You may remember a few weeks ago that I wrote about attending the ‘Dry Run’ of a brand new dining concept at sea called Wonderland Imaginative Cuisine by Royal Caribbean. Shortly after this event, I jumped on board the world’s newest and largest cruise ship and into the real Wonderland to preview Harmony of the Seas, as part of the ship’s pre-inaugural cruise season. Here’s what happened when I fell through the rabbit hole!
When Harmony of the Seas, the latest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, docked at Southampton in May, she caused quite a splash. She was met by onlookers and by the press with excitement, intrigue and in most cases, sheer incredulity that something quite so huge, could exist – and float. I had only ever seen cruise ships before from a distance; I don’t think I’ll ever forget observing the ‘Costa Fortuna’ (actual name) docking in Venice, although my mum, who came with me on this trip, has been on at least 20 cruises over the years covering the Med, the Caribbean and most-recently, a transatlantic cruise to New York. Despite our collective experiences, we both gasped in amazement whilst standing in the shadow of Harmony. After composing ourselves, we moved like tiny little ants, along a red carpet lined with pretty flowers, and boarded one of the most talked-about ships on earth. With the Royal Caribbean philosophy of ‘innovation and imagination’ ahead of us, we started to get the sense that we were in for a treat.
Costing £700 million/$1 billion to build, Harmony of the Seas was shiny and new and spotlessly clean; in my view one of the plus-points of joining a cruise during her inaugural season. At times, we noticed work people hanging pictures or fixing small things, but these were essentially minor details and didn’t bother us at all. It felt a little like we (or rather the ship’s captain Gus Andersson and crew) were about to take a brand new car out of the showroom for it’s very first spin. The staff were all fresh and ready for a new adventure too. Interestingly, almost every staff member that I spoke to indicated that they had worked for Royal Caribbean for more than five years on different ships and many of them had clocked up eight, nice or ten years at sea.
As we travelled up an escalator and turned our first corner, we had our first ‘through the rabbit hole’ experience, finding ourselves in the Central Park zone, filled with real trees and shrubs and lined with restaurants and cafes. My mum asked; “Where are we? Have we gone the wrong way? Are we still on the ship?” and if I wasn’t so busy giggling and trying to get orientated myself, I probably would have been asking the same. In all her years taking cruise ship holidays with her cruise-obsessed partner, mum exclaimed that had never seen a ‘real park’ on a ship.
In fact, Central Park was just one of seven ‘neighbourhoods’ on board Harmony of the Seas:
- Central Park (with 1200 trees and plants plus dining and shopping)
- Boardwalk (an amusement park-styled area with a carousel, hot-dog stand and fast food, also the aqua-theatre is just beyond)
- Royal Promenade (with boutique shops and areas for eating, drinking and late night dancing, you’ll also find the robotic Bionic Bar here)
- Entertainment Place (with comedy, jazz bars and two theatres)
- Youth Zone, a deck dedicated to kids including the kids’ clubs and a creche)
- Vitality Sea Spa and Fitness Centre
- Pool and Sports Zone, including a kids area called Splashaway Beach, five water slides and the 10-story Ultimate Abyss dry slide and FlowRiders where you can learn to surf.
Wherever we ended up we seemed to keep finding unusual features and it took us at least two days to explore the ship – even then, there were areas that we didn’t manage to visit. The ‘neighbourhood’ concept is unique to Royal Caribbean and you’ll find neighbourhoods on their Oasis Class, such as Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas. Since the Royal Caribbean fleet seems to be moving towards bigger and bigger ships, it makes sense to create specific zones within the ship to help give passengers a sense of where they actually are once on board. Thus, while cruising, you get the sense that you are in a resort, or on a small ‘floating city’ rather than a stuffy, claustrophobic boat.
Our first challenge and port of call was to find our room, which we eventually found after walking along a seemingly endless corridor. The ship is 362 metres long in total, so if you find yourself at the wrong end of it, you’re in for a walk. We found our room – an Ocean-View Stateroom (top left image) and mum was thrilled to find a balcony – she had only ever stayed in an ‘internal’ cabin on board ships before. The category of our room was classed as ‘state class’ and it was spacious, with a large and comfy double bed, a bathroom with a shower, a large TV, sofa and double doors to our balcony. If cost is an issue, it’s worth noting that many of the the internal cabins on Harmony of the Seas have ‘virtual balconies’ – another unique on-board concept boasting a floor to ceiling screen displaying an image of the sea giving you the impression that you can see out. A large number of rooms on Harmony also have balconies or windows overlooking the open-spaced centre of the ship, for example, Park View rooms overlook Central Park whilst Boardwalk View Balconies overlook the Boardwalk. You can also book some of the larger rooms and suites – Star Class will get you a Royal Genie, Sky Class gives you an exclusive concierge, priority reservations and access to a private sun deck, whilst Sea Class suites give you access to an exclusive restaurant with bar called Coastal Kitchen.
After taking a few obligatory selfies on our balcony, we headed out to explore the rest of the ship. There are 16 guest decks on board Harmony of the Seas, with 18 decks in total and 24 elevators – so it takes a little while to get your bearings. At full capacity the ship can hold 6,780 guests and a further 2,100 crew members – so yes, it is colossal. During our mini-cruise the ship was at around half capacity, and even so, there were times when we didn’t come across any other passengers at all.
Royal Caribbean are definitely leaders within the cruise industry in terms of on-board technology. Not only did we find a complete robotic ‘Bionic Bar’ – where you can order your cocktails via a touch screen device, but so too can you connect to Voom, the fastest wifi/internet at sea, as well as connecting to Royal IQ, an app available on your tablet or phone – there is an android version as well as an iPhone version. There are Royal iQ stands located around the ship to help you connect and make bookings and reservations. You can also plan your holiday with Cruise Planner which allows you to select internet packages, make dining reservations, book shore excursions, spa appointments and more.
Having challenged ourselves to drinking a cocktail in every bar (of which there are more than 16!) we got to work, whilst also sampling a selection of snacks and canapés from some of the restaurants on board. I started to get my head around the whole concept of cruising – from what’s included in a standard package ticket to all the various extras and upgrades available on board.
The key thing to keep in mind when booking a cruise holiday is that your fare will likely include (though always check) –
- All your meals within the Main Dining Room, on Harmony this is split across three levels and also on Harmony, within the Windjammer Marketplace (serving global cuisine, fresh-to-order omelettes, desserts and offering a fresh bakery for sandwiches and snacks), as well as tea, coffee and some soft drinks
- Additional complimentary food is available at Sorrento’s Pizza, the Boardwalk Dog House, Mini Bites, Park Café, Solarium Bistro (highly recommended for a quieter experience) and at the Vitality Cafe within the spa.
- The Adventure Ocean Kids Club if you are travelling with kids (I checked and they don’t accept disorientated mothers)
- Activities, such as theatre shows, mini golf, rock climbing, swimming pools, cinema, zip line, carousel, dance classes, live music, comedy, sports and fitness, sauna and steam room, table tennis, quizzes, classes and demonstrations.
Things you can pay for/add on –
- Drinks Packages and Speciality Dining Packages (these also allow you to make reservations in advance)
- Shore Excursions – again, bookable in advance. You can get off and explore on your own, but by booking the shore excursion via your cruise company the ship has to wait for you if you are late!
- You can also pre-pay for your gratuities to save you having to tip individual waiters or staff.
Food & Drink
Standard Dining Package
We dined in the Main Dining Room (below left) during our second evening on board. Usually, you do have the option of requesting a table of your choice, but at busier times you may be seated with other people. Look out for the option of ‘My Time Dining’ which offers you more flexibility on when to eat. I would imagine that at full capacity the main dining room must get very busy; there were a couple of teething-issues with the timing of food orders during our pre-inaugural cruise. However, we enjoyed the buffet-style dining of the Windjammer Marketplace (which would have also been included as part of any package) and in reality, would probably have found ourselves eating there more, particularly if we were on a cruise as a family.
For families, the kids club staff can either take your children to eat at the Windjammer Marketplace or your kids can dine with you and then the staff can be booked to take your kids off to watch a movie while you finish your dinner alone. There is also an in-cabin babysitting service for a fee of $20 an hour per child.
During a ‘longer than two-day cruise’ I think I would have to take up the option of a Speciality Dining Package. For an additional fee you can eat within the speciality restaurants on board – prices vary from $6.95 at a hamburger-style restaurant to $25 for dinner at Jamie’s Italian to $49 for an experience at Wonderland and to $89 for a meal at 150 Central Park. You can also look out for Royal Caribbean Dining Packages and special offers – for example, you can buy 3 dinner sitting credits for $80. One or two of the restaurants on board also offer ‘a la carte’ options – so this is worth checking ahead.
Speciality Restaurants on Harmony include:
- 150 Central Park (cover charge)
- Jamie’s Italian (cover charge)
- Jonny Rockets (cover charge)
- Chops Grille (cover charge)
- Wonderland (cover charge)
- Chef’s Table (for up to 14 guests)
- Coastal Kitchen (suite guests only)
- Room Service (cover charge)
- Sabor Taqueria and Tequila Bar (dinner available a la carte)
- Izumi Hibachi and Sushi (lunch and dinner available a la carte)
Wonderland Imaginative Cuisine – At Sea
As mentioned, I had already experience Wonderland on dry land at the pre-launch event in Soho. However, during our first night at sea we had a reservation at Wonderland and it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. The menu really is imaginative, beginning with a picture frame that you have to paint with water in order to reveal the ‘elements’ of your meal, categorised by Sun, Sea, Earth, Wind, Fire and Dreams. We shared a tasting menu showcasing most of the dishes on offer, which, as you can see below, were beautifully presented and particularly well-cooked – as you would expect from any comparable fine-dining restaurant on land. As an ‘add-on’ to your standard cruise package, I would certainly recommend scheduling in a meal at Wonderland with cocktails. We tried dishes such as Baby Vegetables in the Garden, Liquid Lobster, Gazpacho Cones, Terroir Beef with River Stone Potatoes and the Arctic Equator Chocolate dessert.
Wonderland is available on Harmony of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Quantum of the Seas as a Speciality Dining Package.
The entertainment on board Royal Caribbean was very impressive. We watched the opening night of the hit musical ‘Grease’ as well as the opening show on ice called 1887. Harmony also offers a production called ‘Columbus the Musical’ and ‘Harmony High’ – a rock and roll style show. There is also an aqua-theatre, which includes high-wire acts and open-aired acrobatics. Sadly, we didn’t get to experience the aqua-theatre because it rained on our second day on-board – Harmony is definitely a fair-weather ship with so much outdoor activity going on. Happily, her future home-port is to be Florida.
There was also lots of music going on around the ship, including live music within some of the bars, such as the jazz bar. There is also a karaoke bar as well as a comedy bar. There is also a Vegas-style on-board casino for all your roulette, poker and slot-machine needs. Surprisingly, the casino is an indoor smoking spot so be aware of that when you are walking through to the art gallery – I almost told someone off for smoking indoors! After a good few cocktails (keeping up with our personal challenge to have one in every bar) we joined in with a full-on “Totally Awesome 90’s street party” – again, I felt as if I had chanced upon a parallel universe. I kept asking mum whether all this partying was normal on a cruise ship, and she assured me the party atmosphere is the main reason she enjoys it so much! I think this is what surprised me so much. I was half expecting a stuffy environment with people wearing dinner jackets looking forward to attending a captain’s dinner. In fact, the demographic of people booking cruise holidays has changed so much so that ‘the captain’s dinner’ is probably no longer the highlight of the holiday.
Royal Caribbean offer so much ‘upbeat’ and modern entertainment (for example, in securing the rights to Grease from Broadway and partnering with DreamWorks) that means that cruise holidays are increasingly appealing to multi-generational families who are keen to be ‘wowed’ and entertained as well as being well-fed and watered. Despite this new edge to cruising, there most certainly are quiet areas on board. I wouldn’t quite say we were in Ibiza territory and if you are after a quieter time of things, you can easily find a place to sit away from the hustle and bustle.
One of the main reasons that I have never been on a cruise with my family is that with three children (aged 9, 6 and 2) I feared that we would feel trapped. However, I can completely see now that this wouldn’t be the case and that they would absolutely love it. There is a whole neighbourhood on board Harmony of the Seas dedicated to kids. The activities within Adventure Ocean are included with the cost of your cruise fare and there are three categories (as well as a nursery for Royal Babies and Tots) which includes Aquanaughts for 3-5 year olds, Explorers for 6-8 year olds and Voyagers for 9-11 year olds. The ship offers everything from activities presented by their partners DreamWorks, as well as face painting, craft stations, talent contests, Xbox corners and outdoor activities such as a zip-wire and two rock-climbing walls. Teens have a bit more freedom to come and go within a speciality area on Deck 15 with chill-out areas and even a dance club with staff on hand.
Older kids (as well as adults) will love the must-try experience of shooting down the biggest slide at sea called The Ultimate Abyss, which is a 10-story slide!
There are also three water slides called The Perfect Storm as well as a gym, a running track and a learn-to-surf wave simulator called FlowRider.
Overall Thoughts & Tips
Did I enjoy my first cruise-ship experience? Absolutely. I think there was more than enough high-quality entertainment and luxury facilities on board Harmony of the Seas to make a ‘multi-generational’ family holiday a real contender for us in the future – and I didn’t feel sea-sick at all despite a little bit of choppiness around the English Channel.
I’d want to travel to somewhere hot to make the absolute most of the outdoor spaces on the ship. There are 25 cruise ships within Royal Caribbean’s fleet and as based on my experience on board Harmony, I would recommend an Oasis Class ship which offers most of what I experienced. Given that Harmony is currently the newest and largest, there are obviously some unique features to be enjoyed, too.
Harmony of the Seas is currently sailing around Europe, from Barcelona or Rome around the Western Mediterranean, but she is due to move permanently to Fort Lauderdale in Florida where she will cruise to the Bahamas, Eastern and Western Caribbean. An all-inclusive balcony room will cost around $1500 for a 7-night cruise but do look out for deals and special offers.
I would definitely ‘add on’ a Speciality Dining Package as you are really only paying a supplement on top of your full-board fare but in doing so will open up a wider range of more exclusive dining options on board. I would also take advantage of any Pre-Paid Drinks packages on offer to limit spending lots of extra cash on cocktails.
Having said that, my mum and partner never take up the ‘speciality dining’ options and always have a perfectly happy time – especially as they enjoy taking excursions and sampling the local food on shore. So, if budget is an issue, on balance, I would likely choose a newer/larger ship and a better room with a balcony over paying for speciality food…
Whilst on board I attended a media briefing during which the President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, Michael Bayley, praised the independent travel industry and said that they have been key to increasing cruise-holiday sales.
Following the cruise, I spoke to an Independent Travel Expert Rebecca Randall who said:
“When a client is looking for a holiday they may not consider a cruise, thinking it might be an expensive proposition compared to a ‘land’ holiday. However, in reality there may not be such a difference in prices – making a cruise a good option for the customer – and that’s where an agent is able to provide advice.
We deal with all of the major cruise companies and get all of the latest offers, so we are able to compare prices and offer the client the ideal package for them. And for clients who do not have the time to search through all of the various offers – either from the internet or from the cruise companies themselves, the one-to-one personal service ensures that all their package needs are taken care of with the minimum of fuss.”
Royal Caribbean also have plenty of offers and deals which you can receive if you subscribe to their newsletter.
Cruse Critic takes a fairly detailed view of what’s on board and offers good reviews
Read Giulia’s piece here – Top 10 Things to See/Do on Harmony of the Seas
We were guests of Royal Caribbean International. I was not expected to write a positive review and all thoughts are my own. Follow @MyRoyalUK #goextraordinary for more information.
Follow my foodie travels and adventures on instagram here @RenBehan