BACKGROUND: Our family (my husband, my kids 19 and 12, and I) love to travel internationally and usually opt for a DIY "cultural" vacation rather than cruising. However, we decided to give cruising a try, despite the tendency for a couple of us to get motion sickness and for my daughter to have lots of issues with food allergies. We chose RCCL's Freedom of the Seas based on terrific reviews.
EMBARKATION: Embarkation was pretty efficient, considering the number of passengers . After my husband dropped us off with the rental car and returned to the terminal, we entered with our baggage and did not realize that porters were supposed to take our bags to the ship. After asking a number of RCCL personnel how to give our bags to porters, we were advised by other seasoned passengers to walk onto the ship with our bags to avoid having to go back through security. This is the only fault I found with the cruise line; the RCCL personnel at the terminal only knew their own jobs and did not know how to resolve the issue. Not a huge problem, as we ended up storing our bags in our staterooms while they were still being cleaned.
SHIP INFO: The ship is absolutely gorgeous! Just a few years old, every room was in tip-top shape and cleaned constantly. The Royal Promenade is the heart of the ship - a beautiful walkway with cafes and other eateries, shops, and a lit-up bridge that served as a great forum for people watching. While the ship is huge, it has a great layout, and everything is easy to find with the help of electronic, interactive maps on every deck.
ACTIVITIES: There are so many different kinds of activities that we did not get to do everything! Believe it or not, we only used the pool once on embarkation day. On ship days, the pool gets VERY crowded, so we enjoyed other activities. There's the famous Flow Rider (we only watched), a rock climbing wall (my husband and daughter climbed), a sport court where dodge ball and basketball are played, a mini golf course, and even an ice skating rink, which my daughter and I tried just to say we skated on a ship! But the fav activities for my kids were the trivia contests, which were a great way to meet other people.
SERVICE: The service is absolutely superb. Every single RCCL employee was friendly, helpful, and professional - from the cruise director staff to dining room servers to stateroom attendants. We gave "WOW" cards to our three favorite people: Kirk Johnson (our waiter from Jamaica), Delpha Campbell (our assistant waiter from Jamaica), and Everard Cumberbatch (our room attendance). They went out of their way to make our experience so joyful.
PORT/SHORE EXCURSIONS: We did shore excursions in every port. In Haiti, two of us enjoyed the Haitian Cultural Tour at Paradise Cove, while the other two went on the Snorkel Safari. They were both fantastic. In Jamaica, we decided to avoid the traditional Dunn's River Falls and went horseback riding - in the sea! What a thrill, given that a couple of us had never even been on horses before. In Grand Cayman, we visited Stingray City, where we "interacted" with the stingrays. My advice is to bring a mask/snorkel or swim goggles so that you can see the stingrays underwater - truly spectacular. But our favorite excursion was the Dolphin Swim and Push/Pull at Chankanaab Park in Cozumel. For $99/each, this was the best bang for your buck, as a small group of around 10-12 get to interact with a dolphin, who "pulls" you through the water as you hang onto his fins and "pushes" you on a boogie board. The fee also includes the transportation and an entire day at the beautiful park, where you can snorkel, eat, go kayaking, swim, etc.
STATEROOM: We had two balcony staterooms, which were roomy and comfortable. We reserved rooms mid-ship on Deck 8, as this location is advised for people with a tendency to become seasick. Between our choice of stateroom and small doses of Dramamine, we had no problems with sickness - not even when the seas were a little rocky. The bathroom is tiny but well-lit, and the beds are very comfortable. We slept well every single night.
DINING: We only ate in the main dining room, the cafes on the Promenade, and in the ever-popular Windjammer. The main dining room covers an impressive three decks, and as we chose a 5:30 My Time Dining option, we ate on the top deck (5). The mostly continental cuisine was very good; every dinner consisted of three courses, and the portions are not huge but certainly large enough for medium-sized appetites. The Windjammer has a very impressive breakfast buffet - everything you can imagine, including eggs Benedict, made-to-order omelets, salmon, croissants - even miso soup, which is a mainstay of Japanese breakfasts! Lunch has an equally impressive variety, and the afternoon "tea/snack" is lovely - enjoy everything from scones and clotted cream to tacos in case you don't get enough to eat the other three meals. We didn't use Johnny Rockets or Sorrentos or Ben & Jerry's (how much food can one eat in a day???), but we did get Starbucks drinks and pastries at the Cafe Promenade, open 24 hours.
FOOD ALLERGIES: My daughter is allergic to all dairy products (including whey and caseine), eggs, nuts, and coconut. The dining staff was VERY careful to ensure that she received meals that did not include allergens, to the point of making items that don't even appear on the menu. She felt very special, as she was given extra portions and desserts such as chocolate mango pudding and cherries jubilee. Several people were involved in helping us with her allergies, including the maitre d', the head waiter, the main waiter, the assistant waiter, and of course, the chefs. We were very impressed with their careful attention - thanks RCCL!
ENTERTAINMENT: The evening entertainment was varied. The Marquee event was a Broadway-type show that saluted musicals. The magic show was spectacular, as was the ice show. The Once Upon a Time was also fun. My husband and I were selected as one of three couples (the middle-aged couple) on the Love and Marriage Game Show, which was made hilarious by our cruise director, Richard Spacey.
Overall, I would definitely cruise RCCL again and would recommend Freedom of the Seas for families with kids who have outgrown Disney.
We went on the Dolphin Swim and Push-Pull, which was our favorite excursion of the entire cruise! After some training, when we received information on how to touch dolphins, we spent 40 minutes interacting with Danny, our two-year-old dolphin. He "lay" in our arms like a baby, "kissed" us, swam us as we held onto his fins, and pushed us on a boogie board.
This was by far the best value of all the excursions, as it not only included plenty of time with the dolphin but also the transportation and admission to Chankanaab Park, a beautiful beach park where you can also snorkel, kayak, tour gardens, watch sea lions, or just relax with a margarita.
ADVICE: Take the earliest excursion and enjoy the rest of the day at this beautiful park. Lockers are free and will keep your valuables and a change of clothing.
We went on the Chukka Tours Horseback Adventure, located about one hour from the Falmouth port. The weather was nasty (rainy and cold - even in late May!), but the bus driver was funny and gave us some interesting information about that area of Jamaica - which is famous for being the region where Bob Marley was born. At the venue, we went horseback riding around a plantation for about one hour, then changed horses to go horseback riding - in the sea! It was a thrill, as at some points, the the water was deep enough that the horses were really swimming.
ADVICE: Though you are told to wear your swimsuit on the excursion, bring a change of clothing! We nearly froze to death as we rode back in our wet suits for an hour back to the port. It rains a lot in the Caribbean, and even in May/June, it got cold.
Stingray City is a favorite for families with kids, as it's unique from excursions at other ports. While we had fun "interacting" with the stingrays, they are certainly not as much fun as dolphins. The weather was rough when we arrived to the shallow area where the rays hang out, and some people with poor balance had a hard time not crashing into other people. My 12-year-old daughter was pushed into a stingray and "stung" (scratched) on the thigh by the barbs.
ADVICE: Bring snorkel equipment or goggles to watch the rays underwater - spectacular!
Labadee is RCCL's private beach, which is HUGE and gorgeous! The beach itself is somewhat rocky, so if you plan to wade around in the sea, you should bring water shoes. Our family of four split up for two excursions. My husband and daughter went on Snorkel Safari, which was really fun and consisted of riding a boat out to a deep area and snorkeling. My son and I went on the Haitian Cultural Tour at Paradise Cove, which was really interesting, as it combined a 45-minute tour of a Haitian "village" (not a real one but a tiny Williamsburg-type village) and an hour's stay at the small but very secluded sandy beach.
RCCL served a BBQ lunch at the beaches of Labadee, and after filling up with ribs and corn and salad, we enjoyed watching the zipliners flying over the sea and photographing the lovely scenery.
ADVICE: Wear water shoes, as the beach is rocky.