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Keeping Fit (and Busy) at Sea

| March 28, 2003

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How true are those Royal Caribbean TV commercials -- the ones that flash scene after scene of young, athletic passengers racing around on rollerblades, climbing walls, trekking on glaciers and the like, as a hard-rock song booms on the soundtrack? We decided to check out the whole "not your grandfather's cruise" spiel during a recent western Caribbean sailing on RCI's new Navigator of the Seas--one of its Voyager-class mega-ships.

Neither of us had been on a ship this big before--it carries more than 3,000 passengers--and we were a bit apprehensive about the impersonality of it all. But as it turned out, we were seriously impressed with the array of activities, amenities and possibilities on this monster vessel. And we found out that a lot of the stuff in those commercials is true.

RCI's mega-ships have apparently found a formula to accomplish something the cruise industry has been trying to do for years: Bring down the average age of its passengers and get a new generation hooked on its product. The crowd we saw (and it was a crowd--our sailing had no empty cabins) had a healthy representation of every adult age group, from 20-somethings to seniors, although there were very few truly elderly cruisers. The average age was probably late 40s, and a lot of passengers were traveling with children.

Fit and Fun

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We quickly learned that Navigator passengers don't have to be indolent unless they want to be. We tend to be pretty active, getting in some kind of a workout almost ever day. And RCI's Navigator easily met our needs, not only with its range of onboard sports and fitness options, but also with a superior slate of very active shore excursions. In the course of a week, we:

*Ran several miles on the fitness center's treadmills (there's a large number of them--all facing out over the bow--and other aerobic machines, so availability was never a problem except late in the afternoon). The ship also has an outdoor running track, but you have to get out there fairly early in the morning to beat the Caribbean heat and to avoid sidestepping around sunbathers.

*Got in a few workouts in the strength-training half of the fitness center, an array of about 20 Life Fitness machines and a long rack of dumbbells.

*Went ice-skating on the ship's indoor rink--fun for a while, but a bit small, and with a fair number of kids to dodge. It's also used for ice shows and other entertainment at night.

*Played ping-pong out on deck, and split up the other outdoor sports. My CruiseMate, who has experience in these areas, took on the wall-climbing and the roller-blading, while I settled for a few rounds of miniature golf. She told me the blading track, while somewhat short, offered the best surface she had ever rolled on, and the climbing routes up the wall provided a good range of difficulty. (Instructors are always on hand, and safety is paramount--everyone climbs in a harness, and even older children can take a turn.) We never got around to shooting hoops on the full-sized basketball court, but it was usually fairly busy--and it's lighted for night play.

Whatever equipment you need to play--miniature golf clubs, climbing shoes, roller blades, basketballs, ice skates and so on--is provided at no cost. (There is an indoor golf simulator that charges $25 an hour for up to six people.) The Fitness Center is free as well, of course, although there is a $10 per person fee for some group classes, like Pilates, yoga, and group cycling.

And that was just on board. On RCI shore excursions, we revved up a pair of WaveRunners and went shooting over the surf at Labadee (after safety training, and escorted by a couple of handlers on their own machines); and we paddled kayaks along Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman to a reef where we snorkeled for a while before kayaking back (also escorted). So in terms of the physical options, those TV commercials are pretty much on the mark (but not entirely: Not everyone on our cruise looked like 25-year-old models, and there was no blaring rock music--except out on the main pool deck most afternoons).

Time to Eat

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Thanks to our arduous activity schedule, we felt little guilt about indulging in another area where Navigator offers generous options: onboard dining. The formal dining rooms, which occupy three decks, are impressive and efficient, but that's only the start. Over the stern on Deck 11 is the almost-always-open (and almost always busy) Windjammer Cafe, with a cornucopia of selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and lines that are never burdensome due to the layout of multiple self-service counters. We noticed that at night, Windjammer sometimes had some of the same soup and entrée selections that were posted on the main dining room menu.

Navigator, unlike its earlier sister ships, added another buffet option adjacent to Windjammer--Jade, which serves up an array of excellent Asian and Asian-influenced dishes, ranging from sushi to Thai to Chinese and more. While earlier Voyager-class vessels provide only one fine-dining restaurant (at a $20 per person surcharge)--Portofino, with Italian cuisine--Navigator adds a second option (also $20), Chops Grille. The attraction here is meat, and the waiter will bring around a tray of sample cuts to give you an idea of what, and how much, you'll be ordering. (The food in Chops was great. Not so great were the stomping noises coming through the ceiling. Maybe they shouldn't have located it underneath the kids' activity center.)

For feel-good foods, there's the ever-popular Johnny Rockets, a 50s-style diner with old-fashioned jukeboxes in each booth and a menu full of burgers, fries and shakes (in a very un-50s touch, there's also a veggie burger). And there's a 24-hour café on the Promenade "mall" serving up pizza, snack sandwiches and killer chocolate chip cookies. Another new addition on Navigator: For purists who aren't satisfied with the self-serve frozen yogurt machines scattered around the ship, a Ben & Jerry's counter on the Promenade provides serious ice cream (at $2.25 to $3.75 a serving).

Loosening Up

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By the end of the evening, you have to unwind after all that exercise and indulgence, and the list of bars, lounges, discos and entertainment options is just too long to detail. Not to mention the gigantic casino (don't know how to play Craps? Watch the instructional video on your cabin TV). I found the most attractive lounge area to be way up on Deck 14, with panoramic views of the pool deck and the sea. Some lounges have entertainers, from the folk singer in The Two Poets, a faux English pub, to the jazz served up in the Cosmopolitan Club.

Another Navigator innovation not on the earlier ships is Vintages, a wine bar on the Promenade that sells by the glass or bottle, and also hosts seminars designed to teach the uninitiated enough about wines that they will be able to order with confidence.

If I was younger and/or not an early riser, I might have hung out down in The Dungeon, the two-level disco, until the early morning. And if I was a lot younger, I might have frittered away God knows how much money in Navigator's elaborate video arcade, with machines ranging from relatively simple video games to high-tech virtual-reality experiences (at 75 cents to $1.50 a pop). And that's another thing: You don't have to worry about your kids while you're off doing whatever all day long. Navigator expanded the space for supervised children's programs by 37 percent over that on its sister ships, for a total of 22,000 square feet.

Some of Navigator's options are wonderful--like its Solarium pool/sunbathing area: If you don't like the crowds, drinking and live band in the main pool area on days at sea, just walk forward through the doors to the Solarium. It's a smaller area with plusher lounge chairs, no kids allowed, and a single, sedate bar. I don't know how they did it, but even though the Solarium is just a few yards forward of the main pool deck, you cannot hear the live band there at all.

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And some need some improvement. For instance, the computer center's Internet connection service didn't always work, but we were still being charged 50 cents a minute as we kept trying and re-trying to log on--necessitating a trip down to the Purser to have those charges removed from the bill. And even though there are four elevator banks, the waits at peak times can be quite excessive.

But those are minor gripes compared to the overall experience of Navigator (and, presumably, her similarly equipped sister ships). If you're an active person, and like to stay that way, don't bring more than one book to read on your seven-day cruise, because you probably won't have time to read them. And besides, there's an ample supply on board in the ship's well-stocked library.

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