Radiance of the Seas has been in local waters for little more than a month, but already Australia and its people have made a big impact. The luxury cruise ship's crew are impressed with the friendliness and capability of locals during the vessel's first circumnavigation of the continent.
Our 2012 Guide to Cruising:
VOYAGE WITH THE ANCIENTS
AMUSING YOUNG SEA ADVENTURERS
HIGH SEAS HOLIDAY HOT SPOTS
SET SAIL FOR A FUN RIO BEAT
MORE TO VALPARAISO THAN MEETS THE EYE
NO NEED TO PACK ‘JUST IN CASE’
"One thing that surprised us was the attitude of the people," the ship's captain Claus Andersen said. "We've never experienced anywhere where the people are so friendly."
He made special mention of West Australia in general, and Port Hedland in particular, for its welcome of Radiance of the Seas as its first cruise ship in late October. It was decided Broome's pier couldn't handle the 293m-long Radiance, which is part of the Royal Caribbean International stable, so the Pilbara port - more used to iron ore carriers - stepped into the breech.
"This was the very first time they'd had a cruise ship through but they looked like they do it every single day," Capt. Andersen said of the port authority and its residents.
Tug boats sprayed water, mining companies put on buses to show passengers their operations and it looked like every one of the town's 14,000 residents lined the coastline to farewell Radiance as she set off down the west coast, he said.
The Norwegian-born skipper was similarly impressed with the efficiency and flexibility of the Immigration Department in handling the chaos caused by the sudden shut-down of Qantas when Radiance was in Fremantle. The schedules of hundreds of passengers flying into Perth to board the cruiser were thrown into disarray and the ship had to stay another day. To help clear the passenger backlog, the department rostered on two officials until midnight.
Capt. Andersen, who's sailed the world with Royal Caribbean since 1998, said: "We've never had anywhere else in the world so accommodating and it's very, very nice to see." Capt. Andersen was speaking last month on a two-night Weekend Getaway cruise out of Sydney, which is Radiance's home port for the summer.
As well as introducing the ship to the media and travel agents, a "cruise to nowhere" lets potential passengers for longer cruises briefly experience accommodation, food and entertainment.
And it's likely locals will be as impressed with the ship as its captain is with them. Radiance of the Seas benefitted from a multi-million-dollar makeover before its arrival in Australia, with both a refurbishment and the addition of new features.
Seven speciality eateries are probably the most notable additions.
So, as well as the enormous two-level Cascades dining room (with room for 1200 diners), passengers can broaden their culinary experiences - for example at the Boardwalk Doghouse for American hot dogs; Izumi for Asian-fusion cuisine; Giovanni's Table, an Italian restaurant where sharing plates is encouraged; the Samba Grill, modelled on a Brazilian steakhouse; and Rita's Cantina for Mexican fare. There's also a new English-style pub called the Quill & Compass.
And an outdoor cinema has been set up at the new main swimming pool.
Inside the staterooms, interactive flat-screen televisions allow passengers to book shore excursions and room service and keep an eye on their onboard spending by checking their account balances.
These days, Radiance is classed as a decent-sized ship. It is more than 100m long and carries up to 2500 passengers - not in the "superliner" category of cruise ships, but big enough to be able to offer a variety of facilities. There's also a day spa with the usual treatments plus Botox and teeth whitening, a casino and a card room.There's also a jogging track, well-equipped gym, pool and billiard tables (self-levelling to counter the swell of the ocean), facilities to play soccer, basketball, and a nine-hole putting course and a new rock climbing wall on Deck 13.
Deck 13 is also where the kids can enjoy the water slide into their own pool and there's a third, adults-only pool in the Solarium.
A two-day getaway cruise gives passengers the time to sample just some of the facilities and activities on board. You'd have to race around like a maniac to experience them all, and that's not the object of any cruise, however long or intense.
I found the standard of service and food were generally high, as were the ship's fittings and fixtures, including my stateroom and bathroom.
Radiance also offers ship-wide wi-fi, but it is expensive. The size of the main swimming pool was a disappointment, too, but then it often is on cruise ships. Filling a hole on an elevated deck with large amounts of water is always problematic and this is apparently what restricts size.
The idea with all these facilities and options, of course, is to counter the stereotypical argument against taking a cruise - that there's nothing to do other than sit on a deckchair and fall asleep. You can do as little or as much as you want on a cruise, because cruise ships like Radiance of the Sea are more like resorts than a method of transportation.
"Our competition," says Royal Caribbean International's managing director in Australia and New Zealand, Gavin Smith, "is land-based resorts like Las Vegas."
The reference to Vegas is pertinent because Royal Caribbean is a US-based company, and while the ship's crew on our voyage comprised 58 nationalities, the ship maintains a distinctly American air.
The electricity sockets, for example, have the two round pins that receive American plugs. How much to tip crew members is explained. And 21 is the age of majority so a 20-year-old, say, cannot have a cocktail or scotch (this is being changed, however).
Not that all the passengers on Radiance cruises this summer will be Australian. The company expects around 40 per cent to be from overseas, mainly the US, Britain and Germany, which is one reason the ship is not being "Aussie-fied" during its summer Down Under.
"We're not orienting ourselves to the Australian palate," Mr Smith said. "We've got an obligation to be an international brand. We offer an international experience without travelling far from home."
Radiance of the Seas has followed the smaller Royal Caribbean ship Rhapsody of the Seas into Australian waters and Voyager of the Seas will join the party next year.
Voyager is another jump in size. It was once the biggest cruise ship in the world and its 137,000 tonnes compare with Radiance's 90,000. It can carry 1100 passengers more.
Mr Smith explained this gradation of ships in size is the Royal Caribbean model of doing business in a new market: start with a vessel capable of carrying around 2000 guests, build a footprint in the market, and then introduce bigger ships. The choice to widen even more in years to come means that Aussies will no longer have to fly long distances to experience some of the world's best cruise ships.