Ovation Of The Seas

Prologue

Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum-class is undoubtedly the most technologically-advanced cruise ships at-sea. Introduced in 2014, the trio of 168,666-GT vessels have wowed the industry with virtual balconies, robot bartenders and a whole array of groundbreaking features. Sailing in the Far East to much success since her 2016 christening in Tianjin by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, the Ovation of the Seas is the third ship in-class and Royal Caribbean International’s first newbuild to be dedicated to Asia. Between her summer and winter seasons in China and Australia respectively, she homeports out of Hong Kong for several weeks during the year between seasons offering regional cruises. We take the opportunity to board the smart-ship for a 5-night roundtrip cruise to Okinawa, Japan.

 

First Impressions

   

Once the site of one of the world’s iconic airports, Kai Tak has transformed itself to become Hong Kong’s premier cruise facility with a modern steel-and-glass terminal built at the end of the old runway. While the hardware was impressive, the same could not be said for the software as the cruise check-in bordered on stressful.

 

In a departure from the territory’s usual order, we were greeted by a scene of chaos with a noisy and messy check-in hall packed with groups of travellers. Several lines were formed at different areas and it took us some time to find and join the correct line, complicated by a lack of directions from the ground agents and random group travellers cutting ahead to be with their party. We estimated spending nearly 90 minutes in the snaking line before obtaining our SeaPass cards, time that was intended to be saved by pre-registering our particulars online prior to arriving at the terminal.

 

Although it wasn’t the ideal start to our cruise vacation, the process thankfully smoothened out soon after. Immigration and security procedures were efficient and similar to that of the airport, with an added step of surrendering our passports for safekeeping and the obligatory pre-boarding photo opportunity thereafter before crossing the gangway onto the massive vessel.

 

Cabin

   

For this voyage, we were booked in a category D2 Superior Ocean View Stateroom with Balcony on deck 11 starboard, allowing us to remain high above the water while avoiding the shadow of the sports deck overhang above. We opened the door to a cozy space with a clean, neutral look pleasing to the eye compared to the more garish interior decor of some other cruise lines.

   

Compared to other cruise ships we have sailed on, Ovation of the Seas’ stateroom felt deeper in length but narrower in width with lesser walking room between the edge of the bed and the wall. The twin beds (which can be combined into a double bed) are relatively comfortable, although we would have preferred a firmer mattress and pillows, while the duvet was especially appreciated for keeping warm in the night when temperatures dipped. A large blue sofa served as a lounger beside the balcony, accommodating 3 to 4 adults comfortably. On request, this can also be converted into an additional bed with a separate bed pad by the stateroom attendant for a third occupant.

Depending on location and category type, balcony sizes onboard the Ovation of the Seas range from 55 to 119 square feet. Every balcony boasted a pair of deck chairs and a small table where it was possible to enjoy the surrounding vistas, while the floor-to-ceiling partitions afforded good privacy from neighbouring staterooms. From here, we watched the metropolitan urban scope of Hong Kong transition to the vastness of the open sea and the island vibes of the Ryukyus as we sailed into Naha.

   

The bathroom onboard was similarly spacious and very well laid-out. Fittings followed the same neutral look as the rest of the stateroom and felt new despite already being in service for a year. In contrast to the tight spaces on some older vessels, the plexiglass-framed shower stall was seemingly larger than it looked with a standard vacuum toilet and a compact vanity top completing the set-up.

   

A 32-inch IP television offers satellite programming and in-cabin movies, as well as options to purchase packages and review onboard expenditure. Electrical outlets and USB ports for keeping devices powered were plentiful and conveniently located by the workdesk and bedside. To save space, Royal Caribbean International had abandoned clunky wardrobes in favour of smaller storage spaces around the bed as seen in the photographs above which were more than sufficient for the duration of the cruise.

   

A copy of the Cruise Compass, Royal Caribbean International’s daily oboard activity listing and schedule, was left each evening in our stateroom during the turndown service. Being a smart ship, guests onboard the Ovation of the Seas are encouraged instead to make use of the RoyaliQ mobile application for the electronic version of the Cruise Compass. Beyond being a source of shipboard information, the app itself serves as an electronic concierge where guests can make reservations for activities, shore excursions, packages and dining. Using it, we signed up for the ship’s Voom wi-fi package to remain connected. Touted by the line as the fastest available at sea, we are pleased to report a fast and stable internet connection, good for emails, web browsing and even video streaming.

 

Dining

Gourmet dining is a highlight of cruising and passengers on the Ovation of the Seas are spoilt for choice with over 24 restaurants and bars onboard, spread across complementary and specialty options.

   

   

With the Quantum-class, Royal Caribbean International sought to trial a new dining concept onboard different from the rest of the fleet. Rather than one main dining room with a fixed seating time and table, the ships would have a quartet of sit-down restaurants offering different decor and cuisines that passengers have the flexibility to choose from each night in what it calls Dynamic Dining*. On the Ovation of the Seas, these are

 

  • American Icon Grill, serving classic American cuisine in a 1950s-inspired decor
  • Chic, a contemporary restaurant offering Mediterranean flavours
  • The Grande, a formal French restaurant akin to the traditional main dining rooms
  • Silk, the pan-Asian restaurant presenting oriental cuisine

 

The ship did not disappoint in both food quality and service. Each night we had an ample choice of appetizers, entrees and desserts, with tasty international and asian options that passengers could mix and match. Our waiters were friendly and personable, delivering their service promptly and constantly checking on our well-being making for a very comfortable dining atmosphere. As a bonus, they would also routinely break into song and dance to entertain passengers during mealtimes.

 

*Following its unsuccessful initial trial on Quantum of the Seas, the original Dynamic Dining programme has been discontinued or replaced by Royal Caribbean International with a hybrid concept incorporating elements of traditional dining.

   

A cruising favourite, the casual dining restaurants onboard have also been redesigned to offer an improved experience. Towards the stern of the ship are the Coastal Kitchen and Windjammer Marketplace. The former is exclusive to Suite guests/Pinnacle members of Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Society and features gourmet California-Mediterranean fare for lunch and dinner, while the latter is an evolution of the classic shipboard buffet adopting a marketplace concept where different cuisines and foods are grouped around several islands rather than a single line. We opted to have breakfast here on the first few mornings of the cruise and despite there being plenty of variety in the food offered, the food quality did seem poorer than at the formal restaurants. Being the largest casual dining venue on the ship, the venue was unfortunately somewhat disorganized with many uncleared tables contributing to an impression of overcrowding.

   

Our preferred breakfast venue was instead the Solarium Bistro, a more intimate venue overlooking the Ovation of the Seas’ solarium. The food selection here was lesser than at Windjammer Marketplace, but this was compensated by a more pleasant dining experience with the lesser crowds coupled with more proactive service staff and the relaxing atmosphere of the sun-drenched solarium. Complimentary in the morning, the venue is turned into an extra-charge restaurant for lunch and dinner serving Asian hotpot, a must-have for any ship sailing in China. Although we did not try it ourselves, we noticed good take-up for this by our fellow passengers from Hong Kong and Mainland China throughout the voyage.

Royal Caribbean International also offers in-stateroom dining onboard its ships, with this being complimentary for the continental breakfast selection. We filled out the order card, hung it outside the door the night before and breakfast was delivered promptly the next morning at our specified time. Our selection consisted of cut fruits, cereal, juice, a bagel and toast with butter and preserves, accompanied by a pot of brewed coffee. While the variety of items was considerably lesser than the buffet restaurants, we highly recommend this option for the convenience and being able to dine in the comfort of the stateroom.

   

   

   

Clustered at the Royal Esplanade is the 24-hour Cafe Promenade offering complimentary pastries and sandwiches, as well as the extra-charge delicatessen La Patisserie. Another popular venue here is Sorrentos pizzeria, serving up hot piping pizzas around the clock. Available for dine-in or takeaway, this was our supper of-choice and we stopped by each night to pick up several slices on the way back to our stateroom. On the upper decks of the ship are the Seaplex Dog House modeled after a classic American food truck and a good pitstop in between activities for quick hot dogs, together with the Kung Fu Panda Noodle House unique to the Ovation of the Seas and conceptualized specifically for the Chinese market.

   

   

During our time onboard we dined at several specialty dining venues. Craving a juicy burger and cold beer one afternoon we headed to Michael’s Genuine Pub, the ship’s American gastropub under the direction of James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Schwartz. Food quality here was excellent and their take on traditional pub favourites like the “fish & chips”, “bangers & mash” and “venison & onion pie” easily beats some of their land-based counterparts.

 

Perhaps due to the largely Chinese crowd onboard, the venue was not particularly crowded in the day despite being open for lunch. The atmosphere after sunset was decidedly different altogether as cruisers came by for evening drinks and to take in the live music entertainment each night. The pub also serves spicy Sichuan-style grilled fish (which we presume is to help boost covers and revenues) and this proved to be a hit with our fellow passengers seeking a familiar taste for supper.

   

Chops Grille lives up to its reputation as Royal Caribbean International’s premier steakhouse and on the Ovation of the Seas does not disappoint. Dark wood, warm lighting and leather chesterfield seats set the classy ambience to wine and dine on delicious dry-aged steaks, premium seafood and scrumptious side dishes. Being a signature restaurant, there is an additional charge for dining here but it still works out to good value for money considering there is no limit on appetizers, sides and desserts.

 

We chose to dine here for lunch rather than dinner, having found that shipboard specialty restaurants tend to be less crowded in the day. Having nearly the entire restaurant to ourselves meant a more relaxed atmosphere together with attentive service where the staff were not in a rush and could help with food and wine recommendations. Spoilt for choice, we started with a “tuna tatare” and “lobster bisque” soup before the juicy, medium-rare “9 oz angus fillet mignon” and finishing with a simple yet comforting “assorted ice cream and sorbets”.

   

   

Another specialty restaurant we tried on our cruise and will definitely recommend was Wonderland, the themed restaurant where diners are transported to the whimsical world of Alice in Wonderland. Originally conceived to serve reimagined and progressive flavours, we like how the restaurant is aimed at departing from traditional cruise ship dining with the sensory experience beginning with a deliberately fairytale-like decor and wait staff dressed like the Mad Hatter in quirky uniforms to present what the line calls “imaginative cuisine”. Diners are given a brush and picture frame to “paint” their own menu and watch it magically appear before their eyes.

 

For the ship’s Chinese season, Royal Caribbean International has partnered Beijing’s renowned Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant to create a 10-course set menu that is different from its usual theme-based cuisine, yet incorporates elements of the post-modern style of cooking. A variety of flavors, textures, temperatures and portion sizes surprised and challenged our understanding of food in a non-traditional, progressive and creative fashion, with notable dishes including the “truffle cuttlefish juice and tofu soup”, “lobster with saffron sauce and rice” and the signature “DaDong roast duck”.

   

Other specialty dining options include Jamie’s Italian, the eponymous Italian restaurant from British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and Japanese restaurant Izumi for when some sushi and sashimi is craved for.

   

   

Ovation of the Seas is one of only 3 ships in the world (together with her sisters Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas) to have a bar staffed by robot bartenders. Mix and Mingle run the show at the Bionic Bar, where they shake up and showcase their mixology skills preparing classic cocktails and original drink creations to patrons and onlookers, as well as work in regular dance routines between orders to the beats from the in-house DJ.

 

To place a drink orders, guests tap their SeaPass card at one of the tablets and make their selection. The robots then go to work, retrieving the alcohol and mixers from bottles suspended above, then shaking and stirring before emptying the contents into the pre-positioned cup. When complete, guests are prompted to collect their drink by again tapping their SeaPass card against the reader. We ordered a “long island ice tea” that was perhaps better mixed by the robots than their human counterparts, with the right amount of spirits balanced against the sweetness of the cola.

   

   

Good music goes hand-in-hand with a tipple and Ovation of the Seas offers several bars and lounges with live music entertainment. Royal Caribbean’s latin bar Boleros swops its energetic tunes for Cantonese and Mandarin hits from the band and was easily the most popular lounge with the predominantly Chinese crowd, while the Schooner Bar remains a favourite with those who prefer a slower, chilled-out atmosphere from the resident pianist and strings duo.

   

   

Packing a more energetic vibe is the duplex Music Hall, the onboard nightclub that hosts dance parties, game shows and karaoke open-mic sessions. While the lower level was mainly for dance enthusiasts, circle seating and pool tables placed around the upper level allowed cruisers to have a game while enjoying the tunes from the all-female Filipino rock band.

 

Scattered throughout the ship are other quieter bars and watering holes. Vintages is Royal Caribbean International’s onboard wine bar and the venue for its wine tasting workshops and masterclasses. Despite not being a popular choice on our cruise, we found the Two70 Bar at the stern of the ship to be best for admiring the sunset and ocean panoramas with its relaxed lounge vibes as each day drew to a close.

 

Pools & Decks

   

   

Situated midship on the top deck is the Ovation of the Seas’ main pool, surrounded on all sides by hot tubs and sun loungers. Although not a very large space, it was adequate on our cruise and did not feel overcrowded as passengers enjoyed some pool time under the sun while sailing the Taiwan Straits. Younger cruisers have access to the Splashaway Bay, complete with mini waterslides, small pools and even a circular lazy river to keep them entertained.

 

In the day, the area boasts the vibe of a tropical resort with the giant outdoor screen playing music videos and drinks from the Sky Bar, with popular shipboard games such as belly flop contests are held here by the activities crew. By night, the space transforms into an outdoor cinema with blockbuster movies screened under the purple glow of the ship’s mood lighting, as well as providing a picturesque setting for holiday photos.

   

   

In designing the Quantum-class, Royal Caribbean International intended for the ships to be capable of operating in colder climates. The Ovation of the Seas and her sisters feature two other climate-controlled pools for use during inclement weather or when sailing under lower temperatures. The rectangular indoor pool is nearly identical to the main pool and although not restricted to adults only was largely devoid of children, making it more appealing to serious swimmers looking to put in a few laps for a workout. In contrast, panoramic views of the open sea and lush greenery within the glass-enclosed area make the three-tiered Solarium Pool akin to a greenhouse at sea and perfect for relaxing dips in its cool water.

   

A stroll around the jogging track on deck 15 reveals one of the ship’s most striking features – a panda mother reaching out towards her cub. This is the Ovation of the Seas’ mascot, Zan Ma (赞妈) and Li Bao (礼宝), depicting a mother’s love towards her child that serves to bless the ship and all who sail on her. The oversized sculpture proved to be a hit with cruisers clamouring for photo opportunities and also serves as a visual reminder that the ship is purpose-built to cruise in Asia (specifically China where the panda is a national treasure).

 

Recreation

Modern cruise ships have ditched the traditional image of boring floating hotels and are packed with an array of recreational facilities, with the Ovation of the Seas sporting some of the finest and most cutting-edge at sea today.

   

   

The SeaPlex is the heart of the ship’s sports activities and an evolution of the classic sports deck, bringing what is otherwise an ordinary basketball court indoors for multiple uses. In addition to hosting ball games at the full-sized court, it doubles as a roller skating rink and bumper car arena with both activities popular with adults and children alike. Mass workout sessions are also organized here on some days for guests, while the more adventurous can look to the flying trapeze experience overhead. Alcoves on the upper floor offer table tennis and foosball, with one dedicated to the Xbox One Experience for video games at sea that was naturally hugely popular with the young and young-at-heart.

   

When Royal Caribbean International first introduced the thrilling FlowRider surfing simulator on its ships it generated a lot of excitement and quickly became one of the brand’s signature onboard activities. This sense of excitement at riding the waves while sailing in the middle of the sea remains true today and long lines quickly formed during the open sessions on our cruise. The activity is included in the cruise fare and riders need only to sign a risk undertaking before trying their hand at surfing and boogie boarding under the watchful eye of the sports staff, who will also cheekily jump in with flair demonstrations to entertain the onlooking crowd.

   

On the Quantum-class ships, the adventure sports activities is taken to the next level with the groundbreaking RipCord by iFly skydiving simulator, again a first at-sea. The experience begins with a safety video and briefing, before guests are outfitted with a jumpsuit, goggles and a helmet. They are then brought on-deck to the recirculating indoor vertical wind tunnel for an authentic feel of falling from the heavens in a safe, controlled environment with a trained instructor, who performs his/her skydiving routine as a treat to the class and curious onlookers. We thoroughly enjoyed our flight and highly recommend forking out the additional USD 29 for the experience.

   

   

Completing the trio of highlights onboard the Ovation of the Seas is its North Star observation pod. Rising high above and even swinging past the sides of the ship over the water, it undoubtedly pushes the boundaries for cruise ship design earning it the Guinness World Record holder for “highest viewing deck on a cruise ship”. While a unique yet intimate experience to take in the surrounding views (especially on itineraries with scenic cruising), guests will have to pay extra for the experience with prices varying depending on the ride duration and time-of-day. We declined to do so on this occasion as our sailing consisted of multiple days at sea, where the only panoramas were of the vast expanses of open water.

   

   

Below deck, guests will find a more traditional spa and fitness options in the Vitality at Sea complex. While we did not have the opportunity to indulge in a spa treatment, the gymnasium was large and very well-equipped with top-of-the-line machines from Technogym while fitness classes and wellness lectures were also organized here for guests. Younger cruisers are kept occupied with their own activities at the Adventure Ocean kids club and a compact video games arcade as the adults indulge in a spot of shopping at the Royal Esplanade.

   

   

Shopping is always going to be a mainstay for a ship designed for the Asian market. Ovation of the Seas’ Royal Esplanade brings together some of the world’s most celebrated brands in fashion, beauty and jewellery in its many boutiques retailing at duty-free prices, complemented by the many daily pop-up options. The area also doubles as a handy event space for fashion shows, roving performances and the once-a-sailing Captain’s Welcome Reception.

   

The Captain’s Welcome Reception follows a longstanding cruising tradition for the Master of the ship to greet his guests and introduce the senior officers. With most cruise lines doing away with formal evenings, this was an opportunity for passengers to be dressed in their best attire for photo opportunities and interaction with the officers in their smart uniforms. In command during our voyage was Captain Henrik Loy from Norway, who is also one of the industry’s youngest Captains and hugely popular with his dashing good looks and charismatic demeanor.

 

Entertainment

Located forward on decks 4 and 5, the Royal Theatre is the Ovation of the Seas’ state-of-the-art theatre and main performance venue. 1,300 guests can be accommodated at any time for Broadway-style performances, 3D movies, comedy and other shows. The ship debuted two new shows for Royal Caribbean International, both of which were showcased during our cruise.

   

   

   

   

“Live, Love, Legs” is an all-singing, all-dancing, Vegas-style spectacular promising guests a full sensory overload. Superb vocals combine with electrifying dance choreography and lavish costumes for a highly energetic performance by the ship’s singers and dancers, who were rewarded for their hard work with rousing applause by the theatre. Adding to that are jaw-dropping aerial acrobatics and mesmerizing visual effects to deliver an unforgettable theatrical experience that ranks as one of the best we have seen at sea (and on land).

   

   

   

   

“The Beautiful Dream” tells the story about a bereaved father who is visited by his late wife in a dream, which helps him come to terms with his loss and rediscover his zest for life. Following on the whimsical theme from dinner at Wonderland, this feel-good musical sees the theatre’s audio-visual special effects blending with the elaborate ever-changing stage sets, which includes a boat, steam train and even a fire-breathing dragon. Despite the entire performance being in English, it was very well-received by the audience who were enthralled by the songs and choreography.

   

   

   

   

In addition to the regular shows, the ship also features performances by guest artistes as part of its “Headliner Showtime” series. On our cruise, we had entertainer and sometime actor Steve Carte, performing his unique act combining physical comedy, music, juggling, and a splash of illusion. Also onboard was Motown tribute band Sonz of Soul, who delivered a rousing showcase of soul music and stylish dance choreography that had the entire Royal Theatre grooving along on their feet.

   

   

   

Exclusively created for the Ovation of the Seas and reiterating its status as one of the most technologically advanced cruise ships in the world, “Pixels” is an eclectic, multi-dimensional cabaret show played in the Two70 multi-purpose space that engages all senses. In yet another industry first, the production immerses the audience in a colourful world where the stage becomes part of the show (through the participation of her six Roboscreens) combining dazzling live performances, experimental cinematography, kaleidoscopic sounds and pop culture music.

   

   

Two70 is also the venue for the ship’s onboard parties hosted by the cruise director and his entertainment team, with cruisers having a great time at the “70’s Disco Inferno Party”, a perennial favourite at Royal Carribean International. Sailing in October, our cruise also had the “Halloween themed Fireworks Party” where crew and guests dressed up in ghoulish costumes and danced the night away to the tunes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, with virtual fireworks on the venue’s panoramic screen.

   

Like other ships based in Asia, there is a sizable Casino Royale onboard offering a good mix of slots and table games, the latter mainly being popular choices including Sic Bo and Baccarat. Although not apparent in the above photographs (taken during non-operational hours while the ship was in-port), this was a hive of activity amongst the predominantly Chinese guests on our cruise that featured two full days at sea.

 

Service / Staff

We found the Ovation of the Seas’ 1,500 crew members to be pleasant and friendly. Service onboard was conducted professionally, with many having prior experience working on cruise ships. Of particular mention are the dining room servers and cabin stewards, who were very welcoming, helpful and always wore a smile. With the ship predominantly based out of China, we observed many of the international crew members learning and speaking mandarin from their Chinese colleagues to interact with the Asian guests, in a reflection of the cultural melting pot that is seafaring.

 

Verdict

With the Ovation of the Seas, Royal Caribbean International exceeds all expectations where her state-of-the-art facilities coupled with a high service standard satisfy the market’s ever-growing desire for new and groundbreaking features. In a highly competitive Asian cruise market that sees newer, more feature-packed cruise ships each year, the line remains an innovator and trendsetter with its ships and programmes, which will ultimately benefit the cruiser. The minor hiccups during embarkation aside, we found the ship to be tightly run by the officers and crew allowing for a smooth and trouble-free holiday experience for guests.

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