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Is Big Better?
Sailing Destiny, the World's Largest Cruise Ship

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page E01
   


It's a Thursday morning in St. Thomas, which means that cruise ships are parallel parked along the pier at Havensight Mall, a mile from downtown Charlotte Amalie. Today the 101,000-ton Carnival Destiny, which for the next few months holds title as "the world's biggest cruise ship," is hulking incongruously between Norwegian's Dreamward and Holland America's Veendam. These vessels, at around 50,000 tons each, are on the light end of the cruise industry's average for ships built this decade. But they look like dinghies next to the Brobdingnagian Destiny.

At first glance, Destiny is so huge you can't even see the whole thing in one glance. Its bottom half, dotted with portholes and lifeboats, looks like any other ocean liner's hull. But from its midsection on up, a sweep of sleek glass balconies recalls not the QE2 but one of those 1980s condo projects built with funny bank loans. Of the Destiny's 1,321 cabins, 370 have verandas. It holds 2,642 passengers double occupancy, and can accommodate a maximum of 3,400, more than just a handful of the biggest land-based hotels (Las Vegas's MGM Grand sleeps 5,005). Add a crew of 1,070 and you have a floating population bigger than my home town's.

The ship is the cruise industry's first post-Panamax vessel, so dubbed because it's so big it can't squeeze through the Panama Canal. Its two double-deckered dining rooms are so spread out that waiters transport hot dishes via escalators. There are 20 bars and lounges, including two swim-up bars. The Millionaire's Club Casino, the largest at sea, has 321 slot machines and 23 game tables. The ship's got seven whirlpools and a spa and fitness facility that, at 15,000 square feet, has as much floor space as about six comfortable suburban homes.

Destiny's "outdoor entertainment complex" (as opposed to the indoor Palladium Theater) spans four levels; its solar nucleus is designed amphitheater-style, so that lounge chairs fan out on teak decks, the pools and stage areas at bottom. There are four pools, one with a retractable roof for the rare inclement Caribbean day, another with a waterslide two decks high. Sun & Sea, an alternative cafe, spans two decks and offers the typical cruiser's buffet line -- along with specialty eateries, such as Happy Valley for Chinese takeout, the Trattoria for risotto and pasta, the Grille for burgers and fries and a 24-hour pizzeria. The glass-domed Rotunda, at the center of the ship, has a nine-deck high atrium with see-through elevators.

So, yes, it's big. But the Destiny wears its girth well, like a really big woman who learns to dress in a way that minimizes her size. After being on the ship for just two hours, we're just leaving Miami, and I've already got the place figured out. Concierge desks and dining rooms on 3; shops on 4; bars on 5; the pool area (a k a the Lido) is best accessed from Deck 9. The spa's on 10. And it's just 25 steps from my cabin on Deck 7 to a key elevator bank that drops you right in the heart of things on each floor.

In itself, Destiny's 101,000-ton Guinness Book status is an intriguing curiosity; more important, it represents the final step in a revolutionary transformation for the industry. In pre-jet days, cruise ships served the utilitarian function of transporting passengers between continents. Now ships have become destinations unto themselves, the ports of call just one of many attractions of a vacation at sea. The expanding size is a self-sustaining trend, for the more resortlike options you offer -- huge casinos, putting greens, multiple swimming pools, Broadway-size theaters, alternative restaurants -- the more passengers you need to pay for it all.

The most important question, though, is whether all of these passengers, in the end, are well served by the ship's enormous size.

If they are not, the industry is in for a fall.

"In designing the Destiny, my first feeling was that in most people's views, bigness would be a negative," says Joe Farcus, Carnival's longtime design architect, who creates the interiors of the ships' hotel portion -- the guest rooms and public areas. (A different team designs the hulls.)

Indeed. How relaxing can it be to spend a week sharing an area that's 893 feet long and 125 feet wide with 3,000 other vacationers and 1,000 staff members? How restful can it be if you're fighting over that last deck chair, waiting in line for 10 minutes for a cooked-to-order breakfast omelet, or trapped in a suffocating gangway waiting to go ashore?

"The idea," Farcus continues, "is to design a big ship and allow for intimacy."

An improbable aspiration? Perhaps. At 8 a.m. in the Nautica Spa, the 36 Stairmasters, rowing machines and stationary bikes are all occupied and the twice-daily aerobics class is filled to the edges with groaning women. Between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on sea days you'll be among 70 percent of your fellow passengers at poolside (that's 2,380 people fighting for 1,300 lounge chairs); 85 percent (or 2,890 diners) will partake of at least one of the eight different meal options, from early breakfast at dawn to a dinner buffet in the two-deck Sun & Sea restaurant. After dinner -- whether you're dining main or late -- 90 percent of the 1,700 that fill the Galaxy and Universe at each seating (that's 1,530 entertainment-seekers) will cram into the three-tiered, 1,400-seat Palladium theater for, perhaps, a French revue or even the biggest crowd-pleaser of all -- the passenger talent show. (You'd think with that many people on board, the talent pool would be deeper. You'd be wrong.)

Sure, you can find moments of solitude if you try hard enough. At 3:30 a.m. our first night aboard, I'm wandering the ship and can report that, well, nobody else is around. The disco is dark. I linger at an electronic map in the hallway, following our progress from Miami to San Juan; only a cleaning man passes by, nodding hello. There's not a soul on the Lido Deck either, save for the members of the graveyard shift who are mopping the deck and pushing carts stacked as high as my head with tattered blue beach towels. At the 24-hour pizzeria, I order a slice -- just because I can, not because I'm hungry. I wander up to the deserted 11th deck, pull a chair up to the rail, watch the stars slide past at 12 knots.

Stereo speakers are blaring even now, but instead of what you might expect -- "Red Red Wine" and "Macarena" -- the music is by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

Thus begins the pattern of my week: finding crannies of sanity and solitude on the Biggest Cruise Ship on Earth. Lingering over eggs and bacon in solo splendor in my favorite corner booth, the only diner on the top floor of the two-tiered Sun & Sea, while my mom, my traveling companion on this trip, has breakfast in bed. Midmorning suntanning on the virtually deserted Lido Deck, fleeing before the Hairy Chest Contest begins at poolside. There are long, lazy three-course lunches in the dining room -- while the rest of the ship is upstairs waiting for 15 minutes in line for a hot dog at the Grille. After lunch, my mom and I meet up in the Flagship Bar at the foot of the Rotunda, where we drink Guinness and listen to Mark Guttenplan, a truly gifted pianist, play Gershwin and Mancini and Sondheim. Later, I take a book to my favorite outdoor place -- the teak promenade on the third deck, where you are just 39 feet from the sea's surface, and stretch out on a steamer chair (a la the Titanic, though plastic). I doze and watch the mountainous terrain of Haiti and the Dominican Republic pass by, the sun warm on my face.

At sunset, I walk around the 11th deck walking track, built on pillars so that it overhangs the Lido area on one end, the sea on another. Up here in the loftiest part of the ship -- save for the nude sunbathing corral one flight above -- there are just three of us. An Asian woman is practicing tai chi off to one side, a white-haired gent hangs over the edge of the rail, peering at the sky through a mini-telescope. I stroll (10 times around makes a mile) at a middling pace. A full moon, chasing the clouds away, rises from the east, just as the sun sets over Haiti.

I wish I could say that my cruise on the Destiny was characterized by these intimate, peaceful moments -- mixed, ideally, with an opportunity to make those wonderful life-long friendships that veteran cruisers are always reminiscing about. But it didn't happen. No matter how you look at it, there's a downside to being one of more than 3,000 people quartered on a seabound vessel. It's not that space is a problem -- the ship's 38-cubic-feet per passenger ratio exceeds that of Cunard's QE2, which carries "just" 1,500 cruisers. Nor do crowds seem overwhelming in any particular venue. As one fellow cruiser remarked, "I haven't seen 1,000 people here, much less 3,000. It's a big ship and everybody's off doing different things."

It's just that if I had a hankering for a vacation with lots of options -- and lots of people -- I'd probably have opted for Las Vegas or New York. Cruising, to me, has always been about pampering and indulgence, a total escape from everydayness. What was seductive about my first cruise, on the 47,255-ton, 1,374-passenger Zenith, was a feeling of being part of a relatively intimate village on the sea, a community in which by voyage's end I recognized most of my fellow passengers by face, if not name, and had shared stories with many of them.

By sheer capacity alone, the Destiny offers a broad mix of passengers, such a variety that one guy, an HMO administrator from Dallas and repeat Carnival cruiser, wrinkled his nose at the demographics. "There are people here who don't own a suit," he says. "It's not a bad thing, but it does affect the complexion." By my tastes, the variety was interesting; it was the quantity that was daunting. The sheer volume, I think, made people stick more closely within their cliques. It was not a friendly and open crowd. The social tenor was more like a big city's rather than a small town's.

As in any large community, there was an unpleasant sense of lawlessness, of me-first narcissism around the ship. By 8 a.m. the upper decks are wall-to-wall lounge chairs, and sun worshipers, ignoring numerous written pleas not to pre-claim lounges, have already dotted them with such not-worth-stealing territory markers as Harlequin romances, beat-up flip-flops and empty coolers. Says Destiny hotel manager Roger McGregor, "There's not much you can do about it."

Around the whirlpools, signs prohibiting alcohol are disregarded by folks sipping their Miller Lites while submerged. Following one party in the forward whirlpool on our last day at sea, 11 empty and crumpled cans of Heineken were strewn defiantly around the warning notice.

People must feel there's anonymity in numbers, or maybe invisibility. Like the couple lying in the missionary position on one lounger, or the man stretched out in the sun, flossing his teeth. Another passenger, who unfortunately was lounging in the chair next to mine -- the distance between us approximately the width of my calf -- lit up a cheap stogie, then proceeded to exhale in my direction, so as not to disturb his sleeping wife.

Carnival has never been considered a white-glove line, but its service has traditionally been seen as efficient if not memorable. Yet on the Destiny, service was consistently indifferent if not offensive. At the shore excursion desk, I asked for details on a tour that advertised snorkeling in St. Thomas. "I don't really know for sure," Danny Hughes replied rudely. "I got on the ship when you did." Or this one: "How do I learn to gamble?" a woman asks at the purser's desk. "Turn on your TV," comes the response, again, curtly. "I don't want to gamble in my room, I want to learn how," protests the passenger, who is left to her own devices to discover that the casino has a copy of a gaming guide.

At a classical music concert in the 440-seat Criterion Lounge, ill-placed in the ship's second largest theater, I'm one of about 15 in the audience (last night's country jamboree played here to a full house). I sit, alone at a table, thirsting for a beer, while the two cocktail waitresses lean over the service bar in the back of the room and talk in voices so loud you actually can't hear the trio. A used coffee cup with lipstick stains sits at an empty table, unbussed. Midway through, two guys arrive to dismantle a backdrop from the daily pre-dinner photo opportunity. One accidentally beheads a fake Christmas tree, and the duo spends 15 minutes discussing how to reconnect the pieces, while the musicians play on, observing everything. The managers, meanwhile, seem to notice none of this.

For worse or better, the Destiny represents the future of cruising, and not just for Carnival.

In May, Princess Cruise Lines is launching the 2,600-passenger, 109,000-ton Grand Princess that will, for a time, usurp Destiny's "biggest ever" record; on its heels comes the first of Royal Caribbean's two Eagle Class vessels -- unimaginably huge, 142,000-ton behemoths expected in 1999 and 2000 -- almost half again the size of the Destiny! Princess has just ordered two more ships at 107,000 tons apiece, which are due next autumn and 2000. Carnival is unleashing Destiny's sister ship, the Triumph, with another sibling, the Victory, planned for 2000.

So ships are getting bigger, if not better. Look for an expansion of dining options away from the traditionally formal seatings -- casual bistros, romantic gourmet restaurants and food courts. You'll find expanded duty-free gallerias, retractable ice rinks, nine-hole putting greens, wedding chapels, interactive television studios, rock-climbing facilities and virtual reality cyber-centers -- all in addition to the "usual" amenities of such mega-ships as Destiny.

"The question is: Is there an advantage to going larger?" says Richard Fain, chairman and chief executive officer of Royal Caribbean. "Just being bigger for bigness sake is a mistake. You've gone as big as you can to get value, so there's no improvement in economies of scale. You get nothing more than bragging rights, and they don't make the cruise more fun. But we've always said our competition is alternative vacations [rather than other cruise ships]." In this view, he says, the big ships are just a way to offer "a different set of choices. There will always be room for one that offers a different experience."

Ultimately, executives agree, what's critical is that these new mega-cruisers are perceived as ships, not floating islands or floating cities. "As jaded as we all have become, people are buying into the romance of the sea, and you can't lose sight of that," says Farcus, the Destiny's architect.

"When I first got into the cruise business, the average age was deceased," says Carnival President Bob Dickinson. "It was Miami Beach gone to sea. It had a certain narrow sense of tradition. Tastes have changed," he continues. "People today want options; it's more of a grazing environment than a formulated one."

In other words, mass-market cruisers -- and here Dickinson includes the 89 percent of the public that has not taken a cruise yet -- don't want things like assigned dining times, mandatory dinner companions, empty hours in a day. Many non-cruisers' biggest fear about a vacation at sea is being bored. By this thinking, the masses who are lining up for voyages on the Destiny and the Grand Princess will tolerate the crowds for the payoff of a wide range of entertainment options. They're looking for easy vacations. And the relatively few customers hankering for intimacy, Old World charm and black-tie ambiance? They're endangered anachronisms.

As we pull into Miami on Sunday at 6:30 a.m., I feel more urgency than usual to return to that proverbial place where everybody knows your name. I'm tired of feeling like one very insignificant cog in a tiny city.

Sure, I had fun. I'd go again, maybe, though probably not anytime soon. And I'd certainly like to try a smaller ship with a more exotic itinerary. My favorite experiences on the Destiny were reminiscent of my last trip to Vegas. The quantity and range of activities, people and environments becomes a kind of blank canvas, letting you create a vacation experience of your own choosing. Destiny is the kind of ship that never dictates where you should be, what you should eat, how you should feel at any given moment. There are plenty of people around, but little is expected of you. You're free to pursue your dream, whatever it happens to be.

If cruising veterans grouse about the lack of intimacy on a sailing city like Destiny, they need not worry: There are plenty of smaller cruisers still out there. I take comfort in a comment by Fain, he of the monstrous 142,000-ton Royal Caribbean ships on order, who says he's "never been a big believer in one size fits all." Indeed, Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Sea, out this spring, weighs a comparatively measly 75,000 tons. Carnival's new ships this year, Paradise and Elation, are 80,000 tons each. These investments by the industry's mass-market mega-ship leaders are a reassuring sign that five years from now cruisers won't be limited to Vegas-at-sea-style cruising. But neither have we seen the end of the big-ship trend, not by a long shot.

"From our vantage point," Dickinson says, "the Destiny is the most successful ship since the Ark."

The difference being, of course, that the Ark did not have a two-level waterslide.

And the Ark's maiden voyage was also its last.

Carnival's Destiny offers seven-day cruises to the eastern and western Caribbean from Miami. Prices start at $700 per person double for inside cabins and range to $2,800 for penthouse suites. For more information, check out Carnival's Web site at http://www.carnival.com or contact a travel agent.

Cruising the Web

A number of sites on the Internet provide information on cruising. They include:

http://www.GetCruising.com: Contains links to cruise lines, tips on booking and selecting cruises. Geared to both veteran and novice cruisers.

http://cruises.miningco.com: Contains links, is more interactive, combines news about cruises with specific tales from the people who take them. Geared to those in the know.

http://www.cruising.org, the official site of the Cruise Lines International Association: Contains links and general information. Geared to the novice.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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