Harmony of the Seas: What's it like on board the world's biggest cruise ship?
Billion Dollar Boat
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas is the world's biggest cruise ship. Nicola Brady finds out if size really matters.
Ice skaters are zooming around a bewildered dancer, concealed by giant moon masks and illuminated capes. Moments earlier, we were in 19th-century Paris. I can feel the swell of the ocean outside, as an ethereal voice sings: "Where are we? What the hell is going on?"
It's a fair question.
The ice show '1887' is one of the many entertainment options on board Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas. It's theatrical, extravagant and a little bit bonkers: much like the ship itself.
In case you haven't heard, Harmony is officially the biggest cruise ship on the planet. It launched this month at a cost of over $1 billion, and the numbers are staggering. The ship is 1,187 feet long, with space for up to 6,410 guests and 2,100 crew. To put that in perspective, Harmony is three times the length of the pitch inside the Aviva Stadium. If she were to stand on her hunkers, she'd be 165 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower.
But what are the benefits to such a beast of a ship? With such a range of cruise ships and itineraries available to passengers these days, does size really matter?
Well, as passenger numbers and dimensions increase, so do the amenities on board - in addition to its huge dining rooms and 1,400-seater Royal Theatre, Harmony boasts 20 concept restaurants, including Jamie's Italian.
With so many mouths to feed, I was expecting a generic slop of a buffet designed to chuck food down the hatch as quickly as possible. I couldn't have been more wrong. Meals are served á la carte in the main dining areas (with food so exceptional I was convinced I had wandered into a specialty restaurant - think sirloin steak and truffle fries, for example).
Windjammer is where you'll find the top-notch buffets, complete with short order stations dishing up fresh pasta, stir-fries and the like. If you had the iron will of a saint, you could eat very healthily on board and avoid gaining the dreaded cruise pounds. Spoiler Alert: You probably won't (find the honey-soaked beignets and you'll know what I mean).
Despite its size, once you get the lay of the land, this colossal ship is surprisingly easy to navigate. My tip? Avoid the lifts and take the stairs. I timed the walk, and the climb from Deck 5 to 15 took me just under two minutes - the wait alone for a lift can be much longer. Plus, you work off a few of those beignets.
I was keen to check out the Bionic Bar, home to Royal Caribbean's robot bartenders, who'll shake you up a drink after you order from a smart screen. The novelty does pull in a crowd, but really, if you can't wink at a barman as you order a dirty martini, then what's the point?
The real draws on board are the FlowRider surf machine, climbing walls and much-hyped Ultimate Abyss. This epic slide starts 150 feet above sea level, sending guests through twisting tunnels before bursting forth 10 storeys below.
Every new cruise ship needs its 'firsts at sea', and the Ultimate Abyss is no exception. It's the tallest slide on the ocean.
What do the activities cost? Thankfully, most are included with the cruise, though you will pay extra for spa treatments, organised excursions, alcoholic (and some other) drinks, specialty dining, internet, babysitting and gratuities.
Unfortunately, our brief journey out of Southampton is blighted with strong winds and rain, meaning most of the flagship activities are out of action. The Ultimate Abyss is a sheltered slide, but its entrance is exposed. Apparently, if the slide gets even a little wet, there's a risk of getting stuck within its belly. And if there's anything scarier than the thought of a slide that starts 150 feet above sea level, it's the thought of getting stuck in a slide that starts 150 feet above sea level.
As a brand new ship, I found Harmony's finishes fairly glitzy, if a little gaudy in places. The inspirational messages dotted throughout the decks only inspired an eye roll from me - "Not to spoil the ending for you, but everything is going to be OK", read one of them (tell that to the person stuck in the slide).
As a card-carrying cynic, some of the entertainment wasn't my thing - I made a rapid exit from an impromptu "Totally Awesome '90s Dance Party" that was met with an otherwise rapturous reception. Another hasty departure was made from a comedy set - the least said about which, the better.
The real winner was a performance of Grease, held in the super-plush theatre. The Greased Lightning car emerges from under the stage, dancers swing from the ceiling, and the singers belt out the hits loudly enough to drown out the audience sing-along. It really is a West End quality show, and one that won even this spoilsport over.
At the end of the day, a ship of this size isn't going to appeal to everyone. If you prefer boutique hotels, or sleepy getaways, then Harmony mightn't be your cup of tea. But the appeal here is broad, and it should be noted that all the kids I saw were running around with wide grins on their faces, squealing about all the things they could do (and that was without the water slides).
If you want variety, abundance and a definite wow factor, then dust off your sailor suit for this billion dollar boat.
What to pack
Bring a cover-up so you can flit between pools and stateroom without dressing in-between. There's no need to pack too light, as rooms have ample storage and wardrobe space. Attire is informal enough - think smart casual for evening meals. Don't forget a jumper for breezier evenings.
Harmony of the Seas will operate seven-night, Western Med cruises this summer from Barcelona. Booked directly with Royal Caribbean, prices start at €1,269pp (based on two sharing an ocean-view stateroom) including return flights from Dublin, from July to October. See royalcaribbean.ie for more.
Clickandgo.com has the seven-night Western Med cruise from €1,165pps full-board, including flights, departing Sept. 25. Cruisescapes.ie has the same trip including flights, transfers and luggage from €1,649pps, departing August 28. Sunway.ie has the September 11 sailing from €1,399pps, including flights.
Fall down the rabbit hole
Wonderland serves up avant-garde cuisine, and the cocktails beat the robots’ efforts hands down. Dishes arrive in test tubes, or covered in domes that are lifted to reveal plumes of smoke. Think deconstructed, mysterious little plates that are more delicious than you’d expect – the Tomato Water is divine.
Climb the walls
As the weather in the Med will likely surpass the Southampton gloom, there won’t be any excuses not to tackle the rock climbing walls. Stand at the bottom and you’ll strain your neck trying to see to the top – the climb will leave you dangling 43 feet over the Boardwalk.
As with all the ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet, VOOM, the fastest internet at sea, is available on board. It’s pricey, starting at $9.99 per day (all onboard prices are in dollars), but that covers up to 4 devices, and is invaluable for keeping track of your gang. My advice? Rent a Wow Band ($2) – this smart bracelet acts like your Sea Pass, meaning you won’t constantly misplace your room card.