When Voyager of the Seas was launched 15 years ago, she was the largest ship on the ocean.
Now, with an $70 million makeover and over 3,000 cabins to fill, she is part of the armada that will help Australia hit the millionth cruise passenger next year.
So what has the company that specialises in “Wow!” brought to our burgeoning cruise scene this season?
There are a host of wiz-bang gadgets like the FlowRider – a virtual surfing ride with enough A-frame and aggro to please the most bitchin’ boardie. My colleague Bernadette Chua reviews the activities that will please the energetic cruiser in her own column.
But there are also some fascinating new innovations below decks that make this ship a test-bed for cruising into the future. The Voyager may be 15, but she can still turn heads.
Cabins have been revitalised with fresh carpets and furnishings. They are spacious and comfortable. Long corridors are punctuated with art, and are spacious.
The theatre shows are spectacular – the Ice Odyssey was professional and the Royal Promenade, a four-storey mall at the heart of ship complete with branded shops, a Pig and Whistle pub and patisserie, is a High Street at sea.
The Dreamworks “Move it Move it” parade had scores of camera-phones clicking selfies as Shrek, Puss In Boots and Madagascar personalities prance past an enthusiastic crowd.
But big is not always beautiful. And not every innovation can live up to its hype.
The inside staterooms, with their revolutionary “virtual balconies”, were a little disappointing. We were promised the sounds of waves and a sense of the sea. But the two TV screens linked to a camera on the upper deck didn’t quite deliver. Technology may be a great transformer, but in this case at least it is no match for the real thing.
On the food front, Royal Caribbean has rustled up a strong line up. There are three new dining experiences: Giovanni’s Table is Italian; Izumi is Asian fusion; Chops Grille is a traditional steakhouse.
We sampled the Grille. The steak was terrific, and the seafood was excellent too. Service was attentive and we didn’t need to stray to the items that attracted a surcharge to get a great meal.
But reports from Giovanni’s Table spoke of sauces that were too rich and dishes that were over-complicated. Izumi, headed up by a Filipino chef, looked enticing and the samples of fried chicken and sushi tasted good.
Keeping more than 3,000 hungry people happy is hard work, and Royal Caribbean has much experience in carrying off a difficult task.
But there is work to do. The company laughed off Carnival Cruise Line’s “Ausification” program, claiming passengers come aboard its ships to sample international fare.
But there are lessons they can learn from Carnival’s two Australian ships, the Spirit and the Legend. Take a simple mug of coffee. Carnival claims they spotted Australia’s love of great coffee and immediately changed from the American mugs they had been serving. Voyager should do the same. The coffee at its beverage stations is definitely not to Australian tastes. Thankfully there are expresso machines at several cafes.
Serving quality food on a vast scale is a complex conundrum. The breakfast buffet is a mighty test for any cruise chef.
There is a well-known saying: “East breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”
Kings don’t have canned peaches at the start of the day. Nor eggs that have been sunny side up since the first bird song.
The Voyager is a fine ship and a massive masterpiece of engineering. Hard to judge a relationship on a one-night stand, which is our experience to date.
Sheer numbers make prices hugely attractive for families. But cruisers need to do their homework to get the best out of this vessel, avoiding the queues and seeking out personal service.
To quote Berlitz’s guide to cruise ships, “This is impersonal city life at sea.”
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