As cruising reaches unprecedented heights of popularity, ships, too, keep growing. Alice Gordon boards the world's largest cruise vessel and wonders if bigger really is better
At dinner aboard Royal Caribbean's newest floating hulk, Freedom of the Seas, my friend Elizabeth and I told our tablemates we'd been stunned to learn that one ship could hold 16 bars. To be good reporters, did we have to visit every one?"Well," said Ieta Kimbrough of Indianapolis, one of two cofinalists for official Godmother of the ship, "at least you have a designated driver." Indeed, the captain piloted us safely out of Cape Liberty Cruise Port, New Jersey, but after we explored seven out of 15 decks to find all those lounges (with an accidental detour to the Skylight Chapel on Deck 15), our barking dogs were begging for some personal transport back to our stateroom. The Morgan convertible incongruously parked on Deck 5's Royal Promenade would have done the trick, but someone had forgotten to leave the keys.
The Freedom of the Seas is the largest cruise ship on the planet—it's so large, in fact, that it sails only to those Caribbean ports that can manage both its wide body and its sizeable shore traffic. At 160,000 tons, Royal Caribbean's first Freedom-class ship is hyped as weighing more than 80,000 cars or 32,000 adult elephants. Stood on its bow, it would be taller than either the Chrysler Building or the Eiffel Tower. It uses 150 tons of fuel a day. As for human capacity, FOS has enough staterooms (1,815) to host a grand total of 4,375 people—or all of the NFL's, MLB's, and NBA's players and coaches at once. Friends of mine grew up in towns with smaller populations.
To veteran cruisers, Freedom of the Seas may not seem so much bigger or more amenity-packed than RC's next size down, the Voyager class, which debuted in 1999. Like Voyager ships, FOS has an ice-skating rink; a theater that seats 1,000 plus; a Royal Promenade and Casino Royale; a spa; a 12,500-square-foot gym; golf simulators; facilities for up to 1,200 children; and enough of the same set of bars and restaurants to make for a sizeable Royal Caribbean chain. What FOS has that the Voyagers don't is whirlpools cantilevered 112 feet over the ocean; A Clean Shave, offering "traditional neighborhood barbershop" services; the Diamond Club, for RC's frequent cruisers; a boxing ring and your own personal Clint Eastwood to train you; and the On Air Club, with karaoke and green-screen facilities for making original (if you don't count the karaoke part) music videos.
As cruising continues to expand—customer volume has been growing by 8.5 percent annually since 1980—so do the ships that serve insatiable passengers. Even as Royal Caribbean mega-publicizes Freedom of the Seas (several cabin categories are already booked well into 2008), the company is planning to introduce an even bigger ship, Genesis, in 2009. "Guest experience is driving us," says executive vice president Harri Kulovaara, who has overseen ship design and building since 1997. "Having a larger customer base means we can afford better entertainment, more crew, more deck space," he adds. "But size has never been the goal. We weren't the first to build the bigger ships. The size is a function of what the technology can handle and is a result of the kind of features we want to have on a ship, which are what differentiate us from our competitors."
Competitors may already be scheming about how to top the most highly touted new features on FOS: the H2O Zone on Deck 11 and the FlowRider surf simulator on Deck 13. The former is a Jeff KoonsmeetsToys "R" Us water park of tall, colorful sculptures that spout, spray, and cascade, inviting joyous squealing from kids who run around, under, and through them. The FlowRider, though, is what RC is betting the boat on; in fact, Kulovaara suggests, this one toy may have inspired the larger scale of the ship. "The Voyager class wouldn't support the FlowRider's 500 tons of weight or the real estate it takes up," he says.
At three o'clock on a clear afternoon, an energized crowd surrounded the FlowRider, awaiting Royal Caribbean's CEO, Richard D. Fain, who was challenging passengers to a Chairman's Surf at Sea Contest. Fain arrived in a wet suit to ride the wave machine—a 40-foot-long, 32-foot-wide artificial cataract pushing 34,000 gallons of water a minute down a cushioned plastic slope to simulate a five-foot ocean wave. One after another, chairman and competitors climbed to the top, took a Boogie board and brief tips from an instructor, and belly-flopped into the fast-moving stream. Most quickly capsized and were rolled to the side, where the force slowed to a trickle, or were inelegantly and swiftly sucked back up to the top, limbs flying in all directions. (The chairman wiped out both ways but ended up the winner—having actually surfed for a minute or two.)
Not willing to miss dazzlement by the FOS crown jewel, Elizabeth and I got in line. The FlowRider turned out to be tamer up close than it was from the sidelines; we both stayed on our boards longer than many who tried it and emerged, with relative dignity, to cheers and applause. It was kind of fun and inspired a nice sense of community. But the lasting impression is of a real-time, real-life product of our late-period TV culture: with the FlowRider, those who don't expect to get close enough to see, much less be, a real surfer on a real wave can have their wave and their close-up too.
In between surfing and dining (at the Pan-Asian Jade, the pappadum rivaled that of many land-based Indian places I know), we stopped into the Freedom Day Spa for a decent massage (for me) and one of the best wraps and massage treatments Elizabeth had ever had, courtesy of aesthetician Jaanika Luht of Estonia. We toured the Presidential Suite—1,215 square feet with four bedrooms, a giant living room, and a balcony with its own bar—and the Royal Suite, both decorated in the same terra-cottaandmoss color scheme. The Royal was smaller than the Presidential but still roomy enough to hold a computer-operated baby grand player piano. We actually preferred our own Ocean View stateroom, a dormlike bubble floating in the spacious sea of the ship. The bed was one of the most comfortable I've ever slept in, thanks to the firm mattresses with two-inch pillowtops democratically installed in all of the staterooms. In this small town on the biggest cruise ship in the world, it was nice to be home.
Alice Gordon is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.
Freedom of the Seas sails seven-night Caribbean itineraries from Miami, calling in Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Labadee, a private beach belonging to Royal Caribbean, in Haiti. From $859 per person; 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com.