Biggest Cruise Ship at Sea Also Big on 'Wow' Factor
By GERRY BARKER
North Palm Beach Life
ABOARD HARMONY OF THE SEAS_ Let's establish one thing right up front: Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas really is the world's largest cruise ship.
That was verified by Captain Gus Andersson, who told a group of assembled media Harmony is "30 centimeters longer" than her sister ships, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, and "a little bit wider."
Besides bragging rights, it's just that much more room to show off her "wow" factor, which this ship has in abundance.
Harmony, Royal's newest and its third Oasis-class vessel, is on a two-night inaugural preview cruise that began Nov. 8 for media, travel agents and VIPs out of her new home, Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale. Officially launched at the end of May, she spent a season in the Mediterranean before coming to Florida.
As part of Harmony's preview celebration, all three Oasis "sister" ships came together at the Port for an impressive family portrait, and as you would expect, Harmony has a lot in common with her older siblings: Neighborhoods like Central Park, the Boardwalk and the Royal Promenade; for thrill-seekers, the Zip Line, Flowrider and the Rock Climbing Wall, as well as a wide array of dining choices and live shows from stem to stern.
But there's also a lot that's new. Here are some first impressions from our cruise:
⦁ Docked at Terminal 18 in Port Everglades, Royal Caribbean continues to streamline the "getting on/getting off" process, minimizing wait times through online check-in and boarding in groups. When your ship accommodates over 6,700 guests and 2,100 crew, that's kind of important.
⦁ Harmony is a visual feast throughout, thanks in no small part to its multi-million dollar art, selected to embody the theme, "The Wonder of Our World, the World We Live In." A stunning example is "Head," by Czech artist David Cerny, a multi-layered, giant silver revolving head that towers outside the Boleros Lounge on Deck 5.
⦁ The newest Royal thrill-at-sea is called "The Ultimate Abyss," a 10-story high slide that starts on Deck 16 and ends on Deck 6 at the Boardwalk. Anyone up for the ride is given a mat to sit on and instructed how to use it. Just standing on the glass entry proved too much for some guests on our cruise, who quickly decided, "no, thanks." But in the time-honored journalistic tradition, I took the plunge. You twist and turn through the darkness with pulsating lights flashing around you. The experience is somewhat like Disney's Space Mountain, and over in about 15 seconds.
⦁ Dining is a main event on most cruises, and Harmony doesn't disappoint. With 20 options, including eight specialty restaurants, your biggest chore is just deciding. There's Jamie's Italian, featuring fare from chef Jamie Oliver, and 150 Central Park, where chef Michael Schwartz pioneered his farm-to-table concept. But if you are going for the truly unique, take a trip to Wonderland, the whimsical eatery inspired by "Alice in Wonderland" on Deck 12. You'll start by getting a framed piece of blank paper and a paintbrush. Brush water on the paper and voila! -- the menu appears. The courses, preparation and service are amazing. While the surcharge isn't cheap at $49, you best book early. It fills up fast.
⦁ It seems like it's "showtime" somewhere on the ship all the time. The main event in the Royal Theatre is the Broadway musical, "Grease," along with an original Royal show, "Columbus, the Musical." Talent and production-wise, "Grease" is as good as it gets. But the pace seemed a little disjointed, and it could easily lose a few of the less-memorable songs. In the don't-miss category, catch the mesmerizing ice show, "1887," in Studio B, as well as the Aqua Theater's water and diving tour de force, "The Fine Line." Just as amazing as the performers themselves is that fact shows like these can be staged at all on a moving ship at sea.
⦁ For younger passengers, the kids will love the Splash Away Bay water park and Adventure Ocean, catering to ages 3-11. The Perfect Storm water slides attract kids of all ages. There's also something called "Escape the Rubicon," where 12 people have to work together to decipher a puzzle "in another time and place." That's on our list for next time.
⦁ Ready for a cocktail? Sounds good to us. There's a bar just about everywhere you look, including the Rising Tide, which moves between decks as you sip your libation to piano accompaniment. For jazz buffs, there's Jazz on 4. Want to party? Head to Dazzles or The Attic. For something different, there's the Bionic Bar, where the drinks are made by "two robotic arm bartenders." You place an order using your Sea Pass card on a digital device. The wait times and other messages are displayed on a digital dashboard. The robots can make just about anything you can dream up -- just don't expect them to listen to your hard luck stories.
⦁ Acknowledging the "always on" condition of our digital lifestyles, Royal has equipped Harmony with VOOM -- "the fastest Internet at sea." While some vacationers probably crave disconnecting, others will appreciate staying plugged in. For the most part, VOOM delivers on its promise. There are various pricing plans, starting at $15/day for one user.
⦁ While your time there might be minimal with so much to see and so, Harmony's over 2,700 staterooms offer the latest in cruise travel comfort. Ours was a superior ocean view room with a balcony on Deck 10. There was ample closet and drawer space, a roomy bathroom/shower and plenty of relaxing area on the balcony. Tip: Remember to insert your room key in the slot by the door to activate the lights. Tip 2: You may or may not have a "Do Not Disturb" sign. We didn't. The reason, according to our steward: "They are magnetic and stick to the outside of the door. Kids think they are toys and take them. We don't have enough on the ship." Hmmm. It may not be just the kids. Royal -- get someone on that, please.
⦁ One area of the ship we particularly enjoyed was the Solarium, the upper-deck, adults-only retreat where you can soak in a hot tub, try the buffet or just enjoy some quiet time watching the waves pass by.
⦁ Here's a special shout-out to the crew. Everyone we encountered was uniformly friendly and knowledgeable, and seemed very proud to be there.
⦁ We didn't make it the Vitality Spa, but you can only cram so much in 48 hours on the biggest cruise ship at sea. I should note we did do a little better than break even at the casino. Lady Luck smiled this time.
⦁ Harmony goes the extra mile to keep passengers healthy as well as happy. For example, along with the hand sanitizers, guests are directed to use the hand-washing stations at the entrance to the Windjammer buffet.
⦁ There was one new wrinkle in the debarkation process. Beginning Nov. 4, passengers at Port Everglades have the option of using the Mobile Passport app, currently only available for IOS. U.S. citizens can complete their Customs declaration using their smart phones or other mobile devices, expediting their clearance. Port Everglades is the first cruise port to offer it.
⦁ Seven-night cruises on Harmony to the Eastern and Western Caribbean start at around $800
Bottom line: Harmony is as beautiful as she is big, and presents so many options, you can program whatever kind of cruise vacation you want. There's a fourth Oasis-ship in the works, and it will be interesting to see what Royal has in mind for an encore.
All Photos by North Palm Beach Life
The Ultimate Abyss
'1887' Ice Show
'The Fine Line' at Aqua Theater
The Bionic Bar