MIAMI — In the five-story open lobby, brass-trimmed glass-enclosed elevators slide up and down, their gleaming reflections glancing off marble walls. Elegantly clad guests lean against a brass railing to look far below at a white baby grand piano where a man in a red coat is playing light classics beside three fountain pools.
By now, almost every major city has one of these eye-catching grand hotels with majestic marble staircases and ethereal soaring space. But this one is scheduled to sail into the Caribbean sunset at 5:30.
Royal Caribbean's 2,282-passenger Sovereign of the Seas is the largest cruise ship ever built. We took a three-day familiarization trip before the christening, which was on Jan. 15, and it brought up some interesting questions.
For instance, how many hands can a captain shake at a cocktail party?
Royal Caribbean is taking care of that problem by scheduling two cocktail parties for each of the two dinner sittings. Capt. Tor Stangeland will press the flesh of only half the passengers at his two shifts, and his second in command, in another lounge, will handle the other half.
And how far will the average passenger be willing to walk to get from the show lounge to the midnight buffet on a ship that is almost 300 yards long?
Actually, only a short stroll and a stairway or elevator separate the chorus girls from the cheesecake, because the vessel's design concentrates the public rooms aft and the staterooms forward for easy circulation between dining rooms, casino, lounges and showroom.
If you set out for a morning exercise session on the sports deck from a B-deck forward cabin, a journey that means traveling the 880-foot length of the ship and up 11 decks, you might want to take along a compass and your lunch.
How long a line is likely to form at the shore excursion desk when the ship's capacity of 2,690 people are aboard?
"We don't want lines anywhere on the ship," Royal Caribbean president Edwin Stephan said. So his firm has invested $1.2 million in a computer called Cruise Control.
Each cabin will have a Cruise Control TV set that allows passengers to order shore excursions, room service or wine for the dinner table, and which provides wakeup calls, electronic maps for routes around the ship and a full list of activities.
Cruise director Ray Rouse hopes that Cruise Control will eventually eliminate the printed matter routinely delivered to cabins.
The Sovereign of the Seas, because of its design and construction, offers a smooth ride with little or no vibration and excellent sound muting between cabins.
The ship is super-size, but almost 1,000 of the 1,141 cabins are Royal Caribbean's standard size, which means that they are very compact. But they are well planned and comfortable.
The line's intent is to give most of the available space to public rooms and to "get people out of the cabins and into the public areas."
Company executives argue that their heavy percentage of under-45 passengers and first-time cruisers don't spend time other than sleeping or dressing in their cabins.
For more than basic space, book one of the 62 suites or one of the 84 larger cabins. The cost for a larger outside double is $250 more per person for a seven-day cruise than a standard outside double, but it may be worth the difference.
Forget Lavish Wardrobe
Conversely, don't expect to travel with a lavish "Love Boat" wardrobe if you're sharing a three- or four-berth budget cabin. Hanging space is minimal, especially with the back of the TV set extending into a large portion of the closet's shelf area.
Some cabins may be designated as nonsmoking, according to officials. However, that should be implemented while the ship is new. During our brief cruise no nonsmoking sections were available in any of the lounges, only in the dining room, but plans call for them to be set aside on all future sailings.
One result of the giant size is that there may be a problem in unloading passenger baggage at the end of the cruise, as most port regulations call for bags to be taken off before passengers can disembark.
Because most of the 1,624 press and travel industry people on the preview cruise were carrying their own luggage, we could not observe a normal disembarkation, but company officials predict that it will take less than two hours to unload the bags.
Some Sovereign pluses: Twin cinemas with a choice of new and classic feature films, the largest and most complete hospital facility we've seen at sea, gym facilities and a top-quality fitness program, holograms and laser technology in the disco, a broad spectrum of shipboard art, some 5-cent slots in the casino, a library with new books and soft leather chairs, eight brand-name boutiques, a French cafe and an cozy champagne bar.
The Sovereign of the Seas sails every Saturday from Miami, calling at San Juan, St. Thomas and Labadee, its own private beach on the north coast of Haiti.
Peter Whelpton, executive vice president, said the company may add Cayo Levantado in Samana Bay, Dominican Republic, to future itineraries, but not in place of Labadee, where "we've had to cancel several times when they have had violence (in Haiti), even though it was not in the Labadee area."
Fares range from $1,390 per person for an inside double with two lower beds to $2,250 for a large deluxe suite with picture windows. Some discounts are available for booking 180 days in advance.