Royal Caribbean International has put to rest the skeptic's question: "What's there to do on a cruise ship?"
If the line's new Freedom of the Seas is any indicator, the answer is "everything."
The 160,000-ton vessel, which debuted last month and nudged out the Queen Mary 2 as the largest ship afloat, brings with it an ever-widening world of whiz-bang amenities. Frankly, there's so much to do onboard this behemoth, it could stay put and not sail anywhere at all. Freedom -- huge and jam-packed with options -- really mimics a city at sea. (If you include its elevators, you could say it even has a local transportation system.)
While in a class all its own, Freedom has all that its Voyager-class precursors have ... and then some. One industry wag dubbed it "Freedom from the Seas" because, unless you bring binoculars, you won't ever see the ocean on a ship this huge.
Freedom's statistics are startling. It soars to 15 decks high. At 1,112 feet in length, if stood upright it would rise taller than New York City's 1,046-f00t-high Chrysler Building and tower over Paris' 986-foot-high Eiffel Tower.
From another perspective, the ship is as wide as the White House is long and can carry 4,375 passengers with all berths filled. Add 1,360 crewmembers and the behemoth can haul nearly 6,000 souls per sailing.
It's hard to imagine anyone being bored on board. Especially sports enthusiasts. Even those who aren't athletes are likely to enjoy watching other passengers take full advantage of what Freedom offers -- such as FlowRider, a 40-foot-by-32-foot water surfing simulator, complete with bleachers. Or watch boxers sparring in the gym's first-ever-at-sea boxing ring. And the gym is a gem -- scores of high-quality machines without any sense of being cramped.
Many cruisers already can recite some of the ship's high points by heart: the rock-climbing wall and the ice-skating rink, for example. Even here, though, Freedom is synonymous with steroids: its expanded rock-climbing wall is 43 feet high by 44 feet wide with a central spire and 11 climbing zones.
On our recent tour of the ship while it was docked in Bayonne, N.J., we found the vessel's interior beautifully designed and decorated -- colorful and lively, without the excesses of some megaships. Lots of light pours through nearly 62,430 square feet of windows, a signature aspect of Royal Caribbean's ships, arguably the airiest afloat.
More than most mammoth vessels, Freedom really does feel like a land-based resort, offering deck after deck of diverse amenities. Nevertheless, it's surprisingly simple for a passenger on board to navigate.
Much on Freedom is, of course, oversized to accommodate its complement of passengers -- its super-sized casino, for instance and the triple-level main restaurant. Most of it, though, is nicely parsed for comfort with lots of nooks and crannies. Freedom even raises the bar on bars: there are 16 of them ship wide. One particularly trendy spot is the bar at the top deck's Viking Crown Lounge, dubbed "Olive or Twist." The trendy venue is a jazz club at night, and offers spectacular views of the ship's two main pool areas by day.
As a consequence of maritime designers who attempt to pack a lot into a lot of space, it's not unusual for an enormous ship to feel, paradoxically, claustrophobic. But Freedom's use of multi-level spaces helps mitigate this in several areas, including in the dining room (although peering down from the dining room's third level is dizzying), and in the Crypt -- the two-level disco that sports a Gothic motif with daggers and damsels and lots of faux-stained glass.
Arguably, the heart of this ship is its 445-feet-long and several-decks-high promenade, which spans the interior of the ship. It's a destination unto itself.
More like a boulevard, the promenade invokes a village street with lots of places for the locals to hang out. It boasts a malt shop, a coffee shop, a burger joint, a pizzeria, bistro, library, bookstore, Internet cafe, a pub or two, a romantic wine bar, a champagne bar, a Ben & Jerry's emporium and a bona-fide barber shop -- dubbed "A Close Shave," with two vintage red leather chairs inside and a shoeshine station outside. There's even a sports-gear shop vending everything from sweat suits to sports shoes, with most products from New Balance, made expressly for Royal Caribbean. Heck, many towns don't have this diverse a main street.
And on several nights per cruise, the promenade is the place for "Circus of the Seas," a gala parade extravaganza featuring lavishly costumed stilt walkers, jugglers, clowns and aerial performers. It rocks the boat.
Unique to Royal Caribbean's biggest ships are promenade-view staterooms -- interior cabins with a windowed view onto this huge public entertainment space. These cabins are popular and even sell at a premium. One of these staterooms, however, comes with a perk: dubbed the Ben & Jerry's suite (for "sweet"), its occupants get all the ice cream they can eat for free during the cruise. Why such a deal? The window of this cabin has a view partially obstructed by, well, the tail ends of two life-sized dairy cow sculptures.
If Freedom's parade isn't entertainment enough, check out the ice shows in the "cool" 760-seat arena, with performances by 10 professional skaters; or the nightly Vegas-style shows in the 1,350-seat Arcadia theater, with nary a bad seat in the house.
Families won't want to miss H2O Zone, a water park with brightly colored sculptures that includes a circular current pool and a swimming pool fed by a waterfall. Among Freedom's more highly espoused new features for adults: cantilevered whirlpools on the spa deck that extend 12 feet out from the sides of the ship to vertiginously view the ocean 112 feet below. And for the ultimate indulgence, opt for acupuncture treatments.
In our opinion, the biggest challenge this ship presents to passengers is trying to do it all in seven days. Freedom sails weekly on a western Caribbean itinerary from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and to the line's private destination, Labadee in Haiti. For information, call 800-327-6700 or go to royalcaribbean.com.
Arline and Sam Bleecker write for the Chicago Tribune.