Big cruise fun for everyone

The traditional notion of cruising as a gentle, relaxed and laidback vacation absolutely takes a beating with Royal Caribbean’s gargantuan new Freedom of the Seas, says SALVADOR ALMEIDA
The Royal Promenade

As the London coach pulled into the Southampton port area, there was a scream of delight from passengers as Royal Caribbean International’s leviathan cruise liner Freedom of the Seas shot into view from behind the mist and the rooftops of terminals and warehouses.

It was like some vision you were prepared for had materialised upon your wish. There has never been anything like it and never will be until another three years when Royal Caribbean brings out another gargantuan offering nearly 40 per cent larger than this one.
Cruise liners are getting bigger and bigger, responding to the cravings of vacationers for a brief life on the waves when they might jog, swim, dine in large halls, sleep, romance, surf, make conference visits, have a go at fitness and do a host of other things and still find themselves in another place and another country on the map. Aircraft can’t beat that, and so the cruise market is anointed for longevity. This year alone, a 17 per cent increase in the number of British vacationers taking a cruise is projected and there is evidence of growing interest from Asian markets including the Middle East. Not even the increase in oil prices poses as a deterrent, as the appetite for cruising is able to withstand any higher pricing the oil market may have caused.

Bigger and better
Freedom is an upgraded version of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager class, with all of its attractions but only bigger in overall size, and plus a few more features. Having been out only days from a Finnish shipbuilding yard, the liner had made calls at Hamburg and Oslo and was now at Southampton where it was the object of great curiosity. When it steamed out of the English port carrying hundreds of media and travel trade personnel, the cheers of the quayside crowd could still be heard through the hooting of the liner. Minutes earlier, it had departed the dock in style amidst a phantasmagoria of fireworks and laser beams. And well before that, the passengers had undergone the mandatory safety drill and tucked in a sumptuous meal at the Jade and Windjammer restaurants on the 11th deck.
The traditional notion of cruising as a gentle, relaxed and laidback way to spend time away from your normally busy land-based routine absolutely takes a beating. In the event you emerged from a lift that was at the other end of your cabin, you’d be compelled to stride a very great distance, and you’d invariably meet other passengers proceeding in the opposite direction in a similar situation. Everything about the vessel is large; the buffet offerings seemed interminable, and restaurants and bars appeared to be everywhere, cropping up from the Royal Promenade and places adjacent to pool areas and down staircases and round corners. 
The vessel measures 1,112ft in length and has a gross tonnage of 160,000 and 15 passenger decks. It can accommodate 4,375 guests in total occupancy and is approximately twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty at 208 ft.  Another amazing statistic is the size of the Arcadia Theatre, which can seat 1,300. One of the staterooms is the 14-person Family Presidential Suite.

All kinds of fun
Cruise organisers are good at piling on more than you can chew – well almost. A guy named Mac with oriental features was hammering out great tunes on his piano and involving people in a sing-along from time to time. At the promenade, a Caribbean band playing the role of street entertainers was successful in enticing diners from the Sorrento Pizzeria and strollers along the shopping boulevard. A Filipino chap at one of the bars regaled drinkers including a large number of women with bawdy jokes and the miraculous transformation of a napkin into body parts with sleight of hand. Nights at Olive or Twist were embellished with jazz. Jugglers caught your attention, and once, in the afternoon, we stepped aside for a delightful parade of circus folk. Probably the best show on board was on the ice skating rink when a bevy of professional performers put on a breathtaking display of grace and acrobatics. 
Another traditional notion that cruises are floating parks for the elderly is being gradually dismembered as more and more companies bring on the fun both for young and old. On Freedom, one of the innovations was the H2O Zone featuring fountains, spray characters and a designated family swimming pool. The good ship also had the tallest rock-climbing wall, a surfing park called Flowrider, cantilevered whirlpools and an arena for power boxing. You could have a swing at the nine-hole golf course and go strenuous with volleyball and basketball. An Adventure Ocean Programme for three- to 17-year-olds includes science experiments and craft projects. There are playtime programmes under the themes Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots and three exclusive areas for teens featuring a Fuel nightclub, The Living Room hangout and the Black Deck sundeck.
As is the custom of cruise ships, dinners were occasions for women to display tantalizing evening gowns. A large and elegant three-deck fine-dining hall was a perfect setting for relaxed conversation and sampling the chef’s special offerings of the day. The repertoire of beverages was amazing and the food top class. At the Casino Royale, a man played blackjack and having made a small profit after a roller coaster run on the fortune trail told the card girl he’d stop and save the money for an onboard facelift and massage.
On shipboard TV, the Royal Caribbean announced ridiculous bargains to be had at the general store, but there was no sign of that. The bargains are probably ‘sudden’ events and, in any case, the liner had still to make its commercial run. After the special voyage on which we traveled along the British coast, it would sail to New York for another round of preview trips before proceeding in June for normal operations from Miami to the eastern and western Caribbean. Anticipating difficulties for some people in getting US visas, Florida-based Royal Caribbean is inviting tourists to step aboard in its private Hispaniola destination of Labadee, Haiti, and carry on from there.

Number stunner

Freedom of the Seas is:
• 1,112 feet long
• 160,000 tonnes in weight
• Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty at
     208 feet

It hosts:
• 15 passenger decks,
• 4,375 guests in total

Its Arcadia Theatre seats 1,300
One stateroom alone is the 14-person Family Presidential Suite