"The Pandora's box is open," said Capt. Claus Andersen, standing amidst a chaos of loose wires and open instrument panels on the bridge of Royal Caribbean's 2,100-passenger Radiance of the Seas. Everywhere he looked, technicians were busy rewiring Radiance for the second decade of her career, ripping out her brains and replacing them with the most up-to-date equipment. It's a scene that was repeated in nearly every square inch of the 90,000-ton vessel last week, as Radiance sat tied up and stripped down at British Columbia's Victoria Shipyards, undergoing a radical transformation.

Taking 21 days and requiring the labor of some 1,700 shipyard workers, contractors, and Royal Caribbean personnel, the renovation of Radiance is so extensive that it practically amounts to a relaunch of the ship, which debuted in 2001 at a transformative moment in Royal Caribbean's history. Built at a size that would have made her one of the world's biggest cruise ships just three years earlier, Radiance in fact debuted as a veritable throwback to an earlier era -- a sleek greyhound in a fleet that had been taken over by Royal's enormous, 138,000-ton Voyager-class vessels, with their interior boulevards and unprecedented array of sports and entertainment offerings.

Not to say that there isn't a place for that kind of ship. In fact, Radiance has done quite well over the years, providing an alternative for cruisers who prefer a more traditional vessel. Still in all, 10 years is 10 years, and when Royal Caribbean began planning renovations and changes that could be implemented during the ship's regularly scheduled dry docking, they were able to look at the possibilities through a lens informed not only by the Voyager-class ships but by the larger Freedom-class vessels and, even more importantly, the completely game-changing, 225,000-ton Oasis and Allure of the Seas.

The advent of those ships, with their radical architectural configuration, layout, and plethora of new dining, entertainment, and activities choices, provided Royal Caribbean's planners with new, proven, and ready-made modern concepts that could be retrofitted to their older ships -- including seven new restaurants, a nursery, an English pub, dedicated lounges for suite guests and loyalty program passengers, and a variety of technical enhancements. It was just a matter of finding the space.

Creating "The Restaurant Ship"

In examining Radiance's blueprints to pinpoint likely locales for their planned additions, the architects and planners in Royal Caribbean's newbuilds team looked for space that was underutilized, either because of changes in the public's tastes or due to overgenerous proportioning in the ship's original configuration.

Take the new Giovanni's Table, for instance. The casual, family-style Italian restaurant's first incarnation appeared aboard Oasis of the Seas in 2009. Aboard Radiance, the restaurant is being constructed in the space once occupied by a much different Italian restaurant, Portofino.

"Portofino was created in the late 1990s and was starting to show its age," said Frank Weber, Royal Caribbean's vice president of food and beverage operations, during a hardhat tour of Radiance that I attended at the shipyard last week. "It was more formal and high-end, and the trend now is toward a more casual style."

Giovanni's Table will serve lunch ($15 per person) and dinner ($20 per person).

Taking the opposite tack, Deck 12's Seaview Cafe was once an alternative to the ship's buffet restaurant, serving light meals and snacks in the afternoon and after dinner. With new casual alternatives planned elsewhere on board, the cafe was sacrificed to make room for the Samba Grill, a specialty restaurant that first appeared aboard 2010's Allure of the Seas. Based on the popular South American churrascaria concept, the experience revolves around meat -- lots and lots of meat. Throughout the meal, "gauchos" (servers) circulate with skewers of sirloin, filet mignon, picanha, ribs, sausages, pork loin, shrimp, salmon, and other meats and seafoods, slicing off slabs for anyone who is interested. The experience will cost $25 per person.

The only other venue that's being excised from the original Radiance design is the very dated, 90s-style Scoreboard Sports Bar, which is being replaced by the Quill & Compass Pub. Designed like the English-style pubs aboard Royal's Voyager-, Freedom-, and Oasis-class ships, the Quill & Compass will offer a social atmosphere, small-scale musical entertainment, and a menu of more than three dozen international beers that will cover the prosaic (Bud, Coors Light, etc.) to the very good (Chimay Blue) and pretty good (Murphy's stout, Newcastle Brown, etc.).

One deck below the new Samba Grill, spaces along the port and starboard sides of the Windjammer buffet restaurant have been repurposed into two more new restaurants. On the port side, Izumi will serve sushi and other Asian dishes at lunch and dinner, at à la carte prices. To starboard, Rita's Cantina will serve fajitas, fish tacos, shrimp ceviche tostadas, flautas, and other Mexican dishes at lunch and dinner, with a large selection of specialty margaritas. Built in a semi-enclosed style (with a roof, but with one side open at the deck's railing), the space will be both casual and free.

In Radiance's lovely solarium, the very out-of-place pizzeria counter is being replaced by the much more contextual Park Cafe, a carry-over from Oasis and Allure that acts as a small-scale alternative to the buffet restaurant, serving made-to-order salads, panini sandwiches, soups, and the like. Another casual option, the Boardwalk Dog House, will serve a variety of dogs and sausages from a location in one of the Windjammer buffet's seating areas.

At the opposite end of casual, the Chef's Table is being created in a small space nestled among the nightclubs in the stern on Deck 6. Seating only 14 guests, the room will offer intimate, five-course dinners for $95 per guest. Meals are preceded by a cocktail party, all courses are paired with a featured wine, and guests receive a Royal Caribbean cookbook as an after-dinner treat.

Radiance's seven new restaurants join the existing Cascades main dining room, Windjammer Cafe buffet, and Chops Grille Steakhouse, which are being spiffed up as needed -- so that's 10 restaurants spread out over a 2,100-passenger, 90,000-ton ship, as opposed to 14 (give or take a baked-goods shop or two) on the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships.

Feeling hungry yet?

Enhancements Big & Small

"A big part of this job, nobody'll see," said Kevin Douglas, Royal Caribbean's vice president of newbuilding, explaining the extent of the work being done aboard Radiance. In all, some 1,450 separate upgrades are being performed on the vessel, ranging from large jobs like installing a new restaurant to small ones like replacing cabin bathroom flooring or grinding down welding seams on the hull to improve hydrodynamics.

Up on the bridge, a new, computerized Voyage Management System is being installed that will proactively bring Radiance into compliance with new maritime rules that come online way down the road in 2017. Down below the hull, the ship's Azipods (huge, swivel-able outboard motors to which the propellers are attached) were removed, disassembled, and then rebuilt with new bearings, optimized forward cones, and new functionality that, taken together, should improve their efficiency by 3.5 percent. Up in the starboard bow, workers with the equivalent of Thor's Own Body Hammer are pounding out a dent in the inch-thick steel hull plating -- a souvenir of a Mexican Riviera cruise in November 2009, when Carnival's Carnival Splendor backed into Radiance at dock.

In the ship's public areas, enhancements also run the gamut from room-sized on down:

  • On Deck 12, next to the Adventure Ocean kids' center, the new Royal Babies & Tots Nursery is taking shape. Divided into play, sleeping, and eating zones, it will offer supervised care for kids 6 to 36 months, with open hours throughout the day, often until midnight. The cost is $8 per hour per child.
  • On Deck 13, two sections of the Viking Crown Lounge have been walled off to create the Diamond Lounge and Concierge Lounge, the former for upper-level members of Royal's Crown & Anchor loyalty program, the latter for suite guests and tip-top loyalty cruisers. At both lounges, guests can relax, take advantage of concierge services, grab a light breakfast, and enjoy an evening open bar.
  • Radiance's main pool deck is being improved through installation of a large, digital movie screen that will show recent-release movies and sporting events. Meanwhile, the deck itself has been replaced with Bolideck Future Teak, a long-lasting synthetic material that simulates the look and feel of real teak wood.
  • Fifteen new staterooms have been carved out of existing, underused space. On Deck 4, space that was previously a private dining room off the main Cascades dining room has been repurposed into cabins featuring huge, nearly floor-to-ceiling round windows that are unlike anything else in the cruise world. Across the corridor, underused crew space has been transformed into three cabins designed for solo travelers -- a real rarity in the cruise business these days.
  • New Wayfinder Screens in public areas are digital genies, giving passengers directions from here to there, letting them know how busy onboard restaurants are, and providing information about onboard activities.
  • Pervasive Wi-Fi is just what it sounds like: bow-to-stern, port-to-starboard wireless Internet service on all decks, rather than in select Wi-Fi "hot spots."

Prepping for Her Big Re-Debut

When I stepped off Radiance last Thursday after a two-day immersion in the project, few of the hundreds of individual projects looked even close to done, and the entire ship looked like what she was: a massive, on-the-clock construction job. Carpeting was torn up, furniture was missing or under plastic wrap, scaffolding was everywhere, sawdust was everywhere else, and whole rooms looked to be in only the very earliest stages of construction. To someone who has a hard time keeping his desk tidy, it seemed as if it would be an insurmountable task just to get everything clean, much less complete the ambitious projects promised and underway. But those with the biggest stake in the timetable seemed unfazed.

"We have to shine in just a few days," said Capt. Andersen, "but when you put all hands on deck, as they say, it's amazing what work can be done."

Per the timetable, Radiance will be ready to sail her first Alaska cruise today, June 10. She will sail north from Vancouver to Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Skagway, Hubbard Glacier, and Seward. She'll continue sailing north- and southbound Alaska cruises between Vancouver and Seward into September, then offer one 11-night Hawaii cruise before repositioning to Australia and New Zealand for a series of 14- to 18-night sailings through March 2012.