Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas is the world’s largest cruise ship – we stepped on board for a weekend.
Saturday is cruise ship change-over day in Southampton. I enjoy sailing, so I‘m often sitting in Cowes on the Isle of Wight on a Saturday afternoon watching a procession of these awe-inspiring nautical behemoths sailing at a stately pace down Southampton Water and the eastern Solent, and I have wondered what life is like onboard. The ships seem to get larger each time you see them, so I was looking forward to the chance to experience the newest and largest of the breed on her pre-inaugural voyage.
Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas is impressively huge. At 1,188 feet long, she is longer than either the Shard or the Eiffel Tower are high, and at 226,963 gross tons she is the largest cruise ship in the world. Standing on the dock just before boarding is awe-inspiring in the truest sense. Larger than most buildings, she stretches out in all directions; it’s barely believable that she’s a ship. Once onboard, we were first immediately struck by the lengths of the corridor we were walking down to find our cabin. It’s quite a stroll.
The cabin was very comfortable, with bed, sofa, desk, self-contained bathroom, two good sized cupboards as well as a drawer unit, dressing table/desk and was with an outward facing balcony, which I quickly found was one of my favourite areas. There is something hypnotic about watching the sea roll past, but as we were still in Southampton that had to wait, and we started to explore.
You can’t really say it enough: the ship is HUGE! There were plenty of spaces we didn’t find, but too see as much as possible we started at the top and worked down. There are two large atriums forward and aft, giving the option for cabins with window and balcony viewing over the atriums. Right at the top are the large lounging areas for basking in the sun, together with the first of the play areas: a splashing area for children, crazy golf, powered surf waves, basketball court, table tennis tables, swimming pools (23 in total), bars and the three large water slides.
There are two ways off this level: the normal one via one of the lifts or flights of stairs, or the quicker route down ten stories by slide. It was one of the things that really raised my eyebrows when I heard about it. “A 10 story slide? On a ship? Really?”, but yes, it’s really there, called “The Ultimate Abyss”, so I had to give it a go. The top is designed to thrill. At the very aft end of the ship, up some stairs into the mouth of a giant fish, you’re faced with the first test of a glass floor looking a very long way down; not easy for those who don’t like heights. From there, you step onto your mat placed in the slide tube before a final wave, or nervous gulp depending, and off you go. You spiral down, turning three and a quarter times in the dark tunnel, (there are a couple of sections with lights), speeding down at about 22mph, but it feels a lot faster. Really great fun; I should have had more goes.
It drops you out on the Boardwalk on deck six, between a Johnny Rockets burger bar and the Sabor taquería and tequila bar. In another slightly surreal moment, just forwards of this is a full sized merry-go-round, and behind you is a high diving pool with amphitheater seating for diving shows, were the balcony of the Royal suites get a stunning view, as well as climbing walls to cater for all abilities.
Pass forwards, and up a couple of decks, and you find yourself in the forward atrium – called Central Park. I was again astonished to see trees and extensive planting in this area: no fewer than 10,000 different plants onboard, apparently. Surrounding this greenery are a number of different restaurants including a branch of Jamie’s Italian, a wine bar and three more restaurants that give you a choice from the main dining room, as well as the Rising Tide Bar that lifts you up in style from the Royal Promenade 3 decks below. Looking up you can see the tubes of the Perfect Storm trio of water slides several decks above, as well as the zip wire.
There are plenty of other places to eat onboard – as well as a total of eight speciality restaurants, like Jamie’s Italian, there’s the huge, three floored main dining room and the buffer Windjammer Marketplace on the sixteenth deck. We tried breakfast in the main dining room, where there’s a choice between a la carte waited service, or a self-serve buffet. Choices are extensive, and as you would imagine, are very similar to a large hotel. We also ate in the main dining room on our one evening onboard; the food was well presented and cooked but perhaps lacked inspiration, being based around more straightforward steak/chicken/fish dishes. It’s hardly surprising, given that the brigade has to cook for two sittings of the entire dining room of 2000-odd people and get them in and out in the space of 2 hours.
We enjoyed the buffet offerings at the Windjammer. There was a huge choice, and we were really impressed with the quality of offering such as roast beef brisket, a range of casserole dishes, world food – pizza, burgers, curries and a burrito bar, salads, good looking breads, desserts from sinfully cream filled to healthier fruit. The Wonderland restaurant is the most upmarket venue onboard, and we’ll be posting our thoughts about it later.
And after dinner, if the ship’s at sea, there’s still things to do as well as visit one of the many bars, clubs or casino. Not only is there a large theatre onboard, where we saw a production of Grease, but also an ice rink with a nightly show. By the time we got to the ice rink, we were beyond shockable about the facilities onboard, but now we’re back on dry land, it still strikes us as unbelievable. After the show we ambled along the Royal Promenade, listened to live music, and had a drink from the Bionic Bar, where your drink is made by a robot – order from a touch screen, watch your drink being made, and then delivered on a mini conveyor – completely mesmerising watching the robots dance around.
Having sat on that lawn in Cowes, I can now say that I know what it is like onboard. As an aside, one of the activities I found most interesting, as a sailor, was a trip to see the bridge. I was aware that ships this size require few crew, but it was still eye opening to hear that the normal manning level was for three people on the bridge: two officers and a lookout. It was a real high tech cave, with dark surfaces everywhere to reduce glare and reflections at night, and myriad screens for navigation, radar, and monitoring shipboard functions. The one thing that was much smaller than might be expected was the wheel. With most of the steering being done by autopilot, the ship is only steered by hand when coming in and leaving port. And the manoeuvrability of the ship was impressive: she is equipped with steerable pods, rather than propeller shafts and rudders, and can turn in her own length.
(Gym with a view, running track, spa, children’s clubs and escape room game)
Cruising is something that is a little Marmite-esque in a love it or hate it way. Yes, the ship is huge, and consequently you are surrounded by people, but I did feel that it’s perfectly possible to find a quiet corner. I can see that for taking a whole family on holiday – all generations together – it could work very well indeed, with activities for all ages, Royal Caribbean is a family orientated business. Facilities for children looked excellent, with supervised play areas split by age as well as spaces for teenagers. The comparisons with floating hotels are appropriate, but the advantage of a cruise ship is that your hotel has moved overnight, and there’s a new city to explore on your doorstep each morning.
Harmony is undoubtedly a fine and hot weather ship, best enjoyed in the warmth of the Caribbean or Mediterranean, rather than the rain of the English channel at the end of May.
We were the guests of Royal Caribbean on Harmony of The Seas. All opinions our own.
Harmony of the Seas is currently very popular, a 7 night cruise in a stateroom with a balcony costs around £1,300pp.