Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On the World’s Largest Cruise Ship, the Sea Is an Afterthought

I WAS standing in Central Park in the middle of the Caribbean Sea near an Indian mangosteen tree, a Malaysian olive tree, a number of elephant ears and a total of 96 other species of plant. Birds were tweeting and mothers, as diversely global as the plants, pushed strollers along the paths. A little girl twirled in a pink dress.

At the far end of the park was a Coach store and, three decks below, a Starbucks, as if a moment might go by without a chai or a vanilla bean. And I thought: Why am I standing on a land mass on a ship? And: When did ships become less about the water on which they sail and more about the land they have left behind?

Not that ships, going back to the first ocean liners with their ballrooms and bowling alleys, haven’t always appropriated the trappings of land. (Never has a ship tried to adopt the rootless, underwater habitat of a shark or even the loft of a mermaid sitting on a piece of coral).

Yet Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, launched in December at a cost of about $1.4 billion, has taken the concept of land to a point where, on a seven-day western Caribbean voyage, from Dec. 19 to 26, with stops in Labadee, Haiti, and Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico, my Aunt Dorothy and I entirely forgot we were at sea.

Is that a good thing? For romantic sensibilities screaming for the sublime, the metaphysical pondering of the deep — no. For those longing to get lost in a strange, wondrous, digital world of lights and colors that is not unlike the high-pitched energy of Manhattan or any world city — yes.

After hearing about the Allure’s size (1,187 feet long and 16 decks high with a capacity for 6,318 passengers and 2,384 crew members), we did not know what to expect. We were frightened, actually. My aunt has primarily been on smaller luxury ships — Crystal, Regent and the lovely and long-gone Royal Viking — ships with 500 to 1,000 passengers, subtle teak decks and very nice Champagne.

She has been on 30 cruises, and I have known the watery high life only because I have been her guest 12 times, either on short cruises like the one on the Allure, or for brief visits during some of the 10 world voyages she has taken that can last four to five months and cost more than $100,000 a person.

Not that she is incredibly wealthy. She started as a Montgomery Ward stock girl in 1936 and worked her way up to diamond buyer. Cruising is what she does with her savings.

And as part of a cruising group for whom smaller is better (meaning cozy dinners with the ship’s officers, quiet afternoon teas and thoughtful lectures by foreign correspondents), my aunt has always thought bigger meant thousands of passengers atop thousands of deck chairs watching television and eating three pieces of pizza at once. Except for a trip on a Princess Cruise she and I took in 2005, she has avoided ships with capacities of 4,000 or more.

But then she heard about the Allure, and how glamorous it was supposed to be as mega-ships go. And she called Malcolm, one of her luxury-cruise-ship friends, who last year went on the Oasis of the Seas (identical to the Allure but two inches shorter). He told her, “Even though there are 24 elevators and 1,700 children, you’re going to love it.”

For hard-core cruisers who go a few times a year, speed of check-in is paramount, and fetishistically discussed; it is imperative to begin the pleasure immediately. On the Allure, check-in was extraordinarily fast thanks to the huge new 5.5-acre, 240,000-square-foot terminal that Royal Caribbean built in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2009 to make sure that the thousands of passengers moving on and off the Oasis and the Allure would be able to go “from curb to stateroom in 15 minutes.”

Stepping off the zigzagging gangplank into the enclosed Royal Promenade, we were hit with blinking lights, video screens and shop windows stuffed with jewels and muffins. Where had we come? On smaller ships there is a small area where a social hostess greets you with a little beverage and everyone hugs one another. This place looked like the inside of a shopping mall in Singapore or Dubai, with people from everywhere streaming by — a woman in a Muslim head covering, a tiny wrinkled man speaking Spanish with his arm around a young woman three times taller in bondage shoes, a Japanese couple in formal dress staring up at the top of the Cupcake shop. Still, we were in a crowd of only a few hundred or so; where were the other thousands?

We would feel not only the excitement of being among so many different cultures but also a certain spaciousness the whole week. Never would we be overwhelmed or crowded. One reason for this, it turns out, is that the Allure is not just very long, but hippy in the beam — 215 feet wide, in fact, more than 30 feet wider than Royal Caribbean’s last big ship, Freedom of the Seas.

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