World's largest cruise ship: On board the jaw-dropping Symphony of the Seas

As you'd expect from the world's biggest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas has a knack of making your jaw drop. Again and again. It cost $1.95 billion, stretches the length of three full-size soccer pitches, weighs more than 17,000 African elephants and can carry almost 9000 passengers (6680 guests and more than 2200 crew).

Yet calling it a mere cruise ship does it a disservice. Pieced together from about 500,000 individual components – 27 times the parts used to assemble the Eiffel Tower – it's more of a floating resort-cum-amusement park and art gallery, complete with 22 restaurants, 24 pools, slides and water attractions, a raft of dazzling entertainment venues and, apparently, more works of art than the Louvre has paintings.

You won't see Symphony, which was launched at the end of March, in Australian waters anytime soon but you can board it in the Mediterranean until October. It will then cross the Atlantic Ocean to Miami, which will act as a springboard for its Caribbean cruises from late-2018 to 2020. So, what's it like to sail on?

A high-speed tour of the world's largest cruise ship

Take an 80-second, time-lapse tour of Symphony of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship in the world. Video: Royal Caribbean

A REGAL ENTRANCE

Embarking from the port of Barcelona, I'm warmly welcomed into the Royal Promenade, one of seven "neighbourhoods" scattered around the 18-deck ship, which was built in France's Saint-Nazaire shipyards and usurped its sister vessel, Harmony of the Seas, as the world's biggest cruise liner (Harmony has a gross tonnage of 226,963 compared to Symphony's 228,081).

Buzzing with upbeat pop music – expect to hear catchy tunes such as Symphony by Clean Bandit featuring Zara Larsson – the covered promenade has the air of an upmarket mall, with a string of eateries, watering holes (including an English pub and a Starbucks kiosk), luxury boutiques, stalls laden with designer jewellery and handbags, guest services and eye-catching installations (I pause by a large, scrunched-up ball comprised of freshly-painted parts of a red 1953 VW Beetle).

For those who've cruised on Harmony, and other newish Royal Caribbean ships such as Quantum of the Seas, you'll be familiar with the Bionic Bar, where a pair of "robot" mixologists – on this ship, Rock'em and Sock'em – conjure cocktails, both classic and create-your-own, available for order via electronic tablets. As the robots mix, shake and pour, digital screens offer a step-by-step account of the surreal drinks-making process, which involves a similar kind of technology to that found in automobile factories.

Touch-screen boards to help you get your bearings and screens revealing passengers' impressions on social media (Symphony even has an Instagrammer-in-Chief, who awards prizes for the best #SymphonyoftheSeas posts) add to Symphony's futuristic vibe.

SUITE DREAMS

You'll probably be tempted to carry on exploring, navigating the various stairs, decks and 24 sleek elevators, eager to snap your own batch of Insta-worthy pictures, perhaps. But take a breather and check out your stateroom.

There are 2759 rooms in all, spanning more than 30 categories, from snug (14 square metre) interior cabins to enormous suites that would dwarf many a million-dollar Sydney apartment. Measuring 17 square metres, and decorated with sober green, white and brown hues, my Ocean View Balcony room is cosy and reasonably spacious, with a comfy Royal King bed (converted from two twins), a sitting area with sofa, desk and USB charging ports, enough wardrobe space for a couple's week-long cruise, a neat shower room/toilet, and a balcony that's large enough to stretch out on loungers.

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This is a fine place to kick-start your day. Complimentary continental breakfast, delivered by your stateroom attendant, is a nice perk, as you cast your eye over the sea or port of call. Interior rooms are the most affordable option. Some overlook bustling public spaces – including the tree, flower and vertical garden-adorned "neighbourhood" of Central Park – but sound-proof windows mean noise isn't really an issue. There are also "virtual balcony" rooms, which sport near-floor-to-ceiling HD screens that provide real-time views of the ship's path.

If you fancy pushing the boat out, accommodation-wise, the suites on deck 17 are wow-inducing. Splash-out options include the four-bedroom Villa Suite (which sleeps up to 14) and the two-deck-high Royal Loft Suite (which caters for six, and has a Baby Grand piano and massive wraparound balcony).

Most talked-about is the Ultimate Family Suite, a brightly-furnished duplex in which guests – both kids and big kids – can whoosh to the downstairs lounge on a twisting, stainless-steel slide. Boasting seven TVs, video games, an air hockey table, a LEGO wall and a private cinema with popcorn-making machine, the suite sleeps up to eight and has a balcony with a whirlpool, ping-pong table and netted climbing frame. You also get the services of a Royal Genie (a butler). For a seven-night cruise, the suite can cost anything from US$45,000 to US$80,000 (with the price, naturally, peaks during school breaks).

THRILLS AND SPILLS

While Symphony is geared towards families (there's a dedicated Youth Zone for tots to pre-teens), it also lures active couples, groups of friends and solo travellers (some supplement-free staterooms are available for "singles").

Adrenaline junkies of all ages will love The Ultimate Abyss, the tallest slide at sea, a dizzying, swerving goliath that has me plunging 10 decks (on a mat) in almost as many seconds. There's also The Perfect Storm – a trio of giant waterslides – as well as ziplining, rock-climbing walls, glow-in-the-dark laser tag, surfing/bodyboarding simulators, and a race-against-the-clock escape room set in a mock-up submarine.

More laid-back options include "crazy golf" on a nautical-themed course, and riding a carousel on the Boardwalk, a retro-style strip with a candy store, hot dog and hamburger joints, a sports/craft beer bar and games arcade. You can get a sweat on in the ship's basketball court, on the outdoor jogging circuit on deck 5 (7.5 laps is five kilometres), or in the huge gym strewn with LifeFitness equipment.

The adjoining spa offers myriad pampering treatments and is one of several peaceful havens on a ship that will obviously feel a bit busy in parts when it's at full capacity. Other potentially tranquil hideaways include the adults-only Solarium and the Card Room, which doubles as a library.

CULINARY TREATS

Par for the course with cruising, it's easy to over-indulge on Symphony. It's estimated that about 60,000 meals a day are consumed on board. Your fare includes seven "complimentary" eateries, including sprawling buffet option, Windjammer Marketplace, taco-tastic Mexican El Loco Fresh and the plush main dining room, which has waiter service over three floors. From shrimp cocktails and chef salads to dhal and Indonesian lamb curry, the cuisine reflects the melting-pot of international guests and crew (who hail from about 160 countries).

Among the alluring "speciality" restaurants – which draw a cover charge, about US$15-50 – are New England-inspired affair, Hooked Seafood, quirky Wonderland (which looks like it's been plucked from the Mad Hatter's tea party and serves inventive dishes such as liquid truffle mushroom risotto).

At Central Park's Chops Grille, I enjoy a delicious Berkshire pork appetiser with sweet and spicy glaze, followed by a 400 gram Angus rib eye steak, then one of the tastiest desserts (key lime meringue pie) I've had in yonks. Wine lovers, by the way, will appreciate Vintage, an intimate wine bar a few doors down from Chops. There's a Jamie's Italian in the 'hood, too.

MESMERISING PRODUCTIONS

Symphony's evening entertainment is arguably the best at sea. As well as stand-up comics, magicians, live bands, karaoke, a massive casino and a silent disco (where you'll rub shoulders and dance alongside revellers listening to music through headphones), there's a string of excellent shows, including hit Broadway musical Hairspray.

I'm left open-mouthed by the acrobatic ice-skaters of 1977 – A Thrilling Adventure On Ice – while Aqua Nation is a frequently heart-in-your-mouth al fresco spectacle featuring an incredibly talented – and very brave – cast of Olympic-level high divers, trampoliners, tightrope walkers and synchronised swimmers (Australian diving duo, Rhiannan Iffland and Jordan Weymark, are among the admirable cast).

Another much-vaunted production – starting from May 27 – is Flight, which satirically chronicles the evolution of aviation travel and uses computer-controlled winches to re-create the Wright brothers' historic first flight. As cliched as it sounds, there really is something for everyone on Symphony of the Seas.

In fact there's so much to see and do, there's a (slight) danger you won't actually disembark during your cruise; which would be a shame when cities such as Rome, Florence and Naples (or Caribbean islands such as Sint Maarten, Puerto Rico and The Bahamas) are there for the exploring.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SYMPHONY OF THE SEAS

1. Most cruise muster drills are tedious, but Symphony's is quite fun. A Mission Impossible-inspired video featuring a glamorous female "agent" covers all the dos and don'ts.

2. Need Wi-Fi? Symphony has VOOM, claimed to be the fastest internet at sea. It costs from US$15.99 per day.

3. Fascinating all-access tours take you behind the scenes into some of the 33 kitchens, overseen by executive chef Gary Thomas, and to the bridge, with Captain Rob Hempstead at the helm.

4. Get your daily update on the ship's schedule and activities either on an app that can be downloaded on arrival or from the Cruise Compass newsletter, delivered to staterooms.

5. Tea, coffee and basic soft drinks are free, but alcohol costs extra. If you plan on drinking a lot, buy an unlimited beverage package (from US$55 per day, per person). Otherwise, stick to pay-as-you-go.

TRIP NOTES

CRUISE

A seven-night Western Mediterranean cruise on Symphony of the Seas is priced from about AU$1781 per person. Most cruises start and finish in Barcelona, and call in at Palma de Mallorca, Provence (Marseilles), Florence/Pisa (La Spezia), Rome (Civitavecchia) and Naples (Capri). Some cruises start and finish in Civitavecchia. See royalcaribbean.com.au

MORE

See traveller.com.au/cruises/ocean-cruises

Steve McKenna travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean.

See also: Cruise ship insider secrets revealed: 25 things you never knew about

See also: How to pack for a cruise holiday

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