My girlfriend and I flew Midwest Express (widest coach seats in the air) direct from Kansas City to Ft. Lauderdale on Friday 1/11. Better price than Miami flights even with the cost of a shuttle (Easy Express 40 dollars for two plus tip.)
That Friday nite we stayed in South Beach, one block from the beach at a "boutique hotel" near 9th and Collins called Hotel Shelley. "boutique" can mean quaint and cute; or it can mean seedy. This was closer to the latter, although the room (smaller than our ship window cabin believe it or not)ultimately was very comfy. The location was incredible, and they serve an hour of free drinks so few complaints. By 2:30 pm we walked to the beach and soaked up our first of many tropical rays. This would be the first of 9 straight days of partly to mostly sunny and 80 plus wherever we were. The week prior had been cooler and rainier so we were very fortunate.We enjoyed the sights and sounds of South Beach that evening, including drinks at the historic National Hotel, Salsa dancing at Mango's and dinner in the shopping district.
Saturday Morning, we woke early to stroll Ocean Boulevard and ate breakfast (great food) at the famous News Cafe outside while we people watched. South Beach is a wonderful place to extend your cruise vacation, but fair warning: it's pricey (gratuities are automatically added to all food and beverage service, not unlike the ship).
By 10:45 am we were in a cab; a 20 dollar trip to the Port of Miami. We have limited packing down to a science (for two: two smaller roll on luggage and one carry one) so no need to give them up to the port porters. These folks work hard and I slipped one a couple of bucks anyway as I explained we were "rolling on". He said "ahhh, you folks are veterans" and gave us a big smile, and appreciated the small gratuity. This was our first experience in the new Carnival terminal and I was impressed. I have sailed with CCL over 10 times so was able to take advantage of their separate VIP lounge. From the time we were ushered in to this private area, to being processed, sitting in comfy furniture and boarding before anyone else took all of 35 minutes. By noon we were listening to the classical trio sipping drinks in the atrium, while we waited a reasonable amount of time to go to our cabin.
We only had to go one floor down to our category 6A cabin, an outside window stateroom 2391. VERY roomy; Had to be at least 220 square feet. Unlike the Fantasy class ships, the outsides are alot bigger than the inside cabins, so for a little extra money (Cost us 200 more total), we had a large window and a lot more room. The new Carnival Comfort bedding is very comfortable and attractive, and the artwork, and bathroom with modern, upscale type plumbing is a far cry from my first Carnival cruise (the Mardi Gras). Very nice. We really looked forward to "coming home" after a long day of fun.
The Ship: Refer to cruise critic's professional review for more detail about the Carnival Freedom; specifically the decor; which has come to be heavily criticized in some quarters. Suffice to say; if a mild classic nautical decor is important to you; skip this ship. However, if you have a sense of adventure and look for whimsical creativity; you could really like Joe Farcus's (Farcus is the CCL interior designer) latest effort. Each public room has a theme; usually around an American theme or icon (example: Lido Restaurant called the "Freedom" with a large scale Statue of Liberty; "Scott's Place" is the piano bar, dedicated to early 20th century piano legend Scott Joplin..the 70's disco dedicated to...go figure...the 70's disco era, the large showroom; the Victoriana, is designed on a Dicken's era British theatre; ok;that's not American but you get the picture) Many rooms have soft lighting that slowly changes colors. Our favorite public room was the Cabana; it's the Havana themed cigar lounge. The smoke could be a problem with many; but we enjoyed the darker lighting, luxurious leather chairs, and especially the music, explained below. We are sunbathers so spent quite a lot of time on the pool deck. The large screen "jumbotron" was very nice; especially when we boarded to a live Bee Gees concert and enjoyed the NFL playoffs and other movies. The layout is the same as the other Conquest class ships, although I believe the main pool hot tubs were repositioned so folks could enjoy watching the screen. Unfortunately when you are in the pool, the hot tubs block the view of the rest of the deck and tends to give the space a cluttered feel. There are smaller pools to the back of the main lido area and also aft with an adults only hot tub area. There is also a childrens pool, large waterslide, and area for basketball and 9 hole mini golf around the funnel (say goodbye to the topless decks I guess), a place for "waterwars" and other fun things outside. Dining Rooms (Posh and Chic)are pretty typical. Like other of the Conquest ships, one restaurant interrupts the "flow" of traveling from one end to the other. but we got used to that pretty quickly.
The Food: For the first time EVER we never got in the main buffet line for lunch. We would sneak a piece of pizza (best on the 7 seas) or a delicious sandwich at the Deli. We would always eat a large breakfast and were never super hungry for lunch. Breakfast is typical Carnival fare. A menu that NEVER changes (note: we only ate in the Posh dining room for the evening meal.) I recall both NCL and RCCL did a little better at changing things up. That being said, the omelettes made before our eyes were always tasty, the standard breakfast stuff like sausage and bacon; while not the best I've tasted were good. Instead of those awful "hashrounds" Ive had on a few CCl voyages, the Freedom had real hash browns; MUCH better. The evening meals were appropriately delicious for the most part;(the gourmet's chef picks were usually a good bet). However if pressed, I would have to say overall the fare was a little blander than past Carnival cruises. Also, I did not particularly enjoy the selection or my ultimate choices for desserts. The desserts look better on the Lido buffet. Formal nite dinner of Lobster and Prime Rib was very good. Room Service menu is limited but both times we used it, the sandwiches were very good, and Carnival has great Ceasar's Salad. The Sun King restaurant is Freedom's extra fee specialty restaurant. I highly suggest you budget 30 dollars per person for this wonderful culinary experience. The steaks were Ruth Chris quality and the service is personal and 5 star. Carnival charges 10 dollars more than RCCL does for their specialty dining. However, unlike Royal Caribbean, Carnival supplies a musical duo for some romantic dancing, which we took advantage of.
The Service: Dining Room (Posh/8pm table 323) We had Miguel; a veteran waiter, with CCl for over 2 decades. Assistant was Jovanny; obviously much younger and shyer. Service was impeccable. Beyond that, Miguel's wonderful smile, friendly attitude and even his dancing made our evening dining a joy. Ken, the only Irish Maitre d in cruising, came around every night and sang the room a couple of Sinatra tunes during the week. He was VERY talented..his Frank is spot on. Another nice touch that added to our experience. Lounges/bar service: Always prompt and probably for some folks aggressive. I would rather say no thank you a few times, then to have to wait around when I am ready, so this is not a problem for me. Friendliness: Generally very cheerful, with a few exceptions. This was probably more a cultural difference. I will say the only NCL cruise I have taken was on the Star not too long back, and the uniformity of the entire NCL staff's upbeat, smiling and helpful staff beat out most Carnival cruises I have taken. Carnival does a pretty good job, and I know "friendly" can be subjective, but let's just say Carnival has what they like to call "an opportunity for improvement"; some (but not a majority) of the staff need to smile more.
Entertainment: In my view, the highest level of musical entertainment came from the Carnival house orchestra, the Chris Martell Jazz trio and the classical trio. Do not miss the GREAT jazz in the Habana lounge, usually 7-8pm and 9:30pm to late. Very high level stuff. My only complaint is their breaks were way too long, but hey.."leave em wantin more" I guess. Even the recorded music was some great relaxing jazz ; we found ourselves enjoying the Cabana quite often (and we are both non smokers. Whether you like tea or not, try to catch at least one tea time in the Cabana, most days at 3:30pm. The classical trio plays, and passengers are served delicious hot tea and munchies in the british high tea tradition. It's not your Dad's Carnival anymore! The Freedom boasts three big production performances as opposed to two on most 7 nighters. We only caught the Beatles tribute and is was quite a production. The best show in the Victoriana had to be Marcus Anthony (as opposed to Marc Anthony, which he made a joke about) From St Thomas, his Motown/R and B tribute was highly professional and Marc had us all dancing in the aisle. His medley to Marvin Gaye (with great back up from the house orchestra) gave me goosebumps. The nightly lounge acts were not as good compared to other cruises. The solo outside of the casino was a fair musician but quiet and uninspiring. The Piano Bar dude (Ron was it?)was adequate, but almost too young and too goodlooking. The ladies liked him, but I like by piano bar acts to be older, and gruffer; but that's just me. The oldies band in the "Good Time Lounge' had a following, but again; adequate at best.
Random thoughts: I have done the San Juan, St Thomas and St Maarten rounds a few times. For details on those ports refer to cruise critic port reviews. We had great weather the whole week so that really helped. We are "sea day" cruisers, so we liked that we got almost 4 full sea days on this, as San Juan is just an evening stop. Most will tell you that San Juan is not the best port. The fort is fascinating but sometimes closed by the time you can get to it. We chose San Juan night to do the specialty restaurant, then left the ship for two hours of dancing at Senor Frogs near the ship, then came back on for the sail away party. Todd, our cruise director was on his last week before the legendary John Heald (whom we spied often in the Habana; he got on early)resumed his senior cruise director duties. My girlfriend had never had Heald as a CD and I had hoped he would have been on. However, when Todd came on for the Welcome Aboard show in the Victoriana, I was VERY glad he was working. His sharp wit, off the cuff humor when interacting with passengers on stage during games, had me in stitches. Of my 18 cruises, he ranks right up there; even with John Heald. The Carnival Freedom also gave us a very smooth ride. Virtually no movement till the last two days. I'm sure the fine weather was a major factor; the seas were relatively calm. Because we had a very late flight, the last morning we stalled till the last minute, and rolled our luggage off. The baggage area in the new terminal resembles an airport, and though we had no need to recover luggage, I suspect the whole process is much more organized and quicker. Anyway, we were out and through customs in 20 minutes, before cabbing to South Beach for one more afternoon of sunshine (Hotel Shelley allowed us to store luggage there) before we shuttled back to Ft Lauderdale for an evening flight.
Overall we had a wonderful cruise on an exciting new ship. Everything wasn't perfect but, especially considering the great pricing for this voyage; Carnival once again delivered a superior vacation value.