Saturday, 5 December 2009

GIANT OASIS OF THE SEAS







With 38 years full and part-time service with the Royal Navy, ships and the sea rather run through MIKE SOUTER like the writing in a stick of rock. So when, on a recent visit to Florida, he got the chance to visit the world’s largest cruise liner, even before her maiden voyage, you could say he was rather pleased:

‘We’re good to go’ said the email from Jessica Taylor, my wonderful contact at Fort Lauderdale’s Convention and Visitor Bureau. She asked me if she could do anything for me during my four day stop over at the neighbouring beach resort of Hollywood. ‘Oh yes’, say I, ‘there is just one little thing’.

On my own cruise across the Atlantic, I had closely followed the progress of Royal Caribbean’s brand new liner, ‘Oasis of the Seas’. She was making her way, by a more northern route, from her birthplace of Turku in Finland to her new home port of Port Everglades.

I have been to the shipyard and seen the extraordinary way these mega-ships are constructed. Huge sections of prefabricated cabins are just lifted into place, like a giant Lego set.


While crossing a remarkably benign Atlantic on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, reports had filtered through that Oasis, on her more northern route, had been battered by storm force winds and 60-feet waves.

At the lovely Desoto Inn in Hollywood, my hosts Steve and Josias were thrilled to have seen her arrive, albeit two days late. But Jessica has waved her magic wand and I am actually to get on board. I’ve not been as excited about anything for years.

The security man at the gate of Port Everglades is clear in his directions. ‘Turn left at the lights. You can’t miss her. Even Stevie Wonder couldn’t miss her.’ I do as I was told and he is SO right.

It’s hard to put into words just how big Oasis of the Seas is. The fact she carries almost eight and a half thousand passengers and crew hardly explains it. Nor does the fact she has 18 decks and is longer than all but a few of the world’s tallest buildings are high.

In the car park, I can only stand and marvel at her enormity.

But of course, such a mammoth vessel needs very special facilities. Port Everglades budgeted 75 million US dollars for the newly expanded cruise terminal 18, which, at five and a half acres, is of course the biggest cruise terminal in the world. More than three quarters of the cost will be paid back directly by RCI through increased usage of the terminal. With the very latest in high-tech, they reckon that check in till boarding should be completed within 15 minutes.

I am lucky that I am allowed on board a couple of hours before the passengers, so I am able to experience an almost empty ship. I’m due to be met by the PR lady, but she’s hasn’t shown up, so after 20 minutes of waiting, I set off to explore on my own.

They’d probably rather I hadn’t seen all the workmen still finishing off the job, mainly behind semi-closed doors, but, to be frank, that’s not at all unusual for new ships. I am, though, slightly surprised to find local tradesmen beavering away, in addition to the contractors who have come with the ship from Finland.

Oasis has some pretty unique features and there’s no doubt that Royal Caribbean’s creative people think out of the box when it comes to ship design.


At the very front, the solarium on decks 15 and 16 is a truly breathtaking space, rather like being inside a giant botanical gardens. I notice there’s already quite a lot of staining, presumably from spilled drinks, on some of the teak decking; For that reason, I am never convinced that teak and water go well together – unless permanently immersed!

Walking around this giant ship before the passengers board gives me an unique opportunity to see the vessel as the architects planned her. Rows of reclining chairs, perfectly aligned around spotless swimming pools and whirlpools, without the untidiness that will come from 6,296 guests.

Let’s just dwell for a moment on the superlatives that are generated by anything this enormous. The 21 pools hold over 2,300 tonnes of water, about the same as the amount of fresh water consumed every day. There are 3,300 miles of electrical cables.

One of the features that takes my breath away is the ‘Central Park’ feature, where they have left the central area of the ship open to the sky and installed over 12,000 plants and trees. What, in an ordinary ship, would be windowless inside cabins, now gives them the opportunity to charge premium rates for 300 rooms on six decks with a view overlooking the park. And very well it works too.


An absolute basic principle of ship design is that you shouldn’t build anything with large spaces where water can slosh about. Modern cruise liners have many such spaces, the theory presumably being that if a large amount of water was to get in to any of those areas, it’s a bit late to avoid catastrophe!

RCI’s designers have followed a lot of features from their Freedom Class of ships. Thus things are pretty much where you expect them to be, a 1380-seat theatre in the bow, the Royal Promenade with all the shops down the middle and restaurants in the stern.

In the bow is a hugely impressive spa and fitness suite. I’m not one for having my body plastered with seaweed or mud, but Mr. Steiner has a large team on board to do all that and a lot more besides. A glass (or some new-fangled see-through material) staircase leads down to what is a superbly designed treatment area. I do, though, wonder how long before the glass stairs get horribly scratched?

There’s clearly been a lot of thought about people-moving. High-tech touch screens are everywhere, helping you find your way around, showing which restaurants are busy and much more. The lifts are like something out of Star Trek, although they haven’t forgotten RCI’s little trick of putting the day of the week in a floor panel. I promise you, especially on a long cruise, it’s one of the best ways of knowing which day it is!


I like the boardwalk, themed, they say, on English seaside resorts and New York’s Coney Island. Imagine, a proper roundabout on a ship. What will they think of next?

The answer, of course, is a zip wire, allowing passengers to travel 82 feet, nine decks above the boardwalk. That must have excited the health and safety people!

Right at the stern, the 600-seat, Aquatheatre, where you relax by the pool in the day and where Olympic quality divers perform at night. There’s a rock climbing wall each side, but you rather expect that of Royal Caribbean.

Above the pool, six decks of luxury suites, some with enormous balconies. I have a mixed view of this. Do I want to pay serious money to overlook a pool full of screaming kids?

It was while reflecting on that point in the 2,000 square feet Royal Loft Suite that I bump into Adam Goldstein, Royal Caribbean’s President and CEO. Clearly delighted with his new baby, we discuss the rather turbulent journey that the ship had experienced on her first Transatlantic crossing. It’s greatly to his credit that he has more time to chat than his PR team.

For sure, I have missed out lots of things, but, frankly, Oasis has so much to see, the best way would be to go and see for yourself. However, you’ll have to go to Port Everglades if you want to take a cruise, certainly for the first few years. There’s simply nowhere in Europe that currently has the facilities to take her.

With her sister ship, Allure of the Seas, due to have her maiden voyage next December, RCI has staked a lot of their reputation – and money – on these giants of the seas.

Only time will tell whether the public will agree with them whether big is necessarily better.



FACT FILE

Go Cruise offer substantial discounts on brochure prices. 01952 402301. www.gocruise.co.uk/

Hollywood: www.visithollywoodfl.org Desoto Inn: www.thedesoto.com

Fort Lauderdale: www.sunny.org

The Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2010 is priced at £16.99.

PHOTO CAPTIONS

All photos: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com

A view over the boardwalk and its' carousel

Oasis is very high tech. You can press screens for directions to find your way. This one shows where there's space for something to eat

Many of the interior cabins have amazing views over the amazing Central Park, which has over 12,175 plants and trees, some over 24 feet high

Welcome Aboard the world's largest cruise ship

A view of the Royal Loft suite. It will do, I suppose

'Even Stevie Wonder couldn't miss it', the man said.

The solarium is on decks 15 and 16 forward. It's a truly amazing space.


All photographs: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com


You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at: http://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter

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