It’s hard not to be intrigued by the sheer size and amenities offered on a 227,000-ton cruise ship like Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas. From the spectacular water theatre show rivalling the likes of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘O’ show in Las Vegas, to the 8-story open-air atrium known as Central Park, it’s almost impossible to believe that you’re actually on a floating vessel when you step aboard this behemoth. But, the question you should ask yourself before booking onto one of these seagoing cities is whether this type of cruising is really your thing or not.
To help you decide, here are the cruise pros and cons that Henk and I experienced on our recent 7-day sail aboard the Harmony of the Seas. (Plus a few tips if you do decide to cruise the waters aboard her.)
The Cruise Pros:
1. The Ship is Stunning!
There’s no denying it, the Harmony of the Seas is a beauty. From the artwork on every staircase to the sleek shape of the ship itself to the carefully designed lighting that illuminates every feature, this cruise ship offers plenty of eye candy, day or night.
2. Entertainment for Everyone
When it comes to catering to different tastes and lifestyles, mighty cruise ships in this ‘Oasis class’ have it covered. In fact, they are essentially one big entertainment venue. Just to give you a sampling, our entertainment selection included a full musical production of Grease, an absolutely incredible water show with a hydraulic underwater stage that raises and lowers to become a diving pool, and an ice skating show on the ship’s very own skating rink.
Plus there were comedy shows, a ‘bionic bar’ with 2 robotic bartenders, a ‘floating’ bar that moved up and down 3 stories in the centre of the main Promenade atrium, 2 adult waterslides, a zipline, 2 surfing pools and a 10-story slide.
Not to mention the casino, night club, full fitness facility and spa and even a full-sized basketball court. Whew. If you can’t find something to do on this ship, you have absolutely no excuse. And most of these things are all included in your cruise cost.
3. Grownup Drinks
What is not included, however, are your drinks – even soft drinks – but I will say that the cocktails on board the Harmony are top-notch. Unlike some all-inclusive resorts that serve sub-standard liquor or watered-down teeny tiny little drinks, here it is all top-rail. From well-crafted Grey Goose martinis to single malt scotches to frozen daiquiris, the drinks are well-made and generous.
4. Good Food
Of equally high quality is the food served in the main dining room. While it may not be Michelin-star calibre, most of the dishes we ordered were very good, with only the occasional disappointment (the creme brûlée wasn’t to die for, but other desserts like their individual apple pies kicked ass.) And if there was a problem of any kind, the waitstaff would jump to rectify it for you.
Buffets were like most buffets, not particularly remarkable and since Henk and I don’t love lining up for food, we preferred the dining room, even for breakfasts. (There are also a large number of specialty restaurants but these come with an upcharge of around $30-$50 per person per reservation.)
TIP: If you like to start your day the civilized way with hot coffee or tea delivered to your stateroom, definitely order room service (cold and continental-type menu items are free to order with no delivery charge; however, hot meals will cost you extra).
5. Super Clean
We’ve all heard the horror stories of the epidemics of flu that have struck passengers on board large cruise ships. Although these types of outbreaks occur infrequently, I have to say that the staff of the Harmony take a very proactive approach to cleanliness on board. Staff were constantly wiping down railings all over the ship with disinfectant, there were Purell stations everywhere on board, food stations were well protected and in general, the whole ship appeared spotless. Even our stateroom was cleaned twice every day.
6. Adult-Only Section
The Harmony of the Seas definitely caters to all ages of passengers, what with all the amenities and diversions on board, so this is definitely not a snooze cruise. But if you want to escape the squeals of the toddlers at the splash pad, it’s good to know that there is an adult-only sanctuary called the Solarium at the front of the ship.
This 2-floor semi-open deck area is sheltered from the wind and offers plenty of sun loungers, including those cozy little private lounger ‘baskets’ for 2 to curl up in. There’s also a second-floor bar area as well which is a great place to enjoy a sundowner before dinner.
Unfortunately there is no pool here, only 2 hot tubs (and it’s much too hot here on sunny days to enjoy a heated whirlpool.) But there are a couple of outdoor showers and a ‘misting’ station where you can cool off with overhead and side jets that spray cool water to provide some welcome relief from the heat.
7. Private Beach Destination
Like other cruise lines, Royal Caribbean operates a couple of exclusive beach playgrounds on a few islands in the Caribbean, one in Haiti, and another in the Bahamas. Our cruise took us to their Haitian location called Labadee, where we had the chance to escape the crowded pools on the ship and spread out on a pretty peninsula flanked by lush green hills.
Labadee is quite an operation, with 4 beach areas to explore and every amenity that you could think of from ziplines to floating tiki bars. Everything here operates like an extension of the ship, so you can book activities or order drinks using your SeaPass (your onboard account ID) and the buffet lunch is prepared by the ship kitchens and included on your day-long visit.
TIP: We found the best beach for swimming (less weeds overall and most sheltered) was the far end of Columbus Cove.
Now for the Cruise Cons:
1. Sheer Numbers
Massive cruise ships mean lots of people – as in 6,200 passengers and 2300 crew members! Which means there will always be people wherever you go and there will be lineups, whether that is to get on or off the ship itself (although these moved quite quickly), or at the included restaurant venues. The worst lineups on this particular ship seemed to be at the Windjammer restaurant which was the largest buffet on board but also the busiest at every mealtime.
TIP: Henk and I avoided the Windjammer altogether. Not huge fans of the all-you-can-eat buffets anyways, we preferred to be served in the dining room where we could chose a la carte options and not go hunting and gathering ourselves. We did go to the Solarium’s buffet at slightly off-peak times, which had shorter lines, and we had great paninis and salads at the Park Cafe in Central Park which was quiet and uncrowd – like Central Park in general.
2. Pools Are Shallow and Crowded
The Harmony of the Seas may have 3 pools and a splash pad for the toddlers, but they were always crowded all the time. And they were shallow (less than 5 feet deep), so if you are a swimmer, forget about it. Even worse than the crowds in the pools was the fact that the sun loungers were jammed so close together you couldn’t fit a leg between them and had to ‘bum your way’ onto them from the end.
Suntanning in a bathing suit with a complete stranger less than 4 inches away is just a little too close for comfort for me. Ditto for the sheer amount of humanity in the pools and hot tubs.
TIP: Head to the Solarium for a more spacious area for sunning. Even though there is no pool here at least you can cool off under fresh water in the misting station. (think of it like a grownup splash pad.)
3. Drink Package is All or Nothing
Although the alcoholic drinks on board were top-notch, so was the price you paid for them. And while there was an option to purchase an ‘unlimited’ beverage package for the cruise, this option is pricey and both people sharing a stateroom must get one. Remember too, that even though your drink price may be covered with this package, you will still be charged an 18% tip on every drink you order, and this is non-negotiable.
Oh, and if you don’t drink alcohol but are a Coke-a-holic instead, soda drinks are NOT included in your cruise price, so you may need to look at a beverage package for that option. They start at $15 per person per day.
TIP: Unless you are planning to drink a minimum of 8 alcoholic drinks every single day of the cruise, (around $85 per day) you might be better off being your own liquor control board and ordering drinks individually.
4. Pricey Excursion Packages
Henk and I also found the excursions offered by the ship very pricey. Even the cheapest beach excursion started at around $38 per person and only gave you 3 hours on a beach with loungers and an umbrella, and a ride to and from the wharf. If you want to do anything that involves a tour or any vehicle with a motor, count on $100 and up. And count on more lineups.
5. Touristy Ports and Little Time to Explore
One of the ideas behind cruising is to give you the chance to see multiple island destinations during your trip. However, we had only 5 – 7 hours at any one port on our Eastern Caribbean itinerary, meaning there wasn’t much time to explore the islands outside of the immediate port area. And it’s obvious that the jewellery and designer stores and other chain restaurants found near the port definitely do not represent authentic island life. Eeven though Henk and I did our best to try to see something of each destination, like the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress in San Juan, we didn’t feel like we had experienced much of the real culture of the islands we visited.
TIP: If you do venture out on your own to explore, allow plenty of time to return to the ship. Because if you aren’t on an excursion organized by the ship, and you are late returning, the ship will leave without you. And there goes your entire vacation – literally.
‘Mega Ship’ Cruise Pros and Cons: Summary
After weighing the cruise pros and cons aboard the Harmony of the Seas, we came to the conclusion that the ship is like a floating all-ages Vegas: larger than life, sparkly and colourful, with impressive amenities and diverse entertainment venues to suit every taste or preference.
For groups who want to travel together, this kind of cruise ship is ideal, especially if your groups are multi-generational, since there is something on board for everyone from toddlers to seniors. Plus, with all the facilities and diversions on board, there is no pressure on any one ‘organizer’ to try to please every individual: after all, there’s a cruise director and dozens of staff who can do that for them.
But if you are looking for authentic experiences at different ports of call or the chance to really explore these destinations, this kind of cruise is not what we would recommend. Instead, my advice would be to think of a ship like the Harmony of the Seas AS the destination, and you’ll have a great time.
That’s what Henk and I did and we weren’t disappointed.