Growing near Papenburg in inland Germany is out-of-season produce in glasshouses, maize, dairy cows and some of the biggest and most sophisticated cruise ships in the world.

The latest and the biggest to be built in the centuries' old local shipyard is the Quantum of the Seas, an 18-level monster that rises up from the pancake flat countryside stretching from The Netherlands across the border into Lower Saxony.

Quantum, billed by its owners Royal Caribbean as the world's first true smart ship, towers above the dock at the Meyer Werft shipyard on the banks of the Ems River.

Shipyard managing director Bernard Meyer represents the sixth generation of the family-run business and said the ship's sheer size at a gross 167,800 tonnes and complexity made it a challenge to build.

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The next hurdle is getting Quantum out to sea, as the 214-year-old yard is 30km up the twisting river.

Next weekend Captain Srecko (Felix) Ban is scheduled to make his maiden trip down the river - a voyage where the margins are tight.

He says in places there's just one metre clearance beneath the $1.15 billion vessel that has a draught of 8.5m and that's when conditions are ideal.

"We pick the best time taking into account the high water, phases of the moon and the wind. We can't have too much wind." says Ban, 47, who started his maritime career aboard cargo ships that called at New Zealand ports before joining the Miami-based cruise line.

At one retractable railway bridge across the river there's just a 600mm clearance either side of the ship and the day and a half voyage or "conveyance" down the river is delicate and Royal Caribbean won't pay in full until it makes it to the North Sea.

Tens of thousands of locals will line the banks of the muddy Ems to see the ship make the day and a half long "conveyance" down the river under the command of the yard captain who has spent the last 18 months preparing for the 36-hour trip. Quantum will go down stern first for part of the journey as it is more manoeuverable for the tugs that will be doing the grunt work and a massive bracket to fit around the prominent bow bulb has been specially built for tugs to push against.

Watch: Making a Mega Ship - The Quantum of the Seas

New Zealand Herald journalist Grant Bradley finds out how giant Royal Caribbean cruise ships are built at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany.

Once at sea Quantum will undergo trials and last minute outfitting before the fitting of North Star, a gondola at the end of a hydraulic arm that takes 14 passengers about 100m above its decks and then the ship goes to Southampton before an Atlantic crossing to New York and its maiden cruise in November.

After cruising the Caribbean for six months it goes to China where it will be based indefinitely reflecting the global shift in cruise demand and where passengers are prepared to pay top prices to travel.

Mature cruise markets, particularly the Caribbean, are saturated and passengers have become accustomed to aggressive discounting so the flashest ship in the world is going to Shanghai.

"It doesn't take much of a premium to help with returns. If you do build a better vessel they will come," said Royal Caribbean chief executive Richard Fain.

New Zealand won't see this vessel in the foreseeable future - handling the number of passengers would be difficult even if wharves were long enough - but cruising is the fastest growing holiday market in this country. Nearly 60,000 Kiwis took a cruise somewhere in the world last year and that was up 23 per cent on the previous 12 months, the steepest growth rate of any market measured.

New generation cruise ships come out every five years or so and Quantum is a monster; the third biggest in the world. It's packed with unique attractions that make it something like a floating amusement park that are aimed at a younger market who will be able to tap into bandwidth the company says will exceed the total of all other cruise ships at sea, although some cruise veterans say given the spotty coverage on ships to date, that won't be hard.

Royal Caribbean has a partnership with the operator of a cluster of near orbit satellites that will allow the 4180 to 4905 passengers to download movies, game or skype while at sea.

But on-vacation connectivity will come at a price and while nearly all other attractions on board are free, there are plenty of opportunities to lighten passengers' pockets whether they're paying more for a private experience in the North Star gondola or more upmarket, specialised dining options as well as more traditional extra spending at the bar. There Quantum offers a twist - "bionic bartenders" or robotic arms will serve up drinks in one venue, but with no tips required.

The cruise industry norm for ancillary revenue in addition to fares is around 25 per cent.

Big cruise ships are big targets when bad news hits, whether it be outbreaks of sickness onboard or fires.

Last year Royal Caribbean took to twitter to spread the news early about a fire on board one of its ships off Baltimore in something of a pre-emptive strike.

Cruise companies are watched closely by Jim Walker of US-based maritime lawyers Walker and O'Neill who has identified North Star as a potential "cruise lawyer's dream".

Fain said there had been extensive modelling of the machine and even though sea state and wind strength may be too much for it for 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the time, he was confident conditions in the regions the ship would operate would allow the gondola to be hoist for the remainder of the time.

In response to "the bad rap" cruise ships get about their environmental impact, Fain says Quantum was his company's most efficient ship yet. It has a more streamlined hull and the shape of its bulbous bow - chosen after 1000 shapes were considered - will save about 1 per cent of fuel.

Fain says it's got rid of inefficient, heat generating incandescent light bulbs, replacing them with LED and fluorescent lights. Everything off the ship is reused, recycled or incinerated, he says, and as not all ports have facilities to recycle Quantum will carry it in special freezers that kill bacteria.

"I think that means we have the coolest garbage around."

The ship also has an air lubrication system where compressed air produces mircoscopic bubbles underneath the bow of the vessel and it floats on air, not water, says Fain.

It's said a rising tide lifts all boats and that's true in the cruise industry with all companies having to lift their game as new ships are stacked with new features.

One travel agent said they become like hamsters running on wheels, perpetually trying to keep up. Features on new ships are retrofitted on to older ones - the Voyager of the Seas which calls in New Zealand has had a FlowRider surfing attraction fitted and another of Royal Caribbean's ships Navigator of the Seas has virtual balconies installed.

Ship building began nearly four centuries ago in Papenburg, a picturesque town of 35,000.

View: Quantum of the Seas photo gallery

Meyer Werft traces its origins to January 28, 1795 it was when Willm Rolf Meyer laid down 200 Dutch guldens to buy land on the banks of the Ems.

Since then the yard has survived a slump in demand around the Napoleonic war, two world wars, hyperinflation, more falling demand following the September 11 terror attacks and pressure from the green lobby to shift the business closer to the sea.

The second world war was devastating. Taken over by the Nazis in 1939, the yard records show it produced just four submarine chasers and survived Allies bombing virtually unscathed until the last weeks of the war. Just before the British and Canadian advance the town and yard were bombarded and incendiary bombs set fire to many buildings and according to the official Meyer Werft history, "reduced the company to a heap of ruins".

Its recovery from the war mirrored that of the rest of West Germany - rapid, with an emphasis on building quality.

The yard now employs 5000 of its own staff and contract workers. It is helped by state export credits in the form of loan guarantees that help it borrow at lower rates and has grown to be one of the biggest in Europe with others in Finland, France, Romania and Italy.

While they all face increasing competition from yards in Japan, Korea and China, the level of specialisation needed to build cruise ships means the European yards for now retain their advantage.


Anthem of the Seas keel laying ceremony where the aft keel section is lifted into the dry dock building bay and placed on a lucky coin.

How to build a cruise ship

1

- First start with two pieces of steel - one small piece from which a ceremonial silhouette of the ship or the first letter of its name is cut and another up to 30m by 30m to start the job in earnest. The large sheets form the base of modular cruise ship construction which are like building out with Lego on a massive scale.

2 - Steel used in the hull can be 30mm thick. At the Meyer Werft it is cut by the biggest robotic lasers in Europe in a special room. During a brief tour of the massive laser cutting hall, which was scrupulously tidy with all unused tools hanging in their assigned place, photos were forbidden to protect intellectual property.

3 - Steel plates are then welded using a hybrid welding process, robots welding seams at high speed. The flat pieces of steel are joined to become sections of the ship, and all work is done on the floor so whatever will end up in the ceiling cavity is fitted by workers bending down rather than working above their heads. These sections can weigh up to 180 tonnes and are then picked up by a huge gantry crane and flipped for work on what is actually the floor.

4 - Meyer Werft has adapted work-flow processes from the car industry with a four-hour target for completing all sections. Eight sections are joined to become massive blocks in the neighbouring ship assembly building.

The aft keel section is lifted into the dry dock building bay first, and in keeping with centuries-old ship building tradition is placed on a lucky coin (with the Quantum of the Seas a 430-tonne block was lowered on to a freshly minted penny).

The engines are then fitted. (Quantum's two diesel engines and bow thrusters have more than 50MW capacity). Typically 70 to 80 blocks make up a cruise ship and each can weigh up to 800 tonnes. After being lifted on to each other there is typically just a 1mm gap between them for welding together. Prefabricated cabins and other rooms are slid into place.

5 - Meyer Werft has several ships under construction at the same time and has adopted a new technique of floating out what appear to be chainsawed off chunks - or mega blocks - of the vessel into the basin to allow work on another ship in the assembly building.

6 - Docking out of the nearly completed ship happens two months or so before formal launch. The ship is moored at the dock and finishing work is done right up to the last minute.

Grant Bradley was hosted in Papenburg by Royal Caribbean.