The Voyager of the Seas was built in 1999 and heralded at the time for a slew of groundbreaking features, and when I cruised on the ship last month between China and Singapore, some of what was once cutting edge now seemed quaint.
What is fresh and new for the 3,114-passenger ship is its home in Asia and the Pacific region. The Voyager just concluded its maiden season in the Far East, joining the smaller Legend of the Seas, which is in Asia for its third consecutive year-round deployment (and which will be replaced by Voyager's sister Mariner of the Seas in the spring).
The ship started in May with three- to five-night cruises from Singapore to Malaysia and Thailand. From June through October, the Voyager offered four- to seven-night sailings from Shanghai and Tianjin, China, to Japanese and Korean ports, catering to a mostly Chinese clientele who were typically booked on cruises chartered and sold by Chinese travel agencies and tour operators.
According to the ship's hotel director, Anthony Hezlewood, though a handful of non-Chinese found their way on these sailings, either unintentionally or in order to immerse themselves in Chinese culture, he added that most non-Chinese passengers would be uncomfortable on a ship filled with non-English speakers (though the ship's crew speak both English and Mandarin).
My family and I joined the Voyager's 14-night transition cruise from Tianjin to Singapore, before the ship continued south for cruises to the Pacific Islands and to Australia and New Zealand.
Fruit and double-boiled soup
With its year-round home base now in the diverse and sprawling Asia and Pacific region, the Voyager must be all things to all people.
The ship's crew has to quickly transition between its vastly different markets, from the Chinese-only cruises out of China to the international mix of passengers sailing on cruises out of Singapore and Sydney.
"We're juggling all the time," Hezlewood told me. "It's very challenging."
The Voyager's Chinese crew, about one-third of the total, is a big help. They're coveted not only for their language skills but for their help with crowd control. For many mainland Chinese, the concept of waiting in lines is foreign, so crew had to be positioned to help direct passengers into the Windjammer buffet restaurant, dining rooms, theater and the gangway.
In the stair landings, small signage with pictures pointing up or down for food, swimming pools and entertainment lounges also helps speakers of any language get to where they need to go.
While Royal Caribbean seeks to offer an international experience for all passengers no matter where they're from, the product is tweaked depending on who is on board.
On this summer's China cruises, for instance, the menu focused on Chinese standards such as double-boiled soups, fish, stir fries, pork dumplings and fruit-based desserts, as well as Western favorites like pizza. Dining tables were always set with soy sauce and chopsticks, as well as cutlery.
A big emphasis on the ship was on the dining. Typically, Hezlewood said, the Chinese passengers eat dinner first in the Windjammer lido buffet, then head to the main dining rooms to eat again, homing in on anything to do with fruit. Hezlewood said even the carved watermelon decorations were eaten.
He estimated that about 30% more food is consumed on the Chinese cruises compared to Royal Caribbean's other sailings. (We actually felt the food was our cruise's biggest disappointment; more often than not it was bland and uninspired, even in the Italian Portofino specialty restaurant.)
On the other hand, the average Chinese mainlander isn't a big drinker, with the Voyager's total intake from booze sales a fraction of what it is on cruises with a predominantly non-Chinese crowd, according to Hezlewood.
In fact, on my cruise, which carried the first shipload of international passengers after the summer season in China, the Australians, English and Americans drank so much the ship ran out of cans of Foster's and draft beer for several days. Grumbling drinkers had to wait for supplies to be loaded in Laem Chabang, the port city for Bangkok.
Gambling, dancing, photography
To accommodate the Chinese's well-known love of gambling, two new gaming areas geared to high rollers were added to the Voyager: one in the former Cigar Bar and another carved out of the main Casino Royale.
While live music acts are popular with all nationalities, Cruise Director Gordon Whatman told me that the Chinese especially love dancing, from watching street parties on the Royal Promenade to joining dance classes.
The professional ice skating shows were a big hit with the Chinese too, and they were a highlight for my family, as well.
While we enjoyed acts like Jonathan Clark, who mixed stand-up comedy with impersonations of famous singers, the Chinese guests over the summer were more entertained by visual acts, such as jugglers and acrobats, as well as Royal Caribbean's standard production shows.
Photo taking was another popular form of entertainment for the Chinese passengers, and they loved the DreamWorks character sessions, where Shrek and crew would mingle and pose with passengers.
Other subjects were favored, as well. "I was like a rock star," Whatman told me with a big grin. His picture was taken so many times he lost count.
"Mass tourism in Asia is still a new thing, so it's challenging to work with tour operators and to get good guides," said the Voyager's shore excursion manager, Srgan Jovanov, adding that the ports and the infrastructure are not up to par yet in many cases.
On our cruise, most of the docking facilities were in unattractive container ports (this goes for the smaller Legend, as well).
Jovanov said that some tourist attractions can't handle thousands of passengers at once. For instance, for the popular Cu Chi Tunnels near Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, only a limited number of bus tours were offered on our cruise, so we wound up having to take a taxi. It worked out fine in the end, and it was much cheaper.