Brace yourself for the big one, writes Stephanie Holmes.
Bigger isn't always better in travel these days, with "boutique" the buzzword used to describe everything from hotels to safaris and airlines.
But try telling that to the cruise industry. Although there's a move towards small ship and expedition cruising, at the other end of the scale, some cruise companies are trying their best to attract new guests and keep their audience — and their profits — growing.
Millennials and families are the new target and with that comes the race to build bigger, better, bolder, billion-dollar ships to attract budget-conscious travellers.
This year alone has already seen the launch of Norwegian Bliss (330m), Carnival Horizon (322m), and the MSC Seaview (323m), but the biggest of them all is Royal Caribbean's 362m Symphony of the Seas, currently the largest cruise ship in the world.
Sailing the Mediterranean for the Northern Hemisphere summer season, Symphony will make her way to Miami to cruise the Caribbean from November. The hope is she will attract a whole new generation of cruisers.
Like a floating city at sea, Symphony has room for 6680 passengers and 2200 crew at full capacity. Across her 18 decks you'll find multi-storey slides, nightclubs, an ice-skating rink, wave simulators, mini-golf, a zipline, Broadway shows, 22 cafes and restaurants, robot bartenders and much, much more. Symphony is a cacophony of colourful all-ages, all-hours entertainment.
Of course, a ship like this is not going to appeal to everyone. No matter how many different areas there are for people to explore, being surrounded by more than 6000 other passengers is not everyone's idea of a good time.
But, if you're looking for a non-stop party, or you want a holiday where the kids will constantly be entertained while you have some down time for rest and relaxation, this could be for you.
I sailed on Symphony of the Seas in April for a whirlwind two-day preview cruise. Here's my guide to what's on board.
The common perception of cruise holidays is that the only exercise you'll get is walking to the buffet and back. But on Symphony there is plenty of opportunity to be active. Start your day with a whizz down one of three waterslides, then learn to surf on wave simulator Flowrider. Get a birds' eye view of the Boardwalk with a journey across the Zipline. Get your heart racing on the Ultimate Abyss — twin slides that float off the back of the ship, 45m above sea level, then show off your strength on the rock-climbing wall. You can also use the gym; do laps on the running track that circumnavigates the fifth deck; and shoot hoops on the open-air sports court on the 15th. If all else fails, get a basic fitness kick-start by taking the stairs rather than one of the 24 guest lifts.
Of course, you also need some time to relax, and Symphony isn't just about high-octane activities. The Solarium is an adults' only indoor/outdoor sanctuary at the front of the ship, with whirlpools, sunbeds, (imitation) palm trees, a bar and restaurant. If you need even more solitude, head to the Vitality Spa for manicures, pedicures, hair treatments, massages, wraps, facials, acupuncture . . . or step it up a notch with medi-spa treatments to blitz wrinkles, and tooth-whitening procedures to give you a Hollywood smile.
If sleep is your main priority, you may want to book a different ship because Symphony of the Seas has a range of late-night diversions to keep you up. There's nightly karaoke at the On Air bar, the super fun silent disco at The Attic, and the novelty value of Rising Tide — where the entire bar moves up and down between the fifth and eighth decks. The strongest drinks can be found at the Bionic Bar, where you place your order on an iPad and two hydraulic robots mix and serve. They can make up to two drinks per minute and don't require a tip. And if you still haven't had enough, party until the wee small hours at Studio B Nightclub. You can sleep when you're dead, right?
Fill your belly
In recent years, cruise ships have become less about the buffets and the main dining rooms and more about specialty restaurants catering to many different tastes. Symphony covers all bases, from seafood at Hooked, to Japanese at Izumi; top quality steaks at Chops Grille, to celeb favourites such as Jamie's Italian; and destination restaurants spanning Mexico to Manhattan. For an imaginative meal head to Wonderland, where the menu is categorised by elements not courses (Wind, Ice, Fire, Water and Earth), the decor is Lewis Carroll-inspired, and the food is a mind-blowing molecular gastronomic masterpiece. At the Boardwalk, you'll find pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and icecream; and on deck five there's the all-important-to-Americans Starbucks.
Don't rule out the buffet, of course. Here, it's called Windjammer and boasts global cuisines for all meals, with the price included in your basic fare. A great option for feeding the family without eating into your budget.
You'll have no problems keeping the kids entertained . . . in fact, you might find you never see them during the day as there's so much for them to do. They can be well looked after at the Adventure Ocean programme, which caters for kids aged 3 to 11, with activities including games, sports, music, science, art and theatre. Those aged 12-17 are also well taken care of, with pool parties, scavenger hunts, video games, DJ training and themed dance parties. For some quality time as a family, try open-air mini-golf, outdoor movie nights, arcade games, Laser Tag, and ice-skating. Or test your smarts at Escape the Rubicon, a puzzle room where you have to find hidden clues and unravel mysteries in less than an hour.
For the most epic adventure at sea, book a stay in the Ultimate Family Suite — a two-storey, 125sq m apartment on the 17th deck. It's packed with cool features, including an air-hockey table, a floor-to-ceiling Lego wall, and cinema, but the piece de resistance is the bright orange slide, which leads from the kids' bedroom down to the living room below. Of course, with this amount of exclusive features, the Ultimate Family Suite doesn't come cheap — seven night stays for up to eight guests cost from $35,000. This does include the services of your own butler, dubbed the Royal Genie, however, and bragging rights from your kids of being the coolest parents, ever.
All this and you still want more? Well, all right . . . here goes. There's the Aquatheater, where Olympic-level high divers and acrobats perform breathtaking stunts; full performances of Broadway show Hairspray; specially-created ice-skating shows 1977 and iSkate; comedy clubs, live bands, cooking classes, casinos and themed parties . . . basically when you get home you're going to need a holiday from your holiday. But it's not the biggest ship at sea for nothing . . . as the saying goes, go big or go home.
Okay, so a giant cruise ship is of course going to have an environmental impact. Besides the fuel burned to power her, and the leftover food unable to be distributed on land because of port destinations' agricultural laws, there's also the issue of sustainable tourism. Do cities like Barcelona, Rome and Florence need 6000 more tourists flooding into their ports every summer, and what does it do to the local communities when they do?
"As populations grow, and as people become more affluent, travel is everybody's right.
People want to experience the world around them," says Michael Bayly, Royal Caribbean International's President and CEO. "So rather than think about how to stop people doing that, I think our time needs to go into helping invest and develop and design infrastructure and ways of accommodating the kind of growth that is just inevitable."
RCI has made a commitment to contributing to the local economies of its ships' ports of call. For example, when hurricanes hit the Caribbean and severely impacted nations like Puerto Rico, Royal Caribbean looked at how they could help.
"I met with the governor of Puerto Rico and essentially all of the Caribbean nations where [our ships] went," says Richard Fain, Chairman & CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
"One of the things they said that was absolutely consistent was, 'in order for us to recover from the hurricanes, we need the cruise ships to help generate the economic activity that will help us recover'."
Symphony of the Seas has a number of environmental initiatives and improvements in efficiency — the ship is 25 per cent more fuel efficient than sister ship Allure of the Seas, which was launched eight years ago.
The ship has also eliminated plastic straws and is working to remove plastic stirrers. "It's a journey," Bayly says. "It's going to take us some time before we can completely remove consumable plastics."
But the company is trying to up its environmental game.
It has joined the World Wildlife Fund in a £3.5 million (NZ$68m) five-year global ocean conservation partnership.
"They really have been great partners for Royal Caribbean, in helping us with our sustainability targets," says Bayly, "looking at how can we be better environmental citizens for the world that we live in."
A 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Symphony of the Seas, departing Miami on November 30, 2019, is priced from $1319pp, twin-share in an interior stateroom