My wife and I set out on our 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise for our (belated) tenth wedding anniversary. We've sailed with Royal Caribbean before, and on the Freedom before, but this was our first venture into the Eastern itinerary.
We drove down to Port Canaveral the day before from our home in South Carolina, traveling with one of my wife's coworkers and his wife, pulling into our hotel (the Country Inn & Suites near the port) just before dinner. Checkin went easily enough, and the next morning we boarded the hotel's shuttle to the port to begin our cruise in earnest.
The whole cruise checkin and embarkation process is quick and easy enough. We arrived at the port around noon, and while the lines were much longer than on our last cruise (when the shuttle brought us before eleven), everything went smoothly and didn't take more than fifteen minutes or so despite both lines stretching well out the doors of the terminal. We booked a junior suite, though, so being in the suite/Diamond line cerainly had a lot to do with that. But everyone we saw was very friendly despite being in the middle of what must be an incredibly busy and stressful turnaround day for both port workers and cruise line employees.
On board the ship, we gave the Windjammer a wide berth and instead went to the Promenade to grab some food, and after eating it was 1PM and the staterooms were available so we were off to see our home for the next week. Then we got changed into the swimsuits we'd packed in our carry-ons and headed up to the Solarium to get good and drunk and sopping wet and start our vacation proper.
When we go on a cruise, really, the itinerary is almost inconsequential. I'd be perfectly happy if the ship went out into the ocean and did figure eights for a week. Sea days are the best days, is my point. But if the ship does stop somewhere, we'll still try to take advantage of the port. But that's where the Eastern itinerary really fell short, for us, and there's really no one thing to point accusatory fingers at.
CocoCay, RC's private Bahamian island, does stand head and shoulders above their other private destination, Labadee, for reasons that have little to do with either location. Labadee's big draw seems to be high-adventure excursions, which hardly seem adventurous and do seem to be grossly overpriced, and the actual beach experience is really secondary. CocoCay, on the other hand, has a great beach, a large (and well-populated) snorkeling area, hammocks galore, and better (in my experience) food. I really, really liked CocoCay - now if only they could do something about that pesky tender.
The other two stops really didn't do it for me, though. At all. If you're the kind of person who's big into port shopping, you'd most likely really enjoy yourself at either stop, even though the shops are exactly the same ones as you find at every other port in the Caribbean. Seriously, Diamonds International has to have more locations that Starbucks at this point and unlike Starbucks, which sells delicious beverages at too-high prices, I just don't see the appeal of three hundred jewelry stores and a Del Sol. But, to each their own.
We'd booked a snorkeling excursion to St. John that was very negatively impacted by the Freedom's late arrival, the cloudy skies, and the churned-up silt in the water from a nearby tropical system. It wound up being an enormous waste of money and time, but not in such a way that I wouldn't book it again in the future. If we'd been there on time, and the weather had cooperated, I'd be singing a very different tune.
We'd booked nothing in St. Maarten, thinking at the minimum we'd just catch a cab over to Maho Beach and watch the airplanes come and go. That...didn't happen. The fare to get to and from Maho was going to run us upwards of $40, and traffic looked discouraging. So we took a water taxi (helpfully provided by the same Diamonds International) over to the downtown Phillipsburg area and walked around there for a few hours. And yes, the shops are all pretty much the same, but once you get out of the crowded shopping district, it's actually a pretty neat place to wander. I wouldn't go out of my way to go back, but we also never saw the French side of the island so there's that to look forward to if we should go back.
But back to the ship. The water, at least the first three days of the cruise, was VERY choppy. It didn't bother me, but our cabin was up on deck 10, forward of the fore stairs, so the motion was very noticeable at night when lying there, trying to sleep. The pools and hot tubs were all wave pools those first couple of days, which is neat if you're into that kind of thing and not prone to motion sickness. On our previous trip on Freedom, the ship was so solid and steady one might forget one was asea, but not this time.
One thing I really like about Freedom is the traffic flow. There may be 4,000 guests onboard, but you never ever feel crowded. The only time you really have to nudge your way through a pack is when there's a sale going on in the Promenade, although as an aside I do feel like there were far too many jewelry/watch sales.
Food, as usual, was excellent. We only made it to dinner in the dining room twice - which is no slight against the dining room or its staff, it just worked out that way. A couple of nights we ordered room service and gorged on honey stung chicken,once we went to Portofino, and we ate at Johnny Rockets once or twice.. Breakfast was usually room service - the selection was limited and the food often arrived only lukewarm, but everything tastes better eaten on a balcony - and we hit Windjammer one morning and even made it to the dining room once.
The high point, dining-wise, had to have been Portofino. I had the veal ossobucco, and it was easily the best I've ever had it. It's Italian, but not the "traditional" Italian like Giovanni's Table on other RC ships that, to me, just feels like an Olive Garden. Portofino, by contrast, is slightly more formal, and the food is more northern Italian. I don't think a single entree involved so much as a drop of red sauce. Atmosphere was nice, but sound seemed to carry far too well. Our neighbors at the next table were nitpicking every thing about their meal, and it really ruined the ambiance until they left. That aside, the papardelle with mushrooms is not to be missed, nor the tiramisu. Even thought it was only 9:30 when we left that night, we were so utterly stuffed that we just went back to the room and went to bed. We were both absolutely useless as human beings after Portofino, in the best possible way.
As far as entertainment, the shows aren't really our thing. The only two we saw were the Love & Marriage game show, and Quest, both of which were absolutely made by Richard Spacey, our cruise director, and neither of which would we ever miss. What seems to be our thing, based on how much time we spent at it (and the number of keychains we brought back) is trivia in the Schooner Bar. Both Fritz (from Philly*) and Elise (...from Australia) were lots of fun. Music trivia with Elise is a must-see if only because, well, the woman's got moves. There, I said it.
*Philly here being, of course, The Philippines.
All week long, our burning question was always, what do we do now? Not because there was nothing going on, but because there was so much. We've spent two weeks on Freedom and still haven't done everything we want to do. There's so much going on that, in the entire week, we only ran into our travel companions once.
Apart from the lackluster destinations, my only couple of gripes about this cruise are to do with people management. As I mentioned before, the sales set up in the Promenade crowded out one of the main arteries for getting from the front of the ship to the rear, where all the food is located. To clog up a thoroughfare to peddle the sort of overpriced junk that comprises the jewelry sales seems like a poor bargain, but they keep holding them so someone must buy them. The other gripe is that, in the Solarium, there are relatively few seats, and especially on sea days, it's not uncommon for all of them to be claimed for the entire day by eight in the morning. Someone will plop their towel down and then leave, sometimes for hours, and no one else can use that lounge chair the entire time. I'd like to see RC do something a little more proactive about this in the future, but in the meantime, it's a little frustrating to not be able to use the pool deck. The "public" pool is just crowded and very loud, but often it was my only option to lay poolside.
All that said, we had a great time, and will happily cruise with RC again, and would book a room on Freedom without a moment's hesitation. But I think next time we'll be looking for a different itinerary. There's just not much in the Eastern apart from CocoCay, for us.