We’re on the approach road to the Port of Southampton and our coach driver is confirming directions with a colleague on his cellphone. “Which gate do we go to, mate?” he bellows. “Oh, the one with the big boat? Righto—cheers!” Whereupon the coach enters a service lane and we catch our first glimpse of the “big boat” looming in the distance. Tired and grimy though I am from the overnight flight, I feel a bit like Kate Winslet in that film, you know the one.
Weighing in at 1,60,000 tonnes, Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas is the largest cruise ship in the world, a position it shares with its sister ship Freedom of the Seas. This translates into statistics that are impressive enough on paper—length 340 metres, height 208 feet from waterline to funnel (that’s two Statues of Liberty placed head to toe), 15 passenger decks that accommodate more than 4,000 guests—but which you can get the true measure of only when you’re actually on board what amounts to an enormous floating hotel.
Correction—make that mini-city, for that’s what a ship of this size is if you have only two days to explore it. We’re here for Liberty’s inaugural voyage, a round-trip in the waters of the English Channel and the North Sea, and the brochure is overflowing with on-board activities. There are shops, nightclubs and restaurants, karaoke, salsa classes and video-game rooms, theatres and photo galleries. It’s daunting.
But Gautam Chadha, chief executive, TIRUN Travel Marketing, which represents Royal Caribbean in India, gives me some good counsel. “Don’t worry about seeing everything and taking notes,” he says, “Go for the basic tours on your schedule and spend the rest of the time relaxing, taking things as they come. That’s what the cruise experience is about.”
We board the ship around 12pm by walking through a dingy passageway dripping with muddy water—but all illusions of ordinariness end here. As the gleaming, glass-walled elevator ascends, we see glimpses of the spectacular Royal Promenade, which spans four decks across the ship’s midsection, and is done up to resemble a little street, complete with shops, cafés and eating joints.
After freshening up in my room I arrive for lunch at the Windjammer Café, naïvely expecting—you know—a café: a medium-sized eating place with a few tables scattered about. The next 15 minutes are spent staggering around a cavernous hall, examining the variety of cuisines laid out for the buffet. This is my introduction to a basic tenet of cruising: it’s important to consume vast quantities of food and drink all day long. While walking down the Promenade, for instance, you must—regardless of the time—have a pizza slice at Sorrento’s and wash it down with a quick beer at the Hoof & Claw Pub. Scavenging of this sort is to be dissociated from the regular black-tie meals in the dining room.
Back in my cabin I’ve just sunk into one of the chairs on the balcony when the bell rings. “I hope you’re coming for the emergency drill at 3.30,” says a steward, a Jamaican lilt in his voice. “But I haven’t rested in 48 hours,” I mumble. “But you must come, sir,” he says, with a won’t-take-no smile, and so I go. Thankfully, the drill isn’t too trying: sirens go off, we put on our life-jackets, rush down to a specified deck and are herded towards the lifeboats according to our room numbers. It turns out to be the only part of the cruise that can be described as mundane, though I probably wouldn’t think this way if an iceberg happened along.
Our group spends most of the next two days striking the vital balance between pre-planned activity and impromptu exploration. On the Promenade we watch a ‘Pirates’ Parade’, with the incongruous spectacle of Jack Sparrow-types strutting about in front of branded cosmetics stores. We visit the enormous casino, unoccupied now but expected to be chockfull on regular cruise nights. I check out the library, which has a copy of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
With Liberty scheduled to leave Southampton at 10pm, we watch a spectacular fireworks show on the upper deck. I wouldn’t have minded staying up here to watch as we set sail, but there’s an “un-miss able” show at the Platinum Theatre, with a troupe of singers and dancers performing a cheeky updating of such stories as Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. This is the first of two performances we will see, the other being a musical comedy act by the Tenors Unlimited, otherwise known as the ‘Rat Pack of Opera’.
Halfway through the show, there is a loud groaning; we feel a movement beneath our feet and know we’re on our way. When I return to my room an hour later and look out of the window, land is still visible and one doesn’t get a sense of being truly waterborne. But in the middle of the night I get up and see the waters stretching endlessly towards the horizon. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. “Noah’s flood is not subsided,” Herman Melville pointed out in Moby Dick, “Two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” It’s true: nothing—not even air travel—can make you feel as insignificant as the ocean.
More unplanned wandering, partying and ingesting take place on day two, but a highlight is our tour of the galleys. It’s fascinating to hear about the under-the-surface activity that keeps the vast machinery humming. When this liner operates at full capacity, over 250 people work round the clock, preparing meals for 4,000-odd people. “This, ladies and gentlemen,” says Executive Chef Johann Petutschig with a flourish, “is the most important table on the ship.” Mouths agape, we look at the steel-top on his right, half-expecting it to do something to justify its exalted status—perhaps sing us a salty sea ditty. But no: it’s here, the chef explains, that every dish is inspected both for taste and to ensure that it looks exactly the same as the picture on the brochure. This may seem like homogenisation taken to crazy extremes, but that’s how a ship on this scale has to be run. Little wonder that the crew-to-passenger ratio is close to 1:2.
We proceed to the captain’s bridge, where I am quickly disabused of any mental images of Ahab and his crewmen struggling with their boat’s controls during a storm. Our skipper is a child of his time: when he wishes to change the direction of this leviathan, he delicately twists a joystick-like device to the left or the right.
With the weather inordinately chilly, there hasn’t been much incentive to go to the upper deck. It isn’t until late afternoon, when the sun makes an appearance, that I do the deckchair thing. Some tips for the first-time cruiser:
1) Locate an empty deckchair that isn’t directly facing the sun, 2) Lie down in a slanted position, 3) Fix your gaze on the balloon figures near the pool, and 4) Empty your head of all thoughts except those that involve gentle waves and chirping sea-birds.
The market for luxury cruises is growing worldwide—around 60 per cent of Royal Caribbean’s UK customers last year were new to cruising—and it’s still far from achieving its full potential. Indian travellers are among those who haven’t yet warmed to the idea of spending a weeklong vacation on a ship. “We have this obsession with bustling from country to country,” quips Chadha, referring to the popularity of guided European coach tours that require travellers to check in at a different hotel nearly every night. “But it’s so much more relaxing to spend your nights on the ship and disembark for land excursions during the day.”
At risk of sounding like a luxury-junkie (if not a Libertine), the one minor flaw in this argument is that with a ship like this one, you might be tempted not to get off at all.
Liberty at the Sea
There are four types of staterooms on board the ship—Interior, Ocean view, Balcony and Suite/Deluxe. All the rooms have a private bathroom, multiple configuration beds, closets, a flat-screen television, and a telephone for shipboard use. If you’re the gamesome type, you’ll spend most of your time on deck 13: there’s a mini-golf course, a large spa, rock-climbing demonstrations and even a ‘Flowrider’ for surfers.
7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise: Departure dates: June 9, June 23, July 7 and so on, on a fortnightly basis. The ship sails from Miami, Florida and docks at San Juan (Puerto Rico), Philipsburg (St Maarten) and Labadie (Haiti), before returning to Miami. Prices start from $649 per person (for an interior cabin) and can go up to $2,849 (for deluxe and suite), depending on the dates: included in the tariff are shipboard accommodations, ocean transportation, most meals, some beverages and most on board entertainment. For a complete list of tariffs by date, see
7-night Western Caribbean cruise: Departure dates: again on a fortnightly basis, starting from June 16, June 30, July 14 and so on. As in the Eastern Caribbean cruise, the ship departs from and returns to Miami. The ports of call on this cruise are Labadie, Montego Bay (Jamaica), George Town (Grand Cayman), and Cozumel (Mexico). Tariffs are similar to those for the Eastern cruise.
Royal Caribbean is represented in India by TIRUN Travel Marketing, 601 Ashoka Estate, 24 Barakhamba Road, New Delhi 110 001; 011-23311362-65,