Evolution of the "Suite Life" at Sea

| Oct. 12, 2009

The state of cruise ship suite staterooms is about to make a great leap forward with Oasis of the Seas. How such staterooms evolved.

The Next Generation of Staterooms

When Oasis of the Seas debuts in December 2009, it will have the world's first interior-facing balcony cabins. Unlike the promenade view staterooms on Voyager and Freedom class, they will have balconies facing the inside of the ship - but that space won't be an interior promenade -- it will be an outside area. These cabins are designated as "Boardwalk View" and "Central Park View" balcony cabins, with the same layout as a balcony cabin facing the sea - but they will look down on the open-air public spaces in the center of the ship.

Central Park View balcony cabins will look down on a grassy area longer than a football field. Central Park will have real grass and real trees, with walking paths, water fountains, hedges and flower gardens. Glass domes within the Central Park area are actually skylights for the indoors Royal Promenade below.

Central Park on Oasis Boardwalk on Oasis of the Seas with Balcony View cabins on both sides

At night, the view from these balconies should be spectacular. The park will be illuminated with Tivoli lights to outline the walking paths and light up the branches of the trees. At the al fresco dining spots below, people will enjoy meals in view of these balcony staterooms.

The Boardwalk Balcony cabins will be completely different, looking down on a carousel and other outdoor attractions for kids and grownups; at the far end of the space will be the AquaTheater, also in view of most balcony cabins.

View of the AquaTheater from the Boardwalk balcony cabins Boardwalk suites - latest picture from Oasis under construction

The AquaTheater will be the venue for water-based acrobatic shows throughout the day; it will have automated fountains and will be open to public swimming at other times. Some cabins at the aft end of the Boardwalk will have such extraordinary views of the AquaTheater that they are designated "AquaTheater Staterooms." Those cabins have extra-large balconies that wrap around the end of the deck wing so occupants can see everything that happens at the AquaTheater. These staterooms definitely sell at a premium.

But the most exciting new accommodations on Oasis will be the two-deck-tall Loft Staterooms. Next to the veranda is a seating area with a couch and large flat-panel TV. The window to the sea is wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, two-decks tall. Near the window, a staircase ascends to the sleeping area, which is half the square footage of the bottom level. It has a railing so you can look down on the seating area below and out to sea.

Some Loft Suites face inwards toward Central Park; some face backwards over the pool area and the flo-riders, wile others face out to sea.

View of Flo-Rider Loft Suites Behind Loft Suite Veranda - two-deck window

By far the most exciting suite will be the Oasis Royal Loft Suite, also two decks tall but twice as wide the regular loft suite. The Royal Loft Suite has a living room and dining room with a dry bar. There is one bedroom on the main level with a bathroom with shower; the master suite is on the upper level with a stairway to reach it. The master bath has a tub, shower, two sinks and a bidet. The private balcony has a whirlpool and a dining area with a dry bar. This suite can hold up to six guests and comes in at 1,524 square feet with an 843 square foot balcony.

The Last Revolution in Staterooms before Oasis

Our first taste of a different kind of stateroom came on Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class of vessels, which debuted in 1999. These were the Royal Promenade cabins -- inside cabins with huge picture windows that looked down on the ship's interior public space called the Royal Promenade. This area featured restaurants, nightclubs, dining spaces and shopping. These inside cabins with a view were revolutionary, even though Royal Caribbean never made them actual balcony cabins where passengers could walk outside and see the Royal Promenade.

The Royal Promenade -- Freedom of the Seas Family Royal Promenade Suite - look out to the inside

The Sweet Secret to Suites

These suites are not cheap, but there is a definite market for very expensive cruise ship accommodations. Royal Caribbean's CEO has quipped that he wishes he had built more loft suites in Oasis and her sister Allure. Apparently they are already pretty popular.

Brad Ball of Silversea Cruises tells me that Silversea ships have several standard verandah cabins of about 300 square feet, which they also refer to as suites. But the ships also have a number of much larger suites, closer to 750 square feet -- and those suites always sell out first.

Silversea' Silver Suite Silver Suite Bedroom

Bottom line: The nicer the cabin, the better it sells, in many cases. There are still plenty of people out there willing to pay a little extra for "the suite life."

The Evolution of Balconies

For most of their history, passenger ships had no more than two or three decks above the hull. On the Titanic, for example, the number of decks above the hull was just two; almost all passenger cabins were within the hull. The nicer cabins were still roomy and warmly decorated, but the only windows a stateroom could have were portholes.

These portholes had almost half an inch of glass and a heavy steel cover that hinged over the round glass "spigot." They were sealed with big flanged screws to make them watertight in high seas, and were usually set back from the wall due to the curvature of the hull. When you entered a cabin with a flanged porthole, you definitely felt like you were at sea.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that most cruise lines cruise lines stopped buying old ocean liners to convert into cruise ships and instead started building new vessels from the keel up. By then, much lighter shipbuilding materials were developed, so ships could get taller.

Titanic - no staterooms above the hull Royal Viking Sky - Penthouse balconies added in 1982

Having more decks above the waterline led to more staterooms with bigger windows. The first major upgrade in stateroom design was the addition of balcony cabin penthouses on the first luxury ships, those of Royal Viking Line. When these ships were redesigned about 1980, adding a dozen penthouses with balconies, it was considered a very big deal. These balconies were not in the ships' original plans - they were added when the Royal Viking ships were "stretched." It soon became obvious that the balconies were the real attraction for these penthouses.

The Evolution of Balcony Cabins

The earlier cruise ships, with most staterooms inside the hull, usually had the promenade deck above these cabin decks - so the top of the hull was the first deck where passengers could walk outside. This is usually on deck five or six on most ships. It was called the promenade deck because it allowed people to walk completely around the ship. Public rooms like restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, etc. were generally put on the promenade deck and above, but that only left room for a few more decks above the public rooms -- so there couldn't be many balcony cabins.

Then in the early 2000s, a new ship design came along, starting with the Carnival's Vista class; later, it was used for Costa, Carnival, Holland America and even Cunard ships.

The revolutionary design of Vista class ships put the public rooms below the promenade deck and within the hull. The designers realized these rooms did not need access to the outdoors as long as they had windows. So now all the staterooms could go above the public rooms, putting them high enough above the waterline that the majority of them could be balcony cabins.

The Costa Atlantica, Carnival Spirit, Holland America's Eurodam and Cunard's Queen Victoria are all Vista class vessels as described above. Each has hundreds of balcony cabins -- at least 80 percent of the cabins onboard.

But with the exception of the added veranda, there is usually little difference between an inside cabin, an oceanview cabin and a balcony cabin: They tend to have the same furniture, layout, and nearly the same square footage. Today's cruise ships are as high as 18 decks, 12 of them above the hull, and they are so chockablock full of balconies that some cruise writers have compared them to Mediterranean apartment buildings.

New cruisers are usually surprised to see that cruise ships can be so tall - especially once they find out the depth of the ship below the waterline (known as the draft) is usually less than 30 feet.

Bulbous Bow of Oasis - ship is balanced on keel The Norway (formerly SS France) after new decks with balcony cabins were added

Since modern cruise ships appear to be so topheavy, why don't they roll over? The hull is solid steel; at the bottom is the keel -- a long, rounded piece of steel that runs the entire length of the ship. The rounded piece of steel you see at the front of every cruise ship, called the "bulbous bow," is actually part of the keel.

Modern cruise ships are so bottom heavy for stabilization that they can literally stand upright, balanced on the keel, on dry land. So you can imagine how stable they are in the water.

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