It was Friday, February 13, a -22-degree winter morning. But that did nothing to discourage the thousands of travellers who turned up to seek happiness alongside the ice-slick docks in Bayonne, New Jersey.
The attraction? Quantum of the Seas, which is not a James Bond sequel but a US$1-billion Royal Caribbean cruise ship. It launched in late 2014. Some people think it’s the future of cruising. Others aren’t so sure.
But plenty are curious. By 3:45 pm, we passengers — about 4800 of us on a seven-night itinerary to Florida and the Bahamas — were racing from novelty to novelty on the 1141-smartship forwarding service. On Deck 16: simulated skydiving in a 23-foot-high vertical wind tunnel that looked like a see-through smokestack. On Deck 3: the casino. In the SeaPlex recreation area: bumper cars. At the Bionic Bar: robots mixing drinks.
And don’t forget North Star, an observation capsule on a long arm that lifts passengers 300 feet above the sea and (when it’s not too windy) swings them over the side for staggering bird’s-eye views. Before anybody could go up, however, the ship’s captain, Henrik Soerensen, broke in on the public address system to welcome us and enlist our help.
“Please keep an eye on the temperature,” Soerensen said. “If it doesn’t get warmer, that means we’re going in the wrong direction.”
How long, I wondered, until that punchline is tweeted? Eager to spread the word of this ship’s wonders, Royal Caribbean has outfitted Quantum to be the Web-friendliest cruise ship ever so passengers can post their vacation tweets and snaps (after paying as much as US$30 a day in Wi-Fi fees).
Conde Nast Traveller calls it “the first cruise ship built specifically for selfies.” The cruise line calls it the world’s first “smartship” and has a new app to help passengers book meals and activities.
Quantum isn’t just big and busy and filled with new technology. It’s also a telling move in the cruise industry’s global chess game.
In May, the ship moves to a home port in Shanghai, where Royal Caribbean hopes to entice a mix of Chinese and Western travellers. Meanwhile, Quantum has a near-identical sibling (Anthem of the Seas) due to debut in April and start sailing the Caribbean in November.
SO HOW MUCH FUN IS THIS SMART NEW SHIP?
It’s fun and it’s vexing, depending on what you’re up to.
Perhaps the ship’s biggest hit was the North Star observation pod, which holds up to 14 passengers at a time (first come, first served). Passengers waited up to two hours for their chance to spend about 10 minutes in the sky, looking down on the ship and out to sea. The warmer the temperature got, the longer the line. I went up three times, on three different days, after waits of five, 20 and 90 minutes. On the way down, I asked my capsule companions whether the view was worth nearly two hours of waiting. The grins and yeses were unanimous.
The simulated skydiving classes, Ripcord by iFly, were almost too popular. Trainers said most of the available slots were booked before the cruise began, which left some passengers grumbling and others competing to fly “standby” when no-show spots opened up. (That’s how I got my chance.)
As for the faux flight itself, after you don a flight suit, watch a video and get a little personal training, you spend about a minute in the air with an instructor, hovering, spinning and getting buffeted from below. If you’ve ever wanted prominent cheekbones, have somebody snap your picture while you’re looking down at that big fan on the floor.
Unfortunately, Quantum’s new “dynamic dining” system isn’t as uplifting. Instead of relying on one grand dining room like ships of yesteryear (formalwear, captain’s table, ice sculptures, two assigned sittings per night), Royal Caribbean has re-imagined that space as 18 restaurants, including Asian, Italian, buffet, pub and steakhouse options, from ultra-casual to formal.