Setting sail for its debut dose of Mediterranean madness, 4,000 party-ready Europeans and 90 of the biggest names in dance music board the Royal Caribbean for a four-day excursion away from reality.
Leaving an unusually sunny London behind for a disappointingly rainy, gloomy looking Barcelona, it seems like the UK and European weather has swapped around when we land.
After getting our room cards and wristbands, myself and the other journalists are urged to get together for a group photo (the first of many onboard the Freedom of the Seas) as if we’re on a family holiday.
Stepping onboard our home for the weekend, we’re greeted by a troupe of nautical-themed performers: it makes the ‘maiden voyage’ more of a story, a bit like Tomorrowland.
With massive names in the dance world like Ministry of Sound, Elrow, and Deep House Amsterdam onboard, indoor and outdoor stages, and an impressive genre-spanning line-up, The Ark Cruise is the perfect festival-holiday combination.
Add to that at least a dozen non-music-related activities and it’s clear that sleeping isn’t really an option. With music running from until the early hours, there’s always something to be seen or explored. The top deck alone, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, boasts a surf simulator, mini-golf course, rock climbing wall and full-size basketball court.
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It’s also possible to treat The Ark as a relaxing retreat - thanks to midday yoga sessions, a gigantic shopping mall, sauna, multiple hot tubs (some overlooking the sea) and swimming pools. You can even get married onboard, at the Skylight wedding chapel!
Logistically, there are multiple benefits of holding a festival on an all-inclusive cruise ship: the endless amount of varying cuisines available at different restaurants, extra friendly staff who want to make sure everyone’s having a great time all of the time (it’s what they do every week, after all), clean toilets in the cabin rooms and, perhaps most appealingly, a comfy bed…
Thursday night belongs to arguably the wildest party hosts in the world, Elrow, who transform the top deck into a tech-house-filled vibrant world as part of their Sambodromo do Brasil theme. From the early evening through to 2am, the stage is packed with party-ready cruise-goers amongst the colourful foliage, trippy hanging flowers, parrots and a giant chicken. Take into account that this is all happening in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s a pretty surreal feeling.
It wouldn’t be an Elrow party without a stream of stilt performers – giraffes, chickens, shuffling cavemen and men carrying fake bowls of fruit on their head – making their way into the crowd battling the harsh winds, ensuring everything becomes weirder and wilder.
This all happens whilst a woman who looks like she could be model dives straight into the hot tub, whilst wearing sunglasses and a ‘Rose’ All Day’ swimsuit’ and a man in his 50s dressed in a skimpy kaleidoscopic eye-popping bathing suit joins in seconds later.
Sonically, the sound is impressively clear and punchy, with speakers spread around the open air top deck. Starting with Elrow resident Toni Varga’s pumping tech-house, by 9pm the oval dancefloor in-between two precariously-placed swimming pools is rammed (thankfully, there are lifeguards surveying the area 24/7). Hot Creations favourite Richy Ahmed capitalises on the atmosphere with chunky house and techno selections like Cirez D’s ‘Off On’ and Mella Dee’s ‘Take Off’.
The Deep, a spacious theatre transformed into a feel-good club, is another of CLASH’s favourite stages. With seats on the upper level surrounding the makeshift dancefloor, sets by house favourites Roger Sanchez and Claptone can be enjoyed whilst sat down, or upfront next to the near-deafening speakers. The bass makes your body shake. Jellyfish and balloons hang from the ceiling as Dave Lambert’s strobe-heavy vocal house groovers create an energetic, upbeat atmosphere.
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On deck five is the more intimate Reef stage - a hard to find, carpeted room with mermaid performers welcoming guests. Once inside, starry spotlights and shell-covered fish nets hang, creating a sort of underwater experience, soundtracked by techno veterans Sven Vath and Chris Leibing. When Cocoon boss Sven drops Patrice Baumel’s massive ‘Glutes’ and the room goes almost pitch black, it’s a real moment.
Twelve hours later, back on the top deck, there’s a completely different vibe as Girls Love DJs opt for more commercial house while hundreds of bikini-clad twenty-somethings and chest-bearing guys take in the blazing sun relaxing on sunbeds. Finding our own space on possibly the highest point of the ship, the Lagoon stage, it’s the perfect way to spend a Friday afternoon.
Friday night belongs to Henrik Schwarz, who delivers an hour of acid-tinged, vocal-led techno and house inside The Reef. With pink and blue strobes lighting up the crowd overhead, selections like ‘Not Also You’ and his ridiculously infectious edit of Emmanuel Jal’s ‘Kuar’ fit the atmosphere perfectly.
Stephan Bodzin follows follows in a similar vein, offering stomping yet melodic techno, whilst towering over the DJ decks. After a hardware-driven live set from KiNK – for which a smile never leaves the Bulgarian DJ and producer’s face – things get a lot harder thanks to techno heavyweights Matador and Chris Liebing, taking those left standing through to 8am.
Expectedly, the first Ark Cruise is not without its teething problems: the strong wind means the Lagoon stage - which was set to host sunrise sessions from Axel Boman and Robag - is shut down before even opening. Instead, it’s combined with The Reef.
Consequently, due to rescheduled set times and changed locations, Peggy Gou is left playing to just a handful of people (though her selections were worthy of a packed room). Later, Gerd Janson - who’s obscure, funky house selections would usually attract hundreds, if not thousands – is left with an intimate crowd of just 20…
Weirdly, one of the highlights of CLASH’s weekend ends up being an Irish pub where a Welsh performer gets everyone singing along to guitar-led classics by Oasis, Ed Sheeran and Kings Of Leon every night. Creating a real community spirit, with Australian, Belgian, Dutch and English people putting their worries aside, it’s no wonder the guitarist has such a big smile on his face throughout. It’s cheesy, but fun and unifying all the same: exactly what’s needed on a festival cruise.
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Words: Ben Jolley
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