August 11, 2004 -- Considering its enormous size, I figured the 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas would be a perfect ship for a cruise with my toddler twin boys. We'd blend in with the throngs, which is exactly where you want to be with squealing, squirming, tantrum-throwing, adorable two-year olds. There would be miles of decks to explore, tons of things to touch, and plenty of other kids around to drown out mine -- in fact, as many 1,200 3- to 17-year-olds on some sailings. In-cabin babysitting is offered evenings and the clincher was we wouldn't have to fly to the ship; two different itineraries are offered from Cape Liberty Cruise Port in New Jersey, just a short drive from home. We chose the shorter of the two itineraries, a 5-nighter to Canada. Though the weather didn't cooperate on our late July cruise, with drizzle and fog keeping us below decks on the sea days and strolling through puddles in port, the cruise was as convenient and family-friendly as a frazzled mother could ever dream for.
Based at the new Cape Liberty Cruise Port, the site of a former US Navy base on the west side of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, the Voyager offers a novel schedule of alternating 5-night Canada and 9-night Caribbean loops through October.
A neighbor to the teeming commercial ports of Elizabeth and Newark, among the world's busiest, Cape Liberty's views include a web of huge gantry cranes, along with Manhattan's skyline, Lady Liberty, and Verrazano-Narrows and the Bayonne Bridges in the distance.
Though lacking the cache of the Manhattan address the Westside piers in Midtown can claim, Cape Liberty is like many passenger ship ports around the world that have sprouted from within or nearby well-established industrial ports. Here in the U.S., that includes Boston, Philadelphia, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Galveston, Houston, and Los Angeles.
Cape Liberty is supremely accessible to main travel hubs and arteries, including Newark International Airport (a 15-minute drive), the NJ Turnpike, Route 78 and I-95, but is also happily devoid of the congestion you'll find at the Manhattan piers, since only Voyager and fleetmate Empress of the Seas are currently using the port.
Once at the sprawling facility, a continual stream of complimentary shuttle buses zip passengers efficiently between the terminal and the ship, a distance of about a quarter mile. There are also shuttles transporting passengers to and from the huge adjacent parking lot.
Through October, Voyager of the Seas departs Sundays on both itineraries. On the Canada run she spends two days at sea and a day each in Saint John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the later, with its rich maritime history and charm, being the more interesting port. After wintering down south on alternating 7-night eastern and western Caribbean itineraries, next spring the Canada run will be replaced with five-night cruises to Bermuda, a much sunnier destination than the often-rainy Canada route. The 9-night summertime Caribbean sailings will continue to call on Labadee (Haiti), Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, and the Bahamas, with four sea days.
Keep in mind, the 5-night cruises depart later than the norm from Cape Liberty, because the ship gets in late after its long southbound 9-night Caribbean trips. Though cruise tickets state boarding doesn't begin until 6pm, you can actually board between 3 and 4pm (for some reason this is not publicized). If only we had known. It was nearly 8pm when we got into our cabin and settled -- not a great way to start off a cruise with kids. We didn't make it to dinner and it was too late to book a baby sitter; we opted for room service and drinks on the balcony after the kids nodded off ... which wound up being quite a nice way to close a hectic day.
In 1999, the Voyager ushered in the age of the mega megaliner, barreling onto the sea-n as the largest, most action-packed passenger ship ever built. Never-before-imagined features included a rocking climbing wall, ice skating rink, and in-line skating circuit. The ship unveiled a novel 4-story-high entertainment and shopping promenade and a dramatic three-deck-high restaurant and a similarly cavernous show lounge. A huge area dedicated for kids programming was aboard as well as many outlets for adults, including the line's signature Viking Crown Lounge, a nightclub wrapped in floor to ceiling windows on the top most deck. Through the years, four more nearly identical sisters followed, and only one larger ship has debuted, the QM2 earlier this year.
With about three miles of public corridors spanning the ship's 17 decks, the layout is surprisingly easy to navigate. Entertainment lounges and other public areas are concentrated on decks 3, 4 and 5, as well as the uppermost decks between 11 and 15. Cabins take up the entirety of the other floors. Handy ship maps are located near all elevators and stairwells. And because there's so much darn space and stuff happening in it, passengers are dispersed enough that the ship rarely feels as big as it is, except during those first chaotic hours of embarkation and debarkation when the cruise begins and ends, during rush-hour meal times, on the main pool deck on sunny sea days, and on port days when the ship first allows passengers to go ashore.
The diversions that keep everyone fanned out across the decks include an attractive three-level library and Internet center; a bustling main pool surrounded by arena-style tiers of chaise lounges; a quieter Solarium, with a second pool, hot tubs and chaise lounges; and a two-story spa and fitness center. Don't dilly-dally if you want a treatment, sign up immediately after boarding for a desirable slot. If you're more flexible, you can often find more openings and special discounts on port days and off times. During our rainy stay in Halifax, I signed up for a combo treatment, 25-minute back massage and 25-minute mini facial, that was discounted to $89, from $120 (not including the tip). It was of my finest hours on board.
Scheduled daytime activities included the standard fare, from bingo to line dancing, movies, wine tasting and aerobics classes (many an extra $10). Highlights included group ice-skating lessons and free-skate sessions in the ship's rink (due to the rain, most outdoor activities weren't offered, including miniature golf and rock climbing). On longer sailings, there is often an enrichment lecture or two.
Evening entertainment trumped the humdrum afternoon repertoire of activities. Production shows featured above-average vocalists, with four very strong singers leading a pack of dancers through a medley of favorites, from Elvis to the Beatles and the Jacksons. Other options included several ice-skating shows per week, "Krooze Komics" clowns performing in the Royal Promenade, a stand-up comedian, and a Vegas-style singer/pianist/impressionist. There were a total of six live music groups performing on our cruise, including a classical trio in the atrium's Aquarium Bar. So inspiring were they on our recent cruise that not just one, but two, very talented passengers spontaneously began belting out Italian opera songs as the trio played, attracting a huge crowd of adoring shipmates to the area. Suddenly, the 3,000-plus-passenger ship felt like an intimate cabaret lounge. It was a great moment passengers talked about for the rest of the trip.
When it came to mealtime, the three-story dining room, with a grand twinkling chandelier bursting from its middle, was always bustling. Though the wait staff was often rushed, on my recent cruise, water glasses were always filled, wine orders were delivered promptly, and our servers always found time for a little friendly chit chat as they skated around their tables.
The ship's specialty restaurant, Portofino, offers a more intimate setting. The cozy venue is popular, so reservations must be made as soon as possible. Service is generally good, though like throughout the ship, rushing (theirs) and waiting (yours) is a typical part of the mega-ship experience. Remember, a meal in Portofino is supposed to be a leisurely and lingering experience. The cost is $20 per person, and tasty dishes range from a warm goat cheese soufflé served on a bed of greens to a thinly sliced veal wrapped in proscuitto and served with porcini mushroom risotto.
The other dining outlet is Johnny Rockets, a hopping 50s style diner with red vinyl booths and chrome accents. It's real popular and there's often a line during prime lunch and dinner times for those burgers and fries (included in the rates), and tasty shakes ($3.80 a pop).
The Ship With Kids
Simply put, it's a great ship for kids (and for anyone else who doesn't mind hundreds and hundreds of them along for the ride during peak summer and holiday periods). Lots spend their time glued to the complex of playrooms on Deck 12, which are separated for different age groups. Nearby is a sprawling video game arcade, a teen center, and an outdoor area tucked away at the stern with a pair of splash pools, sliding board and mini deck chairs (this outdoor area was replaced with an additional teen area on the Navigator and Mariner, the newest in the Voyager class).
With activities planned for five different groups (3-5, 6-8, 9-11, 12-14, and 15-17), the age-specific repertoire of fun activities includes arts and crafts, scavenger hunts, computer games, fun science projects, movies, trivia games, plus supervised dining several nights per cruise in Johnny Rockets for kids 3 to 12 (twice on five night cruises, 4 times on 9 nighters; must sign up ahead of time, space is limited). Though my two-year-olds were too young to participate in the official programming (and Royal Caribbean doesn't permit under-3s still in diapers to use the playrooms even with their parents; NCL, Princess, Disney and Carnival do), we found a favorite play space -- the video arcade. My boys loved climbing into the race car seats and on to the motorcycles and ski jets, whether they were turned on or not.
Supervised activities are included in the rates nearly all day up until 10pm, when kids 3 to 12 can be signed up for the group babysitting service ($5 an hour per child). Private in-cabin babysitting is also offered between 8pm and 1am for children between the ages or 1 and 12 ($8 an hour for up to two kids), which is what I took advantage of for my 21-month-old boys. After making my request at the guest relations desk just after boarding, we had a babysitter lined up nightly, starting the second day of the cruise. A sweet off-duty cabin stewardess from Lithuania came by each evening at 8: 30, just moments after I had put my exhausted mini cruisers to sleep on the comfy pullout couch. The four hours of adult time to enjoy dinner, drinks and some entertainment was priceless.
The ship's dining set up also makes traveling with kids of all ages all the more palatable. For each meal, I brought my sons to the adjoined Island Grill and Windjammer buffet restaurants. In this casual venue, there is plenty of choice for finicky eaters, from chicken and rice and other main dishes, to cheeses, fruits, cookies, bread sticks and lots more all laid out in several easy-to-access food stations. The best part: my boys were showered with attention from nearly every passing waitress, waiter and manager. They never winced when we left the table and floor littered with about half of what I tried to feed them. In general, throughout the ship, dining, bar and cabin service was surprisingly good considering the sheer volume of passengers and space crewmembers are dealing with.
Cabins are family-friendly too, with each one offering a mini-fridge, lots of storage space and rounded corners on dresser tops and drawers. While few have tubs, more have sturdy pullout sofas, which can easily accommodate two kids, and balconies (which can be locked), a great place to take a quiet breather when the kids are napping.
Voyager is a great ship for families, bar hoppers, shoppers, entertainment junkies, social types, and anyone who appreciates lots of dining options. If you're a card-carrying gourmet, on the other hand, this isn't your ship (and, for the most part, neither is any other mega ship). It's also not the cruise of your dreams if you despise crowds, lines and $4 bottles of Evian.
At the ripe old age of five, most of the ship looked fresh and healthy on my recent sailing, and there seemed to always be a crewmember within sight polishing something or other. Still, I couldn't help but notice some places that needed help: tattered drapes in one corner of the dining room, a beat-up looking frozen yogurt machine in the promenade, and our stained and threadbare cabin couch. Of course, on a ship that carries so many passengers and is continually in operation, wear and tear is unavoidable. To try and keep soft goods in top shape, there are crew members dedicated to jobs like re-upholstering furniture and laying down new carpeting. The question is when can they do the work if the ship is always brimming with Pina Colada-toting humanity? Work is done on empty cabins (if there are some) during cruises and also during the few hours the ship is passenger-free during the turnaround time between cruises. The hotel director on our sailing said crew can only get to about 15 cabins per cruise (out of a total of 1,557); so playing a little catch-up is avoidable on a ship so large.