PHOTO: Kate Spade onboard Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas. (photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International, Copyright, Simon Brooke-Webb Photography)
Gone are the days where the primary retail experience on a cruise ship consisted solely of logo items, sundries and a small collection of clothes and jewelry.
Now, cruise lines are ramping things up to the level of premium outlets and internationally-recognized brands.
One could argue that things really changed when Royal Caribbean International launched the Voyager of the Seas.
Photo Credit; Dave Jones. Independence of the Seas Royal Promenade.
As the first of its ships with a Royal Promenade, it effectively crafted a shopping mall at sea, one that stretched the better length of the vessel. At the time, the ship was like no other. It was wide enough that a voluminous space could exist between inside staterooms with such cabins now featuring a window that overlooked the internal activities.
The Royal Promenade connected the ship’s forward and aft atriums with lounges and bars, eateries and, most importantly for this discussion, boutiques. Royal Caribbean has only made this feature bigger on newer ships with the grandest example on the Harmony of the Seas.
Of course, corporate cousins, as well as competitors, have copied the model since.
As the current largest ship in the world, the Harmony has managed to attract retail brands like Kate Spade, Hublot, Cartier, Omega and Bulgari with shops onboard. Even Starbucks is a premium purveyor with its own storefront. Although aboard a different class of ship, Hublot and Bulgari have similarly set up shop on the Anthem of the Seas.
In some cases, the premium retail approach does not require scale but cachet.
Also in the Royal Caribbean family, Celebrity Cruises has partnered with Apple for the fleet’s iLounge venue as the first authorized Apple reseller at sea. Here, guests cannot only learn about the company’s digital products with dedicated courses but also buy them and take them home. The Solstice-class, in particular, does still have a bit of a mall atmosphere thanks to its sleek double-decker galleria of boutiques.
MSC Cruises is using technology to enhance the shopping experience in a different way.
In collaboration with Samsung, its upcoming MSC Seaside will let guests try on clothes digitally with a virtual mirror. It will also recognize them upon entering the photo gallery to automatically display their images without the need to search for them.
Meanwhile, some lines do take it smaller with just a singular standout store.
Disney Cruise Line recently introduced an exclusive Tiffany & Co. luxury jewelry shop on the Disney Fantasy. The signature Tiffany T collection offers special diamond pieces to treat loved ones with an extra helping of pixie dust.
It’s true that diamonds never go out of fashion, and high-end retailers often extend to jewelry these days. International tastes are also headed that way with Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Joy, which is dedicated to the Chinese market, being fuller of such vendors than even their North American equivalents. An immense amount of square footage is committed to brands such as Bulgari, Omega and Cartier again, as well as Gucci and even Godiva in the upscale chocolatier category.
Just as a number of the watch and jewelry brands have made inroads with more than one company, Godiva is additionally featured on Cunard Line as well.
ONBOARD THE HARMONY OF THE SEAS — The brand-new Harmony of the Seas, currently holding the title as the world’s biggest cruise ship, is technically a sister ship of Oasis-class twins Oasis and Allure.
But more than six years have passed since the Allure sailed out of the yard; and since then Royal Caribbean International has launched another ship series, the Quantum class, which incorporated new guest technology and amenities.
The Harmony is like a Quantum-Oasis combo: The size and layout of the Oasis (albeit slightly larger at 223,963 gross tons and 5,479 passengers) with many top features of the Quantum ships.
The speedy check-in process that premiered on the Quantum in New Jersey was working well here at the Southampton terminal. Restaurants Jamie’s Italian and Wonderland (expanded to two decks on the Harmony) are both on the Harmony. Royal preserved the open, three-deck main dining room from the Oasis, though each floor has a different design that corresponds to one of the contained restaurants on the Quantum.
On the Oasis-class side, the Promenade, Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods are here. Rising Tide, a bar masquerading as an elevator, floats between the Promenade and Central Park. Caffeine addicts will be happy to know that a Starbucks, which first opened on the Allure, is planned for the Harmony’s Boardwalk.
But one can even take a longer view of the Harmony’s offerings, which I did on the first day of a two-day cruise from England, when some media and European travel agents were invited by Royal to preview the vessel.
For example, the general structure of the long, interior Royal Promenade is still going strong. The robot bartenders at the Bionic Bar whir and mix and shake and pour across the hall from one of Royal’s longest mainstays, the decidedly old-school Schooner Bar. The Latin-themed Boleros, which made its debut on the Navigator of the Seas, is down the hall. On the lower decks is the ice-skating rink, and up top is the rock-climbing wall, the two features that broke molds at Royal and, arguably, the industry when they debuted on Voyager of the Seas.
Royal has continued to refine its “neighborhood” concepts on the Harmony. For an escape from the busy-ness of other parts of the ship, nothing beats Central Park, a 12,000-tree midship oasis (this is also where two upscale alternative restaurants, 150 Central Park and Chops Grille, are to be found).
If busy-ness is what you’re after, proceed directly to the sports deck, which contains miniature golf, a zipline, two FlowRiders and one of the Harmony’s showcase features, the 10-deck Abyss slide. (Also new on the Harmony is a group of three of waterslides called the Perfect Storm, but since it was a breezy 60 degrees, most passengers were content to admire them from afar.)
The entrance to the two Abyss tube slides are encased in a colorful metal structure that looks like an anglerfish. The entrance, of course, is through its mouth. Each rider is given a mat that acts like a toboggan, and they’re required to sit on it and hold the reins for dear life. The ride is fast and furious. And, dare I say, awesome.
The tube starts out bright with LED lighting, but about halfway through riders are plunged into pitch black and the mat picks up tremendous speed; that’s when most will let out a scream or “wooooo!” that can be heard back in the anglerfish’s body on Deck 16.
“There we go,” the crew members said and nodded with satisfaction whenever the “wooooo!” wound up from inside the tube.
The slide ends in the Boardwalk neighborhood on Deck 6. Some riders might stagger right into the perfectly-positioned adjacent Sabor restaurant for a stiff (or celebratory) margarita.
‘IT’S a biggie,” a weather-worn old Darwinite in a battered bush hat observes dryly as the enormous Voyager of the Seas eases into Darwin Harbour.
The “floating city” is pausing for a day on a repositioning cruise from South-East Asia to Sydney where it’ll be based for the 2015-16 summer-autumn season.
Voyager truly is a “biggie”; it is one of the world’s largest cruise ships, 311m long, weighing almost 138,000 tonnes and accommodating 3989 guests in total in 1724 staterooms and suites with 1176 crew to pamper them.
Cushy lodgings include ocean-view staterooms, balcony staterooms, sumptuous suites and inside staterooms equipped with novel “virtual balconies” to inhibit claustrophobia. These 2m-high HD television screens mimic windows on to balconies and are linked to cameras placed around the ship to screen real-time sights and sounds of the passing ocean and port manoeuvres.
After checking in to a balcony stateroom, it’s time to check out the rest of the glamorous goliath on a journey that turns out to be a tasteful blitzkrieg of unadulterated razzle-dazzle.
At Voyager’s heart is an enormous atrium rising through four decks and, intersecting it on Deck 5, the Royal Promenade extends about three-quarters of the ship’s length, a bustling boulevard with a marble “pavement”, pumping cafes and bars, name-brand duty-free shops full of jewellery, clothing and perfumes, upbeat music and evening dance parties.
Swarovski is holding a sale with 40 per cent off jewellery and figurines not far from a trio of masseuses delivering a trio of neck massages. Nearby, the Pig & Whistle is a well-patronised pub with tables spilling out onto the marble. In the background, Bobby Day (remember him?) reprises the profound 1958 lyrics of Rockin’ Robin, mercifully Bobby’s only hit.
Pastries, pizzas, sandwiches and brewed illy coffee are on offer at Cafe Promenade with its red British phone booth and a glistening red 1954 Morgan sports car parked outside.
At the ’60s-style R Bar, just off the Promenade – the tasteful venue for fancy cocktails – a mixologist is demonstrating how to make a perfect martini and form guides are front and centre at the Tavern, outside the Casino Royale, a sports-themed bar with the obligatory wide-screen TV. “They’re racing at Randwick …”
Casino Royale is a red and gold contradiction of flashing slot machines with names such as Hoot Loot, Kitty Glitter and Rembrandt’s Riches blasting out electronic noises and set against the sober, studied concentration of the blackjack and three-card poker tables. A few players tackling Texas Hold’em frown and seem confused. It turns out they’re Australians. Malaysian croupier Chris confides that many Australians have no idea how to play the card game: “I have to teach them first,” he whispers, “but they do learn quickly.”
At the nautical-themed Schooner Bar, Claudette from the Philippines, pours a Boddington’s Ale, the first of several on this eight-night cruise and in the background it’s 1958 again with the Everly Brothers belting out Bye Bye Love.
Meanwhile, it’s all go outside on the sports deck with walkers and joggers wearing gym gear and serious expressions forming a continuous procession around the fitness track.
There’s a full-size basketball court, a nine-hole mini-golf course with infinite ocean views, an inline skating track and a golf simulator recreating some of the world’s best courses. For those seeking more challenging thrills, Voyager has a rock-climbing wall rising 9m. That’s 61m above sea level.
But the stellar attraction is Flowrider, a 12m wave-maker that generates a 72km/h rush of water surfed on a flowboard and, as Australian flowboarding champion Adam Wildman testifies: “One of the best experiences you can have in the middle of an ocean.”
Kids and teens gravitate to Deck 12 for the Outdoor Youth Area, a video arcade and a teen disco. One deck below is the Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness Centre with more than 100 treatments, the pool deck with two pools, six whirlpools, an adults-only solarium pool, tiers of sun decks and a huge 67sq m cinema screen.
Like the buoyant background music, the entertainment just goes on. There’s a new 3D cinema and at Voyager’s Ice Skating Rink, guests can rent skates and take lessons between the dazzling regular ice shows starring top international skaters.
On this voyage diverse performances in the La Scala Theatre encompass Broadway-style shows, electric rock violinist, Jane Cho, singer Michael Falzon, comedy hypnotist Mark Anthony, ballroom dance classes and, of all things, an enrichment lecture on the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Dining demands daunting decisions. Designed like an opera house, the tasteful Sapphire Dining Room, with chandelier and included meals, revives the golden age of cruising. Also included are the buffets in the extraordinary Windjammer Cafe. Imagine a sort of swish Scandinavian-designed street-food market with wraparound windows and “stalls” serving a healthy choice of international food which, incidentally, is some of the ship’s best tucker.
Specialty dining restaurants include Izumi, an Asian but essentially Japanese restaurant with a la carte pricing and the prixe fixe, Italian cuisine Giovanni’s Table for $US25 ($A35), Chops Grille, a ritzy reef’n’beef with premium steaks, seafood and lobster ($US35) and the ’50s-style burger bar Johnny Rockets Diner ($US6.95).
Chops Grille also offers special cruise hot pot lunches self-cooked at the table for $US20 and a tasting menu with wine pairings from their exclusive cellar ($US45). At Giovanni’s Table, try the almond-crusted scallops with red bell pepper pesto and pan-seared sole fillets over parmesan roasted potatoes.
My pick is Izumi; for example, miso soup, seasoned wakame salad with sesame oil, tasty miso ramen noodles with chasu pork slice, menma fermented bamboo shoots and nori seaweed and the wonderful mixed seafood on a hot rock.
Meanwhile, poolside on Deck 11, tastefulness takes a brief back seat as cruise director Mitch celebrates “the glamour, the prestige, the recognition of the belly flop” with the popular Men’s International Belly Flop Contest.
“Enough,” I cry, withdrawing to the Schooner Bar for a creamy, cold Boddington’s Ale and a nostalgic toe-tap to Rock Around the Clock courtesy of Bill Haley & His Comets.
The writer was a guest of Holidays of Australia.
The 13-night Ghan and Voyager of the Seas Top End Escape departs Sydney on April 16, 2016, and includes seven nights aboard Voyager of the Seas cruising from Sydney to Darwin with a port call in Brisbane, on-board meals, entertainment, pre paid taxes and gratuities.
Also included are a four-night stay in Darwin at DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin with breakfast, a “Charles Darwin” Sunset Buffet Dinner Cruise, a half-day Darwin City Sights tour, full day Kakadu National Park tour of Nourlangie rock art site, Yellow Water Billabong and Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre plus two nights aboard The Ghan travelling from Darwin to Adelaide in Gold or Platinum Service including all meals, drinks and off-train experiences.