To many, the thought of cruising with 6,988 others on the world’s biggest ship is, well, unthinkable. I looked up at Royal Caribbean’s US$1.31 billion Wonder of the Seas, towering over the dock in Barcelona, feeling doubtful and more than a little overwhelmed. So wide. So tall. Just so… huge.
But once you’re onboard, a dazzling, if occasionally bonkers world of entertainment, colour and choice unfolds. Is there anywhere else where you could whizz down a terrifying slide, watch an ice show, zipline across the deck, see Olympic high divers in action, have a robot mix your cocktail and choose between 40 bars and restaurants?
The destinations become almost secondary on a ship that packs this much in. So, on occasion, does the sea. Sitting on a bench in Wonder’s leafy Central Park (which is adorned with 20,000 living plants), breathing the cool morning air and sipping my carrot and ginger juice from the Spa Café was a pleasant, if slightly surreal experience.
The ship is divided into eight “neighborhoods” so you can segue from one world to another. Central Park is one such zone, while the Boardwalk is another, featuring an old-fashioned carousel and the AquaTheater, where the diving displays take place. Indoors, the Royal Promenade is a busy thoroughfare lined by shops and bars, including Bolero’s, one of my favourites, with Latin music, as well as an English pub. Other zones include the spa, the kids’ clubs, the two expansive pool decks and the entertainment hub.
New, though, is the Suite Neighborhood, occupying decks 17 and 18. This plush enclave, an iteration of the increasingly popular ship-within-a-ship concept, includes most of the ship’s 175 suites, as well as the pretty Coastal Kitchen restaurant. This is exclusive to suite guests and is done out in soft blues, golds and silvers, dotted with potted lilies, floor-to-ceiling windows gazing down at the masses around the pool. Suite guests also have access to a private sun deck dotted with luxurious loungers and a plunge pool with a glass wall, facing out to sea.
The suites themselves are gorgeous. I loved the duplex Crown Loft Suite, with a living area, a deep balcony and a sleeping space on the upper level. The AquaTheater suites on deck 10, although separate from the enclave, have real panache, with balconies on two sides and a front-line view of the high diving shows. I’d book one of these if I wanted to have my Royal Genie butler organise parties every night.
For well-heeled families, the Ultimate Family Suite sleeps up to 10 and comes with its own slide, karaoke area, cinema and butler; it’s so expensive, and apparently so popular, that prices are on request only. On my cruise, this suite was occupied by an American couple – child-free – who were on back-to-back voyages. I wondered idly if they whizzed down the slide together.
But would you spend this kind of money to sail on a ship like this? “The suites and the upper end of our space always sells first,” says Ben Bouldin, Royal Caribbean’s vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa. “We just can’t have enough. Post-pandemic, there’s a real surge of people wanting to have holidays with their parents. We’re really appealing to the multigenerational market.
“Royal is for everyone. You can tailor it to your own circumstances if you want quiet space, luxury and privacy. We’ve got some of the largest suites in the industry, and more suites than Silversea.”
Fair enough. And as I discovered, you can certainly have a luxurious dining experience, if you’re prepared to pay for the smart speciality restaurants. Wonderland is gorgeous, a fantasy journey through molecular cuisine, with exquisite presentation. The posh 150 Central Park is all fancy tableside preparation, while Giovanni’s Kitchen offers classy Italian in a lovely setting looking out onto Central Park. I’d happily rotate between these and the Coastal Kitchen over a seven-night cruise.
I was less keen on the newest restaurant, The Mason Jar, which offers southern dishes including gumbo, fried chicken, and for me, a cruising low, twice-fried Oreo cookies in batter, but I can see it would appeal to Royal’s mainly American audience.
Then there’s the entertainment, a compelling reason to bring your family on Wonder of the Seas as opposed to a smaller, posher ship. The ice shows in Studio B are dazzling; skating aside, exquisite shapes and patterns are projected onto the ice. There’s karaoke in the dedicated Spotlight Karaoke lounge (added when the ship was originally intended for the Asian market), gigs in the Music Hall and jazz in the park.
For me, though, the AquaTheater show, inTENse, was the decider. Ten women, five of them Olympians, performed extraordinary stunts and dives, some from an 18m platform, with added thrills from a graceful aerialist suspended above the audience and a world champion slackline artist, egged on by plenty of festival-style thumping music, dry ice and rapturous applause. You may have to splash out for the serenity of a suite, but to have this level of entertainment included in the price is exceptional.
Cruise line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Wonder of the Seas
Star rating: Not yet rated
Passenger decks: 18
Passenger capacity: 5,734 (6,988 full occupancy)
Highs: Spectacular entertainment, masses of dining choice, superb kids’ facilities
Lows: Loud music around the pool; smoking in the casino; costs for speciality dining and activities can mount up
Verdict: Perfect for families or multigenerational groups wanting the razzle dazzle of a big ship with the option of a serene retreat