Editor's Note: Aker Yard has changed its name to STX Europe, effective November 3. The move reflects the fact that South Korea-based STX Business Group has become principal shareholder.
As a light snow falls over Aker Yards, home to Royal Caribbean's new Liberty of the Seas (and, as well, its Independence of the Seas), we enter the gates at a sign saying "We have been working ... 16 days ... without fire." That's a scary thought. Toivo Ilvonen, the project manager for this ship, and in fact the man who created the Freedom-class concept for Royal Caribbean, tells us that the shipyard takes fire, its most potent enemy, so seriously that even the tiniest flare up outside requires a major investigation.
Looking around me at the hard-packed snow that covers not only the asphalt but also anything outside, from lifeboats waiting for installation to the top of the hard hat I'm required to wear for safety, it's hard to believe you could even start a fire out here. Brrrrrr.
That's because Cruise Critic's visit to the shipyard to check out the progress of Liberty of the Seas occurred just this week -- or, if you're reading this later, in mid-February. A passionate fan of the ship building process, I've visited a number of them in various stages of completion (most actually quite early on, when the inside of the vessel resembled nothing more than a massive building under construction). But this time, with only two months to go before Liberty of the Seas is delivered from the yard, the ship should look very much like, well, a ship should!
Visiting Liberty of the Seas is a lot like reconnecting with an old friend, as I'd spent quite some time on Freedom of the Seas, its older sibling. Most of the innovations pioneered there -- the kids' H2O Zone, a boxing ring, a surf park -- are found here too. There are the gorgeous (and fun) cantilevered whirlpools in the Solarium area (from your perch inside you can see, through glass panels, all the way down to the sea). The barber shop and Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor return, as do Sorrento's and Chops Grille. Cabins still range from insides to promenades to the 14-person Presidential Suite.
No big surprises, alas. At least as far as we could see; perhaps the only real bit of news is that the book nook found in Freedom's coffee bar will not be included on Liberty of the Seas. Sorrento's gets some extra seating outside.
Still, whether you're simply interested in Royal Caribbean's newest Freedom-class ship or are a passionate fan of the shipbuilding process, check out Cruise Critic's chronicle of Liberty of the Seas as it begins the final countdown. The ship, which will sail Miami-based itineraries beginning in mid-May, is slated for delivery from the shipyard on April 18. And sources there tell us it's going to be ready on time.
Here it is! From this exterior angle, the aft of Liberty of the Seas may look a bit disheveled, but in fact it's been painted and is ready to go. Sort of. One of the challenges of birthing a cruise ship during the winter months is keeping the interior, which is not yet heated, warm. That is why it is all covered up ... see the snow? It was falling during our entire visit.
Weather has been a challenge for Liberty of the Seas as it's on a schedule that calls for an April delivery. That means that not only does the ship have to be well-wrapped through the winter (note that even the balconies are covered), but sea trials, typically held just before delivery, can be a challenge. Right now the bay through which the ship must pass to reach the Baltic Sea is completely frozen.
Here's another exterior view. Notice the bright yellow lifeboats? They're waiting for their davits to be installed so they can be, too.
The three-deck main dining room is one of the most finished rooms onboard, and it's gorgeous. The gold leaf trim on the balconies, the elaborate chandeliers, and even waiter stations are all in place. The carpet's been laid. (It's covered over with brown paper so to protect it from construction dust.) Something's missing though. Can you figure out what it is? Okay, okay, it's the murals that serve as landing backdrops on the grand staircase.
Here's a closer view....
Want to bone up on all public room names? True to Royal Caribbean tradition, names are carried through ships, so places like Portofino, Bolero's, the Schooner Bar, Pharaoh's Palace (second theater) and Adventure Ocean are comfortingly familiar (most cruise lines tend to create new identities and new names for even the same public areas on different ships). One exception is the pubs on the Voyager- and Freedom-class ships; they all get different (each progressively more wacky) British-influenced names: On Liberty, it's called the Hoof and Claw.
These workers, responsible for making the eerie, gothic two-level disco a, well, eerie, gothic late-night destination, are cozied up in one of the rooms' cozy banquettes. But you can see that at this point it's anything but ... romantic.
The ship's main theater, abuzz with activity today, is pretty well put together; seats are installed, carpet's laid (though you can't see it) and dramatic lighting is installed.
Everywhere we go we're constantly reminded of the danger that fire poses; this is just one warning. The shipyard has its own fire station on site. Rules are very strict (and work areas are kept clean from debris, which can easily catch); if a worker is responsible for setting a fire, even the tiniest flame indoors or out, he's subject to a two-week suspension, no pay. No ifs, ands or buts.
Safety is held in equal regard; workers and visitors alike must wear hard hats. Ilvonen tells us that last year, some of the ship's crew -- a group of bartenders from Jamaica -- had taken their safety briefing so much to heart that they actually went pub-hopping in Turku with Aker Yard helmets in place. People here are still chuckling about that one....
At the entrance to Pharaoh's Palace, these life-sized statues are made of stone (albeit a lightweight stone) and French craftsmen are on-site to finish installation. While most of the workers on ships like this hail from nearby towns (Turku has been a major shipbuilding center for decades, and there's quite a culture and tradition here for workers), some artisans from points all over Europe are brought in for special projects.
Take a peak at the ship's festive promenade -- a little bit of tidying up (and stripping off protective film wrap on some of the promenade-facing cabins) and it's ready for the big time. The only bit of news here is that the Captain's Bridge will now be located on what was formerly known as the Sky Bridge on other ships (and the place where performers sing and such during parades); it's midway through the promenade.
Here's a look at the design drawings for Sorrento's, the pizza cafe on the promenade. It looks pretty close to its Freedom predecessor. Other spots that will basically appear as twins include A Close Shave, the men's barber shop, and the boutiques (for outdoor apparel, duty free, Royal Caribbean logo-wear, and perfumes and jewelry, among others).
Cabin 1548, like others, looks pretty disheveled -- framed prints are stacked up against an unmade mattress, the coffee table's upside down (can you spot the legs?) and the couch hasn't yet been unwrapped from its protective covering.
It's a category B suite, and unlike the standard inside, outside and balcony cabins (which are prefabricated and built off-site) it's actually built onboard. But all the key features are here; all that's needed is a clean-up!
The ShipShape Spa's fitness facility looks pretty roomy -- but it's still waiting on equipment and a boxing ring.
The decor aspect of the main pool area has a way to go, too, but the structure's there. The floors have already been laid with teak. What comes next is that the spaces between each plank need to be filled with some kind of filling -- and the entire surface is sanded over to make it smooth.
Notice the tenting that covers the top of the outer decks? It's incredibly elaborate -- and needs to be seriously strong in order to battle winter winds and snowstorms. It'll come off in spring.
Here in Portofino, a "workwoman" is busy smoothing plaster on the ceiling. It was interesting to see how many women were working onboard; Toivo Ilvonen tells us that the ship has an especially high number of females working as welders. See the open kitchen off to the side?
This, believe it or not, is the Royal Suite (1060), one of the ship's finest. If progress is well along on lesser suites, this one's got major work to be done. You're actually looking at the living room (with balcony beyond).
However, the Royal Suite's luxurious and elaborate main bath has only received frames for its stand alone tub and shower -- cosmetic touches await (workmen were busy tiling the suite's guest bath, though).
This balcony, prefabricated at a factory some 20 kilometers north, arrived just like this -- completely outfitted, from pictures on the wall to telephones and data ports. All it needs is a set of bed coverings and some rearranging!