In a small notch on Florida’s east coast, more than 20,000 people have filed into seven ships that would, in a line, stretch for more than a mile. A position high on deck 15 of Celebrity Edge offers a sweeping view of Port Everglades on changeover day. Silver Wind is the minnow of the fleet, with only 300 passengers. Dominating the dock, like a blue whale in a car park, Harmony of the Seas has room for 9,000 people (including crew), as well as 23 swimming pools.
Numbers like these circle a buoyant industry like gulls, as each new ship — and each new attraction — sets out to break records. The first ice rink at sea? Old news. The first go-kart track? It’s been done. An indoor skydiving chamber? Do keep up. Edge offers none of these things, and has a relatively modest capacity of 3,000 (plus about 1,200 crew), yet it has created a Titanic buzz in the industry.
Celebrity Cruises claims that the first in its new class of four ships is “the future of cruising”, delivering new levels of taste and luxury to a market freighted with stereotypes. A week before its official launch and naming ceremony on December 4, I have joined hundreds of journalists, travel agents and industry folk for the billion-dollar ship’s first voyage. During a slightly odd jolly at sea, I want to find out whether Edge really defies expectation in its mission to woo cruise sceptics such as me.
Soon, without fanfare, Edge swings away from terminal 25. Over the course of the afternoon, all seven ships slide into the Atlantic past the timeshare blocks at the end of Fort Lauderdale Beach. Under a circling news helicopter, a sun-seeking armada cruises towards the Bahamas.
During the 1980s and 1990s, cruise companies merged into megalines, now led by Carnival — which owns four of the seven ships in Fort Lauderdale today — and Royal Caribbean, which owns Celebrity Cruises and, under its own name, the four biggest ships in the world, including Harmony of the Seas. Ships that had typically channelled a maritime golden age — think starched collars and deck quoits — began to grow into floating combinations of resort hotels and theme parks.
Edge is still a big boat, exactly as long as the Shard in London is tall, but has a bit over half the volume of the world’s biggest. Moreover, Celebrity has steered further than any big ship from the gaudy aesthetic — Vegas Strip meets Dubai mega-mall — that now defines a steroid-pumped market. The difference was clear as soon as I boarded. Edge feels manageably rather than overwhelmingly huge. At its heart, a grand plaza rises through three decks, an elliptical atrium set around the circular Martini Bar. An array of lights soars above the bar like the pipes of some Art Deco cathedral organ. Leather and grey velvet chairs surround marble tables.
As part of its plan to break the mould, Celebrity hired designers who, like the passengers they want to attract, had never been on a cruise. They include Patricia Urquiola from Spain, whose CV includes Il Sereno on Lake Como and the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona, and Kelly Hoppen, Britain’s “queen of beige”, who has designed understated homes for the Beckhams, among other projects. The plaza is the work of Paris-based Jouin Manku, whose credits include Alain Ducasse’s restaurants.
Jouin Manku has also created a minimalist curved staircase that is the focus of the ship’s four main restaurants. It could drop easily into a contemporary art museum. The restaurants replace the traditional main dining room, at which cruise passengers sit every night at the same table, at the same time, with the same waiter (with an invitation to the captain’s table if they were lucky). As I learnt during a gluttonous tour of the restaurants, which include several more that come with a surcharge (there are 21 restaurants and cafés in all), Edge passengers can show up for dinner anywhere, any time. The food is contemporary and the spaces filled with more velvets, in navy blues and yellow ochres. The millennial pink crockery at Normandie feels like a statement of intent.
So do the rooms, the choice of which is dizzying, from a windowless cabin (17 sq metres) up to the suites. Reflecting a trend towards bigger and more lavish suites in hotels, Celebrity has more than doubled their number on Edge compared with its previous ships. On deck 12, I get lost in the biggest. Two Iconic Suites, each 240 sq metres, sit above the bridge, so have the best views through a sloping wall of glass. Vast verandas include hot tubs and jut out on to the bridge’s wings. The price per suite: $49,465 for a week, for two people.
I am in a 19 sq metre standard room (I can’t bring myself to use “stateroom”, one of the cruise traditions still observed here) with Celebrity’s “infinite veranda”. Rather than bolt balconies on, Edge takes the rooms right to full-height windows in the hull, bringing rarely used balcony space inside.
Hoppen designed all 1,500 rooms and suites, as well as large parts of the rest of the ship, including the impressive spa. She has created hotels, homes, private jets — “pretty much everything other than a train and a cruise liner”, she told me before I travelled to Miami. “I only wanted to do this if I could change the way it was done.” While it is still pretty narrow, my room looks more boutique hotel than nautical cabin. The only nod to our location, apart from the view, is a piece of ornamental coral. Otherwise, the Hoppen motifs are plain to see: acres of taupe and grey and — yes — beige, lifted with rich green cushions and a faux velvet bed runner.
My cruise lasts only two nights, and there isn’t time to get off. We drop anchor for a few hours off Nassau, not far from its hulking resort hotels, before starting our return to Miami. After breakfast at the Oceanview Café, a tasteful take on the all-you-shouldn’t-eat cruise buffet, I meet Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises. She is no newcomer, having worked for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity for 34 years. But she has come to recognise the need to branch out, not least to distinguish her brand from its marginally cheaper parent. “We want to look for people who have never considered a cruise,” she says. “People who would stay in an Edition hotel or boutiques.”
The approach echoes a broader sea-change. Virgin will plunge a toe into cruising waters in 2020, when it launches its first ship. Virgin, too, has recruited outside the industry, signing up Roman and Williams, the New York design studio behind the Standard and Ace hotels, as well as British designer Tom Dixon of Habitat and Shoreditch House fame. Moreover, the first, 2,700-passenger Virgin Voyages ship will be adults only. “It’s a different strategy but when people think of the Virgin brand they think of certain things that might not have an association with the cruise business, and I think that’s good for us all,” Lutoff-Perlo adds.
Among hundreds of journalists on board are correspondents for Vanity Fair and Tatler, magazines that wouldn’t normally look at a big ship. We’re invited to dinner at Luminae, a Hoppen-designed restaurant reserved for suite passengers (they also get their own Retreat Lounge, with a private deck and pool. If Edge is the future of cruising, it’s not an inclusive one; the hierarchy of rooms and communal space here makes the Titanic look democratic). Over a tender filet mignon, Jo Rzymowska, who runs Celebrity’s UK operations, said the biggest challenge in luring people to cruising is just getting them on board — literally. “You mention hotel brands and people get an image in their mind because they’re very different, and they’ve probably been in them,” she says. “But if you name cruise brands people just picture a big white boat.”
Celebrity has not entirely jettisoned humour or excess in the pursuit of better taste. The main pool is bookended by hot tubs supported by white towers shaped like martini glasses. Liberace would blush to sit in one. Lasers and neon lights abound at night, and there’s still a giant casino. There are some mis-steps. The three-storey Eden bar and restaurant, which stretches across the rear of the ship, is a striking space of dark greens, brass and palms by Patricia Urquiola. But it is let down when it transforms into a bizarre-themed restaurant. When I arrived for dinner, an actress dressed as a sort of forest imp implored me to open my mind, heart and “third eye” before taking me to my table, at which further Eden-themed characters appeared awkwardly between courses. One appeared briefly on a trapeze. Perhaps it was that my table was all British, but we kept our third eyes firmly shut.
More successful is the Magic Carpet. The tennis court-sized floating balcony, which rises up and down the ship’s side, began as a way to more easily get passengers on and off the tenders when the ship is at anchor. Its British architect, Tom Wright, best known for Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel, then sent it skywards via a giant structural hoop, also painted a brilliant tangerine. It serves as a bar and restaurant at the upper levels and has become the ship’s calling card: a bright pocket square on a navy suit.
What Malala makes of it all is anyone’s guess. Yes, Malala Yousafzai. The Nobel laureate was due in Miami for the naming ceremony, having been appointed the ship’s “fairy godmother”, a marine tradition. You can even buy Malala merchandise, including a $25 tote bag bearing an inspirational quote. Lutoff-Perlo, who has long set about improving diversity in the industry, admits the Malala Foundation struggled at first to see the link between luxury cruising and an education campaigner who survived a Taliban bullet. “But when they got to know us and what we stand for, we were very much aligned,” she suggests.
Alas Malala will not dine awkwardly at Eden, sample the hot tubs, or fiddle with an infinite veranda; after a brief speech, she is due to fly to Boston to receive another award. If the link still feels stretched, despite its good intentions (I’m still scratching my chin), it perhaps sets the tone for a ship that tries overtly to defy convention. I pack my bags in awe of its cost and ambition, and unsurprised that cruises on Edge are, by all accounts, selling fast. Would I call myself a convert? As I step on dry land again in Miami, swaying slightly in the sun, I decide it’s the closest I’ve come.
Simon Usborne was a guest of Celebrity Cruises. A seven-night Western Caribbean cruise on Celebrity Edge, departing on March 3, costs from $2,932 per person based on two people sharing a balcony stateroom including meals and entertainment, excluding flights
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