In early May, the world's largest cruise ship, Freedom of the Seas, cast anchor in Southampton, England. LEONG SIOK HUI flew over to get a sneak preview of the ship’s many firsts.
The word, “cruise ship” conjures up images of pasty-faced pensioners lounging on the sun deck or parked at the slot machines. It’s probably the kind of holiday I might take years down the road when I need to slow down.
But I just received an invitation from the Royal Caribbean International to come aboard their newest ship, Freedom of the Seas, for a sneak preview, so how could I refuse.
Not only does Freedom hold the World’s Largest Cruise Ship title, this 15-deck giant boasts the first surfing pool at sea, the largest rock-climbing wall, a football field-length shopping mall, interactive water park . . . the list of “firsts” go on and on.
My first glimpse of Freedom was in Southampton port, where hundreds of international journalists and travel agents boarded the ship for a two-night stay.
The US$870mil (RM3.1bil) Freedom weighs a massive 160,000 tons – that’s more than the weight of 80,000 cars. At 56m, the ship’s height is comparable to an 18-storey building and its bow-to-stern measurement (339m) is the length of three football fields. It takes about 10 minutes to stroll from one end to the other.
I was a tad anxious about getting lost on such a big ship but signs are posted everywhere, and there are 14 elevators to take you from the first floor to the 14th.
“The safety standards on Freedom are unprecedented,” assured Captain Bill Wright, 52, who considers it a “pinnacle in his 32-year career” to captain the world’s largest cruise ship.
“She has the most advanced smoke and heat detection and sprinkler systems,” he said proudly.
One of the first things we did while on board was go through a safety drill – putting on lifejackets correctly and knowing where to assemble during emergencies.
There are 108 life rafts and boats that can accommodate 7,430 people. At full capacity, Freedom can pack 4,375 guests and 1,400 crew members into the rafts and boats. That means, there is more than enough space for everybody if we need to abandon ship. Phew . . .
My spacious, ocean-view room comes with a balcony, flat screen TV, safe deposit box and the usual amenities found in a five-star hotel room. With its thick mattress, crisp white cotton sheets and fluffy pillows, the queen-sized bed looked inviting.
Each room receives the daily Cruise Compass, a newsletter listing the day’s itinerary, show schedules, information and tips on what to do during a Royal Caribbean vacation.
The first place I checked out was Deck 13 where the rock wall, basketball/ volleyball court, nine-hole miniature golf course and surfing pool are.
Dubbed the FlowRider, the pool churns out constant curling waves and you can take surf or body-board lessons. But since it was still chilly (early Spring, you see), we could only watch the surf instructors demonstrate some cool moves.
I couldn’t resist a quick climb up the largest rock-climbing wall at sea. With 11 different routes for everyone from beginner to expert, the wall was a hit with the guests.
Freedom’s ShipShape Spa and Fitness centre, also the world’s largest fitness centre at sea, offers a medley of services – from aromatherapy massages to acupuncture and even teeth-whitening treatment. The fitness gym boasts the PowerBox boxing ring (also the “first ever”) where guests can do resistance and cardio training.
On my second day aboard, I learned proper stretching techniques from the trainer in a “stretch” class and, swivelled my hips to pumped-up Latin tunes in the salsa-aerobic class.
Other than the usual yoga, Pilates and aerobic classes, ShipShape also runs free seminars with topics like Eat More, Weigh Less and Burn Fat Fast which was very helpful to some us who were overindulging in the tempting spreads served at the eateries.
You’ll never go hungry on board Freedom. With 10 restaurants to choose from and of course, room service, guests can munch on chilli fries and burgers at Johnny Rockets – a 1950’s style diner, tuck into Thai curry at Jade Restaurant or savour delicious pasta at the Windjammer’s Cafe. At night, you get to play dress-up for black-tie dinners at the main dining room which spans three levels and can seat 2,101 guests.
Before dinner, there is a nightly street parade at the Royal Promenade – an entertainment boulevard with duty-free shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants. Amid a fanfare of music, laser shows and lights, the parades showcase stilt-walkers, jugglers, clowns and aerial performers.
The Promenade is a great place to get a caffeine fix and scrumptious desserts at Lattétudes, a pint of ice-cold beer at The Bull and Bear Pub or a slice of hot, cheesy pepperoni pizza at Sorrento’s.
Guys can get a shave, scalp massage, haircut and shoe shine at A Clean Shave – modelled after a traditional American barbershops.
At the 16 bars, passengers can enjoy live jazz, Latin music, easy-listening piano performances and even a sing-along session as they sip Pina Colada, wine or champagne.
If you feel like heart-thumping beats, dance away at The Crypt, a two-deck, gothic-themed nightclub or at the open-air dance floors by the pool. Malaysian Idol-wannabes can belt their hearts out and get on TV at the On Air Club, a karaoke venue equipped with state-of-the-art lighting, video cameras and flat-screen TVs.
They’ll love it!
Freedom is designed to offer “something for everyone”. Kids aged three to 17 will have a ball here with a packed schedule of sports matches, dance parties, and arts and crafts projects. There is a sprawling game arcade and fun-filled, teen-only lounges. Parents with babies can enrol tiny tots in a playtime programme called Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots.
One of Freedom’s highlights is the H2O Zone – an interactive water park with water jets and spray cannons sprouting from colourful, whimsical “sculptures.” The ship’s total pool area is 43% more pool space than the line’s next biggest ship. And there’s even a 14-person Presidential Family Suite with four bedrooms, private balcony with whirlpool and a 14-person table for al fresco dining.
“With its surfing pool and rock wall, and the Caribbean destinations, Freedom will appeal to the younger and more adventurous crowd,” said travel agent F.H. Chang of Holiday Tours Sdn Bhd, the only Malaysian travel agent at the preview.
“The fact that it’s the largest and newest cruise ship in the world will make it a big draw to my customers too.”
Two days were barely enough for me to try out everything on Freedom. I never got to waddle on the ice-skating rink, catch the magic show at the 1,350-seat Arcadia Theatre, try my luck at the glitzy Las Vegas-style Casino Royale or soak in the cantilevered whirlpool on Deck 11 with spectacular views down to the ocean 34m below.
And despite my preconceived notions about cruise vacations, it’s hard not to enjoy Freedom. W