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A city afloat More theme park than ship, Royal Caribbean's


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Sunday, February 06, 2000
Page: P10E
Byline: Jay Clarke Knight Ridder Newspapers

AMAZING. Mind-boggling. One of a kind. Break out the adjectives. Voyager of the Seas, the world's newest cruise ship, is all that and more. Royal Caribbean's new 142,000-ton Voyager is not just the biggest cruise ship in the world. It's a trend-setter on a grand scale.

Who ever thought you could put an ice rink on a cruise ship? Voyager has one, and it's a hit. Who ever thought passengers would want to climb a rock wall or go in-line skating on the deck of a ship? They can and do on the Voyager, which began weekly cruises out of Miami last Sunday.

But the most stunning feature on the ship is none of these. It's the Royal Promenade, a four-story-high shopping and entertainment street reminiscent of London's Burlington Arcade.

Day or night, this 400-foot-long passage is crowded with people. They come to shop. They come to sit at a sidewalk cafe, to sip a drink or take a snack. They come simply to stroll and gawk. And it all seems so natural and so much like being in a city ashore that many passengers forget it's all happening aboard a ship cruising the ocean.

"It's amazing. It's like a city that never sleeps," passenger Erika Lederman, 27, of Aventura, Fla., said of the Promenade.

Indeed, it doesn't sleep. One venue, the Cafe Promenade, stays open 24 hours, serving pastries and pizza, coffee, beer and soft drinks.

Next to it is one of the street's most startling eye-catchers: a two-story-high Rube Goldberg device that feeds outsized balls through a maze of mechanical gizmos onto a roulette wheel more than 10 feet in diameter.

Always busy on the Promenade are the sidewalk tables of the Pig & Whistle, an Irish pub that seems transported straight from the streets of Dublin. There's also a sports bar on the street, as well as several boutiques.

"I love the atmosphere. It's like a mall," said Teresa Butzer of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "You can meet more people seated at a sidewalk cafe.

Sooner or later, somebody you know comes by." Three levels of inside staterooms overlook the passage - the first inside rooms with a view in the Caribbean. (The largest Scandinavian ferries also have windowed inside cabins.) A settee at the window inside these cabins lets passengers sit comfortably while watching the action on the Promenade below. But the window, of course, also lets people on the street - and in staterooms across the way - look into your room.

"Yes, people can see inside, but you have curtains, and you can turn off the lights in your room," said Richard Fain, chairman and chief executive officer of Royal Caribbean.

One occupant of a Promenade room complained about hearing a band playing on the street - though I didn't in my Promenade room. Parades and music are evening Promenade events.

Fain's response: "We want the Promenade to be exciting, a fun area.

Most guests want to be part of the action." He thinks the inside-view cabins may bring a premium above those with outside views.

While I found the view intriguing enough during my two-night sailing, I felt that passengers might tire of the vista after a few days. The Royal Promenade isn't the only feature on board that's more often found ashore.

One is the much-publicized rock-climbing wall, which rises above a large deck area devoted to sports. It seemed to exhilarate even those who weren't successful in scaling the structure. Climbers who make it to the top get to honk a horn there.

Said 25-year-old Courtney Hansen of Naples, Fla., "I only got halfway, but my brother honked the horn. I'm ready to do it again." The wall is 35 feet high, but since it's on a high, open deck, the climbers are actually a dizzying 200-plus feet above the sea. A 90-minute session on the wall, including training and handling the rope for other climbers, costs $8.

Then there's the Center Ice rink. There are daytime ice skating sessions, but the night Ice Jammin' show is the real attraction.

Featuring professional skaters and an outstanding comic duo, the show drew standing ovations several times. In one sequence, black-lighted skaters attached to overhead cables swoop over the rink like butterflies moving from flower to flower.

An hour's skating time on the 40-by-60-foot rink, including equipment, costs $6; it's only $3 if you have your own skates. The ice rink is part of Studio B, a 900-seat state-of-the-art broadcasting facility with retractable flooring and seating that also will be used for game shows, dance parties and other productions.

If ice skating's not your bit but in-line skating is, an oval track awaits on deck. It's not large, but after all, you're on a ship, not on land. The cost of in-line skating is the same as ice skating, but you can buy a skating package (one hour of each sport) for $10.

In addition to the rock-climbing wall and in-line skating oval, the sports deck also features a full-size basketball court, nine-hole miniature golf course, golf simulator and driving-range cage. The cruise line also is offering a number of active shore excursions, such as diving and hiking trips.

If it seems that Voyager tilts a bit toward participant activities, it's a deliberate strategy.

"Our new options clearly are meant to appeal to the emerging generation of vacationers," said Adam Goldstein, senior vice president of guest satisfaction for the line. "The second aim is to enliven the experience for everybody. We want guests to understand this is not a boring, staid experience." Voyager's size, he said, enables it to offer a broad spectrum of venues and activities, including "dramatically more" food choices. "We want our guests to choose their own vacation." It's also why, as Fain explained, the line is building several new 80,000-ton ships as well as additional Voyager-sized vessels. "No one size fits all," he said.

As on any new ship, the Voyager had its glitches. The most serious involved the elevators. At embarkation and disembarkation time, when 3,000 people were moving onto or off the ship, the elevators proved inadequate, resulting in long waits for service. The elevators also acted capriciously, sometimes operating only between two or three floors, ignoring button calls or remaining inoperative for hours.

So much has been said and written about the Voyager's innovative features that its other amenities have been largely ignored. Yet it's worth noting that thanks to its size, the Voyager is able to devote more space to all passenger facilities.

Voyager's cabins are larger than on other Royal Caribbean ships, for example, and, of course, there are more of them: 1,557 all told. The Conference Center is the largest at sea, with seating for 400 guests.

Artworks on board cost $12 million, the largest investment in art on a single ship by any cruise line.

The 1,350-seat La Scala theater offers Broadway-type revues in a three-story space inspired by the famous Milan opera house. The spa/fitness facility is the largest afloat.

More supervised programs are offered to children, whose facilities are divided into four age groups, than on most other ships. Explorers (6-8 years), for instance, have an art studio, climbing station and cozy corner, while Navigators (13-17) have their own nightclub with DJ, a video center and computer stations.

Adults, meanwhile, can head to The Vault for late-night disco. The Vault is a two-story room entered by a glass bridge after pressing a hand into a hand-print matrix for entry through vaultlike metal doors.

The High Notes club showcases jazz nightly in the Viking Crown; the Schooner Bar piano bar is a favorite gathering spot on this and all other Royal Caribbean ships; the Connoisseur cigar club offers a chance to light up a stogie and sip a brandy; the 19th Hole bar, themed to the nth degree for golf buffs, is a oasis for passengers returning from the sports deck. And on the highest deck on the ship, the 15th (nearer to God?), there's a wedding chapel for passengers who get carried away by romance.

The Voyager also features three main dining rooms - more than in any other ship - stacked atop each other with a central atrium in a unique configuration. Alternate dining facilities include the Island Grill and Windjammer Cafe on the pool deck, popular venues for casual breakfast and lunch, while the 88-seat Portofino room offers reservations-only dining.

A dining innovation, the first Johnny Rockets restaurant at sea, was so wildly successful that lines of people waited to enter the 1950s-style diner through the day and night. At 1 a.m. one night, guests hungering for the restaurant's trademark burgers and shakes were being told to expect a one-hour wait.

Among other Voyager features not often found on cruise ships is the Aquarium Bar, whose several wall tanks hold 56 tons of salt water and hundreds of tropical fish, "some pretty rare," according to Goldstein.

The new flower shop is definitely an experiment. "It's our first on a Royal Caribbean ship, and I don't know how it's going to go," said Mark Oliver, manager of the Voyager gift shops. A dozen long-stem roses in a vase cost $48, shorter-stemmed roses less. Also new is the Sun Shop, which sells hats, sunglasses and other sun gear.

The most unusual new feature on board, however, is not even mentioned in the publicity releases, perhaps because it's in the men's room next to the flower shop. The urinal there is a granite wall which, when approached, emits a waterfall of water.

Last time I was there, three women came in to gaze at the phenomenon in fascinated amusement.

Nothing is sacred anymore.

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