Cruising: notes from a first-time cruiser
I was recently very lucky to be invited on a three-day sample cruise aboard the newly revitalised Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas, and I kept a diary of my voyage.
Explorer has been fitted out with new features such as a FlowRider wave machine, three new specialty restaurants, a 3D cinema, virtual balcony staterooms and a couple of new bars. This is in addition to the ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall, mini-golf course, basketball court, indoor shopping mall and so many more features it would take a page to list. After her month-long makeover, the Explorer is making it’s maiden sailing out of Sydney, and boy am I excited to be on board.
My better half, Lucy, and I arrive at Darling Harbour (or Sydney Pier, as our cab driver duly informs us), to a truly awesome sight: I’d read in the media releases that this is the largest superliner to call Australia home, but, as my girlfriend will attest, my hanging jaw illustrates the fact that I never truly imagined how big this thing would be.
The size of the ship distracts me from the length of the line of passengers awaiting to board. At this stage, all I’m thinking is how long is it going to take to get them on?
We are lucky that we have priority access, so we’re led through the doors and we line up on the second level, awaiting security screening and the signing-away of our lives. No, not really. We also have to sign a bunch of waivers telling the crew that we aren’t diseased in some way, shape or form, which we aren’t. We receive our Sea Pass card, which is linked to my credit card (dangerous, I’m thinking) and we are told it is to be used for all onboard purchases. Sea Pass in hand and declared disease free, we manage to get on board from cab to ship in around an hour. Not too shabby.
Now I’m getting really excited. The ship is the size of a small village, or a large village, depending on your perception of village sizes, and our first mission is to see where we’ll be sleeping for the next three days.
We wander about with our bags and search for the information area. We find it, as have about 100 other passengers, it would seem. Luckily the ship is decked out with intelligent touch-screen monitors located throughout all levels, so, Lucy being the tech-savvy type, finds our stateroom on the screen and we follow the directions to our onboard lodgings.
The door opens to our perfectly sized, airy stateroom, complete with balcony, overlooking, at this stage, that marvel of Australian architecture, the Sydney Opera House. Immediately, I have visions of breakfast on the balcony looking out over cerulean blue seas and a sky of azure. I can get pretty poetic in my head when I’m excited.
We meet our stateroom attendant, Loyal, who is lovely, and immediately lives up to his moniker, attending to our needs and asking if there’s anything he can do for us. “Would you like your bed separated, sir?” he asks, and “Do you need an extension cord?” I tell him his first-born will be fine, and that we are as well, and we thank him for his attentiveness. First impressions? This is going to be fun; great stateroom, splendid attendant, magnificent vessel. As I said earlier, I’m excited.
We unpack our bits and pieces and head out to explore the ship. I am drawn to a mass of sweaty passengers scrambling over what seem to be bedazzled lanyards. Intrigued, I head over to them and find, much to my surprise, that I am correct. Lanyards in pink or clear faux crystal. Lanyards in manly blue and black. I ask one of the peppy passengers what they are for, and I receive a look of incredulity. Obviously not a first-time cruiser, I think to myself. I walk away from the lanyard stand none the wiser.
We move along to a site reminiscent of a Boxing Day sale. People talking at the top of their voices, signing papers, handing over Sea Pass cards, paying for beverage packages. We manage to make our way through the throng and take a peak into the windows of the duty-free shops, which aren’t open until later because, technically, we’re in Australian waters and they can’t sell duty free until we’re on the open sea.
There are a nice selection of stores: a clothes store or two, a jewellery store, a high-end watch store, a trinket store, a bar, a café and more. We take a peek inside all and head for the top deck to get away from the shops and soak up some of the of spring sun.
We hit the top deck and walk through the adults-only solarium, which is a roman-styled pool area, complete with wine bar, deck lounges and spa pools. Wandering through the solarium, we enter the pool deck, which, judging by the sounds of laughter and smooth Jamaican reggae, is the place to be. Royal Caribbean by name, distinctively Caribbean by nature.
As we’ll be docked in Sydney until 7pm, the top deck is now the perfect place to soak up some rays and survey the surrounding Sydney cityscape. Standing on the top deck, I am higher than the roof of the Opera House. As I said earlier, it’s a big ship. Determined to get into the swing of things, Lucy and I order a pint and proceed to the closest deck lounges, to lay back and take a long draught of cool beer. As I struggle to pull the cruise card from my wallet, I realise the value of the the lanyards. Cruise tip number one: bring along, or buy, a lanyard for your Sea Pass card, and you won’t need to keep your wallet or purse on your person.
Cruise tip number two: all prices on Royal Caribbean vessels are in US dollars, so unless you have a stash of American cash on you, and considering the fact that you’ll be charged US$6 for an onboard ATM transaction, although you have the option of ‘running a cash tab’, it may be best to use your Sea Pass card linked to your credit card for all your purchases.
Lucy and I sit down to work out whether or not the beverage package is a wise decision. Beverage packages start with the Royal Replenish package at US$22 for unlimited coffee, tea, bottled water, fresh juice and non-alcoholic cocktails. Or you could go for the top-of-the-line package, the Ultimate, which runs at US$67 per day. There are a few other options in between, ranging in price from US$42 to US$57 per day, as well as unlimited CocaCola for US$5.50–$8 per day. The catch is that you have to book it on the first day and you have to have it for the duration of your journey. We work out that we’d have to drink eight pints per day, or five cocktails, to make it worth our while, so we opt against the drinks package and take it one drink at a time.
The afternoon atmosphere on the top deck is electric; it’s a vessel in party mode. Cruisy sounds, happy faces, a few harmless, jovial drunkards sipping cocktails in either of the two pools, and my thoughts are along the lines of well there goes the quiet time reading a book by the pool. Everyone is happy and we both feed off the atmosphere to relax for a half hour.
We meet our host Anna, PR Manager for Royal Caribbean, and the first thing she tells me is that the vibe we are currently experiencing is not typical of a normal cruise. Evidently, the shorter the cruise, the more booze consumed. “The longer cruises tend to have an older demographic,” she tells me. “It’s really not usually this boozy.”
Honestly, it didn’t bother me. I ask the opinion of an older couple sitting a few chairs away from me, and they told me they thought it was great. They were really enjoying the party mood. “Besides,” one of them said to me, “we’re not so old we can’t party too!”
We laugh and I take my leave. Lu and I head over to the day spa to see what they have to offer, and are met by two very attractive young ladies who are more than happy to lead us up the carpeted spiral stairs to a wonderful-smelling, tranquil environment. And looking at the day spa menu, there is no treatment missing. We’re talking cosmetic and spa facial treatments, teeth whitening, assorted massage therapies, slimming therapies, acupuncture, waxing – the list is almost endless. We opt for a couple’s manicure and book in a time for later in the afternoon.
Next stop: lanyard. Yep, I’ve been sucked in to the cruise ship lanyard culture, and after sifting about through my options, I go for the same bedazzled clear crystal number as Lucy. Why not, I’m here for a short time and a fun time. Immediately the sparkly lanyard draws the attention of other cruisers, getting giggles on the lift and a few laughs throughout the onboard mall. Everyone seems happy and ready for a good time – which is nice because it’s not like we can get off the ship if we don’t get along.
It’s 5.15pm and the entire ship’s crew and passengers are called to the outer decks for the emergency muster, which is the drill similar to what airline attendants do prior to a flight. We all line up in our muster groups and listen to the in-case-of-emergency directions. There are some laughs to alleviate the notion that we all hope this won’t ever be necessary, the captain addresses us all over the loudspeaker, and we depart knowing where our lifeboats are in the unlikely event of an accident at sea.
Most of the passengers seem to be heading back up to the top deck, but we go back to our room to get our clothes ready for a dinner we have on tonight at Chops Grille – Explorer’s specialty steakhouse, and one of four specialty restaurants they have onboard. I pull out a shirt, blazer and jeans and start looking for an iron. No iron. I call up Loyal, my stateroom attendant, and he tells me they have none onboard, but he’s happy to organise an ironing service for me. Within minutes he’s at my door, so I hand over my shirts and he informs me that they’ll be ready by 5pm the next day, which obviously doesn’t help me for my dinner tonight. This brings me to point number three: if you plan on visiting one of the specialty restaurants on your first night, or even the main dining area, shirts are a must. So make sure you have at least one ironed, or have one of those I-don’t-need-to-iron-my-shirt shirts.
Luckily I have one, so I go with that.
We head back up to the day spa for our manicure. I’ve never had a manicure before and I must say, it’s quite relaxing. The spa staff are great, we have a laugh as they tell us stories about their past cruises (beauty salons are a great place to get the ‘goss’ on cruise culture) and how much they love Sydney. I’m sure this is part of the ‘passenger interaction’ class that staff must undertake, but I don’t care. My nails look nice and Lu’s do too and now it’s off to Chops Grille for a steak and some seafood.
After a few mishaps, the most notable being that one of Lu’s nails didn’t quite dry in the ‘recommended’ time and looked a bit like melted plastic, we arrive at our table to meet our group. I meet a fellow named Tim, who does some work with Meat and Livestock Australia, so I grill him (pardon the pun) on which steak I should order. He recommends the oh-my-god-how-can-you-eat-that-all-in-one-sitting ribeye (which he orders). I’m not in the mood for a food coma tonight, so I go for the Filet Mignon, partly so I can say “filet mignon” to our waiter.
Tim and I strike up a conversation, we drink a nice red and our entrées come out. The scallops are simply divine, and I eagerly await my steak. When it comes, it does not disappoint – quite possibly in the top two steaks I’ve ever eaten and, if you’ll pardon the pretence, I’ve eaten in some nice establishments. Tim agrees, and he’s somewhat of an expert. His ribeye is one of the finest he’s had, although I have no idea how he managed to get it all down. Moral of this story is: the food onboard does not disappoint and it’s well worth spending the extra US$25–30 to eat at least once in the specialty restaurants.
We all finish our meals and talk some more. I am introduced to Tim’s wife, Louisa, with whom Lucy has been chatting all night, and we all go downstairs to the Schooner bar for an after-dinner drink. It’s funny, at the top of the ship, which is where the restaurant is located, I could barely feel the rocking motion. Yet down on the fourth deck, which is supposedly where it’s less ‘tilty’, I can feel the motion. After the man on the piano finishes singing, believe it or not, Piano Man, we head to the Tavern Bar to watch some karaoke. It’s a great laugh spying on slightly (or more) inebriated people singing pop songs, and we’re just in time to hear that old favourite Livin’ on a Prayer. There are not enough microphones to serve the singing masses, as the whole crowd joins in, and the night ends in a cacophonous chorus of classic rock.
With the first night over, it’s time for bed. So we say our goodbyes and head back to deck eight where our room is situated. I walk in, and plop face down on my ultra-comfy queen-sized bed, and the next thing I see is daylight eight hours later …
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