We&rsquore on the approach road to the Port of Southampton and our coach driver is confirming directions with a colleague on his cellphone. &ldquoWhich gate do we go to, mate&rdquo he bellows. &ldquoOh, the one with the big boat Righto&mdashcheers&rdquo Whereupon the coach enters a service lane and we catch our first glimpse of the &ldquobig boat&rdquo looming in the distance. Tired and grimy though I am from the overnight flight, I feel a bit like Kate Winslet in that film, you know the one.
Weighing in at 1,60,000 tonnes, Royal Caribbean&rsquos Liberty of the Seas is the largest cruise ship in the world, a position it shares with its sister ship Freedom of the Seas. This translates into statistics that are impressive enough on paper&mdashlength 340 metres, height 208 feet from waterline to funnel (that&rsquos two Statues of Liberty placed head to toe), 15 passenger decks that accommodate more than 4,000 guests&mdashbut which you can get the true measure of only when you&rsquore actually on board what amounts to an enormous floating hotel.
Correction&mdashmake that mini-city, for that&rsquos what a ship of this size is if you have only two days to explore it. We&rsquore here for Liberty&rsquos inaugural voyage, a round-trip in the waters of the English Channel and the North Sea, and the brochure is overflowing with on-board activities. There are shops, nightclubs and restaurants, karaoke, salsa classes and video-game rooms, theatres and photo galleries. It&rsquos daunting.
But Gautam Chadha, chief executive, TIRUN Travel Marketing, which represents Royal Caribbean in India, gives me some good counsel. &ldquoDon&rsquot worry about seeing everything and taking notes,&rdquo he says, &ldquoGo for the basic tours on your schedule and spend the rest of the time relaxing, taking things as they come. That&rsquos what the cruise experience is about.&rdquo
We board the ship around 12pm by walking through a dingy passageway dripping with muddy water&mdashbut all illusions of ordinariness end here. As the gleaming, glass-walled elevator ascends, we see glimpses of the spectacular Royal Promenade, which spans four decks across the ship&rsquos midsection, and is done up to resemble a little street, complete with shops, cafés and eating joints.
After freshening up in my room I arrive for lunch at the Windjammer Café, naïvely expecting&mdashyou know&mdasha café a medium-sized eating place with a few tables scattered about. The next 15 minutes are spent staggering around a cavernous hall, examining the variety of cuisines laid out for the buffet. This is my introduction to a basic tenet of cruising it&rsquos important to consume vast quantities of food and drink all day long. While walking down the Promenade, for instance, you must&mdashregardless of the time&mdashhave a pizza slice at Sorrento&rsquos and wash it down with a quick beer at the Hoof & Claw Pub. Scavenging of this sort is to be dissociated from the regular black-tie meals in the dining room.
Back in my cabin I&rsquove just sunk into one of the chairs on the balcony when the bell rings. &ldquoI hope you&rsquore coming for the emergency drill at 3.30,&rdquo says a steward, a Jamaican lilt in his voice. &ldquoBut I haven&rsquot rested in 48 hours,&rdquo I mumble. &ldquoBut you must come, sir,&rdquo he says, with a won&rsquot-take-no smile, and so I go. Thankfully, the drill isn&rsquot too trying sirens go off, we put on our life-jackets, rush down to a specified deck and are herded towards the lifeboats according to our room numbers. It turns out to be the only part of the cruise that can be described as mundane, though I probably wouldn&rsquot think this way if an iceberg happened along.
Our group spends most of the next two days striking the vital balance between pre-planned activity and impromptu exploration. On the Promenade we watch a &lsquoPirates&rsquo Parade&rsquo, with the incongruous spectacle of Jack Sparrow-types strutting about in front of branded cosmetics stores. We visit the enormous casino, unoccupied now but expected to be chockfull on regular cruise nights. I check out the library, which has a copy of Rushdie&rsquos The Satanic Verses.
With Liberty scheduled to leave Southampton at 10pm, we watch a spectacular fireworks show on the upper deck. I wouldn&rsquot have minded staying up here to watch as we set sail, but there&rsquos an &ldquoun-miss able&rdquo show at the Platinum Theatre, with a troupe of singers and dancers performing a cheeky updating of such stories as Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. This is the first of two performances we will see, the other being a musical comedy act by the Tenors Unlimited, otherwise known as the &lsquoRat Pack of Opera&rsquo.
Halfway through the show, there is a loud groaning we feel a movement beneath our feet and know we&rsquore on our way. When I return to my room an hour later and look out of the window, land is still visible and one doesn&rsquot get a sense of being truly waterborne. But in the middle of the night I get up and see the waters stretching endlessly towards the horizon. It&rsquos an awe-inspiring sight. &ldquoNoah&rsquos flood is not subsided,&rdquo Herman Melville pointed out in Moby Dick, &ldquoTwo thirds of the fair world it yet covers.&rdquo It&rsquos true nothing&mdashnot even air travel&mdashcan make you feel as insignificant as the ocean.
More unplanned wandering, partying and ingesting take place on day two, but a highlight is our tour of the galleys. It&rsquos fascinating to hear about the under-the-surface activity that keeps the vast machinery humming. When this liner operates at full capacity, over 250 people work round the clock, preparing meals for 4,000-odd people. &ldquoThis, ladies and gentlemen,&rdquo says Executive Chef Johann Petutschig with a flourish, &ldquois the most important table on the ship.&rdquo Mouths agape, we look at the steel-top on his right, half-expecting it to do something to justify its exalted status&mdashperhaps sing us a salty sea ditty. But no it&rsquos here, the chef explains, that every dish is inspected both for taste and to ensure that it looks exactly the same as the picture on the brochure. This may seem like homogenisation taken to crazy extremes, but that&rsquos how a ship on this scale has to be run. Little wonder that the crew-to-passenger ratio is close to 12.
We proceed to the captain&rsquos bridge, where I am quickly disabused of any mental images of Ahab and his crewmen struggling with their boat&rsquos controls during a storm. Our skipper is a child of his time when he wishes to change the direction of this leviathan, he delicately twists a joystick-like device to the left or the right.
With the weather inordinately chilly, there hasn&rsquot been much incentive to go to the upper deck. It isn&rsquot until late afternoon, when the sun makes an appearance, that I do the deckchair thing. Some tips for the first-time cruiser
1) Locate an empty deckchair that isn&rsquot directly facing the sun, 2) Lie down in a slanted position, 3) Fix your gaze on the balloon figures near the pool, and 4) Empty your head of all thoughts except those that involve gentle waves and chirping sea-birds.
The market for luxury cruises is growing worldwide&mdasharound 60 per cent of Royal Caribbean&rsquos UK customers last year were new to cruising&mdashand it&rsquos still far from achieving its full potential. Indian travellers are among those who haven&rsquot yet warmed to the idea of spending a weeklong vacation on a ship. &ldquoWe have this obsession with bustling from country to country,&rdquo quips Chadha, referring to the popularity of guided European coach tours that require travellers to check in at a different hotel nearly every night. &ldquoBut it&rsquos so much more relaxing to spend your nights on the ship and disembark for land excursions during the day.&rdquo
At risk of sounding like a luxury-junkie (if not a Libertine), the one minor flaw in this argument is that with a ship like this one, you might be tempted not to get off at all.
Liberty at the Sea
There are four types of staterooms on board the ship&mdashInterior, Ocean view, Balcony and Suite/Deluxe. All the rooms have a private bathroom, multiple configuration beds, closets, a flat-screen television, and a telephone for shipboard use. If you&rsquore the gamesome type, you&rsquoll spend most of your time on deck 13 there&rsquos a mini-golf course, a large spa, rock-climbing demonstrations and even a &lsquoFlowrider&rsquo for surfers.
7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise Departure dates June 9, June 23, July 7 and so on, on a fortnightly basis. The ship sails from Miami, Florida and docks at San Juan (Puerto Rico), Philipsburg (St Maarten) and Labadie (Haiti), before returning to Miami. Prices start from $649 per person (for an interior cabin) and can go up to $2,849 (for deluxe and suite), depending on the dates included in the tariff are shipboard accommodations, ocean transportation, most meals, some beverages and most on board entertainment. For a complete list of tariffs by date, see
7-night Western Caribbean cruise Departure dates again on a fortnightly basis, starting from June 16, June 30, July 14 and so on. As in the Eastern Caribbean cruise, the ship departs from and returns to Miami. The ports of call on this cruise are Labadie, Montego Bay (Jamaica), George Town (Grand Cayman), and Cozumel (Mexico). Tariffs are similar to those for the Eastern cruise.
Royal Caribbean is represented in India by TIRUN Travel Marketing, 601 Ashoka Estate, 24 Barakhamba Road, New Delhi 110 001 011-23311362-65,