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Royal Caribbean Proves Bigger Can Be Better

By Karen Rubin

Never have I been on something so large and felt so cozy, charmed and dazzled, all at the same time.

Like its Freedom-class sister ship, Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas is a floating city that feels like a village, an island that can exist entirely on its own.

Only a handful of places that one can go manage to be equally appealing regardless of age or background, while offering quality as well as value for the dollar spent. Disney World is one. Royal Caribbean International (RCI), a cruise line that has consistently raised the bar for cruising with mind-boggling innovations, is another.

And while the cruise industry, in general, has become more family-friendly over the years, there are great differences in the experiences they provide.

Royal Caribbean, we have found, has gotten the mix absolutely right for active families. Adults seeking luxury, pampering, elegance, sophistication and fine dining will be equally delighted as will kids from the tiniest tykes, toddlers to ‘tweens to the most cynical teens and 20-somethings. RCI’s ships can please anyone looking for whimsy, fun, surprise, and endless variety of things to do.

As a trendsetter with onboard activities like the rock wall, FlowRider, ice skating rink, H2O waterpark and “Get Out There” approach to active cruising, Royal Caribbean has constantly been pushing the boundaries and raising the bar. They did it with the Voyager class ships, and then the Freedom class ships – at the time, the largest boats afloat.

Now, Royal Caribbean is doing it again with a brand new Genesis class of ship that will set sail in late 2009. Oasis of the Seas – 220,000 tons, carrying 5,400 passengers (up to 6,300 when third and fourth passengers in a cabin are counted), will be the biggest and most innovative cruise ship ever.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom class ships are huge. To give you some idea of just how large Liberty of the Seas is – if lined up against the height of the Empire State Building, it would be only a few feet shorter.

How human beings could get something so large to float so smoothly and gracefully as if it were a mere yacht upon the waves, or steer it to a pier as nimbly as if it were a sports car backing into a parking spot, or turn 1,200 tons of seawater into fresh water each day, are all beyond me. These are just a few of the aspects of this modern marvel of engineering called Liberty of the Seas.

Or how 239 chefs and assistants prepare and serve 80,000 plates of food each day - 105,000 meals per cruise – with only the same 24 hours the rest of us have.

How is it possible to have an ice skating rink and FlowRider, a surf simulator machine, and even the cantilevered whirlpools that extend 12 feet out from the sides of the ship so you are suspended 112 feet above the ocean?

And the piece de resistance: how they get some 10,000 pieces of luggage for m 4,000 passengers on and off so efficiently (it took less than 30 minutes to depart the ship, claim luggage, go through Customs & Immigration and leave the Miami terminal – a feat that Miami International Airport should learn from) – all of these things are marvels.

But the real marvel is how something the size of a floating football stadium, can be made to feel so cozy and intimate.

This struck me as I explored Liberty of the Seas over the course of a one-week cruise to the Eastern Caribbean.

All of these things are carefully engineered and calculated in order to make for the best possible guest experience.

There are ingenious mechanisms that that keep you interested, help orient you to where you are on the ship so that you do not feel anxious or even panicked at getting lost (all the art work is different; there are cut-outs of the ship to help you find your location), and that you don’t get the sense of being confined, like “island fever.” The design is so clever that even though the ship is so large, it is easy and fast to get around. They even put the name of the day in each of the elevators (half of them picture windows so you look out to the decks), so you can be reminded what day of the week it is, even when you are on vacation.

Even getting the baggage on and off the ship so quickly – this is literally engineered into the ship, with scanning technology and placement of elevators, and good-old-fashioned function of having more than adequate number of people handling the baggage and passengers.

And disembarking at port is something that is calculated, as well. The photo I.D.s allow for swift scanning, and RCL very simply works with local port authorities to make sure there are enough people on hand to process the passengers. In other places, such as at Labadee, its private beach on Haiti, RCL is investing money to eliminate the need to tender, widening the pier at Cozumel, Mexico, and dredging the approaches to the docks at St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau.

In the days before jet airplanes, passenger ships were transportation linking faraway places; then, as “cruising” became a vacation concept, ships became floating hotels that took you grandly but conveniently from port of call to port of call (no unpacking!); then, with more and more amenities and activities, they were floating resorts.

RCL has taken the concept even further: the ships are floating destinations, themselves – Las Vegas, the Catskills, Canyon Ranch, Disney World, all rolled into one. Days at sea pass as busily and engagingly as time spent in port – playing sports, going for spa treatments, nightclubbing, going to movies and workshops. The ports of call are like icing on the cake – adding immeasurably to the travel experience, to be sure, but no longer necessarily the primary focus.

For families, the cruises provide children with their first opportunities to experience a foreign country – like Cozumel, Mexico (definitely go to Chankanaab Archeological/Ecological Park; there’s even a dolphin encounter).

The Wow Factor

Walking across the gangplank into the interior of Liberty of the Seas elicits an immediate, “Wow.” But that is only the beginning of the “Wow Factor” onboard the ship.

You immediately come upon the Royal Promenade – an architectural triumph consisting of a huge atrium that rises three decks high and through most of the interior, which creates the feeling of a small village or town square, with lighting that changes from day to night. There are shops, pubs, and eateries. This is where they hold Disneyesque street parades, with exciting surprises, like aerialists that descend from the ceiling, stilt walkers and costumed characters, concluding with bursts of confetti.

What gets a resounding “Wow” is the entertainment. One show after another (there were three major productions during the week) was absolutely spectacular – a combination of Las Vegas, Cirque d’Soleil, Broadway with definite touches of Disney, all produced by RCL’s own in-house production company, based in Hollywood. Florida.

In fact, your most difficult choice during the course of your cruise will be which of 11 different venues for live music to spend your time: Karaoke drew its regulars at the On Air Club; Latin rhythms got everybody dancing at Boleros; Guitar/Folk singer Jimmy Blakemore always had his late-night following at the Hoof & Claw, a British-style Pub. Then there were more intimate music places like The Schooner Bar for piano music, the Viking Crown Lounge, the Sphinx with an Egyptian motif.

Dining onboard Liberty of the Seas also is a “wow” – and not just for the stunning presentations, but delectable and creative flavor combinations (like roasted pumpkin apple soup with fresh cream).

In addition to the main dining rooms (a stunning, three-tier affair), RCL offers two specialty restaurants where you pay $20 per person premium (including gratuities)  - well worth it: Chops Grill, specializing in choice meat entrees and Portofino, specializing in Italian cuisine (you need to make reservations early in the cruise because these intimate restaurants fill up fast) – a concept that is used on RCL’s other ships, as well.

I loved the concept of the Windjammer Café – a buffet with stations offering an enormous selection of cuisine styles, from Asian and Fusion to American favorites. The seating areas – all with floor to ceiling picture windows, were like intimate restaurant areas, so you never feel overwhelmed. And this provided maximum flexibility in dining, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That is one of the most impressive qualities of the ship – when you consider how many different activities, events, programs go on at any one time, you are still able to find a pace that is comfortable for you. The sheer number of choices and venues also disperses people so you never feel part of a crowd though getting a lounge chair at the pool can be a challenge.

Kids Programs

Kids of all ages have a ball – from the youngest tykes, to older kids who can feel very big and responsible getting around on their own. You have no idea how much time is lost and how frantic it can get when you are constantly chasing around to pick up and deliver children to places around the ship! The kids gravitate to the H20 zone – an actual waterpark that is unique to RCL, FlowRider, and the rock-climbing wall, to Adventure Ocean, and the teen-only hang-out.

It was very clever, we thought, that the teens get to take over the disco on one night, when the over 20-somethings have a pool party.

RCL’s supervised activity program, Adventure Ocean, is outstanding – there is a beautiful center, and the programming is age and activity specific for ages 3-11, with counselors who are certified in education, recreation or pre-school and trained in CPR.

There are supervised programs for Aquanauts (3-5 years), Explorers (6-8 years), Voyagers (9-11 years), Navigators (12-14 years), and Guests (15-17 years), throughout the day and during port visits, and into the night, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. For teens, the nighttime activities go from 10 p.m. to the “wee” hours.

There is Edu-Tainment programming, as well – special programs that involve science projects, “Adventure Art by Crayola”, story hours, and activities that families can enjoy together, such as shipbuilding regattas, talent shows and scavenger hunts.

The tiniest tykes, 6-36 months old, can join Fisher-Price Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots, 45-minute interactive playgroup sessions. There is also in-room babysitting available.

Vitality!

RCL has also taken its “Get Out There” concept and extended it to a Vitality program that spreads to every aspect of the cruise experience. Sure, there are spa treatments, but you’ll also find workshops in healthy living, acupuncture, aquacize and fitness walks, boxing lessons and pilates, spinning classes and yoga (even on the beach at Labadee).

Vitality extends to dining, with scrumptious menu selections – as delectable and beautifully presented as the richest, available at all the dining venues; you can even take a “workshop” to learn how to eat healthfully at the Windjammer buffet.

What’s more, you earn “Vitality” points for every activity you do – which you cash in at the end for rewards.

The “Vitality” program also is integrated into the shore excursions, with selections of active and adventurous trips that live up to the label. Many are particularly good for families – like a Jungle Bike Adventure on Cozumel, Mexico; a Kayak, Snorkel and Beach Experience in George Town, Grand Cayman; a Jungle River tubing trip in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Shore excursions that are designated “Vitality” are paired with discounted onboard spa treatments.

In St. Maarten, our second port of call on the seven-day cruise on Liberty of the Seas from Miami, you can do Loterie Farm Treetop traverse course – believe me, the zipline turned out to be the easiest part of the course (teens can do it, but should be at least 5 feet tall or fearless and agile).

My experience at Loterie with the zipline and my newfound sense of confidence in tackling new challenges, prepared me for Dragon’s Breath zipline on Labadee, RCL’s private retreat on Haiti.

From a platform 500 feet above the beaches of Labadee, you stream at speeds 40 to 50 mph down the flight line 2,600 feet long – the longest flight line over water in the world. The view is incredible – the ship, the biggest in the world, looks like a small toy in the harbor. The adventure begins with a briefing and orientation, and you get to practice on a shorter (and significantly lower) “Little Dragon,” then take a pulse-pounding jeep ride up to the Dragon’s Breath. The thrill is definitely worth the $65.

The whole activity takes about 1 ½ hours and there is still plenty of time to enjoy other activities on Labadee, such as snorkeling ($16/adult, $11/child plus $6 for vest; instructors are available at Barefoot Beach), kayaking, parasailing, and bargaining for native crafts in the full-scale market. The island is really beautiful, with many small beaches and at its furthest point, beautiful rock formations, called “Dragon’s Breath” for which the flight line is named.

Value for Money

Cruises can be an excellent value for dollar because they are all-inclusive – transportation (getting from place to place), lodging, food, entertainment, onboard activities (except for spa-services and a few add-ons). What is more, they are priced in U.S. dollars, so you are getting the greatest “bang for the buck” in foreign destinations where you would have to go into your pocket a lot deeper to pay for travel. But there is added value for dollar with RCL cruises – the brand is in the pricing category that the industry calls “Contemporary” along with Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival, even though the product is hardly “mass market”. And the best value in cruising for families on RCL is in Caribbean itineraries.

Another trend that greatly enhances the cruise experience and adds to value, is the trend to “homeporting”  - literally placing ships in ports closer to where people live. For most people, this eliminates the hassle and expense of the airline ticket (probably $1,000 or more for a family of four) – and changing up the itineraries so people can explore new itineraries.

Freedom of the Seas debuts at Port Canaveral in May 2009, sailing alternating Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries.

From Miami, Liberty will sail alternating seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries in the summer 2009 season, and change to two alternating Western Caribbean itineraries in the winter. Liberty's traditional Western Caribbean itinerary will alternate with a new Western Caribbean itinerary in November, which includes ports of call at Belize City, Belize; Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.

But once you get your feet wet in cruising, you will see cruising as a magic carpet to other cultural, heritage and adventure experiences – Alaska, the Galapagos (where Darwin birthed his Theory of Evolution), the Mediterranean.

Royal Caribbean International lately has been putting the emphasis in its name on “International” – and with a fleet of 21 ships, spans more and more of the globe: Alaska and Canada, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, and South America. 

For additional information or to make reservations, call your travel agent, visit www.royalcaribbean.com or call (800) ROYAL-CARIBBEAN.

© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.




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