I had been on many zip-lines before—that wasn’t the thing. From Costa Rica to New Zealand, I’ve clipped in and zoomed through both rainforest canopy and high-alpine forests. But as I stood there, it all felt like a brand-new experience. A humid tropical breeze blew softly in my face as a wide wake of spume rolled out behind me, more than 16 vertiginous stories below. And just beyond the tips of my toes, a busy Boardwalk bustled with happy cruisers strolling about, eating ice cream cones and riding a carousel, little ants down there beyond several floors of stateroom balconies. I’d never before been on board a cruise ship. And here I was, ready to step off the ledge, high atop a 225,000-ton, 130,000-horsepower mega-liner.
It was all new to me. A veteran world traveller with the stamps of more than 85 countries in my passport, I had been on small ships before, expeditions to far-flung places like Cape Horn and the Galapagos Islands. But a real, bona-fide, seven-night cruise? Never. I figure that it’s always better to go big on things like this, so I chose Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas—the world’s largest cruise ship—for my maiden voyage into cruising. And as I would find out, my seven nights aboard the Oasis would definitely be a journey of discovery.
To say that Oasis of the Seas is “big” doesn’t really capture it. This is a ship that actually has “neighbourhoods”—seven themed zones, each of which place you squarely in a distinct place. Central Park, for example, is an actual living park with dozens of trees, 12,000 plants and a New York City feel, while the Boardwalk, just a two-minute walk away, gives a whole different experience, with a Coney Island ambiance, a seafood joint, a hand-crafted carousel and a huge AquaTheater. (My surprisingly large stateroom overlooked the latter, and in the evenings, I could watch water shows from my balcony.) And the scale of the ship boggled my mind. It has room for more than 6,000 guests and more than 2,500 staff. Two 43-foot rock climbing walls. Two FlowRider surf simulators. 21 pools. The first full-length Broadway show at sea. An ice-skating rink. 16 decks. And, of course, an 82-foot zip-line.
But it wasn’t really the size of the ship that intimidated me. It was cruising itself. I had heard things from friends, who told me that cruising is a culture—with its own elaborate costumes, a distinct lexicon, unique folkways and mores. Clearly I needed help, and that was never more evident than on the first formal night in the dining room. My friends had mentioned that people like to get dressed up on these big ships. So I donned the best items I had in my suitcase: dark, distressed blue jeans, a brown linen Banana Republic jacket, a button-down Ralph Lauren shirt, black three-stripe Adidas shoes. I briefly considered putting on the matching tie that I’d thrown in at the last minute, but nixed that thought. Weren’t we all on vacation?
As I walked down the hall and into the ship’s futuristic glass elevators (riding them reminded me of The Jetsons), my heart sank. Around me, every last person was dressed up—I saw cocktail dresses and dapper suits in all directions. I felt like the one guy who didn’t get the memo that we won’t be wearing costumes at this year’s Halloween party, and shows up in a full-blown gorilla suit. When I saw a dude wearing a tux, I turned around and headed back to my room to get that tie.
Clearly, I needed help. On the first day of the voyage, I had overheard an American couple named Luke and Kirsten mention that this was their sixteenth cruise. In one of those cosmic coincidences, their room happened to be adjacent to mine, and we passed often in the hall. So, I sought out their advice.
They brought their nine-year-old daughter Lilly (herself on her eleventh cruise) and met me at the Schooner Bar soon afterward, and they walked me through the basics. Never, ever call it a boat, they told me—it’s always a ship. Take the formal nights seriously (when I saw them in the dining room at a later formal night, Mark was wearing a tuxedo, and both Kirsten and Lilly were in pretty gowns). Don’t miss the shows, they’re worth it. Pick a favourite hangout—getting to know the regulars there can make the ship feel more personal. (I certainly had my choice—Oasis offers 25 dining options, from the upscale 150 Central Park, to Giovanni’s Table, which serves up family style Italian, as well as the meaty Chops, and several others. Plus a number of great bars, including the Rising Tide, which elevates 35 patrons between three different decks of the ship.) Be nice to the staff, Luke and Kirsten said, and they’ll be nice to you (although I found that they were always incredibly nice, anyway). And try new things—for example, Luke said he and Lilly had attended a jewelry making class, and both really enjoyed it.
I heeded their advice, attending almost all of the shows, from Frozen in Time, which featured an acrobatic performance of flips and axles on the Studio B ice rink, to the astounding, aerial, high-diving Oasis of Dreams, which takes place in the AquaTheater, which is outfitted with towering diving boards, a trampoline, and the deepest pool at sea. I was amazed at every last one—not only at the talent and facilities, but that all of this was taking place on an actual, moving ship, out in the middle of the Caribbean. I was nice to the staff, and they went above and beyond in their duties (again, I’m pretty sure they would’ve done that anyway). I always wore my tie to the formal nights. And I picked a hangout, which turned out to be the Windjammer Marketplace, the ship’s massive buffet. Here, everyone seemed to be a regular, and I ended up gaining a few pounds.
I also followed their tip to try new things. For one, healthy eating, which I must admit that I rarely do. I tested that out at the Solarium Bistro, dining under a glass dome near the ship’s bow, looking out on blue sea all the way to the horizon as I dined on delicious ceviche and then a bison steak (both of which, amazingly, rung in at less than 500 calories).
And on the last day of the voyage, I clipped into the first-ever zip-line at sea. It was a thrilling few seconds, as I zoomed through the salty air, down the 82-foot length of the line, flying high over the Boardwalk and the balconies, quickly and exuberantly arriving, safe and sound, at the other end. Fueled by adrenaline, I decided that this would definitely not be my last cruise. And the next time? I might just pack a tux.
Written by Tim Johnson
First published in World Traveler Winter 2014