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My first sight of Anthem of the Seas was through the taxi window that was ferrying me to Southampton dock from the train station. At 348m long, you might have thought Royal Caribbean’s billion-dollar new “smart” cruise ship would be hard to miss, yet at first I failed to spot it. The 15 stories of glass and steel rising from the dock looked like an office block; even when I got out of the cab and saw the funnels and yellow lifeboats, I still couldn’t believe that this monster, which sleeps 4,900 guests and 1,500 crew, could sail anywhere at all.
Having never been on a cruise before, and not knowing anyone who had been on one either, I was a bit hazy about what to expect. I had pictured myself getting on board via a steep gangway, with well-wishers on the quay throwing streamers as the ship set off. The reality, a modern corridor that links directly to the ship, was a bit of a let-down.
Inside, Anthem looks even less like a ship than it does from the outside. The “Royal Esplanade” running down the middle is more of a cross between a Westfield shopping centre and a Marriott hotel. At one end there is a vast silver sculpture of a French horn. At the other is Michael’s Genuine Pub, on the roof of which a not terribly genuine Caribbean band played noisily.
As I gazed, slack-jawed, a member of staff explained that the giant chandelier above our heads lights up to the rhythm of your pulse. She guided my hand on to an electronic pad and, sure enough, some spasmodic flashing ensued.
Your pulse is weird, commented my 20-year-old son, who had joined me for the 48-hour voyage. This might have been because, despite the size of the ship, I was suddenly feeling claustrophobic. Or it might have been a response to the sensory overload. Everywhere there was something to distract: different sorts of music bled into each other, clashing art works lined the walls, and functional objects were subverted in the interests of fun — chairs were variously shaped like sombreros, piles of wood and locks. Even in the lift there was no respite. A photograph of a moose in a necklace and high heels bears down on you, and a man pretending to be a stowaway pops up out of nowhere playing an upright piano. I stared in bafflement at an inlaid plaque on the lift floor that said “Monday”. Could it really still be Monday morning? And could I last till Wednesday?
On the 11th floor, down an interminable corridor with a jazzy brown carpet, door number 11268 opened on to our “stateroom”. The modest space inside might not have been stately but here at last was peace. No music, and a balcony that opened on to the sea. Most of the staterooms have sea views, we are assured, but those that don’t have a “virtual balcony” with a screen showing real-time views of the sea.
On our beds were our “wowbands”, which you wear on your wrist and which let you into your room, pay for your drinks (and, if you’ve had too many, deny you more), and tell you what you are meant to be doing. We put them on and went back out to find that the 2,000 travel agents who were our companions on this complimentary, inaugural trip had changed into flip-flops and were enjoying the free booze in the sun, which, surprisingly for April, was obligingly beating down.
We signed up for the biggest draw on board, the simulated skydiving, and in no time at all were wearing royal blue flying suits and stepping into a tunnel containing what looked like the world’s biggest hair dryer. Relax!, the instructor gestured at me as he grabbed my flailing limbs. Smile!
Afterwards, as I watched the others taking a turn, each one given a minute to fly, I started to understand. Anthem of the Seas isn’t so much a ship, it’s a holiday factory that does pleasure in mass quantity but somehow makes it feel like an individual experience.
Later that day I met Dominic Paul, senior vice-president in charge of international operations, and asked him who the ship was for. Everyone, he replied. Cruises, he explained, were one of the fastest-growing holiday markets in the world, and were no longer the preserve of the old. The average Royal Caribbean customer is only 41, most of them have families, and many are couples. The company is building more floating holiday camps, one of which will live permanently in China.
What customers must love above all is the price. Subsequent googling reveals you can go to Paris and Bruges — or even to the US — on this boat for about £500 for up to eight nights, everything thrown in, if you go off-season.
Which makes me forgive the food being not up to much. At lunchtime I avoided burgers sweating under hot lamps in the mammoth buffet and chose an uninspiring sandwich instead. But even then I didn’t mind that much. Knowing there are 17 other restaurants on board, most of which are included in the basic price, simply made me resolve to try something different next time. This abundance of choice was also in evidence at the ship’s naming ceremony that afternoon. Rather sweetly, the “godmother” of Anthem of the Seas, turned out to be not the usual minor dignitary but a Thomas Cook travel agent from Sunderland who had won a singing competition. She duly belted out a decent cover of a Katy Perry song backed by the Welsh band Only Boys Aloud; for anyone who didn’t like that, there were either bagpipes or the cast of We Will Rock You singing “We Are the Champions”, or someone from Coronation Street singing the national anthem — after which a rabbi and a priest added an assorted sprinkling of spirituality.
When the time came to break the bottle, the godmother stood on the stage in the theatre (more technically advanced than any in the West End, we were told), pressed a button on an iPad, releasing the bottle outside, which duly smashed against the side of the ship, watched inside by passengers on screens.
At some point later in the evening Anthem of the Seas slipped from its Southampton moorings and made its way towards the Isle of Wight. Earlier that day I had been taken to see the captain on the bridge and now imagined him sitting in front of his huge bank of computer screens, steering the boat with its impossibly tiny joystick — barely the size of a matchstick. There was no swaying to accompany our departure; no hum of engines. Had we not been having a beer on deck at the time, we wouldn’t have known we were on our way. Down below, in the restaurants, the casino and in the music hall, no one would have had any idea they were going anywhere at all.
The following morning, after a good sleep in a comfortable and quiet cabin, we went out on deck to plan our day, walking around the running track, sharing the space only with a multicoloured 30ft giraffe and half an oversized camper van.
My son had in mind a nonstop programme of rock climbing, dodgems, basketball, circus skills, a team game that involved escaping from a room and a surf machine that allows you to surf on large artificial waves when the sea outside is flat as a pancake.
I had in mind other amusements. In the spa I opted for a facial that involved blowing oxygen over my skin to discourage bacteria, which seemed a slight waste of time given how much sea air was to be had for nothing on deck.
Later. I went in search of facts about the ship, none of which left me much the wiser. It took six million hours to build. The robotic bartenders with screens on the end of their arms are the only ones like them in the world. The ship has its own satellite that allows guests more bandwidth than is available on all other cruise ships put together.
Of all the technological feats, the one that I could relate to best concerned the robot bartenders. Guests tap their wowband on an iPad, design their own drink, watch the graceful robotic arms mixing their cocktail and then another touch of the wowband, the finished drink glides down the counter to meet them.
At least, that’s the idea. But when I tried it, the iPad wasn’t working properly and the robots turned out to be both slower than humans and messier, leaving splashes all over the frosted counter. On the upside, my robot was exceedingly generous with the measures. A single vodka turned out to be a quadruple, which meant I set off in excellent sprits to the next activity: a ride in the North Star, a glass globe on a crane that rises to 300ft above sea level. Alas, here the flaw had nothing to do with technology but with the fact that, if you are lifted up so far from land, the view from the top is a shocking anticlimax — the horizon looks pretty much the same from every altitude.
Suppressing a wish to sit quietly on my balcony and recoup, I went, instead, to a production of We Will Rock You in the theatre. The singing was loud, the dancing tight, the acting passable, the theatre large and comfortable but, after half an hour, we tired of having Queen songs yelled at us and crept out to have dinner at Wonderland, one of the most expensive restaurants on board.
Here, the eggs arrived in a puff of smoke and the olives turned out to be reconstituted and made of gelatin shell and filled with olive-tasting juice. Both were served by a waitress who wore a crushed velvet tailcoat and was so animated in her explanation of every dish that I overheard another journalist say, “Can’t I have whatever she’s on?”
As I ate this strange fare, some of which was rather nice, I realised that I was getting used to the cruise. Indeed, later that night as I watched the cabaret — in which six screens on robotic arms danced, as did a troupe of assorted Indian hippies, rap dancers, barber shop singers, and transvestites — I found I was actually enjoying myself.
“Let’s do stand-up comedy and then the casino,” suggested my son, when the dancing stopped. He was intent on sucking every last drop of novelty out of the cruise and had earlier declared it to be greater fun than any of the family holidays he’d ever been taken on. “No offence,” he had added, after seeing my expression.
But I could take no more. I had flown in the air, had my face zapped, seen three shows, lost at table tennis and table football, swung on swings and lounged on loungers, drunk cocktails and beer and wine and had the weirdest meal of my life — I simply had to go to bed.
First thing the next morning, we had to leave our stateroom so that it could be prepared for its first lot of paying passengers, bound for the Med. At 7.30am we were under the flashing chandelier in the Royal Esplanade and, half an hour later, we did the most disorienting thing of all, got on a perfectly ordinary train into London, bound for the office, where a 100 per cent fun-free day was about to start.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist
Lucy Kellaway was a guest of Royal Caribbean International on the inaugural two-day sailing of Anthem of the Seas. (royalcaribbean.co.uk). Its seven-night France and Spain cruise costs from £979pp, based on two sharing an Ocean View stateroom, departing June 13. It sails from Southampton to Gijón and Bilbao in Spain, St Peter Port in the Channel Islands and Paris, docking at Le Havre, in France before returning to Southampton. The price excludes gratuities, speciality dining and drinks packages.
Photographs: Christopher Ison; Victoria Birkinshaw