“If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” boasted Royal Caribbean International’s Chairman and CEO Richard Fain during the christening of the Independence of the Seas at Southampton in April.
At the inaugural festivities, this industry supremo also celebrated the fact the largest cruise ship in the world would operate a summer-long series of cruises out of the UK.
Unquestionably the ‘something for everyone’ mantra that has been a cornerstone of Royal Caribbean’s recent approach to the evolutionary design of their ships has been taken to new heights.
Now, as the name suggests, this is a ship that offers passengers almost unlimited independence to do what they please at a time and pace of their choosing.
Royal Caribbean International is renowned for setting precedents. When they introduced the massive 137,000-ton Voyager of the Seas in 1999 it eclipsed all other cruise ships, not just in terms of size, but in innovation and daring.
‘A Voyager-class ship on steroids’ best describes the initial impression of this new 15-deck-high leviathan, 105-ft longer and 29-ft wider than her smaller sisters; and the culmination of a series of three outstanding Freedom-class ships.
Located at the heart of the vessel is the Royal Promenade. At 445-feet long, this shopping, dining and entertainment boulevard is longer than a football pitch. Putting the central glass-and-steel descending Entertainment Bridge to full effect, the nightly street parades – using music, lasers and lights – are a cavalcade of boisterous fun; whether its ‘Rock Britannia’, or ‘Mad Hatters Ball’. By day and night, this is the focal hub of the vessel.
Here passengers can while away their time and sup a pint in an ersatz 17th century inn – the Dog and Badger; sip a chilled Chardonnay in Vintages Wine Bar; or grab a slice of pepperoni and mushroom in the sidewalk pizzeria – Sorrento’s.
There’s also Caf� Promenade, which serves Seattle’s Best Coffee; Ben & Jerry’s – a 50s-style ice cream parlour; and A Clean Shave, which rekindles the nostalgia of a barbershop.
More than anywhere else on this �500million ship, the extra width is evident in the staterooms.
There are 1,817 in all, ranging from 149sq ft inside cabins to the Royal Suite, which sleeps up to four and measures 1,406sq ft, with a 377sq ft balcony. There is also a 14-person Family Presidential Suite and eight Owner’s Suites.
Some 1,084 staterooms have ocean view, 842 with balconies; 733 are interior cabins, including 172 with views of the Royal Promenade. Reflecting excellent value, the Superior Balcony staterooms have a large sitting area.
Each stateroom can be arranged in a twin-bed or queen-size configuration and there’s the addition of space-saving, Samsung flat-panelled televisions. To cater to British whims, there’s even a kettle with tea- and coffee-making facilities.
The new bedding initiative being introduced fleet-wide is featured on board Independence of the Seas. New contoured bed frames are designed to prevent sagging, while the 9-inch-thick spring mattresses with separate 2-inch thick micro-fibre pillow tops are incredibly comfortable.
There are also luxurious cotton-blend sheets; an incredibly-warm duvet with cotton-blend covers, the softest of pillows and coloured bed scarves.
With its impressive proscenium arch and superb tiering, the Art Deco-style Alhambra Theatre seats 1,350 passengers and is brim-full with the latest technology and rigging. Production shows include ‘Under the Big Top’ and the celebrity show-time ‘Abbacadabra’ – a high-camp and thoroughly enjoyable tribute-act to the phenomenon that was Abba.
Royal Caribbean International is also introducing Invitation to the Dance – a spin-off of the highly successful BBC show ‘Strictly Come Dancing.’ Other shows aimed at a British audience include a Britannia Show and several popular comedians, who have been signed up for the summer season.
Studio B, the onboard skating rink, is open for skating lessons and free skating during the day whilst, by night, this venue stages the spectacular ice show ‘Strings’. With a cast of 12 professional skaters, many of whom are former Olympic medal winners, and combined with superb ultra-violet lighting and lavish costumes, this is unquestionably the most enthralling show at sea.
The 1,200-seat main dining room, crowned by a magnificent chandelier, is spread over three decks. Named Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear respectively, they are linked by a dramatic staircase.
Each has its own galley to ensure prompt service and the central supporting columns and deck-dividers are wrapped in gold leaf. The popular, nautical-themed, Windjammer Caf� is open for breakfast, lunch and casual dining.
Jade Restaurant offers authentic Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisine as well as innovative sushi. The reservations-only speciality restaurants Portofino and Chops Grille come with a cover charge. There’s also Johnny Rockets, a retro 1950s diner for all-American favourites.
When it comes to bars there’s no shortage of choice. Take your pick from an elegant Champagne Bar, Plaza Bar and Casino Bar. Watering holes with entertainment include the inimitable Schooner Bar, with resident pianist, and Boleros for live Latin beats accompanied by mojitos and caipirinhas.
The ever-popular Viking Crown Lounge atop the ship on Deck 14 features live music in the Olive or Twist jazz club.
The Egyptian-themed Pyramid Lounge is ideal for dancing, while cigar aficionados can retreat to the adjacent Connoisseur Club. Disco divas head for the two-deck, gothic-themed, night club, The Labyrinth.
The On Air Club is the ship’s karaoke venue that’s equipped with state-of the-art theatrical lighting, video cameras and flat-screen monitors; there’s even a ‘green screen’ for aspiring music stars to record their own video. The massive Casino Royale has gaming tables for Black Jack, Roulette, Craps and several versions of poker. There are also seemingly endless slot machines.
One of the ship’s two central Pools is designated as a sports pool offering a variety of activities including pool volleyball and basketball, floating golf and pole jousting. Spectators and contestants are equally entertained when teams try their hand at water ballet choreography in amateur synchronised swimming competitions.
At night, this area is transformed into an open-air nightclub with a large dance floor situated between the pools where there’s live music, themed parties and discos.
Towards the front of the ship, adults can luxuriate in the jungle-themed Solarium. Here, two large hot tubs, which can accommodate 16, are cantilevered out 12 feet from the side of the ship and suspended 112 feet above the ocean. This popular area overflows with lush tropical foliage, rainforest-inspired mosaics and murals, towering sculpted metal palms and hammocks.
At the stern of the ship is the Surf Park, where a 32ft wide by 40ft long FlowRider generates a thin sheet of water that flows over the ride’s surface, creating a wave-like shape.
Similar to swimming against a current in a stationary lap pool, exponents are supposed to be able to surf and body-board against a wave-like waterflow of 30,000 gallons per minute, carving turns and performing tricks. However, even the professionals on hand in Southampton found this more than a tad challenging!
It’s Aqua Amazing
Possibly the single most dramatic feature amongst the vast outpouring of eye-catching design on this new vessel is the top-deck Aqua environment. Unparalleled in the cruise industry, it is a fantasy for the whole family.
The spectacular H2O ZONE, the furthest aft of the three areas, is a colourful wonderland of large, brightly-hued sculptures doubling as interactive fountains that spray, sprinkle and spurt water in every direction.
These sculptures depict family members of all shapes and sizes and give revellers numerous ways to get soaked by turning wheels, activating sensors and dodging dumping buckets. Spread throughout a central wading area, there are also spray cannons, water jets and ground gushers.
In one corner of the water playground, a circular pool shoots a current of water into a river around a central island; here, passengers can float with the flow as they are misted by one of the fountain sculptures. Next to the circular current pool, a shallow pool creates a secluded space for tiny tots.
At the back of the park, a rectangular swimming pool is flanked by wading areas and fed by a waterfall cascading from an overhanging bridge. At night, the waterpark turns into a dramatically lit sculpture garden.
The Royal Caribbean trademark Rock-Climbing Wall is even larger than those found on Voyager-class ships, having been expanded from 30ft high and 33ft to one that’s 43ft by 44ft. There’s an additional central spire for climbing, making 11 challenging routes in all, ranging from easy to expert.
Maintaining the philosophy of activity-oriented diversions and reflecting current attitudes to exercise regimes, the innovative ShipShape Fitness Centre illustrates exactly why Independence of the Seas offers ‘way more than a cruise’.
At 9,700 square feet, the largest gymnasium at sea is brim-full of the latest Hammer Strength, Life Fitness and Everlast equipment.
Passengers can undertake ‘Trekking’ using treadmills as part of an invigorating group exercise class or ‘Night Klub Cycling,’ which is spinning with a difference as a live DJ and full light show makes exercising fun.
Other programmes include BOSU X-Training, offering the latest core stability exercise aimed at regular gym buffs, and the Power Plate, which is a vibrating exercise platform renowned for increasing metabolism, reducing cellulite, improving flexibility and circulation, along with strengthening bone density.
More aggressive regimes include Boot Camp Xtreme Training, offering a Marine-style schedule of shuttle runs, rope jumps and boxing moves, which are staged in the boxing ring where high-impact exercises such as Boxercise and kick-boxing also take place.
The ShipShape Spa has 17 treatment rooms, including one for couples, and a floatation bed. There’s the chance to indulge in an Elemis Aromapure Facial; savour an Ionithermie Algae Detox; or revel in a 75-minute Exotic Lime & Ginger Salt Glow with Full Body Massage.
There’s also acupuncture for weight loss, stress reduction, quitting smoking or seasickness. Additionally, there are two hairdressers, two nail technicians and two pedicure spas.
Kids are well catered for in Adventure Ocean. From wacky science experiments and Adventure Art by Crayola crafts projects to sports tournaments and dance parties, juniors from 3 to 17 have a full social calendar.
Teens have three exclusive areas – Fuel nightclub; Living Room hangout; and the Back Deck sundeck. In addition, there are Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots playtime programmes developed by Fisher-Price.
Without doubt Independence of the Seas is a show-stopper. Some of the innovations are a tad gimmicky, others are truly hedonistic. The cuisine is reliable rather than risqu�; the service friendly as opposed to fawning.
The clever design (only two main stairwells) disguises the vast size of this vessel and, like its smaller scions, passengers never believe they are aboard a colossus, home to 3,634 guests and 1,360 crew.
This is an experience that’s certain to appeal to British cruisers who prefer not to fly, as well as to those who appreciate just how much fun a holiday aboard one of Royal Caribbean International ships can be.
INDEPENDENCE OF THE SEAS FACTFILE
- Built: 2007/08
- Tonnage: 160,000
- Length: 1,112ft
- Beam: 184ft
- Draft: 28ft
- Speed: 21.6 knots
- Crew: 1,360
- Passenger decks: 14
- Passengers: 3,634 (double occupancy); 4,375 (all berths)
Itineraries: summer and autumn, 10, 11 and 14-night Canaries and Mediterranean cruises from Southampton; winter, 6 and 8-night Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.