Big and brash, 'Oasis' sets sail

The Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, will set sail next week sail from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on its first commercial cruise. But while next week's journey marks the start of service for the giant ship, some 4500 media and guests have already had a sneak peek of all the superliner has to offer on a three-night preview cruise.

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas offers up a litany of record-breaking, mind-boggling facts. It's 370 metres long, 65 metres wide, 16 storeys high. There's room on board for 6296 passengers and 2165 crew. There are 17 decks, connected by 24 elevators. It's five times larger than the Titanic, 50 per cent bigger than anything else currently on the seas. It cost US $1.5 billion to build. But perhaps the fact that best puts the size of this ocean giant into perspective is this one: there are 37 bars on board.

That's more than the entertainment districts of some cities. It also means that even the most dedicated drinker would struggle to fit all of them in on a pub crawl. And, of course, there are styles to suit all tastes: a Latin bar serving up Mojitos and salsa music, a traditional Irish pub, a jazz club, a karaoke bar and plenty more. After the sun goes down, the ship becomes party central as thousands of guests hit the bars and dance floors. After three days on board, I'm still discovering new venues.

The Oasis is not so much a floating hotel as a floating entertainment complex, with more in common with Melbourne's Crown, with its shops, restaurants and entertainment, than a Hilton. More than 20,000 meals will be served on board every day, handled by 1075 food and beverage staff. The massive main dining room has more than 2800 seats and has two sittings every night across its three levels.

And while the ship is not making any stops on this trip, all other aspects of the cruise are in full swing. All the bars, restaurants and shops are open, there's live entertainment happening almost 24 hours a day and the health spa, swimming pools, casino and other facilities are all up and running.

Long gone are the days of Fairstar 'the fun ship' when the crew were also expected to perform for guests at night. The ship's 1350-seat theatre features twice daily performances of the musical Hairspray. It features a cast of professional performers gathered from auditions around the US. The ship's aquatheatre - a mix between a stage, a pool and diving platform, features performances by professional high-divers and synchronised swimmers gathered from around the world.

The most striking thing about the size of the Oasis of the Seas is not its length, but its width and height.

The extra width of this ship has allowed the designers to create open spaces in the middle of the ship, meaning many of the interior cabins still have balconies with views. These might be of the 'Boardwalk neighbourhood' with its full-size carousel and aquatheatre, or of 'Central Park' - claimed to be the world's first living garden at sea.

The standard state rooms are comfortable, with large beds, a desk, couch and flat screen TV. The bathrooms are cleverly design so that while compact, like on any vessel, they aren't cramped. My own room is inward facing, but its location at the rear of the ship means I can still look out from the balcony across the stern to the sea.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ships is how easy it is to find your way around. The breaking up of the Oasis into 'neighbourhoods', each with its own distinct look and feel, means there is no maze-like feel to the giant ship that one might have expected.

Typical of most cruises, the one thing the Oasis of the Seas doesn't offer is peace and quiet (other than within your own cabin). With more than 6000 other passengers on board, it's not surprising.

The other issue is waiting times. With significantly less than the ship's full passenger capacity on board for this preview cruise, there are still often long waits for tables at some of the smaller dining venues. Touch-screens throughout the ship display how busy the restaurants are at meal times, allowing you to head to whichever has tables available. But it does mean you may have to skip your first choice or face a long wait. Due to the abundance of drinking venues, this problem does not apply to the bars, nor to the various entertainments as passengers are able to make reservations before boarding.

So, how long will it be before an even bigger ship takes to the seas? Royal Caribbean has no plans for anything bigger at present, says Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, but he won't rule it out.

"Is this as big as it can get? Right now this was the biggest ship that made sense for us," he says. "But if you look at the history of ships over a long period, they get larger over time ... but it is likely it will be the largest ship for some time."

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean International.