Standing in Central Park in the middle of the Caribbean Sea near an Indian mangosteen tree, a Malaysian olive tree, a number of elephant ears and a total of 96 other species of plant. Birds were tweeting and mothers, as diversely global as the plants, pushed strollers along the paths. A little girl twirled in a pink dress.
At the far end of the park was a Coach store and, three decks below, a Starbucks, as if a moment might go by without a chai or a vanilla bean. And I thought: Why am I standing on a land mass on a ship? And: When did ships become less about the water on which they sail and more about the land they have left behind?
Not that ships, going back to the first ocean liners with their ballrooms and bowling alleys, haven’t always appropriated the trappings of land. (Never has a ship tried to adopt the rootless, underwater habitat of a shark or even the loft of a mermaid sitting on a piece of coral).
Yet Royal Caribbean International’s Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, launched in December at a cost of about $1.4 billion, has taken the concept of land to a point where, on a seven-day western Caribbean voyage, from Dec. 19 to 26, with stops in Labadee, Haiti, and Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico, my Aunt Dorothy and I entirely forgot we were at sea.
Is that a good thing? For romantic sensibilities screaming for the sublime, the metaphysical pondering of the deep — no. For those longing to get lost in a strange, wondrous, digital world of lights and colors that is not unlike the high-pitched energy of Manhattan or any world city — yes.
After hearing about the Allure’s size (1,187 feet long and 16 decks high with a capacity for 6,318 passengers and 2,384 crew members), we did not know what to expect. We were frightened, actually. My aunt has primarily been on smaller luxury ships — Crystal, Regent and the lovely and long-gone Royal Viking — ships with 500 to 1,000 passengers, subtle teak decks and very nice Champagne.
She has been on 30 cruises, and I have known the watery high life only because I have been her guest 12 times, either on short cruises like the one on the Allure, or for brief visits during some of the 10 world voyages she has taken that can last four to five months and cost more than $100,000 a person.
Not that she is incredibly wealthy. She started as a Montgomery Ward stock girl in 1936 and worked her way up to diamond buyer. Cruising is what she does with her savings.
And as part of a cruising group for whom smaller is better (meaning cozy dinners with the ship’s officers, quiet afternoon teas and thoughtful lectures by foreign correspondents), my aunt has always thought bigger meant thousands of passengers atop thousands of deck chairs watching television and eating three pieces of pizza at once. Except for a trip on a Princess Cruise she and I took in 2005, she has avoided ships with capacities of 4,000 or more.
But then she heard about the Allure, and how glamorous it was supposed to be as mega-ships go. And she called Malcolm, one of her luxury-cruise-ship friends, who last year went on the Oasis of the Seas (identical to the Allure but two inches shorter). He told her, “Even though there are 24 elevators and 1,700 children, you’re going to love it.”
For hard-core cruisers who go a few times a year, speed of check-in is paramount, and fetishistically discussed; it is imperative to begin the pleasure immediately. On the Allure, check-in was extraordinarily fast thanks to the huge new 5.5-acre, 240,000-square-foot terminal that Royal Caribbean built in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2009 to make sure that the thousands of passengers moving on and off the Oasis and the Allure would be able to go “from curb to stateroom in 15 minutes.”
Stepping off the zigzagging gangplank into the enclosed Royal Promenade, we were hit with blinking lights, video screens and shop windows stuffed with jewels and muffins. Where had we come? On smaller ships there is a small area where a social hostess greets you with a little beverage and everyone hugs one another. This place looked like the inside of a shopping mall in Singapore or Dubai, with people from everywhere streaming by — a woman in a Muslim head covering, a tiny wrinkled man speaking Spanish with his arm around a young woman three times taller in bondage shoes, a Japanese couple in formal dress staring up at the top of the Cupcake shop. Still, we were in a crowd of only a few hundred or so; where were the other thousands?
We would feel not only the excitement of being among so many different cultures but also a certain spaciousness the whole week. Never would we be overwhelmed or crowded. One reason for this, it turns out, is that the Allure is not just very long, but hippy in the beam — 215 feet wide, in fact, more than 30 feet wider than Royal Caribbean’s last big ship, Freedom of the Seas.
After a quick salad at the Park Café, one of the Allure’s 22 restaurants, where a song played about how wonderful life is, we looked at the ship’s map — nightclubs and casino on Deck 4; specialty restaurants mainly on 8, around the park; child and baby areas on 14; sunlight and sports on l6; staterooms from decks 6 to 14.
Arriving at our cabin, where the luggage appeared within seconds, my aunt said that the 182-square-foot space with a 50-square-foot balcony was “skimpy” compared with the 350-square-foot cabin that she was used to. “As you recall,” I said, “you are paying $279 a day per person as opposed to that bargain world-cruise rate of $668.15 a day in 2010.”
For our first dinner we went to Deck 16 on the ship’s bow, where a dancer in violet feathers wiggled her way through the fiery orange candles and white cloth chairs and tables at the most exciting of the ship’s specialty restaurants, the Samba Grill, a churrascaria. Eleven of the ship’s 22 restaurants charge an extra $15 to $35 a person, which includes everything that is not in a bottle. (We had made reservations for the specialty restaurants a month before, as was recommended by her travel agent.) We ate olives and fennel and oranges as waiters came through with skewers of picanha, fraldinha, costela and lombo. It is all very Rio.
After we ate at the Chops Grille the next night, with its Chicago stockyards theme, and another day at Sorrento’s pizzeria, with photos of Manhattan, I began to see that the Allure is an urban ship, a celebration of cities, a 24-hour dream of lights and movement and the power of being in the center.
But the most definitive Allure experience was when we went to sleep. There was no feeling of movement, no gentle rocking of waves that put one into dreams of past excursions, sailing on high-masted ships to mysterious green islands. In the morning we wondered if we really were on a ship, but then it did not matter because we were hungry.
At breakfast at the Windjammer buffet, where the host jumped up and down every second saying “Goodmorninggoodmorninggoodmorning,” we were torn, choosing from among the hundreds of trembling eggs and the salmon slices lying coldly on top of each other and every other possible morning food.
We looked over the 91 activities listed for Day 2 in the ship’s newsletter, the Cruise Compass. Games were introduced on early ocean liners, it is said, to distract people from feeling seasick, and to distract women from remembering that they were at sea in the first place. These days, the diversions have grown into a marketing monster in a highly competitive business. “Options, options, variety, variety,” said Adam M. Goldstein, the Royal Caribbean president and chief executive, referring to what his passengers want. “We hear it over and over.”
My aunt’s favorite activity was to go to Catholic Mass followed by team trivia, an old-fashioned ship amusement. I, meanwhile, went to watch the DreamWorks parade with the upright hippopotamus dancing to the music of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” on the Royal Promenade. Over the course of the cruise, I did not make it to the Pirate Family Festival, Who Is Fuzz Buzz, GagBall, the Michael Jackson Line Dance Class or the Make Your Own Bangle Workshop. There were too many things going on at once.
But I did manage at various points to observe the zip-lining, ice skating, miniature golf, rock climbing, FlowRiding, basketball, spa treatments and people clinging to the 158 cardio and resistance machines in the fitness center.
Later at dinner in the Adagio dining room, I asked the retired, youthful-looking couple from Trinidad at our table, “Are all mega-ships this way?” Meaning so vast, so sublime — a gentle giant in chains? “No,” said the man, a former forensic scientist. “The Allure is above and beyond.” The conversation moved quickly to everyone’s favorite topic: how many cruises they had been on. “We couldn’t begin to count,” the Trinidadian couple said. But Linda Jones, from Manchester, Tenn., knew: “Eighty-four!” Gerald and Greta Barbalock from Florida were the ship’s winners with 319.
ON Day 3 the Allure put in at Labadee, Haiti, a stop that raises some people’s eyebrows. How, in good conscience, can a rollicking pleasure ship visit a land so distressed? Royal Caribbean has leased a paradisiacal north slice of the country for its stops since 1986, and Mr. Goldstein has a blog, part of which is devoted to how much Royal Caribbean contributes to Haiti in medicine, supplies, education: a reported $2.5 million in relief efforts to date.
When I asked a Royal Caribbean employee if passengers were afraid of getting cholera during the Haiti stop, he whispered that nothing goes into the area we would be visiting (including the lobster and the ribs for the barbecue lunch) that does not come from the ship. Haitians do come in to play the flute and maracas, and to sell dolls, along with mysterious blue and black paintings of the beach. I did not see the fence and the guards that separate Labadee from the surrounding area.
My aunt, who has cut back on excursions, stayed on the ship to play Royal Bingo. I walked about, climbed up and down stone steps, put an employee at the Labadee Information Office to sleep with my questions and lazed in a deck chair near the ocean thinking how wonderful nature is and how I almost dreaded going back to the hyper-digital ship.
When I got up and started walking, I realized that my iPhone, with which I had taken at least 100 photos, had disappeared, either into the sand or into someone’s hand.
This crisis led to discovering how wonderful the Allure’s Guest Services desk is, with the 24-hour SWAT team of 10 or more officers lined up like soldiers — Saacha and Mustafa and Hristina and Carlo — all on alert, vigilant, ready to find that phone. Guest Services turned out to be one of the most interesting places on the ship, as it was the only place on the Allure where real things were happening: true dramas, like arguments about not being able to get on the Internet and losing minutes and money in the process.
After a drink in the Rising Tides bar, which goes up and down between Decks 5 and 8, followed by a fillet in the Chops Grille with my aunt, I calmed down. By the next day, the Central Park tour with Jelassi Habi, the ship’s horticulturalist, made me forget the lost iPhone for almost 10 minutes.
“The first idea was to have rolling hills with grass around, but rain would have been a problem, so they chose the plants instead,” Mr. Habi said with a sigh to the small group huddled around him. “Each plant has its own pipe for irrigation,” he said. “We have nine sticky boards for pest control. Department of Agriculture officers come on every two weeks. They send the sticky boards to the Department of Entomology. I use a magnifying glass to check. As of now, we just have flies.” Then he went on to say that they have to cut back the trees and no flowers can grow, which makes him very sad.
Though the park is more similar to a nicely landscaped midcentury outdoor shopping mall than it is to the Sheep Meadow, I would find myself coming back to the cool, clean air more and more, even though the whole point of a cruise is to become one with the salty air and leave behind the heavy soil of imprisoning land.
That night, we saw my favorite of the ship’s shows (a big list that included live comedy, an ice show and the Cirque de Soleil-like “Blue Planet”): the OceanAria water show at the Aqua Theater in the back of the ship. Men in Aztec costumes rose from the deep on sea horses and wrestled a bit and then dived from boards extending from the top of the ship. Like shows I remember from decades ago, there was the same dramatic structure: a surprising opening, a clown, a thrilling stunt, the adagio, another stunt, the finale. Ships may well be keeping live performance alive.
On Day 6, the ship was deserted, with the thousands of passengers going to stare at lurid purple tanzanite in Cozumel. While my aunt began her packing, I happily ran around with our cabin steward’s camera, which he heroically lent me after the iPhone incident.
I went back to Central Park and ran into the Costa family from São Paulo, Brazil, whom I had met a few days before. Though I don’t speak Portuguese, I think Mrs. Costa said that there were hundreds of Brazilians on the ship and that she loved the slot machines and that they don’t have gambling in Brazil.
The Costas, along with Hannah and Suzanne Soloff, a mother and daughter from Atlanta, were really the only passengers I talked to during the trip. My aunt chatted a lot with her friend Myrna at Mass every day, but that was probably it.
The vast spaces on the Allure allow for a feeling of anonymity, which is, of course, common in big cities but not on smaller ships, where in one day, a person says hello to some 30 familiar crew members and passengers, and hears over and over: “How is your aunt?” or “What happened to your hair?” or “Why weren’t you at needlepoint?”
On our last night, my aunt and I decided to go against the grain of the formal dinner in the Adagio and eat delicious Mexican food at Rita’s Cantina on the Boardwalk, where we discussed the overwhelming globalism of the ship with the restaurant’s supervisor, Sabrina Cerigui from Paris, who is of French, Tunisian and Italian descent. Her boyfriend, the manager of the ship’s Japanese specialty restaurant, is Romanian. We talked about how fashionable the women on board were: Asians and South Americans in bright, fitted dresses and high high-heeled shoes.
During a last nocturnal expedition around the ship, I visited the track on Deck 5 that I had been compulsively running around eight times every morning and it dawned on me that it had entirely replaced the classic cruise ship’s light-filled outdoor promenade. A person could walk in one of the lanes, but except for at the back of the ship, the humongous lifeboats closed off the view.
This, along with the Allure’s predominant visual image of an artificial night sky — hundreds of twinkling lights that served as a ceiling for the casino, the Viking Crown Lounge and the windowless skating rink — shut the boat off from the sea and created a hermetic reality all its own.
There was never any moaning over the passage of time, the ebbing of the light, the darkening of the sky. The busy, speedy, cheerful life of the ship distracted from any sense of nature, loss and metaphysical wondering about who one is and why, as happens on those smaller ships while sitting on a deck chair staring at billowing Tiepolo clouds and listening to a shipmate chatter about the best deck on which to do laundry.
Later, lying in bed with a towel around her neck, my aunt was happy. “This has been a wonderful trip,” she said. Yet debarkation the next morning was so fast, there was no time to sing, “It’s time for us to leave her, Johnny.” We were back in my aunt’s Fort Lauderdale apartment in 30 minutes, as if we had never left.
She has a close-up view of the port and all that goes on in it. As I sat on her balcony later that day, watching the ships go out again into the pinkish-gold sky, I did not feel sad the way one does after a cruise on a smaller ship that has taken one very far away with people one has grown very close to.
There was none of that sense of the French proverb, “To leave is to die a little.” I knew the Allure would be back next week and the week after that. In fact, it would be a presence almost as much as the hotels on the beach, moving just a little faster, but not much.