Freedom of the Seas. I was a bit skeptical when I learned that Cruise Critic selected Freedom of the Seas (FOS) for our October 2006 host cruise. Not that I wasn't excited about once again getting together with our Cruise Critic hosts and members. I was. But I'm a small ship person. I much prefer ships under 80,000 tons so my initial reaction was Freedom was just WAY too big for me. In retrospect, it's a good thing FOS was selected for the host cruise because chances were I wouldn't have selected the ship on my own. And now that I'm back, I'm sure glad we went!
As with each cruise we take, the excitement began to build months before the cruise. In addition to this being a Cruise Critic host cruise, we were also booked with a Cruise Critic group wonderfully hosted by Jan (Whit53 on the boards). Additionally, it was a Crown and Anchor member cruise. That means many of us were corresponding and having fun long before the cruise ever arrived. Several on our sailing had been on the inaugural cruise of FOS so they were very helpful in filling us in on many of the ships details. By the time we got to embarkation day, many of us were old friends, sporting our pink boas and ready for a fabulous week on board FOS.
EMBARKATION DAY This was the second cruise in a row that I could now drive to the port to meet the ship. Living in Florida definitely has its benefits if you love to cruise like we do. Host Joe and his partner, Kirk, flew in from Michigan a couple of days early and we (my 19-year-old daughter Amanda, myself, Joe and Kirk) got up early on Sunday morning and made the three hour drive to Miami. We were sad to leave my husband Andy behind but we were thrilled to be on our way to Freedom.
The trip to Miami was uneventful and we were in the parking garage at the Port of Miami (garage is directly across from the cruise terminal) by 11:00 AM. Parking and walking to the terminal was a breeze. And that's where the fun began. We were surprised to walk up to the terminal to discover a very (and I mean very) long line to even get to the door to the terminal. We walked to the back of the line and our wait began. Some 90 minutes later, we made our way into the terminal, where we retrieved our cabin keys fairly quickly (we did the express check-in on line) and then stood in another line for about another 45 minutes. It was finally announced that there were some delays due to Customs but it sure did appear that no one really had a clue as to what was going on or why (many passengers were becoming irritated - remember there were many Crown & Anchor members on this sailing - reportedly more than 2,400) and none of the RCI staff in the terminal could really explain the delay. We meanwhile, laughed and talked to each other; waved to others wearing pink boas, etc. to pass the time. I knew this wasn't a regular occurrence and I know stuff does happen so getting upset wouldn't do anyone any good. After all, we WERE about to get on a cruise ship!
Finally around 1:30 we boarded. The upside was we were allowed to go directly to our cabin to drop off our carry-ons and then proceeded to the Windjammer for lunch. We were starved by now!
As is everything on Freedom, the Windjammer is big. The nice thing about that is it spreads out the people so it didn't really seem too crowded. We checked out all the options on the different buffets and selected lunch. Once lunch was done (it was very good by the way), we went back to our cabin and spent about 30 minutes unpacking (all our luggage had arrived).
CABIN - 8378 I think this is probably the nicest standard balcony cabin we've ever had. The beds (VERY comfy with nice sheets and duvets) were next to the balcony door and a nearly full size flip couch that converts to a sleeper sofa was between the beds and the bathroom. A very nice-sized flat screen TV is set on a swivel arm so that you can turn it towards the beds or towards the couch. A standard desk with mirror and drawers is next to the TV. The bathroom seemed a tad bigger than the normal standard bathrooms (shower only) and there was definitely an extra foot or two of space between the desk and the couch so that you could actually walk between the desk chair if someone was sitting in it and the coffee table in front of the couch. That might not sound like a big deal, but I found it to make a huge difference in the overall comfort of the cabin. You weren't running into one another or trying to climb over the coffee table to get around another person. Very nice cabin set up. Plenty of storage (we weren't even close to using all the space)
Once unpacked, we met up with other Cruise Critic members in the Schooner Bar just to say hello. After months of chatting on-line, it was great to meet folks face to face and know we were all in for a fun week right from the start. Then it was off to muster drill. I'm not sure how we lucked out but our muster station was the main dining room. We got to sit down the entire time while others had to stand outside on the promenade deck. With the amount of passengers on the ship, it took quite some time to get everyone situated and review all the instructions. Thank goodness we were sitting inside.
Now the fun REALLY begins. Sailaway! The moment everyone was waiting for. We all gathered on the upper pool deck for drinks and laughs as we pulled out of Miami. It's so much fun to leave Miami. You sail past all those beautiful glass buildings you see every week on CSI: Miami and you feel like you're in a TV show. As our group broke up, I did a quick self-tour of the ship. I like to start at the top and work my way down. The ship was really quiet at this point. Many were probably getting ready for early seating dinner or unpacking. Gave me plenty of chances to take some nice interior ship photos while it was quiet.
Main Dining Room The three-story main dining room was absolutely beautiful. We were seated on the first level at table 302, a table for 12. Our waiter, Francis and his assistant, Elicia, were very nice and worked hard to ensure that everyone at our table was satisfied with their meals. I'd rate the food good to very good in the dining room but I don't have extremely high expectations on a ship that is serving thousands of sit-down meals at a time. All things considered, I believe Royal Caribbean has improved its dining room food significantly over the past five or six years.
Portofino's Our gracious host, Laura, treated all of us to Portofino's one evening and Chop's on another. Portofino was first. I can sum the meal and evening up in one word: outstanding! The service, the quality of the food, the atmosphere. Everything worked together to provide a delightful evening.
Chops Chops was a different story. The wait staff seemed stressed and half of our group (we were seated at two tables for six) didn't receive their soups or salads - never did hear what the problem was. Our food was fine, but the steaks were not any better than those I already had in the main dining room. While it was still a pleasant evening, it didn't quite measure up to the experience we had in Portofino's earlier in the week.
Windjammer For a buffet serving massive amounts of food, I thought the Windjammer did a fine job in service and quality of food. There are plenty of options to choose from, the area is large enough that there wasn't much of a traffic congestion issue, head waiters were helpful in clearing and locating open tables for passengers and wait staff were pretty prompt in asking if they could serve you drinks. We particularly liked the aft area of Windjammer with its large windows open to the wake off the back of the ship. I still prefer to have an outdoor area to eat, but this was still nice. Freedom doesn't have any outdoor eating areas which would have been very nice.
Johnny Rockets Without a doubt, this was the meal that disappointed us most on the ship. It started with the attitude of the hostess seating people. She was less than friendly, very slow and seemed as if she could care less whether or not she ever seated you. Quite surprising since all of the staff up to this point had been terrific. Once seated (we took counter seats), the wait staff improved tremendously but the burgers were so bad that neither Amanda nor I could eat ours. It didn't even taste like beef. Two days later, we ate lunch in the Windjammer where I tried one of their burgers and it was much better than what we had at Johnny Rockets. It was a good thing we had a coupon from our Crown & Anchor booklet as our meal wasn't worth the $3.95 surcharge (plus drinks) they now charge here. It will be a long time before we try a Johnny Rockets on a ship again where they are charging a surcharge to eat.
Promenade Eateries Sorrento's Pizza - We stopped at Sorrento's several times throughout the cruise for pizza and it was much improved over the pizza we've had on RCI ships in the past. The dough was fresh (not the frozen cardboard they used to serve), there are always three or four options of different pizzas available, and they had a nice array of Italian breads and salad type foods available.
Cafe Promenade - This area served Seattle's Best Coffee (complimentary) along with a specialty coffee bar, pastries and a wide array of sandwiches during the day. The cookies and pastries were very good and this area was a great meeting spot for mornings when we were meeting to take a tour together.
CRUISE CRITIC MEET & MINGLE We set an all time high for a Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle on this sailing of Freedom. More than 300 people had pre-registered for the party and in my quick head count around the room, I'd say there were more than 220 at the gathering. Royal Caribbean did a very nice job with goodies, coffee, tea, a big sheet cake. The cruise director, Ken Rush and the hotel director, Benny, assisted our Community Manager, Laura in giving out raffle prizes and answering questions. Ken said this was indeed a record setting Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle party. Congrats to everyone for helping make it such a success and thanks to Royal Caribbean for setting everything up.
Our Cruise Critic members participated throughout the cruise in ship activities. I was very sorry to have missed the Sexy Legs contest. We tried to get there but got held up trying to change an appointment in the spa. Congrats to Chris for upholding the tradition of winning by a Cruise Critic (and Pink Boa Society) member. Oh and Emmy did a great interview for RC TV. She looked lovely in her boa!!!! That was fun to watch!
POOL DECK Unlike most other ships we've been on, there was never a problem getting a lounge chair out on deck. While we were never out at the pool early in the morning, when we did try to find a chair, we had plenty of options to choose from. The deck areas are wide, allowing for lounge chairs along the outer railings of the deck and the inner railings with a walking track between the two. The main pool has several tiers of lounge chairs and the Solarium has wonderful lounges that are a bit more comfy.
The cantilevered hot tubs were really nice. Spent some time in them on three or four different occasions. While there were always people in them, they were never over-crowded. I'd say they could hold 15 - 18 people comfortably. The hot tubs by the main pool were rather large as well.
OTHER SHIP STUFF Promenade there's always a lot of talk about the inside promenade, but we really enjoy the outside promenade as well. We did our walk-a-mile and love the fact that the promenade goes all the way around the ship (although you do need to climb steps and then go back down around the bow of the ship).
Internet service - the ship does have wireless service and I could use it in our cabin (unfortunately, I needed to regularly check in on business this trip - something I normally do NOT do on a cruise). Unfortunately, the service was VERY slow, extremely expensive and somewhat unreliable. You can purchase packaged minutes and get a discount in doing so (I think the first package I bought cost $75 and my per minute cost was $.33). But I think I spent the last $20 of my packaged minute time just trying to load pages after I was connected. Couldn't get email to send at all on the last night (could receive but not send).
Spa - we had a good experience (massages) with the spa and a poor experience (trying to change a hair reservation). We both had massages on the last day at sea and they were some of the best massages on a ship we've ever had. Ramon did a terrific job and I'd highly recommend asking for him if you are on Freedom in the near future
The poor experience came when we went up to change the time of Amanda's hair appointment for formal night. We got there about 1:40 and had planned to do a 2:00 activity. Thought this would be plenty of time to stop at the spa and make an appointment change. There were two people ahead of us and the spa manager was helping them (being friendly and chatting but perhaps a bit too much as the line started to grow). After 15 minutes had passed, we were finally first in line (now a VERY long line) and I said I wanted to change an appointment. He then said, "Oh, you'll need to wait while I check in all the 2:00 appointments so they aren't late." His attitude was really annoying (since he just spent 15 minutes making and changing appointments with the two people in front of us) and stated that we had been waiting for more than 15 minutes and also had a 2:00 appointment to make. He didn't seem to care. All this was happening while three or four other spa employees just stood around and talked. I asked one of the girls who the manager was and she said he was. That was enough for me. We left and I later simply called and cancelled the appointment altogether. I'm tired of giving money for services when people simply don't care.
Flowrider - I have to admit, this looked like a lot of fun and many people were trying both the boogie boarding and the surfing. It was a popular area all week long and it was fun just to sit and watch people do it. Amanda did it a couple of times. I took the photos!
Rock Climbing - There are a series of walls you can climb on Freedom and they appear to be somewhat higher than those on their other ships. The staff person that helped Amanda climb (she made it to the top) was terrific. Encouraging, helpful. She made it fun.
Diamond Lounge - Due to the high number of Diamond and Diamond-Plus members on this cruise (more than 800), this lounge (normally located on deck 7 I think) was moved to a much larger lounge (Pharaoh's) at the front of the ship. Therefore, the typical intimacy you get from the lounge was lost on this sailing. I think they did a very nice job considering the high number of Diamond and Diamond-Plus members they were trying to entertain in this lounge each evening (appetizers and drinks were served complimentary as they usually are in the Diamond Lounge). But there was plenty of grumbling from folks who thought they weren't being served quickly enough, etc. We only stopped here two evenings.
ENTERTAINMENT Arcadia Theater - I thought the entertainment on the ship was good. I do admit I'm tiring of Broadway production shows (even though I love Broadway music) but the Abba imitation band was fantastic (it really felt like you were at a real Abba concert) and probably the best show I've ever seen on a ship. The comedians were funny and the Cirque-type acrobats were amazing. The Arcadia Theater is lovely and the sound is wonderful!
Lounge Music - Jimmy Blakemore in the Bull and Bear Pub was terrific. We didn't actually go in to listen to him until the last night (which was a mistake) mostly because it could get smoky in the pub (it's a pretty small space). But he played a wide variety of acoustic guitar music, had a good voice and was entertaining.
Viking Crown Lounge - now made up of several areas (Olive or Twist being one of them), we usually had before-dinner drinks here. There was usually some type of trio or quartet playing here and they were fine for background music before dinner. But for the most part, this was a pretty quiet place.
PORTS OF CALL Cozumel We spent a relaxing day at Paradise Beach with several of the Cruise Critic hosts. Got there around 10:00 AM, relaxed, read, ate lunch and headed back to the ship. We had been here several times before and it's a nice way to spend the day. We simply hopped in a cab to and from the beach. It was quick and easy.
Grand Cayman We had a delightful day in Grand Cayman with a great group of Cruise Critic members doing a trip to Stingray City, snorkeling and then a wonderful lunch at Rum Point. Jan, our Cruise Critic group leader, put the tour together through Nativeway. The boat was very nice and our guides were terrific. Everyone had a lot of fun at Stingray City and while the snorkeling wasn't fantastic, it was nice. Lunch at Rum Point was delicious and the location was spectacular. I'd go back there just to spend the day and relax!
Montego Bay, Jamaica Surprisingly for me, this was my favorite stop. Our past visits to Jamaica (Ocho Rios) weren't great so I wasn't sure what to expect here. But we had a terrific day. Host Joe arranged for a private tour through A-Z Jamaica Planners where we were supposed to do river tubing. However, they had a lot of rain recently and our guide discouraged us from the tubing due to the river being higher and faster than normal. Our driver, Paul, instead offered a trip to Mayfield Falls which we thought sounded like a good second option. The trip there was an adventure in itself. A beautiful ride deep into the mountains (took about an hour to get there) where we learned a lot about the people who live in the mountains along with all the things they grow (have you ever smelled all-spice leaves -- actually pimento leaves that they use to make all spice - what a wonderful smell).
When we got to Mayfield Falls, we walked down to an area where there was a restaurant and several shops and met our guide to walk the river and water falls. There were changing facilities and lockers. Our guide, Dave, was fantastic and he navigated the river and falls with us, taking special care to accommodate the four of us. It took about 90 minutes or so to walk the entire river to where it starts. It was far better than our trip up Dunns River Falls several years ago. It was uncrowded, personal, quiet, and less strenuous. I'd say most people could do this tour with a good guide like Dave.
We then drove back to town and ate at the Pig Pit, a local place that had great jerk chicken, pork, sausage and shrimp (we were the only tourists here). It was exactly what we like to do when visiting a port. It was very reasonable, too -- $9.00 for both Amanda and me. Our final stop was at the Jamaican Bobsled Cafe where Amanda wanted to get a t-shirt. They have lots of photos and the actual team bobsled from the Olympics. A fun spot (and their food looked pretty good, too).
CRUISE STAFF Cruise staff can always help enhance your cruise experience. The staff of Freedom did a great job and helped to make the entire cruise a fun one.
Ken Rush - Ken was the cruise director and will only be on Freedom until Liberty comes out. He'll be moving to Liberty and then again onto the third Freedom class ship when she is launched. Ken does a great job and many people enjoy him as their cruise director.
Abe ~ Abe was our Assistant Cruise Director and was found all over the ship at many activities. He assisted in the Cruise Critic party and while we were on the cruise, learned that Abe has been promoted to Cruise Director and will be moving to Rhapsody in a couple of weeks. Amanda and I were just commenting that we wouldn't be surprised to see Abe as a cruise director!
The rest of the cruise staff was great, too. With so many Crown and Anchor members on board, it was probably a bit more hectic than usual. We found the staff that ran trivia and the rock climbing & flowrider to all be friendly and enjoyable.
FINAL COMMENTS In closing, we had a terrific time on Freedom of the Seas. All aspects of our cruise were terrific and I even enjoyed the ship far more than I anticipated. I liked it enough to consider sailing her (or a sister ship) again if the itinerary and price were right. I was very pleased to see that the lines I thought might materialize, never did. By and large, the staff was wonderful and we shared many memorable moments with new and old friends alike.