Despite being the boat that followed Hurricane Dean through the Western Caribbean, we had a wonderful time on our cruise - with our three girls 16, 15, and 8. This was our second cruise. We chose RCI because of the amount of activities for kids. We booked it through RCI timeshares.
Hotels: We arrived late and had Pizza Hut room service for dinner at the Marriott Biscayne Bay - very nice hotel. We were on the backside; nevertheless, the views were stunning (but also a bit scary) of Miami and the Bay at night from the 23rd floor. The place had a nice gym, pool, hammocks, and $1 dollar coke machines. Self-parking was $24.
On the way back we stayed at the Intercon (also a nice hotel) in a guaranteed room with a view and watched the Freedom and Valor leave port from a room with a straight bay window view of the port. Then Monday we saw two of Carnival's ships (Imagination and Majesty?) at port. Parking (valet only) is $34 dollars. Soft drinks are almost $3 in the lobby. And the not so great gym costs $5. There was also some jack hammer noise on Sunday for the construction of their new gym.
Miami: Better to arrive in the daytime. The closest places to eat are at the Bayside Marketplace. We felt like we were in one last port of call there - the shopping and music was wonderful. In the fast food section - with a wide variety of food - they give out samples of spicy meat - quite a change from the Freedom. Both hotels we stayed at were in walking distance to Bayside and you could get on for free a little tram, Metromover, that goes to Bayside, McDonalds, and also the Miami metro. There were also some drug stores in walking distance to these hotels.
Embarkation/Debarkation: We drove to the port at 12 PM, unloaded, and parked in the garage ($15/day) right across from RCI. Everything about the check in was smooth. The RCI porters were right there and the lines going in flowed smoothly and quickly, despite the large number of people. Debarkation - We tried to sleep in and enjoy the boat on the last day but it's hard because RCI requests people to be out of their rooms by 8 AM, breakfast closes at 9 AM, and the announcements about leaving wake adults up early. The lines for leaving and getting luggage were pretty slow. There are no baggage carts for taking luggage out your self like at an airport.
Ship/Staterooms: The ship is beautiful. The Promenade gives it a lot of character. I overheard both passengers and crew members making fun of other ships - so there was wide recognition that Freedom is a superior ship. The main traffic flows on the 3rd , 4th , and 5th floor between dining rooms, casino, ice ring, Arcadia theater, and Promenade. One thing I didn't like is that everyone (including kids) had to walk through the Casino quite a lot to go to Arcadia theater or Studio B.
Even very large suitcases can go under the bed. The bedding was great. The balcony was larger than I expected - it would have supported full length beach chairs. My daughter liked the bunk bed that was over our bed. Our teenage girls were in a Promenade room. They didn't like looking out over the promenade - after all people can look at you too - like the two or three young men with their curtains wide open right across from them.
Passengers: The passengers are very diverse - lots of nationalities and ethnic groups. The groups that stood out to me included the people who really liked to eat and those who like to shop. We heard that 6,000 cookies are eaten per day on the ship!
Ship Activities: Wow! We tried to do as much as possible. Becky, the UK cruise director is really amazing - a real character - you'll see (bye, luv!). We thought the following shows were fantastic: 1) Once Upon a Time, 2) Ice Show, and 3) Magic Show. Also really unforgettable were the Marriage Show and Family Quest. We also enjoyed the other shows: the comedy acts and the end of the evening show. My 8 year old climbed the rock wall, loved H2O zone and pool, loved the ice skating (the lesson is the best deal - fewer people on the ice), but preferred us to the kid activities. My teens didn't do much but did go to one of the dances and some shows, swam, and ice-skated.
Excursions: We were the cruise ship following DEAN so it was nerve-wracking: we weren't sure if we were going to go to the Western Caribbean. Anybody who booked with the cruise ship would have been in good shape for changing their excursions. I had been too busy to book in advance - but it didn't turn out so bad. As a note, the lines were never too bad getting on and off the boat.
Labadee: We were amazed how RCI had improved the peninsula which had changed since we visited it 8 years ago - when there was little there. Our recommendation would be too take the free shuttle and explore the area to determine where to eat and swim. The kids will love the Dragon's Breath. The market was pretty reasonable. The metal sculptures were the best - they are exported to Jamaica and Caymans. There was entertainment (drummers/dancers) in the main eating area. The swimming was relaxing; there's a mini water zone for kids - the zip line was fun to watch. In the snorkeling, they required you to rent a $6 life vest.
Ocho Rios: We did the canopy tour - which we booked through the ship - as it appeared that this tour had to be booked through a ship or hotel. It was in a beautiful forest and nice drive to get there. There are great prices on premium rum if you shop around—we got a $20 bottle of reserve that other stores were selling for $34. Same with t-shirts; shop around and be friendly with sales staff: they gave us great deals. Reggae fans don't miss the Xplosion exhibit; free music to listen to, lots of history in the presentations, and photos are allowed.
Grand Cayman: It was raining so I was glad I hadn't booked anything - but I suspect the snorkeling would have been good. The taxi fares seemed pretty steep so we decided against leaving the main port area. Instead we did shopping - jewelry seemed pretty expensive. So we walked to Paradise restaurant where there was free snorkeling/snorkel rental right there. I could see fish from the shore - but we decided not to join the other snorkelers due to the 6 three-foot tarpons at the entrance - apparently fed by tourists - the same size as my 8 year old. There is a lady in a little tourist information hut on the water side of the street providing very good advice. I would recommend talking to her if you haven't decided what to do. She gave us our recommendations and some coupons. We ended up booking a semi-submarine water tour - using our credit card - no problem. It was $38 and $18 for kids - a bit cheaper than the ship (plus a 10% discount using a coupon). We saw wrecks, barracuda, sting rays, and lots of fish. Local beer was $5 in the restaurants.
Cozumel: We are planning our next vacation to Mexico!! - very impressive. We took a taxi to the beautiful Chankanaab Park to see the dolphins - and were able to go there and book the tours with our credit card - $99 for dolphin adventure (with the belly swim) + the entrance fee. Very professionally run place . . . they had a Mayan area. The snorkeling was there but not good. We only did the shopping at the pier. The silver products and cowboy boots were pretty unique - but some tourists complained about people trying to sell fake goods.
Food: We loved all the wait staff - they bent over backwards to help us. The food started out good and was always edible. Highlights were the fresh bread, tiger shrimp, fajitas on the main lunch menu, omelets, Sorrento's pizza and tiramisu, and a couple of the chocolate desserts, key lime pie, chocolate chip cheesecake, and carrot cake. Our kids absolutely loved the room service. The midnight buffet with the ice sculptures was also very good. However, the meat in general was typically very bland and the sauces were not sufficient to spice it up. We began obtaining the next day menus to decide whether to go to the main dining room the next day. We opted out of the lobster night and found small numbers and low crowds in the Windjammer that night. However, in terms of sanitation . . . it is a plus that the main dining room does not require sharing serving utensils with the other passengers.
Summary: No regrets . . . it was a great cruise - lots of activities. Except for a shower in Georgetown, the weather was perfect. We are sorry it's over. My husband and I will cruise again sometime . . . but most likely without the kids who did not in my opinion make the most of all the activities. My daughter did bring her laptop and so was able to access a limited amount of wireless internet with no problems related to speed . . . I believe she composed the messages off line to keep the minutes down. As we watched the Freedom sail out to sea Sunday evening we felt left behind, and at the same time were happy for the next 4000 that would be enjoying some of the same experiences as we did.