'Tweaking' benefits Brilliance of the Seas

Cruise editor Rebecca Tobin was on hand for the premiere of Royal Caribbean's new ship, the Brilliance of the Seas, in Harwich, England. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE BRILLIANCE OF THE SEAS -- It's always been one of cruising's ironies: You're on a big ship surrounded by a body of water that stretches to the horizon, yet you barely look out at the sea.

On each of its newer vessels, Royal Caribbean Cruises, parent of Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, has gone out of its way to bring the outside in. Both brands boast ships with walls of windows throughout.

Brilliance of the Seas has nearly three acres of glass covering its exterior. A glass wall extends nine decks, flooding with light the ship's 12-deck atrium and the small lounges that ring the lobby. Elevators shoot up and down the atrium window.

But your clients may have seen this all before, on Brilliance's sister ship, the Radiance of the Seas.

Royal Carib-bean brass used the word "tweak" to describe the design changes, and guests won't notice most of them unless they carry a tape measure and plan on surveying the width of the hallway in the Schooner Bar.

In fact, the biggest difference between the two ships is one Royal Caribbean is hoping guests won't see.

The Brilliance is the first Royal Caribbean ship to use a gas-and-steam turbine engine, which the line said eliminates the soot and smoke that billows out of a ship's stack.

The engine also cuts noise and vibration. During our three-day sailing, we were blessed with calm seas, and at times I could hardly tell we were moving at all.

The other major difference between the sister ships is their deployments.

The Brilliance started its career this summer with 13-day northern Europe voyages but will reposition to the U.S. this month for Canada and New England cruises before wintering in Miami.

Next year, the vessel will be one of nine Royal Caribbean Cruises ships in Europe -- six for Royal Caribbean and three for Celebrity -- marking the company's return to the Continent in force.

The Africa-themed solarium on Brilliance of the Seas.The Brilliance and the Radiance are smaller mega-ships than their enormous, Voyager-class cousins.

But "small" is, of course, a relative term in the cruise business; the Brilliance, which carries 2,100 passengers, is classified as a "Panamax" ship, with a beam just narrow enough to fit through the Panama Canal.

But let's get back to basics. Due to the ship's design and the influx of natural light, most rooms felt large and spacious.

Wide hallways at the entrances to large public rooms such as the Minstrel Restaurant helped streamline the dinner-crowd crush.

One of the most popular gathering spots during this inaugural voyage was the Schooner Bar, which acts as a wide thoroughfare between the Colony Club, two alternative restaurants and the atrium. It's large enough to accommodate a predinner gathering.

The Brilliance also has plenty of toys to keep its passengers busy.

First on that list are two state-of-the-art pool tables that use hydraulics to keep the table level when the ship is rocking on the waves. This didn't make me a better pool player, but the shifting, bobbing table was fun to watch.

The pool hall -- decorated more like a millionaire's library than a typical pool hall -- is located in the Colony Club, a combination dance floor, lounge and bar that can hold nearly 400 guests.

When my pool partners abandoned the billiard table for the craps table in the nearby casino, I rode up to Deck 13 to check out the nightlife in the Viking Crown Lounge.

The lounge, which is perched atop the ship, is divided into two areas: the Starquest disco and the more sedate Hollywood Odyssey.

On our voyage, Starquest's dance floor and the surrounding banquettes were crowded well into the night. The music tended toward '70s disco and '90s Latin pop.

During the day, Deck 13's outdoor area teemed with activity as guests tried out the rock-climbing wall and the nine-hole mini-golf course. One deck below is a generous kids area with a pool and waterslide.

The less active found the covered pool and hot tub in the ship's solarium a relaxing spot. It also was a little more temperate than the outdoor, midship pool area.

The solarium's seating is a little more accommodating than the outside pool, as well. Pool loungers and chairs are wood, with comfortable, cherry-red cushions; guests relax to the sounds of cascading waterfalls and chirping birds.

Still more relaxing is what Royal Caribbean calls its "exotic thermal suite," located in the ship's Steiner-operated spa.

Use of the suite, which costs about $50 per voyage for unlimited use, is a good suggestion for cost-conscious cruisers who want to pamper themselves while on board.

The suite consists of five different relaxation areas: a "gentle" sauna, an aromatherapy room, a gentle steam room, two showers with a "cold mist" function that acts in lieu of a plunge pool, and six heated tile loungers that give guests an unobstructed view of the ocean from the suite's wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.

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