Big, bold, and beautiful
Who said size isn't everything? Dave Monk has a whale of a time aboard new Wonder of the Seas – the world's biggest cruise ship.
As I walk along deck 15, the views are incredible. Not just the gentle waves and the glowing evening sky as the sun sets, but way below me where Central Park and the Boardwalk are lighting up.
I'm off the coast of Spain aboard Wonder of the Seas, the fifth Oasis-class ship from Royal Caribbean and proud owner of the record as the biggest cruise ship in the world.
Destined for China until Covid intervened, she made her debut in Florida in March and now she has reached the Mediterranean, where I boarded in Barcelona.
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Big doesn't even begin to describe her size. Wonder of the Seas is 1,188ft long, 210ft wide and has 17 decks. At double occupancy she carries 5,734 passengers – 6,988 if every berth is used – along with 2,300 crew. But Wonder of the Seas dazzles with far more than statistics.
-READ MORE: Wonder of the Seas cruise ship in facts & figures-
One night I settle in the AquaTheater at the stern of the ship to enjoy a high-energy show by an all-women team of dancers and acrobat, diving from as high as 55ft and seeming to fly above the audience's heads on lines and harnesses.
A guest male performer flips and spins on a slack line suspended above the pool, while another international act takes the art of juggling to heights I'd never dreamed were possible.
Other shows around the ship include Tap and Factory, an amazing display of coordinated drumming and tap-dancing, and a moving musical production called Voices: An intimate performance on a grand scale, which celebrates the full range of human vocal powers.
Singers on stage seamlessly sync with performers ob screen, who produce a rhythmic backing track of beats and clicks, so no instruments are required.
-READ MORE: Wonder of the Seas cruise ship review -
Meanwhile, down on deck four, the ice rink in Studio B plays host to 365: The seasons on ice, a story of 12 months in the life of Planet Earth. And later this year, Royal Caribbean's own superheroes, The Effectors, return for a show in the Royal Theater where they battle with their arch nemesis Crash and his new sidekick Burn.
The evolution that began with the launch of Oasis of the Seas in 2009 has produced a series of floating resorts increasingly packed with new attractions, such as Ultimate Abyss dry slide first introduced on Harmony of the Seas.
I've been on three of the previous Oasis-class ships and never cease to be amazed by the scale and engineering feats they involve.
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New features for the Wonder of the Seas include The Mason Jar, a Southern-style restaurant serving classic comfort food such as fried green tomatoes, shrimp'n'grits, chicken pot pie, ribs and burgers – all while a house band belts out country hits. The bar is stocked with 19 US whiskeys to wash it all down.
The Vue bar on the port side is a new venue for al fresco drinks near the all-weather, adults-only Solarium, matching up with the Caribbean-themed Lime and Coconut bar further along the deck.
Another new addition is Wonder Playscape, an underwater-themed play area that provides outdoor fun for youngsters, with slides, climbing walls, games and interactive activities. Mini-golf course Wonder Dunes has also been given a makeover.
-READ MORE: Royal Caribbean expands Caribbean itineraries-
However, probably the most significant change on Wonder of the Seas is a new eighth 'neighbourhood' that's been designed exclusively for suite guests, following the industry trend of offering more space and comfort to the higher-paying customers. The Suite Sun Deck, with a plunge pool and bar, has been moved, but restaurant Coastal Kitchen and the Suite Lounge remain.
The much written-about (and famously expensive) Ultimate Family Suite now sleeps up to 10, and during my time on board it was sill occupied by a party who had made the transatlantic crossing. The other top accommodation, the Royal Loft Suite, is booked until autumn, even with a price tag of $40,000 a week.
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'It's our upper-end space that sells first,' says Ben Bouldin, Royal Caribbean's European VP. But he denies that other passengers are missing out, adding: 'The goal of introducing more suites is not at the expense of anybody else on the ship.'
Every guest has the choice of eating in the main dining room or other complimentary venues such as the Park, Vitality, and promenade cafes, El Loco Fresh (DIY Mexican tacos, burritos and quesadillas) and the Solarium Bistro, where I enjoy several healthy lunchtime salads.
One evening I walk into the Windjammer buffet just as it's being set up for dinner, and I'm entranced by the tempting assortment of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and desserts.
Among the specialty restaurants are venues serving steak, Italian, seafood, sushi, and burgers, and naturally there's a popular Starbucks outlet, too.
Aside from those celebrated robots in the Bionic Bar, human cocktail-makers can be found in 10 other bars and lounges, including an English-style pub – the Cask & Clipper – on the split-level Royal Promenade. An enlarged karaoke bar is a legacy of the ship's original destiny in China.
Many favourites from previous Oasis-class ships have reappeared on Wonder, including the FlowRider surf simulator, Perfect Storm water chutes and outdoor movie screen.
-READ MORE: Oasis class aquaTheater vinfographic-
With its wooden carousel and Zoltar fortune-telling machine, the Boardwalk conjures up memories of an English seaside pier.
To one side of this is Playmakers Sports Bar, and for anyone wanting to catch some rays there are pools, hot tubs and loungers all round the top decks.
Lovers of Latin sounds should head to Boleros, while the Music Hall hosts tribute acts and DJ sets, and anyone wanting a laugh can try out the Attic Comedy Club on deck four. If you've sailed with Royal Caribbean before, you may already have met the Stowaway Pianist, who pops up in the unlikeliest of places, such as the lifts.
-READ MORE: Royal Caribbean announces sixth Oasis-class ship-
One of the delights of a new ship is checking out the artwork, and Wonder of the Seas displays an eye-catching variety, including astronaut figures, a two-headed seahorse and giant stetson hat on the Royal Promenade.
This summer, Wonder of the Seas will be sailing seven-night Western Mediterranean cruises for destinations including Naples, Florence, Palma de Mallorca and Marseille. After finishing her inaugural European season, she will then return to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to offer year-round Caribbean sailings.
My overall impression? She is bigger, better and even brighter than anything Royal Caribbean has done before – but you need plenty of time to fully appreciate her.
A sixth Oasis-class ship, Utopia of the Seas, is due to join the fleet in 2024 and there are rumours of a seventh, too. But one thing is certain – whatever the future holds, this ship will be a thing of Wonder for years to come.
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