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It’s hard for me to believe it’s been nearly 17 years since the debut of Navigator of the Seas. I remember the first sailing of the 1,020-foot-long, 15-deck-high Royal Caribbean ship like it was yesterday. After all, it was a big deal.

At 138,279 gross register tons, Navigator was the largest cruise vessel ever built at the time, chock full of such then-unusual features as a rock-climbing wall and an ice-skating rink. Cruise fans the world over were scrambling to get on board.

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Nearly two decades later, Navigator is no longer the world’s largest cruise ship — not by a long shot. It barely cracks the Top 30 in size. But as of this spring, it’s once again a big deal in the cruise world. That’s because Royal Caribbean just poured $115 million into the vessel in an unusual bow-to-stern makeover designed to transform it into the king of short-haul cruises out of Miami, the world’s largest cruise hub.

After seeing it on a quick, three-night getaway earlier this month, I might say it’s the new king of short-haul cruises anywhere. It’s now home to two of the coolest water attractions at sea; a revamped pool deck with a tropical vibe that’s prefect for a short cruise; and a bevy of new bars and restaurants.

Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy
Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy

Reaching New Cruisers

There are a bunch of cruise ships dedicated to short cruises out of Florida (and by short, we’re talking just three or four days). But as cruising regulars know, they’re generally not the newest or most-dazzling vessels. Cruise lines typically reserve their latest ships for the bigger seven-night market.

Generally low priced and easy to do on a whim, short cruises out of Florida appeal heavily to a local market that isn’t looking for anything too fancy. They’re just out for a quick, inexpensive getaway. For just a few hundred dollars, a Floridian can drive to a port after a half-day’s work on Friday, catch a three-night sailing that includes a couple stops in the Bahamas and be back in time for work on Monday. It’s a low-stakes alternative to a weekend at the beach.

That said, short cruises out of Florida are also hugely popular with first-time cruisers from all over the country who want to give cruising a try without making too big a commitment. They’re also hot with millennials, who are big on short getaways. As Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley told me during a recent interview, those two groups are increasingly critical to impress if you’re a cruise line wanting to grow your business. You want them coming back. And that recently got Royal Caribbean rethinking it’s short-haul strategy.

It was almost like an epiphany, Bayley said.

“We suddenly thought to ourselves, ‘hold on a second, we’ve been putting our oldest, smallest ships in this short-cruise space,’ and why would we do that?” he said. “Why don’t we take one of our bigger ships like Navigator … and totally amp it up with features and products and services that we know are going to be very attractive to that [first-timer and millennial] market.”

Added Thrills

As I saw on our recent visit, the “amp up” that Bayley was describing hit just about every corner of Navigator of the Seas.

The big Instagram-worthy addition is The Blaster, a new waterslide at the top of the ship that is, admittedly, a blast. It’s not just any waterslide, but the longest waterslide ever on a cruise ship. Undulating more than 800 feet around the back of the vessel (and, at times, over its sides!), it’s known as an aqua coaster and features water jets that propel you up as well as down as you careen from start to finish. As you can imagine, adding something like that to a cruise ship is no easy feat (frankly, I was sort of amazed by the engineering that carried it around the ship’s existing basketball court, rock climbing wall and FlowRider surf simulator), and it’s something that Royal Caribbean and most other lines have never attempted before. Only Disney offers something similar, if slightly smaller, on two ships.

Also new in the same back-of-the-ship area is Riptide, the only head-first mat racer waterslide at sea. Its addition is another impressive-for-a-cruise-ship feat of engineering that offers something that’s never been seen before on a vessel. The fact that you ride it head-first is thrilling, but you’re also guaranteed to get serious water up your nose (trust me).

If Royal Caribbean had just stopped there, you’d still have a ship that many diehard cruise fans would get on a plane from almost anywhere in the country to try — if only for the bragging rights on social. But Royal Caribbean didn’t stop there.

Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy
Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy

Chill Time 

A combination of thrill and chill seems to be the new mantra for Royal Caribbean development. Just look at what the line has done at its just-reopened private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay.  In the case of Navigator, the “chill” part of the equation meant a complete makeover of the ship’s main pool zone, now tropical-themed with new colorful cabanas (free to use on a first-come, first-serve basis), decorative palm tree-like structures, and a reshaped pool that now has a shallow area with partially submerged lounge chairs. There’s also a new splash area for the munchkins.

Also part of the change was the addition of a three-level bar hangout called The Lime and Coconut that cascades down one side of the pool area. Its base-level has its very own bicycle pedal-powered blender, should you want to save the Earth by instructing the bartender not to use the electricity-using kind to mix your piña colada (and ignore other environmental impacts). You’ll have to operate it yourself, but you’ll get a great Instagram shot from the effort.

The second level of The Lime and Coconut is a balcony bar with padded sectional chairs and high-top tables. One more deck up is the Rooftop, which is a little like a secret retreat; when I went up there late one afternoon, I had the place almost to myself.

Additions to the pool area also include a no-extra-charge taco, burrito and quesadilla bar called El Loco Fresh in one corner and an extra-charge Johnny Rocket’s Express burger outlet in another corner — nods to passengers (like me) who are too lazy to leave the pool area to grab a bite.

Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy
Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy

Interior Upgrades  

Down below, in the ship’s interior public areas, more big changes include the addition of The Bamboo Room, a Polynesian-themed watering hole with kitschy cocktails served in tiki glasses that’s squarely aimed at millennials (and much more fun than the wine bar it replaced). There’s also a new family-geared sports bar and arcade called Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade that occupies what used to be shops; a new restaurant called Hooked Seafood that replaced a Mexican joint; and an Italian restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, designed by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (which took the place of another, apparently less successful Italian eatery).

Other changes included the addition of glow-in-the-dark laser tag (set in the ship’s ice-skating rink during the daytime and offered as an activity at no extra charge) and an escape room. Cabins also got a big refresh, as did the ship’s casino, Windjammer buffet, fitness center and kids’ areas.

Short-Haul Ship Upgrades

Miami isn’t the only hub getting a jazzed-up Royal Caribbean ship for the short-cruise market. A sister vessel to Navigator that debuted just a year later, Mariner of the Seas, just started sailing short cruises out of Port Canaveral, Florida, this week after a similarly massive overhaul (albeit one that didn’t include the installation of an aqua coaster or a mat racer slide). A third Royal Caribbean ship that was recently spiced up with millions of dollars in improvements, Independence of the Seas, will soon be sailing short cruises out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The makeovers of the three ships are just the start of a four-year, billion-dollar program at the line to overhaul 10 of its middle-aged ships. It’s likely that more of them will redeploy to the short-haul market down the road.

In Miami at least, Royal Caribbean now has the ship to beat in the short-haul market (in Port Canaveral, the line’s Mariner has some competition in Disney Cruise Line’s eight-year-old Disney Dream, which has a lot of bells and whistles). Neither of Navigator’s two main competitors in the Miami short-haul market — Carnival Victory and Norwegian Sky — quite compares (although I absolutely love Norwegian Sky’s short Cuba itinerary, which is the best in the business, in my opinion).

Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International.
Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International.

What It Costs   

The revamped Navigator offers two short-haul itineraries to the Bahamas out of Miami. Three-night weekend sailings starting on Fridays feature a stop at Royal Caribbean’s private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay, and Nassau. Four-night mid-week sailings starting on Mondays offer the same two calls plus a day at sea.

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As of Friday, the three-night trips were starting at $329 per person, not including taxes and fees of $98.24. That works out to about $142 per night, per person, for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals. The four-night trips are starting at $303 per person, plus taxes and fees. That works out to about $100 per night per person, making the four-night trips significantly less expensive on a per-day basis. There’s a premium to go over a weekend.

Of course, the rates above are just for one person and based on “double occupancy” of your cabin, so the per room rate really is twice that amount. And it doesn’t include any extra charges you ring up on board. While meals are included at several on-board restaurants, you’ll pay extra for Hooked Seafood, Jamie’s Italian and several other “specialty” dining destinations on the ship. Just like at most land resorts, you’ll also pay extra for drinks. Most beers at the bars on Navigator run $7 to $8, while wine starts at $8 per glass ($29 for the least expensive bottle).

Also note the above fares are for the least-expensive windowless “interior” cabin. There are all sorts of cabin categories on Royal Caribbean ships, at a wide range of price points. To upgrade to a room with a window, the starting rate for the three-night trips jumps to $400 per person plus the taxes and fees. Cabins with balconies start at $475; suites begin at $788.

Just as with flights, pricing for cruises fluctuate week-by-week depending on demand, and the rates above are for sailings during the least expensive time of the year — specifically, this coming January. You’ll pay more for more popular times of year, such as July (when rates for the three-night sailings currently start at $510 per person).

One other thing for which you’ll need to budget is the automatic service gratuity that Royal Caribbean adds to bills, which runs $14.50 per person, per day for most cabins. Suite passengers pay more.

(Editor’s note: TPG always tries to pay full price for any travel its staff takes and usually doesn’t inform companies in advance of our plans to review. However, there are times where — especially with cruise lines — we need to work with travel providers to gain early access and they won’t accept rates higher than their special prices for travel agents and media. For this sailing, TPG paid $450, as well as additional fees for access to attractions, beverages and food.)

Gene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Feature image courtesy of Royal Caribbean International. 

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