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Set sail on an Oasis

Mega-ship sets stage for new era in cruising

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She is one of the newest kids on the very crowded block -- an imposing figure that literally casts a shadow over everything in her path.

Many admire her. Others fear her. Some are likely jealous of her. But one thing is quite certain -- a date with her will be truly unforgettable.

She is the Oasis of the Seas, an incredible cruise ship that is helping to turn a very competitive industry on its head by ramping up the on-board experience to levels never thought imaginable. We recently spent two weeks on board the Oasis, which first set sail in December 2009 and is capable of holding more than 6,000 passengers and 2,500 crew members.

We brought a couple dozen Canadians with us as part of our annual hosted tour group and all quickly shared the same first impression as us -- size really DOES matter. Some travellers may worry bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, especially when it comes to service and convenience. But that certainly wasn't our experience.

Despite the enormity, this was the least crowded we've ever felt on a cruise despite carrying double the traditional occupancy of most other ships. Finding your personal space or quiet time was never an issue. It was also the most stable of all vessels we've travelled on, thanks to the wider-than-usual beam and modern technology.

The opportunities for fun and adventure were endless, so much so we were thankful to have added the seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise to our seven-day Western Caribbean cruise. Surprisingly, only about 100 passengers from our first week did the same, with many others we spoke to lamenting the fact they hadn't thought about booking back-to-backs. After all, your airfare is always a significant part of your overall price, so adding another week on the ship doesn't mean you are doubling your cost.

Cruising has become a popular option for many who want the VIP service of an all-inclusive with the ability to see many places in one trip, all while getting the best bang for your buck. And while our ports-of-call were thoroughly enjoyable -- St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Barbados, Jamaica, Cozumel and Royal Caribbean's private island in Haiti -- the ship was the true highlight of the trip.

The beauty of the Oasis -- and her sister ship, the Allure of the Seas, which is actually five centimetres longer and thus the largest cruise ship currently sailing -- is the simplicity of its layout. Oasis is designed like a giant hotdog bun, with the middle ripped open to allow for an open-air environment and interior balcony suites.

Oasis is also broken into seven distinct "neighbourhoods," with the highlight clearly being Central Park. Modelled directly after the famous New York tourist spot, it has to be seen to be believed -- although even that's not a guarantee. There are hundreds of perfectly manicured trees, plants and fauna throughout the park, along with outdoor cafés, restaurant and patios and live entertainment and shopping options.

The Royal Promenade is another larger-than-life destination point filled with many popular stops, including a 24-hour pizzeria, a cupcake shop and a floating bar that rises several floors with you on board. There are also several elaborate parades throughout the week, including some involving the many DreamWorks characters as part of a partnership with Royal Caribbean to provide family-friendly activities including themed dinners and kids' clubs.

Entertainment options are as vast as the ocean you're sailing on. There are regular showing of Hairspray, the popular Broadway production, plus several nightly shows involving Oasis singers and dancers plus special guests on board. The Oasis ice rink -- yes, you read that right -- is home to a spectacular show that includes plenty of jumps, flips and twirls on skates. A cosy comedy club provides plenty of yucks with different acts appearing throughout the week. The casino is enormous. A 3D movie theatre shows new releases daily.

And then there is the amazing Aqua Theatre, set near the back of the ship and home to a breathtaking nightly diving show.

The pool deck includes an adults-only solarium, a designated children's area and enough pools (four) and hot tubs (10) to keep everyone happy. There is also an 18-hole miniature golf course, a full-sized carousel, a pair of rock-climbing walls, two FlowRider surf simulators and even a zip line that takes you directly over the aforementioned Central Park. You will truly never feel bored.

When it's time to eat -- and on a cruise ship, when isn't it? -- you will drool at the options. Aside from the regular buffets and five-course meals in the dining room, there are also several specialty restaurants in which a small sitting fee gets you a much more personalized meal. You can also unwind in the massive spa, or work off those calories in the largest fitness centre I have ever seen at sea.

Oasis has set the stage for a new era in cruising -- other mega-ships are currently in the works through various cruise lines -- although where she can travel right now is somewhat limited because many ports aren't big enough to have a ship of her size lay anchor. But wherever she goes, she is sure to leave a lasting impression and have you looking forward to your next meeting.

Free Press justice reporter Mike McIntyre and his wife, Chassity, have been hosting an annual winter cruise since 2006. They would love you to join them on their next adventure: a 14-day Ultimate Caribbean cruise on board the Celebrity Eclipse from Jan. 25 to Feb. 9, 2013. Cabins are going fast and only a handful remain. For more information on the great group rates, contact Sheila from Renaissance at Journey's Travel at 204-982-0715. The McIntyres are also hosting a public information night about the cruise on Wednesday, Aug. 15, at 7 p.m. at the Norwood Hotel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 D1

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