I'm going to start by stating what I think is the obvious. Everyone's expectations and experiences of any particular cruise are different. If you go in with some knowledge and some insight, it's usually hard to be completely disappointed, which is why I love reading reviews on cruisecritic. There are definitely things that can go wrong that will make a trip terrible (difficult clientele, poor management of events, etc), but overall, I think if you read the reviews objectively, you're going to get a fair idea of what type of experience to expect onboard. That being said, we had a wonderful time on Freedom of the Seas and would highly recommend it to anyone!
We have sailed Freedom before, and with the same itinerary, 2 years ago. We loved it then and we loved it this time as well.
Traveling this time around were my parents, myself, my youngest daughter (4), my sister and her husband and their daughter (2). We had a rough start to our trip since our flight (thankfully, we flew the day before the cruise. I very much recommend that!!!!) was delayed 8 hours. If we had flown the day of the cruise, we would've missed the boat. I think that if you fly in for a cruise, it's always a great idea to leave the day before. It's well worth one night in a hotel to be sure you will get on your ship! On top of that, they lost my luggage. It was after 10 PM when we landed and once we found out I had no luggage, we stopped at an all night Walmart to pick up some clothes. That alone was stressful. The Walmart there (by the beach!) had TWO bathing suits. Ack!! It was terrible to think I wouldn't have all my things for the trip. I will put in a RAVE review here for VIP Limo. They picked us up at the airport, and our driver, Marlene couldn't have been more wonderful. She stopped for that loooong Walmart stop (it's supposed to be a quick stop. We did tip her generously, but it was still above and beyond). She was concerned and even called me the next day to check in on what was happening! I would very highly recommend them if you need a car from the airport to Cocoa Beach.
The next morning, we had planned on getting on board at 11 (they tell you later, but most times they're cleared for boarding by 11 AM)and enjoying the day on the boat. However, since I still had very few (decent!) clothes, I ran to Target to get a few more things. It was stressful and a bummer to start our trip that way...phone calls to the insurance company, phone calls to JetBlue etc. However, it all had a good ending. JetBlue found my bag and had it delivered to the cruise ship at 3:30. We sailed at 4! I was just so thrilled to get all my things and not have to wear the crazy outfits I found last minute. So a few quick tips: always split your clothes between suitcases. I always like to have "my" suitcase, but in this case, it was terrible to have not one item of my own! I'd also highly recommend that you make a list before you travel of what is in your bag. I would've needed that for insurance purposes and it was overwhelming to think of at the time because it's easy to forget what's actually there. And lastly, try not to completely judge the under-dressed person at dinner, especially if their traveling companions are following the dress code! I would never had had nice enough outfits for all nights of the trips with my pieced-together wardrobe. :)
Embarkation was quick and easy, though it probably helped that my Mom was in a wheelchair. They helped us up to a special area for her to board and that probably helped us avoid some of the line. We wound up boarding around 1:30 PM.
This is the part of the review where I need to mention that this cruise was not fully booked. I don't have any idea how many people were on board, but all week long it was easy to tell that we were not a jammed packed ship. One woman that worked the kids club said that 2 weeks before (Christmas) they had 250 children in JUST the 3-5 year old group that were eligible for kids club. The week we were there, that same age range had only 50 kids! So I'm sure that fact alone, that we weren't at full capacity, made for a very enjoyable trip. When we sailed Freedom before, it was in April and much busier, though we still had a great experience.
I won't bore you with each and every amenity of the ship. There's the typical...plus the Flow Rider, Ice Skating, Huge Screen on deck, Rock Wall, Adults Only pool, Spa etc. There is really so much for each age range, not to mention just relaxing!, that there should be plenty for everyone to do while on board. If you have questions about any of them, I'd be happy to answer them!
We found the ship to be very clean and very well-kept. There are a few areas where I'm sure it would be great to have brand new everything...like the staterooms. But considering the sheer number of people and the foot traffic of every single room, week after week, I think they look great. Everything was in working order and was clean. (I'm one of the crazies that takes Lysol and antibacterial wipes and wipes down every single surface of the room. Who needs to get sick on vacation if you can help avoid it?) Our room attendant (Giovanella) was excellent. She was helpful, friendly and always asking if we needed anything. Our bed was AWESOME. I slept like a baby every single night. It was truly heaven. I have a king sized - pillow topped mattress at home and this beat that, hands down. It has an egg crate topper and I guess between that, the weight of the blanket, the darkness of the room and the motion of the boat...it was just perfect.
We had a promenade stateroom. The last time we had one we loved watched the parades and shows from our room. I goofed though and this time, the room we got was over the bridge and you didn't really see much. Last time, I loved spending the nights people watching, once my littler one was in bed. This time there wasn't much to see, so next time I'd be sure to get one further down the promenade.
We had the early seating for dinner at 5:30. Overall, I have to say that we truly enjoyed our dinners together every night. It was nice to slow down and get to chat with my family, that I don't get to see as often as I'd like. Our server, especially our main server Adrian, was great. He was very friendly and always took an interest in our girls, which they loved. He even made them origami figures each night which was fun.
The menus varied each night with a theme....like pimiento, basil, saffron etc. It seemed that only a few dishes had those ingredients in them though. Overall, everything we had was tasty, fresh and hot. They had a menu of 6 or so different appetizers and then main courses each night that changed. We had everything from Mojo Pork Chops to escargot to duck, lemongrass soup etc, etc. They had a few menu items like steak, creme brulee, catch of the day that were on the menu every single night. I think they called them "Classic Dishes" or something like that. Then finally, there were a few items that they brought in from the specialty restaurants that you had to pay extra for. We never tried them. We enjoyed the regular menu enough to never feel the need to supplement. We did not go to any specialty restaurants either, so I can't comment on them, though I did hear good things about them.
If I did need to complain about one thing in the dining room, it's that they seemed far more rushed this year than any other cruise I've been on. I have a feeling that since there were less passengers on the boat, they probably cut back on staff as well. You could tell. They seemed very overwhelmed and frantic trying to get everything done. It was also a bit frustrating to have to look around for them to get a steak knife, another drink, a forgotten sauce etc. I don't blame them...they really tried their best and worked their tails off. But I definitely think someone goofed in terms of how many people were working. If I sail again and have the same issue, then maybe their service just went down...but I'll chalk it up to a fluke for this week. Usually, we have them waiting for us for each thing and anticipate every single need. We missed that! :)
We went to Johnny Rocket's one afternoon for lunch and enjoyed it. It's exactly what you'd expect from a burger joint and the burgers were really good. We had shakes (2 for 1 with our coupons), burgers, onion rings, fries....we barely ate dinner that night! We ate out on the deck which was nice too. It's worth stopping in there once, even though it has a 4.95 pp cover charge.
I know people's expectations of food vary greatly and that can really skew how people view their onboard experience. It's a cruise line. They cook for thousands of people. It's not an elite cruise line with gourmet chefs. If you go in knowing that and expecting decent food, you should be happy. We're from NYC (though live in NJ now) and have a pretty good feel for fine dining. Everything we had was certainly not gourmet but it was definitely a few steps up from your average casual dining experience. If you go in knowing it won't be Applebee's or Chili's but it also won't be Le Bernardin or Per Se, then you should be perfectly satisfied.
One of the most impressive parts of the cruise, for me, was Adventure Ocean which is their Kids Club. I read reviews extensively about it before I left because I was traveling with just my youngest daughter and was hoping she might like the kids club so I could spend time with the adults once in awhile. Well she LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the Kids Club. I couldn't get her out of it! I would offer anything else to do and she would always pick the kids club. Her three counselors (Matrix, Electric and Queen Elizabeth) were friendly, engaging and fun. The Aquanauts are in their own room (3-5 year olds) and it's locked while the kids are there. They come in, take off their shoes, wash their hands and start playing. They did arts and crafts, parades, shows, played games...she was always busy and she hated when I came to pick her up. They must've been doing something right! I felt comfortable leaving her there and when I'd ask what they did, or how the counselor or kids were...she always had something good to say. I know that will vary child by child, week by week....but if your child attends preschool already, then I think they will most likely enjoy the kids club. It was definitely nice to have some time to relax or spend chatting with my parents or sister. I was sure to give them a tip at the end of the trip, because they really made our experience that much nicer.
My daughter also loved the spray park area and the pools. They were clean and they were fresh water, which is so much nicer than salt water. My only complaint is that they did some renovations on the spray park one day, and I guess they used the wrong paint for the floor. It had no grip. The poor kids were falling all over the place after that! Hopefully they'll fix that. Other than that the pools were great. Again, since it wasn't overly crowded, the pools never were either. Then again, our weather was not completely great for the trip (chillier and cloudy most days...more than we hoped for!) so I'm sure that kept people out of the pools as well at times. We also enjoyed the mini golf and ice skating.
One thing that I really noticed this trip is that there didn't seem to be alot for adults to do between 8 and 10, which is after dinner for the early seating. There were plenty of things that started after 10, but if you have little ones, they really need to be asleep by then. We found ourselves kind of wandering each night after dinner without really having much to do. I would've like more early evening activities. I also think that if my daughter was not in the kids club, there were probably very few activities to do together during the day that were organized. So if they had more family things going on (contests, participation events, crafts etc) that would probably be nice too.
I know this is getting long....so I'll try to be a bit quicker! Our first stop was Cocoa Cay. It was slightly cloudy and a bit windy but it was still a good day for us. We didn't plan any activities...we just found a little grove under some trees and set up camp. We took walks, played in the sand, went in the water (it was chilly!)and just enjoyed relaxing. The food for the lunch is not the best. I'll be honest! The burgers are of very sub-par quality, the dogs are "bologna dogs" and the ribs were really, really tough. The jerk chicken was decent, though mine was undercooked so I didn't eat it. They have some salads on the side, corn on the cob, some desserts and condiments. It's a nice beach meal...but it was definitely just eh. My daughter LOVED the Fisher Price car track. She was able drive her little cousin around in a motorized car around the track. They would've stayed there all day if we let them! I was going to get tickets for the water park..but once I saw it, I'm glad I didn't. You need lots of upper body strength to pull yourself up onto the floats and I would never have been able to do that with my 4 year old. The big water slide was not operating that day. Definitely walk all the way around the island if you want to avoid crowds. The beach towards the end is beautiful and usually mostly empty. The Coco Loco drink was lovely....especially when paired with a hammock!
Our second stop was St. Thomas. We've been there before and loved it. Last time we took a sailboat ride (High Pockets...check them out on Tripadvisor. It was AWESOME and you will love it!!), but this time it would be too tricky to do that with two little ones. We took a taxi to Sapphire Beach. It is a beautiful beach and it doesn't get crowded. Again, our weather wasn't great..it was really, really windy that day, but we still enjoyed our time there. There's a small shack that rents snorkel equipment (you can snorkel from shore) and a hotel snack bar with burgers etc. You can also order pizza from the beach and they'll deliver it! Cold beers were $3 each, which was a nice addition to our day. We set up under some seagrape trees and didn't need loungers. You look out at St. John and it's just a beautiful beach. I recommend a visit there. Since the weather wasn't great, we left early and just headed back to the pier. We walked the shops a bit (right at the pier, just what you'd expect in terms of souvenirs etc) and even got a few appetizers at (the overpriced) Senor Frogs before heading back on the ship. Touristy, but it worked for us that day.
The next day we went to St. Maarten. Last time there we did a big catamaran sail on Celine. Again, check them out on tripadvisor. If we didn't have the little ones (or I had my husband to help more!) and if my Mom wasn't in a wheelchair, we would have done those two excursions again. They were awesome, awesome, awesome. But this time around we decided to just wing it and do more low-key things. We took a taxi to the butterfly garden, which was great to see. I don't know that I'd do it in place of a great boat excursion...but it was good for kids and older people alike and it was very interesting. I would recommend it. We planned to go to Le Galion that day (I was dying to go there and also heard a glowing review from someone once back on board the ship) but we heard it might be hard to get to for someone in a wheelchair so we had to rethink our plan. We wound up going to Orient Beach which I WOULD NEVER recommend!!! It was awful.
Again, I'm sure it depends on what you look for...but when I'm in the Caribbean I'm looking for a clean, quiet, beautiful beach. This was awful. It was crowded wall-to-wall with beach chairs, umbrellas and restaurants. It was dirty, vendors approached you all day long and it was loud (people had their Bose dock blaring Latin music while the restaurant blasted reggae). I just hated everything about it. If you go on review sights though, there's quite a few people that like it, so to each his own. This was not my idea of a good beach though! The water was also a bit rough and it got deeper quicker than some other beaches. The weather wasn't great for us...but we had a good time before it started raining. Then we headed back to the pier. I like the St. Maarten pier. The shops there clean and well organized and it's nice to spend some time there without worrying about getting back to the ship.
Debarkation was alright. We did the Express Check out where they pick up your bags at night, and the next time you see them is at your hometown airport. We could leave the boat any time after 7. That would've been awesome but we had to wait for my sister's family's bags anyway. (We didn't think that through! Haha.) Going through customs took a few minutes...but overall it was ok. It's a bit chaotic at the port with the buses, taxis, people with luggage etc. But nothing unexpected. We took our taxi (VIP Limo again) back to the airport with no problem and were on our merry way.
Overall, we had a great experience on Freedom and would recommend it to anyone. I know some people post the Compasses and literature from the trip. I wish I had a scanner. I do have every single Compass and Adventure Ocean from our trip (Eastern Caribbean), but have no way to upload them. If there is a reader out there that would like to do that to contribute to the sight, so new travelers have that info, I would be more than happy to mail them to you and have you post them. I know they're a great resource for everyone.