Sarah Slattery – aided by her son, Luke O’Kelly, one of Royal Caribbean International’s ‘Little Extraordinaires’ – finally got into the swing of things after extensively researching all the facilities on the new-look Independence of the Seas for Irish Travel Trade News.
Royal Caribbean International’s Independence of the Seas, along with Mariner of the Seas, has recently undergone a multi-million-pound makeover. These are the first among 10 cruise ships that Royal Caribbean is upgrading, in a staggering US$900 million investment over four years.
I was fortunate to be invited on Independence of the Seas’ recent inaugural sailing from Southampton – and was also able to bring my children to Southampton the following week to get their opinions.
My son Luke had been chosen as one of Royal Caribbean’s Little Extraordinaires, a panel of six children who will act as consultants on future Royal Caribbean ships. The panel was introduced following startling research that 70% of parents will consult their children before booking a holiday. Luke’s first ‘job’ was to road-test Independence of the Seas and I was delighted to have an excuse to visit for a second time.
My first experience had been with a group of travel agents and media, and, needless to say, it was a lively event! We sailed away from Southampton listening to the Calypso band singing ‘Hot Hot Hot’ as we sipped on pina coladas – and there wasn’t a child in sight!
My first mission was to try the brand new ‘Sky Pad’. This virtual reality bungee trampoline experience is only available on Independence of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas. A massive orange sphere is located on the top deck of the ship and comes with four trampolines inside. I donned the virtual reality mask and jumped as high as possible, bouncing on candy in a virtual ‘sugar world’.
It was only when I saw my seven-year-old daughter try it the following week that I realised how bad I was! She bounced so high in the air, I was actually nervous watching her. Sky Pad is suitable for adults and children, aged five and over. Younger children or adults can also use the Sky Pad without the VR headsets. You can admire the ocean views while you bounce, if you don’t fancy taking part in virtual reality games.
I decided to give the FlowRider (a surf simulator) a miss but my son Luke tried it and loved it. Independence also has a rock-climbing wall, two racer waterslides and an aquapark, Splashaway Bay, which is suitable for children of all ages.
My children loved racing each other on the Perfect Storm water slides. It was hard to tear them away, but we had to try some of the other facilities available. First up was the mini golf course. This adventure course is located at the top of the ship and they really enjoyed it. I was able to sit back and relax on a sun lounger and watch them play happily. I could have stayed there for hours but we had a laser-tag appointment.
Laser-Tag is another new addition to the amplified Independence of the Seas. Located in Studio B, where the nightclub and ice rink are also located, the ice rink remains underneath as the floor transforms into a glow-in-the-dark laser tag studio. Guests have to join teams to ‘Battle for the Planet Z’, with children fighting aliens and each other. This was another big hit and it was hard to believe that we were actually on a cruise ship.
There were lots of other activities that we didn’t have time to try. Puzzle Break is another new addition to Independence of the Seas. This is an escape room where you need to work as a team to solve riddles in order to break free. My son is a Star Wars fanatic and didn’t take it well when I told him that we couldn’t try out the latest Star Wars games in the kids zone, or watch the movie at the outdoor movie screen by the pool!
Although Independence of the Seas is very much geared towards families, there are plenty of activities to keep adults happy too. The spa and fitness centre were impressive, as well as the choice of swimming pools, Jacuzzis and the adult-only solarium.
There are four restaurants included in the cruise cost, as well as six specialty dining options. I tried the Windjammer buffet with my children and, although the food was great, it was extremely busy and hard to get a table.
However, the main dining room is really impressive. Not only was the food and service excellent, but the room is stunning. We were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchens used for the main dining room and they were mind blowing. They have 163 different chefs, 70 different nationalities, and plate 25,000 dishes each day. They even hired the designers at Porsche to streamline their kitchen!
I was fortunate to be able to try Izumi, a sushi and hibachi grill, which also has the largest teppanyaki dining experience in Royal Caribbean’s fleet. We were treated to a delicious meal. Our host Elvis put on a great show as he cooked our meal in front of us. The menu is extensive so if you don’t fancy sushi or shellfish you can opt for steak or chicken. I tried the lobster and scallops and they were superb.
Independence of the Seas has eight bars to choose from. We enjoyed delicious cocktails by the pool during the day and in Boleros at night. There is also a Champagne Bar and a brand new sports bar, Playmakers, which is very impressive. Indeed, Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean’s Chief Executive, told us at the press conference that Playmakers was the part of the revamp with which he was most impressed. There are live events on 30 large screen TVs as well as pool tables and a bar serving tasty American cuisine.
Royal Theatre and Royal Promenade
Grease the musical is on in the Royal Theatre. We saw this on Harmony of the Seas and were very impressed – a great show for adults and children. The Take That tribute band was also popular, but the highlight was when Mark Wright hit the decks in Studio B. We danced until the small hours at a party to remember.
The following night we enjoyed the street party on the Royal Promenade, a Royal Caribbean tradition. We sang along to the UK’s cheesiest songs, such as the Buck’s Fizz ‘Making Your Mind Up’, but loved every minute of it. There was a great party atmosphere as people spilled out of the bars and cafes on the Royal Promenade.
During the day the Royal Promenade has a different vibe. There are some great shops, cafes and bars and it is a cool place to hang out if you want to be away from pool parties and sunshine. The brand new Sugar Beach candy store is located here. Packed with countless sweets it is a dream come true for children – but probably a nightmare for parents!
The 1,929 staterooms have also been upgraded. We stayed in a spacious ocean view stateroom with balcony that came complete with a walk-in wardrobe, spacious living area and a bath as well as a shower.
Although a large ship, capable of housing over 4,500 guests, Independence of the Seas felt quite intimate. It was very easy to navigate and had a nice friendly atmosphere throughout. I have cruised on Harmony of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas and they felt massive in comparison.
Independence of the Seas has been voted the UK’s favourite cruise ship and it is easy to see why. Not only are the facilities onboard superb, but Independence of the Seas has the benefits of a large cruise ship with the intimacy and personal attention of a smaller vessel.
Independence of the Seas is cruising from Southampton until November 2018 before moving to Florida for four-night and five-night itineraries for the winter months. Independence will return to Southampton in May 2019.