Not many 7-year-olds get to see Santa arrive on the North Star, hovering 90 metres above sea level in a jewel-like capsule, but that is exactly how Josh Warhurst spent Christmas Day on board mega-cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever to sail New Zealand waters.

Travelling with his father, Brad, 38, a miner from Mount Isa in Northern Queensland, Josh is unsure what part of the cruise he has enjoyed most so far.

"Skydiving, dodgems, swimming ... just everything. Oh and the flow rider ... so cool. I really just like everything. Everything."

Josh is just one of 880 under-18 year olds on the cruise who all received a Christmas present from Santa and his elves. Santa arrived on Christmas Day in one of the ship's features, dubbed the North Star, an observation gondola on a hydraulic arm which gives passengers 360-degree views of sea or whichever port they are visiting.


On Boxing Day that port was Tauranga.

Carrying 4762 passengers and 1600 crew, the 169,000-tonne ship, the fourth-largest cruise ship in the world, made its first visit to Tauranga, arriving at 6am to a welcoming crowd of thousands of locals who lined the harbour and Mauao.

The ship's captain, Henrik Loy, a 41-year-old Norwegian, said he had never encountered such a large number of spectators.

"We always get some people watching the ship come in, but I have never seen this number. The passion of the locals was heartening for both myself and the crew."

The fact that the ship could enter the port was a coup for the Port of Tauranga, which completed its dredging programme in October to widen and deepen the port's channels, allowing it to welcome ships the size of Ovation, said Port of Tauranga's commercial manager Leonard Simpson.

It's a feat that Port of Auckland is unable to match. The ship will arrive there today but it too big to dock there. It will anchor in the harbour and ferry passengers ashore on smaller boats.

As part of its Tauranga stopover, a delegation including Mayor Greg Brownless and Tourism Bay of Plenty CEO Kristin Dunne and chairman Des Hammond, was given a tour of the $1.45 billion ship, which Royal Caribbean's Mark Kinchley described as a "game changer" and a new generation of ships which offer "super cruising" for passengers.

Resembling a holiday resort on water, Ovation's features include the Flow Rider, a stand-up surfing pool; sky-diving simulator; rock-climbing wall; dodgem cars; and a circus school.


The challenge in touring the ship is its sheer size. At 348 metres long, if stood up on end she would be one-and-a-half times the height of Mount Maunganui.

With almost 6500 passengers and crew, Ovation of the Seas carries more than the population of some New Zealand towns that it will visit, including Paihia and Picton.

Walking through the ship's indoor promenade lined with shops, restaurants and bars, it feels more like a floating city than a ship.

Josh Warhurst spent Christmas Day on board mega-cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever to sail New Zealand waters. PHOTO/GEORGE NOVAK
Josh Warhurst spent Christmas Day on board mega-cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever to sail New Zealand waters. PHOTO/GEORGE NOVAK

With 2090 staterooms, she has 25 times more rooms than the Tauranga Hotel Armitage.

Royal Caribbean's hotel director John Rae said the passengers were 75 per cent Australasian and 25 per cent international, including many families.

"We see a lot of multi-generational families, with kids, parents grandparents and great-grandparents, as there is something that goes at a pace to suit all age groups. Particularly at Christmas. It is a way many families are now choosing to 'do Christmas'."

One of the appeals of large ships like Ovation, he said, is that children are kept busy.

"We often have parents tell us they don't see their kids from breakfast to dinner, and they are not complaining," said Rae.

Youngsters congregate at the SeaPlx, the largest-ever indoor activity space that Royal Caribbean has designed with bumper cars, roller skating, a full-size sports court and more.

In an Xbox lounge some dedicated teens were shunning a walk up the Mount in favour of gaming. The ship has its own superfast internet-VOOM.

Which leaves the adults to relax; dining, drinking, dabbling at the casino or drenching in the sun poolside (if you are still worried those pesky kids might find you there's an adults-only pool).

If exploring the ship's 16 decks works up a thirst, the Bionic Bar is on hand, where robotic bartenders aptly aimed "Mix" and "Mingle" will serve you a range of 127 cocktails.

As they mix and shake the drinks, their robotic arms dance to disco music against a backdrop of multicoloured lights. Eat your heart out Tom Cruise. As barmen go, they don't talk much, although after 127 cocktails you may start holding a conversation with them.

No worries the robots will run out of ice or fruit. Thirty-seven tonnes of ice are made on board each day, and 340 kilograms of lemons are used on a seven day voyage. If cocktails aren't your thing there are 40 types of beer and 350 varieties of wine on board.

If you prefer food, Ovation's 18 restaurants including a Jamie Oliver restaurant as well as Wonderland, an eating experience which sends you down the rabbit hole with menus you paint with watercolours, and delights such as "liquid lobster" and "vanishing noodles".

During a seven-day cruise, Rae says passengers will chomp through 3.3 tonnes of chicken, 5.1 tonnes of beef, 6.8 tonnes of potatoes and 714 kilograms of lobster tail. They can work off the calories in a gym and solarium decorated with real palm trees tended by an onboard gardener.

At night, passengers are entertained by robotic dancing video-screens, digital projections and high-flying aerialists and performers. Or they can browse a $6.1m 11,000 piece art collection including a larger-than-life Mama and Baby panda installation.

Monday's visit comes amid the Bay's biggest-ever cruise ship season, with 83 ships and 153,000 passengers expected.

The Ovation of the Seas is scheduled to return to Tauranga on February 5.

Royal Caribbean said Ovation's three visits to Tauranga were expected to inject more than $1.5m in passenger spending alone, while her maiden New Zealand season was expected to pump more than $9.5m into the national economy.

Ovation of the Seas

Tonnage, GRT: 169,000
Length: 348m
Width: 41m
Cruising speed: 22 knots
Decks: 18
Guest elevators: 16
Passengers: 4905 (maximum) .Crew: 1500
Cost: US$1 billion ($1.45b)
Has a stand-up surfing pool, sky-diving simulator, rock-climbing wall, dodgem cars, a circus school and an observation gondola on a hydraulic arm rising 90 metres above the ship.
Built at Papenberg, Germany
Made its inaugural sailing in Southampton, England in April