Exploring the World’s Largest Cruise Ship: The Perfect Balance of Adventure and Relaxation

There was an overwhelming sense of excitement as one man fell to his knees, kissing the carpet marked with the ship’s symbol. Another spun his wife in a joyful embrace, delighted to be part of the approximately 5,000 inaugural passengers onboard the Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship globally.

The Icon of the Seas, a ship weighing in at 250,800 tons and boasting a capacity of nearly 8,000 people, has been in the news for months. Despite some negative press about its size and potential environmental impact, those who paid between $1,800 to $100,000 to board the ship on January 27 at Port Miami, Florida, stated that the ship’s vastness was beyond imagination.

Christina Carvalho, a 43-year-old accountant hailing from Oakland, was amazed as she observed The Pearl, an impressive kinetic art piece installed on the ship’s Royal Promenade. “It’s breathtaking,” she said. “It feels even more massive than I anticipated.”

Royal Caribbean has filled the ship with facilities to create an exceptional family holiday experience. However, the design team has worked diligently to dispel negative impressions such as crowded decks and extended queues. Rather than steel walls, they’ve designed an open, bright interior with floor-to-ceiling windows. These changes bring passengers closer to the sea and make the central passage feel less confined, more like an outdoor experience than an indoor shopping mall.

“Over the years our customers told us that despite being on the ocean, they did not feel connected to it, so with Icon we wanted to bring water everywhere,” remarked Jennifer Goswami, who is the director of product development at Royal Caribbean International.

For five days I was able to experience the Icon of the Seas during its seven-night inaugural journey to the eastern Caribbean. Here are some of my notable observations:

The journey begins with the Royal Caribbean’s app. After some initial technical issues, I had to spend roughly 10 minutes scanning identification documents, completing a medical questionnaire, and scheduling a boarding time.

On the day of the voyage, I made my way to Port Miami, anticipating a hectic scene. However, a porter kindly greeted me as I exited the taxi. He took my luggage and guided me to the terminal. I had to scan my app, present my passport, and go through security, all in less than 10 minutes. I stuck around to see if other passengers also had a straightforward process. All I saw was a continuous stream of passengers climbing the boarding ramp.

The ship exudes a city-like ambiance, featuring eight distinct “neighborhoods”. Central Park, my preferred choice, hosts over 33,000 plants, offering an ideal spot for relaxing walks or reading on a bench. The bustling Royal Promenade, equipped with a karaoke and piano bar, tends to get quite crowded and noisy during peak hours.

The ship boasts seven swimming pools, each designed for different atmospheres and age groups: The Hideaway, an adult art infinity pool, offers DJ sets and cocktails. Another pool for adults sits next to a kids’ splash pool. Abundant vacant lounge chairs were available for those who wanted to bask in the sun.

On our maiden sea day, the lack of crowds unexpectedly struck me, leading me to wander around the ship in search of them. However, with passengers always on the move amongst the numerous venues, including 40 restaurants, bars, and entertainment spaces, the crowd was never in one place.

One afternoon, when in search of a serene space, I found the Aquadome, a peaceful lounge with panoramic windows where fellow passengers used to take a nap.

Starting your day with a sunrise surf simulator lesson and ending it by grooving to the music in the nightclub, this ship has an enticing array of activities, most of which you can enjoy without any charges. The onboard water park, equipped with six thrilling slides, is an irresistible attraction. Engage in an adventurous ride named the Crown’s Edge, available at $49. This ride, although not free, promises to exhilarate you by flinging you above the sea whilst you are strapped in a harness.

For the health and fitness enthusiasts, amenities include a fitness center complete with a jogging track, basketball and soccer courts, a miniature golf course, and areas for pickleball and rock climbing. If you wish to unwind and relax, opt for the wellness center and spa treatments provided at an additional cost. You can secure your reservation for any of these facilities through the app. One helpful tip for the more popular spots such as the Crown’s Edge is to book in advance as slots fill up rapidly.

Evenings are livened up with various entertainment options. Among the highlights is ‘Aqua Action’ where performers showcase their skills under a 55-foot waterfall, and the comedy club ensures a night filled with laughter.

However, with the plethora of activities on offer, some passengers tend to feel overloaded. Nancy Carter, a 54-year old nurse from Brighton, England remarks, “The ship has so much to do that planning your day can be quite challenging. Even when you are occupied, you can’t help but feel like you are missing out on something else.”

At the Surfside neighborhood, there are pools and restaurants for both adults and children so that families can spend time together. For parents wanting alone time, the Adventure Ocean child-care facility has play areas and programs for ages 6 months to 12 years that is included in the fare.

There’s a social center for teenagers, too, with games and music. “It’s a great place to meet new people and make friends,” said Madison Foxx, 14, from Morrisville, N.C. Her mother, Ashley, a 38-year-old federal prosecutor, said the ship kept her two children entertained and allowed her both alone time and quality family time.

“I can relax and the kids are happy and busy all day,” she said. “Then we have many special moments together.”

One of the biggest surprises was the array of dining choices.

The hustle and bustle was most noticeable at the Windjammer Cafe and main dining room, which offer all-inclusive meals. I found myself regularly visiting the Aquadome’s food hall, enticed by the freshly made crepes and traditional Greek food stand. I was also particularly fond of Pier 7, a Surfside venue that dishes up delights such as raw-tuna Buddha bowls and mango-lime shrimp tostadas.

For a special treat, guests could dine at exclusive eateries like Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen or Hooked Seafood. Though these came at an extra price point, they were part of various dining and drinks packages, ranging from $9.99 to a hefty $115 per day. It was always wise to book ahead.

If you were really looking to splurge, there was the Empire Supper Club with its eight-course tasting menu. With a price tag of $200, the menu starred indulgences such as wagyu rib-eye, rabbit, and sea bass adorned with parsnip and red beets.

Accommodation rates, recently on the up due to heightened demand, started with $2,699 per person for an interior cabin. The pinnacle of luxury, a three-story town house, came with an indoor slide and private yard, and could reach over $100,000. There were also family-friendly options with interconnecting rooms and expansive terraces.

Despite its compact size of only 204 square feet, my ocean balcony room felt open and spacious due to its minimalist design and panoramic ocean views.

As per Royal Caribbean, their ship sets a new benchmark for sustainability, thanks to their state-of-the-art water-treatment and waste systems, and other innovative features. However, environmental groups have raised concerns, arguing that constructing a vessel of such magnitude doesn’t align with the cruise industry’s commitment towards long-term sustainability.

I observed that the ship’s crew took meticulous care in sorting waste material to ensure proper recycling. Also, the ship promoted minimal use of single-use plastics by offering reusable cups at various drink stations.

I was slightly taken aback when I noticed the waterslides being kept functional even after the recreational hours. This seemed like an unwarranted consumption of energy. Royal Caribbean has yet to comment on this observation.

Many of the individuals I interviewed appeared a bit indifferent about the ship’s potential negative impact on the environment, highlighting that other forms of transportation such as cars and planes are not exactly climate-friendly either.

We embarked on a seven-day journey that started out with two full days at sea. We made our first stop on the fourth day in Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts and Nevis. On offer were a variety of excursions, from hiking up Mount Liamuiga to participating in a food-and-rum tour. The cost of these activities ranged between $39 and $249. My choice was a sailing and snorkeling adventure priced at $155. The secluded bay was wonderful, but the beach was unfortunately quite overrun with tourists.

One of the most eagerly awaited excursions, notably for Foxx who is a federal prosecutor, as well as others, was Coco Cay. Coco Cay is a private island property of Royal Caribbean. When queried about her experience — I had to place a call as I had disembarked prior to the excursion — Foxx expressed that her children thoroughly enjoyed both the slides and snorkeling experience.

And would she make a decision to sail on the Icon of the Seas once more?

“Yes, but I might wait a bit,” she replied. “I want everyone to get a chance to try it out.”

Yeğinsu writes for The New York Times.

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