Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Monster of the seas

Daily Mail
Bahamas, January 2024

This is it. The big one. The lumbering, slavering, glowering apex predator of the cruising industry. At 1,197 feet, Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship in history. 

It has been many years in the making. For months, the newspapers have been dedicating column inches to it. And now, at last, it is truly at sea. And so, to be honest, am I.

The experience, when I board this behemoth of the seas, is overwhelming. Ahead of me is an art work resembling a giant golf ball. A swarm of Royal Caribbean employees, all in orange T-shirts, stands attendance. Nearby, a man clutches a clipboard by a life-size bronze sculpture of, for some reason, a dog peeing on a lamppost. “I feel for you,” I tell him and he smiles back.

The Icon of the Seas is so extraordinary it defies description. It’s a monster. It’s a floating city. It’s tourism taken to its capitalist extreme—and then introduced to football. 

My short voyage coincides with the launch of a partnership between Royal Caribbean and the Inter Miami soccer team, whose squad includes one Lionel Messi. It’s an irresistible pairing. The greatest footballer of all time adopted by the greatest cruise ship of all time. Somewhat predictably, Royal Caribbean have taken to calling Messi “the Icon of the Icon”. 

With the size, and all the hyperbole, and the sheer weirdness, it takes a day to acclimatise. At first, I hardly know where I am or what I’m doing. At length, I get my bearings. After that, I don’t turn a hair at the sight of an enormous plastic flamingo, nor when, on entering the all-you-can-eat buffet, I’m assailed by two exuberant Mexicans sporting surplices that resemble a doughnut and a fried egg. “How did you sleeep?” asks the Doughnut in a sing-song falsetto. Not bad, I say. “Don’t forget to waash your haands!” chimes in the Fried Egg. 

This colourful wackiness is par for the course on Icon of the Seas, which is a world unto itself. Barely affected by the waves, it moves to its own rhythms and rules.

Rule 1. You can have whatever you want. A breakfast cocktail? Help yourself. Basketball? No problem. A climbing wall? A shopping mall? We have you covered, sir.

Rule 2. Join in. There are so many activities on offer, it would be a crime not to. It’s a chance to do a few things you love, and a few you’ve never done before.

I explore the water slides, which sprawl over the top deck like haemorrhaged organs. The Pressure Drop is no big deal, as it turns out. But the Frightening Bolt is full-on. 

One morning, I try the fastest-growing game in America. Pickleball is played on a small court, with a small plastic bat and a plastic ball. It’s easy to pick up and terrific fun. 

That afternoon, I join a napkin folding class. Because I figure: if not now, when? In the event, there has been a mix-up and there’s no teacher. Luckily, another punter—Mike from Dallas—works in the catering industry and steps in to take the class. Soon I am very proud of my Diamond Fold. Returning to my room, I fold all the linen and towels into diamond shapes. 

My room—or “stateroom”, as Royal Caribbean calls it—is very nice, incidentally. Not huge, but smartly put together, with a balcony and sea view. All for around £2,600 a week.

For the big spenders, there’s the Ultimate Family Townhouse. Spread over three floors, and sleeping eight, it has a musical staircase, and a slide. It can be yours for £70k a week. 

Having built the world’s largest passenger ship, with the world’s largest pool at sea, and the world’s largest floating water park (and so on), it’s a bit unconvincing when Royal Caribbean claims to have no obsession with size. “The size thing happened by accident,” insists Jay Schneider, the company’s Chief Product Innovation Officer. “We never set out to make the world’s biggest ship. We just wanted it to be the most iconic.” Every few years, though, the company happens to make a ship a few feet longer than the last. Oops, we did it again.

More convincing is their claim to have created the world’s greatest holiday for children. Forget Disneyland Paris. This theme park floats. For kids, that’s sheer heaven.

They might even find themselves playing pickleball against some of the world’s greatest footballers. At the end of my trip, the whole Inter Miami squad, including Luiz Suarez and Messi himself, turns up on the ship in their pink strips for the naming ceremony. As a reward, they are given vouchers granting them and family members a cruise any time they like.

There follows a suitably mad extravaganza in the spectacular Aqua Dome in the prow. A bagpipe performance from a rock band called the Red Hot Chili Pipers. Blessings from a rabbi and a priest. Then the great Messi dutifully smashes a vat of Veuve Clicquot against the hull, declaring, “I name this ship Icon of the Seas.” There you have it: named and ready to go.