Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cruising the ... high street: Independence of the Seas is the size of a town

She is so big she boasts her own High Street - and can carry the population of a small town to go shopping there.

This is the brand-new Independence of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship in the world, arriving in Southampton yesterday to begin her inaugural season.

She took two years to build and cost £400million, but her owners believe a boom in the popularity of cruising holidays will make her worth every penny invested.

The cruise company Royal Caribbean International has already launched the almost-as-huge sister ships Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, but Independence is the first new vessel in its fleet to begin its life by sailing around Europe.

Americans have a greater tradition of going on cruise holidays, but Britons are fast developing a love of luxury life on the ocean wave.

Royal Caribbean's UK managing director Jo Rzymowska said: 'The UK cruise market is leading the way with more new ships sailing from our waters than any other European market, and growing numbers of travellers turning on to the idea of holidays at sea.'

The 160,000-ton liner, built in Finland, is 1,112ft long. She can carry 4,375 guests and more than 1,000 crew, and is bigger by 8,400 gross registered tons than Cunard's Queen Mary 2 - also based in Southampton. There are 15 passenger decks served by 14 lifts.

Royal Caribbean is confident it can regularly fill the ship despite concerns over the global economy and credit crunch. It claims more people will sail from the UK on Independence of the Seas in 2008 than the entire population of Greenland.Figures from the Passenger Shipping Association project that 1.55million Britons will take a cruise holiday in 2008 - up from 1.35million last year. Facilities on board Independence of the Seas include an ice rink, a 1,350-seat theatre and a surf simulator in addition to the more traditional bars, pools, casino and spa treatments.

There is also the central promenade built like a high street, and lined with shops, bars and restaurants. For those seeking an unusual wedding venue, at the highest point of the ship is the Skylight Chapel, with room for 40 guests. To make British passengers feel at home, kettles have been installed in all cabins so they can brew their own tea

Over the next few days there will be a series of celebrations to mark the ship's arrival at Southampton, including a performance by the pop group Scouting For Girls, who will play a concert tomorrow.

There will also be fireworks displays and a charity auction hosted by Sir Steve Redgrave. The five-times Olympic gold medalist will be joined by TV and sporting favourites such as Steve Cram, Nick Hancock, Norman Pace, Steve Rider and Jimmy Tarbuck.

On April 30, Independence of the Seas will be officially named before she leaves for her first paying cruise on May 2.

Cruises on the Independence of the Seas start from £349 per person for a four-night cruise calling at Cork and St Peter Port.

An 11-night Canary Islands cruise is from £1,099 per person and a 14-night Mediterranean cruise starts at £1,299 per person.


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