At 5pm on 2 November, as dusk envelops Southampton, you can expect the Hampshire port to be much busier than normal for a chilly Sunday evening. The reason: maritime enthusiasts will gather to watch the world's newest ship, Quantum of the Seas, slip down Southampton Water and away on her maiden transatlantic voyage.
Much about the new Royal Caribbean ship is intriguing. Why was she built 20 miles inland, at Papenburg in Germany, requiring considerable temporary civil engineering work on bridges and power lines to allow her to escape the shipyard down the River Ems to the North Sea? Will people really be tempted to cruise because of the on-board dodgems? And since ferries and sleeper trains have had connecting doors between cabins for decades, what's so special about the "Interconnected staterooms [that] give you the flexible family cruise experience you want"?
What fascinates me most is the choice of itinerary for the first public cruise. After leaving Southampton, the next dry land that the passengers and crew will set foot upon is the New Jersey shore – looking across at Manhattan – eight comfortable days later. The voyage has already sold out. So, could this signify a return to the glory days of passenger shipping, when the purpose of big ships was intercontinental travel?
The evidence from a single voyage is scant. It suits Royal Caribbean's purposes to have an undemanding journey across the ocean, at a gentle 17 knots, while snagging can take place. In mid-November the ship is needed at the highest-demand travel location in America, the New York area, for a winter of cruises from Cape Liberty in New Jersey to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Then she sails by way of Barcelona, the Suez Canal and Singapore to Shanghai, where she takes up residence in the highest-demand travel destination in China.
Yet there is already a reasonably frequent service for a civilised Atlantic crossing. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 has a curious existence – nipping from her home port of Southampton across to Zeebrugge in Belgium one day, then sailing to New York a couple of days later. The basic transatlantic price of £799 is around twice the return air fare, but it includes all your food and entertainment on board plus a flight home.
An even bigger bargain is a repositioning cruise. Half-an-hour before Quantum leaves, another Royal Caribbean ship – Adventure – departs Southampton for a two-week voyage to Puerto Rico. Calls include Madeira, Tenerife and a scattering of Caribbean islands, for less than £1,000 – though you'll have to find your own way home.
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