Ship ahoy! Gina Baksa climbs aboard Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship for a pre-inaugural sail from Southampton
Titanic is arguably not the right adjective to describe the Harmony of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s latest £800-million addition to its Oasis class, but this behemoth of a supercruiser certainly defies superlatives.
Invited by Royal Caribbean to come aboard for Harmony’s pre-inaugural trip, as a cruise virgin I was incredibly excited. Likewise my 82-year-old mother, who’d only had two hours sleep the night before and was now running on pure adrenaline.
I’d seen news reports of the 227,000-tonne Harmony of the Sea’s arrival at Southampton, marvelled at the statistics (60ft greater in length than the Statue of Liberty, weighs more than 17,000 African elephants, 2,747 staterooms, 20 restaurants, 7 neighbourhoods, more paintings than the Louvre, 6,780 guests and 2,100 international crew) but nothing could prepare me for my first sight of The Real Thing.
A floating city, skyscraper tall; we were dwarfed at the quayside in Southampton. Our iPad check-in was swift and efficient, and we easily found our way to the elevators and our stateroom on deck 9. It wasn’t the claustrophobic little cabin I’d imagined. Instead the light and spacious room boasted wall-to-ceiling French doors and a good-sized balcony and loungers. The kingsize bed was very comfortable and the compact bathroom had an excellent power shower. Fittings were all of good quality and there was plenty of storage space and good lighting, plus a widescreen TV on the wall at the end of the bed.
With a top cruising speed of 22 knots (25mph), this 215.5ft wide, 1,188foot long mamma took just 32 months to build at the shipyard at St Nazaire. I met one of her French builders in the lift who told me that Harmony had been delivered to Southampton ahead of time – hence the many snagging items still to be fixed and the presence of contractors.
As we discovered, Harmony of the Seas is strategically divided into 7 zones: Pool and Sports, the Boardwalk (with the amazing AquaTheater), Central Park (home to a tropical garden as well as some of the ship’s speciality restaurants), the Royal Promenade, the Entertainment Parade, the Youth Zone and the Vitality Spa areas.
The upper decks beckoned in the midday sun and cocktails in hand, we relaxed in one of the hundreds of (then) empty sun loungers, simply taking it all in and dealing with sensory overload. As you’d imagine there is a plentiful supply of alcohol available at the many indoor and outdoor bars. The Rising Tide Bar levitates over three decks, while the Bionic Bar robots will take your order via iPad and get cracking with the ceiling-mounted optics. It makes around two cocktails a minute.
A snifter of Dutch courage was all I needed to descend into the Ultimate Abyss – the tallest slide on the high seas, which drops 100ft from the Pool Zone on deck 16 to the Boardwalk on deck 6. Suffice to say I will not be doing it again, but the 12-second descent was incredibly fun – and scary! Screaming helps.
Adrenaline seekers will also love the two FlowRider surf simulators – located at the aft of the ship – where you can stand up or boogie board. Flanking the AquaTheater are two impressive rock-climbing walls, and I couldn’t help but notice the scary Zip Line experience – taking guests across an 82ft gap suspended nine decks above the Boardwalk. Not for the faint of heart!
Neither the Perfect Storm nor Splashaway Bay water pool areas appeared open during our visit but they looked ideal for families. The Perfect Storm is a spiralling waterslide, five decks above Central Park where three waterslides come together. Kids can race each other to the finish down three decks, while younger children and toddlers will love the Splashaway – a waterscape with slides, a massive drench bucket and multiplatform jungle gym. Take to your skates on the rink in Studio B and have a climb of the massive walls reaching up from the AquaTheater – both located on Deck 4.
Large visual deck plans on each floor by the elevators (there are 24 lifts in total) will give you your bearings, so despite my initial reservations, it’s easy to find your way around this monster of a ship. Most importantly, Voom Internet is accessible throughout Harmony of the Seas (apparently the ‘fastest Internet at sea’) according to Royal Caribbean. So if elderly parents wander for a coffee (or G&T) you can always track them down. My mother did get lost a couple of times and told me she’d always been rescued by ‘friendly and helpful staff’ who guided her back to her cabin.
Of course it’s the staff on board that can make or break a cruise holiday. From Alex our happy and helpful cabin guy to the lady at the Windjammer restaurant at lunch and the superb service at dinner, we were met with courtesy and a genuine desire to please. Many of the 2,100 crew members have left their families in Nicaragua, Jamaica and other countries for six months or more.
Our captain, the rather dashing Captain Gus Andersson was a calm presence throughout the cruise. In the press conference, he told us that Harmony of the Seas is wider than its sister ships and is very stable, due in part to innovative new technology. “We’ve changed the hull shape to make it more aerodynamic, and we have also used an air lubrication system to make it faster, reduce friction and improve efficiency.”
He also told us that Harmony is around 20% more efficient than her sister ship: “She uses less fuel, has had energy efficient light bulbs fitted throughout, and the air con units are more energy efficient.”
What is it like to handle the fastest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet?
“It’s fantastic!,” he told us. “She is very easy to manoeuvre. When we turned around in the basin in Southampton yesterday, she turned on her axis (362.12 metres – the length of the ship) with very little force. We didn’t even use all the bow thrusters.”
Tasty food is a priority for most cruise ship guests. Alas, two days wasn’t long enough to sample all the 20 restaurants on Harmony of the Seas, but we made our way around a few. Lunch (and breakfast) at the Windjammer on deck 16 was superb: a smorgasbord of cold meats, cheeses, a wide variety of meat and veggie hot and cold dishes, a fabulous array of bakery and a great choice of deserts. It’s a huge space, so you can always find a window seat and look down on the zip liner and the mini golf below. Try speciality restaurant Izumi on deck 4. We loved their selection of hand rolled sushi, fresh sashimi and authentic hibachi. The elegant main dining area – with an eclectic menu – is situated over decks 3, 4 and 5. Our waiters were knowledgeable, friendly and gave us superb service. We enjoyed a succulent beef tenderloin and seafood linguini, paired with a bold Aussie 2007 Yangarra Estate Vineyard Cadenzia from McLaren Vale.
Jamie’s Italian has an outlet here, just one of the many restaurants in the Central Park area on deck 8. Unfortunately we had to leave our exquisite prawns mid-mouthful having been summoned to a muster drill. Duly assembled at the AquaTheater we were shown how to put on a lifejacket, but at no time during the presentation – or after – were we actually told where to find them. Mum and I played ‘hunt the life jacket cupboard’ until we got distracted at the Casino Royale on Deck 4. Replete with table games and machines, it’s also a smoker’s den, so avoid if you’re allergic.
A less toxic feature – for us anyway – was the art gallery on the same deck. Harmony of the Seas features a $6.5 million art collection of more than 3,000 works curated by International Corporate Art, and led by curatorial director Mariangela Capuzzo. The striking works combine painting, sculpture and installations like the impressive metallic ‘Head’ installation in the middle of the Royal Promenade. Designed by Czech artist David Cerny, the pieces consists of five tons of steel and embedded motors that move multiple plates to create a 3D head. Stairwells and corridors provide the backdrop for more artwork, while the Royal Loft Suites feature work by Benjamin Garcia, Steven MacIver and Irene Mamiye.
Harmony of the Seas offers three grades of luxury suite: Star, Sea and Sky Class, offering guests bespoke VIP concierge services, from planning a perfect date night to restaurant reservations and complimentary laundry and pressing. I had a look inside several staterooms that would make a cruise truly luxurious. The Crown Loft Suite with Balcony on deck 17, the Presidential Family Suite on 12, the Royal Family Suite with Balcony on 10, and the Aqua Theater Suite with Balcony on deck 8 were all superb. Cocooned in one of these suites you need never mix with anyone else and can enjoy all your meals in-house. Perfection! The luxury theme continues with superior retail outlets including Cartier, Hublot, Omega and Bulgari.
If you’re worried about weight gain on Harmony of the Seas, fear not. The Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness centre has a massive gym area with a wide selection of cardio and resistance equipment, 29 treatment rooms and healthy dining options. Children also have their own fitness zone, the YSPA.
There are times when I completely forgot I was on a cruise ship in the English Channel sailing towards Jersey and France. It really felt like a giant shopping mall at times and somewhat reminiscent of the fabulous movie The Truman Show. I found I had to get out on deck for my brain to recalibrate.
Entertainment is always a highlight of any cruise, and this is where Royal Caribbean often excels. We enjoyed an outstanding version of Grease – far better performed by its talented cast than many West End shows I’ve seen, who thoroughly deserved their standing ovation. Likewise the ice skating talents in the magical show 1887. The main theatre has 1,300 seats, almost twice as big as London’s West End Garrick Theatre. Seats were very comfortable with excellent rake and legroom. Well done everyone in the cast. We also loved Azure – an American jazz singer from Hawaii who sang her heart out in the Jazz on 4 stage. A superb talent, catch her if you can.
By the time Mum and I had disembarked early on the Sunday morning, we’d changed from cruise-averse travellers to confirmed cruise-fans, having thoroughly enjoyed our 48 hours on board Harmony of the Seas. The great aspect of cruising on such a massive ship is that it’s the perfect multi-generational holiday – there really is something for everyone. In fact we enjoyed it so much we are booking a trip to the Norwegian fjords and the Med – both with Royal Caribbean. As Ratty said to Mole in the enchanting Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” – and that includes mega supercruisers like Harmony of the Seas.
My trip was courtesy of Royal Caribbean. A seven-night western Mediterranean cruise costs from £1,037pp all-inclusive for an interior room. Phone +44 (0)844 493 4005 to find out more and make a booking.