For this month’s cover story we’ve brought together a short collection of travel writing. If your summer won’t take you beyond the 6th Ring Road, then let this provide some vicarious wonderment. In Part I of this five-part series, Editor-in-Chief Oscar Holland finds himself in the middle of the Bohai Sea on the world's fourth-largest luxury cruise ship with Fan Bingbing, China's most famous woman.
"Ships are different from buildings on land in many ways,” explains the cabin safety video as I board the world’s newest luxury cruise ship, Ovation of the Seas. Well no shit.
But while the narrator is referring to the importance of holding onto handrails and under-filling your coffee cup (in case of waves), I can think of some more fundamental differences. For a start, this ship – unlike most land structures I’ve encountered – is about to take me, 4,000 other guests and China’s most famous woman on a tour of the Bohai Sea.
Ovation of the Seas is the latest member of Royal Caribbean’s game-changing Quantum class. And mega-celeb Fan Bingbing is its ‘Godmother.’ As for me? I’m just a freeloading magazine editor on a press junket aboard a ship that will help make China the world’s second-largest luxury cruise market by 2017. And with a price tag of USD1 billion, someone’s banking on it.
An aerial view of Ovation of the Seas
For that money, you could pay off Swaziland’s national debt, buy New York’s most expensive apartment and have enough left for a carbonara at the Jamie Oliver restaurant on Promenade Deck 5. But you could also build a fucking incredible cruise ship; an 18-deck, 168,666-gross-ton homage to going on holiday without going anywhere at all.
Here’s the lowdown from the media tour: two swimming pools, a wind-tunnel skydiving simulator, a basketball court that doubles as a bumper car arena, 16 restaurants and a bar operated entirely by robots. Ovation of the Seas is an extraordinary and utterly absurd feat of engineering.
As guests enter the theater for the naming ceremony, Fan Bingbing floats through – to great fanfare – like a faultless, radiant water-nymph. Her lone responsibility? Stand on stage and cut a ribbon. Elsewhere there are bagpipes and a boy band whose members look like they’re threatening to strip. A Christian minister then blesses the ship in Mandarin, before the US national anthem plays and no-one sings along (obviously). It’s palpably awkward, but the day is saved: red flags appear and the national anthem of China commences. There’s a bit more audience participation for this one.
Fan Bingbing cuts the ribbon
Because while this is an American ship, it’s also a Chinese one. Johnny Rocket’s Burger Bar has become a noodle restaurant, the casino has been expanded (anti-gambling laws don’t apply here), and shopping options are markedly more high-end. There’s even a 33-foot model of a panda climbing up the ship’s side. But most of all: it’s fun. Cruising in the West may be for coffin-dodgers, but here it’s a young(ish) person’s game. This ship is for energetic families, not pensioners using the infinite horizon to distract them from their inescapable mortality.
On this floating 5-star palace, sea views aren’t all that important. In fact, when I retire to my cabin that night, I find that we haven’t even departed Tianjin yet. But this is a cruise; it doesn’t matter. We could just as easily be in the Baltic Sea. Or the Gulf of Mexico. Or the strip of ocean between Westeros and Essos that divides warring factions in Game of Thrones. When cruising, you’re just on a boat. The boat is all you have. It’s all you need.
A viewing capsule offering views of the ship and horizon
By the time I wake up I’ve already missed the following activities (all verbatim): Vitality Stretch Class, Fab Abs Class, Pathway to Yoga, Table Tennis at the Seaplex, WeChat Shake It Event and Wrinkle Remedies with Dr. Alex. In fact, there’s so much going on – all the time and forever – that a channel on my cabin TV is dedicated to updates from Activities Manager Bonnie and the endlessly enthusiastic Cruise Director Gordon. “Whatever you do, make the most of it!!” the latter implores, eyes shining with excitement.
I’m trying, Gordon. God knows I’m trying. But I’ve had a long week and I just want to sit by the pool. I grab a deckchair and catch a few hours’ sun that will later turn into a few weeks’ worth of excruciating sunburn and a dramatically increased likelihood of melanoma.
After a couple of all-expenses-paid visits to the poolside bar, I’m feeling a little more energetic. I decide to try the surf simulator FlowRider® but am instantly rejected on the grounds of being inebriated. Hint: Don’t enquire about potentially dangerous watersports activities while holding an early-afternoon rum-and-Coke. These may be international waters, but there are rules here.
I instead embark on some more alcohol-friendly activities. I ride a hydraulic viewing capsule and look down into the ship’s smoking funnels (no cruise is guilt-free). Then I take a guided tour of the bridge (all disappointingly computerized; no oversized steering wheel), before continuing the day’s drinking at the wonderfully named Michael’s Genuine Pub. It doth protest too much, but hey.
And with that, our 36-hour loop of the Bohai Sea is complete. As an unmarried man with a penchant for adventure, I’m a little outside Royal Caribbean’s target demographic. But life on Ovation of the Seas is so luxurious – so shamelessly hedonistic – that it makes me want to start a family, just so I can take them on board and not have to deal with, you know, traveling stuff. Like haggling, planning or walking farther than the length of a boat.
I love every second of it. But then I’m not paying, so I would say that.
Read Part II: I Tried to Cycle Across China on a Flying Pigeon, Part III: I Hitchhiked Along the North Korean Border, Part IV: I Lived in a Gansu Cave House & Part V: I Was a Post-Disaster Tourist in Sichuan's Earthquake Villages..