Ten-storey slides, 23 pools, seven “neighbourhoods” … Harmony of the Seas is no shrinking violet, even by cruise ship standards.
The world’s largest cruise ship arrived in Southampton this week after almost three years of construction – a project that cost more than $1bn (£689m) and involved thousands of workers. It is the latest addition to Royal Caribbean’s 25-strong fleet, which includes all of the world's five largest cruise vessels.
The Independent stepped aboard this weekend for a preview, ahead of Harmony's inaugural cruise to Northern Europe on Sunday and her maiden voyage to Barcelona, next weekend.
"Mum, it's bigger than Ikea," a little boy said as our coach arrived at Southampton port. And he was right. The not inconsiderable furniture store to our left was dwarfed by the hulking mass of Harmony, waiting in the dock just across the street.
Cruise ships are often described as floating hotels, but this one's more of a floating town. Arranged across the 16 decks are 2,747 staterooms, with room for 6,780 passengers. Thankfully on the preview jaunt out into the Channel and back the ship was nowhere near full, but the tightly-packed rows of sun loungers lining the upper decks hinted at just how many people it can hold.
There are 23 pools on board, including hot tubs, but on the two-night preview sailing, when a brief burst of sunshine swiftly turned to cloud and drizzle, no one was rushing to go for a swim.
Harmony, unsurprisingly, is built with sunnier climes in mind. This winter it will be plying the Caribbean, and the ship's design lends itself to spending time outdoors, whether you prefer to take up residence on those sun loungers, play mini-golf, restaurant-hop in the rather lovely Central Park, or try one of the adrenalin-raising activities. These include a zip-wire, body-boarding, rock-climbing and that 10-storey slide, the Ultimate Abyss, which makes a 100ft drop via several corkscrew turns. You're spat out 100 feet down, on the Boardwalk, a zone of American cafes (including Starbucks, naturally) and shops.
The ship has 20 dining options in total, serving everything from burgers to sushi. Royal Caribbean's signature Wonderland restaurant strides two floors and specialises in "imaginative cuisine" such as duck liver beignet and truffled egg, with a cocktail bar that comes complete with glow-in-the-dark menu. At lunchtime I sampled a few of the other restaurants, picking up tasters of sticky pork belly from Chops Grill, arancini from Jamie's Italian, and French sparkling wine from Vintages.
Grande, where I had dinner, is a huge restaurant with a distinctly Seventies feel, both in terms of menu (vol-au-vents, prawn cocktail) and execution. I enjoy a filet mignon as much as the next person, but I longed to return to Jamie's for a bowl of pasta.
For an after-dinner drink, the place to go is Bionic Bar – as long as you don't mind braving the queues. Here robot bartenders mix your tipple from the selection of bottles hanging from the ceiling. Screens either side let you know whose drink is on the way.
Evening entertainment ranges from bands playing, bizarrely, atop the Kate Spade shop, to ice shows and performances of Grease. I headed to The Attic, where two comedians coped admirably with a crowd of disinterested travel agents.
Walking around Harmony is a little like walking around Glastonbury; you have to leave extra time to get from one place to another, and be prepared to get lost. But this is part of the beauty of it; you might lose your way and end up finding places you didn't know existed – like the casino, where fellow passengers were already (or perhaps still?) propping up the bar 10am the morning after the night before.
In the words of Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley: "It really is quite total in its ability to entertain you from morning until night." Even if your ideal entertainment is getting smashed before noon and playing the slots.
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