Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean
Recently, the travel trade press has been filled with headlines about the largest cruise ship ever built. It is the 5,500-passenger Harmony of the Seas that has just been delivered by its shipyard manufacturer to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The monster vessel will sail the Mediterranean this summer, and will then move to the Caribbean for the winter.
In photographs of the delivery ceremony, the open interior of the ship looks like the section of a giant football stadium, filled with thousands of spectators. The ship's pride and joy are three humongous waterslides, including one that hurtles its daredevil riders from the 16th deck (yes, there are 16 decks) down to the 6th deck. There are simulated surfing rides, an entire waterpark, and two-story restaurants featuring "molecular" cuisine.
All in all, the new Harmony of the Seas eclipses the size of Royal Caribbean's earlier ship-monsters, the Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas, which now take second place to the Harmony. Imagine! The new Harmony of the Seas will shortly be disgorging 5,500 passengers at a time onto tiny Mykonos, and 5,500 passengers at a time onto tiny Santorini, in the Aegean Sea. If—heaven forbid—two of the ships were to arrive at the same port on the same day, they would themselves disgorge nearly 11,000 passengers onto what once were small fishing villages converted into private and totally artificial, commercial towns.
It's obviously too late for journalists to bemoan this development. Not only Royal Caribbean but also other cruiselines are building 5,000-passenger monsters. Star Cruises, a company catering to Chinese vacationers in Asia, has just announced it is commissioning the construction of two 5,000-passenger ships. From now on, the low-cost variety of cruise will feature crowds, crowds, crowds.
I have sailed on one of these monsters, a two-day orientation cruise aboard the gigantic Norwegian Epic several years ago, and I greatly disliked the experience. Despite all sorts of efforts at crowd control, and reassurance to us passengers that there would be fewer lines, the atmosphere aboard was always urban and crowded. Although one of my grand-daughters, eight years old, loved the rock-climbing wall on one of the many decks, there was little of pleasure for us adults—not even a library. Looking for a quiet lounge in which to read, I ventured to one such room at the end of the ship, only to find a bowling alley with crashing pins inside. Having a meal was like entering a restaurant on Times Square, the opposite of relaxation.
So like a broken record, I'm left to repeat a recommendation made often before. If you want the traditional experience of an ocean cruise in the vast seas of the world, you will henceforth need to opt for one of the smaller but more expensive ships. It is those so-called "premium" lines that have no water slides, no endless shopping areas, no giant crowds. But unfortunately, you'll have to pay several hundreds of dollars more to enjoy such ships.