Radiance tries to steer clear of shadow cast by big sisters

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MIAMI -- Perhaps Royal Caribbean International has painted itself into a corner.

Since 1999, cruising's second-largest line has been at the forefront of mass-market innovation with Voyager of the Seas and Explorer of the Seas, two ships of unprecedented scale that feature facilities and amenities from rock-climbing walls to ice skating rinks, previously foreign to cruise vessels.

As a result, Royal Caribbean's subsequent vessels are subject to comparison with those highly successful megaships.

That was certainly the case in March, as a sizable contingent of travel agents, investment professionals and media embarked on a two-night journey to the hallowed industry testing ground of Nowhere -- actually, about 50 or so miles off the coast of Florida -- aboard Radiance of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's newest ship.

Throughout the brief sailing, passengers were overheard comparing Radiance with its innovative fleetmates.

The consensus seemed to be that Radiance, while a "nice" cruise ship, "is no Voyager."

Those sentiments were somewhat accurate based on the brief voyage, which did not include port calls.

In terms of size, Radiance can't match up to Voyager or Explorer. Radiance is the first ship in a new class of vessels for Royal Caribbean and is significantly smaller than its two predecessors (90,090 tons compared with the 142,000 tons each of Voyager and Explorer).

The Sky Bar aboard the Radiance of the Seas.Naturally, the smaller Radiance also lacks some of the facilities that helped make Voyager and Explorer ground-breaking ships.

Passengers literally stood in line to get into the Johnny Rockets diners on the two megaships. There's no similar outlet aboard Radiance.

The Royal Promenade retail and dining corridor opened to rave reviews on Voyager and Explorer, yet this, too, is absent from Radiance.

But while this new ship is no Voyager or Explorer, it is an excellent option for mass-market cruise passengers.

The ship features an abundance of glass -- 57% of its exterior, according to Royal Caribbean -- that fills the interiors with sunlight.

The staterooms are spacious and well-appointed; the public rooms are tasteful and often adventuresome.

Radiance also offers a few of the innovations first found on Voyager and Explorer, and like those ships, the vessel features an array of diversions designed to appeal to active vacationers new to the cruise format.

In fact, Radiance has something the other two ships don't -- two $19,000, self-leveling billiards tables.

The Colony Club aboard the Radiance of the Seas.The high-tech pool tables are in the Bombay Billiard Club, which is part of the Colony Club, a fifth-deck entertainment area that combines four separate venues -- the billiards club, the Jakarta Lounge, Singapore Sling's bar and Calcutta Card Club. The views from glass-walled Singapore Sling's encompass the vessel's entire aft end.

The pool tables, I'm told, operate on a gyroscopic system designed to accommodate the ship's motion. You can see the tables move to counterbalance the ship's fore-to-aft and side-to-side movement.

Surprisingly, the system works reasonably well, although you'll occasionally find yourself lining up a ball just as the table shifts.

The billiards club seemed to draw particular attention from the investment crowd, and there might have even been some small-scale wagering.

All told, the pool tables are a pleasant diversion made more enjoyable due to the sheer novelty of playing pool aboard a cruise ship.

Naturally, I was duty-bound to tackle Radiance's rock-climbing wall, located at the ship's top deck.

The climbing wall, which includes instruction from Royal Caribbean staffers, is one of the very popular features carried over from Voyager and Explorer.

Affixed to the back of Radiance's smokestack, the wall is just as popular here as on the other ships.

I didn't start my ascent until an hour after signing up. That was just enough time to watch the misadventures of other climbers and start sweating over what I'd originally figured would be a piece of cake.

Finally, I watched a slightly overweight man (who I estimated at about 60 years old) slowly work his way to the very top. I couldn't very well back out after that, and I indeed climbed to the top when my turn came around. All I can say about the trip to the summit is it's harder than it looks.

A putting green adjacent to the wall is among the less challenging activities available. Again, it's fun to have the option of shanking a few balls around the synthetic turf course that winds around the deck's aft end.

Deck 12, one level above Radiance's lido area, features golf simulators, a sports court that can be set up for basketball or volleyball, a kid's pool and a teen's pool with a water slide.

On the second day of our voyage, a film crew from a popular cable television show, complete with producer and two young stars, tried steadfastly to set up a shot of the pair tumbling down the water slide together. Neither of the stars were teens.

Deck 12 also features three children's clubs -- separated by age group -- all connected to a video arcade. There's a fully equipped fitness center at the bow end of the deck.

While not as revolutionary as self-leveling pool tables and rock-climbing walls, Radiance's lido deck offers a welcoming degree of flexibility for passengers who want to lounge around.

Like virtually every other new ship in its class, Radiance's lido deck offers a large central pool surrounded by deck chairs and two whirlpools.

In what's become a staple of Caribbean cruising, there's a small stage nearby where a calypso/reggae band plays throughout the afternoons.

But Radiance's lido deck also features a solarium decorated in an African motif.

The solarium allows light and fresh air to flood in while eliminating most of the clatter from the main lido area. It's perfect for sun worshippers who desire a more meditative experience. The solarium also includes a main pool and one whirlpool.

Behind the solarium is a full-service spa and hair salon that connects, via an interior staircase, to the health center directly above.

The facility also includes men's and women's locker rooms, massage rooms and a "thermal suite" for specialized treatments.

Radiance's public areas are all connected by a huge atrium that includes two banks of elevators. The atrium is a soaring column of glass that admits light throughout the ship's interiors.

The glass elevators look out over the sea. The effect created, particularly on sunny days, is of a weightlessness that lifts the passenger into a sublime state of relaxation.

Clustered around the atrium, on decks nine and 10, are the Concierge Club, a cigar-smoking room; the Yacht Club, a small bar, and a library/coffee shop. These rooms made an attractive setting for the atrium's upper levels, but seemed to be empty for most of the cruise.

Interior activity aboard Radiance is focused around decks five and six. The two-level Aurora Theater, the main venue for production shows and live entertainment, extends from decks five to six at the ship's bow end. The theater seats 915.

Another venue, the 3D Theater, is a 40-seat cinema featuring current movies, and just like in land-based theaters, there's a bank of video games nearby.

Midship is the rather large Casino Royale, through which passengers can find the Champagne Bar, a small, sleek watering hole that's one of the more intimate areas of the ship. Located adjacent to the atrium in a slightly recessed space, it's great for a pre-dinner drink.

Radiance's Schooner Bar runs the length of the starboard side from a bulkhead just beyond the Champagne Bar all the way to the Colony Club.

Close by are Chops Grille, an elegant steak house, and Portofino, an Italian specialty restaurant.

These "alternative" dining venues are both available by reservation and carry a $20 per diner surcharge.

I dined in Portofino on the second evening. Radiance's cuisine was largely on target in all of its main dining venues, but it was still worth the $20 to sample Portofino's atmosphere.

The main dining venue, Cascades, is a two-level restaurant at the aft end of decks four and five.

Deck five also houses a sizable retail complex, with a general store, branded souvenir shop, jewelry store, resort-wear shop, gift shop, photo shop and perfume center.

Radiance's Internet center, Royal Caribbean Online, also is on deck five. The facility features 12 workstations offering 24-hour Internet access for a nominal fee.

Guests also can establish on-board e-mail accounts and send personalized e-postcards.

Royal Caribbean ships were once known for unusually small staterooms. That characteristic has changed dramatically, as the line's new ships offer an array of roomy cabins as attractive and feature-filled as any in cruising's mass market.

Of Radiance's 1,050 staterooms, 577 have private balconies, 813 have ocean views and 14 are wheelchair accessible.

Each stateroom is equipped with an interactive television, telephone, computer jack, a vanity with extendable working surface for a computer, a refrigerator/minibar, hair dryer and bedside reading lights.

This ship's largest stateroom is a 1,035-square-foot royal suite with a 172-square-foot balcony. There's only one of these, so book early.

There are six owner's suites at 512 square feet with 57-square-foot balconies, 17 standard suites measuring 385 square feet with 106-square-foot balconies and 35 deluxe outside cabins measuring 293 square feet with 66-square-foot balconies.

Most of the remaining balcony cabins are split between category D (each measuring 204 square feet with a 41-square-foot balcony) and categories E1, E2 and E3 (179 square feet, with 41-square-foot balconies).

Radiance also has three family suites measuring 586 square feet each with 140-square-foot balconies.

While it's true Radiance of the Seas is no Voyager or Explorer, it remains a pretty satisfying ship in its own right.

And as it stands, Radiance is the only cruise ship on which you can scale a rock wall and stop by the local pool hall later to brag.

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