The World's Largest Cruise Ship

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The adults-only Solarium.

Ocean City

Population 8,955.


By Sarah Khan

Long before reaching my destination, I glimpse its skyline on the horizon. The distinctive tangle of spires, curves, and jagged edges forms a shimmering silhouette against the subdued gray morning as steel and glass reach skyward. And soaring amid it all: a ten-story purple slide.
Some seek Zen in the mountains or at the seaside; others, like me, prefer to lose them­selves in the by-lanes of a frenetic metropo­lis. But my hideaway for the coming week isn’t a suite or vacation apartment in New York, Hong Kong, or Sydney; instead, it’s a cozy cabin in Fort Lauderdale – or one that’s presently resting there – on Royal Carib­bean’s gleaming new Harmony of the Seas.
The floating city debuted to much fanfare last year as the world’s largest passenger ship. As a cruise virgin – and, to be frank, something of a cruise skeptic – I assumed I knew what to expect from a week on board: micromanaged schedules, aggressively smiley staff, bottomless prawn cocktails, and a brigade of towel animals awaiting me on my bed at turndown each night. But the promise of eight days of sun and an island-hopping adventure in the midst of a New England winter proved impossible to resist.
My curiosity about life on a megaship intensified right up to departure. How much food is consumed daily across 20 restaurants by Harmony’s 6,780 guests? How can performers ice-skate and pull off aqua acrobatics gracefully while cruising at 22 knots? A rundown of the ship’s stats reads like a chapter from Guinness World Records: 18 decks, 23 swimming pools, 28 bars, 2,175 crew members, 5,500 tons of fuel, more than 10,500 plants, 12,600 pounds of flour per sailing (along with 15,000 pounds of beef) – 30,000 meals served a day.
As on any first visit to a new city, I imme­diately set out to get my bearings: locating the nearest Starbucks (Deck 6, steps from my stateroom’s balcony), taking mental notes on restaurants to try, and finding a park for a relaxing stroll. It’s in Central Park, one of Harmony’s seven “neighborhoods,” that I start to fully embrace the seabound-city concept. Surrounded by lush vertical gardens and thick bushes, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of the ocean. In fact, the only place where my preconceived cruise notions and Harmony’s reality inter­sect is in the form of increasingly complex animal figures left for me by Irina, a state­room attendant with a gift for towel origami.
While I’m quickly won over by the ship’s abundant charms, the locals prove a some­what cliquish bastion of families, couples, and large groups. It’s not that my neighbors are unfriendly, but they’re more content in their own company than eager to befriend an outsider – they’ve just arrived on vacation together, after all. I happily embrace the familiar comfort that comes with urban anonymity amid the crowds, but find plenty of smiles and friendly banter when I seek them out.
At the American Icon Grill during a busy lunch service, I sit down next to Clive Richards and Pearl Chiu, a Canadian couple on their 23rd cruise. “This vacation was for the ship, not the destinations,” Clive says. “We don’t intend to get off.”
“There are so many open places, so many places to hide,” adds Pearl. “It’s a city of 6,000 people, but you don’t feel like you see any of them.”
But you do, apparently - I run into Clive and Pearl three more times before the week is over: in an elevator, by the waterslides, and at the Solarium Bistro. Even megaships can at times feel delightfully small.
The Solarium’s three cascading terraces are an enclave I find myself returning to time and again, a peaceful, child-free zone that’s a soothing respite from all the activity. Harmony is East Coast in its energy – nonstop at any hour of the day, with rock climbing, waterslides, performances of Grease or live jazz shows, an escape-the- room puzzle game, fitness classes, trivia nights, mini-golf, a sprawling casino, and no shortage of fine-dining options, from the whimsical Alice in Wonderland-inspired tasting menu at Wonderland to Sabor’s fiery Mexican fare. Throughout the voyage, I don’t come upon a single midnight buffet, but instead indulge in meals worthy of four- star reviews in any culinary capital. And while I’ve zip-lined everywhere from Victoria Falls to Costa Rica, whizzing through the air 15 stories above an indeterminate point in the Caribbean is a first.
“This ship is perfect for multigenerational groups,” says Chicago-based Virtuoso travel agency president Rob Clabbers. “Rooms range from economical to extravagant, and there’s just so much to see and do before you’ve even gotten off the ship in ports.” Clabbers understands luxury cruisers’ reservations about joining the gang on a big ship and recommends they book Star- or Sky-class suites. “You’ll get priority seating at shows and restaurants, a private sundeck, the suite-only Coastal Kitchen restaurant, and priority boarding and departure,” he says. “So you can avoid a crowd if you want to.”
After two days of exploring, I feel like I’ve lived here for years. I can tell you, for instance – if you swear to keep it to yourself – about a great little self-serve fro-yo stand on Deck 15 that’s a must after an intense spell of sunbathing. Park Café’s cult-favorite Kummelweck roast beef sandwich makes for a quick and easy lunch on the go, while the spa café whips up healthier fare; Johnny Rockets, which usually includes a specialty- dining surcharge, serves a delicious complimentary breakfast. Even teetotalers like me don’t have to miss out on the Bionic Bar’s
futuristic theatrics: There are plenty of mocktail options on offer. I tap my way on an iPad to a drink called Candy Candy and watch as the robot bartenders muddle and shake against a tableau of flashing lights and loud music.
After studying the interactive ship maps on every floor like subway maps, I chart the best routes to destinations and commit them to memory. And like any savvy city dweller, by day three I’ve found a commuting shortcut from the activities deck to my stateroom: Board the Ultimate Abyss and zip down ten floors in 15 seconds, bypassing long waits at the elevators. The tallest slide at sea has become my subway.
By the time we’re docking at our second island, I begin to see the wisdom in Clive and Pearl’s dedication to remaining on board. To squeeze in every amenity and activity on Harmony, you have to plan on-board sightseeing even on port days. I rise early one morning to jog around Deck 5’s track as Saint Maarten’s lush hills come into view. After a short tour of Nassau, I return to the ship and beeline for the spa. Waterslides provide the perfect cool-off after a languid sunbaked afternoon on a Saint Thomas beach.
On my final afternoon, I seek out a deserted hot tub to watch the sun arc its way to the ocean as we race back toward Fort Lauderdale. Somewhere all around me there are plenty of people: 8,900 of them, give or take a few. But at this particular moment, their existence is about as plausible to me as that of the tooth fairy. Instead, I bask in my private bubble of serenity – a well-earned break after a week of big-city life.

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