The 'Journal' was on Wonder of the Seas, the world's largest passenger ship, on its maiden voyage in the Caribbean
With a gross-tonnage of 236,857GT and measuring fully 1,188 feet in length, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class flagship is officially the largest passenger ship on the planet.
To give a sense of her scale she is five times the size of and over twice as long as the Titanic. Stepping up the gangway onto the Royal Promenade on deck five, we made our way to a roomy State Cabin on the ninth deck near the stern on the starboard side of the vessel. We were soon tacking for Cuba under the power of four bow thrusters of 7,500 horse power each.
As a cruise first-timer I would spend the next day and half at sea getting my bearings.
This colossal vessel can accommodate up to 6,988 guests and 2,300 crew. Though the passenger manifest did not run to that length when we sailed, the ship was full of loyal customers relieved that the pall of the pandemic had lifted and they could put to sea again on their favourite cruise line.
During the voyage I caught up with Nick Weir, who will be best known to most readers as the man who took over from our own Roy Walker as the host of ITV’s Catchphrase, in 2000. Mr. Weir is now senior vice president of Entertainment at Royal Caribbean. He said he was thrilled to be at sea on Wonder after what has been a trying two years.
“It’s a mix of personal relief and professional relief. I am a member of society and I’m as worried about things as much as the next person. So definitely, personally, the fact that we are back in business and rocking and rolling on Wonder is a beautiful thing,” he said.
Like everyone at Royal Caribbean, Mr. Weir has supreme faith in the product. Wonder of the Seas is an investment of circa $1billion and was constructed, programmed and recruited for in the midst of a global pandemic. He is proud of what has been achieved.
“If you come to Royal first you cannot go anywhere else. You can do it the other way round. We’ll welcome people from other cruise lines because we know we are going to blow their socks off, but if you come to Royal first you are stuck with us because no-one can deliver the level of a vacation experience that we can. It’s just a fact.”
Listening to the Country Crew Trio banging out Willie Nelson, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash numbers in The Mason Jar, the ship’s southern-themed bourbon bar of an evening, I confided to Joe from Georgia that it was my first cruise. “You picked the best one,” he reckoned.
I grew to learn he was probably right as I explored the bewildering array of activities, eateries, bars, entertainment options and many other attractions on board this floating pleasure dome. When invited to review Wonder I’ll admit the ports of call of Labadie, Haiti, San Juan, Puerto Rico and Nassau in the Bahamas, were more of a draw than the idea of the ship itself.
Yet with eight different neighbourhoods, a pool deck with four different pools, a zip line, a rock climbing wall, football courts, a jogging track, several slides, 20 different dining options, at least a dozen bars, a casino, a karaoke centre, a central park and garden, a boardwalk, a surf machine and numerous top quality theatre spaces, it was hard not to get happily lost on this city at sea.
Sailing within swimming distance of the Sabana-Camagüey islands on the north Cuban coast we steamed on towards Cap-Haïtien, arriving at Royal Carribean’s private resort at Labadie shortly after dawn on the Sunday morning. Disembarking passengers were greeted by the sounds and sights of méringue and traditional Haitian drumming and dance before they set off to explore the tropical paradise thereabouts.
The more adventurous braved the Dragon’s Breath zip line which runs precipitously from a bluff several hundred metres above Labadie and offers breathtaking views of the beach and bay. There is also the Dragon Coaster, a partly self-controlled rollercoaster featuring cars with their own braking mechanisms which will appeal to those in search of adrenalin-propulsing thrills.
Gérard, a local guide, offers a more sedate experience. He took guests on a fascinating walking tour of the area, describing some of the local lore and history. This includes an account of the glorious Haitian revolution when slaves rebelled and overthrew their bonds and French colonial rule.
The revolt was led by Jean-Jacques Dessaline in the early 1800s. Dessaline was born about 30 kilometres south of Labadie. Gérard also explained how the old vodou rites are still very much adhered to, particularly among the elder generation in Cap-Haïtien. He told of a vodou deity or lwa which takes the form of a snake and is still invoked by locals at a headland at the resort. Fascinating altogether.
It should be stressed, however, that this was not Haiti proper. Most governments still advise against all travel to the country following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last July.
It’s perfectly safe though. The resort is tightly secured and cruise line guests are not permitted to leave. We bade farewell to Haiti mid-afternoon and sailed east along the north coast of Hispaniola. I watched the lights of the Dominican Republic as we cruised by from my State Cabin balcony. Next stop Puerto Rico.
After an enjoyable evening spent in Boleros, one of the ship’s many watering holes, listening to Travesia, its Latin house band, blasting out classic salsa, cumbia and rumba we arrived in San Juan. The ship’s berth was perfect, only a few minutes from the old town around which we had the whole day to wander.
Dandering down the Paseo de la Princesa and around by the city walls we turned right into the old town through the Puerta de San Juan. Old San Juan gives the traveller a real sense of why Cuba and Puerto Rico are sometimes referred to as sister islands. The Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista, the second-oldest in the Americas in which are interred the remains of Ponce de León who founded the city in the 1500s, is a must-see.
Down at the Plaza de Armas you can admire the beautiful Casa Alcaldía de San Juan, the city hall which was built in the Spanish colonial-style in the 1600s and 1700s. Unfortunately, La Fortaleza, the former governors’ residence, was not accessible when we visited, nor had we time to visit San Felipe del Morro Castle, an old battery on the far northwestern tip of the isle of San Juan, though we had had a perfect view of the fortification when we sailed into the city earlier in the day.
As half an Ó Raghallaigh I was interested to view the fort. It had been built on the recommendations of one Alejandro O’Reilly who Carlos Bourbon III of Spain had dispatched to San Juan in 1765 to survey the city’s defences. At the time O’Reilly was the Governor of Cuba, Ambrosio de Funes Villalpando’s second-in-command.
Enjoying a mojito in O’Reilly’s bar in Calle O’Reilly, Havana, once years ago an enquiry as to who ‘O’Reilly’ was had been met only with ‘some American’.
But he wasn’t, he was Irish.
Born Alastar Ó Raghallaigh, apparently at Baltrasna near Navan, his grandfather Colonel John O’Reilly had raised O’Reilly’s Dragoons, who had fought at the Siege of Derry. He was, of course, one of the ‘Wild Geese’ who served in the Catholic armies of continental Europe in the period following the Williamite Wars.
He became known as ‘Bloody’ O’Reilly due to his suppression of a creole rebellion in Louisiana where he would serve as governor in the late 1760s. I found no trace of a Calle O’Reilly in San Juan when I visited though the San Felipe del Morro Castle is a reminder of his passing through those parts while he is still regarded as the ‘father of the Puerto Rican militia’.
The march around San Juan fairly whetted the appetite and thus we adjourned to Barrachina a famous bar and restaurant where it is reputed traditional Spanish bartender Don Ramon Portas Mingot invented the Piña Colada in 1963.
The place specialises in Puerto Rican and Iberian cuisine. I attempted the shrimp sautéed in alioli and the grouper fritters, breaded with coconut and served with pico de gallo and tartar sauce. Fully sated we stopped at some of the livelier hostelries around the north of the old town for a bit of beer shopping before heading back to Wonder of the Seas for the next leg of the voyage.
Having reached the eastern limit of the Greater Antilles it was time to turn round and make the lengthy trip back up towards the Bahamas.
Four days into her maiden voyage, Captain Rob Hempstead, steered Wonder of the Seas out of San Juan. How do you graduate to skipper of the largest passenger ship on earth? It turns out this master mariner earned his sea legs on the Bering Sea looking for cod, salmon and halibut.
Scarcely a greater contrast from those icy latitudes could be dreamt of as we pushed off from Puerto Rico that balmy tropical evening. We set a course for Nassau and began the thousand mile trip back up beyond Hispaniola and the Turks and Caicos to the Bahamas.
Having taken four days to sail down the Antilles, it meant a couple of days at sea and a chance to get a good look at the many diversions on board the Royal Caribbean flagship.
One of the highlights was inTENse, a world-class spectacle of water-based acrobatics, featuring an all-female cast and performed in the ship’s AquaTheater.
The show incorporated high-diving feats, slack-lining and aerial acrobatics. A visual extravaganza, it showcased the ensemble’s incredible strength, nerve and agility.
Another captivating offering was ‘Voices: An Intimate Performance on a Grand Scale,’ a brilliantly executed a cappella musical performance in Wonder’s sumptuous Royal Theatre on deck 5. ‘365: The Seasons on Ice’ - a story of the earth’s changing seasons interpreted by a cast of champion ice-skaters - was performed in Studio B, which doubled as a nightclub when no shows were running.
The virtuoso performances will live long in the memory of the audiences who witnessed them on Wonder’s first sailing around the Caribbean and gave a real sense of what the cruise liner is trying to achieve.
Wandering fore and aft as we motored north those few days, childhood memories of Buncrana, Bundoran and Portrush were readily conjured. No doubt, nation-appropriate reminiscences of carousels and candy floss in Atlantic City, Blackpool, Biarritz, Heringsdorf and San Sebastian were resurrected for passengers from other parts of the globe as Wonder of the Seas pushes those seaside resort nostalgia buttons ably.
Yet Royal Caribbean’s ambition is to take the family holiday to the next level. It sees Broadway, Las Vegas, the Tropicana, Moulin Rouge and Cirque du Soleil as its peers.
Nick Weir gave an insight into the company’s mind-set and mission.
“When people ask me which cruise liner I am looking at or worrying about I do say I have no interest in other cruise lines. I’m not looking to them for guidance on what’s next. I say it with respect because the cruise industry is an industry which I love and all forms of entertainment I love and respect but if I want to take Royal to where I think it should be, which is at the top of entertainment on planet earth, I have to look at the West End. I have to look at Broadway. I have to look at ‘Vegas, Macau, Paris.
"When people are making a judgment call on where to spend their next vacation dollar I want them not to go to Paris, I want them not to go to ‘Vegas, I want them to come to us.”
On day six - we docked at Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, on the isle of New Providence. The town was named after William of Orange-Nassau in 1695. Governor Nicholas Trott paid the tribute to King Billy just a few years after the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne.
Going ashore we marvelled at the crystalline waters and found a neat city built in the British colonial style. Outside the Bahamian Parliament on Bay Street stands a large statue of Victoria Hanover. In the 1700s the town was a famous haven for pirates including Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, Calico Jack and Anne Bonney. In the Nassau straw market, further west along Bay Street, you can buy wares commemorating this buccaneering tradition.
Walk a little further and you pass a grim relic - the site of the Nassau slave market where human beings were traded like cattle in the 1700s. The Pompey Slavery & Emancipation Museum commemorates the victims of the slave trade on the very spot where it used to take place.
The museum was named for a slave, ‘Pompey’, who in 1830 rebelled against John Rolle, a British Lord and plantation owner. Pompey is today considered a Bahamian hero. A long, hard look around the centre would have been instructive. Unfortunately it was closed when we arrived. When next in Nassau...
Walkable and with a population about two-and-a-half times the size of Derry, Nassau was busy with spring breakers when we docked. They gravitated to Junkanoo beach, closest to downtown and not far from the port. Strolling west towards Arawak Cay a stop at the beach bars and fish fry and jerk joints is a must if you wish to sample some of the real flavour of the Bahamas.
Before returning to the boat we stopped into Shenanigans in Bay Street to attempt the stout for research purposes and yes, the Irish truly are like sand: they get everywhere.
The proprietor Philip Gorman is of good Donegal-Glaswegian stock. His father was a native of Bundoran while his grandfather was from Moville, he told me. We chatted briefly about Foyle Port’s plans to invest in a new cruise line terminal at Greencastle and agreed it would be an investment that would pay for itself . The stout was in good order Phil! I was singing the ‘Sloop John B’ to myself - ‘around Nassau town we did roam’ - as I dandered back to the ship.
On the last leg, as we sailed north to Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean’s private resort in the Berry Islands, it was time to go on the music trail. Great crack was had listening to Kevin Philip, a Perthshire-born singer-guitar player, as he entertained a raucous audience in the Cask and Clipper, the ship’s old style pub. We were convinced for a moment we were back on a rocky islet at the fresher end of the gulf stream rather than halfway between New Providence and Grand Bahama.
The next day, lying on my back in the pool listening to Men of Culture - a three part Jamaican, one part Bajan reggae band - playing classic roots reggae and lovers rock, I pleasantly regained my tropical bearings.
The last trip shore was at Coco Cay - fifty-odd miles north of Nassau. Hundreds of passengers gravitated to the islet’s water park which features one of the largest and tallest water slides in the world, Daredevil’s Peak. Others travelled by boat to Big Major Cay - another island in the Bahamas - to swim with pigs!
This was one of the many excursions available to guests and was highly recommended by those who partook. Your reviewer, knowing this was thelast day in paradise, instead indulged in one of life’s great luxuries, swimming all day in the warm seas around this idyllic cay on an archipelago renowned as ‘The Fish Bowl of the Bahamas’.
Refreshed and relaxed after a ‘perfect day’ in paradise we enjoyed an excellent last supper of snails and steak in the ship’s old school dining room before taking a drink for the gangway in Boleros, where Travesia, the ship’s six-piece Latin house band brought the cruise to an end by banging out Tito Puente and Rubén González numbers.
On the Friday morning of day eight we regretfully disembarked at Port Everglades. As someone who hitherto would not have considered booking a cruise my week-long sojourn on Wonder made me think again.
Nick Weir acknowledges some misapprehensions about cruising do persist but he insists Ireland and Britain are the last holdouts of the preconception that liner holidays are for wealthy retirees.
“There is a stigma still. It’s not global. It was there for many years but now in the ‘States, Europe, African countries everyone gets it: this is a hip vacation. In the UK and Ireland there are still some issues but it’s coming. People are seeing our YouTube videos and they are seeing our demographic.
"We have got the perfect bell curve, especially at Royal because we are all about family. What we have found at Royal is you can absolutely make parents happy and give them content and keep kids happy and give them content and please them equally.”
In a few weeks Wonder will sail to Europe where it will ply the Mediterranean from May. Ports of call include Barcelona, Palma, Marseille, La Spezia, Rome and Naples. Next year it will be permanently based in the Caribbean. A seven night cruise is currently retailing from £679 at www.royalcaribbean.com/ I wouldn’t put you off the notion.