Western Caribbean Cruise
March 3 – 10, 2012
This past week, I was fortunate enough to travel on the Oasis of the Seas, one of two sister ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet – the other being named Allure of the Seas – the largest cruise ships in the world, built in Finland. The massive size of theses vessels dictates destinations and routing.
Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are currently based out of Fort Lauderdale with special piers and handling facilities to process up to 12,600 guests, half disembarking at the end of their trip and half embarking on the next week’s cruise, all within a ten-hour period. The amount of semi trucks off-loading provisions to last a week was staggering.
Traveling with a long-term octogenarian friend, Harry Deveaux, this past week’s itinerary took us to three ports of call, all with docks that are able to accommodate the Oasis and the Allure. With a capacity of 6300 guests, tendering guests to land for a shore excursion is not an option. A personal non-option for Harry and myself was getting lost in the crowds of our fellow passengers. Our goal was to seek the paths least traveled and to enjoy our time aboard this ship in classic style.
Travel onboard a cruise ship with a large family or group of friends is ideal: no worry about where and when to eat, finding an eatery to accommodate large groups, deciding who will pick up the tab, what the kids will do, what activities in which to participate, etc. However, traveling as a couple or single passenger on such a large ship as Oasis of the Seas, spontaneity would be my choice. Add that to my quest for serenity and allow me to share advice for this floating city:
1. Bite the bullet and book a suite, of which there are many categories. Gold card status allowed Harry and myself to bypass the lines for top-notch entertainment in the 1500-seat theater that rivals many on Broadway. We experienced the musical “Hairspray”; an aqua show with world-class Olympic divers; ice shows; headliners; and “Come Fly With Me” – a Cirque du Soleil type choreographed song and dance extravaganza. We were invited to join the intimate Concierge Lounge for breakfast, lunch and complimentary cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the evening. We received invitations to private events (such as champagne on the helipad with the officers) for suite guests and frequent cruisers only. One of our favorite perks was the private sun lounge for suite-guests-only, tucked away from the crowds on deck 17 forward.
2. Arrive at the pier late. Passengers start arriving at 11:00 am, but Harry and I waited until 3:00 pm to check-in – barely a soul in sight since most guests tend to board early.
3. Take advantage of the wide array of specialty restaurants. We never even entered the three-story main dining room, which doubles as an enormous lunch buffet. For a nominal cost, we could partake of any number of eateries – which, when considering the price of this all-inclusive cruise, was a rather low price to pay for pampered and intimate service in 75-seat venues. Chops is a steakhouse; try Giovanni’s for classic Italian; Johnny Rockets for burgers & fries; the Sea Shack for casual seafood; Izumo for Asian cuisine. Harry’s favorite eatery was Vintages that serves tapas in a wine bar setting. My favorites were lunch at the quiet and healthier fare Solarium buffet; and dinner at 150 Central Park – stay tuned for more on 150 Central later.
4. When selecting meals, remember that simpler is usually better. Cruises are food included, so under-order and avoid the heavy sauce-laden dishes. Order perishables earlier in the cruise when still somewhat fresh; steer toward meats and sustainable options later in the week.
5. From the front, Oasis of the Seas appears to be an enormous ship. From the aft, it appear as two cruise ships placed on one hull with a park running approximately three-quarters the length of the ship from the back end right through the center with interior stateroom balconies above – all open to the elements. While the crowds are below this 8th deck – in the casino, dancing in the nightclubs, in the theaters, or parading the interior promenade – Central Park is a lovely landscaped oasis where several of the specialty restaurants are located and offers a more subdued energy with a classical guitarist performing in the background. Harry and I visited this park daily where there was little to no foot traffic.
6. Choose going ashore wisely. Having been to Cozumel in the past, Harry and I stayed onboard and felt that we had the ship to ourselves. With four other ships in port that day, why even attempt to jostle with the other 20,000 passengers and crew members on land? Conversely, when we were the only ship at dock, I waited at least one hour for the gangway rush to subside and then walked right off the ship without hassle. I was in the suite-guests-only area, on a floatie in the ocean – Rum Runner in hand, of course – within fifteen minutes.
7. For sun worshipers who want solitude, deck 14 forward has a large quantity of lounge chairs. There is no signage and very few visitors. There are small hidden decks with perhaps a dozen lounge chairs each at both ends of decks 11 and 12.
8. Leave your stateroom at the last possible moment. A morning departure of 10:30 or later will put you in the gigantic customs hall with relatively few passengers and pieces of luggage left over from the earlier onslaught.
One port of call to note was a beach resort in Labadee, Haiti, where Royal Caribbean International leases the land and paid millions to provide dockage and a playground for its passengers. The site is fenced off from the surrounding area and guarded by a private security force – passengers are not allowed to leave the property and the location is quite remote. Attractions include pristine beaches, water sports, restaurants, bars, a mountainside roller-coaster-type ride, and zip-lines from mountaintop to beach — and did I mention bars? To some, the idea of enjoying cocktails and barbecues on the beaches of Haiti may strike them as distasteful, where a mere few miles away, there are Haitian residents still trying to recover from the 2010 earthquake. Others commend the cruise line for continuing its operations at Labadee — Royal Caribbean has contributed the largest proportion of tourist revenue to Haiti since 1986, employing 300 locals, allowing another 200 to sell their wares on the premises, and paying the Haitian government $6 per tourist.
As a fan of smaller vessels, such as the 140-passenger Windstar ships, I must admit that sailing on the Oasis of the Seas turned out to be a delight, given our well-planned maneuvering. Harry and I enjoyed the smartly appointed staterooms, the aggressive common area art collection, brilliant entertainment, and the secluded nooks around the vessel to relax undisturbed. Indeed, we were able to travel in classic style aboard this glitzy Las Vegas-at-sea vessel.