The brochure for the MSC Divina describes it as a family-oriented cruise ship with waterparks and spa rooms. Each week, this 330m-long, 18-deck-tall colossus sails its passengers from Miami to the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. All its itineraries are designed with peace and relaxation in mind.
Except for two weekends each winter when the Holy Ship festival welcomes 4,000 ravers, each of them armed with their own set of rules, onboard the luxury vessel for three days of partying.
The pool deck is transformed into a dancefloor, and partygoers strut between club, cabin and whirlpool in their swimwear as more than 100 DJs, including Robin Schulz, Disclosure and Skrillex, keep them entertained.
If you’re not in the party mood, you can have a gamble in the onboard casino or try to get rid of that hangover in the well-equipped spa. The ultimate destination of this floating electronic festival is an idyllic private island in the Bahamas where a beach party is being held, with guest stars including Pharrell Williams.
“Holy Ship is like a floating summer camp for grown-ups,” says American photographer Ian Witlen, who has attended six of the seven cruises organised since 2012. “You really notice that when you’re standing between a mermaid and a guy in a shark costume at the breakfast buffet and realise you’re dancing again. Or that you haven’t ever stopped.”
In the early years of Holy Ship, Ian Witlen came aboard as a photojournalist for music magazines including Rolling Stone and Spin, but now he’s the official party photographer. So forget the tent and rain mac – here, the 32-year-old explains why you should pack a penguin costume and a bathrobe for this music festival.
1 YOU MEET THE STARS DOING THE SACK RACE
“At a normal festival, you might be lucky to scavenge an autograph from a DJ like Skrillex when they come to the railing after finishing their show. Then they’ll disappear backstage or fly off to their next performance. Things are different at Holy Ship. Because the only way to get back to dry land is by helicopter, most DJs stay onboard for the whole festival and are accommodated in berths cheek-by- jowl with the partygoers. You might bump into them when the other DJs are performing, or at the pizza buffet, or, if we’re talking about Fatboy Slim, at the sack race. After his 2015 gig, the DJ played holiday-camp games for hours with fans on deck.”
2 YOU CAN FORGET YOUR SMARTPHONE
“You don’t have any reception when you’re at sea. And even when the ship lands in the Bahamas, you’re better off leaving your phone in aeroplane mode – on an American phone, you’re charged $20 for every megabyte. There’s been free WiFi on the ship since last year, which is handy, but the majority of the crowd are happy to make the most of the digital abstinence. One of the things you notice is that, for once, when there are DJs playing, almost no one is holding their phone in the air to film it.”
3 THE PARTY NEVER STOPS
“The great thing about partying out at sea is that no one complains about the noise. And as no one on the ship wants to go to bed, there’s no closing time. There’s music playing for around 20 hours a day on the ship’s five stages. If you haven’t had enough by 6am, you can carry on dancing at the 24-hour buffet, where there’s always an impromptu party going on thanks to some partygoer’s Bluetooth speakers. Or you can sniff out one of the cabin parties – residents will get together with 20 of their friends to create mini-clubs.”
4 THERE’S HEALTHY LIVING IF YOU WANT IT
“Four years ago, DJ Gina Turner had the bright idea of turning her passion for yoga into an activity, inviting the crowd to join her. Now, 200 people plump for the early shift over the after-party. The MSC Divina also has a large spa area, in addition to basketball, volleyball and tennis facilities. Believe me, after a big night out, there’s nothing better than chilling out with a hot stone massage.”
5 STARS MAKE A SPECIAL EFFORT
“In 2014, Pharrell Williams was the special guest star of the festival. He jetted onto the island by helicopter and played a set at the beach party. But what was even more special was his set on the ship afterwards. He appeared in one of the clubs, hooked up his smartphone to the decks and performed songs from his album Girl, which was still to be released, including uncut versions of hits such as ‘Happy’. DJs like Skrillex do likewise, performing impromptu onboard sets in addition to their official performances.”
6 YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT FAST FOOD
“You can get pizza and hot dogs around the clock, but if you fancy a change from the regular festival grub, there’s a fancy restaurant in the hold where you can order three-course meals from the à la carte menu and drink red wine out of proper glasses. You can’t eat in your swimwear there, which makes it the perfect place to temporarily leave the crazy party scene behind. Except, that is, when they’re holding one of their fancy-dress dinners with themes such as Noah’s Ark, when sharks and penguins overrun the place. Then it feels like you’re at an Alice In Wonderland tea party.”
7 YOU CAN LEAVE YOUR TENT AT HOME
“The most annoying thing about music festivals is trying to find your way back to your tent every night. Of course, you have to stumble your way back to your berth on the ship too, but at least you don’t have to do it in the dark. You take a lift back to your quarters, not a jam-packed shuttle bus. You soon notice while onboard how ill-equipped the tent is as a place to recharge your batteries. The 1,700 berths may be small, but at least they come with a bed and shower. And for those with particular accommodation needs, there’s the Sophia Loren luxury suite, which was designed with the help of the film diva herself.”
8 EVERYBODY TRAVELS LIGHT
“People onboard Holy Ship sport a uniform of bikinis and swimwear 75 per cent of the time. In other words, ravers cool-off after dancing by diving into the water and then come back to the club in their swimwear. For any festivals on dry land, you’re best advised to put on a jumper in the evening. If you get cold on the ship, you just go to the clubs below deck, where it’s as hot as a sauna.”