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The world's largest cruise ship: How big is too big?

Touch-screen systems help guests navigate inside the massive ship.

Michel Verdure/Michel Verdure

Where's Lisa? My wife told me she'd meet me at the pool, but which one? There are four full-sized pools and 10 smaller ones on the sports deck atop the new Oasis of the Seas, the new cruise ship that is the size of a city block. And that's just one of 18 decks on what is by far the most humungous cruise ship ever built.

You want rock-climbing walls and surfing simulators? It's got two of each. Crave ice skating on a Caribbean cruise? It's got a full-size rink with skates for rent between ice shows. Want to ride a zipline eight storeys above the deck? Yes, you can. Or would you prefer a drink in a bar that "levitates" from one deck to the next to give patrons different views while they sip a cool one? It's one of three dozen places to have a drink, along with a couple of dozen to dine and snack.

There are ample opportunities to burn off those calories, because the ship is so long you literally can't see from one end to the other. Just doing a lap around the promenade deck means walking a kilometre. It might be a good strategy to pack a GPS locator, carry walkie-talkies and wear bright colours to find a mate who has gone shopping.

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Is this the ultimate cruise experience, or a ship gone too far?

It would be easy to dismiss it as an exercise in ego. After all, for years cruise lines have been competing to build the biggest, most-talked-about ships. They named them Titanic or the Queen, Sovereign or Majesty. They were all "can you believe it?" big and splendid in their day, yet they all pale in comparison with Oasis, which is a full 40-per-cent larger than any cruise ship that has come before it.

Click to see our graphic

Royal Caribbean Cruises claims there is practical method to this megalomania. The ship started out with the name "Genesis," and the designers wanted to try things never before done at sea. The taller and wider you build a conventional ship, the more interior spaces need to be lighted and air-conditioned. So they devised a "split hull" design with eight decks of passenger accommodations on each side of a central courtyard that is open to the sky, and with skylights that filter sunlight into lower decks. In the centre of the ship is a tropical garden featuring 12,000 plants, trees and walls of flowering greenery to create a naturally cooled space. In the end, Oasis became not merely a new class of ship, but a new species.

It's also a test bed of innovations meant to save energy and reduce pollution at sea.

Because the ship has the capacity to carry three ships' worth of passengers, designers say there are huge savings to be had. It starts with a state-of-the-art electric propulsion system powered by high-efficiency diesel generators: The ship uses nearly 30-per-cent less fuel per passenger than any other cruise ship, says Royal Caribbean chief executive officer Richard Fain.

Added savings come from acres of solar panels, and from the fact the ship was designed with compact fluorescents and LED lighting. Being able to cook more food to order in its many small restaurants also reduces food waste, so over all, Fain says, the ship will cost 40-per-cent less to operate per passenger than older ships.

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But the savings are not coming from cutting corners on service. The day my voyage began, I was prepared for the worst. With more than 6,000 passengers having to check in and find their cabins in a single afternoon, how could there possibly be anything but chaos at the pier? It turned out to be one of the quickest check-ins I've experienced in years. Lines of buses pulled up with military precision, discharged passengers, and then drove to the other end of the pier to pick up passengers returning from the previous cruise. There were 90 check-in stations, where I handed in a preprinted boarding pass - and just like that, it was "welcome aboard."

From the first view, it was clear the designers wisely didn't leave any vast expanses to awe passengers. The ship is divided into seven "neighbourhoods," each with varied and smaller gathering places. One neighbourhood is devoted to entertainment, including an ice show, a comedy club, jazz and karaoke and a casino. There are sports and spa zones, a main street with myriad shopping and lounging options, a restaurant district, an amusement boardwalk and the aforementioned garden.

The original concept for the garden was a big lawn like the one in New York's Central Park, but designers opted instead for a tropical garden with benches and trellises of bougainvillea that provide shelter even when it rains. A series of fin-like structures and sails on the upper decks deflect the wind and create a pleasantly cool breeze. The plantings include trees and bamboo groves; they get their water from rain that falls on the upper decks and is collected and filtered.

The innovation extends to the entertainment as well. Multiple activities are planned for every hour, day and night, and everywhere you go, touch screens map out the best route to an area, an event, and back to your cabin again. Hit "what's happening now" to get lists of a dozen or more current events. It's convenient - and it saves on a lot of paper and printing that would go into long daily lists of attractions.

Reservations for shows and restaurants are done interactively from your cabin. The display screens feature thermometer-like gauges that indicate the current crowds and how long you may have to wait to get into a popular attraction.

In fact, if you wanted, you could stay on the ship for a week and never know you were on the ocean. My room had a balcony, but rather than an ocean view, it looked over the internal Boardwalk zone, right above the carousel, where the view was more amusement park than seashore.

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And Oasis is so wide that there's no movement, even on a choppy sea.

Does this all sound too mall for words? The answer to that depends on whether cruising is a means to an end (destinations and exploration), or an end in and of itself (on-site entertainment). Even though my wife and I love cruising because of all the places we see along the way, the Oasis - which stops at only three ports in a week - grew on us as a destination in itself. After the first day, I got pretty good at guessing where my wife might be (at the spa or quiet park benches she found appealing). And not only that, she's anxious to cruise on Oasis again to try out the pools and restaurants we didn't get to the first time around.

I think of Oasis as the next step in the evolution of cruise ship-as-destination: providing a massive buffet of activities the way Las Vegas does in the middle of the desert. It offers so many possibilities that it can appeal to veteran cruisers as well as newbies who have never before considered a floating vacation. Like Vegas, though, you really have to see it to believe it.

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The Oasis by the numbers 18 decks 24 passenger elevators 2,700 staterooms 2,165 crew, from 65 countries Propellers 6.1 metres in diameter 241 km of piping used 5,310 km of electrical cables used 600,000 litres of paint used 500,000 individual steel parts went into the ship 2,300 tonnes of water in the swimming pools and whirlpools 50 tonnes of ice cubes made every day 7,000 works of art on board

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Anchors aweigh-in

Oasis of the Seas is nearly 50-per-cent larger in tonnage as well as capacity than any passenger vessel that has come before. Here's a timeline of previous heavyweight champs of the seas:

2009 Oasis of the Seas 360 metres (1,184 feet); 220,400 tons, up to 6,300 passengers.

2006 Freedom of the Seas 339 metres (1,112 feet), 154,400 tons, 4,370 passengers. Two sister ships followed: Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas.

2004 Queen Mary 2 345 metres (1,132 feet), 151,400 tons, 2,620 passengers.

1988 Sovereign of the Seas 268 metres (880 feet), 73,192 tons, 2,850 passengers. Later sister ships named Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas.

1969 Queen Elizabeth 2 293 metres (963 feet), 70,323 tons, 1,500 passengers. Reigned supreme for nearly two decades.

1936 Queen Mary 310.7 metres (1,019 feet ), 2,139 passengers; at 81,960 tons, it was designed to be bigger than SS Normandie. The Normandie rebuilt to add weight and technically kept the crown.

1932 SS Normandie 339 metres (1,112 feet), 83,423 tons, 2,917 passengers.

1912 Titanic 269 metres (882 feet), 46,000 tons, 2,250 passengers. Sister ships were named Olympic and Britannic.


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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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