When they said it’s like a floating city, they weren’t kidding. Royal Caribbean International’s newest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, is the biggest in the world. At 18 stories high, it’s taller than Mt. Rushmore and twice the height of the Washington Monument in DC. If you line up 17,000 African elephants and coax them on a scale, they’d still be lighter than the ship.
It can be overwhelming being onboard with so many choices in food and drinks, and sports activities and shows. In short, you will not be bored for one second, but if you just want to chill, that’s an option too, whether in your stateroom with balcony or on the boardwalk flanked by restaurants and cafes. Or maybe just grab a cold beer or frozen margarita and soak up the sun by the swimming pools.
Sure, it’s the biggest ship in the world, but that wasn’t RCI’s intention at the outset. It wanted to build the best in terms of efficiency, offerings and technology. So advanced is the ship that it literally floats on water using an air lubrication system that creates a reduced-friction layer of billions of bubbles, which means it uses less energy. Also, in terms of WiFi, RCI has satellite beams that literally follow each of its ships across the world’s seas. It’s a huge investment by RCI but as satellite technology costs get lower in the next 10 years so will the cruises’ Internet packages.
Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard D. Fain says, “We set out to build the best ship in the world and it turned out to be the biggest. In the beginning, we said, no, don’t talk about it being ‘the biggest, talk about it being the best.’ It turns out that was a losing proposition with media. They wanted to talk about it being the biggest but that’s because there’s so many things to do on board.”
And we got to experience the ship’s offerings on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise to nowhere with Arpan Air, RCI’s international representative in the Philippines.
Arpan Air senior vice president and COO Joy Abrogar has seen the growth of cruising among Filipino travelers especially on European itineraries. “We now have families that hold reunions onboard especially if they live all over the world. They meet up in Barcelona from the US or Canada and the Philippines. It’s hassle-free, no need to fly from one destination to another.”
Allpoints Travel president and CEO Dondi Ocampo says, “RCI’s cruise ships are floating resorts. For a week, you get to see several countries and you don’t have to worry about transfers, luggage or even restaurants. It’s all here. Cruising is also great for incentive travel.”
Symphony of the Seas, which sailed its maiden voyage three weeks ago, will be starting and ending seven-night cruises in Barcelona to the Western Mediterranean until the end of October.
Barcelona is a fantastic port. Apart from its famous landmarks like Sagrada Familia, there’s so much to see, learn and eat in this beautiful Catalan city. Before and after the cruise, we explored Gaudi’s greatest love: the city he dedicated his life to.
WHAT TO DO ON YOUR ULTIMATE VACATION
Symphony was designed from top to bottom to fulfill what RCI calls the Ultimate Vacation. Let’s start with the look of the ship first. It’s a beauty! Onboard, you’d feel like you’re in a high-end resort whose design is both playful and sophisticated. For instance, Symphony of the Seas has more works of art than the Louvre has paintings. It has over 20,700 plants, more than The Smithsonian Gardens has in its orchid collection.
Symphony can accommodate around 6,000 passengers and it has 2,759 cabins — the most on a cruise ship — in 30 categories, ranging from the interior rooms to the staterooms with sea-view balconies, staterooms with boardwalk-view balconies to suites, which are like luxury hotel rooms with the family suite equipped with slides for kids.
The ship has seven “neighborhoods,” each with a distinct feel. When you’re out at sea, explore each one because they offer so many different things.
For instance, Central Park, which runs in the middle of the ship on Deck 8, is a lush space with British chef Jamie Oliver’s Italian resto and a wine bar called Vintages.
At the Royal Promenade, there are two bars that draw everyone’s attention. First is the Bionic Bar with two bionic-arm bartenders that can do everything a human bartender can — shake, stir, muddle, strain — except frozen drinks.
The movements of the bionic arms are patterned after American Ballet Theater principal dancer Roberto Bolle. They can produce two drinks per minute for a total of 1,000 drinks per day — and no need to change shifts.
On a touchpad, you can order from the drink list (25 of bartenders’ favorites) — or customize your own, choosing from 30 spirits, eight sodas, six juices, three syrups, sugar, mint, lime and lemons. You decide how many shots you want to put in your glass (the robot bartenders will not judge you). Name your customized drink and the next time you order it, you don’t have to start from scratch because they already know what’s in it. The bionic arms will mix your drink (and wash the shakers between mixes) and then with a gentle push, they slide the drink to the end of the “bar” for you to pick up.
Made by Makr Shakr, the bionic bartenders are the fifth generation in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, starting in 2014 on Quantum of the Seas. Guess how many drinks they have made in the four other ships prior to Symphony? One million drinks as of last year.
Also at Royal Promenade is the glass-enclosed Rising Tide bar, which lifts three decks from Deck 5 to Deck 8’s Central Park
The Boardwalk harks back to the 1950s with a candy shop called Sugar Beach and roaming around entertaining passengers are jugglers, clowns and other performers. It is also on this deck where Aqua Theater is located and where Aquanation divers and swimmers do their synchronized show — diving from 10 meters high or swimming in sync with the music. Most of the athletes are from Eastern Europe, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were former Olympic athletes.
Adventure and Youth Zone is where you drop your kids off while you relax at Vitality Spa and Fitness or play in the casino. Here, the kids have creative ad educational activities such as scavenger hunts and talent shows.
At the Pool and Sports Zone, get your adrenaline up with the Perfect Storm slides or practice your surf at Flow Rider or literally hang out at the Zipline.
The Ultimate Abyss, the most talked about slide in the cruising industry today, is the tallest slide at sea. Appropriately enough, its entrance is the mouth of a giant fish with menacing teeth. It’s a 28-meter serpentine drop with two 360-degree circles. It may feel that you’re sliding endlessly, but in reality it’s only 13 to 14 seconds.
Entertainment Place includes the Royal Casino, the largest casino at sea, where they serve the best frozen drinks while you’re trying your luck at the tables. A section of it is one of two designated smoking areas on board (the other is by one of the pools).
This neighborhood also has theaters where they stage the Broadway hit Hairspray and a 1970s ice skating caper.
Two things not to be missed as well are the Silent Disco, where people dance to music listened to on wireless headsets; and Laser Tag where you pick your own team and battle another.
What I love about the food onboard Symphony of the Seas is the variety of choices. Windjammer is the all-day restaurant where most people gravitate to, but there are also cafes that serve light food, Johnny Rockets for burgers and milkshakes, Jamie’s Italian for Italian cuisine, Izumi for Japanese cuisine, and new outlets Hooked Seafood for just-shucked oysters, El Loco Fresh for Mexican enchiladas, Playmakers Sports Bar for sliders and fries, and Sugar Beach candy store.
So how do you prepare food for 6,000 passengers who are likely to eat more than three times a day — across 14 specialty restaurants offering 350 dishes?
With a team of 1,085 culinary staff, that’s how. At a behind-the-scenes tour in the ship’s galleys, I met Royal Caribbean corporate executive chef Gary Thomas, also known as “the General.”
A veteran chef of 26 years, he commands more than 10,000 chefs across RCI’s fleet, and he’s part of the design team from blueprint to construction of the ship’s kitchens.
On a seven-night cruise, Symphony of the Seas serves about 9,700 lbs. of chicken; 60,000 eggs (“We only have one chicken, it lays eggs nonstop,” he jokes; 700 lbs. of ice cream, 20,000 lbs. of potatoes; 2,500 lbs. of salmon; 5,300 lbs. of bacon; 195 spirits and 450 cases of champagne!
What about special diets? “Symphony has an allergy-wise program. By the time guests arrive on the ship, we know their requirements, whether it’s medical or religious or lifestyle. Veganism is way more common now than 10 years ago. We keep up with the times. We have guests that have really complex allergy requirements, so we have designated preparation areas like for gluten-free or for religious requirements. “
So how many times does the ship replenish its food supplies, say, on a seven-day cruise? “Everything is set at the start of the cruise. We take supply on every embarkation day and to keep the food fresh — vegetables, fruits, etc. — we get them at certain stages of cultivation. We buy quarter ripe, half ripe and ripe bananas, tomatoes, and store them in facilities that are temperature-controlled and based on the length of the cruise. Food continues to grow as long as there’s certain light and moisture. It’s very technical once you get on a 10 to 14-day voyage.”
Thomas says they know they got the requisitioning right when, on embarkation day, the storage facilities are empty and what they see is just stainless steel — ready to take on new supplies that have to be loaded in five hours for the next cruise.
The supplies and storage facilities are run “exactly like a supermarket.” The chefs order their supplies the night before, he approves them and a team distributes them. Maritime law also requires every ship to have a hurricane plan, “which is to have enough of everything to sustain the ship for 48 hours. We have to account for every unforeseen thing. So we have all the basics — not just food.”
PEOPLE & SUSTAINABLE TOURISM
One thing that I love about Symphony is that it is staffed with so many Filipinos. From deck managers to chefs, restaurant servers, bartenders, housekeepers — at every corner of the ship you can ask a question in Tagalog and be answered in Tagalog.
Joy Abrogar tells me that when they have a big group on a long itinerary, they arrange for local dishes to be served to the group. “One time, we surprised our group with tapsilog breakfast and they loved it.”
Speaking of itinerary length, RCI offers cruises designed for millenneals called the Perfect Weekend, a three-night cruise on their Caribbean itineraries.
RCI is changing with the times as passengers change, as tourism changes. Chairman and CEO Richard Fain says, “We keep getting questions about over-tourism, but the more appropriate term is sustainable tourism. As people become more affluent, they want to travel to great destinations and it’s their right. Rather than think about how to stop people from doing that, time and energy must be focused on investing in infrastructure. The growth is inevitable. We work closely with the communities we serve to help them generate economic activities. We’re also very sensitive that we need to do that in a sustainable way.”
When Puerto Rico was hit by hurricanes last September, RCI allocated many of their ships to humanitarian efforts, “transferring people from different islands including dogs, cats, birds, you name it. It was a very rewarding effort for us and we’re proud to be in the communities we serve.”
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Royal Caribbean International’s representative in the Philippines is Arpan Air Inc. For inquiries, call 892 2701 to 03, 0955 213 3579, firstname.lastname@example.org. Like their FB page Royal Caribbean Philippines and visit their website at www.royalcaribbean.com.