Brand new and full of impressive technology, Quantum of the Seas promises a new experience in cruising. Winston Aldworth gets a unique perspective on a very new ship future.
We're dangling in a glass bubble about 100 metres above the Atlantic Ocean. The bubble - the North Star, to give it its proper name - is about five metres in diameter and it's attached by means of a massive crane-like arm to the Quantum of the Seas, the newest cruise ship in Royal Caribbean's fleet and surely the most whizz-bang vessel in an industry that loves whizz and bang.
The ship gets worryingly small beneath us. The horizon bigger.
It's a rare and exhilarating rare view and it's got me clinging pretty tightly to the railing. From our lofty crow's nest we can see the massive arc left by the ship's wake as she cuts through the ocean. The boom lowers us, but not back to the ship's deck - instead it takes us down alongside the port side of the ship until we're looking across at the staterooms.
"I can see my cabin from here," I mutter with a slight note of alarm. The rare view is now outright disconcerting. We're meant to be aboard the ship, not flying along next to the damn thing.
If I cling much tighter to the railing, I'll be leaving fingerprints in here.
I'm rattled, but not enough to miss noting what an amazing sight it is. This gigantic ship - a greater mass than most office towers and measuring 347 metres from bow wave to stern - ploughs through the waves at a fair old rate of knots. She looks good. I'm sure most ships look this impressive when surging across the ocean - you just never get to see them from a vantage point as dazzling as this.
The North Star gondola, like many of the attractions on Quantum of the Seas, is a cruise industry first. While a ride on North Star is complimentary, you can pay for premium slots at sunrise and sunset "flights" - some on our familiarisation cruise were smart enough to book their ride for views of the Statue of Liberty as we sailed out of New York. You can even book the whole thing for a "Private Flight". ("Ideal for marriage proposals," they say. But what if she says no? It's a long way down.)
The North Star. Photo / Supplied
Passengers will be able to take the North Star's 15-minute ride while the Quantum of the Seas is in port or out at sea. On our voyage, the ship was being shown off to travel trade and media types and we figured passengers would be more likely to take the North Star ride while the ship was in port than at sea. It would certainly offer unique views of stunning locations.
But, even though one patch of sea looks much like another, taking this high ride while at sea delivers unrivalled views of a cruise ship under steam. For seasoned cruisers, it's a glorious chance to look back on themselves and their means of travel. And to get over their fear of heights.
Aboard the Quantum of the Seas, they do things a little differently.
Which is how we found ourselves inside the glass bubble. It's also how we find ourselves skydiving in a seven-metre tall plastic tube. RipCord by iFly offers passengers the chance to try skydiving at sea - and, yes, this is another first for the cruise industry.
Dressed in skydiving gear - a big billowing onesie, unflattering goggles and helmet - we're given a 20-minute crash course and taken to the skydiving chamber where a giant fan gives each member of our group a brief - but very real - experience of fight.
We go in one at a time, joined in the chamber by an instructor - "Keep your hands in front of you and bend your knees," he says - and raised into the air by the wind tunnel's giant fan. With the roar of the fan, I can't hear what the instructor says, so it's all hand signals from him and obvious laughter from my friends looking on from outside as I flap about on the floor of the wind tunnel like a stunned flounder. Cheers guys.
The wind tunnel looks out on the aft of the ship and a group of passersby are watching my efforts at freefall, but I'm too busy freaking out and trying to fly to notice the view. For the uninitiated, this is a seriously weird sensation. I'm on a ship, and I'm flying. All at once.
And they call this cruising?
Indoor skydiving. Photo / Supplied
Royal Caribbean have long positioned themselves at the dynamic end of the cruise market and the 4180-passenger Quantum of the Seas (along with its soon-to-be-launched sister ship the Anthem of the Seas) continues the theme.
There's a full-sized basketball court on board which converts into a bumper car rink (yes, that's another cruise industry first). Later, when the cars are switched off for the night, it becomes a roller disco where, in another first for the cruise industry, I put on a pair of roller skates and humiliate myself while drunk. Oh, I've humiliated myself while drunk plenty; just never on roller skates before.
The venue also plays host to a trapeze school - yes, another first at sea.
Don't be alarmed, but there's a 10-metre tall polar bear clinging to the starboard side of the ship. Titled "From Afar" (though the crew have already nicknamed the bear Felicia) it was created by Aussie artist Lawrence Argent.
So, why would you want to put a giant, magenta polar bear on the side of your brand new cruise ship? Just because.
It makes for a great selfie. The oddness of the big bear and the beauty of the artwork mean there's a regular crowd of passengers getting photos there. The bear is perched on the 15th storey of this most unusual ship, next to the dodgem cars that give way to the late-night roller disco, alongside the rock-climbing wall and just along from the freefall skydiving tube. Given what she's next to, the giant magenta polar bear fits right in.
Expect to see her in the marketing. Passengers are encouraged to take selfies on board and post them on social media with the hashtag #selfieatsea.
If nothing else, the eight-ton Felicia makes for a handy meeting point.
Aside from the whizz-bang experiences and the outright gimmicks, this ship is seriously wired behind the scenes. All of which makes for a cruisier cruise as well as making it easier to send those selfies.
It wasn't so long ago that any internet connectivity on a cruise ship was patchy at best, often with access limited to a "computer room" or "office space". Royal Caribbean seem pretty chuffed with the wi-fi connectivity aboard the Quantum, their "Smart Ship". They've invested heavily in high-speed internet via a unique satellite feed. and it shows.
The bear sculpture 'From Afar'. Photo / Supplied
On our cruise, the internet was fast - in fact, faster than in many places around New Zealand. I was easily able to send video messages using WhatsApp.
The high-bandwidth wifi works throughout the ship and costs about $27 a day, making it easy to send those selfies.
It helps for getting the most out of the ship as well. Passengers can download and use an app allowing them to make reservations on attractions and in restaurants across the ship. The system can also be accessed from kiosks and tablets throughout the ship. The big attractions like North Star will attract big queues, so a streamlined booking system should make for a more pleasant journey. Again, very smart.
All that dangling precariously in a glass bubble is thirsty work. Time for a meal and a drink.
On the classic nightlife items, Quantum is a success. They've done away with the big restaurants, instead channelling diners into smaller ones. The supplementary restaurants are fantastic, as they ought to be on a brand new cruise ship. All the food outlets on board are overseen by Kiwi executive chef David Reihana.
In the evening, most of the activity takes place around the Royal Esplanade, the two-deck promenade hosting bars and restaurants.
We descend upon the Bionic Bar, where robot bartenders mix the cocktails with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of pointless chatter. Well, when we say "robot bartenders", we're actually talking about two mechanical arms swivelling about beneath the spirits bottles, drawing measures and shaking things up where necessary. It is, inevitably, the first bar with robot bartenders at sea and its novelty value alone makes it worth a visit. They'll mix just about anything - you can even devise cocktails of your creation - but White Russians are off. The robots don't pour milk or cream.
Robot bartenders and bumper cars are among the unique attractions aboard Quantum of the Seas. Photo / Supplied
There's a much-lauded Jamie Oliver restaurant on board and Michael's Genuine Pub is true to its word. It's a genuine beer house with quality craft beers - some of America's best from the big-hop game: Dogfish Head, Bear Republic, Stone and Rogue are in attendance along with an impressive selection of single malts. It's comfortably the best pub I've seen on a cruise ship, principally because it doesn't seem to be trying too hard to be an authentic pub.
Many of our fellow passengers were awestruck by the eye-catching entertainment at Two70, the interactive entertainment venue hosting a dazzling light-and-sound show.
But my favourite was the sensational Led Zeppelin covers band (Let's Zeppagain). They were pitch perfect from the hair and the flares to the "Does anybody remember laughter?" And - much later and much drunker - we shared pizza with the John Paul Jones doppelganger on bass at the last restaurant open on board.
We sang the virtues of the old Led Zep songs. Sometimes the old ways are the best. But not often. Not on this ship.
Further information: Later this year, Quantum of the Seas will shift to Asia, where it will be based in Shanghai, sailing to Japan and Korea. For cruise schedules and ticket information, see the Royal Caribbean website.
The writer travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean.