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Sat 7 Jul 2007 04:01 PM

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On board a beauty and a beast

Royal Caribbean’s latest liner, Liberty of the Seas, is one of the world’s two largest cruise ships and offers its guests a complete floating destination. Kathi Everden steps on board.

There's no mistaking the Liberty of the Seas when she comes to call - the 15-deck monolith gleams white and majestic at the dockside, dwarfing its competitors.

The interior is equally as impressive, equipped with a gamut of facilities ranging from an ice-cream shop to a wedding chapel, surf simulator to boxing ring, as well as restaurants, theatres and shopping malls.

The ship is 340 metres long, has 1817 staterooms with the potential occupancy of 4375 passengers, and is operated by 1360 crew. Around 842 rooms have balconies, 855 have third or fourth berth options including bunk beds in family cabins, while 172 offer interior views over the Promenade entertainment and shopping mall.

For many, this is the instant turn-off - the sheer weight of bodies, the mass catering and the volumes at every port call.

However, Royal Caribbean senior vice president, Susan Hooper, believes big is beautiful: "The benefit of larger ships is space. This means we can put in more activities, which we have found is our customers' biggest requirement," she said.

"They tend to say that these new Freedom class of ships exceeds their expectations with facilities such as the boxing ring, FlowRider surf simulator and spa etc."

Hooper noted that due to the growth of the family sector, the average age of cruisers in the US market had dropped from above 55 to around 40.

"We believe we can accelerate this trend with our products that are bringing a fresh look to cruising," she said.

With the Caribbean as the Liberty's playground for this year, potential customers who opt for a Mediterranean itinerary will have to wait until the launch of the third sister ship next May - Independence of the Seas - which will be based in Southampton (UK) for six months of the year in 2008.

And, good news for the regional market, Hooper acknowledged the need to accommodate the late booking trends of the Middle East (and Italy apparently).

"We are getting better at reserving cabins for the late booking markets although we are not comfortable at leaving inventory when other countries such as the UK book so far in advance," she said.

Hooper said suites were the first to sell out but inside cabins were priced competitively.

She dashed any hopes of a Liberty visit to the Middle East in the foreseeable future, although she did not exclude the region from future itineraries on one of Royal Caribbean's vessels, particularly for a winter schedule.

"We are not innovative in destinations but rather in product, and while we are constantly looking at opportunities as to where to take our ships in the winter, there are limitations with a ship of this size," she said.

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean is expanding its accessibility in both Asia and Europe with Rhapsody of the Seas offering short and long cruises out of Singapore this winter and seven ships sailing in and around Europe in 2008, with cruise itineraries out of Harwich and Southampton in the UK as well as from Barcelona, Venice and Rome and to South America from Lisbon.

The grand tour

Back on board Liberty, a recent agent and media fam trip for 2000 underlined the fact that two days was not enough time to explore the ship from bow to stern.

Immediately noticeable was the bed quality, certainly up there with the top hotels, offering ‘sink-in and sleep' mattresses and pillows. Cabin quality was generally high, with flat-screen swivel TVs and potential in-cabin internet connections (for a fee), while family cabins with bunk bed nooks were a great innovation for those with younger children.

The main restaurant with 2100+ capacity ought to have been a mass catering nightmare, but cleverly tiered over three decks with a central atrium, it worked well to provide a fine dining experience.

Back to the ‘big is better theme' and there are now a number of alternative eateries scattered around the ship, including a grill restaurant, Italian, themed burger joint, casual diner, Far East nook, pizzeria, ice-cream parlour and coffee house.

And, for pre- and post-imbibing, a wine bar has joined the parade of champagne, panorama, jazz, Latin, cocktail and fruit juice bars, along with a two-deck night club and karaoke lounge and recording booths.

But for Royal Caribbean, the notable talking points of its big twins are the indoor mall and the outdoor adventures.

A first afloat, the FlowRider offers opportunities to surf at sea, either standing up or on body boards, testing skills on a flow of 34,000 gallons per minute at 20 miles per hour watching by an appreciative gallery of spectators. Qualified instructors are on hand and an adjacent shop sells the requisite surf wear.

Another unique feature on deck for softer adventure are two cantilevered whirlpools, jutting out from the ship's sides 34 metres above the ocean, while other wet attractions include the H2O zone with sculpture sprays, circular current pool, waterfalls, main pool - transformed in to a dance stage at night - and tropical solarium pool for adults only.

Activity minded passengers can also attempt the rock-climbing wall, play ball on the sports court, stretch a few muscles in the largest fitness centre at sea with 126 machines plus its own boxing ring, or alternatively there are 17 treatment rooms in the Day Spa for Elemis indulgence, including Generation YSpa for teenagers.

Deck 12 also includes several areas for younger cruisers with internet hangouts, adventure arts, games and an arcade, while it's down to Deck 5 to the Royal Promenade for retail therapy or an old fashioned barbershop, plus evening show parades featuring lasers, dancers, music and more.

In addition, Liberty boasts the usual theatre for signature shows; this one done out in Art Deco style and with comfy seating, plus casino, art gallery, ice rink for ice dance shows and day time passenger use, a skylight chapel for wedding dedications, and a conference centre with break out rooms located in the bowels of the ship, away from its distractions and ideal to maintain a work-oriented atmosphere.

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