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Royal Caribbean takes Quantum leap with new ship

When most people go on vacation, they plan to take a break from technology. The iPhones and iPads often tag along as unwelcome baggage, to be unpacked only in an emergency.

But guests boarding Royal Caribbean's newest ship, Quantum of the Seas, will find technology gets a warm welcome — before, during and after the cruise.

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Royal Caribbean calls Quantum "the smartest ship at sea," offering a technological boost to cruising at every turn. From booking to dining to opening the cabin door, Quantum passengers are immersed in high-tech gadgetry that almost makes cruising seem hip.

With the cruise industry struggling to attract newcomers to a form of travel that seems to belong to a bygone era, it's not hard to see technology as the perfect avenue to finding new recruits.

Royal Caribbean is also trying to expand business among international travelers, especially in Asia, where the market for cruises is just getting started and showing signs of quick success. So quick that Royal Caribbean decided this year to change course and base Quantum in the Far East region instead of the U.S.

After a six-month stay stateside at Cape Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., to work out the inevitable new-ship kinks, and then a quick tour of Europe, Quantum is destined for a home port in Shanghai, where boatloads of tech-savvy guests can be expected.

Royal Caribbean invested more than $900 million in Quantum, the third-largest cruise ship at sea, and is eager to begin testing it on the high seas.

We were able to experience many of the new "smart ship" features during a two-day introductory cruise in November. We came away impressed but also impatient for some issues to be smoothed out. We're fairly tech-friendly — OK, obsessed — so we loved the idea of a floating motherboard. But for those who cringe at computers, this ship might prove to be a little too high-tech.

Here are some of the new-wave, technological highlights we found on Quantum of the Seas.

Online check-in: In an effort to eliminate long lines and to speed boarding, Quantum passengers check in online before their cruise. It's a process that will be familiar to fliers but is new to cruising. Before boarding, you will need to upload an ID photo of yourself and complete your documentation, which will generate a boarding pass that can be scanned at the terminal. Royal Caribbean claims passengers go from "sidewalk to ship" in 10 minutes. We followed the online process a few days before boarding and were pleasantly surprised by how quick and easy it was to board the ship. Although there was a short wait and definitely a line or two, we were on deck in 15 minutes or less.

Luggage locator: Part of the quick boarding process is a new approach to handling luggage. Each bag is tagged with an RFID (radio frequency identification) tracker at curbside that allows passengers to trace the bags' journey to the stateroom at various stages using their smartphone and the Royal IQ app. No more need for random checks to see if your bags have arrived at your door. Keep the tags in place on the bags, and when your cruise is over, you can watch the process in reverse.

Royal IQ: The cruise line calls it your "personal vacation management app," but it's more like a calendar. It allows guests to schedule dinner, activities, excursions and entertainment while onboard the ship. It also displays selections that have been made at the Cruise Planner website before boarding.

During our journey, the app was cranky and didn't always display the correct times for dinner. When we changed our reservations, the change never showed up in the app. It was easy to download to a smartphone and iPad. Part of the reason it was so easy is Quantum's high-speed Internet connection, which is a fee-based service. Packages, which are going to be the best deal over hourly or daily fees, cost about $10 a day for a single device with unlimited access to social media, email, Skype and more.

Dynamic dining: What's high-tech about eating? Nothing. Open your mouth, insert food and chew. But that's the only part that remains the same. Booking, dining, ordering and getting food to guests — including, in one case, the use of robots — have received an upgrade.

Royal Caribbean has eliminated the main dining area and replaced it with four themed restaurants, each offering seating for about 440 guests. The venues are The American Icon Grill, specializing in American culinary classics, like Thanksgiving dinner; Chic, a cosmopolitan big-city dining experience; The Grande, offering a formal European setting and menu; and Silk, a Pan-Asian eatery where family-style sharing is emphasized.

In addition, 14 other eateries are available, ranging from Signature Restaurants, including Jamie Oliver's Italian Kitchen, that require an additional fee, to more casual options like Sorrento's pizza. The complimentary all-you-can-eat dining area remains, although the Windjammer Marketplace has been kicked up a few notches and only marginally resembles typical buffet fare.

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Guests can book their choice of restaurant for each meal in advance of the cruise. The reservations later show up on your personal itinerary displayed on a 32-inch flat-screen TV in your cabin and on your personal electronic device via the Royal IQ app. Royal Caribbean said it closely studied Open Table, the popular dining website, to craft the new reservations system. The cruise line said 65 percent of those who had booked a Quantum cruise over the next six months had already made 85 percent of their dining selections. (Hint: Make your reservation early. If you're not tech-savvy, have a friend do it, or else you may end up dining at 10 p.m.)

Servers also use electronic tablets to take your dining orders and track guest preferences for everything from allergies to drink of choice. In the kitchen, orders are displayed on large screens, including a tally showing how many times each entree has been requested. Chefs use the information to more efficiently track ingredients and supplies. But they don't use it to make plates of food in advance. All of the meals are prepared "a la minute," quickly and at the time of your order.

The much-touted Bionic Bar features two glossy and eager robots making cocktails to order. We were fascinated by this duo's mechanical dance when it worked, which wasn't every single time. Even when things were going smoothly, with the robots mixing concoctions from dozens of bottles overhead, it took a while to get your drink. Having sampled a few — I can't say how many — I can say they are a notch or two above adequate. Still, those who prefer interaction with their bartenders will find these two hosts mostly silent.

Cabin technology: Swiping your room key is so last century. Quantum passengers each receive a free RFID bracelet — called a WOWband — that when held near the door handle serves as a room key, swiftly and easily unlocking the cabin door. But that's the least it can do. The bracelets are packed with information, including a a picture of you as well as details like your birthdate and info for making purchases, reservations and more. And each bracelet is customized — your teenager with the cool fake ID will find it useless on Quantum, as a tap of their bracelet will reveal all. Other tech upgrades in the rooms include LED lighting and charging stations with USB ports.

Those booking inside cabins will be thankful for a bit of technological wizardry that Royal Caribbean calls virtual balconies. The windowless interior rooms now feature a vertical 80-inch screen, flanked by curtains, that projects a real-time image of an exterior scene or view. The ship has high-speed cameras at various locations that constantly stream images to the screens. Nifty, huh? If you prefer an inside cabin because you typically get seasick, you might want to close the curtains.

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Entertainment: Two70, a family room at sea, offers a virtual playground for the senses. The multilevel venue has 270-degree views during the day and shows at night, both virtual and real. A robot-controlled screen display system is cool as can be, creating virtual concerts, showing engaging backgrounds and adding a unique element to live performances. Royal Caribbean said the complex robot system is one-of-a-kind at sea and perhaps the only one in the world being used in this way.

North Star: This observation capsule providing 360-degree views from 300 feet above sea level is a can't-miss. There's nothing else like it on any other cruise. The oval-shaped glass pod is attached to a giant arm that extends to 80 degrees and swings it up and over the ocean. The capsule holds 14 passengers and is modeled on the London Eye. The views were amazing and the ride was smooth — and free.

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