Background Information: We are a male couple in our early forties who really didn't plan to travel on Freedom in her first season. Both the prices and the hype seemed a bit much but somehow, about 15 months before the sailing, I found myself clicking "purchase" on the RCCL website. Curse that internet!!! We travelled with another couple in their early forties and a friend, who brought her mom along for the ride. We had a table for six and all got along very well. In the months leading up to our cruise, we met a bunch of great folks on the Cruise Critic roll call for our cruise. We got to learn about one another as each passed through the events of their lives, from the birth of grandchildren to the death of siblings. Along the way, it was really neat to see a sense of community evolving. It was great to get on the ship knowing that there were already about 125 people that we'd enjoy bumping into time and again. By the time we boarded, we'd logged well over 8,000 posts in our conversation.
Because it was hurricane season, we flew in two days early but the weather was sunny and uncomplicated, although it was hot even for Floridians. We haven't had good luck with your luggage travelling with us lately so we wanted to give it time to catch up.
We stayed in Coconut Grove at the Wyndam, which we won through Priceline by bidding $60 for a 4 star hotel. It really was a great hotel and was easily worth twice what we paid, or even three times, given the prices in Miami. We found that by being more flexible about where we stayed, we could rent a car ($25 from Alamo) and run a lot of pre-cruise errands and see more of the city than we normally might. We saw communities from South Beach to the more suburban areas of southern Miami, as we bought soda and wine for the cruise. Anyone looking for a really neat mall you will only find in warmer climes should try the Falls. A very cool outdoor mall.
On the morning of the cruise, we drove to McArthur causeway and got off near the Miami Children's Museum. From the park near there, we got great unobstructed views and pictures of our ship. Now, it was time to board her. Because we rented from Alamo, they shuttled us to the ship for free. Heck, even a cab to the ship from a South Beach hotel could cost more than our rental did!
We got to the ship around eleven a.m. and the line never stopped moving until we boarded at approximately 11:30. We think they started letting people on just as we got there. Having filled out our Set Sail information before leaving home, checking in for the cruise was a very expedited affair. Funnily, we simply joined the line for our deck and were among the first served while others insisted in standing in line for those who were more frequent cruisers. My feeling is that it's not a perk if it takes longer!
The ship really was very beautiful and didn't "feel" larger than a Voyager class ship (we have been on Navigator) but I did think it felt wider, particularly indoors. That said, it certainly was a step forward from that earlier class. In some places, it was a baby step and in others, it was a giant leap! We thought the decor was beautiful although I thought the art was more striking on Navigator. My partner noticed that the art relied a bit much on photography on Freedom. We made the rounds, checking things out and getting the vibe of the ship. This was the first time I took the spa tour and now I know how so many people find themselves making appointments as result. I resisted but several in our party succumbed. We spent the rest of the afternoon making sure our table assignment was ok, arranging our wine package and specialty reservations. Sailaway was really wonderful, after months of anticipation.
Activities: The ship was full of them. The ship's biggest new feature is the flow rider and it was a lot of fun. In fact, it was more fun for a non-athletic forty year-old than I would have guessed it could be and I would encourage anyone considering it to give it a try (but do make sure you tie your trunks tightly!). I went on it four times but to focus too much on the flow-rider is to miss all the other treats this ship has to offer. We tried the cantilevered hot tubs in the solarium and also enjoyed the steam rooms and saunas that are featured in the men's and women's locker rooms (well, we only tried the men's one, actually). We sang karaoke after a show one night in a machine in Studio B. It's about as large as a walk-in closet and you have the ability to make the walls opaque so people cannot see you. There is a monitor inside so you can see your performance (and some cool graphics) and at the end, you can simply walk away or you can purchase a dvd of your performance. The singing part is free and open 24 hours. Freedom also had Rock-a Rokie, where you sing a pop song but with a real rock band backing you up. This, I didn't try.
We had done the rock wall on Navigator and I was looking forward to doing it on Freedom but I didn't make it there by the week's end. There is simply too much to do! I also didn't go skating (they provide the skates, for free) or to bingo but we can do that at home. We did go for a speed round of mini-golf, which is also open 24 hours. I made my contribution to the casino and I also enjoyed looking at our pictures in the photo gallery. We're really not the sort of people who go around looking for pictures of ourselves but the photo sessions that they have on cruises seem to find us at our most relaxed and we seem always to buy a picture.
One of the new amenities they have on Freedom is the Clean Shave barber shop. The Deluxe Shave, which sounded more like a facial, was $99. That's months and months of haircuts for me so I didn't bite. Mike did go there on formal night and got a great shoe shine for four bucks.
Service: We thought the service on the ship was good to excellent. Our room attendant seemed to "resist" our early requests for service but he came around. He didn't want to empty our fridge and he was very slow in delivering our laundry. While our friends would get theirs each day at 4, ours would come at 5:30 or later, even though we paid for the rush service. Happily, he came around and was quite friendly by the end of the week.
Our dining room staff were excellent. Everyone cheered when they introduced our waiters and mentioned ours had got married that day. We asked him about that and he laughed and said that no, he hadn't really got married; they just said that so people would clap. Our waiter seemed confused the second day and then we realized the reason he was calling us by the wrong names was that we had all moved. Poor him. Once we figured it out, we all laughed, as did he. We thought bar service was quite good, too, as were the shops. On some ships (Celebrity, are you listening?) it seems the shop hours only work if you're on the late seating or you skip the evening activities but on RCL, the shops were all convenient to shop in and they seemed much happier to take the money we were working so hard to spend.
The bar service was excellent on the ship and the prices were less than most land-based resorts. We had liked Boleros on Enchantment but this was one of our only disappointments on this cruise. First, if you're not a smoker, they sit you across the Centrum, so you don't so much feel like you're in the bar, as watching it with constant foot traffic in front of you. Second, we had enjoyed a great drink called a Batida on Enchantment and they had no idea what it was in Boleros on Freedom. My feeling is that if you're going to brand your bars and have them on all your ships, you should have a common menu. My only other bar comment is that the Viking Crown was very smoky, mostly because although they have a smoking section, folks sit all over and smoke (despite the signs) and the staff do nothing to correct this.
Shore Excursions: We only did two. In Cozumel, we did a Mexican Cuisine course where we prepared three dishes and then sat down to eat the meal we had prepared. There was an open bar throughout and wine with lunch. The course was well taught and the instructor was very engaging and amiable. We would do that again in a minute. Had we wanted, were also welcome to use their beach facilities (Playa Mia) but we wanted to shop. We'll likely go back to Playa Mia when we find ourselves in Cozumel again. They were all very friendly ad the service was great.
In Grand Cayman, we went to Spanish Reef Resort and it was a good decision. We did this because there were 4 ships in port and we wanted a quiet day. The check-in was painfully slow, as one waitress insisted on making each of us (30) a drink and then giving us each a bracelet for the day (to receive further drinks). It took almost 30-45 minutes for this and finally, we just left the welcome area for the pool. The resort had both a pool and a decent beach, as well as some snorkeling. A nice bbq lunch was served and we had just the kind of day we wanted.
We didn't get off the ship in Jamaica and by the reports of our friends, we missed little. They felt harassed to buy souvenirs from the second they left until they returned. A friend on one tour which was to last 3 hours didn't arrive back until the 5 hour point, due to the whole Jamaican attitude toward time. She was supposed to be back for lunch but didn't get back until 3, and there was no food on the tour. That would not have worked well for me. Also in Jamaica, we left late because two tours were late returning to the pier.
We LOVED Labadee and that port's inclusion would be a big selling point for us on a future cruise. We walked as far as we could from the tenders (on our dinner waiter's advice) and we had a very uncrowded beach to share. It was a slice of heaven. We had shade, an ocean and a couple of floating mats!
Stateroom: We had 7708, which is an E1 balcony but is also a corner aft. it was a normal room with an enormous balcony. We had over 30 people on it at one point. We liked the upgraded bedding but found the blankets a little heavy for the caribbean. Our room was as far from an elevator as you can get and we did not find the walk to be bothersome. I would take this room again in a flash. We weren't able to get it originally but it became available after we booked and we switched. My advice is to keep watching if you want a particular room. There was a lot of movement on this cruse, to be sure.
Dining: The food was great and the Venus varied throughout the week. We found the dining to be pretty much on par with most RCCL dining but the "extras" were much better. In particular, Sorrentos Pizza was wonderful. We don't have this chain in Canada but I will definitely eat there on visits to the US now. Yummy. They also had really good desserts and baked treats. Their tiramisu was as good as the one in the Specialty restaurant.
Speaking of specialty restaurants, both on Freedom were great. I had been hesitant to go to Portofino because I wasn't sure how social italian could be made but it was wonderful. I strongly recommend the skewer of seafood (scallops, shrimp and lobster).
Entertainment: It was crazy how great the shows were. Once upon a Time and Marquee, in particular, were really wonderful. They were head and shoulders above production shows we've scene on other lines. The ice show was neat and it was incredible to remember that you were at sea watching it! The Magic Show was cheesey and was out of leagues with he other shows that we left early. Our headliner for the week was Charo. I'm still exhausted AND energized from watching her. She is a force of nature.
I think that was sets Freedom (and RCL) apart is that there is always something going on but you can also choose to do nothing and that's just fine. For instance, after the main show of the evening, there was often a secondary activity and a themed dance (disco, eighties, country). It was fun to be on a ship where the sidewalks don't roll up at nine.
Disembarkation: Easily the best we have ever seen. We went from having our color group called to clearing customs, picking up our bags, clearing immigration and leaving the terminal by taxi inside of 15 minutes. It truly was amazing.
Negatives: I never trust reviews where nothing negative is mentioned so here are the very few I noticed:
- I think the Windjammer Cafe is the seventh ring of hell. It's not the layout or the crowd so much as how rude people are in shoving their way around. Also, there always seemed to be about 8 screaming kids within earshot. In the future, I would avoid it at all costs. To be fair, I don't think buffets are a great idea in general but this was its own special misery.
- The towel exchange on the pool deck is silly. I presume they do this so you won't steal the towels but when you have to leave your room number to get a spare towel, someone should have to be there when you give it back, which there wasn't always. After a few days, I just got the extra towels we needed from the gym and returned them there. No problem and no attendant.
- Shows like the Qwest have been more fun on other cruises. The cruise director, Ken Rush, was fine but the clues weren't all that fun and it had a "been there, done that" feel to it.
- I cannot imagine a better experience than our Meet and Mingle for Cruise Critic. It was so much fun to meet in person these people you thought you knew so well. Some were just as I had imagined and some were not. Life is like that.
- I think the entertainment was just about as good as it gets, until RCL dreams up something even more imaginative.
- The fellow passengers on this cruise were great. During the 70's dance party, there must have been 600 people dancing in the promenade. Folk showed up to participate in the events and yet there weren't too many drunken messes. They show up on most cruises but we didn't see anyone who should be too embarrassed for being under the influence.