The first time I laid eyes on her, it was from a great distance. While driving to work one day, along the high Interstate 595 ramp over Interstate 95, I looked out across the marina, all the way over into Port Everglades, and noticed a huge building I had not seen there before.
When I took a closer look at this new edifice, rising high above the convention center, I realized it was not a building at all, but that ship I had seen in a newspaper, the one whose owners boasted it was the tallest, heaviest, widest and most expensive cruise ship in the world. Later, I got a closer vantage point from the 17th Street Causeway, and boy was I was impressed with the sheer size of this 213-foot-tall, 1,187-foot-long Oasis of the Seas.
In most cases, I give publicity trips away to writers. Public-relations departments know it’s good strategy to wine and dine the media to get positive coverage. I was going to assign this story, too, but when a persistent public-relations professional invited me and my wife to go on this weekend getaway from Nov. 20 to 22, my normal hesitation melted away. I called my wife to tell her that we were going!!
When I told my wife that the ship on which we would be cruising is five times the size of the Titanic, she told me that better be the only comparison between the two.
Although we went on what is known as a “cruise to nowhere,’’ circling around in the ocean off the Florida coast, the Oasis will eventually sail throughout the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Haiti, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.
The first cruise will start on Dec. 5.
BEAUTIFUL ON THE INSIDE
When we arrived at the port, I looked over at the ship, its sheer size and daunting appearance conjuring up thoughts of science fiction. The huge, shield-shaped, Royal Caribbean logo at the back of the ship, with its two, pointy blue anchor tips against the ship’s white background, somehow – to me – resembled the Transformers movie logo. In my mind, I could hear the ship make that funny gizmo noise that the Transformers make, while shape-shifting itself into an upright stance. It would become a Godzilla-sized robot, towering above the flat, South Florida landscape.
As I got closer to the ship, another sci-fi image entered my mind. I had seen photos of the beautiful insides with a Boardwalk, movie theaters and outdoor park features. But from the outside, to me, it looked like a whitewashed version of the flat, uninspired, Borg cube from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Later, a Royal Caribbean executive said the ship is so technologically advanced that it is the “Starship Enterprise.’’ Well, maybe so, from the inside.
Once we boarded the ship, it seemed as though we had entered an upscale shopping mall, complete with multi-level coffee shops, boutiques, sidewalk cafes, bars and restaurants. There was even an antique car parked in the middle of this area, known as The Royal Promenade. It all reminded me of the experience I have at the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale, or the Aventura Mall.
On the way to our state room, we passed by The Rising Tide bar, one that actually travels – slowly – up and down three levels between the Royal Promenade on Deck 5 and Central Park on Deck 8. I had never seen anything like this: the tables and chairs of a small hotel lounge, complete with a full bar and bar tenders, traveling up and down floors like that.
Up inside our Deck 11 state room, we did not regret the lack of an ocean view. We had our own outdoor balcony with table and chairs, overlooking the Central Park area down below. You can sip champagne and watch people down there as they walk through this unique, open-air area in the middle of the ship.
When you go down into the park, you experience some unique features: a beautiful, “brick paver’’ walkway that winds around gardens full of sweet-smelling flowers and tall trees. The area opens up to the sky many stories above, creating a light breeze that gently sways the trees.
It really does create the illusion of being in a park on land, with the windows and balconies of condos (state rooms) rising around you like a long courtyard. The sidewalk cafes and shops along the way create an experience that is comparable to walking along Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
Later at night, we checked out the Entertainment Place, down on Deck 4. We peeked in on a singer who wowed a large crowd with vocals and a piano in The Opal Theater, a multi-level entertainment venue that resembles a miniaturized version of something you might find at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
We checked out a jazz club featuring the first Australian quartet I’d ever had the pleasure of seeing and hearing.
The next day, I couldn’t wait to get to the zip line, the world’s first one at sea. It’s basically a high wire that, in true “Dark Knight” fashion, zips you along in a harness for a full 82 feet, nine decks above the Boardwalk.
Too bad. The zip line was fully booked, and I didn’t get a chance to try it. My wife tried convincing me to jump into the FlowRider, which provides the experience of a surfer negotiating high waves. I chickened out when I saw people wipe out and get tossed uncontrollably all the way to the back of the ride.
We settled on sipping pina coladas in a large Jacuzzi on the pool deck until dinner that evening.
Did I mention the food on the ship is awesome? Friday night, in a stately dining room, I tried escargot for the first time. Delicious! I followed that appetizer with a tender, juicy steak, mashed potatoes and, for dessert, chocolate mousse.
We slept in too late for breakfast the next morning, so we went to the Windjammer Café, featuring a wide assortment of goodies. I chose to build my own cheeseburger, choosing from the lettuce, cheese and tomatoes on hand, and picking up the meat, which came hot off the grill. With thick fries!
The last night, it was dinner buffet style in the bistro area of the Solarium, basically a huge Florida room atop the ship with great views of the ocean. I had an asparagus and Portobello mushroom salad, then laid on turkey, chicken, lentil beans, and added a bowl of pumpkin coconut soup. Yummy!
The Oasis experience was not without its kinks.
In our state room, the nice, flat screen TV featured a wide array of “free’’ movies, but they were all in either German, Italian, Portuguese, French or Spanish. Not a single movie channel was in English. What’s more, the volume didn’t always work, and it muted just when you got to the good part of a show.
Some other guests on board complained that their rooms were too hot, the air conditioner not working up to speed. I attributed many of these glitches to the fact that this was the ship’s maiden voyage for passengers, and we were basically the guinea pigs. I’m sure paying customers will get much more from the experience when the ship really gets going.
And, while I loved the night clubs, the ones that featured karaoke and jazz (my favorites) closed far too early, at 12:30 a.m., after only being open for a few hours. Hopefully, the hours will be extended for future cruisers. Yet, as I conked out and went back to the state room our final night on the ship, my wife danced to a mix of hip hop and old-school jams. She didn’t get back until some time after 3:30 a.m.!
One other little pet peeve of mine is that the crew, nice as they were, did not seem to know the ship very well. We walked the entire length (about three football fields worth) several times, trying to find our way around, albeit through some very scenic and interesting areas (like the Youth Zone for little kids, a teen club and even a library full of books you can take around the ship). The electronic room finder consoles are helpful in getting around, but sometimes you just want a human being to tell you whether to go left or right!
On the ship’s 16 passenger decks, the crew of 2,165 will eventually tend to as many as 6,296 paying customers, which I’m told is nearly 45 percent more than the largest other cruise ships now operating.
Yet Royal Caribbean will not stop at the Oasis. The company is building a sister ship called the Allure of the Seas.
I just hope the economy can support all of this massive cruise-ship building. With more than one in 10 people unemployed in this country, I can’t imagine that cruising tops most everyday people’s priority lists, particularly as we approach the holidays.
Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean’s chairman and CEO, had a pretty good answer to this notion at the obligatory press conference/media overview portion of our trip.
Justifying the prices, which reportedly will be about twice what most cruisers pay for the experience on lesser ships, Fain said, “These larger ships generate an economy of scale. One could simply build a larger ship. We not only made it larger, but we have added new things.”
Regarding the recession, he said, “I’m certainly hopeful that we are beginning to come out of the funk. Cruising is a great value. The real thing that we’re selling here is terrific value.’’
I hope he’s right, and that Royal Caribbean’s $1.5 billion gamble on this Disney-esque ship’s construction will be a game changer for the cruise industry.
ON THE NET
For more information, log on to oasisoftheseas.com.