Action woman Flip Byrnes climbs a personal mountain on one of the world's largest ships.
Standing on the docks in Singapore, I'm craning my neck at a wall a mile high. Fifteen floors, to be exact, of the eighth largest ship in the world, Voyager of the Seas. The first thought is a Titanic-oriented concern: how on earth does this thing float? The vessel's size is as intimidating as what I'm about to do: set sail and haul anchor for the first time. On a very, very large boat.
Sorry, ship. Rookie error. Friends express disbelief when I sign up; my adventures usually involve climbing mountains, skiing across ice caps, trekking across countries. I am so far from the typical cruiser profile that if this experience can convert me, cruising can convert anyone.
I'm intrigued. Voyager of the Seas heads for Australian shores this November, which will send cruise lovers into a frothing frenzy. Joining its maiden Singapore-to-Shanghai cruise is a chance for a preview, so I ask two friends for cruising advice. "Some of the activities will seem tacky, but they're fun. Be a joiner," one says. Another stresses constant hand washing (viruses spread like wildfire) and offers a final pearl of wisdom: "Don't lick the handrails."
So I arrive on the carnival-atmosphere docks among the other 3000 boarding passengers (the boat can hold 3840 people, about the population of Bellingen), hand sanitiser in pocket, sporting new pastel lemon shorts - my idea of cruising attire - and ready for anything. Fun ahoy!
Walking on board, I'm maybe not ready for the technicolour carpet (did a rainbow explode?); I'm also maybe not ready for my room, which offers a promenade view instead of the anticipated sea zephyrs. The promenade, modelled on Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade, is the boat's core, a four-storey atrium with pub, shops and a cafe. Rooms overlooking the promenade have a full-length window (a remarkable engineering feat), unlike other interior cabins, which have, well, walls.
Fear that I may inadvertently appear at the windows naked, and despondency over the absence of fresh air, is quickly forgotten as a familiar odour wafts. Could it be? Yes, chocolate-chip cookies! Like a beagle I scamper about searching for the source, discovering my room is smack bang above the Promenade Cafe, and its hot, tempting cookies.
It's an early game changer. Ye gods, only a small floor separates me from a cookie goldmine! And they're free! Like most meals and treats on board (with few exceptions), they're included in the cruise cost. I'm about to cultivate a serious cookie fetish. I'm also about to discover the ship is completely overwhelming.
This floating 137,276-tonne fun palace boasts what will be Australia's first at-sea ice rink (to host international ice show Ice Odyssey), the world's first on-board rock-climbing wall when the ship launched (walls now feature in 10 more Royal Caribbean ships), as well as a minigolf course, three pools, an inline skating course, a basketball court, a 247-square-metre gym and a 1350-seat theatre.
Despite the diverse offerings, I'm determined to remain fit, eat healthily and read that unread book, in between visiting exciting Asian cities. "Ha!" the cruise director laughs. "Let's see how long you resist the relaxation urge."
So, how to attack this beast? To get a grip on the 311-metre-long ship, we spend the next two days taking behind-the-scenes tours.
The day after boarding, head Ice Odyssey producer Ramone proudly shows us his pre-show. It's difficult to concentrate while he explains the biannual ice melt, the mini Zamboni grader and costumes. The cast are practising and he can't compete with the sylph-like blonde who is suspended from the ceiling and stretched out in an inverted split manoeuvre, spinning like a whirling dervish. We're fascinated by her dexterity and the possibility of a jugular being sliced by a blade at any moment. The cabaret venue, La Scala Theatre, complete with orchestra pit, gives the original in Milan a run for its money. Doubling as a movie theatre, it recently premiered Madagascar 3 at the same time as the film's debut on land. Although licking the handrails goes against advice, lick the 3D glasses with abandon - they're sanitised after each viewing. Later that night, we watch a show that features numbers from Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent, with performers resplendent in one-piece jumpsuits.
Heading poolside, I discover the soft-serve ice-cream cart (free, and in chocolate and strawberry swirls - eureka!). With that and an on-board library book in hand, I retire to the Roman-style, adults-only pool to assess how this new cruiser provides enforced relaxation. Sprawled like a starfish, chocolate ice-cream dribbling down my chin, it seems the new me is going very well indeed. Who knew there was a temporary lounge lizard inside?
To work off the on-board treats (so far from my usual low-GI organic diet it's not funny), I rush around the boat on a continual sugar high, trying a new activity every day; lifting weights as countries go past, doing sprints on the outdoor jogging track in warm monsoonal rain, greeting dawn with yoga on the helipad. True, I'm doing most of these alone, watched by curious fellow passengers. Whatever, I'm tailoring the cruise to how I like to live. The ultimate moment, however, arrives on the bow's rock climbing wall.
It's a nine-metre-high wall, and on about day five the instructors refuse to belay down until I've rung the top bell. Stuck to the wall like a splattered fly, pleading rescue, a futuristic skyline comes into view: a maze of pointy glass towers shimmering with dying sunlight and, a short time later, lit as though fuelled by a trillion fireflies.
It's Hong Kong. And so I arrive in one of Asia's most compelling, dynamic cities, 61 metres above the waterline, warm twilight wind on my back. I remain on the wall for bliss-filled hours, climbing while we slide through the harbour between junk boats. I've never been one to make an entrance, but this is nothing short of epic. Beat that, James Bond. Hong Kong is an itinerary highlight. It's the most seductive of Asian cities, and I take free time to allow some off-itinerary adventure. While exploring chic Mid-levels, monsoonal rain starts falling and I take an unexpected turn down an alley into what feels like the beating heart of Asia, a world away from polished, Western-style restaurants. It's lunchtime: diners perch on stools eating noodles, familiar and unfamiliar scents waft among the steam that rises from damp clothing.
I have no idea where I am, no idea what I've just ordered (pointing to the delicious meal of the person next to me), but the barbecue meat is one of the best meals I have ever had.
With rainwater puddling around my feet, surrounded by clacking chopsticks, I'm having an experience that's slightly raw, a tad gritty and undeniably oriental. Not something I'd expected to have on a cruise.
Hong Kong was such a highlight, and the boat so full of hidden treasure, that I don't bother disembarking at penultimate stop Xiamen, China. It's a brilliant move. I have the ship (and climbing wall) to myself for a day. I visit the gym, sauna, steam room and pool, do some reading, watch a show, skate, stock up on cookies and take in a movie. Bored? Not yet.
Clearly, it's time to leave when Cafe Promenade staff greet me with "Hello again!" and the climbing staff sneakily begin directing me up trickier routes. The trick I've learnt is how to handle a cruise. When seeking solitude, I eat late lunches, dine at the divine Portofino (never tiring of waiters calling me "My Lady") or find a library nook.
If seeking company, the poolside reggae band or comedian Matt Yee's late-night risque bar show are sure things. And the climbing wall and sprint track have become my spiritual homes.
On a ship this large, there is something for everyone. You just need tenacity and a compass to find it.
In Shanghai, I'm not dragged kicking and screaming from the ship, but it's close. I've become the world's most unlikely cruise convert, turned from landlubber to hedonistic holiday pirate.
Would I go again? Well, it would have to be similar to Voyager of the Seas, with a variety of facilities and spaces to match, and a week is perfect. No passports, no unpacking and no extra costs are big wins. Spontaneity lovers, however, will need to get creative. But that's what shore leave is for.
The writer was a guest of Royal Caribbean Cruises.
Cruising is the largest-growing tourism market in Australia (behind only the US in cruisers to population ratio, about 3 per cent). On big ships, that means large volumes of people — and queues. Try to go at off-peak times for meals and when booking onshore tours (the desk was usually free about 8am or 10pm) and disembarkation at ports.
Food for thought
About 17,000 meals are served daily, covering a wide range of global cuisine (including low-GI options). If the main restaurant doesn't tempt, the pool-deck Windjammer Cafe has buffet meals, a US-style Johnny Rockets diner (complete with singing staff and booths) is $4.95 extra, and fine dining Portofino is an additional $20 — and worth every cent.
Get on board
Voyager of the Seas begins its maiden Australian season in November, visiting Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and New Zealand on its way to its new home port in Sydney. It will have one-night itineraries for the uninitiated (to 18 nights taking in New Zealand, the south Pacific and Australia). 1800 754 500, www.royalcaribbean.com.au.
A "Buy one get one 50 per cent off" package is priced from $1599 for the first passenger and $799.50 for the second (including gratuities and taxes, based on twin share). Departs on November 24 and visits Auckland; Tauranga; Napier; Dunedin; Dusky, Doubtful and Milford sounds; Melbourne; and Sydney.