I’m writing this on a Vueling flight from Barcelona. I’ve just spent the last three days – was it only three days?- on board Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, and they were among the most fun days I’ve had in a very long time.
I boarded in Civitavecchia, about a 45-minute drive from Rome Fiumicino airport. Before I had gotten anywhere near the ship the pre-boarding protocols were already in place and taken care of. The only outstanding issue was the antigen test requirement in the port terminal, but that was done and dusted in under 10 minutes.
Once on board, we had an obligatory muster before I could get to my stateroom, but that was taken care of almost immediately so within minutes of embarkation I was on my way to my stateroom.
Harmony of the Seas is a big ship – the second-largest in the world – so there was little chance I would get to experience even a tenth of what it has to offer. Still, I got to two signature restaurants – Central 150 and Chops Grill – went to three shows and even managed a game of mini golf.
I didn’t try the zipline, the Abyss tube slide or the Flow Rider, but that was more a matter of time than anything else. Ok, maybe I was a bit intimidated by some of the surfers on the Flow Rider and didn’t fancy going making a total fool of myself!
I also took part in a pub quiz – where we finished a creditable third: if you ever get asked what the fastest animal on earth is, it’s the peregrine falcon, not the cheetah (who is the fastest land mammal). I was served drinks by a robot bartender, spent the evening at the karaoke bar and watched football in the pub, surrounded by rabid Manchester United fans from Dublin and Wicklow.
I went to an ice show (eat your heart out, Torvill & Dean) and an aqua show, which had a 1950s theme and was all about trying to catch thieves who’d stolen some previous jewels: in fairness, maybe the jewels’ owners should have kept a closer eye on their belongings instead of doing impressive acrobatics and dives?
But the highlight was Grease, which was West End quality and featured a cast of top rate performers. Of course Danny and Sandy were the stars, but when Rizzo sang ‘There are worse things I could do’ the whole theatre stood up and applauded – and there were more than a few teary eyes.
All of the above was done in less than a day and a half, because virtually a whole day was spent exploring charming Sorrento and the famous ruins of Pompeii.
Excursions are usually my least favourite part of the cruise experience: all too often the cruise company is using local guide companies who deliver less than inspiring tours at a hefty cost.
Forum at Pompeii Amphitheatre at Pompeii Pompeii street figure caught in lava
But our guide Nuncia was terrific: highly engaging and full of interesting details about Naples, the Amalfi Coast and of course the city destroyed by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. We also visited the Galatea farm in the hills above Sorrento, where we learnt about how mozzarella is made – and then made our own pizzas.
Chef Fionn Lunch!
Anyone who’s been on a cruise in the last 10 years will know that the general quality of the dining experience has improved dramatically – across the board. The meals served in the main dining room and in the Windjammer buffet* are uniformly good, cover a broad range of tastes and cuisines and represent one of the biggest draws of the cruise experience for travellers looking for an all-inclusive package that doesn’t skimp on quality.
Gone are the uninspiring set meal times and bland décor – in their place is an elegant room with comfortable seating, plenty of space and, crucially, to be enjoyed when you want.
When is a buffet not a buffet
The Windjammer on deck 15 still looks like a buffet, has all food stations you’d expect from a buffet and the vast range of choice that makes it a go-to at any time of the day, but with one huge difference: you don’t serve yourself anymore to reduce touchpoints in a post-Covid age (you also have to wash your hands before you go in to the main dining room).
Instead, every station is manned by attentive staff who will serve the food onto your plate. And you can still go up as often as you like.
The meals I had in Chops Grill and Central 150, though, were a cut above. The décor and the service were outstanding, and the food was exceptional.
In Central 150, I had beautifully seared honey glazed scallops followed by a tender venison loin; in Chops Grill I had a tuna tartare and an in-bone ribeye that was cooked to medium rare perfection. All worthy of a top class restaurant in any major city.
Cruising in a Post-Covid World
It’s inevitable that in a Covid world there would be additional protocols that risk impacting on the overall experience. The pre-boarding testing and vaccine requirements. The on-board protocols that require masks to be worn in all indoor spaces unless eating or drinking.
But Royal Caribbean does an excellent job of minimising so-called ‘friction points’ and incorporating the health protocols pretty seamlessly into the experience, so after a couple of hours you don’t even notice that you’re masked while wandering down the Promenade.
However, this is best exemplified in the testing regimes. Because we were disembarking in Barcelona, everyone had to get an antigen test. The day before, a note was left in each stateroom specifying the time you had to go down to deck 3 for testing, but once down there, there was no queue, no delays and no faff: you were in and out in less than three minutes. Your results are then emailed to you and the details added to your seapass – a critical detail when it comes to disembarking.
You don’t have to show your (negative) result or trawl through your emails or anything: you simply scan your seapass and the details are all there, and off you get. Less than three minutes after scanning my seapass for the final time I was loading my bags into a taxi.
As I got into the taxi, Harmony of the Seas began the process of preparing for a 13-day transatlantic crossing that would see it reposition for the winter season in the Caribbean. I spoke to a couple of Americans who were going to cross – with stops in Malaga and Nassau in the Bahamas – and I really envied them. A 13-day relaxing journey across the Atlantic? I couldn’t think of anything finer right now.