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Want to supersize that cruise?

Chicago Tribune

OK, it’s a big boat. Can we get past that?

No. Not until the next Largest Cruise Ship in the History of the World eases its aft into the sea, probably three years from now. So welcome to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ Freedom of the Seas, new for 2006, all 160,000 gross registered tons of it.

This number is only one of the numbers so beyond our ability to comprehend that they’re meaningless to all but authors of almanacs and stout-sponsored record books.

We talk about them anyway.

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Its cost -- $800 million through 2005 -- nearly matches the gross domestic ticket sales for the 1997 film “Titanic” (about $812 million).

The ship’s 1,815 guest staterooms can comfortably house 3,630 as couples, or 4,375 individuals if all the auxiliary beds are used.

The main dining room -- a tri-level area -- seats 2,101, except on formal nights, when many flee to other options.

The main pool, the cruise line’s literature says, can accommodate 534 people, presumably standing side by side, which won’t occur in our lifetimes.

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Sixteen bars serve alcohol, the earliest opening at 7 a.m., the latest closing “late.”

Royal Caribbean has done this before. Voyager of the Seas, capable of hauling 3,114 passengers from island to island, was the biggest in terms of gross tonnage when it was launched in 1999. Four like-size siblings followed.

The Queen Mary 2 snatched the title in 2004. Now Freedom of the Seas has snatched it back.

Why do this?

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“We’ve created a ship here based on guests’ needs and wishes and demands,” said Martin Rissley, who became Freedom’s first hotel director after having worked on Voyager and the Voyager-class Adventure of the Seas.

“They want all this alternative dining. They want all this entertainment. They want these additional activities -- the rock wall and the golf course and the FlowRider.... And the byproduct of all that is the largest ship in the world.”

Here’s what Freedom of the Seas has that the other colossal Royal Caribbean ships do not: the FlowRider, a surf-wave simulator; a second specialty restaurant, the steakhouse Chops Grille, which joins the fine Italian restaurant Portofino; H2O Zone, a kiddie water park with colorful sculptures; a regulation boxing ring; and a Ben & Jerry’s, which dishes up ice cream for a small extra charge.

Despite a certain loss of intimacy, which many cruise fans don’t seem to mind, Freedom is virtually sold out for the rest of the year. Remarkably, judging from a late-June sampling of Freedom of the Seas over parts of three days, the downsides are no big deal, at least for those already accustomed to these un-intimate floating hotels.

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The designers found solutions to some of the potential size problems. Prime example: Carefully placed bends in the road mean the length of stateroom corridors isn’t mind boggling.

My one full day aboard Freedom was “at sea,” which meant everyone who boarded in Miami presumably still was onboard and would stay there. Blessed with ideal weather (sunny, temperatures in the 80s, not much breeze), the at-sea day provided a fair test of the way this ship could handle crowds -- at pool and pool-decks, activity venues, meal venues, shopping and just getting around.

It was a revelation.

No problem getting a chaise longue by the pool. No problem getting fed -- my room-service breakfast arrived on time and without a glitch -- and no problem finding a place to sit after filling the tray at the Windjammer/Jade buffets. Later, there was no problem getting dinner seating at Portofino, one of the ship’s two extra-charge “specialty” dining rooms.

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No problem finding an available computer to check e-mail. The Royal Promenade, which figured to draw a crowd with its shopping and light-meal options, was merely pleasantly active.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Are there really 4,000 people on the ship? Where are they?’ ” said cruise director Ken Rush.

Well, where were they?

“They’re everywhere,” Rush said. “It was a worry that being so big would mean too many lines, would mean too many people. But because it’s so big, we’re able to feature so many different activities and so many different events and so many different venues at the same time that you’ll never see it being overly crowded.”

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Also, there was the unexpected.

“For example,” said Rissley, “the FlowRider: You would think that that is going to be very popular for people who want to learn how to surf or try surfing, which they’ve never done before. It’s significantly more popular for people [who] want to watch it.

“So hundreds of people are out watching the FlowRider rather than being inside eating breakfast, lunch and dinner and afternoon tea and midmorning snacks and midnight buffets and whatever else.”

The size of the ship isn’t entirely irrelevant. Some ports -- Bermuda, for one -- can’t or won’t welcome ships this large. Other problems were anticipated. One: potential damage by this behemoth to the ocean’s delicate and vital reefs, such as the renowned ones off Cozumel, Mexico.

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“When we decide where we’re going to go, we take all that into consideration,” said Freedom of the Seas Capt. Carlos Pedercini. The ship, he said, has new computer-guided equipment that allows the ship to maintain offshore position.

“Certain places that we go to, we used to drop the anchor,” Pedercini said. “One of the reasons for the development of this equipment was to protect and to do less damage to the environment. The old ships couldn’t do that because they didn’t have it.”

There was concern over possible long lines at ports requiring tenders, essentially taxi boats, to bring people ashore and back to the ship. Until Cozumel’s main international pier is fully operational later this year, Freedom will tender there, as well as at Grand Cayman and at its private beach in Haiti.

After two voyages and part of a third, that concern has eased.

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“What I anticipated as being the crush of people wanting to get off the ship and creating lineups everywhere has just not happened at all,” said hotel director Rissley.

“What happened is that because there [are] so many more late-night activities, the energy and vibes around the ship seem to be keeping people up later. They’re not getting up early in the morning. So we’re sending the early tenders out half-empty.”

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Looking for crowds

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THE 10:45 p.m. show in the 1,320-seat Arcadia Theatre, a Broadway revue, was crowded (and appropriately enthusiastic), but plenty of seats were available, especially in the balcony.

There was a lively crowd but room for more at the 10 p.m. Family Karaoke session in the On Air Club (though one boy singer, maybe 15 years old, should never be allowed near a microphone again).

Another concern -- that the disgorging of 4,000 cruise people from one cruise ship on one cruise port could alter the essence of the destination -- ignores the reality that most ports already welcome multiple shiploads. Cozumel, in peak winter season, can have more than a dozen ships in port at one time.

Although many passengers descend on near-generic waterfront shopping strips, most seaports offer experiences that effectively spread the load -- much as Freedom of the Seas does onboard.

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The only noticeable crowding aboard the ship was at dinner time, when passengers, despite reserved seating, nonetheless gathered to wait for the dining room doors to open. Cruise veterans will verify this phenomenon is not unique to Freedom of the Seas.

So who, among those inclined toward a cruise-ship vacation, should sail on the World’s Largest Cruise Ship? And who shouldn’t?

Should: families, especially those with kids at the age when they no longer want to be seen clinging to Mom and Dad; and active adults who like having easy access to a little action at all hours.

Definitely should not: travelers who are looking for a relatively quiet and slower-paced time at sea, who would prefer, say, the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

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Everybody else? Hey, if you like cruises....

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Booking a trip

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, (866) 562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com. Openings for remaining 2006 cruises aboard Freedom of the Seas -- seven nights, western Caribbean -- are tight, although cancellations happen; the best availability is for interior staterooms, which start at $859 per person, double occupancy (taxes, fees, gratuities and airfare not included). Beginning in April, Freedom of the Seas will offer itineraries to the eastern and western Caribbean, priced from $699 per person. All cruise prices vary by date and are subject to change based on demand, among other factors.

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-- Alan Solomon


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