Greg Fleming travels to Shanghai and hops aboard Royal Caribbean's newest cruise ship, the Spectrum of the Seas
If you like things big Royal Caribbean's new Spectrum of the Seas is the ship for you. It's the first in their Quantum Ultra Class and the largest (it can accommodate 5622 guests). It's also the most expensive ship in Asia — a market for which it has specifically been designed. And judging by the reactions of the many Asian media on board on this three-night inaugural cruise, Royal Caribbean have read the market well.
There's a Confucian saying — "Where ever you go, go with all your heart" — quoted on the placards underneath the many excellent paintings and prints by contemporary Asian artists that hang throughout the ship — and Royal Caribbean see massive potential in the burgeoning Chinese market and have not only put their heart but many millions of dollars into Spectrum.
"We think this class of ship is right for the Chinese market," says Susan Bonner vice-president and head of Australia and New Zealand for the line, who was on board last June to celebrate the official naming of the ship (Bonner also thrilled the Aussies in our party by screening the State of Origin live on the poolside big screen).
"It offers a great mix of indoor and outdoor experiences. We also expect a lot of Australasian cruisers will welcome the opportunity to explore the many Asian destinations on our newest cutting-edge cruise ship."
She points out that less than one per cent of Chinese have ever cruised.
But the ship's attractions are evident and open to all.
Bonner expects cruisers from our part of the world to make up 10 per cent of the guests on Spectrum of the Seas.
As well as forward-thinking entertainment and activities, Spectrum has tiered enclaves that offer privacy, exclusive dining and other privileges — including a special area set aside for boutique shopping (you can finally buy that $100 000 dollar necklace in privacy).
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The ship's home port will be Shanghai — the so-called Paris of the East — which gives Kiwi travellers a great opportunity to fly in a day or two early and explore this fascinating metropolis that's home to 25 million.
Expect to be overwhelmed
In Shanghai ancient culture rubs shoulders with the modern; you'll see massive, futuristic buildings, cheap markets that thrive a stone's throw from big name brands like Apple, Nike and Omega, and even though street food has pretty much gone due to Chinese health regulations — the food is wonderful and cheap.
I found a dumpling bar across from my hotel — the best pork dumplings I've ever had for less than NZ$10. Just wandering around was entertainment enough, although there are some food tours available that would be a great way in to the food culture here — but I just didn't have time on this trip.
Still I was happy to lose myself in the constant river of traffic surrounding East Nanjing Rd — bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, cars, pedestrians, the touts who try to lure foreigners out to their markets (don't go) — swept away by the energy and vitality — and once or twice almost by a wayward scooter rider.
Shanghai's new cruise ship terminal is about an hour out of central Shanghai and embarkation was well organised — and we were on the ship within 30 minutes.
The Spectrum has taken all the wows and wonders from their Quantum Class ships — robotic bar tenders, sky diving, an interactive VR bungy experience — and sprinkled a few extras on top.
Cabin-wise that includes — a two-level Ultimate Family Suite with an in-room slide, a movie room, popcorn maker and a Foosball table in the Gold enclave. There's also a new Chinese restaurant on deck 4 — Sichuan Red — which was one of the dining highlights of the cruise.
Add to that a Wonderland restaurant by celebrated Chinese chef DaDong, and an Asian tea, coffee and dessert spot, Leaf & Bean.
There are a few other changes too. Spectrum has just one large dining room, rather than the four, separate themed dining rooms on previous Quantum Class ships — with menus that change nightly; there are also new studio staterooms for solo travellers.
My balcony stateroom was well appointed and of good size, with a massive high-def television that featured many English programming options (including BBC World, Red Bull TV and ESPN) and a range of videos on demand (billed to your room).
Not that I spent much time flicking channels because the entertainment and activity options on this ship are pretty special.
I saw three shows on board — the super-hero-themed The Effectors, Silk Road — a retelling of the Silk Road story through the centuries — and Show Girl — which celebrated the show girls of the past, present and future.
All had the smarts and production glamour of a full Broadway production and the talented dancers and performers to make it work.
Show Girl received a well-deserved standing ovation after its debut performance — there's nothing like it on the seas.
Spectrum has two theatres at either end of the ship — the smaller Two70 and the larger Royal Theatre — and all the productions made use of the cutting-edge lighting and stage displays built into the venues (21k video resolution in Two70) and truly set a new standard for cruise entertainment.
Afterwards, if you want a disco with a difference, head to the silent disco in the Music Hall on selected nights. You're supplied the headphones and you choose the music you want to groove to. Even if you just head along to watch it's fun as the crowd boogies in silence — save for the odd shouted chorus.
There's a sense of whimsy and surprise elsewhere on board too — I found a piano player in the lift banging out some jazz tunes as I embarked, and on the upper deck there's what looks like a VW van crashing through an outer-wall.
We had the chance to eat at three signature restaurants (these require a per person charge and an 18 per cent gratuity) — Sichuan Red, Chops Grille — an American-style steakhouse — and Hot Pot — a hot-pot style restaurant on deck 14 where you cook your own meat and vegetables in a stock of your choice.
All were good, with Sichuan Red being particularly memorable — a wonderful Ma Po Tofu and its signature dish a totally grammable whole King Crab. But sometimes it's the little things — if you get a chance try their broccoli and garlic, tasty, fresh and superb.
On our last night Hot Pot was a great way to turn dinner into a team activity. You choose which broth to use, make your own dipping sauce and cook the supplied meat and veges to your taste and then fish them out with a ladle — or chopsticks if you're deft.
If steak's your thing, do book a table at Chops Grille, which offers some great comfort food staples — creamed spinach and old fashioned mac 'n' cheese alongside their American-sourced steaks.
But if I only had to dine at Windjammer Marketplace — the buffet-style complimentary spot (one of seven on the ship) — I'd be quite content. Here you can get everything from Chinese classics through to a range of western-style foods and pretty much anything else you can imagine — including freshly roasted suckling pig, crab and razor clams.
You can have tasty omelettes made to order for breakfast and there's a full range of pastries too. There's also a barista — so Kiwis don't have to forgo their flat whites.
The American hot dog place in the SeaPlex is also worthy of mention, the Coney Island hot dog makes a great mid-afternoon snack.
On Spectrum you can sky dive, drive dodgem cars, bungee jump with virtual reality goggles, do a spot of rock climbing, surfing or fencing, all activities lie within a minute's walk.
Combine those with the evergreen cruise pleasures — movies by the pool, night clubs, innumerable bars — and you get one of the most versatile big ships on the sea.
Those one-of-a-kind experiences bring out the kid inside us all and are great for families — although age and health restrictions apply on some.
I did my one-minute in the iFLY wind tunnel simulator — and loved it. You don goggles, helmet and overalls — undertake a safety and technique briefing and before you know it you're flying like an eagle although not half as gracefully — it's a lot harder than it looks so don't expect to be turning somersaults like the instructor who is by your side throughout the experience.
The next day I suited up for a spot of fencing after hitting the dodgem cars, which will bring back childhood memories of Easter Shows.
If all that sounds a bit like work book a session at the Spa or hit the shops — whatever your fancy you're unlikely to get bored on this ship.
For cruisers who want something a little different, both ship and destination-wise Spectrum is a must-do experience. Shanghai's easy to get to — Air New Zealand flies direct seven days a week (although getting a visa isn't much fun). You may even pick up a little Mandarin on the way (all announcements and signage on board Spectrum are relayed in English and Mandarin).
Special mention must go to the Schooner bar's resident entertainer Billy Pando, who, night after night sang a range of pop/rock classics till the early hours. One night we had a variety of groups — Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, American, Irish and of course Aussies and New Zealanders — gathered around the piano singing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at the top of their voices. It was quite a cross-cultural moment.
Spectrum is a ship for all ages and a bit like its home port Shanghai — big, brash and lots of fun.
■ Fly in a day or two early — Shanghai is a mind-blowing city that will leave you exhausted — in a good way.
■ The entertainment on this ship is really, really good. Don't miss the nightly shows.
■ Want to get away from the crowds? Stay in a suite. There are 40 of them and have exclusive access to the Solarium and dining venues.
■ Fancy yourself a singer? Head to Star Moment — a karaoke venue where family and friends can sing like stars.
■ You don't have to jump out of a plane to skydive. Try a one-minute sky diving experience in the iFly RipCord wind tunnel.
■ On the Royal Caribbean app you can reserve seats to shows and activities and also use it as a room key.