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You've just gotta zip

LEANNE WEST
Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014
Fairfax

Travel writer Leanne West takes a ride on the 802-metre Dragon's Breath Flight Line in Labadee, Haiti.

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I'm about to go for a surf in the Caribbean. That's despite the fact the Caribbean is not renowned for wave riding. Neither am I, for that matter. Here I am, the original loser of the surf, about to unveil my suspect credentials in front of a small grandstand of hootin', hollerin' Americans on board one of the world's biggest cruise ships, the Oasis of the Seas.

Let's just say it ends in tears ... of laughter. And the joke was on me. My surfing experience lasted all of 10 seconds before I was chewed up and mercilessly spat out by the Flowrider wave machine on board this 225,000-ton colossus of a ship.

There are two Flowriders on board this floating city. One caters for stand-up surfing and the other for boogie boarding. And with 6400 passengers on this seven-night cruise out of Fort Lauderdale in Florida, these machines cater for Kelly Slater wannabes almost all day, every day.

We're headed for three ports on our cruise: Labadee in Haiti, Falmouth in Jamaica and Cozumel, Mexico. En route, there's plenty to keep the adrenalin flowing. Not far from the Flowriders is the zip line, where I am strapped into a harness, fitted with a helmet and sent flying over the man-made canyon that soars seven storeys above the ship's Boardwalk neighbourhood. As someone not too hot about heights, let's just say I don't find a need to look down.

As it turns out, the on-board zip line is just the entree to one big daddy of a main course. I'm fast learning that cruising has come a long way since shuffleboard was the main physical activity on offer at sea. These days, passengers looking for thrills are the big winners from a race to fit out ships with exciting features.

It's putting paid to perceptions that cruising is most suited to those who prefer bingo over bravado - you know, couples called Arthur and Martha in his-and-hers velour leisure suits.

The average age of cruise customers is going down industry-wide, Royal Caribbean Australia's commercial manager, Adam Armstrong, says.

"We've still got some of the more traditional elements of cruising, but what we're saying is that cruising doesn't have to be formal dinners, sitting on the deck reading a book and playing shuffleboard," he says.

"There can be more to cruising. You can go ice-skating, you can climb a rock wall and you can ride a zip line."

Royal Caribbean is raising the action bar even higher with its latest ship, the Quantum of the Seas, which is under construction, and will cruise the Caribbean from its base in Cape Liberty, New Jersey, from late next year.

The ship will include the Seaplex indoor entertainment zone that, by day, will feature a circus school, including a giant trapeze. By night, it will host dodgem cars and roller-skating, complete with a DJ hovering over the action. And that's just the start of it. There'll also be a skydiving simulator called Ripcord, and a feature called the North Star: a capsule attached to a giant arm on top of the ship that will give passengers a bird's-eye view of the vessel from 100 metres above sea level.

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"What we find with all the bells and whistles and big toys is that they're a big hook for a lot of people in getting them interested in our brand, as well as cruising," Armstrong says.

"The bigger picture is all about putting stuff on cruise ships that you wouldn't expect on cruise ships," he says.

The performing high divers aboard the Oasis of the Seas set the tone for those looking for thrills. The highest dive tower is a nosebleed-inducing 19 metres up, and these acrobatic daredevils plunge into a pool five metres deep, all while the ship is moving through the Caribbean.

There are two 16-metre-high rock-climbing walls just opposite the dive platforms. There is also an ice-skating rink as well as a full-sized carousel on board.

That brings us back to the Flowrider, and you know what they say about getting back on the horse that threw you? Well, this drowned rat swallowed her pride and went back for more.

I'm still a stand-up surfing loser - albeit a slightly better loser than when I started my cruise escapade. But, for the record, I finally found my mojo on the boogie board Flowrider. I even got up on my knees! And the best part? No one laughed.

If on-board surfing and zip lining merely whet the appetite for cruising action, then there's a shore excursion that'll knock your socks off. After docking in the port of Labadee, Haiti, it's a short walk to the world's longest zip line over water.

Labadee is home to the 802-metre-long Dragon's Breath Flight Line. That's 32 times longer than the zip line aboard the ship that brought us here.

The Dragon's Breath launches from a tower on a mountain 160 metres above the aptly named Adrenalin Beach, sending thrill-seekers down and across the crescent-shaped bay at 55-65km/h.

At first look, I question my decision to give it a go, but our guide, Melina, is a calming presence as she matter-of-factly runs my group of Dragon-tamers through our pre-flight briefing. We put on our harnesses and learn how to clip them up before we head over to the Baby Dragon, a comparatively small warm-up zip line, for a practice run.

We're taught to start our flight in the starfish position. That's arms and legs out wide, to lessen our speed on the steepest section of zip line. Once we get about halfway along the line, we can "torpedo". That means extending our legs straight out in front for speed, or, we can simply hold the harness and relax like a parachutist.

The Baby Dragon conquered, we pile into a truck and are bounced up a steep and winding road to the top of the hill. Last chance to chicken out before Melina sends us hurtling back to sea level. My nerves barely have time to get the better of me as I'm thrown into the first group of flyers: three, two, one, go!

It's a strange sensation to start with. There's no real sense of speed; just the hum of the zip line and an incredible view of the bay and our cruise ship beyond. It almost feels like floating. But as the zip line levels out and you get close to the water, flying about four metres above it, it feels fast, so fast you start wondering if you'll be able to stop. There's a brake at the very end of the line, jolting you to a sudden halt you didn't think possible just 10 seconds before.

Once you have stopped buzzing, you can think about the other action options at Labadee, which is Royal Caribbean's private island resort exclusively for its cruise-ship passengers.

There's the Dragon's Tail Coaster, which hoons down the mountain from an even higher starting point than the zip line. There's the 100 metre-long Dragon's Splash water slide, or the water park with its inflatable icebergs, slides and trampolines.

Or, you can just lie on the beach and stare aimlessly at the Caribbean. After having gone with the Flowrider and slayed a Dragon, I can't think of a better option.

The writer travelled at her own expense.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Fly to Dallas-Fort Worth in the US where there are connections to Fort Lauderdale with codeshare partner American Airlines.

CRUISING THERE Oasis Of The Seas' seven-night western Caribbean cruises, departing from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Check the Royal Caribbean website for this year's departure dates.

SEE + DO Activities aboard the Oasis of the Seas such as the Flowriders, zip line, rock-climbing walls, carousel and ice-skating are free.

MORE INFORMATION royalcaribbean.com.

- FFX Aus

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