board to the world’s most infamous shipwreck, were well, understandable, if not entirely logical.
Because the colossal vessel we were staring at – well – straining to view in all its entirety from prow to stern, was the Harmony of The Seas – the world’s largest cruise ship, tested and certified by the best in the biz for its seaworthiness.
She is roughly five times the size of the Titanic.
This is the Royal Caribbean International (RCI) company’s pride and joy, their labour and toil of three years, the crowning jewel in their fleet of avant-garde cruise ships was assembled using 500,000 individual pieces (27 times more than the Eiffel Tower) and measured 362 metres long.
So, forgive me my superstitious terror, but if the Titanic, a minnow, couldn’t survive the wrath of the ocean, how would this gigantic dreamboat towering over everything docked at Fort Lauderdale port in Florida even stay afloat? For starters, it weighed 85,000 tons. Let’s give you some perspective – that’s heavier than 17,000 African elephants.
First impressions didn’t last long. What I did find over the next day and a half that I spend aboard this mammoth vessel during its inaugural preview sailing, was pure unadulterated joy, the kind of bliss that people experience at Disneyland. I found safety too – 6,000 passengers were assembled for a muster (safety) drill within the first two hours of boarding.
Safety isn’t the only concept the Harmony is a stickler for; maritime traditions are ingrained in the Royal Caribbean DNA.
At 5.30pm, as the Florida sun hangs low behind soft clouds casting a purple glow over the navy waters, 23-year-
old Brittany Affolter, a Miami teacher from Teach for America programme, steps up on the dais in a navy gown in the open-air Aqua Theatre at the stern of the ship, accepts her role as the Godmother of the ship and christens it the Harmony of the Seas.
Simultaneously, she presses a blue button on a remote control and a colossal Sovereign bottle of champagne, almost 5 feet tall and the volume of 35 regular bottles, swings across a high-wire and smashes onto the steel nameplate of the ship at the other end with a resounding crash. The applause and cheering of 6,000 passengers (and thousands of onlookers seeing the vessel off on port) rises to a crescendo, in harmony with crooning of Grammy-Award winning Cuban-American singer Jon Secada and the martial beats of the St. Andrew’s Pipe Band of Miami. The music climaxes in the whizz, bang and crackle of spectacular fireworks.
In that magical moment, watching the inky sky explode into a kaleidoscope of colours from the 16th deck (the ship’s rooftop), I realise our ship has sailed and we didn’t even register the propulsion of its 18,860kW Wärtsilä diesel engines; the Harmony is a smooth operator. The ceremonial launching of the world’s largest cruise ship is complete.
There is a certain poetry and majesty to the entire ceremony; the centuries-old-tradition of assigning a Godmother to a ship and cracking a bottle on its hull is to incur good luck and blessings gets a flamboyant Royal Caribbean remake, the oomph, Hollywood glitz and next-gen technology taking nothing away from the poignancy of the ritual. If you can, book yourself on a ship’s inaugural sailing; it’s worth every holiday you can’t afford after.
Time is limited; we have roughly 36 hours on this ship during which we will stop at the Bahamas and return to Fort Lauderdale where raffle draw winners who bagged the inaugural sailing experience and journalists and media personnel from across the globe will disembark, after which, the vessel will resume its two-week itinerary with fullpaying passengers.
It’s not enough time to soak up the smorgasbord of experiences spread across 16 decks (thank god for lifts). But it’s not every day you find yourself on the world’s largest ship, so you do whatever it takes to cash in on this opportunity – even if it means not succumbing to jet lag and willing myself to stay awake after the 16-hour flight from Dubai to Miami via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines the previous night. We’ve spent the journey from Istanbul sleeping in flat-bed business class seats and even squeezed in some shut-eye at the glamorous W Hotel in Miami’s South Beach but the eight-hour time difference eventually takes its toll on us.
The ship’s seven signature neighbourhoods are all things for all people: there’s Studio B, a multipurpose studio complex with an ice rink that hosts cooking
demos and ice shows on Deck 3; then there’s Central Park with its 12,000 trees and plants, and upscale eateries like Jamie’s Italian and 150 Central Park by Michael Schwartz on Deck 8. There’s the Royal Promenade, about a kilometre-long walkway of glossy, tiles, banked by an assortment of glass-fronted designer boutique stores, quirky fast-food eateries, errant vintage cars (Morgan Sportsters) scattered in the middle, a moving art installation that’s part sculpture of a man’s face, part disco light (there are over 3,000 art pieces onboard, worth a total of $6.5 million); this is Deck 5, where Purell stations and smiling staff stand sentinel to welcome guests at check in. In the evenings DreamWorks characters parade and interact with kids. Deck 5 and the Royal Promenade are also home to the Bionic Bar, a sleek futuristic watering hole – think space-age white décor – where robotic arms are the bartenders who serve you refreshments that you’ve requested for over an iPad. If the future is anywhere, it’s on board the Harmony and this is just one example.
Pictures of the revolutionary bar were WhatsApped to family and friends while we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The welcome party at the terminal – folk dancers, drummers and men and women dressed in old-timey sailor attire – had already entered the halls of snapchat fame before you could say anchors aweigh – the Harmony is kitted out with VOOM, the fastest internet on the high seas. It really is as speedy as the onomatopoeic name suggests. Being at sea no longer meant being lost or incommunicado. A cruise ship like the Harmony can be overwhelming with the numerous activities – the Royal iQ app saves a virtual itinerary of your journey and helps you chart a course of action with timely notifications. Be still, my beating millennial heart.
Pssst, there are 180-degree selfie booths on Deck 6 and Deck 15.
Other neighbourhoods include the sports and pool zone which includes the Perfect Storm water slides, Flow Rider Surf Simulators, a mini golf course and all-day dining restaurant Windjammer Marketplace that was our eatery of choice; the Vitality at Sea spa and fitness centres offer oodles of R&R; then there’s the Entertainment zone with the Broadway-style Royal Theatre and Vegas-style club The Attic and a supervised Youth Zone for kids, teens and tots. But it’s The Boardwalk that’s my favourite. I thought it looked enchanting in the afternoon when we sat at the al fresco tables at Johnny Rockets and scarfed down burgers, fries and milkshakes gazing at the rock-climbing walls flanking the AquaTheatre. At dusk, once the fairy lights are turned on and the carousel stirs to life, there’s a whimsical quality to this zone of the ship. I could have very well been on the fairground on Santa Monica pier. Instead, I was floating on the endless Atlantic Ocean.
At least, it seemed endless on my morning on the ship as I woke up in my stateroom and gazed out at miles after miles of blue, fathoms-deep water gently
There is a certain POETRY and MAJESTY to the entire CEREMONY of launching a CRUISE ship. If you can, book yourself on a ship’s inaugural sailing; it’s worth every HOLIDAY you can’t afford after.
lapping against the ship. ‘Water, water, everywhere’, the lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner kept echoing in my head as I stepped out onto the balcony and inhaled the tangy scent of salt on the breeze, feeling miniscule and inconsequential before the vast unknown – the sea – that spread out below and around me. And that’s when the first wave of seasickness washes away my existential awe. Seasickness is a real danger. The Harmony is equipped with a doctor and medical crew but I’d suggest prevention is better because cure can include complete bed rest. You don’t want that aboard a ship packed to the rafters with fun.
Even the woozy, light-headedness that had me enjoy the queen-sized bed of my stateroom a little longer, held a giddy charm for me: my first time being seasick. One of many personal firsts for me on this ship: I’ve ziplined over international waters from one end of Deck 16 to the other; an exhilarating experience that allowed me to dig deep into my inner adventurer and gain an aerial perspective of the Harmony.
Learning to make pasta from scratch under the tutelage of a celebrity chef’s team was a pipe dream – the kind of airheaded musings you resort to during a stressful day. But 24 hours after boarding this ship I was twirling forkfuls of black truffle pasta into my mouth while discussing the nuances of pasta dough consistency with Jamie Olivier’s executive chef, my apron smeared with flour and my face with a content smile. I’m relishing the best of London’s fine-dining and charming Italian trattorias.
Watching a Broadway musical was a luxury I’d resigned to an in-the-works New York trip. But here I was, watching an in-house production of the iconic Grease (many of the cast are West End exports) and tapping my feet to perfectly synchronised choreography of Danny and the T-Birds jiving to Greased Lightning a few miles off the coast of Florida. I could physically feel the pitch and roll of every wave; the performers never falter once or skip a beat of the routine.
It is this patchwork quilt of experiences – high-octane adventure, entertainment and fine-dining – all dissonant elements woven together harmoniously that makes the entire cruise escapade so gratifying. On land, seeking out these varied experiences on their own would have probably cost me a lot more time and money. Here, on this buoyant, miniature kingdom, I savour the best of many worlds, especially entertainment, and I don’t use the adjective ‘best’ lightly – Nick
Contrary to AIR travel, disembarking and boarding at new destinations on a cruise ship is a BREEZE – I swipe my Sea Pass card and exit the ship sans HASSLES of immigration or luggage carousels
Weir, the RCI’s vice president of entertainment pulled a rabbit out of a hat and roped in American pop band D.N.C.E to perform as part of a Friendsgiving (Thanksgiving) concert. The electrifying atmosphere, girls screaming as frontman Joe Jonas came on to the AquaTheatre’s stage and roars of encores for their hit single Cake by The Ocean (the nautical song being reason they were this sailing’s headlining act) recreates a sense of déjà vu – D.N.C.E performed at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena two weeks before and the gig was as exhilarating; only this time we weren’t in Dubai but at Prince George Wharf in Nassau, Bahamas.
My first sighting of the Bahamas can be condensed thus: 500 shades of blue. Layers of cyan, cerulean, turquoise and teal wrapped themselves around the pebbly shores. Stood on the highest deck of the Harmony I can see the golden seabed gleaming beneath dappled aquamarine waters. As we inch closer to the harbour, the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort (the original that formed the blueprint for our very own Palm Jumeirah version) soars from the horizon. If there ever was a moment to say shiver me timbers, I think it’s now. I drink in every frame of this vista before me – cruise travel allows for that kind of reflection.
The call of the Caribbean is hard to resist and I disembark the ship for a two-hour aimless stroll around the island. Contrary to air travel, disembarking and boarding at new destinations on a cruise ship is a breeze – I swipe my Sea Pass card (also my room key and my identification card on board) and exit the ship sans hassles of immigration or luggage carousels, with a friendly reminder by the crew about the departure time (the RCI run a tight ship – everything from dinner are served and shows are performed like clockwork).
There are several other gargantuan cruise ships anchored at Prince George Wharf making the cruise terminal itself a highlight. Walking into Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas, is like stepping into a palette of paint – Crayola-coloured colonial buildings in canary yellows, ice blues and baby pinks dot main thoroughfares of Bay Street and George Street. Hawkers clamour around us peddling colourful souvenirs in lilting Bahamian Creole, offering to braid our hair into cornrows. This port city’s history is equally colourful – before it became a haven for innocuous cruise ships, Nassau was where the real pirates of the Caribbean dropped anchor – including notorious Blackbeard. The Pirates Museum on King and George Street preserves relics from this swashbuckling era but we only have enough time for stops by colonial buildings such as the Parliament House for pictures (regular sailing itineraries offer guests enough time to organise a day trip with local tour guides).
I’ve got 12 hours in hand (six will be spent recuperating from jet lag) and I make it count standing at a dizzying 150 feet (45m) above sea level, on a glass deck, gazing into the mouth of the Ultimate Abyss – the highest slide on the high seas. The gabby little Swedish girl standing ahead of me tells me ‘don’t worry, it’s not too scary’, as she leaps in, screaming her lungs out. Thirty seconds later I follow suit and take the plunge plummeting six decks down, shrieking. Once I slide out clumsily, all limbs and torso, the little girl starts laughing and I join in – partly in relief, partly victorious.
A Swedish school girl bonding with a 25-year-old Indian journalist from Dubai over the universal emotion of fear aboard an American cruise ship docked in the Bahamas; I can’t think of a travel experience more international.
There’s never a dull moment on The Harmony, especially at the The Boardwalk
From musicals to concerts there’s plenty to do while you’re sailing away on the biggest cruise ship
The Harmony offers Insta-perfect views of the Atlantis in Bahamas (above left). The Vegas-style luxurious night club The Attic (left) and one of the well-equipped rooms
Colour dominates the skyline of Bahamas. The baby pink of the Parliament House is a perfect example.