In search of a night cap after dinner on Anthem of the Seas, we heard some irresistible Latin rhythms coming from a little hole in the wall we’d missed noticing before. The place they call Bolero was jumping, with a lively band keeping the dance floor full and the bar busy swirling up caipirinhas and spicy drinks that must be all the rage in Havana.
The wraparound video walls of another lounge seemed to turn the room into the center of a tropical waterfall. Looking for it the next night, the same lounge had transformed into a space ship hurtling through a faraway galaxy.
Continual pleasant surprises like this make the experience of cruising on a ship as large as Royal Caribbean’s latest so much fun.
Even Anthem’s itineraries now that it has arrived in North America are unconventional: round trips from the New York area to the Caribbean—even in the middle of the winter.
It’s enormous, but manages to still feel comfortably human in scale. It’s elegant while appealing to a wide range of guests. And it represents the future of Royal Caribbean’s expanding fleet.
Here’s a sample of the innovations that make this ship fascinating even for a 12-day cruise:
1) It’s Vast, But Doesn’t Feel Like It
For a ship so large that it accommodates over 4,000 guests, Anthem is remarkably personal in scale. The ship uses lots of technology to ensure that you don’t have to wait in lines.
For instance, checking in on-line, adding your photo and credit card information, and printing out your boarding pass, means you can roll on board in few minutes with only a security check.
Your room key cards are waiting when you reach your stateroom door but they’re not even necessary after that because there’s a waterproof RFID bracelet on the desk you can wear on your wrist for opening your door or paying for any purchases on board. Restaurant reservations and activities can be booked on-line or on your television, guaranteeing you a seat.
The only times you’re likely to encounter wait times are at the signature attractions like the North Star viewing bubble that lifts over the ship on a giant arm or at limited capacity amusements such as the bumper car rides.
2) Dining That’s Getting More Dynamic
There’s no such thing as a main dining room on Anthem. There are 18 themed restaurants as well as bars that serve light fare, so there’s actually a good chance you won’t be able to sample everything on offer even on one of Anthem’s longest 12-day itineraries.
More than two thirds of guests take advantage of what Royal Caribbean calls Dynamic Dining, where you can choose the restaurant and time you want to dine each day on board. Reservations can be made in advance of the cruise, although many choose to stay flexible and make reservations day by day.
There are still some more traditional guests who prefer to dine at the same time with the same friends and be served by the same waiters. For them, Royal Caribbean assigns a team of waiters who move with the groups through the cruise and wear different uniforms depending on which restaurant they are dining in that evening.
The numbers opting for this Classic Dining approach are dwindling. On some cruises it can be as few as 10 per cent of passengers, according to Michael Gilligan, Royal Caribbean’s director of culinary operations.
Most of the restaurants are complimentary but several come with additional charges. Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant which had experimented with a la carte pricing when Anthem started sailing in Europe has switched to a $30 cover charge at dinner and $15 at lunch. The traditional steakhouse and the molecular restaurant come with cover charges as well; $35 for Chops Grille and $45 for Wonderland Imaginative Cuisine.
The Izumi Japanese restaurant, Michael’s Genuine Pub and Johnny Rocket’s burger restaurant have menus that are priced per menu item.
3) Voom: Aiming to be a Wi-Fi Game Changer
To hear Royal Caribbean Chairman Richard Fain tell it, Anthem of the Seas has more Internet bandwidth than every other cruise ship in the world combined.
What he means by that is the capability to send and received has been expanded by using a different satellite system to connect to the web. While other cruise ship systems use satellites in high orbits around the Earth, Royal Caribbean’s system uses a new low-orbit satellite system that makes for internet speeds comparable to land-based systems. The innovative satellite system was designed for remote locations and islands that are far from Internet nodes. “We thought: our ships are like islands at sea, and with this system we can provide service as fast as in a city,” Fain said.
If my experience on the first American sailing is any indication, the Internet connection is indeed faster than on other cruise lines, but not as quick as the high-speed connections I’ve become used to on land.
There was still a delay in opening searches and my e-mail browser sent occasional error messages when sending or receiving new messages.
Royal Caribbean is installing the fast Internet capability fleet wide and is still experimenting with pricing, said Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley. On Anthem the cost of unlimited internet is currently $15 a day, but that still beats the price on most cruise ships, which charge by the minute.
Royal Caribbean is experimenting with including internet in cruise fares, Bayley said. Currently, that’s happening only on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Sea. Test packages on other ships will try offering free uploads to social media but still charging for downloads.
For crew, the new Internet option is a game changer as well. In adding the wi-fi capability, crew members are being given tablets and Internet connectivity for Skype to help them stay in touch with family and friends during their tours at sea. Some are also taking courses on line to upgrade their skills. So it has been a big win for everyone, Bayley noted.
4) Even the Robots are Entertaining
By now, everyone has heard of the robotic bartenders on Anthem and sister ship Quantum of the Seas. They’re a cute enough gimmick, but just that, an amusing gimmick. When I ordered a drink, my robot Shaken (the other’s named Stirred, get it?) fumbled while placing the plastic cup to pour my drink. A human assistant had to come to the rescue and prop up the tilted cup. There’s another assistant who regularly steps in to replace bottles of booze as they’re used up. There are some things still better done by humans. And at $12 a drink, I’d prefer my drink in a real glass as well.
What is destined to be a trend for the future is the video technology at work in the theaters. LED screens that wrap around the Two 70 Lounge and a set of six computerized giant video screens that can dance around the room on robotic arms are highlights of a show called Spectra’s Cabaret that defies description.
It’s got singers and dancers and acrobats who hang from trapezes slung from the ceiling. But with the addition of faces on the video screens and the ever changing backdrops on the walls, the entire effect becomes psychedelic.
I’m certain flat screens are never going to upstage humans as dancers, though. The guys in this dance troupe are some of them most talented I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship.
5) Art for Passengers’ Sake
Another trend Anthem highlights is that art doesn’t have to be static. Video artworks located all around the ship continually evolve into new designs.
Even a set piece like the multi- deck crystal and gold wall evoking Japanese cherry blossoms at one end of the promenade (in Anthem speak the Esplanade) seems to shape shift as its sparkles catch your eye riding in the ship’s glass elevators.
One interactive piece that gets a lot of attention is a chandelier in the promenade on deck 5 whose lights supposedly blink in reaction to the heartbeats of people who step onto sensors on a podium. I found it difficult to look at, though, because at times the fast-flickering lights looked more like a short circuit than mellow art. Maybe it was just reflecting the lub-dubs of folks who have had one too many.
The beat goes on. All this innovation is proving so crowd pleasing that Royal Caribbean is already building two more ships in Anthem’s Quantum Class.