This was our first cruise in over 10 years so it is pretty much all new for us. Two of the seniors in our group were veteran cruisers but first time on Royal Caribbean, and most everyone else in our group of 10 was a first-timer.
We all arrived in Ft. Lauderdale late in the evening, and stayed at the Sleep Inn & Suites near the airport. Our room was dreadful, with squishy beds, a moldy smell, noisy A/C, and a general run-down air. However, breakfast was good and it was only for 1 night so we put up with it.
Infinity Tours and Transport picked us up promptly at the hotel at 11:00 with a private van and we arrived at the port at 11:40. The look on everyone's face the first time they see the world's largest cruise ship is priceless! You first get a sense of the size of the ship during embarkation, when you enter a massive room with huge crowds and lines everywhere. Quite an overwhelming sight. However, RCCL handled everything very efficiently and we were on board by 12:30. As our rooms were not ready yet, we went up to Windjammer for lunch and there we encountered more throngs of crowds. It was difficult to find a table and we wondered aloud whether this was to be the case all week. Happily it was not, even though the ship was packed to capacity during this holiday week sailing.
We had 2 connecting inside Promenade cabins, 1 for us and 1 for our 2 kids. The size was about what we expected, but it was efficiently laid out with lots of storage and a nice sitting area by the window from where we could view the action on the Royal Promenade. The room was well-equipped with a flat screen TV which featured a few news channels interspersed with on-board channels, which we didn't use much. We were impressed by the high quality linens, comfortable mattresses, and thoughtful touches like LED reading lights and a handy pocket for your room key. The bathrooms were small but serviceable. One quirk is that the hairdryer is stored in a secret drawer under the dressing table. We searched all over for it and finally had to call our cabin steward for help.
Our 2 rooms were very nice homes all week and our steward was excellent. He made fun towel animals every night and took especially good care of our kids room. We were a bit concerned about noise as the rooms faced the Royal Promenade, which had stuff going on at all hours, but except for the big noisy parades and street parties it was pretty quiet inside.
We had 1st seating, and ate all dinners in the Leonardo's Dining Room except for 1. The dining room is a stunningly elegant, 3 level masterpiece, with chandeliers and a grand staircase. It looks like something from a 20's era ocean liner, except much bigger. There's a string quartet playing soft dinner music on the stair landing. The service was excellent, with our waiter, assistant waiter, and head waiter all remembering our names and preferences by the 2nd night. The food at dinner was the only letdown. Most of us felt that, although the ingredients were fresh and presentation was good, the taste was bland and the menu choices unimaginative. Many menu items were repeated throughout the week. Our veteran cruisers thought the food on their NCL, Princess, and Carnival cruises was better, and they missed the dancing and singing waiters that Carnival featured. The atmosphere was more subdued and elegant rather than festive.
We had all breakfasts and lunches at Windjammer, and here the story is much better. There was great variety, fresh ingredients, and the dishes were mostly very well-executed. Unlike embarkation, we never had a problem finding a table, and waiters were prompt in taking your drink orders and cleaning up after you. Jade is an Asian-themed special buffet that is part of Windjammer, with a different theme every day. Since we are a bit of Asian food snobs, we didn't think too much of the Asian choices at Jade, but there were some good offerings we enjoyed and we give them credit for trying.
We had one dinner at Windjammer on the evening we left St. Thomas. There were very few other passengers using WJ during that time so it was a nice private atmosphere. Imagine dining in a beautiful restaurant with friends and family, soft music, and panoramic views of Charlotte Amalie harbor at sunset. Very memorable.
In addition to the dining room and Windjammer, there are the alternative restaurants Portofino and Chops Grille, and Johnny Rockets, all of which we didn't try. 2 cafes on the Royal Promenade, Sorrentos and Cafe Promenade, offer (at no extra cost) sandwiches, salads, pizza, and incredibly tempting little cakes, cookies, and other assorted desserts. These are available at pretty much all hours of the day. I have to say that the pizza at Sorrento's is some of the best I've ever had anywhere. There is also 1 midnight buffet with ice carvings and great belly-busting food.
There is an expansive pool deck area with lots of sunning space, but with so many passengers on board it was difficult to find seating during the peak mid-day hours. However, there are plenty of quiet nooks and crannies away from the busy pools to get a lounge chair. The top deck has a nice running track that circles the entire pool area. There is a very nice adults-only pool (the Solarium), a mixed use area with 2 pools, several hot tubs, and a center stage, and a huge waterpark area for the kids that features fountains, sprayers, a vortex pool, and colorful sculptures. My kids were disappointed that there was no waterslide, especially after seeing the Carnival Valor (which shadowed our itinerary) docked alongside us in St. Martin with its waterslide.
After 2:00 the crowds thin out and it is easy to get a chair. There is a very popular self-serve ice cream station near the kids' H2O zone. Poolside activities ranged from men's sexy legs/belly flop competitions to ice carving demo's and line dance classes. Away from the busy pools, we found art/fitness/beauty seminars (which were thinly disguised attempts to get you to purchase things), bingo, and of course the extremely popular Flowrider, minigolf, and rock climbing walls. The cruise staff kept everything running smoothly and on-time.
Obviously on a ship of this size, the facilities are superb. To compensate for all of the eating, I worked out daily in the huge fitness center, which has a boxing ring and rivals the finest health clubs on land. The Olive or Twist Lounge, perched high up on the funnel, has sweeping views of the pool deck action and the oceans beyond. It was a favorite hangout of ours. The Royal Promenade, a Disney-esque Main Street, is the major fore-aft thoroughfare, a great place to people watch from one of several sidewalk cafes and bars. The shops are arranged along this avenue as well.
The entertainment on the Freedom is second to none. There are 3 spectacular production shows (each costing $13 million to produce), and there is not a bad seat in the huge Arcadia Theater anywhere. The ice show (FreedomIce.com) is not to be missed, the highlight of the trip for many. In addition, there are 2 parades and fun street parties on the Royal Promenade. One of them is a 70's themed dance party, in which Richard Spacey, the most famous cruise director on the high seas, strips down to a loincloth and gyrates to "YMCA" and the screams of delight from the female passengers. And speaking of which, Richard Spacey makes the cruise extra special. His obvious enthusiasm, energy, and love of people is infectious, and he is undoubtedly the ship's single greatest asset.
There were 1200 kids on our cruise, and it seemed as if every single one of them was in the H2O Zone waterpark at the same time on sea days. The older kids dominated the Flowrider and basketball courts. Our kids tried Adventure Ocean once, enjoyed it, but decided they would rather spend the time in the pool.
The staff on Freedom of the Seas was uniformly excellent. Even though they were very busy and worked hard, long hours, they never failed to greet you with a smile and 'good morning'. The greeters at the Windjammer Cafe were especially nice, horsed around with the kids, and overall made for a pleasant experience face painting.
I highly recommend reading up on the ports of call and doing them on your own. We did San Juan on our own and it was much more rewarding than the packaged tours of St. Thomas and St. Martin that we did. All of the islands are developed enough so that you don't need to worry about getting lost, and taxi's and other transportation are plentiful.
We had late afternoon flights so we were the last group to be called for disembarkation. As a result, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Windjammer, got to say final goodbye's to the staff who were already busy getting ready for the next group of passengers, and went for a walk around nearly deserted decks for some last photo ops. When we did get called, we were faced with another long long line to get off the ship and go through immigration. But that was more the fault of US Homeland Security than RCCL.
Overall we had a most enjoyable time on the Freedom of the Seas. The ship itself is magnificent, with gorgeous interior design punctuated by beautiful works of art. When we stepped aboard in Miami for the first time and got a glimpse of the Royal Promenade, everyone in our party was stunned speechless. It only got better from there. We were fed and pampered around the clock by a warm, caring staff, wowed by multimillion dollar stage productions, and climbed, golfed, surfed, and skated all on the same ship. We laughed until we cried at audience-participation games such as the Quest and Love and Marriage show, and in between were still able to find quiet, private spaces on the ship away from the crowds. So whether you are a first time or 10th time cruiser, the Freedom of the Seas is a great choice.