TRAVEL

Live con­certs, zip lines and art worth bil­lions: the Har­mony of the Seas is a voy­age of a life­time, finds out Shreeja Ravin­dranathan

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

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.

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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.

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