Ewan McDonald sails aboard the next big thing in cruising, which is due to arrive at a port near you this summer.
You've been there too. That time of day when a drink would just top things off nicely. So you find a bar, perch on a stool, think about what takes your fancy, and try to catch the bartender's eye. Except this bartender doesn't have an eye. More of an iPad.
You open the touchscreen on the bar table in front of you and choose your drink. Within moments the bartender is pouring, mixing, muddling your cocktail, both arms waving about him. Except those arms look like a miniature car-assembly machine. Probably because that's where the inventor got the idea.
The robot bar keep is just one of the toys aboard Ovation of the Seas, the fourth largest ship in the world.
The $1 billion mega-cruiser will sail New Zealand's ports and coasts from December. So big that it will have to moor off Rangitoto, Ovation is 347m long, 18 decks high and its 1500 crew can host 4905 passengers.
Full of gimmicks like the robot bartender — hey, he may not be great on small talk, but neither can he tell you, "I think you've had quite enough for today, sir" — Ovation is the new face of cruising. Where the ship, not the destination, is the point of the voyage.
On a three-day cruise off Tianjin, China (its northern hemisphere base) for the ship's naming ceremony, I could have ridden the waves in the stand-up surfing pool, taken on the rock-climbing wall (overlooked by a 10m panda mum and cub), driven dodgem cars, taken trapeze lessons at the circus school, or been whisked 90m above the ship for 360-degree views on the North Star, otherwise known as "the Claw", the London Eye-style observation deck that rises from a massive hydraulic arm atop the ship. On this day the view would have been a lot of sea, but think about when Ovation is in Sydney Harbour.
"I don't do heights," I told the PR woman.
"In that case," she said, "we're going skydiving".
Before I could think of another excuse, we had been given five minutes' orientation and were clambering into bodysuits, helmets, goggles and were on a bench 18 storeys above the sea, waiting to be disoriented.
Through the hatch into a three-storey high transparent tube, and I'm hit with a 180km/h blast of warm air inside a huge transparent Perspex tube above the water. For a minute that seems to last for 10, I'm floating, flying, tumbling, whooshing, bouncing off the walls in free fall and fairly free flight. It is, in all senses of the word, an absolute blast.
As royal Caribbean Australia-NZ managing director Adam Armstrong points out, when a ship like Ovation arrives in Auckland, with 6400 souls on board, it's like adding a small town to the country's population (given the state of many of our small towns, it's like adding a fairly large town to the population).
Those passengers have the choice of 2091 staterooms, 1572 of which have balconies. All 373 interior cabins have high-definition LED screens that display "real-time sights and sounds of the sea", so everyone gets a look in, or rather a look out.
And it's well-connected. The ship claims the fastest broadband connections at sea, allowing passengers to check emails and stream videos and music (at a price, of course). Via an app, the TV or kiosks throughout the ship, passengers can interactively book their dining or activities.
To be expected in a brand-new vessel, the staterooms ooze contemporary design and combine the maritime tradition of efficient use of space with five-star hotel comfort.
And quite a bit more. The Poshest suite (POA, as they say in the real estate ads) is the size of an average Kiwi home at 152sq m, but considerably better fitted and furnished. The upper floor contains the master bedroom and bathroom (bath, dual shower) and gigantic walk-in wardrobe. The lower floor is designed around a large living area with full kitchen and large dining room, a separate living room and the second bedroom-bathroom, which also has a full-size bath. Three balconies take advantage of the fact that it's at the stern. The largest has a wet bar, full-size hot tub and an outdoor kitchen; there's a second, two-person hot tub on another.
They call it the Royal Loft Suite, but these days it's more likely to be rented by a rapper or a reality star. Or maybe a rapper-reality star couple.
But the big question you want answered is, doesn't it feel overwhelming, being on a ship of that size with so many people?
Can't answer that honestly, because there were only 2000+ on our cruise. But I can say that Ovation had the feeling of being conceived on a human scale. These areas are for entertainment, these are for dining, those are for shopping or ambling, those are for lying about and doing nothing. Everything was well signposted and accessible through 16 passenger lifts (you may, however, want to think about using the stairs after a few days of the excellent shipboard fare). Unlike the kitsch aboard many cruisers, the art is lively, contemporary and, well, real art.
Feeding the 5000 is more than dishing up a few loaves and some fishes. The company's catering director, based at its Florida headquarters, has an annual budget of $3 billion and is one of the most serious players in the world's markets.
On top of that, there's the challenge posed by spending half the year in China, with local and international tastes and dietary considerations to consider, and the other half Downunder (yes, there will be Vegemite on our voyages).
So there are four variously themed main dining rooms for breakfast, lunches, dinners and snacks. But taking the total of restaurants to 18 — that's about as many as Auckland's North Wharf — are everything from steakhouses to sushi, including Jamie Oliver's Italian, Michael's Genuine Pub, Wonderland's molecular menu and the spectacular Izumi Japanese.
After-dinner entertainment has left the hackneyed offerings of yesteryear behind, too. By day, Two70 is a two decks-high wall-of-glass lounge that offers — oh, you guessed — 270-degree views from the stern. By night it becomes a multi-media theatre, Windows curtained, banks of dancing video screens, rising and falling stage floors, for shows ranging from a Cirque du Soleil look-alike to cabaret and Broadway-style productions.
If Ovation is the present of cruising, what's the future? Armstrong says the company wants to bring its biggest ships here. Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are the world's two largest cruise ships; each can carry up to 6500 passengers, and the company is building two more of a similar size.
May have to move Rangitoto, then.
Home and away we go
Kiwis are savvy travellers. A lot of planning goes into their holidays and they have a keen eye for quality, says Adam Armstrong, managing director of Royal Caribbean Australia-NZ.
When it comes to cruises, "they're on the lookout for diverse onboard experiences on top-quality ships that call at a range of destinations — all for a reasonable price".
Kiwi cruisers tend to travel further afield than their Aussie cousins, with more than 60 per cent taking a long-haul flight to get on a cruise rather than boarding locally.
Europe, Alaska and the Caribbean are the three major cruising hotspots for Kiwis.
"Kiwi cruisers are also slightly older than Aussie cruisers. The average age of a Kiwi cruiser is 54 — four years older than their Aussie counterparts," Armstrong notes.
When it comes to choosing a cruise, it's a combination of destination, experience and price.
"In most countries around the world we find the destination is the top deciding factor in taking a cruise. However, ships are becoming just as much of a destination as the ports they visit — so many of our guests are making decisions based on the ship."
Despite that itch for long-haul getaways, Armstrong says New Zealand-based cruises are becoming more popular with Kiwis.
"They give travellers an opportunity to see their country from a whole new perspective. Waking up to find dolphins jumping below their own private balcony, watching the sunrise as they glide into Auckland harbour, or cruising through the Sounds are just some of the priceless moments they might only get the chance to experience on a cruise."
Ovation of the Seas will sail eight cruises to New Zealand from December, starting in Sydney before visiting Milford Sound, Dunedin, Wellington, Picton, Napier, Tauranga, Auckland and the Bay of Islands.
As well as Ovation of the Seas, Royal Caribbean will have Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas based in Sydney and Legend of the Seas in Brisbane this season.
Royal Caribbean brought more than 73,500 cruisers to New Zealand during the 2015-16 season, an increase of 70 per cent on the previous one.
An estimated 267,800 passengers landed here last season.
Details: The ship arrives in Auckland on December 27. Bookings for 2017 and 2018 are open.
Dining: Guests can dine in 18 restaurants and bars including Jamie Oliver's iconic Jamie's Italian.
Further details: See ovationoftheseas.co.nz.