BACKGROUND We are a married couple from The Netherlands, aged 31 (myself) and 29 (my wife). We cruised twice before; last time was a roundtrip from San Diego to the Mexican Riviera in november 2006 with Celebrity's Mercury. We had a great time and wanted to sail with Celebrity again, this time to the Caribbean. However, we were very late with booking and couldn't find a suitable itinerary for an affordable price. We then decided to take a look at what RCI has to offer in the region at this time of the year and quickly made the decision to book the largest cruiseship in the world as of today: Freedom of the Seas. So, this review will mainly be a comparison between 7-nights-on-FOS-in-the-Caribbean and 11-nights-on-Mercury-in-Mexico: a very large ship vs. a mid-size ship; RCI vs. Celebrity. Maybe it will help those who can't decide between the two cruise lines.
THE PACKAGE The cruise started in Miami on Sunday September 30th and lasted until October 7th. The itinerary was: day at sea, Labadee (Haiti), Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Georgetown (Grand Cayman), Cozumel (Mexico) and finally another day at sea before returning to Miami. To us such an itinerary - with a day at sea as the very first day and another sea day at the end - is perfect. Since we live in Europe and flying to the US can be quite expensive we liked to see some of Miami as well before we boarded the ship. Spending a couple of days sightseeing can be tiresome sometimes so a day to relax on deck is then more than welcome. The same can be said for the last day before disembarkation: after spending four days in different ports and doing a lot of activities we like to fill the last day with leisure before flying back home (which takes a whole day traveling). We booked an inside cabin on Deck 10. Up until now we have always booked inside cabins. We like to spend time in the ports and in the ship's public areas so we are hardly ever inside our cabin and when we are, we have our eyes closed... Initially we had also booked a pre-cruise hotel with RCI: two nights in the Radisson Downtown Miami, transfers to the port included. We did not book the flight with RCI simply because it's a lot cheaper to book that yourself. Big mistake... We booked with MartinAir since that is the only airline that offers direct flights from Amsterdam to Miami. Four weeks before our vacation began we received an email from MartinAir stating that the flight was cancelled. We would now fly on the Wednesday before embarkation instead of Friday. The good news was that we could spend two extra days in Miami; the bad news is that you cannot book four hotel nights with RCI; three is the maximum. So, we had to cancel the hotel which costed us 50 euros cancellation fee. It was only then that we stumbled across the here well-known website Priceline.com. And within two days we had booked the exact same Radisson for four nights costing us even less than the two nights that we booked earlier through RCI.
FLIGHT and PRE-CRUISE HOTEL We flew in on Wednesday September 26th. After a 9.5 hour flight we arrived around 6:00 pm at the airport and were in our hotel room in the Radisson around 7:30. A taxi ride costs you a little over 20 dollars. We asked for and got a room with view on the port of Miami; and that view is awesome. All hotel rooms have floor to ceiling windows that provide a wonderful view on the bay and the skyline of Miami. The bed was nice (King size). For the rest it was an ordinary hotel room, although a bit old and worn-out; the bathroom door wouldn't even close. The location of the hotel is perfect for those wanting to visit downtown miami and the bay area. It's located right next to Omni Station where the MetroMover stops: the free, automatic public transportation system that rides high above the ground at very regular intervals. When we woke in the night of Saturday to Sunday around 5:00 am because of thunder and rain, Freedom was already lying in port.
EMBARKATION When we got out of bed around 9:00 am the rain had finally stopped. We went to Bayside Marketplace for a quick breakfast, returned to the hotel and arrived at the cruise terminal by 11:30 am. Embarkation was a breeze: we were onboard by 11:45. Since the staterooms are not ready until 1:00 pm we first explored the ship. And, yes, the ship is indeed huge so exploring takes a while :-) The mandatory muster drill was at 4:30 pm and took about 20 minutes. But can someone explain to me why they try to tell you how to put on the lifejacket when everybody is already standing with the lifeboats? Already wearing the lifejackets!? I explicitly wrote *try* because with 4.000 people on deck it is way too loud to be able to hear anything they say through that intercom. Especially for people whose native language isn't English.
FELLOW PASSENGERS There were 4.024 passengers onboard including 500 children. The majority of the passengers were quite young compared to the average age on Mercury last year. I would guess that most passengers were between 30 and 45 Mercury: 45-65). When boarding we noticed a lot of loud people and families who let their children run around the ship, yelling and screaming. We were afraid that it was going to be like this all cruise long, but fortunately this was not the case: we hardly ever heard the kids again. Later the Head Waiter told us that 500 children is relatively a low number for FOS. During spring break and Christmas half of the passengers is 18 or younger. I guess that is to be expected when choosing a ship with so many activities onboard. Even though there were over 4.000 passengers onboard it almost never felt crowded. The only exception to that is when there is an event taking place at the Royal Promenade: make sure you're early and don't be tempted to sit in front of one of the bars, or you won't see a thing! Luckily we were standing with both parades and had a good view.
CABIN Our inside cabin (#1283, Deck 10) was a bit smaller than the inside cabin we had on Mercury. We had to get into the bed by climbing over it and the bed is too low to put the suitcases underneath it; or maybe our suitcases are too big, depending on your point of view :-) Eventually, the suitcases found a place between the bed and the wall driving our stateroom attendant nuts, because making the beds becomes a challenge. The bathroom was also quite small, but the shower had two sliding doors which is a big plus compared to the curtain we found in the bathroom on Mercury! The rest of the stateroom in a nutshell: nice colors, clean, wonderful bed, nice-looking flat-screen tv, writing desk with a chair, a small couch, minibar and ample storage space for your clothes and other belongings. Oh, and there's also a very easy to use electronic safe.
ROYAL PROMENADE, BARS AND LOUNGES The main eye catcher of the ship is without a doubt the Royal Promenade: four stories high and about 160 meters long with all kinds of shops and bars. Our favorites were the coffee bar and Sorrento's. A couple of times we went to these venues before dinner for a little snack: small sandwiches, mushrooms, salami, ham, bruchetta's, etc. We also loved Bolero's and the Champagne Bar which are both very stylish and luxuriously looking bars. The same goes for the Schooner bar. Come to think of it, the only place that we did not like was The Crypt, which is some eerie looking disco/nightclub that is empty most of the time until very late at night. Throughout the ship some fine works of art can be seen.
ENTERTAINMENT The theatre is quite large, although not as large as I thought it would be after looking at the virtual tours on the RCI website. There are more than enough seats however since it was never filled to capacity. And we have watched all the shows, which were very good; of course some were better than others, but overall the shows were at least as good as the ones we saw on Mercury. Probably the best show was 'Once upon a time' with incredible decors! The only thing we were less pleased with was the sound at some times... With some of the singers the higher tones come out too loud. Each show was preceded by a short introduction by the cruise director, Richard Spacey. And he is hilarious! According to my wife he is really crazy and not just pretending to be :-) With everything he does, you can see he has a real joy in doing it; he is very genuine. We laughed a lot because of his jokes and his crazy dance moves. On one of the evenings he tells the audience the ten most stupid questions passengers had asked him during the cruise. Very funny, just a bit of a pity that it was exactly the same list the cruise director on Mercury told us last year... The same goes for the Love and Marriage game. It's a great game that attracts a big crowd, but why are the questions and multiple choice answers literally the same ones we heard on Mercury a year ago? Ok, Celebrity is owned by RCI so they will probably share a lot of things, but come on; be a bit more creative across your fleet please! The other thing that stood well above the rest of the entertainment was the ice skating show in Studio B ("Freedom-ice.com"). For those of you who have seen Holiday On Ice shows there is nothing new under the sun, but we sure had a great evening. Besides, all cruise ships feature a theatre but only a handful offer an ice-skating rink.
POOLS There are three pool areas: the H2O Zone is for children (and their parents, grandparents or other guardians), the main pool area is for everybody to enjoy and the solarium is an adult-only pool. We still haven't figured out why the solarium pool is an outside pool (just like the other pool areas)... Ok, FOS currently sails nothing but the Caribbean but even there it rains every now and then. And quite hard we now know! The solarium also features mattresses on the deck chairs. Nice, but once they get wet they stay wet for the rest of the day... This cruise they were wet almost every morning. Something we were not so pleased with, is what I call 'towel management'. You get pool towels in your stateroom. Nice, but once you've used them it can be difficult to get new ones. There are clean towels with the pools but sometimes 'Deck Patrol' is giving you a hard time by saying that you should ask your stateroom attendant for new towels. They seem to be less strict later in the afternoon and evening, though. For those who like the sun, there are plenty deck chairs available even on days at sea. Chairs in the shadows are harder to get when you arrive after 10:00 am. But what really annoyed us is that a lot of people leave their towels in the deck chairs when they go for lunch (or to the sports court, casino or wherever) thus trying to keep their chair 'reserved' for when they get back. Even though this is against RCI-policy, Deck Patrol rarely does something about it. On Mercury towels were removed when the chair was unattended for more than 20 mins or so. Also, on sea days the Pool Butlers of Mercury would hand out frozen napkin-sized towels multiple times during the day. That's a nice touch! And at 2 p.m. music would start to play and all the waiters from the restaurants would come out onto the deck and bring everyone some icecream. But there wasn't something like this on the Freedom.
FOOD and DINING EXPERIENCE As can be expected, there is a lot of food onboard and for breakfast and lunch there was plenty to choose from, especially with the Windjammer and Jade buffets. For dinner we were seated at a table for eight during second seating. We had very nice and friendly table companions: two people from The Netherlands (like us), two from Venezuela and two from Israel. The last two couples being around our age. So, for those of you who wonder if the table assignments are done at random: I don't think so. It seems they look at age and home country, because these two characteristics are also mentioned on the table assignment list of the Maitre D' which we had a look at. At dinner we found the food quality to be mediocre at best. It was ok most of the time, but not even close to any European restaurant. But then again: what can you expect when they have to prepare that many meals? Everything was always served warm, though. We heard that the quality in the two speciality restaurants (Chops Grille and Portofino's) is much and much better. Unfortunately, we were sick one night and had to cancel our appointment with Chops. Something that was definitely not as good as on Mercury was food presentation. Presentation was the same every night; not a single night there was something special. On Mercury there were two midnight buffets: one fruit buffet during a sail-away party and a truly remarkable "Grand Buffet du Magnifique" on the last formal night. That buffet was so big and beautiful that from 11:45 pm until 15 mins past midnight nobody was allowed to touch the food: pictures taking only! Unfortunately there was no such thing on FOS. Maybe this was because on Mercury it was an 11-night trip and on FOS only seven? Or is this something RCI never does? One other thing that might influence the dining experience: there are no sommeliers on FOS. The waiters bring and pour your wine. And they (or at least our waiters) did not do a very good job at that: more than once it happened we had finished the first course before they found time to bring the wine. With Mercury your wine was awaiting you when you arrived at your table - if you had saved an open bottle from the evening before of course. On Mercury the sommelier was always glad to help you with your wine choice; on FOS the waiters had absolutely no idea. But of course this might also depend on your waiters.
FORMAL NIGHTS, DRESS CODES and PORTRAIT PICTURES One of the things we love about cruising is the concept of formal nights. We like to dress up every now and then and like the atmosphere that it creates. When we saw all those loud families coming onboard the first day we thought that the formal nights would be a bit of joke on this cruise. How wrong we were... Most people (I would guess around 90%) were very nicely dressed in the main restaurants during the two formal nights. Talking about dress code: one difference between this cruise and the 11-night on Mercury is that on FOS there are only two different dress codes (formal and casual) where on Mercury they had three (formal, informal and casual). Not that it matters much, though. Formal nights are also the perfect nights for having portrait pictures taken. This was an absolute disappointment to us... On Mercury the pictures were very good and very professional, albeit pretty expensive (US$ 29.95 per photo). On FOS we found the photos to be horrible. Not just ours, but all of them. OK, they are 10 dollars cheaper, but simply not worth the money. A lot of pictures had a blue glow over them; others were too dark. They also just let people walk in the background when taking the pictures. A missed chance RCI...
PORTS OF CALL and EXCURSIONS Ok, this is becoming quite a lengthy review so I'll keep the comments about the ports of call and the excursions to a minimum. We had pre-booked excursions for all the ports. One thing we disliked about returning to the ship after an excursion: when waiting for a tender or at the gangway to enter the ship again, there was no crew around with drinks or anything. With Mercury they were handing out (free) fruit punches and the same frozen, napkin-sized towels as they do at the pool during sea days. No such thing with FOS. Only once they were selling (!) water bottles when you got back.
Labadee, Haiti Did the historic walking tour and the castaway at Malfini Beach. Both were nice. The walking tour is not much more than a talk about the history of Haiti, but it was nice to do at least one cultural thing : -) Malfini Beach is beautiful: a beach for at most 30 people and can only be reached by boat. The temperature at this beach is MUCH nicer than on Labadee because the beach is covered with palm trees and the sun is behind the forest/mountains and not in front of you. However, a high tide came in unexpectedly effectively swallowing half of the beach... A couple of people started to complain about that with the tour operator and that resulted in free drinks for everyone.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica Went to Shaw's Gardens and Dunn's Waterfalls. We had expected more of this. They let way too many people climb the falls at once which makes it very crowded if not dangerous (if one goes down, you all go down). It was also very 'touristic'. We liked Ocho Rios the least of all visited ports.
Georgetown, Grand Cayman Went to a sandbar at Stingray City. Had a great time with the stingrays!
Cozumel, Mexico Simply beautiful! We did the highlights tour which includes some snorkeling over coral reefs: magnificent.
CONCLUSION So, will we sail with RCI again? Maybe, yes. If so, would it be on a Freedom class ship? Probably not... Unless they pull her out of the Caribbean and start making longer itineraries (10+ nights) in Canada, Alaska or Europe (hey, isn't that where Independence of the Seas will sail her first nautical miles?). It is more likely that we will try a smaller RCI ship, though; we've read some very good things about the Radiance Family. However, there is an even bigger chance of us sailing Celebrity again next time... this has nothing to do with the ship FOS itself nor with her crew! The Freedom is a beautiful ship with a very friendly crew. But to us, with the Mercury cruise last year Celebrity provided just that little bit extra when it comes to overall 'cruise experience'. In short: FOS is a great (maybe the best?) floating resort with lots of activities. But a great ship alone does not automatically lead to the best cruise vacation ever.