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Posted on Sat, Oct. 31, 2009 10:15 PM
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World’s largest cruise ship offers a boatload of firsts

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There’s a story about a grizzled foreign correspondent in Asia who once was taken to task over a taxi fare on an expense report.

He defended it as routine, but the accountants pointed out that he had been reporting from an aircraft carrier at sea on the day in question. Without missing a beat, the correspondent growled, “Well, do you know how big those things are?”

I couldn’t help thinking of that while in Finland touring Royal Caribbean International’s new Oasis of the Seas, a ship that eclipses the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class supercarriers and will be the world’s largest cruise liner when it makes its maiden voyage in December. From the bow, the stern is almost a quarter-mile away. That’s a 25-cent cab fare in Washington, D.C.

The Oasis of the Seas is longer, taller, wider, heavier and more expensive than any other passenger ship ever built. A piece of it will have to be retracted just so it can squeeze under a bridge and make it to the Atlantic.

On its 18 decks, a crew of 2,165 will tend to as many as 6,296 paying customers, nearly 45 percent more than the largest cruise ships now operating.

But the Oasis of the Seas isn’t just a jumbo version of its predecessors. More important than its staggering size is what its designers have done with the space: filled it with attractions never before seen on a ship, including an open-air park with trees and hanging gardens, a boardwalk-style area with a merry-go-round, a pool that changes into a stage for high-diving shows and a theater that has booked the Broadway musical “Hairspray.”

In short, Royal Caribbean has created a Las Vegas resort that floats — yes, there’s a casino, too.

Even though construction was ongoing, it was clear that coming aboard the Oasis would be less like climbing onto a boat than like walking up the concourse of a fancy sports stadium. Instead of placing a block of cabins in the middle of the ship, the builders have stacked the rooms on either side, a radical innovation that left an airy, glass-enclosed atrium longer than a football field at the core.

Raimund Gschaider, the Oasis hotel director, called it the Royal Promenade. He led me up a few decks to the area dubbed Central Park. (There’s a small bar and lounge on a platform that moves up and down between the decks, but we took the stairs.) Now we were standing under the sun in what felt like a plaza between two small apartment buildings.

Gschaider told me that when the ship arrives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., more than 2,000 plants will be installed on the deck.

“Imagine sitting here under the sky, amid the bushes and trees, with the light breeze of the Caribbean, enjoying your steak,” he said.

But he wasn’t done. The Promenade and Central Park are just two of seven “neighborhoods” on the Oasis.

I was getting lost — the ship’s 38,000 signs had yet to go up — and Gschaider was wearing me down.

I realized that we hadn’t talked about the destinations. Harbors in the Bahamas have been modified to accommodate the enormous ship.

Why take a cruise at all, I asked, if the ship, not the ports of call, is the draw? Why not just go to a resort in Las Vegas?

“This is better than Vegas,” Gschaider said.

And despite the thousands onboard, Gschaider said the Oasis is so big that there’s more space per passenger and it will feel less crowded.

Maiden voyage: A four-night trip to Labadee, Haiti, departing Dec. 1. Staterooms are still available.

Itineraries: Starting Dec. 5, weekly seven-night trips to the eastern Caribbean (with stops in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; and Nassau, Bahamas).

In May 2010, it starts alternating the eastern route with a western one, stopping in Labadee and Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico.

Rates: Rates start at $729 a person double occupancy for a seven-night cruise. For high-rollers, the two-level, four-person Royal Loft suite starts at $19,276 (total price for four guests) and maxes out at $34,376.

Information: 866-562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com or www.oasisoftheseas.com.

Posted on Sat, Oct. 31, 2009 10:15 PM
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