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A first look at Icon of the Seas, the world’s biggest cruise ship

Chris Leadbeater (right) on the maiden voyage of Icon of the Seas, now the world's largest cruise ship, measuring 1,197ft
Chris Leadbeater (right) is on the maiden voyage of Icon of the Seas, now the world's largest cruise ship, measuring 1,197ft - sbw-photo

“Like a sore thumb” isn’t quite the right simile. Nothing about Icon of the Seas looks especially painful, or as if it has been caught in a suddenly slammed door. But as I approach it from the Florida mainland – slipping over the water on the Port Miami Bridge, then passing the other maritime giants moored at the city’s various cruise terminals – one thing is definite. That there, at the far end of the road, Royal Caribbean’s newest vessel sticks out.

It sticks up, too – funnels jutting towards the heavens; its coloured tangle of water slides visible on the upper deck. But mainly – to the point that I wonder how the “smaller” ships anchored back up the channel are going to make their way around it – it sticks out.

'The scale of it sings of formidable feats of engineering' says Leadbeater
'The scale of it sings of formidable feats of engineering' says Leadbeater - sbw-photo

As well it might. Though it is only being launched now, at the end of January, Icon of the Seas seems to have been in the water for months, perhaps even years, so much publicity has it generated.

Find Icon's 'tangle' of waterslides at the Thrill Island area of the ship
Find Icon's 'tangle' of waterslides at the Thrill Island area of the ship - sbw-photo

Predominantly due to its size. This, after all, is now the world’s largest cruise ship. And the statistics are remarkable. For all the self-amused social-media comments about “human lasagne” – sparked by early renderings of the vessel, showing its 20 decks stacked like (if you must) sheets of pasta – the scale of it sings of formidable feats of engineering.

Were you to wedge it upright in the London soil, its 1,197ft (365m) length would see it eclipse the Shard for height. Were you to open its doors there on the bank of the Thames, it could almost accommodate a Premier League football crowd. With space for a maximum 7,600 passengers and 2,350 crew members, it is just short of the capacity of AFC Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium (11,307). The purported cost? Just $1.65 billion (£1.3 billion).

Central Park boasts plenty of restaurants and bars
Central Park boasts plenty of restaurants and bars - Bloomberg

Stepping onboard only amplifies the sense of size. So big is Icon of the Seas that its name is emblazoned over the doorway at the Royal Caribbean terminal – like that of a film star at a red-carpet premiere.

Inside, guests submit themselves to airport-standard check-in procedures – all passport perusal, X-ray machines and security scans. It is not a carelessly quick process. But the queue burbles with a discernible buzz none the less.

There are seven separate swimming pools on board
There are seven separate swimming pools on board - Bloomberg
One of the nine hot tubs on board
Plus nine hot tubs - sbw-photo

“We booked this eight months ago,” comes one excited voice just behind me; the giddy conversation of an American family with teenage children. “We totally can’t wait.” He adjusts his designer sunglasses, which, in his enthusiasm, have slipped down his nose. It is Dad who is speaking.

And yet, once we are on the ship, this commotion seems to evaporate. Everything is signposted. An army of staff, in branded orange T-shirts, is on hand to offer directions. The lifts are barely less helpful, arranged in clusters of nine. Request your deck via one of the various touchscreens, and the screen answers immediately with the letter of the portal you should take, from A to I. Though I am up on the 14th deck, I am in my stateroom a mere five minutes after crossing the ship’s threshold. Big does not have to equate to baffling.

Surfside eatery
The Surfside Eatery

Remarkably, Royal Caribbean has been keen to, if not exactly downplay, Icon’s unprecedented size, then shy away from emphasising it as the sole defining feature. There has been plenty of talk of the ship’s facilities – of the seven separate swimming pools (claimed as a record); of the 40-plus restaurants (serving everything from sushi and steak to sandwiches and snacks), bars and dining areas; of the vessel’s ability to recycle “waste” heat from the engines, and convert it into onboard electricity.

But there is a bullishness on the air as well, born of satisfaction (and, no doubt, a dose of post-pandemic relief) at a major project brought to fruition. “When we sailed Icon of the Seas into Miami a week ago, we came in – unapologetically – very loud,” Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley tells a small media gathering. “We put $100,000-worth of speakers on the side of the ship, and woke up the city. We stopped the traffic.”

The living room of a suite on Icon of the Seas
The living room of a suite on Icon of the Seas - Bloomberg

Even allowing for hyperbole, the obvious confidence does not stop here. Back in December, football superstar Lionel Messi – not uncoincidentally, now playing in the US for Inter Miami, having captained Argentina to World Cup triumph in 2022 – was announced as what might once have been called the ship’s “godmother”, but, in this case, has been pithily described as “the icon for the Icon”.

Icon of the Seas will offer weekly seven-night roundtrip Miami voyages to the Caribbean
Icon of the Seas will offer weekly seven-night roundtrip Miami voyages to the Caribbean
Icon of the Seas is now the world's largest cruise ship
Icon of the Seas is now the world's largest cruise ship

This self-assured spirit leaks into the ship’s departure; a farewell 10-minute display of fireworks, let off on a barge on the Miami waterfront; a gunpowder extravaganza that is only slightly diminished by the fact that it begins in the pre-twilight of sunset, the various bursts of explosive red, green and gold somewhat lost against the orange sky.

chris on icon
chris on icon

The spectacle provokes a “sorry-too-busy” shrug from the forklift drivers moving around between the shipping containers on the adjacent docks, but does draw a large crowd to the promenade on the other side of the port. When Icon finally inches away into the Atlantic and the night – bound for CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s “private island” in the Bahamas – it does so to audible cheers and applause from an appreciative audience in South Pointe Park.

For all the onboard signposting, it is easy to get lost – or, at least, to lose yourself – in the ship and its eight different “neighbourhoods”. Even if, in theory, you know the layout. Last May, I had a sneak preview of Icon of the Seas, travelling to Finland to see it, still under construction, at the Meyer shipyard in Turku. The flashback is mildly unnerving. Though I find myself on what is recognisably the same vessel, its removal from a forested Nordic backdrop to the gleam of the Florida daylight somehow throws me – as does being able to explore fully varnished spaces that, inevitably, were works in progress eight months ago.

CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s “private island” in the Bahamas
Icon of the Seas is bound for CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s 'private island' in the Bahamas - Royal Caribbean

So I wander, rather agog at just how much is crammed into Icon of the Seas without it ever feeling cramped. Central Park is a case in point: an al-fresco oasis that, though deep in the heart of the ship on Deck 8, is open to the heavens, its restaurants and bars sheltering in the shadow of trees and foliage.

The Arcade at the Surfside neighborhood
The Arcade at the Surfside 'neighborhood' - Bloomberg

Elsewhere on the shopping-mall thoroughfare of the Royal Promenade (on Deck 5), “the Pearl” serves up tech wizardry; a vast ball of white light and soft sounds – part walk-in art installation, part murmuring comfort blanket – clad in 3,600 “kinetic tiles”.

Above the prow, the Aquadome is an entertainment zone of genuine ingenuity. The “AquaTheater” within it is no simple stage, but a water-filled mini-arena where, in evening show Aqua Action, acrobats, gymnasts and daredevils – some of them former Olympians – dive from high boards, or swoop and swirl in harnesses, as a cascade pours from the ceiling.

The Pearl is a multi-sensory, immersive structure featuring 3,000 kinetic panels and integrated lighting
The Pearl is a multi-sensory, immersive structure featuring 3,000 kinetic panels and integrated lighting - BREAKFAST / SWNS

Most remarkable, though, is how gentle a ride it is. Cocooned in my cabin, I scarcely notice the Atlantic’s January surges during my first night’s sleep. By morning, the ocean is in an unpleasant mood, but seems no more able to trouble the behemoth gliding across it.

The white horses are especially apparent from the best seat in the house, the bridge. Up here, Henrik Loy, who has worked for the cruise line since 1997, surveys the scene with all the serenity and stoicism you might expect of a hugely experienced Norwegian sailor. “I’m very proud to be the captain of Icon of the Seas,” he says, hardly taking his eyes from the empty horizon ahead. Beyond, through the reinforced glass, the Atlantic continues to grumble – but, for now, Royal Caribbean’s latest and biggest baby seems destined for a smooth arrival into the world.

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