My wife and I and our two young children, boys 5 and 7, took a 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Freedom of the Seas in October 2012. We were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. We had cruised once before on Royal Caribbean, just after we became engaged back in 2001, and wanted to revisit some of the places and memories of our early days together. Overall we had a wonderful time, but some luck and serendipitous planning played a hand in our positive experience.
Back in 2001 we cut it a little close getting on the ship, so this time we flew in a day early and stayed in a hotel close to the Port. The Radisson in Port Canaveral arranged the Coco Beach Shuttle from the Orlando airport and the shuttle to the cruise port the next morning. Everything went like clockwork and the price was very reasonable: approx. $160 including both shuttles and the overnight room. The hotel is just average, but an overnight stay five minutes from the port really helped with the next morning's embarkation.
At 10:45AM, we were met at the shuttle drop-off zone by a porter who promptly checked and tagged our luggage and sent us into the security clearance line. By 11:30AM we were already onboard the ship. Everything was well-organized and clearly communicated by the staff in the terminal. It was a good thing we arrived early too, the Windjammer quickly filled to overflowing shortly after we were seated. Many people stood around eating with no tables available by noon. We beat a hasty retreat from the crowds and explored the ship. In general, "plan ahead and arrive early" is a good policy when you are sharing limited resources with over 4,000 other passengers.
I really hope that this advice reaches parents of young children. Our boys sleep 2-3 hours more per day than we do so staying in one room, no matter how large, always presents problems when travelling. We decided to take two interior cabins with an adjoining door forward on the sixth deck: 6111 and 6113. For a price less than a suite with a balcony, we had more square footage, two bathrooms, two TVs and two closets. The boys could rest without being disturbed by the light or TV on in our cabin. The two bathrooms were very handy for our family of four when getting ready for formal nights and dressing in the mornings. Of course we didn't have a balcony or even a window, but I have always cruised in interior cabins without issue and you only sleep in your cabin. The ridiculous little glass coffee tables stored nicely in the closets (We placed shoes and carry-ons underneath them.) The extra floor space is more useful than those little things. The rooms were always clean and quickly attended to. The housekeeping staff was very friendly and helpful, and the rooms were quiet.
Cruise ship travelling is kind of like staying in a North American cocoon as you travel to exotic destinations. That said when you are travelling with small children familiarity at mealtime is very welcome. We ate the majority of our meals in the Windjammer and Jade. The variety of the menu there was excellent including many Indian, Thai, Japanese and West Indian choices on top of the typical buffet fare favoured by our kids. I also recommend this area for the superior view at sunset. From my perspective as a parent travelling with small children, Windjammer and Jade were the best dining experience onboard. I could sample cuisine from four or five continents at each evening meal while my kids happily munched on familiar choices. We ate in the main dining room three times and were kind of disappointed with the similarity of the menu there from one day to the next. One day we actually got up and went to the Windjammer when we saw the limited selection on the menu in the main dining room. When we arrived in the Windjammer we observed that many of the daily special items on the main dining room menu were being served in the buffet. The waiters in all areas were friendly and helpful without fail. Johnny Rockets was exactly as you would expect: fun once, but kind of one note compared to the variety elsewhere. The Bull and Bear had an above average variety of international ales, which beer snobs like myself really appreciated. My kids ate meals with Adventure Ocean in Johnny Rockets on a few occasions. The younger one actually refused to go back for a third meal with Adventure Ocean. They should consider using the Windjammer or Sorrento's pizzeria for more variety. Sorrento's pizza was pretty standard with a fairly limited selection. Honestly, I make better pizza than Sorrento's, but my kids liked it. Sprinkles, the free soft serve ice cream station on the pool deck, was under repair for the first half of our cruise. It was very popular with our family when the ceramic tiles had been replaced. The Ben and Jerry's on the Promenade was good quality but is extra and a little pricey even for a cruise ship. The Dreamworks character meals are booked-up quickly and are a big hit with the kids: book online at least a month before you leave. The included room service cheese platters are a yummy late night snack but take 45 minutes to an hour to arrive. We did not use Chops or Portofino, but heard good things about Chops from others onboard. Tip: The Windjammer buffet has fresh fruit and little cereal boxes which we took to go everyday as snacks for the kids in the afternoon.
My wife and I took Flowrider lessons on the first sea day. There were eight people in what I expected to be a private lesson, but overall the instructors were really helpful and the lesson took on a fun, party-like atmosphere. We were both glad to have the lesson when we saw other first-timers struggling on the Flowrider on other days of the cruise. My wife went back three more times and really enjoyed it. She was learning some tricks by the end of the cruise. Word to the wise though: we saw a few younger female guests trying the Flowrider in bikinis. The current is 25 to 30 mph and is strong enough to throw 200 lb men around. I used the gym several times during the cruise. The equipment was excellent and the view from the treadmills and running track at sunrise was inspiring. My boys enjoyed the Adventure Ocean activities and begged for more time in the video arcade. I never thought I would right this sentence, "Do not miss the Ice Show on the cruise!" It is fantastic, but reserve online before you leave. I saw the reservations line for the ice show; it was long. I also took my kids to two 3d movies in the Arcadia theatre, which they loved. The H2O Zone was fun but it was obviously a retro-fit from the dry dock in 2011. There is a 5 ft deep pool in the kids' splash pad area that every parent needs to be wary of. The depth is well marked, but kids don't look before they leap even when they are old enough to read. I never left my kids unattended for a moment in the pools, but nevertheless RCI should get rid of that deep pool in the kids' area before some child is seriously hurt. We did not visit the casino.
Ports of Call
We tried to book a Coco Cay cabana at 4PM on the day of embarkation. They were already all gone, even though we could not reserve them through the website or through RCI ahead of time! I was very disappointed at first, but in the end was glad I missed out when I saw them: kind-of rickety things on a rocky area a minute's walk to the main beach. If you are planning on spending the majority of your time floating around in the ocean, they are fifth wheels. We grabbed four chaises on the sandy main beach near the bar in the shade of some palm trees 20 ft from the water. This location was great for lively music, cold Coco Locos and a shady spot for eating the lunch BBQ. The corn-on-the-cob was over-cooked, but the BBQ'd ribs and chicken were terrific.
We planned to do some shopping in St. Thomas and take the Paradise Point gondola ride. We enjoyed the gondola ride to the beautiful view from the top of Paradise Point. However, the shopping district immediately off the pier had all the authentic charm and aesthetic beauty of a pre-fabricated outlet mall. We returned to the ship and enjoyed the shorter lines at the Flowrider for the afternoon. If I had it to do all over again, I would have booked an excursion in St. Thomas and avoided the shopping near the pier entirely.
Our planned excursion on St. Maarten was cancelled and refunded to our account by RCI. In the end, this was a blessing in disguise. There was so much to do in the beautiful cobblestone streets and sandy beach immediately next to the Philipsburg pier that the excursion was completely unnecessary. Downtown Philipsburg is accessed by a brief water taxi ride and is breathtaking. Our kids liked meeting Yoda at the Star Wars museum. Yes, there is a Star Wars museum in St. Maarten. My wife and I highly recommend the jerk chicken and ribs at the Barefoot Terrace Cafe right off the pier for lunch, yummy! I would have happily stayed an extra day in St. Maarten and skipped St. Thomas.
Departing and the Return trip
The shuttle provided by RCI post cruise was less organized than the Coco Beach Shuttle used by the Radisson pre-cruise. We were partially loaded onto one bus which did not have enough seats and then moved to a second bus which then sat for twenty minutes for no apparent reason before departing with no additional passengers. We noticed that the return flight to Toronto from Orlando was $300/person cheaper on Monday than on the Sunday. So we stayed overnight at a hotel near the airport recommended by RCI and flew back early the next morning. We saved $1000 even with the additional hotel stay and meals. This is definitely worth a look if your fight costs are a significant portion of your budget. The Florida Hotel and Conference Center was clean and conveniently attached to a large shopping mall.
Overall, we loved the cruise. The ship was beautiful and well-maintained. Disregarding the embarkation day, we found the 3 sea days to 3 port days ratio a little high and wish that the cruise had more of an island hopping feel. We were really fortunate with the weather and waves, but I can see how inclement weather could quickly have a disproportionate effect on a cruise which is half sea days.