How big is the world's largest cruise ship, really? In 2016, it was a 6,780-passenger ship, Harmony of the Seas, giving Royal Caribbean the title. The cruise line one-upped itself last year with the launch of Symphony of the Seas, which carries 6,680 people but is even bigger in scale—1,188 feet long, 215 feet wide, more sheer tonnage, and 16 decks running roughly the length of a city block. Symphony is big enough to hold a water slide with a 100-foot drop and a family suite (the "Ultimate Family Suite") with its own climbing wall.
Right on Royal Caribbean's heels is a series of new megaships that carry passengers by the thousands: The Norwegian Escape carries 4,266 and is 1,069 feet; its sister ship, Norwegian Bliss, launched in 2018, has 20 decks, and holds up to 4,044 guests. Meanwhile MSC, whose Meraviglia carries 4,500 people, announced it’ll take over the title of largest cruise ship in 2022 when it launches its World Class fleet, which will have a maximum capacity of 6,850 guests. So, yeah...that big.
The sheer size of megaships today is humbling, and perhaps even a little anxiety-inducing for travelers. But building larger and larger isn’t a trend that began because travelers were simply asking for bigger ships or cruise lines were trying to best each other. As Royal Caribbean Chairman Richard Fain told us, the enormity of a vessel like Symphony of the Seas is a side effect of the growing desire to give passengers more to do, to enjoy. “What people are looking for today, whether millennials or any others, are experiences,” he said. “So we set out to build a ship that has more amenities and more activities—and the ship kept getting bigger and bigger.”
The resulting challenge, of course, is to give guests the time of their lives while distracting them from the fact that thousands of others around them are also on a mission to have the time of their lives—all in the same space. So how are major cruise lines making the world’s largest ships feel not-so-large and impersonal?
It starts in the dining room
Gone is the single, grand dining room that made up the core of meal time on ships from the 1970s to the 2000s, where white-jacketed waiters proffered swan-shaped cream puffs and flaming baked Alaska to hundreds of diners at specified times. With thousands to feed and guests who desire experiences alongside their escargot, today’s megaships divide dining into venues that less resemble an arena and more closely approximate a restaurant you’d find on land. Symphony’s size allows for 22 different places to eat, with a total of more than 300 menu items, from smoothies and wraps available at a juice bar to braised short rib and lobster thermidor served in a New York–style steakhouse.
Celebrity Edge, which also debuted in 2018 and carries 2,900 guests, has 29 different dining concepts on board, from a formal sit-down experience designed by a Michelin-starred chef to a raw bar and plush cafe. A neighborhood of restaurants may mean sitting down for dinner in a 30-table restaurant, or giving guests more say in how they want to eat and when—whether they crave the long-time glamour associated with cruise ship dining, or would rather take advantage of the sun on the pool deck and eat light along the way.
VIPs this way
A ship seems smaller still for those staying in suites, with VIP spaces reserved for their exclusive use. While lounges with concierge access are pretty standard on the water, larger ships have the space to do more to make the ship seem smaller and more personalized. On newer Royal Caribbean ships, that means dining at Coastal Kitchen, a lounge and restaurant only available to guests staying in a certain class of suites. On Celebrity Edge, it’s three restaurants that follow the same model (Blu for “AquaClass” cabins, and Luminae and Michael’s Club for suite and elite guests), as well as an eminently Instagrammable private pool deck dubbed “The Retreat” accessible directly from the ship’s bi-level suites. On Norwegian Cruise Line, it’s “The Haven,” a triple-threat space that’s cocktail lounge, restaurant, and sun deck. On Cunard, it’s the “Queens Grill” and “Princess Grill” restaurants. And on MSC Cruises, it’s an enclave of a private pool, solarium, restaurant, and cocktail bar for guests of “MSC Yacht Club” suites.
“With private key-card access, fewer staterooms, and dedicated personal space, guests can enjoy a more intimate atmosphere with a feeling of peace and relaxation, tucked away from the rest of the lively megaship,” says Roberto Fusaro, president of MSC Cruises USA.
The newest interpretation of these ship-within-a-ship VIP concepts is currently being built at a shipyard in Italy, as the first Virgin Voyages vessel takes shape. Named Scarlet Lady, she’ll welcome 2,800 “sailors” beginning in 2020. Suite-level guests can slip away to Richard’s Rooftop, a swanky space outfitted by Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio. Christopher Stubbs, senior director of Sailor Experience for Virgin Voyages, says the vibe will be that of a private members club, “a secluded place for our suite sailors to bask under the sun or have a drink under the stars.” In other words, to fantasize that they’re not on a cruise ship, but on a private yacht at the invite of Sir Richard Branson.
Such intimate spaces on otherwise immense ships are make-or-break musts for veteran cruiser Joyce Davidson, who sails with her husband in suite-level cabins up to ten times a year. “I haven’t eaten in the main dining room on a ship in five years,” she tells me during a pause in the ship’s mandatory lifeboat drill, perhaps the one time during sailing when suite guests must mingle with others. “The level of personalization is worth it. In a large dining room, the waiters get to know you maybe a little, but in the smaller and suite-only restaurants, they know mine and my husband’s names and preferences by the second day. We don’t feel rushed, like we have to eat within a schedule, and to me it can truly feel like dining in a five-star, world-class restaurant.”
So then why sail on some of the world’s largest ships at all, I ask, and not just go for a more intimate sailing vessel? Joyce tips her head to think for a moment, and then leans to deliver her answer, as if it’s a confession. “I like the ‘wow’ factor!”
Bye-bye, bus tours
Even after finding “your spot” on a ship, it’s a reality check to arrive to a port and join the masses streaming from the gangway to awaiting tour buses when you want to get off the ship. But it doesn’t have to be like this, as cruise ships increasingly experiment with ultra-small group tours and private charter excursions.
Both Celebrity Cruises and Azamara offer private “journeys” at port, with options limited only by the passenger’s imagination. Where a regular shoreside activity might mean joining a 50-person bus tour for quick photo stops across the Italian countryside, booking a private excursion and expressing interest in practicing your Italian may have a private car whisking you and your partner off to join a family’s farmhouse luncheon of handmade bruschetta, olives, salumi, wine, and conversazione. Prices vary depending on the excursion and your budget, but it's another way big ships are giving passengers personalized attention.
On the horizon
With MSC'S World Class fleet projected to have room for 200 more passengers than Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas’, the line already has teased features like "family-friendly villages, a panoramic aft, and a glass pool lounge." After all, if you give enough options for creating your own adventure—onboard or off—what’s another 200 people on a colossal ship, anyway?
By Cynthia Drescher, Conde Nast Traveler
Re-posted on CruiseCrazies.com - Cruise News, Articles, Forums, Packing List, Ship Tracker, and more
For more cruise news and articles go to https://www.cruisecrazies.com