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Five “Calculated Risks” for Ovation of the Seas Cruising in China
Pushing the envelope appears to be a core business strategy for Royal Caribbean International. And the recently launched Ovation of the Seas, a Quantum-class ship, marks an industry first, having been purpose-designed for the Chinese market.
Make no mistake; this is a big bet and may worry some cruisers who seek a classic experience at sea. But as Dean Bailey, the ship’s hotel director, told me, “Royal Caribbean is comfortable continuing to make a series of ‘calculated risks.’”
After spending two weeks aboard Ovation of the Seas sailing across the Indian Ocean from Dubai to Singapore, en route to its China home base, I can affirm that the line’s confidence is not misplaced. And while the ship is not for everyone, those ready to experience something new at sea are in for a real treat.
Here, then, are five things you can expect from a ship that’s defined by the unexpected:
A Hot-Pot of Cultures
Since Ovation of the Seas was designed specifically for the Asian market, signage throughout the ship is in both English and Chinese characters and about 40 percent of the staff is from mainland China — though they speak English as well.
Royal Caribbean also sought to accommodate the preferences of Chinese passengers by including a bigger casino with a high-roller room, more high-end shopping, an entertainment focus on dancing, and a wider selection of fresh fruit on board. My wife enjoyed browsing through the Kate Spade and Cartier boutiques, and I woke up earlier than normal to get first crack at the delicious dragon fruit.
With a higher percentage of Chinese guests, the queues can get a little chaotic and there’s more jostling at the Windjammer buffet. It may also seem strange to witness fellow passengers bringing mounds of iceberg lettuce to the pasta stir-fry station. But Westerners might enjoy more room at the pools and the bars since Chinese guests don’t frequent them as often.
A Look Almost Too Hip …
Ovation of the Seas provides a chic, sleek flair to its design and art installations. Plodding up and down the stairs or across the Via walkway, you’d think you were strolling through a contemporary art museum in London or Shanghai.
Now, modern art can risk trafficking in indulgence, but I found the work aboard Ovation of the Seas, taken collectively, to hit all the right notes. Gathered from a blend of Western and Chinese artists, it’s edgy, playful, and, given the old-fashioned taste of some cruisers, even a little subversive.
The ship’s interior makes sport of playing with textures and stimulating the senses. There are sculptures suspended from the ceiling that flirt with your eyes, such as Sky Wave and Lure/Vessel; funky juxtapositions of mixed-media pieces, like the dueling portraits of a tweed-clad panda and a koala in a Hawaiian-shirt; and interactive digital art in Flutter Wall, a 120-inch screen full of butterflies you can set loose. (For a secret code* to set all of them afloat at once, stick around to the end.)
… And a Feel Almost Too Cool
That vibe extends to the design and allocation of public space, too, as Ovation of the Seas comfortably manages the flow of people. Somehow, Royal Caribbean made it cool to hang out in the hallways.
The Bionic Bar, for instance, may wow some passersby with its robotic bartenders, but the neon-tube lighting, metallic aviation chairs with white leather, and tropical synth beats affect a relaxed, chill scene from which to enjoy a drink and people-watch on the Esplanade below.
Same goes for the SeaPlex, which draws people in for the bumper cars, roller skating, video games, and ping pong. All that’s good and fun, but scope out one of the concave windows to curl up in and read a book during the day. I preferred the one overlooking “Mama and Baby,” the massive outdoor sculpture featuring two panda bears.
The multimedia extravaganza of Two70, which operates as a Vegas-style performance space in the evenings, calmly serves as a café lounge during the day where, munching on a papaya salad or sipping a cappuccino, you can take in astounding panoramic views of the ocean through the glass facade.
White Fungus Soup and Beyond (An authentic taste of Asia, if you’re ready for it.)
When Royal Caribbean’s Quantum-class ships did away with having one main dining room, cruisers could expect some consistency with a series of classics on the menu of each of the four complimentary restaurants. Basics like chicken breast, grilled salmon, and strip steak were available in The Grande, the formal restaurant, as well as Silk, the Asian- and Indian-themed dining room. Aboard Ovation of the Seas, however, the classics are executed by Chinese chefs and rotate based on regional specialties within China itself.
You won’t find a Johnny Rockets like on other Royal Caribbean ships, either, as an à la carte Kung Fu Panda Noodle Shop has taken its place. After digging into a bowl of Spicy Taiwanese Noodle Soup or Beef Chow Fun, you’ll forget about burgers anyway. Should you feel emboldened for something sweet, perhaps venture into new territory with some white fungus soup, which is listed as a dessert.
There’s crunchy, salty pig ear available at Michael’s Genuine Pub and, in China, there’s dim sum available. (Don’t worry: It pairs well with a pint of bitter.) Meanwhile, the Solarium Bistro transforms at night into a hot-pot restaurant, a spicy style of cooking renowned in Chengdu where meats and produce are cooked tableside.
The cuisine on Ovation of the Seas goes beyond just China and spreads across Asia. You’re bound to find a frothy bowl of Japanese tonkotsu ramen, Vietnamese pork belly tacos, and chicken tikka masala — not just as afterthoughts, but as fulfilling mains.
In case that doesn’t tickle your taste buds, remember that in addition to Chinese ports, Ovation of the Seas will be sailing through ports that represent some of the great food cities in the world, including Kuala Lumpur and Penang, in Malaysia; Singapore; Bangkok; and Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam.
The Ship Will Reinvent Itself Down Under
It’s not news that cruise ships have different seasons in different ports. With Ovation of the Seas, however, the changes will be drastic as the ship swings down from China in our winter months to spend time in Australia and New Zealand during their summer.
Though the bilingual signage will stay, Royal Caribbean expects Ovation of the Seas to function differently, from staff turnover to a switch in dining menus.
But remember, this is, after all, a Quantum-class ship — outfitted with the body-boarding and surf simulator FlowRider; smart tech features with iPads stationed around the ship to make reservations; I-Fly, where you can train as a sky-diver; the Northstar, a pod rising 30 stories in the air; and the Solarium, a glass-enclosed adult getaway featuring a cascade of infinity pools. There’s plenty to do no matter the itinerary.
The only note of caution is for those traveling with toddlers. Most parents I spoke with agreed that 6 years might be a more ideal age to start effectively utilizing all of the all children’s areas, so keep that in mind as you consider booking.
Ovation of the Seas is an innovative ship worth checking out as an adventure in intercultural communication, cutting-edge design, and culinary experimentation. Let’s hope Royal Caribbean continues to take such calculated risks.
— Zac Gershberg
*The secret code for Flutter Wall: Touch the butterfly in the top right-hand corner followed by the top left-hand corner, the bottom left-hand corner, and the bottom right-hand corner.
Photos: Chris Ison/PA Wire/Royal Caribbean International; Royal Caribbean International (2)
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