The staid image of the traditional cruise ship holiday, typically favoured by those in their September years and featuring aging celebrity crooners and dated décor, is well and truly a thing of the past.
A pioneer in the cruising industry with a 49-year legacy of innovation, Royal Caribbean has brought the unique seafaring travel experience into the modern age, with an array of holidays tailored to meet the high expectations of the most discerning travellers.
Using modern technology and innovation combined with an irrepressible sense of fun, the company has relaunched the UK’s favourite cruise liner to create the modern, multi-generational cruise ship holiday.
With a £100 million makeover, the Independence of the Seas - dubbed the “ultimate family ship” - is a standard-bearer for the contemporary cruise: a fully interactive, entertaining family experience.
Regulars to cruising - cruisers, as they are widely known – will know that today’s cruise ship holiday is a one-stop shop with everything you need on board to amuse, delight and entertain you, as you set sail to scenic and far-flung destinations.
Before it was unveiled to the public, the press and the trade industry were offered a sneak peek aboard the newly transformed ship as it returned to UK shores after a lengthy sojourn across the Atlantic.Arriving at Southampton dock, we are greeted by beaming crew members who whisk us through passport control and security with minimal fuss and onto the majestic ship where we enter the lifts that will take us to our cabins. Already it’s clear that we will all be given the VIP treatment afforded to every traveller on the Independence of the Seas.
A first glimpse of the ship reveals a busy promenade lined with designer stores such as Michael Kors and Chanel, interspersed between Parisian-style street cafes and a choice of pubs and bars. Further exploration leads us to the newly installed bustling sports bar, with its giant screen. At the opposite end of the vessel we stumble on a grand theatre, capable of seating an audience of 1,000 and more comfortable and expansive than many West End venues.
At this point it’s difficult to even comprehend that we are on board a ship: it’s as if we have wandered into a new and unfamiliar town where fellow travellers are going about their day, enjoying a beer in the Ale and Anchor, shopping or simply taking in the sights.
A ride in the lifts takes us through all 15 decks of the gargantuan ship that is a home away from home for over 4,500 guests, from the newly refurbished gym that offers the chance to procure a six-pack while enjoying a sea view to the Vitality Spa and Fitness Centre, where you can relax with a rejuvenating massage or a facial.
In keeping with the growing obsession with fitness, healthy living is high on the agenda and there are experts on board will offer advice on diet and nutrition, skincare and even offer a foot analysis.If, however, you'd prefer to sip mojitos by the pool to building muscles, head straight to the top deck where you will walk into a summer pool party like no other.
Smiling bar staff are on hand to mix up your favourite cocktails as a live band performs on deck beneath a giant video screen which was relaying the big football match of the day. You can relax in one of the giant hot tubs with a cocktail in hand as you bask in the sunshine or lounge on a recliner and just take it all in.
In the evening, you can watch an open-air movie under the stars with the vast expanse of the sea surrounding you.
If that wasn’t all perfect enough, it’s not long before the unmistakable smell of freshly fried fish and chips will lead you to the latest addition to the ship, the fish and chip bar aptly named Fish & Ships.
Professional cooks batter and fry, serving up portions of hot chips, butties, fried cod and scallops. It’s the perfect comfort food to settle in with.
Food! Glorious Food!
The only problem you might have with food on the ship is that there is so much of it, and with something to suit every palate, the chefs are more than happy to cater to all dietary requirements from vegans to coeliac. There are pizza bars and cafes that stay open late into the night and gourmet restaurants including Johnny Rockets 50s-diner-style burger joint, Sorrento’s Italian restaurant, Giovanni’s Table, Chops Grille Steakhouse, and a new trendy sushi restaurant Izumi. And no cruise experience would be complete without a meal in the grand ballroom.
Venturing onto another deck for dinner, we walk into an opulent dining hall that harks back to a bygone era, when men and women donned their finery for an evening of decadent dining reminiscent of Downton Abbey.
Here too, the guests are dressed for the occasion and the women make the most of the rare opportunity to dress for dinner in their glamorous ball gowns. The menus are sophisticated and sumptuous, catering to the discerning palate with an array of desserts including the crème brulee which is not to be missed.
It’s a fine dining experience with waiter service, champagne, sea-views and pink skies, and the setting sun provides the most stunning backdrop for our meal.
Just one day into the cruise there is so much to take in, and its already past two in the morning before we retire to our cabins.
The newly refurbished cabins are immaculate, and the range of room options includes cabins that comfortably accommodate couples or whole families, those with private balconies and - for those looking for the experience of a lifetime - there are the royal and grand suites that emulate all the luxury and extravagance of a suite in a five-star hotel, complete with a baby grand piano.
After all the excitement of the first day, we are gently rocked into a deep sleep with the soft sound of rushing waves as we sail through the night to the next destination.
We wake up in the morning, fully refreshed and after a lavish breakfast in the ballroom we head off ready to experience all the activities on board.
The newest innovation - The Sky Pad
The newest installation on the Independence of the Seas even has captains on other passing vessels enquiring on the radio as to what the bright yellow dome protruding from the top of the ship could be. Our captain decides to keep them guessing.
It is in fact the Sky Pad, a new virtual reality bungee trampoline experience and just one example of how the curators of the Independence of the Seas have drawn on modern technology, innovation and the thrill factor to bring the cruise experience into the 21st century.
Passenger comfort and safety is paramount, and before we can have a go on Sky Pad, a health expert is called to ensure that we are fit enough to partake in the activity.
We are, and before long, strapped into a harness and with VR goggles placed securely over our eyes, we are gently hoisted onto a trampoline guided by an instructor.
As the game begins we are once again transported to a world of vivid animation, finding ourselves dropped into a music video or leaping through a city made of marshmallows and sweets. The graphics are so ingenious that it's easy to forget that you are bouncing around somewhere high above the ocean.
It’s just one of the more exhilarating activities on board ship. For those with a love of outdoor sports there’s a football pitch and basketball court and a climbing wall that enables the more adventurous to scale to the funnel of the ship to ring the bell announcing their successful ascent. And for something a little less energetic there’s all the fun of crazy golf, a wave pool and the water slides.
While it would be quite easy to lounge the day away on deck, there’s plenty on board to entertain younger cruisers with energy to burn, from the arcade, replete with gaming and video consoles, to the teen dance club with juice bar, or a game of laser tag in Studio B – a large venue which in the early evening transforms into an ice skating rink before it becomes a nightclub which sees the guests take their turn to bust some moves as a celebrity DJ takes to the decks.
The entertainment goes on through the night with a production of Grease in the luxurious theatre. We sing along to the songs as the entertainment team puts on a performance that in its production levels could almost rival a West End stage show.
The cruises attract an array of entertainers too, and we are treated to a concert by a Take That Tribute act who have the crowd on their feet reliving the heyday of the British boyband.
Still humming a tune, we head into the casino for a spin on the roulette table before retiring to the newly installed sports bar.
Entertainment for all the family
Everyone seems to naturally gravitate here, and the atmosphere is constantly bustling with fun as the drinks flow and the crowds cheer on their team on the big screen. It’s a place to get together with new friends and family and catch up on the day’s adventures.
After all the excitement of the day, the children might be persuaded to go to sleep, while the parents unwind in a very British pub where a singer coolly strums a guitar and belts out your favourite tunes or enjoy some Latin tunes courtesy of a live band in the Boleros bar.
And if you want to unwind in one of the more traditional lounges where a pianist plays while crooning some classics, head for the Schooner bar, a favourite with grandparents needing a break away from the excitement.
While there is so much to keep you active on the ship there’s also plenty of opportunity to escape from it all, quite literally in the case of the Escape room, which houses a mystery to be solved by completing a myriad puzzles before the door can be unlocked.
There’s even a library on board, offering a moment to catch your breath and play a game of backgammon or chess or simply bask in the silence. The library, completet with PCs, is every writer's dream and conjures up all the romance of an Agatha Christie as you sit, gin in hand, travelling to exotic destinations and under blue skies, hoping creativity strikes.
The ship even has its own art gallery, but every deck of the ship is adorned with works of contemporary and classic art that could rival any art gallery in terms of quality and value.
The smooth running of the ship is dependent on the crew, who spend up to nine months at a time on board. Despite long days catering to the needs of the guests, they are all well-looked after by the management.
With many of the staff hailing from the US, the Philippines and the Indian subcontinent, the crew co-exists as an extended family, who cook and eat together and are also invited to experience all the fun and luxury of the ship, be it in the lavish crew parties or during the evening’s entertainments with the guests on board.
Swapnil hails from Maharashtra India, where he trained in hospitality and management with the elite Oberoi group of hotels and won a prestigious place on the ship’s crew. During the day he is everyone’s favourite person as he hands out free ice creams on deck. By night he is dressed in black tie and waits on tables in the dining room.
“I was selected for the Independence of the Seas,” he explains. “It’s a very big achievement. Here I meet people from all over the world – different countries and cultures.
“Sometimes I miss home but when we’re at sea I feel like this is my family – the crew, the staff all the passengers. We work hard to make sure our guests are happy but it’s fun for us too, because everyone is always happy on the ship.”
The crew work tirelessly to make this an unforgettable experience and nothing is too much trouble. A fellow guest tells me: “The ship is fantastic. But it’s the crew that make this such a great experience. They are always smiling."
You might even see some of the staff taking part in the evening's entertainment – just for fun.
Laura, who looks after the Escape Room adventure game, describes it as one long holiday. “I call it a work-cation,” explains the American.
“It’s just the best fun to be on the ship and share in the experience with the crew and the passengers.”
The ship has been designed to be a multi-generational travel experience – where every member of the family from under seven to over 70 can share in the all the fun of a family holiday. The only flaw - if you can call it that - is that there are simply not enough hours in the day to fully experience everything the ship has to offer.
Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley says that the latest £100 million refurbishment is just the beginning of the line's plans to take cruising into the future.
“We have what we think is a very successful cruise liner,” he explains.
“We are a leader in our space. We have 25 ships and carry over five million guests a year. We are eager to move our brand forward and we are launching a lot of new ships. It’s incredibly important that our customers view us as an exciting brand that delivers quality vacations.”
"We invest in our ships to keep them exciting and relevant. We invested around $100 million on the Independence of the seas. and in the next three years we will invest at least $10 billion in 10 of our ships.”
Safeguarding the seas
The family-focused experience is a reflection of Bayley’s ethos and it’s clear that the Independence of the Seas has been created with fun for all the family at its heart.
“We very much focused on multigenerational. In America we’re the number-one market for millennials,” he says, and as if to prove his point, adds: “This summer I’m taking my 94-year-old father, my 55-year-old sister, her daughter and her boyfriend, my two sons - one of which is nine - their friends and we’re all going on Symphony of the Seas and everyone’s excited because during the day we can all do our own thing and in the evening we can all get together for dinner for fun moments.”
It’s also good to learn that, besides all the fun and frivolity, Royal Caribbean is committed to safeguarding the seas and has made a commitment to eradicating the use of plastics on board all its ships.
“The world moves together, Bayley explains. “Over time things shift and what’s occurring now is the beginnings of a shift. The consciousness of everybody is being elevated. We see these images on TV of plastic coming out of the rivers and the oceans. Everybody is horrified. No-one I have spoken to has got an issue with trying to fix it. I think in one, two, three years we’re going to live in a world that is a lot different in regard to plastic and we’re going to look back and think my god did we do that?”
Royal Caribbean have already begun the task of eliminating plastics from all of their vessels, but it’s a lengthy process.
“There are real economic issues that need to be sensibly dealt with. Factories have to be re-tooled, supply chains have to be revised. On Symphony, which is the largest ship in the world, we have largely eliminated the use of plastic straws.
"We are now working on the complete elimination of plastic straws on not only the Royal Caribbean international fleet, but all of the brands within Royal Caribbean. We have also stated that by 2020 we will have eliminated consumable plastics on all our ships worldwide. We are deeply committed to this.”
After a day of excitement, we end our evening in the Observatorium, taking in the ocean views for the final time in cocktail bar Olive and Twist. Three days aboard the Independence of the Seas and we are reluctant to leave, and harbour fantasies of stowing away and living on the ship indefinitely.
But it’s our last evening and the crew and the entertainment team are giving us an almighty send off with a Britpop party on the promenade.
We dance the night away to songs from the sixties to the noughties, twisting to the sound of the Beatles, belting out Tom Jones' Delilah, and with a little bit of Bowie, Madness and the Proclaimers thrown in for good measure, before someone starts a Congo line that snakes its way through the crowd on the long promenade.
A balcony descends from the ceiling revealing Eighties pop sensation Rozalla - who once toured with Michael Jackson - her voice spiralling into the night as she sings Everybody’s Free to Feel Good. It’s a fitting anthem for the Independence of the Seas, and the perfect way to conclude the non-stop party that you wish would never end on this veritable palace on the seas.
And it doesn’t have to. We’re all on board again for the ship's 80s cruise in October with guest performers that include Jason Donovan, Erasure, OMD and Human League. Next year, the new cruise experience at CocoCay takes the Independence of the Seas to the Caribbean for the ultimate chill and thrills experience.
There’s no doubt we’ll be back for more. As they say, once a cruiser, always a cruiser. All aboard the Independence of the Seas for an unforgettable family holiday that offers something for everyone!
For additional information or to make reservations, guests can visit www.royalcaribbean.co.uk or call 0844 493 3033 (calls cost 7p per minute plus your phone company’s access charge), or call their travel agent.
Image credits: Priya Joshi/ Royal Caribbean