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Cruising

Super-sized Oasis of the Seas

Deck upon deck of marvels, including a walk in the park

By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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ABOARD THE OASIS OF THE SEAS - We were standing on the Boardwalk, admiring the display of hand-carved carousel horses, when we heard the first scream.

Then came a long shriek. Our eyes tracked upward, past the eight decks of balconies overlooking the expansive, Coney Island-style walkway . . . and there she was! A woman in a harness, her legs dangling precariously.

Her feet soon struck a platform, and she was pulled completely upright, smiling triumphantly after completing the Oasis zipline track, a first in the cruise industry.

Later on, as midnight beckoned, a couple descended the stairs toward the Royal Promenade, where the disco beat of “In the Navy’’ by the Village People was pounding. The pair was still dressed in formal dinner attire - tie loosened a bit - and the man remarked, “I’m having fun. I’m losing energy, though.’’

A seven-day sailing seems hardly enough time to savor all that Oasis offers. It was launched last month as the largest, most ambitious cruise ship ever built, and Royal Caribbean International will add a twin ship, the Allure of the Seas, in November.

We boarded Oasis this month for the ship’s seventh tour of the Eastern Caribbean, its standard itinerary, and it turned out to be the first full-capacity sailing: 5,638 guests and 2,218 staff and crew. How then, with nearly 8,000 people aboard, did my wife and I find ourselves alone for half an hour one evening, luxuriating in a sky-view hot tub that could easily accommodate 30 people?

It must have had something to do with such rotating choices as an almost- Broadway-caliber performance of the musical “Hairspray’’; a rousing, Cirque de Soleil-style water show, “Oasis of Dreams’’; an ice-skating extravaganza, “Frozen in Time’’; a comedy club; jazz venue; casino; wine bar; and dozens of other restaurants and nightspots. A cruiser’s energy will surely be sapped before the depths of Oasis’s offerings are plumbed.

“Some cruise lines are known for their food; others, like Carnival, are known as party ships,’’ said one veteran cruiser we met. “Royal Caribbean is known for its entertainment.’’

Even when the shows aren’t on, though, the ship doesn’t feel overcrowded. It’s possible to slip away to a private spot, and we never had trouble finding a breakfast table, a deck chair, or a quick elevator. If you prefer certainty, it’s possible to make online reservations for a meal or a show before you sail.

Six years ago, Royal Caribbean began planning its latest show-stopping ship, in the tradition of Sovereign of the Seas (1988), Voyager of the Seas (1999), and Freedom of the Seas (2006), all of which debuted as the largest cruise ship at the time and introduced attractions such as rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, and surfing simulators. This odyssey began back in 1970 when the company launched the Song of Norway, which Bill Wright, the captain of the Oasis, called the first ship built specifically for cruise vacationing.

“Ocean liners had fallen out of fashion as soon as people could take a six-hour flight instead of a six-day crossing,’’ said Wright, who spoke at a Captain’s Corner event on our first day at sea.

Wright, who doubles as Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president for marine operations and returned to that “day job’’ after our cruise, was involved in the planning of the Oasis from day one. He was joined along the way by Royal Caribbean’s own designers and members of 37 other design firms, 20 architectural firms, and the STX Europe shipyard in Turku, Finland. A film produced by the shipyard accompanied Wright’s talk, and gave a clearer idea of just how much the construction resembled what he called “a giant LEGO project.’’

“We do not set out to build the largest ships in the world,’’ said Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean. “We set out to build the most amazing collection of experiences, amenities, and activities at sea.’’

The latest set of “wow’’ features includes the first outdoor park at sea, with more than 12,000 trees, plants, and flowers in the Central Park “neighborhood’’; the carousel, the first ever on a cruise ship; the 80-foot zipline; the Rising Tide “floating’’ bar, which traverses three decks and leaves a multicolored waterfall in its wake; and an amphitheater across the ship’s stern, with an 18-foot-deep pool and two giant LCD screens, that hosts the “Oasis of Dreams’’ show and movie screenings.

Indeed, when we docked at Nassau on the final day of our cruise, people on the Carnival ship next to us lined the railing to take photos and gawk at our “ride.’’

The $1.4 billion Oasis received an unexpected sea test in October, on the voyage from Turku to her home base of Port Everglades, Fla., in Fort Lauderdale.

“As the ship left the English Channel, we encountered hurricane-force winds and 80-foot waves,’’ Wright said. “Actually, the waves were probably closer to 90 feet, because our gauge topped out at 82 feet before it broke. We just sailed at our minimum speed of 6 knots and rode it out.’’

The 16-deck-high ship is as wide as an aircraft carrier, 208 feet, and that size equals stability. It also allowed for the unique design, in which the superstructure of the ship is split in half down its spine, with open space in the middle and several decks of balconied rooms on opposite sides looking out on either the park or the boardwalk.

Wright predicted that “with Wall Street being reluctant right now to invest in such a project, we expect this ship will be the standard for many, many years to come.’’

The seven distinct ship neighborhoods include the abovementioned Boardwalk, Royal Promenade, and Central Park, along with the pool and sports zone, the spa and fitness center, the youth zone (with daily children’s and teen activities), and Entertainment Place, with its 1,300-seat theater, nightclubs, casino, and ice arena. We delighted in Central Park, with its winding walkways, four-story-high vines and ferns, and secluded benches and tables where people played cards, sipped wine, or dozed with a book or a crossword puzzle across their lap.

We set sail on a Saturday that flirted with record-breaking 30-degree cold, as some guests huddled on deck in winter coats and gloves. Sea smoke, a sort of fog created when the colder air collides with warm water, hovered about the cruise ship that departed Port Everglades ahead of us.

The first two full days at sea were rainy, chilly, windy, and gray - creating what a cheery person would describe as an opportunity to explore the indoor amenities or sit on a chaise lounge in the roofed Solarium.

We finally outran the clouds on Tuesday as we hit our first port of call, Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands. When we docked at daybreak in sunshine, one guest said, “I feel like I’ve been in a hotel in Seattle for three days!’’

Instead of an expensive shore excursion, we purchased $12 wristbands that allowed us entry into five historic houses and a quirky amber museum. The self-guided tour gradually ascended the hills of this former Danish colonial port, capped by a view from the tower atop Blackbeard’s Hill of the surroundings that make the harbor one of the world’s loveliest.

The emphasis in ports of call (we also stopped at Philipsburg, St. Martin, and Nassau, Bahamas) is on jewelry and designer shopping. We skipped the hard sell and rented a couple of chairs and an umbrella to bask on a nearby beach for a few hours.

For many guests, cruising is about the food, and Oasis encourages people to never eat at the same restaurant twice. With 24 venues on board, it’s possible to hit them all if you add snack stops at places like the Boardwalk Donut Shop (free) or the Cupcake Cupboard (added fee). The options top out at $35 additional for a meal at 150 Central Park, featuring award-winning chef Keriann Von Raesfeld, and $75 for a private “chef’s table’’ dinner.

We sampled two of the table-service restaurants - Giovanni’s Table on Central Park ($10 for lunch, $15 for dinner) and the Solarium Bistro ($20 for dinner) - and the quality of the food and the service were well worth the tab added to our initial $1,000-plus-each cruise outlay. The only downside we experienced was an obvious flouting of the adults-only rule in the Solarium one evening that required us to shift tables so we could easily converse with our dinner companion.

Oasis retains the traditional dining-at-sea experience in its three-story Opus dining room, where we ate several sumptuous dinners at a table for four with a delightful couple from Lytham, England. Our waiter, Valeriano, had joined the Oasis staff on Oct. 16, before it sailed from Finland, one of hundreds of Royal Caribbean workers recruited to help smooth the ship’s startup. A native of Goa, India, he was looking forward to May, when he would have a chance to see his 3-year-old daughter.

Valeriano is scheduled to help bring the Allure of the Seas online in November, since the ship will be a carbon-copy of Oasis and staffers will be familiar with its layout. His hope, meanwhile, is to join the line’s Brilliance of the Seas in 2011, when it starts 14-day cruises out of Dubai, with an itinerary that includes an overnight in Goa.

He may be one of the few people around who sees how the Allure of the Seas can be surpassed.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rdriscoll@globe.com.

If You Go

Royal Caribbean International

866-562-7625

www.royalcaribbean.com

The seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise sails on Saturdays out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and calls at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Philipsburg, St. Martin; and Nassau, Bahamas. We found per-person prices starting at $1,049 for the Feb. 6 and Feb. 13 sailings, and $1,399 for Feb. 20, not including taxes, tips, and fees. Information on shore excursions is available on the website. Royal Caribbean reserves the right to add a fuel supplement of up to $10 per day per guest based on oil prices at time of sailing.

Fast facts:

■Designers evaluated more than 15 configurations before settling on the final plans for Oasis.

■“Hairspray’’ is the first full Broadway show performed on any cruise ship.

■Oasis features the longest jogging track at sea on Deck 5: one lap is 0.43 of a mile.

■The first beach pool at sea has a sloped entry so guests can wade in.

■324 balcony staterooms overlook the Central Park neighborhood.

■Royal Caribbean commissioned some 7,000 works of art for the ship’s public areas.

■The AquaTheater pool at the ship’s stern is 17.9 feet deep, the deepest pool at sea.