If I had to settle on one word to describe the world’s largest cruise ship, it would be this:
Or perhaps “intimate.”
You might think that’s ridiculous. There are 6,000 souls on the Allure of the Seas, plus crew, a mere 2,400 more. The ship is so enormous the lifeboats seem like 1:1 replicas of the Titanic. It has an ice-skating rink and a zip line that drops nine decks. It has a shopping mall with a Coach store. It has three swimming pools and a water park. When the Allure and its two sister ships were launched, they probably displaced enough water to make the oceans rise 3 millimeters.
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These Royal Caribbean vessels are enormous, and hence easy targets for those who hate the idea that people are taking cruises and enjoying them. Sorry, killjoys: They’re great fun.
Consider the public areas in the average large cruise ship. There’s the lido deck, with pools, bars and buffets. This is where you spend most of your time sunning and ingesting a variety of liquids and solids. There’s the promenade deck, where you run off dessert or sit on a deck chair and watch people run while you have another dessert. There’s an upper deck with tennis courts and with lounge chairs that overlook the acres of basting vacationers below. There’s a lower deck with the restaurants and shops, the place with the deserted nightclub where a lonely guy from the Philippines spins dance music to an empty room.
Not the Allure.
This 1,187-foot-long giant does not have a stack of decks with predictable functions. It has neighborhoods.
The ship is hollow in the middle, with 10-story atriums fore and aft. At the back of the ship there’s an entertainment district, with restaurants, a wave pool, a rock-climbing wall, a carousel for the kids! Hot dogs and doughnuts. It’s meant to be an old East Coast boardwalk, and of course it’s utterly ersatz; inauthenticity is a crucial part of the authentic cruise experience.
It’s like a Disney park. Kids love it, some adults love it, other adults are amused by it, and even the haters have to be impressed by the sheer scale of it all. It’s amazing that this floats and astonishing that it moves.
A STARBUCKS AT SEA
The middle of the ship has another entertainment district – comedy clubs and casinos, if you think, “I want to laugh! Then smoke and lose money.” When that no longer seems fun, you can turn to your traveling partner and say, “I know we’re at sea, and part of the joy of ocean travel is feeling the salty spray of the spume on your face as your prow plows its furrows in the trackless void of the sea, but what I really want to do is have a drink in an elevator that takes 10 minutes to lift me to the upper deck of a shopping mall.”
Well, you are in luck, because of course there is such a thing. It is called the Rising Tide Bar and it goes up and down from the lower ha-ha-and-gamble deck to the upper shopping mall deck. While you are floating upward you can see the stores and fine restaurants. The cupcake cafe. The Starbucks. The faux English pub. The faux New York pizza joint (open until 3 a.m.).
That mall is just another neighborhood, and that’s where everyone goes when the weather’s bad or it’s late and you want to do something that doesn’t involve the incessant burbly music of the slot machines.
Up top is another neighborhood, the place for cavorting. The elevators will take you up to the pool deck, where there are many, many pools and a million chairs and more hot tubs than a hot tub dealership showroom. And that’s just the part that’s open to the sky.
The Solarium in front has a two-tier enclosed space with ferns and palms and flowers and hot tubs, and it’s as large as the total amount of public space on the smaller upscale vessels. But it’s not vast. It feels separate from the pool area, a private realm.
BUFFETS AND BEYOND
But what of the buffet, you ask, a bit curious. Isn’t that the big great wonderful thing, really? The cruise gives us license to eat whatever/whenever/however much we wish. You can have French toast every morning because you are on the water. Different rules. If you wanted to lose weight you would be climbing Mount Everest.
The buffet on the Allure, from my limited experience, was disappointing. I usually take Holland America ships, and I know the menu by heart. Oh, look! It’s the Indian entree I’ve had in the waters off Norway, Alaska and Mexico. I’ve traveled the world and it hasn’t changed a bit. Hello, old friend.
On the Allure, the dining rooms are spacious and bright, and you can usually find a seat – no mean trick on a ship with such a vast population. But you don’t want to rely on them. Not when there are so many other options – 25 actually – and that brings us to “intimate,” and the crickets.
My room was closest to Central Park (yet another neighborhood), the atrium at the fore of the vessel. Ten stories of rooms rise on either side, but unlike the Boardwalk, this area is forested. Trees, shrubs, flowers, paths that wander through the grounds. Restaurants and bars, of course. There was a breakfast place with granola and baked goods and juice and infinite coffee, and every morning I took my meal at a sidewalk table, watching the passers by. It’s like being in the middle of a strange new city, and it only took a day before I decided that this was my neighborhood.
In the evening a string quartet played by the small bar, and the music was piped into speakers around Central Park. You’d hear the strings as you stepped off the elevator; the melody carried you through the woods until you came across the musicians, and then when you walked on the melody followed as you left. You were heading to the Mall, of course, because it was 11 p.m. and you needed people, pizza and a bar on a pneumatic lift.
On the way back at 2 in the morning, the park was empty. The ship was silent. Ten stories of rooms rose around you on either side; the lights in the trees were still lit. As you walked through the trees you heard crickets.
Probably prerecorded. Or maybe there’s a guy whose only job consists of restocking the crickets every night. Doesn’t matter. It’s a night in November. It’s warm. The trees are green. The crickets are singing. There are 8,500 people on board, but it’s just you and the nightsong. Everything has been exquisitely designed to make you happy, and it works.