By Karen Rubin

Until someone mentioned it, I had not realized that Voyager of the Seas was the biggest ship ever built—that is until the coming of the Queen Mary 2. I didn’t realize it, even when they said that we cleared the Verrazano Bridge by just 25 feet (the QM2 had just 10 feet to spare). It should have dawned on me, with the awesome four-deck high atrium that looks like an entire village square, or by the spaciousness of the sports deck with rock climbing wall, inline skating track, a full-sized basketball court, and 9-hole mini-golf; the largest fitness center afloat plus a variety of spa treatment rooms; a warren of playrooms, arcade and discos to delight kids, tweens and those impossibly hard-to-please teens; and the only ice skating rink on the high seas. It didn’t dawn on me because, frankly, the ship seemed too intimate, too cozy, too comfortable to be that huge.

Sure, I realized it was a big, majestic ship—you could see if from a mile away where it stood at its new full-time port, newly opened Cape Liberty Cruise Port, at Bayonne, New Jersey—part of a trend toward “homeport cruising,” essentially bringing the ship to your neighborhood.

The first impression of Voyager of the Seas is that it is quietly dazzling--tastefully dazzling, actually, as opposed to overwhelming. With such big space, you can have things in your face. If anything, the beauty is more subtle (if you can imagine it)—what RCCL CEO Richard Fain calls “details.” The aim of all these subtle details is to keep you interested—the antidote to being bored.

The ship’s designers have intentionally used the size to offer an unbelievable array of activities in order to counter the myth that cruising is sedentary or boring. If anything, the ship defies the axiom, “You can’t be all things to all people.” This ship has something to appeal to everyone.

While you can no longer go inside the bridge, you can go up to the “Peek-a-Boo Bridge” on Deck 11 and look down on this massive ship’s version of a cockpit—at once bigger in space you would imagine, and smaller, more compact than you would expect, considering the 142,000 tons under the helm, and its size, 1,021 feet (imagine the Empire State Building floating on the ocean, that is how big Voyager is), and 15 decks.

The bottom line is that the Voyager of the Seas, the prototype for the Voyager “class”, as massive and as complex and as intricate as it is, was designed stem to stern with passengers—you and me—in mind.

It uses its size to cater to just about everybody. Imagine a floating city—because that is what Voyager is, conveying as many as 3,844 guests and 1,176 crew—with all its different and diverse populations that all coexist happily. Some ships gear themselves to a narrow slice of the demographic but Voyager defies the saying, “You can’t be all things to all people.” It is hard to imagine anyone not finding something they would like to do.

This ship actually has an ice skating rink (Olympic ice skating medallist Katarina Witt is the ship’s godmother). A spectacular ice show, with leading international skaters, is presented, but at other times, guests can rent skates and skate.

Take families for example. Few ships offer as much as Voyager offers families traveling with children. And yet a honeymoon couple who may prefer to stick to the spa and practice couples massage, the adults-only pool and lounge area, or hang around the Roman-themed solarium, the quiet ambiance of the Portofino Restaurant or The Vault disco until the wee hours of the morning, may be completely unaware of the existence of Aquanauts (3-5 year olds), Explorers (6-8 year olds), Voyagers (9-11 year olds), Navigators (12-14 year olds) and Guests (15-17 year olds), even if they are off on a scavenger hunt, or, more likely, in their own Adventure Beach with kids-only water-slide.

Parents can feel like kids again, or join their kids in many of the same activities—climbing the rock wall (in the patient hands of a guide), inline roller-blading, miniature golf, playing basketball. Or they can take advantage of the kids programs to do things that the kids simply would not, like spending an hour in the golf simulator, taking a shore excursion, working out in the fitness center.

Older travelers will definitely appreciate the elegance and refinement of Voyager, not to mention the ports of call (sailing five-nights roundtrip to Canada or nine-nights Western Caribbean from Cape Liberty through October), the onboard shops, the shows, the selection of restaurants. It also is worth noting that the ship is designed to address the needs of physically challenged guests with specially configured stateroom, wide corridors, functional bathroom facilities, special devices to aid the hearing and visually impaired, and the ability to cater to special diets; it even has available oxygen therapy and continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (Access coordinators are available, 800-722-5472 ext. 34492).

Those who want to get married on the ship can take advantage of the Skylight Chapel, at the very top of the ship, which can accommodate up to 60 wedding guests.

Indeed, the ability to entertain and delight each group separately as well as everyone together is why Voyager is such a perfect choice for multi-generational gatherings and family reunions, and why a new Royal Reunions planning guide is now available, to help families organize special games, photos and such.

Deck 12: Haven for Children

Deck 12 is a haven for children and the young at heart: children can frolic in Adventure Beach with a kids-only water slide, water-play features and a swimming pool geared to kids. There is also an amazing arcade and a neat 1950s style coffee shop, Johnny Rockets, where servers actually “twist and shout” while dishing up sizzling burgers, Nathan’s franks, fries, and milkshakes. There is also a teen-only Optix Teen Disco (younger teens have the use of it early in the evening, while the older teens can dance until the wee hours).

Nearby is where the Adventure Ocean Youth Program, one of the best supervised activity programs on sea or land, is based. There is literally a warren of rooms for each of the five age categories, starting with tykes 3-5 and going up to tweens and teens up to 17. The rooms are spacious, light, and airy with picture windows, and age-appropriate play activities, like a giant Lego pit and Sea Cave for the Aquanauts, 3-5 years old.

Programming for each age group is focused around marvelous “edutainment” activities focused on science (experiments include Mystery of the Motion of the Ocean and Fossil Fever), Adventure Art by Crayola (Crayola is a sponsor) where children get to exercise creativity with crafts such as cultural masks and pottery while learning the art, history and culture of the regions they visit; Sail Into Story Time, a story hour followed by hands-on activities and projects; and Adventure Family, which is a free, onboard program that enables children 3 to 11 and their parents to participate in planned activities such as shipbuilding regattas to talent shows and scavenger hunts.

Activities might include an Un-birthday Party, music activities, Super Hero Afternoon for Acquanauts (3-5); Wacky Olympics, Sports tournaments, Pirate Night, Carnival Night for Explorers (6-8); Karoke, Adventure Sports, Adventure Challenge, X-Games, Backstage Tour for Voyagers (9-11); pool parties, college night, scavenger hunts, karoke, disco dancing for Navigators (12-14); dancing, pool parties, DJ training, battle of the sexes, talent show, Survivor Series, and formal night for 15-17 year olds.

At any given time, there can be hundreds of kids in the program (on a spring break cruise, there were 1,300 children on board of whom 800 were teenagers). The youth staff are all professionally certified in education, recreation or a related field, and the majority are certified in CPR.

Participation is free. On days at sea, the supervised program is available for 3-11 year olds from 9 a.m. to noon, 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.; in port, the program is available 30 minutes prior to the first shore excursion to 5 p.m., or the return of the last shore excursion, and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Children from 6 to 11 years old wear a bracelet, telling the muster station they go to in the event of an emergency; but otherwise, they are free to come and go out of the program as they want.

The supervised program for 12 to 14 year olds varies for the daytime, and is available from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the evening. Supervised teen activities for 15-17 year olds varies during the day, but is available from 10 p.m. to the “wee” hours at night (teens who are not participating in the program and not with their parents have a curfew of 11:45 p.m.) RCCL is very sensitive to teens. Teen activities take advantage of all the facilities throughout the ship. For example, “Amazing Race,” the kids go around the ship with a video camera. Another activity is “Pirate Night,” when the kids get to wear the bandanas they made. There is even a Teen Spa Night.

A new activity just introduced is “Scratch DJ Academy,” created by the legendary Sam Master J, a pioneer in Hip Hop, where the youngsters will get trained in using turntables. There will also be guest DJ’s.

No reservations are necessary for the children’s programs and the programs are available every day on every cruise. (Children must be potty trained; babies can be accommodated by staff babysitting, $8/hour in cabin; $5/hour for group babysitting in Adventure Ocean center).

Rock-Climbing 200’ Above Sea Level

The Sports Deck is amazing to behold. The “signature” rock climbing wall was more amazing than I could have envisioned. A full 30-feet high (and 200 feet above sea level) it offers varied “terrain” based on ability (you are hooked onto ropes and given shoes and helmet and two guides talk you through it, so there is really no danger); experts actually change the grips each week, depending upon if the “route” has turned out too easy or too difficult. The use of the rock-climbing wall is free but you can pay for a lesson. It is something you really have to try, just to say you did it.

There is also a full basketball court; a mini-golf course; an inline-skate track (you can borrow skates); and a golf simulator so you can play on some of the best courses in the world while on the ocean blue.

The central pool area, which tends to be the busiest, actually offers a pool big enough to swim laps in, if you choose. There is also an adults-only pool area, which tends to be very quiet.

If you like, you can take a PADI scuba diving course while onboard the ship; then, by the time you pull into port, you will be certified to take an ocean dive.

The Shipshape Fitness Center on Deck 11 has an amazing array of state-of-the-art exercise machines, including treadmills, recumbent cycles, elliptical steppers, free weights, with beautiful picture windows that let you enjoy the ocean view as you work out. Themed like a Roman spa, there is also an oversized whirlpool, plus an aerobics area (where you might take a sunrise stretching, spinning, yoga class, a step class, or a couples massage class, to list a few). Climb the circular stairway from the fitness center to Deck 12 to the ShipShape Day Spa, with 14 massage and treatment rooms offering an array of cultural therapies. In addition to fitness classes, personal trainers are available (some classes have a charge of $10). Deck 12 also offers a jogging track, which winds around the ship and overlooks the sea (five times around is a mile).

Dining Pleasure

Guests are offered many choices regarding dining, as well. Even if you choose to eat in the main dining room—an utterly gorgeous three-level dining room, themed for Italian operas--the menu selections let you keep to a diet (I had a sugar-free Key Lime pie that was scrumptious; a dining companion was able to get soy milk and a vegetarian meal), or, if you choose, indulge; the selections were prepared with freshness and beautifully presented.

There are also different dining options, including a charming upscale restaurant, Portofino (here there is a $20 surcharge, but, as on the rest of the ship, you basically can select as many items off the menu as you want). Otherwise, guests can choose to snack at the rocking and rolling, 1950s style Johnny Rockets (the waiters actually sing) to munch on burgers and Nathan’s franks, fries and onion rings and milkshakes. For informal dining, head up to Deck 11 to the Windjammer Café or the Island Grill for buffet-style dining. Along the Royal Promenade, there is the Café Promenade, serving pizza, sandwiches and sweets 24-hours a day; a Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop, and a Pig and Whistle pub. (If this isn’t enough, you can order in-stateroom service any time of the day).

That’s Entertainment

A Midnight Mardi Gras, down the Royal Promenade, was absolutely fantastic (typically presented twice each cruise) and not to be missed. We found a fabulous classic rock band playing the best danceable music in Cleopatra’s Needle, with absolutely stunning Egyptian-themed décor. We moseyed through the Royal Casino (the ambiance is tremendous fun, even if you don’t gamble), and then on to The Vault, a futuristic looking disco that offered the best sound and ambiance (especially with the secretive entranceway, metal bridge above the dance floor, and lighted stairway). The Schooner Bar is actually where crooners play at the piano bar; it was marvelous entertainment and a very comfortable space. High Notes, on top of Voyager, showcases jazz or Latin music nightly.

Each night there are shows in the 1,350-seat La Scala theater; we enjoyed the Broadway Review, “Rhythm and Rhyme” (we missed the comedian, but we heard he was great). There was also the absolutely sensational ice skating show in Studio B, a 900-seat arena. The Royal Promenade is a design triumph that sets the mood for the ship. It is actually a central space, like a town square, and in fact mimics a European street with shops on each side, trompe d’oeil artwork, a delightful 1954 Morgan classic car. This is where strollers can sit at a café for coffee, pastries and pizza almost any time of day (it is particularly popular for a late-night snack after a show or disco).

Cruise Options

Cruisegoers have a choice of a five-night sail to Canada, (departing on alternate Sundays through Oct. 17) calling at Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia, or the nine-night Western Caribbean (departing on alternate Fridays through Oct. 8) and calling at Labadee, Hispaniola; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman; Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.

Beginning in May 2005, Voyager of the Seas will sail five-night Bermuda itineraries from Cape Liberty, calling at King’s Wharf, from May 15 to Nov. 13, 2005.

There are many choices of accommodations—our cabin, on Deck 7, was spacious and gorgeous, with a king-size bed and our own balcony. Voyager of the Seas offers 1,557 staterooms, of which 939 have ocean view (765 have their own balcony); 618 are inside (of these, 138 have a view of the Royal Promenade); 659 staterooms accommodate a third or fourth berth, and 18 are wheelchair accessible.

Pricing on the five-night cruise can run $700 to $900 per person and the rate for the nine-night runs about $1,500 to $2,500 per person; at a per diem of only about $140 to $200, that puts sheer elegance and absolute luxury into a mass-market price range. For further information, visit Royal Caribbean Cruise Line at www.royalcaribbean.com or call 800-327-6700 or your travel agent. Empress of the Seas

Voyager of the Seas will not be alone at the new port at Cape Liberty. The ship is being joined by 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas, formerly the Nordic Empress. The ship has just returned to the Northeast with a whole new look, a new name, and a new berth to call home.

Royal Caribbean International is a global cruise brand currently with 19 ships in service and one more under construction. The company also offers cruisetour vacations in Alaska, Canada and Europe. For information, visit the website at www.royalcaribbean.com or call 800-327-6700 or your travel agent.

Photo captions:

The 30-foot high rock-climbing wall has become the signature of the Voyager of the Seas, an emblem of the active experience available to cruisegoers © 2004 Karen Rubin).

The Royal Promenade is like a European street at the ship’s center( © 2004 Karen Rubin).

© 2004 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

© 2004 Beacon Group Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Site by Doghouse Technologies, Inc.