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Best Ship we have been on
Port Canaveral (Orlando)
Embarkation on this ship was smooth and relatively fast. We arrived around 2pm and the lines were kept manageable. The safety drill was organized well and stranglers were rounded up in a reasonable time frame.
The beds in our cheap interior stateroom were excellent with a very comfortable memory foam topper on each. The stateroom was a little bigger than we are used to at about 160Sqft and that helped with laying out luggage. The TV is a nice newer Samson LCD but as usual, the HDMI Port (Or any other input) is not selectable. The selection of channels is good and live but often cut in and out. I'm assuming this is because it was a live feed from satellite. There is a knob to control the volume of announcements in the room but hardly any announcements come through the room speaker. I found that if you have it turned all they way up, a little bit of muzak is piped through which made me think I was hearing the neighbors' TV all night through the wall until I figured out what was More
On that note, the sound insulation on this boat is excellent. I didn't hear a noise from any neighbor once on the whole cruise. My wife's parents also had a room and were next to a family with 3 kids and they didn't hear a peep either.
I found the food on this cruise to be refreshingly good. Every other cruise we have been on has seen the food quality get worse and worse. The freedom has a very large food staff and it shows. They are able to make all their bread products fresh every day. Portafino was delicious and well worth the $20 extra charge. We went to chops and not being a fan of red meat, I ordered the chicken. The chicken was moist and cooked perfect. Everyone said their steaks were delicious. The deserts in both specialty restaurants were also amazing. The main dining room is impressive and the food was good. Some ordered the NY Strip steak and said that it was a bit too chewy though. N this large ship, Sorrentos is its own separate full restaurant on the promenade. The Deserts there are very good and better than the windjammer. The Windjammer buffet was good the couple of times we ate there. Interestingly enough, the Pizza in the Windjammer was very good and better than Sorrentos. The Specialty cupcake shop was not that good. The cupcakes were dry.
There are bars everywhere of course but they seem to have made a lot of effort to make each one somewhat unique. There is a very nice English pub on the promenade that they keep dimly lit and full of dark wood. The drinks are made well for the most part but there is some issue with consistency. I ordered their Patron Perfect Margarita for the first time up in the Olive or Twist and it was amazing. Probably the best margarita I have had on the rocks. Then, later that evening, I ordered the same drink in the Casino and it was garbage. I ordered a third one another day in the Plaza bar and it was very good but still not as good as the first I had. The drinks of the day from the bars are always going to be better than from the traveling waiters at the pool of course.
The level of service on the Freedom I would also rate as excellent. It was very refreshing to have friendly helpful staff almost everywhere you went. We didn't have many dealings with guest services but when we did, they were efficient and friendly. When the line gets long, the manager will come out and talk to people in line to see if there are any simple issues or people are in the wrong line.There was one waitress in the Olive and Twist that while friendly, was completely incompetent but that was the only personnel downside. We had an issue with our smaller children being bullied and punched by some older kids up in the arcade and "Living Room" area which were both unsupervised. We reported it to security and they treated it with concern and professionalism and were able to find the older kids that did it. That being said, it would have been better to have the teen areas with some staff supervision.
The shows were pretty good but we are not the type to go to them so I will not review in depth. The main Arcadia theater shows 3D movies during the day. They use a great Dolby3D system that is very smooth and have a full 7.1 theater sound system. I forgot where I was for a while and thought I was at a theater at home. Our kids really enjoyed the ice skating rink, Flow Rider and rock climbing wall. Mini-golf was alright as long as you got there early enough.
There is a huge kids water area and the main pool area is large as well with two pools. There really weren't as many pool chairs as you would think for a cruise this size on the pool deck and of course, everyone was reserving them even though you are not supposed to. The adult pool area is very nicely done. The pool itself is segmented into two sided by a water bar with stools and the deep side is about 7' deep. There are two very big hot tubs in the adult area that hang out over the side of the boat.
For disembarking, we chose to carry our luggage out for express departure. Express departure starts rather early and runs from 6:45 am till 7:15 am. They ran two lines: one from the front and one from the back of the ship. They moved well and it was just a matter of exiting the elevator, getting in line and shuffling out.
One thing that was a little irritating was that the overall feeling is that they rather frown upon shorts. Since we were taking a cruise to the Caribbean in the late summer months and had to fit 7 people and their luggage in one minivan, we chose not to bring formal wear or even pants to save space. The dinning room recommends no shorts but they do not make an issue of it and the very friendly dinning room manager made it a point to make us feel comfortable going there. When we went to Portifinos and Chops, we wore a nice pair of shorts, button down short sleeve shirt and nice sandals. Portifino had no problem but the Gentleman at the door in Chops made it a point to let us know that they preferred we not wear shorts there. It was perfectly fine for the next group to come in with ripped jeans and a t-shirt though. Also, our invitation to the welcome back event for gold members specifically stated in bold at the bottom that no shorts would be allowed. I'm not sure who they are trying to weed out on a 7 day cruise that costs thousands of dollars but who knows... Anyway, just be advised to pack some sort of pants. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
I absolutely love CocoCay and think it is probably the best of the private islands in the Bahamas. There are so many places on the island to set up camp and something for about everyone. We snorkel so usually setup right by the main swimming area. If you like a quieter and calmer beach experience, they have that too on the farther side of the island. There are also hammocks and beach chairs in grassy shaded areas.
The snorkeling is pretty good and very safe here. There will be plenty of fish to see and some underwater features to look at like two fake bits of a "sunken ship" and a small airplane they sunk. There are two floating rafts out a ways to rest on and several life guard towers with wave runners to save people and keep a lookout for sharks. Off to the left there is a rock wall that sticks out of the water and it is here that one year we saw a very large manta ray as there are not that many swimmers there usually. There is also an opening to the left to the "deep water" area available to snorkelers and on the way out there you will finally come across a little bit of coral on the floor. I've gone out to the deep area once and you will hardly ever see anyone swimming out there. It gets to about 35' and can be a little creepy alone. After we got back to the ship the one time I did snorkel out there, we saw a white tip shark swimming around the ship which is not that far from where I was. Still it was pretty neat to be allowed out there.
If you are heading on to Nassau, I would not recommend buying anything at the little market on CocoCay as almost everything will also be at Nassau but a bit cheaper. Of course, if you want something that says CocoCay, then you will have to buy it there.
The ship will feed you on the island with a large BBQ buffet and it is usually pretty good. In addition, the pool band from the ship will provide entertainment on the island.
Transport to and from the ship is by tender. In the morning it is pretty smooth but at the end of the day you may want to leave early to avoid the long line in the sun waiting to get out.
We really enjoyed St Martin or Sint Maarten, whichever one you call it. I think it has to do with whether you are on the Dutch or French side. Royal ported on the Dutch side. The port area here is not terribly big but not too bad. There is no Senior Frogs silliness but a small bar is there for drinks and later in the day a few frozen drink stations pop up. Shopping overall is pretty decent here, even in the port area if you haggle some. My wife picked up a new wedding band for about half what it would cost in the States from one of the guaranteed vendors in the port area. That was of course after haggling a bit and letting them know we would go to look in town. There is some pretty darn cheap "St Martin" branded rum in the Duty Free shop there. I'm talking 2 liters for $11. We didn't get any but I was tempted for mixed drinks.....
If you are going to shop, you will really want to head downtown. The cruise port terminal is located a bit away unlike most ports. You will want to either take a Water taxi at $4 each way or Walk. Taking a land taxi to downtown is not cost effective. Once downtown, you will have ample opportunity to arrange for a taxi. You can tell the driver when you want to be picked up at each location and they will be there waiting. You can negotiate the price some for the whole group but not much.
The shopping Downtown is very nice. There is a white hotel or something a little to the right of where the water taxi drops you off that has $3 rum punches. They were pretty good but I doubt they lived up to their claim of Best on the Island. The main street right off the beach has mostly jewelers and more expensive shops. I found a place across that street from the place that sold the rum punch called Caribbean Outfitters that had cold poweraids for $1.25 each.
The main road that runs parallel to the beach is the one with all the jewelers. The locals shop a little further from the beach and on the main road that runs perpendicular to the beach is where the locals shop and prices come down a bit.
We decided to go to Maho beach (Also known as airport beach). Our driver (Tony) was very nice and did a little of the tour guide thing as we drove there. The beach was nice but a bit eroded. There are bars at each end of the beach and we stayed a the one by the Taxi drop off. The food was a little pricey but good. The drinks averaged about $6 for mixed and were good. The Pizza was about 14" and tasty. Probably the best bet to feed a larger group.
When a large airplane comes over the beach, it is something else. Also interesting but not really recommended is standing behind a large jet as it takes off. The wind is pretty awesome but as the sand starts hitting you, that is no fun! As I mentioned, the beach has a tendency to erode and can be different sizes at any time or completely gone altogether. It was pretty small when we were there but accommodated all the people fine. There is a unique phenomenon when the beach is smaller in that a wave will come ashore and then sometimes fall back in a manner which will create a wave going away from the beach. It's kind odd the first time you get hit in the back with a wave coming from the shore.
St Martin is a very nice and safe island. Somewhat similar to Grand Cayman, you can tell that there is more money here than most places in the Caribbean. We didn't go anywhere near the entire island but we did see a lot and overall, it is in much better condition than St Thomas. There are some all inclusive resorts here and if airfare wasn't so darn much to travel to the Caribbean, I would love to come to St Martin for a few days on vacation.
This was our first time in St Thomas so all I can tell is what we experienced:
For St Thomas, we decided to rent a minivan on our own. We had 7 people and weren't sure exactly what we wanted to do so figured the $100 for the van would be cheaper than multiple cab rides for that many people.
We reserved the van through Avis on line and made sure it would be waiting for us at the location by the port, Havensight. It was and everything went smooth. I picked up additional insurance after seeing the quality of roads and the traffic there. In St Thomas they drive on the left side of the road but still have American Style left drive cars so it's not too bad of a transition. I had driven in Bermuda before so was somewhat familiar. The best advice was to just be very careful and think it through the whole time you are driving. We brought our Tom Tom GPS and it had maps in it for St Thomas. Addresses didn't always work right but it was good enough to get us to our destinations and back to the port. They give you a map when you rent the car but the street signs range from non-existent to small. The roads in the mountains are pretty small and usually have no guard rails. That is when you are driving next to a several hundred foot almost straight drop. If you have the right nerves for that it is fine. One thing I will say though is that while driving, I saw several of the open air taxis flying down the roads with tourists hanging on for dear life and looking terrified.
We wound up driving to Coki beach for some snorkeling and it was very beautiful. The water was amazing. There is no reef or anything but a lot of coral on the ocean floor and a few fish. The shallowest we found some coral was about 12' deep and an easy swim from the shore. We found a very interesting group of small squid that liked to just line up on the bottom and watch you swim. There are bars all along the beach. One end of the beach has a parking lot and is more of a local atmosphere (Not that any of it really is) and the other end is where the Taxis drop tourists off and is more of the gift shop atmosphere. There are showers, bathrooms and changing rooms on that side. The beach is not a very long walk from one end to the other. Some of the people in our party got the fish from the bar and said it was very good.
After the Beach, we decided to take the scenic roads through the mountains. This was enjoyable for everyone but the driver (Me). It wasn't a bad experience for me but I really had to concentrate on my driving and couldn't enjoy the views. Eventually we made it to the scenic overlook which allowed a breathtaking view of the port side of the island from high up. There were some vendors there with surprisingly good merchandise at surprisingly already low prices. We picked up some very nice cotton caps for $5 each.
After that, we toughed out the increased downtown traffic and returned the car. We went around the shops in the port area. Some are over priced, some are not too bad. Right across the street from the port area and next to Avis is a large duty free liquor store that had slightly lower prices and MUCH more selection. I will say though that if your cruise is moving on to Sint Maarten, you will probably want to wait for there to purchase Duty Free booze for home.
There are is a Senior Frogs and another bar at the cruise area. We went across the street and found a Bar called The Dog House or something slightly tucked behind a building to the left of the Avis shack. They had happy hour $2 Coronas or Coors light. Everywhere else only had cheap Coors Lights. My wife ordered a Pina Colada and said it was very good.