Cruise Asia on Royal Caribbean's Spectrum of the Seas

There's a collective intake of breath and spontaneous applause when the godparents of Spectrum of the Seas are announced. This exuberance comes from the Chinese passengers gathered at the ship's naming ceremony as we sail from Shanghai. We Westerners are none the wiser, but quickly learn they are Chinese film and pop star Xiaoming Huang and his cutely-named wife (and the bigger star) Angelababy. The gorgeous pair are, I guess, akin to our own Kylie and Jason, back in the day.

Pomp and circumstance certainly surrounds the naming of this, the 26th Royal Caribbean International (RCI) ship, which is the most expensive ship purpose-built for the Chinese market. It's also the first of the Quantum Ultra class, a design that cherry picks the best bits of Symphony of the Sea (the world's biggest ship) and Ovation of the Seas, the mega-liner based in Australia over summer.

Acknowledged as the innovator of the seas, Royal Caribbean doesn't do anything by halves, so I expect this 168,800-tonne leviathan to roll out adrenalin-pumping whiz-bangery and dazzle with super-charged entertainment powered by the latest technology. And I except shopping.

Although designed for the Chinese market with brand-new restaurants, Australians should find plenty to like, particularly the six to eight-night itineraries that depart from Shanghai and call at three ports in Japan, and on the latter sailing, visit Vladivostok. Coupled with a few days in Shanghai, it's an attractive Asian holiday with a heap of entertainment thrown in. And if Aussies have a hankering for karaoke, they'll be in heaven as Spectrum has the massive, glamorous Star Moment lounge for wannabe performers.

Constructed over 517 days at the German Meyer Werft shipyard, the 16-deck ship cost $US1.25 billion. For a vessel ranked fifth-largest in the world to date (rankings change regularly as shipbuilders add an extra tonne here, and another metre there to new ships), it sports a remarkably sleek bow, rather than the boxy look of some of its competitors. However, it carries its bulk at the rear (or stern) where many of the fun attractions are located.

Inside it's expansive with plenty of public spaces that open to wide thoroughfares, giving the ship good traffic flow. That's important for a vessel carrying 4246 passengers in twin-share configuration, or a total of 5622 passengers if every berth is booked.

So what's the buzz? It's hard to know where to begin, so let's cut straight to the food.

Among the 20 restaurants and cafes are a clutch of newcomers designed to appeal to Chinese taste buds. They include Sichuan Red, the line's nod to authentic local food which, as the name suggests, serves Sichuan cuisine known for lashings of garlic, chilli and pepper. But although billed as hot and spicy, dishes such as the famous kung pao chicken aren't likely to faze many Australians accustomed to Asian food with chilli. . One of the best is the Alaskan crab, not just for the taste but for its "Instagram" good looks.

My favourite eatery is Hot Pot located behind the Windjammer buffet. Sometimes called a steamboat, this do-it-yourself dinner involves two diners sharing a pot of bubbling stock into which they plonk a variety of raw ingredients such as meats, seafood and vegetables. It reminds me of the fondue nights of my youth, although fancier, and at $US24.99 a person, it's one of the ship's more reasonably-priced options. A dedicated Teppanyaki restaurant where chefs create dishes on iron cooktops (a teppan) dazzles passengers with food-flipping performances. The ship also has a sushi restaurant called Izumi. Another newcomer is the Leaf & Bean cafe which serves bubble teas (sweet brews with pearls of tapioca) and popular Eastern concoctions such as cheese tea – a beverage of green or black tea (with or without milk) topped with a foamy layer of milk and cream cheese and sprinkled with salt. Umm, is that yum? I don't know.

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The ship has RCI's usual suspects such as the steakhouse Chops Grille, Jamie's Italian by Jamie Oliver and the quirky Wonderland's Dadong whose decor echoes an "Alice in Wonderland" set with oversized chairs, candelabras and fun chandeliers. This restaurant's menu is created by Beijing celebrity chef Dong Zhenxiang, who has 14 restaurants across China and opened his DaDong in New York in 2017. The five-course tasting menu is $US65 a head.

Among the complimentary restaurants are Sorrento's for pizzas, the new Splashaway Cafe near the kids' waterpark, The Cafe @ TWO70, tucked behind the theatre of the same name and definitely the place to escape the throng, and the stunning three-level Main Dining Room topped with a sensational gold pendant hanging from the ceiling.

Artwork rarely gets a mention on big ships where fun attractions and restaurants vie for limelight, but I am taken by the fascinating pieces sculpted out of paper by Filipino artist Patrick Cabral and American Charles Patrick. 

Royal Caribbean's signature wow features are out in force too, but the sting is that they come at a cost for those sailing out of Asia, while they are free on other RCI ships. The rationale is such attractions will be in big demand with Chinese passengers and charging a fee may keep the numbers down. Hence North Star, the glass ball at the end of a crane that transports passengers 91 metres above the sea, is $US20 to $40 depending on the length of a ride; the sky-diving thrill Ripcord by iFly is $29; a Flowrider surfing lesson is $69 and the new Sky Pad (a trampoline bungee inside a bright yellow ball, which can be experienced with or without a virtual reality headset) ranges from $10 to $15 a go. The cute bumper cars are free, unless you want to jump the queue for $5.

What I do love is the ship's entertainment. Gone are Royal Caribbean's usual under-licence Broadway shows and instead are three productions, including the stunning Silk Road, using clever technology, fabulous acrobats, high-wire performers, dancers, a contortionist and during one show, a squadron of drones flies overhead. Sequins and feathers abound in Show Girl featuring 30 cancan dancers, which RCI's entertainment vice-president Nick Weir says is more than the famous Moulin Rouge.

Accommodation is just as innovative with the funkiest cabin being the split-level Ultimate Family Suite. No other ship offers room for 11 family members: mum, dad, the kids and grandparents. It houses a cinema with popcorn machine, a lounge with a Lego wall and games such as air hockey. The centrepiece is an orange slide for kids to zip down from their bedrooms above. Another first is the three-deck Suite Club divided into gold and silver class suites. Each class has a dedicated restaurant and lounge, while Gold suite benefits include The Balcony (an outdoor expanse with the best ocean views) and The Boutique, where big spenders can shop in private. And being China, there's the Golden Room, a high-rollers casino.

Which brings me to retail. If one hankers for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Tiffany, Bulgari, Titoni of Switzerland and Breitling, head to the Grand Esplanade. I stroll past thinking this is Crazy Rich Asians territory, but on occasion there is definitely free champagne.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Qantas operates direct daily flights to Shanghai from Sydney. See qantas.com

CRUISE

Spectrum of the Seas departs Shanghai on a six-night Best of Japan cruise on March 5, 2020 visiting Kobe, Osaka and Kagoshima. Fares from $1059 a person, twin share. An eight-night Russia and Japan cruise departs May 2, 2020 and visits Vladivostok, Kyoto, and Fukuoka. Fares from $1419 a person twin share. See royalcaribbean.com.au

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Caroline Gladstone travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean International.

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