ROYAL CARIBBEAN’S NEW VITALITY PROGRAM ON LIBERTY OF SEAS PUTS SPRING IN STEP

‘I Did It!-I Can Do It!’ is Best Souvenir from Cruise

By Karen Rubin

“I am Laura Whatshername, Tomb Raider,” I am thinking, even saying it out loud, as I take my first leap off a platform and “zip” along a wire from tree to tree, then walk a tightrope, then a rope bridge, then another zipline.

Now I am Indiana Jones in the “Last Crusade,” taking that blasted “Leap of Faith” as I summon the courage to stretch and step onto a log, suspended like a swing, grabbing the ropes with one hand, as it moves away, then the second, and repeating this same process over and over and over again-swing after independently swinging swing – until the obstacle is completed.

Even a novice quickly gets the "hang" of the zipline at the Loterie Farm Treetop Adventure Tour on St. Maarten.(© 2007 Karen Rubin).

As you zip toward the tree at the 32nd obstacle, a sign comes into view: “You Did It!” In that moment, I had an epiphany: I didn’t have to be Laura Whatshername. I am me. I did it. More importantly, I can do it! That is something I will be able to take away with me, long after this cruise on the Liberty of the Seas has come ended.

This is the Loterie Farm Treetop traverse course in St. Maarten, the second port of call on a seven-day cruise out of Miami on Royal Caribbean Line’s newest ship, Liberty of the Seas.

“Life-changing” is not a term you would normally associate with a Caribbean cruise-an expeditionary voyage to Antarctica or the Galapagos, perhaps, but not sailing in the lap of luxury where your biggest decision is which of nearly a dozen entertainment venues to spend your time at that night.

No. The image that comes to mind of a Caribbean cruise is of sloth, over-indulgence, overeating-whiling away the hours sunning yourself around the pool sipping Pina Coladas until the next meal. Royal Caribbean International, the cruise company that has been redefining the cruise experience with its “Get Out There!” appeal to active vacationers, is taking that approach even further with a new Vitality program.

Introduced with the launch last May of Liberty of the Seas, its newest ship, Royal Caribbean’s Vitality program incorporates a holistic approach to health and wellness that now goes well beyond the fitness center and spa, to encompass food-and-beverage, on-board activities and seminars, and even shore excursions (jungle hikes, bike adventures, rainforest and nature trails, river tubing, kayaking, horseback riding; there are even self-guided running maps at select ports-of-call). The “vitality” program is so pervasive that “vitality” becomes a thematic backdrop to the cruise.

Climbing about the awesome El Morro in Old San Juan is the best way to appreciate this architectural wonder-and get exercise at the same time(© 2007 Karen Rubin).

With the Vitality program, the ship has become a veritable smorgasbord of facilities, expertise and experiences readily accessible to you when you actually have the time and none of the everyday hassles to distract. More importantly, you can take those experiences back home when you can make fundamental changes in your lifestyle. On this cruise, you can indulge yourself in wellness, rather than sloth. (Launched on Liberty, the Vitality program will be introduced next to its sister ship, Freedom of the Seas, and then to Voyager of the Seas.)

A week later, walking through the gangway to the port terminal in Miami, there is a spring to the step rather than a lumbering slog.

And so, during the course of this one-week cruise, I tried many new things-Tai Chi, Pilates (strengthen the core!), water aerobics, a spinning class, yoga, meditation and stretching. I learned about the benefits of detoxification and how acupuncture can be used for everything from weight loss, to seasickness to alcohol dependency and even “facial rejuvenation” (a mini-face lift), to calm the bridal nerves as well as to alleviate pain. I had my metabolism analyzed and a session with a personal trainer who helped me come up with exercises I could do at home (not a gym) to achieve my specific goals (strengthening knees, bones).

There were also onboard programs like “New Look & New You,” that were aimed at confidence building (certainly, the zipline course was part of that).

I attended mini-workshops and seminars on nutrition, fitness and stress. I learned how to “Eat More to Weigh Less” (really helpful on a cruise ship where the food is spectacular. Best tip: when you think you are hungry, half the time it is because you really are thirsty, so drink water.). As part of this workshop, you do a walk-through the Windjammer buffet to show how easy it is (really) to make healthy choices and still get the full enjoyment of cruising.

Passengers aboard Liberty of the Seas take advantage of the opportunity to try acupuncture (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Important themes emerged: moderation, balance, and variety. You need variety-in exercise and eating-otherwise, the body and the brain fall into a routine and you won’t get the benefit of eating less or exercise to lose weight or shed fat.

Judging by the sheer numbers of people signing up and joining in, RCI is on the leading edge of a surging tide of interest in wellness-there were scores of passengers who took a shot at boxing in a full-size ring, did the early morning mile walk/jog on the deck (the ship is so big, it only takes six times around), took the seminar on therapeutic Chinese herbal medicine, tried rock climbing on RCI’s signature wall, or tried the boogie board or surfing on the FlowRider . And I can guarantee that taking advantage of a public skating session on Liberty’s ice rink was a first for anyone while sailing the high seas.

In fact, there are so many people taking the “vitality” route, that the fitness center ran out of the “vitality chits”-incentive rewards – that we were earning for participating in a whole slew of activities to exchange at the end of the cruise for logo items (I earned enough for a bag, 16 points, cashing in a receipt for the chits owed). I think feeling revitalized and invigorated would be incentive enough, but it was fun to collect the points. Families can accumulate them together, doing any number of the family-oriented activities that are offered, like a basketball tournament or a scavenger hunt.

Eat More, Weigh Less

Cruiselines around the world have beefed up their fitness centers and introduced on-board spas (in fact, Steiner Fitness that operates Liberty’s lavish spa, the largest at sea, operates spa and fitness centers for many lines). What is very, very different about RCI’s approach is how pervasive the “vitality” program is throughout the ship-even encompassing that most significant of onboard activities: eating.

In keeping with its "get out there" active-orientation, RCI opened "Dragon Flight" on its private retreat in Haiti, Labadee, where you "fly" from 500 feet high perch, along a line 2,600-feet long, the longest zipline over water (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Now, food is both an enticement-for many, the biggest attraction-of a cruise, but also the source of many a guilt-trip for cruise-goers (and surprisingly, a reason for many people not to cruise). Somehow, RCI has managed to satisfy passengers who summon all their willpower to resist the richest, most exquisitely prepared desserts, soups, entrees. The secret: offering delectable, exquisitely presented selections that are still healthy and healthful, so you don’t feel like you are being deprived.

Also, you are not made to feel guilty or have to take a monk’s vow not to indulge. Moderation, balance are the key. Go ahead and enjoy that Porterhouse steak at Chops, one of three specialty restaurants on board Liberty of the Seas. Don’t deprive yourself of a taste of that exquisite Tiramisu, Portofino’s specialty dessert made of Kahlua, espresso, and mascarpone cake, dusted with cocoa powder.

I could even relish the Grand Gala Culinary Sensation Midnight Buffet-a major event, where passengers are invited to come an hour early just for the viewing of the chefs setting out their most magnificently and artfully prepared dishes — choosing from the low fat, sugar free, and fresh items as lusciously presented to satisfy my craving.

The Vitality approach is not about deprivation-but about moderation. You learn how to balance, rather than deny yourself completely. No one railed against the evils of beef, though we were advised that food that is two-legged (except duck) is preferable to food that is four-legged, and how to measure portions by fist, finger and hand-sized.

They even send you home with healthy cooking recipes.

Executive Chef Johann Petutschnig, who keeps track of all the items that are requested versus “wasted” sees the changes in what passengers are consuming, and what they are asking for. “In the last two years, guests are more health conscious. People asking for healthy choices” and for fat-free, sugar-free, fresh items, and even crispier vegetables, he said.

More and more people are spending their time doing fitness activities while cruising (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Royal Caribbean has also instituted a transfat-free policy throughout its fleet of 21 ships.

You can also find seeds as among the dozen condiments for salads, miso soup, Can brown rice be far behind? Chef Petutschnig thinks not.

Liberty of the Seas makes it easy-even hip-to make healthful snack choices, as well. Step up to the Squeeze Bar for a protein drink (rather than alcohol) at the H2O Zone (the only waterpark at sea); refresh with a self-serve frozen yogurt cone at the Sprinkles stand by the pool; help yourself to fresh fruit at the Solarium, the adults-only pool. Have the late-night munchies? Opt for mozzarella and tomato salad rather than pizza at Sorrento’s on the Royal Promenade.

‘Vital’ Shore Excursions

Though such immersion in wellness was probably not the original intent of 99 percent of the 4,000 passengers, it could well be the key purpose of a trip-like going to Canyon Ranch. But this is so much better than going to a “fat farm” or a traditional spa. Here, you can enjoy doing things with your family, enjoy Las Vegas-style entertainment, be stimulated by visiting new places, lounge about, lavish in stunning surroundings, and indulge in fabulous food, and (miraculously) emerge “a healthier you.” I have no doubt that there were many, many passengers who got “hooked” on health during the cruise, just because healthy options were so readily available.

Land-based Vitality fitness offerings are also available in various ports of call, along with New Balance self-guided running maps and an extensive running course on Labadee, Haiti, the cruise line’s private retreat.

New Balance, RCI’s brand partner, has enhanced the Vitality program by installing a “virtual” personal-trainer kiosk on the line’s Freedom-class ships so you can create your own customized cruise vacation fitness regimen, as well as a post-vacation exercise plan.

Waiter Orly Escopete presents one of the Vitality dessert selections (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

A selection of shore excursions have been designed for the active and the adventurous, and are particularly good for families and couples (in the way that a ski vacation equalizes and bonds family members)-like a Jungle Bike Adventure on Cozumel, Mexico; a Kayak, Snorkel and Beach Experience in George Town, Grand Cayman; a Jungle River tubing trip in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Shore excursions that are designated “Vitality” are paired with discounted onboard spa treatments.

(The Explorations booklet of shore excursions uses symbols to indicate mild, moderate or strenuous, which are designated “adventure tour” and “great adventure tour” and which earn Vitality points. While on most cruises we have experienced, the descriptions were over-stated as to their level of adventure or physical exertion, RCI’s seemed very accurate, so you should take that into account when signing up, including age, height, and medical restrictions).

The Loterie Farm Treetop Adventure Tour on St. Maarten was accurately described: “The exhilarating traverse adventure course, consisting of a sequence of zip-lines, rope swings and ‘bridges’ suspended from platforms mounted in the trees of the forest, will leave you in a physical and mental state of total euphoria.”

Absolutely. While you know that you will not tumble to your death (you keep clipping, unclipping and re-clipping to lines), this is as far as you can get from a Disneyesque ride-there is a real risk of falling off the tight rope or the bridge, and that is what keeps you focused. You wind up not thinking of anything beyond the next step in front of you. While you don’t need actual strength, you find your hands tingling at some point, and feel that you have exerted yourself.

(The description says that you need to be at least 4 ft. This would be okay if you were also agile, light, and self-confident. For me, at 5 feet, the only real obstacle that was tormenting was the swinging logs. Some of the youngsters who were on the course just breezed through; two pre-teens opted out.)

The excursion still left time for us to spend about two hours in Phillipsburg to explore the shops (inside tip: take swimming stuff because there is a gorgeous sand beach, beachside eateries and places where you can even rent a Seguay, and then you can just take a water taxi back to the ship’s pier for $2).

Liberty of the Seas boasts a regulation-size boxing ring in the world's largest fitness center at sea (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

Our experience with the zip-line at the Loterie Farm Treetop Adventure on St. Maarten prepared us for the Dragon’s Flight, a new attraction that RCI opened this past spring on Labadee, its private retreat on Haiti, and provided another opportunity to cement that new-found self-confidence.

From a platform 500 feet above the beaches of Labadee, you stream at speeds 40 to 50 mph down the flight line 2,600 feet long-the longest flight line over water in the world. The view is incredible-the ship, the biggest in the world, looks like a small toy in the harbor. The adventure begins with a briefing and orientation, and you get to practice on a shorter (and significantly lower) “Little Dragon,” then take a pulse-pounding jeep ride up to the Dragon’s Flight. thrill is definitely worth the $65.

The whole activity takes about 1 1/2 hours and there is still plenty of time to enjoy other activities on Labadee, such as snorkeling ($16/adult, $11/child plus $6 for vest; instructors are available at Barefoot Beach), kayaking, parasailing, and bargaining for native crafts in the full-scale market. The island is really beautiful, with many small beaches and at its furthest point, beautiful rock formations, called “Dragon’s Breath” for which the flightline is named.

The mindset that takes hold empowers you to take a “Vitality” approach, even on your own.

In San Juan, for example, I fulfilled a long-standing desire to see El Morro, the fort built by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1587. Instead of taking an escorted tour by bus when we arrived at 3 p.m., we walked from the pier (I would guess about a mile), through the narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan (added bonus), then climbed all over this massive structure (that is the only way you can truly appreciate how awesome this structure is), then walked to the second fort, the Citadel, and climbed all over that before happening upon a free Folklorico Show, right in the courtyard. Then we walked back down the hill and wandered around the streets, into shops before returning to the ship at 9 p.m.

Growing Fleet

The Vitality program, which replaces the ShipShape fitness program, was launched with Liberty of the Seas and next will be introduced to the sister ship, Freedom of the Seas (the third in the Freedom class series, Independence of the Seas, will launched in 2008), and to other ships in RCI’s fleet now numbering 21.

The FlowRider� surf simulator, a signature of Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas provides a novel way to keep active onboard (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

At 160,000 tons, Liberty of the Seas shares the title of the biggest cruise boat afloat with its sister ship, Freedom of the Seas. At 1,112 ft., the ship is almost as long as the Empire State building is tall – six Space Shuttles could be lined up end to end.

It can accommodate 4,375 guests (during our sailing, Liberty’s 10th voyage, we had just about that number, including 1,300 kids), and 1,360 crew (230 of them are chefs). And yet, the ship does not seem large or crowded (more on this in a subsequent article).

Liberty of the Seas and its sister ship, Freedom of the Seas, alternate between seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries, with Liberty departing on Saturdays and Freedom on Sundays, from the Port of Miami. Both itineraries include stops at Royal Caribbean’s private destination, Labadee, Haiti. Liberty’s Western Caribbean itinerary calls in Cozumel, Mexico, George Town, Grand Cayman, and Montego Bay, Jamaica, while the Eastern Caribbean itinerary calls in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Philipsburg, St. Maarten, allowing for a third day at sea to take advantage of all the ship has to offer.

As big as these ships are, RCI is actually building a ship that will be even bigger, 220,000 tons, expected in 2009.

For information, contact Royal Caribbean International, call 800-327-6700, visit www.royalcaribbean.com, or visit your travel agent. 

See also: Liberty’s Wow Factor

 

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© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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