So, she's finally here: Oasis of the Seas, the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger colossus that reportedly cost Royal Caribbean $1.4 billion and nine to ten million working hours to design and build. And what's the word?
Sure, there's been a lot of hype. Sure, that kind of thing often feeds on itself to the point where reporting becomes an echo chamber: On board this past weekend, I can't tell you how often I heard commentators smiling for their camera crews and offering some version of "Welcome to Oasis of the Seas, the world's biggest and most beautiful cruise ship!"
Biggest? Definitely: At 225,282 gross register tons, she's already a full third larger than the world's next-largest cruise vessels, Royal Caribbean's own, 160,000-ton Freedom-class ships, but that's not the whole story. Because gross register tonnage is not a measure of weight but of enclosed, revenue-producing space, that 225,282 measurement, while technically accurate, is actually inadequate in describing Oasis, where two of the largest pleasure spaces on board -- Central Park, a tropical garden lined with al fresco restaurants, sculpture, and seating nooks, and the Boardwalk, a family recreation area with a real carousel -- are open air, sunken within a canyon that runs nearly the length of the ship and with many decks of balcony cabins rising above them on either side. Were these areas included in the measure, Oasis would be vastly larger.
Most beautiful? No. Others, including Celebrity's Solstice-class ships, are lovelier, but Oasis is surprisingly good looking and in some areas downright stunning, and gives all but a small handful of megaships a run for their money.
If this is the new face of mainstream, mainstream's got it good.
The Big Picture: Letting in the Light
I said it when I toured the unfinished vessel at its Finnish shipyard, and I'll say it again now: Oasis of the Seas' design is going to revolutionize the cruise business.
The difference between her and every other ship out there is that her superstructure is split lengthwise, into two parallel structures with a 19-meter-wide open-air section between -- a sort of upside-down catamaran arrangement that allowed Royal Caribbean to design the open-air Central Park and Boardwalk neighborhoods. What made this design possible was another revolution, albeit a prosaic one: They just had to make the ship wider -- 154 feet wide at the waterline, which is a full 27 feet wider than Royal's Freedom-class ships and probably double the width of traditional vessels such as Holland America's Statendam class.
The effect of all this is remarkable, transforming the vessel's feel from that of two dimensions -- the horizontal plane of most ships' decks being generally unitary, unrelated and unconnected to the decks above and below -- to three, and adding a feeling of light and air that's completely uncanny. Standing nearly anywhere with a view on decks 5 through 17, the effect is more city than ship. From here you're looking down into the greenery of Central Park, from there you're looking up through the giant skylights of the Royal Promenade, past Central Park's trees to row after row of balcony cabins, looking for all the world like apartments in a streetscape. Dazzles nightclub toward the center of decks 8 and 9 looks down through enormous windows over the open-air Boardwalk neighborhood and the adjoining Aqua Theater amphitheater, but it also looks up, toward the top-deck Viking Crown lounge and beyond that to the starry sky. Those balcony cabins lining both Central Park and the Boardwalk turn the notion of "inside cabin" on its head, offering views that are alternately serene and boisterous, depending on the time of day. There are literally thousands of these views from public and private spaces throughout the ship, made all the better by architecture that favors curving lines to lead the eye from one visual to another. Oasis is, in this regard, the most photogenic cruise ship I've ever been aboard.
A quick word on her layout: Remarkable. Early on, Royal Caribbean's designers were confronted with the challenge of making a ship whose public spaces are essentially in two different buildings (the two sides of the split superstructure) easy and intuitive to navigate, and they have succeeded magnificently. I've been on many a smaller vessel that was much more confusing to navigate than Oasis. The "neighborhood" concept certainly helps -- congregating rooms in certain areas of the vessel by theme (Entertainment Place, for instance, is an intersection off which open the main theater, comedy club, jazz club, casino, disco, and ice theater) -- as do the several long, streetscape-plan public boulevards (the Royal Promenade, Central Park, Boardwalk), but credit also goes to modern computer technology, which enabled Royal's designers to model the ship digitally, try different layouts, and watch as the little dots on the screen -- each representing a passenger -- got blocked and bunched, necessitating a change to the design. The result? In three days on board, I only got confused about where I was once, and even then a doorway quickly took me back where I'd meant to be in the first place.
And Now, a Philosophy Break
We've heard grumbles: (a) She's too big, they say; 5,400 people on a ship is a nightmare. (b) Because she's so big, she can't go anywhere. And (c) It's not real travel; it's a prepackaged experience that's all about what happens onboard.
To which I answer: (a) That's subjective. (b) That's not exactly true. And (c) So?
Starting with the last point, here's my take: Oasis of the Seas is a cruise ship for people who like cruise ships. She's way big, for sure. She's custom-made for self-sustaining leisure. For those of us who dig naval architecture, she's by far the hottest thing to come along in years. When people walk up her gangway, they're entering a place designed expressly to help them relax and unwind -- kind of like a billion-and-a-half-dollar rumpus room, for which you pay an admission charge of $700 or $1,000 dollars -- or more, if you go fancy.
Regarding her size, yes, 5,400 passengers is a lot -- especially when you realize that 5,400 is her double-occupancy stat. With all her third and fourth berths filled, she can actually carry 6,296 passengers, plus more than 2,100 crew. On my weekend sailing, only about half her potential berths were full, but here's the thing: With more than 3,000 passengers on board, the ship often felt very empty. I found myself wishing more people were there, because (wait for it ...) they should be: That's the number the ship was built to accommodate. Are you going to occasionally find yourself in crowds, have to wait for your turn at the zipline, or need to elbow your way to one of the ship's three dozen bars? Sure, probably, but people are like dogs: We love to run in packs, and Oasis is the biggest pack opportunity at sea.
But does her size limit where she can sail? To some extent, yes, but also no. True, she's very long, her 1,187 feet beating out Queen Mary 2 by some 55 feet, so parking her can be hairy (though less so due to her extreme maneuverability, courtesy of swiveling propellers and powerful bow thrusters). But the ship's draught -- the amount of ship below the waterline -- is only two feet deeper than the draught of Royal's Freedom-class ships and 4.5 feet deeper than Celebrity's vastly smaller, 77,713-ton Mercury. So, navigation channels needn't be quite as deep as you might think to accommodate her. But then there's the question of facilities: Beyond having docks large enough to fit the ship, many ports simply lack the facilities to handle Oasis's enormous passenger load. So no, Oasis won't be visiting St. Bart's or Bordeaux anytime soon, but that was never the point. And besides, as Royal Caribbean president and CEO Adam Goldstein noted on board this past Friday, "There's a domino effect. The arrival of this ship and its positioning in the Caribbean frees up other ships in our fleet to sail other routes" -- perhaps in Asia. Though there's currently no public plan to take Oasis beyond her Caribbean home base, Goldstein did not rule it out for the future: "Oasis will go, over its lifespan, wherever the market takes it."
And the Verdict Is . . .
Five stars -- unreservedly. Oasis of the Seas is the future, the ultimate extension (so far) of the old "city at sea" chestnut with which big ships have been tagged for more than four decades. It's big, but it's got heart, and it opens up that heart to the air, sky, and sea in a way no other big ship has ever done before.
Over the next week, be sure to check in to Frommer's Cruise Blog, where I'll be diving deep into Oasis's onboard amenities and programs, from the horticulture behind Central Park to her surprisingly intimate dining and entertainment options, her adventurous new art program, the design of her staterooms, and much more. Big ship, big story -- and lots of pictures, I promise.