Harmony of the Seas: Life aboard the world's biggest cruise ship

Standing on the edge of a precipice, I look down into a canyon, with towering sides and people milling below like the proverbial ants. It's not some rugged ravine but the world's biggest ship and I'm running late for dinner. If this were a movie I would naturally jump on the zip line (bypassing the queues of course), zoom across the vast chasm and jump off praying for a soft landing as I descended upon Johnny Rockets diner, my restaurant for the evening.

Naturally there's a zip line on this monster ship, but no parachutes, which I must say is a bit remiss of Royal Caribbean, which has managed to include just about every other gee-whiz feature on its ships on the high seas.

But as it's real life, I walk to the nearest bank of elevators, wait a little too long and descend to the Boardwalk 10 decks below and stroll past old-world arcade games and a beautiful carousel with gaily painted ponies en route to the burger joint.

One-minute tour of the world's biggest cruise ship

Take a time-lapse tour inside Harmony of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship. Video: Royal Caribbean

We've chosen this venue as it's slap bang next to the Aqua Theatre where a new high-diving and aerial acrobatics show is scheduled for later.  

The world's biggest passenger ship, Harmony of the Seas, the 25th vessel in the Royal Caribbean fleet, launched with plenty of hoopla in June. 

I was on board for two nights and only Wonder Woman could have tested all its attractions in that nanosecond. However, I easily walked the prescribed 10,000 steps a day but ate in only four of the 20 dining venues, just scratching the surface.

Harmony of the Seas' stats are impressive: 362.10 metres long, 65.5m wide, a draft (or depth) of 9.14m and gross tonnage of 226,963, which is not actually the weight but the volume of all enclosed spaces on the ship. Needless to say the price tag was huge – a hefty $US1.5 billion (about $2b).

In reality it only beats its sisters in the same Oasis class by mere centimetres. Harmony is 30 centimetres longer and 14 wider and has about 600 gross tons* more volume than siblings Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, launched in 2009 and 2010 respectively. But it's unlikely to retain the biggest ship title for too long, as Royal Caribbean has begun constructing another sibling, code-named Oasis IV, scheduled for launch mid-2018.

Can ships get much bigger? That's the obvious question.

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Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley isn't ruling it out. He says future ships will probably get longer (maybe breaking 400m in length within five years), but are unlikely to get much wider, while the draft size is restricted due to the depths of most ports. 

It's the passenger experience, rather than size, that matters, he says.

Guests love new features, thrills galore, non-stop entertainment and technological innovations and eagerly await each Royal Caribbean roll-out.

Harmony delivers new gizmos like Ultimate Abyss, a pair of slides that resemble human intestines, albeit purples ones, which propel passengers (who climb into non-friction bags) down 10 decks. The ride's entrance via the mouth of a metallic fish positioned 42 metres above sea level opens onto a see-through platform from where folks hurl themselves into oblivion. Bags of fun I'm told.

For water slide lovers there's a trio collectively called the Perfect Storm that loop around each other and are geared for racing a friend who's encased in another of the plastic tubes. 

Little kids have slides and dunking buckets but surprisingly, for a ship so big, no separate pool.  

Bars are equally inventive; robots mix cocktails choreographed to pop songs in the Bionic Bar, while the Rising Tide is basically an elevator with drinks that moves between three decks and turns out to be a good way to travel if you're not in a hurry.  

Some wow factors aren't visible, like Voom, the high-speed internet said to be the fastest at sea where guests surf and stream to their heart's content (at a price) anywhere on the vessel, thanks to Harmony's own satellite.

There is certainly no shortage of diversions or eateries.  What is needed is time and a game plan to experience everything Harmony has to offer and not be overwhelmed by the 5479 passengers on board, or 6780 if every berth is booked. 

Currently cruising the Mediterranean, Harmony will farewell Barcelona on October 23 and head to the Caribbean to operate western and eastern itineraries.  

The first step is to decide on a cabin from a smorgasbord of 43 choices. Gone are the days when an inside cabin meant a cramped, dark space used only for sleeping. Royal Caribbean's virtual balcony cabins mimic life beyond the four walls with the aid of a floor-to-ceiling high-definition screen that brings the ocean and ports indoors via real-time streaming and produces the sounds of the sea with a flick of a switch.   

Balcony cabins now come in more affordable options thanks to the ship's amazing canyon design. Balconies can face into the ship providing vistas over the Boardwalk entertainment area and carousel, and over Central Park, an outdoor oasis of fancy shops and restaurants, festooned with more than 12,000 shrubs, flowers and trees.   

Cabins also overlook the Aqua Theatre, giving passengers a guaranteed ring-side seat to this spectacular entertainment. And, remarkably for a such a family-oriented ship, there are a clutch of single studios (some with ocean views) where solo travellers are not stung by the dreaded "single supplement" for having sole use of it. 

At the very top are new two-level sky suites with massive wraparound ocean balconies and the services of a "Royal Genie". This new butler-concierge concept can take the pain out of booking shows, restaurants, tours, spa treatments and even one's favourite drink as the "genie" (a smartly dressed male or female personal assistant) takes care of it. 

For the average passenger bamboozled by activity choices, there's the IQ app for downloading onto personal devices, as well as a bank of IQ stations dotted about the ship. It does the job of booking events (like ice-skating and high-diving shows) and speciality restaurants. Make no mistake, on a vessel with more than 5000 people it's essential to make reservations for just about everything.

A typical week might look like this:  

DAY ONE

Ease into shipboard life, stroll along the old-fashioned Boardwalk, ride the carousel and have a complimentary hot dog from the Dog House (one of the 10 restaurants included in the fare). Get in early and hurtle down the Ultimate Abyss from Deck 16. Calm the nerves with a drink on the Schooner Bar's balcony, which overlooks the Royal Promenade, another of the ship's many "neighbourhoods". Book dinner in one of the three main dining rooms and check out the vibe at the Jazz on Four Club. 

DAY TWO

Hit the gym or go for a jog around the ship's perimeter, breathing in the ocean air. Breakfast en masse in the Windjammer Marketplace or more sedately in the American Icon dining room. Dive into one of the three pools and later test your balance on the FlowRider​ surfing simulator. Soothe the muscles in one of the hot tubs that actually hangs out over the ocean.  As this is a sea day make the most of the ship's activities but fuel up with a pizza at Sorrento's before taking on the rock-climbing wall. Adults head to the Solarium for a child-free rest and kids have their own clubs all day, every day. After dinner take a seat at the Royal Theatre for Grease, the only production of the hit musical performed at sea. Then keep singing those songs at the On Air Club, aka the karaoke bar. 

DAYS THREE AND FOUR

These are ports days in Haiti or Jamaica and the Bahamas or St Thomas (depending on itineraries) so an early in-cabin breakfast is the go.  Back on the ship celebrate island life with a cocktail at the Bionic Bar, but expect a wait as the robotic arms can only mix two drinks at a time. Take a seat at Jamie's Italian (Jamie Oliver's signature restaurant) or the acclaimed 150 Central Park, where a degustation meal has been crafted by Miami chef/restaurateur Michael Schwartz. After dinner head next door to Vintages wine bar, or get a pint at the Boot and Bonnet Pub. Live it up, for tomorrow's another sea day. 

DAY FIVE

Clear the head with a splash in the Perfect Storm water slides, followed by a massage at the Vitality Spa, a steam bath or a good lie down on a heated ceramic bed. There are dance classes in Studio B, which morphs into an ice-skating rink for passengers by day and professional skaters by night. Grab a takeaway lunch at Park Cafe or dine in on paninis and wraps followed by window shopping next door at designer stores Bulgari and Kate Spade. Or tackle the "Puzzle Break, Escape the Rubicon" game where 12 passengers have 60 minutes to work out clues to get out of a locked room. Have tacos and tequila for dinner at Sabor restaurant and head to the Royal Promenade to watch the kids' parade with Shrek and other DreamWorks characters, or dance at the "Totally Awesome 90s Street Party".  

DAY SIX

Port day at either in Cozumel or St Maarten. Back on board spruce up for a spectacular meal at Wonderland, the most talked about restaurant on the ship (surcharge $US49). Serving molecular cuisine, there are no menus at this two-level storybook themed eatery, just a paintbrush to swish over a piece of parchment to reveal what the chef has concocted for the day.   

DAY SEVEN

The final day might be celebrated with a zip line ride or that sought-after selfie in the nook high above the bow, dubbed the King of the World. Catch up with everything you couldn't fit in and try other restaurants and bars, however, it's wise to give the Starbucks outlet a wide berth; they just can't make a decent coffee. 

My favourite place is Central Park, colourful by day and a little romantic by night. And on a ship with hundreds of people queuing for an elevator, take my tip and buy a drink in the Rising Tide Bar and ascend to this oasis without the throng – well, for now anyway.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO FLOAT YOUR BOAT

•    If you fancy a free, quiet, crowd-free breakfast, head to the Solarium Bistro or have a healthy start to the day at Vitality Cafe, located in the spa. 

•    Fans of Japanese food will love the Izumi Hibachi and Sushi restaurant. A "Hibachi Experience", where diners sit around a hot coal stove with the chef cooking in their midst, is a fun night ($US35).

•    Among Harmony's many cabin choices, there is one that offers a modern take on the traditional porthole look. Cabins have round windows with ocean views – they don't open of course.

•    Kids can have breakfast with the likes of Shrek, Princess Fiona and Puss in Boots at an event taking place once on each cruise ($US49 per cabin).

•    Passengers buying suites get some good perks, such as their own speciality restaurant, Coastal Kitchen, and a lounge with snacks and alcoholic drinks.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION 

Royalcaribbean.com.au

GETTING THERE

Qantas and partner American Airlines fly from Sydney to Fort Lauderdale (via Dallas Fort Worth). Flights from Melbourne go via Los Angeles. qantas.com.au

CRUISING THERE

Harmony of the Seas will operate seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean alternating itineraries from November 12, 2016.  Western itineraries visit Labadee (Haiti), Falmouth (Jamaica) and Cozumel (Mexico); Eastern visit Nassau (Bahamas), Charlotte Amalie (St Thomas) and Philipsburg (St Maarten) with fares from $1055 a person twin share.   

Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Royal Caribbean International.

See also: 25 insider tips about cruise ships

See also: 20 amazing new ships set to change the world

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