The 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas is the world's largest cruise ship -- by five centimeters. (5,400 is double occupancy -- the full load is 6,360.) It also has a famous near-twin, Oasis of the Seas, with which it shares roughly 95 percent of its DNA -- including a novel neighborhood concept, which divides the ship into seven distinct spaces that range from the foliage-filled Central Park to the Boardwalk, with its handmade wooden carousel, burger joint and candy shop. Like its sister, Allure also boasts the best kids program in cruising.
But "sister ship" doesn't mean "carbon copy," and there's little that's ho-hum about this second of two groundbreaking Oasis-class ships. Scattered throughout the mass of steel, glass, wood and trees are variations that inform Allure's unique personality, including new retail options (a Guess store), dining venues (a hot dog stand), shows ("Chicago") and a recognizable green ogre, donkey and penguins culled from the DreamWorks stable. The line has also added 3D viewing capabilities to its movie offerings, iPod docks in every cabin and guest kiosks from which you can print boarding passes and keep tabs on escalating onboard bills.
Here's a quick snapshot of what's unique to Allure:
New Eats, Part One. The Boardwalk Dog House, a fee-free dining venue not found on Oasis, serves up a variety of sausages, wieners and brats with your choice of toppings (but no spicy mustard -- tsk, tsk). The venue replaced what's now the donut shop on Oasis, which was moved next to Allure's ice cream parlor.
New Eats, Part Two. Allure introduced Rita's Cantina, an ersatz Mexi-Cali beach bar with menu options like taco salad, chile rellenos, shrimp ceviche tostadas, fajitas, chips and guacamole and a wide selection of tequilas and margaritas. There is a $3 up-front cost, which the line says covers the service. Then pricing for each item is a la carte. (Chips and salsa are free.)
New Shows. Allure debuted "Chicago," the second Broadway production offered by Royal Caribbean. (Oasis was the first with "Hairspray," and Liberty of the Seas has since added "Saturday Night Fever.") A big-budget Cirque du Soleil-style extravaganza called "Blue Planet" also made its stage debut. New to the outdoor AquaTheater is "OceanAria," a show about an ancient race of sea people who tell their story through high-diving, trampolining and sometimes painful-looking displays of strength -- think human pretzels.
New Shops. Following the success of Oasis' Coach store, Allure introduced the first Guess boutique at sea, which sells the company's designer handbags, watches, shoes, jewelry and sunglasses. Allure also debuted the first Romero Britto art store at sea, which, in addition to prints and paintings, sells luggage, key chains and umbrellas with the artist's colorful pop-art designs.
Starbucks. Allure's Royal Promenade features the first Starbucks on a cruise ship, featuring the standard coffee menu found onshore with a la carte pricing. Oasis has since added a Starbucks.
Guest Kiosks. Borrowing a concept introduced by Costa Cruises ("Totems") and Carnival Cruise Lines ("FunHubs"), Allure of the Seas debuted special guest kiosks in the Royal Promenade. Complimentary services include the ability to view, print or e-mail passenger folios (your bill) and guest calendars; review spa appointments, alternative dining reservations and entertainment schedules; and to print out airline boarding passes.
3D Movies. The main theater on Allure of the Seas is equipped to handle 3D movies, many of which are first-run DreamWorks films. (Oasis of the Seas has since been three-dimensionalized.)
In-Cabin iPod Docks. All cabins on Allure of the Seas feature iPod docking stations.
While Allure certainly has enough distinctions to differentiate it from Oasis, there's one point where the sisters couldn't be more alike: They could easily be the most expensive mainstream ships in the world -- if you let them. Allure and Oasis are so flooded with bill-busting offerings -- ice cream, extra-charge Mexican food, build-your-own pets, Coach bags, fortunes from Zoltar -- that it's easy to forget about the inclusions, many of which are exclusive to the Oasis class. You can surf or zip-line, ride a carousel or watch a first-run DreamWorks movie in 3D, and tap along to some Broadway showtunes. The Lady Gaga dance class had to be more fun than filling up on Skittles and gummy worms from the for-fee candy store. In other words, Allure can be enjoyed for the price of the cruise fare alone. But with so many temptations, it sure isn't easy.
Allure's vast and varied public spaces are broken down into seven neighborhoods, three of which form the majority of the indoor metropolis.
A pair of enormous tented skylights let the Caribbean sunshine pour into the Royal Promenade, RCI's signature shopping mall-style corridor. On Allure, the space is twice as wide as it is on the Voyager- and Freedom-class vessels, and it runs the length of a football field. The cavernous neighborhood houses tax- and duty-free shops for liquor and jewelry purchases, Cafe Promenade, Sorrento's Pizzeria, Starbucks, several popular bars and lounges (including Rising Tide, which travels up and down three decks between the Royal Promenade and Central Park) and a number of retail options. Notable among the shops is the first flagship Guess store at sea, which sells the company's designer handbags, watches, shoes, jewelry and sunglasses. Other stores include Willow (featuring casual clothing targeted at 30-somethings) and Prince & Green (which features brands like Kenneth Cole for women and Marc Jacobs for men).
Activities like Lady Gaga and flash-mob dance classes take place in the Royal Promenade next to the candy-red Morgan Roadster that sits in the center of it all.
In Port Canaveral, Allure's homeport, passengers board through the Royal Promenade, where you'll find Guest Services and the cluster of Royal Express Kiosks, which allow you to print your airline boarding passes at no extra charge. (Look to your left to see a portrait of the ship's godmother, Fiona from the "Shrek" movies.)
Central Park, covered in some 12,000 plants and 60 trees (look out for tours from the on-site horticulturalists) is a restaurant and retail hub. On the food side, passengers will find Chops, Giovanni's Table, 150 Central Park, Vintages and the Central Park Cafe. On the retail end, Central Park houses the second Coach store at sea (Oasis had the first), the Parkside Art Gallery (note: Allure has no art auctions) and adjacent photo shop. New to Allure is a colorful venue selling logo items designed by pop-art icon Romero Britto. In addition to prints and paintings, passengers can purchase luggage, key chains and umbrellas with the artist's designs.
Beware: While the space was designed as a haven from the more boisterous elements of the ship, plenty of noise cascades down from the pool deck during sea days.
Royal Caribbean had Coney Island on the brain when it designed the indoor-outdoor Boardwalk neighborhood -- but the line also was seeing dollar signs. The space, like the Royal Promenade and Central Park, is something of a for-fee gauntlet, especially for parents wandering through with eager kids. There's the build-a-pet shop, a kids clothing store, the candy shop, the ice cream parlor, Johnny Rockets, Rita's Cantina ... and Zoltar, the enigmatic fortune teller, trapped behind glass, who charges a dollar per prognostication. Luckily, the line added a fee-free hot dog joint not found on Oasis, and it won't cost you a cent to ride the handmade carousel, climb one of the two rock walls or watch a show at the AquaTheater. Other fee-free enticements include balloon animal-making and visits from a clown -- check your Cruise Compass for complete activity listings.
Royal Caribbean seriously skimped on the Internet cafes on Oasis and Allure. A hard-to-find room with a half dozen computers and a printer is located amid cabins on Deck 8. Allure does, however, have bow-to-stern Wi-Fi. There's a library, approximately the size of four standard cabins, on Deck 11. Expect a meager selection of books. The ship lacks self-service laundry facilities.
Lost? Look for the "wayfinders" located throughout the ship. These touch-screen digital signs can enlighten you as to where you are and in which direction you need to go to make that cocktail-mixing class on time.
Depending on whom you ask, the Oasis-class duo has the best -- or second best -- entertainment at sea. (Norwegian Epic, which features Blue Man Group, a dedicated blues venue and Second City improv troupe, among other offerings, is the other claim-staker.) Allure's offerings consist of a series of big-ticket shows at its two main theaters, the indoor Amber Theater ("Chicago," "Blue Planet") and the outdoor AquaTheater ("OceanAria"). These budget-busting productions are rounded out by stand-up comedy, ice shows, musical tribute acts, DreamWorks parades and 3D movies.
The three-deck, 1,380-seat Amber Theater offers multiple stagings of "Chicago," the Broadway musical about murderous showgirls, and "Blue Planet," a Cirque du Soleil-style song-and-dance production in which the stage turns into a giant aquarium one second, a writhing human tree the next. In addition, there's always a rotating Headliners show -- one week it may be a tribute to Motown, another a tribute to the Beatles. Additionally, look out for the always raucous Love and Marriage Game Show and the Adult Quest Game Show, both of which are held once per sailing. During Quest in particular, you might consider blinding yourself after witnessing some of the actions of fellow cruisers -- if you weren't laughing so hard. That's all we'll say.
Adjacent to the Amber Theater on Deck 4 is the Entertainment Zone, a neighborhood that's home to the Studio B ice rink (shows and free skating), Comedy Live, Jazz on 4 and Blaze, one of the ship's dedicated nightclubs. Studio B's ice shows include the DreamWorks inspired "How to Train Your Dragon" and the confusing "Ice Games," a head-scratching Monopoly-themed show that screams for more passenger participation -- but has almost none.
The AquaTheater, with its 2,000 water nozzles, hydraulics-laden pool and detachable rope ladders, is the most ambitious performance space ever built at sea. The main event, "OceanAria," features ancient sea people who like to high-dive from the pair of 60-foot platforms, flip around on trampolines and twist each other into pretzels. Needless to say, it's a popular show, but if you have trouble getting a seat, try this: Head up to one of the public-access wing balconies next to the rock-climbing walls, and look for standing room.
Unique to the industry, "OceanAria," "Blue Planet," "Chicago" and the comedy shows require "tickets" or, more accurately, reservations, since passengers' scanable SeaPass cards serve as the tickets. Passengers can prebook evening shows from 90 days until four days before the sail date, but only a certain number of spaces can be prebooked online; the remaining tickets are for passengers who want to book once onboard via their cabin TV's or at the on-ship "box office." Tickets are free and do not include seating assignments -- though suite passengers get preferred seating. Doors open 45 minutes before showtime, and reservations vanish 35 minutes later, as ours did for the first "sold out" showing of OceanAria. That said, come T-minus 10; standbys flood in because the majority of passengers with reservations don't show up. (The activities director told us that the number of no-shows typically hovers around 75 percent.) Reservation or not, get there early for the best seats, especially if you're sailing during high season. Also know this: The first staging of each show is usually the most crowded. If you're turned away, you'll invariably get into show two, three or four.
Daytime entertainment options are too numerous to mention but may include recent 3D movies from the DreamWorks cache (in the specially equipped Amber Theater), dance classes, alcohol tastings, character meet-and-greets and port shopping talks, during which staff try to send passengers to stores that have paid to be mentioned in said talks.
For the tippler in all of us, the ship features an exhausting array of bars and lounges, including one that floats up and down between decks (Rising Tide), one perfectly positioned between the ship's surf simulators (WipeOut Bar) and one amid Central Park's greenery (the Trellis Bar). At night, the park lights twinkle, and passengers idle at the Trellis Bar for pre- or post-meal cocktails.
A cluster of RCI favorites are located in the Royal Promenade. The Bow & Stern, an English-style pub designed with dark woods and nautically themed pictures, is one of two indoor bars where passengers can smoke. (Bolero's, the Latin-themed lounge, is the other.) B&S also has a few beers on draught, including Newcastle and Murphy's. The crystal-and-satin-curtain-filled Champagne & Martini Bar serves just that. Check your Cruise Compass for word of 2-for-1 cocktails. The On-Air Bar is the dedicated spot for televised sporting events and karaoke. The Schooner Bar, a bit hidden on the second deck of the Royal Promenade, offers slightly naughty piano sing-alongs.
A party band regularly plays at Dazzles, a Deck 8 venue situated between the Boardwalk (Deck 6) and Central Park (Deck 8). Even during theme parties, like 70's night, the space never gets all that crowded. Isolation is to blame -- without a cluster of adjacent alternative restaurants, bars and cafes to attract passengers, Dazzles is a bit of an island. But the picture-window backdrop, with unadulterated views down the Boardwalk, won't disappoint anyone who ventures there. Also an island, but better attended, is Club 20, a makeshift nightclub that materializes once per cruise in Deck 16's Solarium.
In the casino, cruising's largest, you'll find 450 slot machines; extensive table games, including Blackjack, roulette, craps, and Caribbean Stud Poker; a bar and lounge area; a sports book; a poker room; and a players' club. Texas hold'em tournaments are offered daily.
Allure alternates sailing Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries, so the typical smattering of island shore tours focus on shopping, water-based fun and zip-lining. There's a handful of culturally minded offerings available, too.
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.
Weeklong cruises consist of two formal nights and five casual nights. Many men choose to wear tuxedos for formal dining, though dark suits are more common. Women are typically found in cocktail dresses or gowns.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Allure of the Seas is packed with outdoor pursuits, and Allureans are an active sort. Two 43-foot-high rock-climbing walls flank the AquaTheater, and a zip-line sends passengers flying over the Boardwalk from one side of the ship to the other. Allure's pair of surf simulators (one dedicated to stand-up surfing, the other to boogie-boarding) are yet another Royal Caribbean exclusive. Surfers should know that they'll be surrounded by a small peanut gallery in bleacher seats, and the eager onlookers will cackle with glee when the jet stream flips you backward. All three options are available at no extra cost -- after you've signed the waiver. (Ice-skating in Studio B also falls in this waiver category.) Located near the FlowRiders is a basketball court, which hosts a never-ending stream of pick-up games, a mini-golf course and a glass-enclosed Ping-Pong area where blaming the wind is no longer a valid excuse.
Allure's sun deck comprises several distinct pool areas on Deck 15, and during peak season cruises, these watery respites look like Georgia swimming holes during a heat wave (they're crowded). But, even when the ship's sailing full, finding a deck chair won't be an issue -- unless you're eager to snag a lounger poolside.
Kids will beeline for the H20 Zone, a colorful aquapark ruled by a giant, water-spraying octopus that looks like it was designed by Peter Max. Some 10 other multicolored sculptures form his court, and a pool and pair of family-friendly hot tubs are also on the premises. Across the way, separated by the open space that plunges down to Central Park, is the Sports Pool, the staging point for things like water aerobics and pool volleyball. On the same side is the Main Pool, which serves as Allure's no-frills option for taking a dip. Across from the Main Pool is the faux-rock-lined Beach Pool, which features a sloped entry, allowing passengers to sit with loungers partially submerged. Candy-cane umbrellas and a pair of Britto's pop-art sculptures (fish and beach balls) round out the decor.
The 16-and-over glass-covered Solarium -- which features a thallassotherapy pool, lots of cushioned chaises, a bistro and bar -- is on the bow of Decks 15 and 16. Despite its (nearly) adults-only vibe, the space can be packed during sea days, so it's less monastery-like than expected. Celebrity's version, the AquaSpa pool, is far more conducive to falling asleep while pretending to read. One tip: When the masses are in port, the Solarium becomes a truly peaceful spot.
Suite passengers have it good. Flash a gold key card, and you can climb up to a reserved top-ship deck where the crowds thin and the decibel level fades. There's a bar, plenty of padded loungers and views of sea and sky.
Allure's Vitality at Sea Spa is on Decks 5 and 6 and features only a modicum of natural light. This is something of a disappointment for spa- and gym-lovers used to getting primped or pooped in the top-ship real estate that's typically afforded to cruise-ship spas. Only one of 29 treatment rooms, which host the typical assortment of massages and facials, has a window. There's still a lot on offer, including rooms for couples' mud treatments and couples' massages, a Medispa offering Botox, a large beauty salon and a teens-only treatment area. A disappointing thermal suite with just four ceramic beds and the typical assortment of rooms (herbal steam, saunas and rainforest showers) is in a windowless area in the middle of the spa. Entrance is $30 a day or $150 for a week.
Allure's gym is similarly hurt by the absence of natural light (there are at least portholes), but what it lacks by way of floor-to-ceiling windows, it makes up for in ellipticals, Stairmasters, treadmills, free weights, a Kinesis wall and private training rooms. It's a fantastically well-stocked and well-used fitness space.
One deck below is the most diverting running track at sea. The two lanes make nearly a full circuit of the 1,187-foot-long ship, and just 2.4 laps equal a mile. It's more than just about size: The many attention-grabbing sights will make you forget that your legs and brain feel like pudding, or that you'd rather be eating pudding. As you round the stern, the retreating wake slides into view, and the relative motion of ship and sea creates a speed-boost sensation. Look out for the gusts of A/C that blast intermittently from the automatic doors along the track, and if you time your run to 15 minutes before the DreamWorks "Move It! Movie It!" parade, you may jog past a knight or Puss in Boots.
While Disney certainly competes when it comes to catering to the under-10's, no other line beguiles all children like Royal Caribbean, and Oasis and Allure represent the pinnacle of the line's programming. Through Royal Caribbean's partnership with DeamWorks, trademarked characters materialize for photo-ops, tickle kids during a character breakfast (no extra cost, but reservations required) and perform at the AquaTheater. We spotted Kung Fu Panda in the Royal Promenade, a sweaty Fiona in Central Park and the full DreamWorks army during the mesmerizing "Move It! Move It!" parade in the Royal Promenade.
The epicenter of the youth program is the 29,000-square-foot Youth Zone, an expansive Deck 14 complex split into age-appropriate spaces and rooms dedicated to science experiments (make snow in the Caribbean), theater instruction and arts & crafts.
Children -- ages 3 to 5 (Aquanauts), 6 to 8 (Explorers) and 9 to 11 (Voyagers) -- have their own rooms for playing dodge ball and indoor soccer, participating in Nintendo Wii tournaments and belting out tunes during sing-alongs. Royal Caribbean has partnerships with Crayola and Fisher-Price, which means that the Youth Zone has a slew of very colorful toys, games and supplies. Also in the area is one of Allure's two arcades, which features the typical array of enticements, including first-person shooters and grab-teddy-with-a-claw games. Options are typically overpriced. For instance, it's $1.25 to play Skeeball. Daytime activities in the Youth Zone are free, but after 10 p.m., baby-sitting fees of $19 per hour apply for up to three kids in the same family.
The 12 to 14's and 15 to 17's have their own spaces (including a teens-only nightclub and an arcade) on Deck 15 aft, next to the sport court, Ping-Pong tables, mini-golf course and FlowRiders. The programming is less structured than it is for the under-12's, allowing for freedom to participate in shipwide activities. Teens should expect theme nights ("Industrial"), scratch D.J. Academy classes, mocktail-making demos and grownup-free BBQ's. The teen center is open each night until 2 a.m.
The Royal Tots and Royal Babies program, introduced on Oasis, provides childcare and activities for children from 6 to 36 months old. All parents have an opportunity to reserve spots for their kids at the beginning of each cruise at a cost of $8 per hour, per child. Remaining hours are then opened up on a first-come, first-served basis.
To keep kids and parents connected, RCI offers the "Wow Phone." These are iPhones stripped of their outside calling capabilities. The phones, which are also loaded with deck plans and Cruise Compasses, are $17.50 each for a week. The Wow Phones can be reached from any phone on the ship. The phones also have tracking devices, perfect for locating little Tommy.
Families flock to Allure of the Seas, a ship that celebrates youthful exuberance in the form of surf simulators, rock-climbing walls and some of the best children's facilities at sea. But the ship also clearly appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's. Numerous spaces, especially the foliage-filled Central Park, provide a relatively kid-free ambience. The majority of passengers hail from the United States, but given the Oasis-class ships' worldwide reputation, you'll also sail with plenty of passengers from the United Kingdom and Europe.
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