The Freedom of the Seas lived up to our expectations in nearly every way. This was our third cruise, the first was on the Wind Spirit, the second on the Carnival Conquest (we had kids). This cruise was a family reunion cruise and there were 18 of us occupying 8 cabins. Our parents were in a balcony cabin on deck 10 and all the kids and grandkids were in the same vicinity on deck 2. The whole trip was a surprise for our dad's 70th birthday. He thought that just he and our mom were going on the cruise...
Embarkation—We traveled from Texas and were in Ft. Lauderdale for three days prior to the cruise. All others arrived Miami at different times from California. Our parents arrived to the ship at 11am and got right on. The other 16 of us arrived about 1pm and boarded the ship with relative ease. After boarding, we dropped some stuff off in our cabins and headed to the Windjammer where we had arranged with our mom to surprise our dad. It was indeed a total surprise and a year of planning and hiding the secret was a done deal—mission accomplished!
The Ship—The first impression and one that carried on throughout the trip was that the ship is absolutely amazing. It is impeccably maintained and tastefully appointed. Although the ship is two years old, it seems brand new. The public spaces are extraordinary and, although the ship seemed at full capacity, never felt packed. Since the ship sailed from Miami, about half the passengers were foreign. The majority was Brazilian. The announcements were lengthy as they were always in five or six languages.
Our Staterooms—we had two rooms on deck two forward. We have three children and needed connecting rooms, as did others on the trip. Although the rooms provided ample space and storage, they seemed much smaller than the ones we experienced on the Carnival Conquest two years earlier. Our rooms were outside, but seemed the size of an inside cabin. The kid's room had bunk beds that dropped from the ceiling. The Conquest rooms were of the same category, but all three twin beds were at floor level. The rooms were decorated very tastefully, had flat-screen TV's, and had very comfortable beds. The bathrooms were nice and the showers had amazing water pressure. The size of the room was never an issue as we showered and slept there and that was basically it!
The Pools—Among the best and most well thought-out feature on the ship. There are three main pool areas on the ship, one for adults, one for sports and activities and one for kids. The area for adults is called The Solarium. It is decorated a notch higher than the other areas and the lounge chairs are of higher quality. The Solarium also has two hot tubs that hang over the side of the ship—very cool! The central pools are for sports and activities. This is where the band played and the belly flop, hairy chest competition, etc. took place. There were bars all over the place as one would expect. The last pool was devoted exclusively to kids. It is called the H2O Zone and is basically a waterpark with showering sculptures, a small lazy river, splash pool, deep pool and hot tubs. The pools work so well because the only place the kids want to be is the H2O Zone. This basically leaves all the other pool areas kid-free. There was a juice and smoothie bar in the H2O Zone area as well as self-serve ice cream cones. By the way, a major plus on the Freedom class ship—the pools are FRESH WATER!!!
The Spa and Fitness Center—Very nice and utilized frequently by our group. The fitness center is huge and has all equipment imaginable—Life Fitness—all top-notch. There was also a studio for classes as well as a boxing ring. The spa was nice and luxurious as one would expect on a ship of this size.
The Sports Deck—Another amazing area on this incredible ship! The sports deck is at the top of ship, way in the back. This area contains the Rock Wall, Freedom Fairways—the miniature golf course, the basketball court, golf simulator and The Flowrider—the ship's signature attraction. The Flowrider is surrounded by stadium seating—really fun to sit and watch over a mid-morning beer. The whole area is amazing and well utilized. We partook in all activities up here! Oh yeah—there was a bar up there too—SHOCK!!! In the same vicinity were all of the kid areas—Adventure Ocean, The Living Room, The Arcade (which was huge) and Fuel, the teen center. There was also shuffleboard and ping-pong available.
Dining—we were at the 8:30 seating in the Isaac Dining Room. There are three dining rooms listed, but it is basically one huge dining room with three levels. Each level has a different name and ours was on the second level of the room. On our first night, we were at three different tables. I was surprised because I specifically told them when we booked the trip that we needed to be at one table because it was a reunion. Since all the reservations were assigned the same group number, I expected Royal Caribbean would be able to figure it out—wrong. This is one of many disappointments with dealing with the Royal Caribbean group desk—truly a useless feature. Note to the wise—use a travel agent when booking a large group. After the first night, the crew put us at one large table, so it wasn't a big issue. Our head server was Marlon and the assistant Jose, both from the Philippines. They were exceptional in every way! Thanks guys for making our nightly dining ritual a memorable one—these guys put up with a lot!!! The food in the main dining room was pretty mediocre banquet-style food, but it did get progressively better each day. Perhaps our level of intoxication increased each day! Lobster night was actually very good—the lobster and prime rib were both perfectly executed. There was not a single dessert that I would consider memorable. It almost seemed like all the food was prepped at the beginning of service at 5:30 and used all night long. The food really took a back seat to the rest of the experience and dinner was something the group looked forward to each night.
Other Dining—There were numerous other dining options on the ship and we partook in most. The one thing I can't comment on is the two fine dining rooms on the ship. Because kids were not allowed, we stuck to the main dining room each evening. The main buffet room is The Windjammer—we ate breakfast here most mornings. The selections were good and the layout of the room is awesome. Everything that any culture would want for breakfast was available. Service was great in The Windjammer. Attached to The Windjammer is Jade, and Asian buffet at lunch and dinner. Johnny Rockets is up by The Sports Deck and was superb. Great burgers and outstanding service! There is a $3.95 cover charge to dine here. We ate here twice for lunch—on sea days. There are also a couple of dining options within The Royal Promenade, Cafe Promenade serving sandwiches and pastries and a pizza place, Sorrento's. Both were fantastic alternatives for lunch or a late snack. Although the pizza at Sorrento's was not memorable, it was pretty good. Even better were the deli salads that they served—outstanding! Cafe Promenade also serves as the espresso bar, serving Seattle's Best Coffee. There is also a Ben & Jerry's in The Royal Promenade that our kids frequented. We utilized room service once for breakfast on a shore day and it far exceeded my expectations.
The Bars and Nightclubs—Were numerous and action packed. Although we purchased alcohol at every venue at least once, we hung out in three places, The Schooner Bar, Olive or Twist and On-Air, the Karaoke Lounge. The Schooner Bar is where we conducted our nightly extended happy hour. It started about 6:30 and lasted until dinner at 8:30. We initially intended on making this our after dinner hangout as well, but the pianist was so shockingly bad, we opted for other venues. Since the pianist started while we were at dinner, we never had to be punished. His name was Steve and he is billed as "The Man of a Thousand Songs". Interestingly, whenever we requested something he either didn't know it or wouldn't play it. On our first night when we attempted to go there after dinner, there were a bunch of old ladies rockin' out to "Volare". We knew instantly we would have to make other arrangements. What made The Schooner so amazing and the perfect venue for happy hour were the servers and bartenders. Our group befriended two in particular, Marcia from St. Vincent and Ramon from the Philippines. They are without a doubt two of the best service industry personnel I have ever met and I have been in the industry for 20 years. Our young daughter was absolutely crazy about Marcia and on our last night, Marcia took her up to The Royal Promenade and bought her a stuffed dolphin. That dolphin was promptly named Marcia. Ramon was a bartender and he quickly became one of our favorites as well. We looked very forward to their company each night. All of our kids knew their way to The Schooner Bar if they couldn't find Mom or Dad! Olive or Twist is in the Viking Crown Lounge on the very top of the ship. It offered spectacular views and a nice place to chat. We generally went up there after dinner and spent an hour or two. Lucy the cocktail server was phenomenal and took great care of us because she is Marcia's roommate on the ship. Olive or Twist was amazingly underutilized, probably because it's off the beaten path. We loved it—the entertainment up here was also spotty, but provided a good vibe. On-Air Club is Freedom's dedicated Karaoke Lounge and was as good as it gets. What amazed me was how often it wasn't open. I think they had Karaoke four nights for an hour and fifteen minutes only. This really surprised me since the club was ALWAYS packed. Incidentally, Marcia's boyfriend is a bartender here and his name is Latchman—he is top-notch of course! Marcia's good friend Careen is a server at the Bull & Bear—The English Pub in The Royal Promenade. We were treated like royalty whenever we showed up in there. One evening we stopped by Vintages, the Freedom's wine bar—GREAT PLACE. We each enjoyed a flight of wine while we people-watched. Boleros and the Champagne bar are both very nice. We never ventured into The Crypt the Freedom's bi-level disco. I poked my head in one afternoon and it reeked like smoke. The pool bars are great. I counted four in all—two at the main pool on two different levels, one in The Solarium and one in the H2O Zone. Earl, our tray-twirling wine steward at dinner, was also our pool-side cocktail server. He too was exceptional and knew us well!
The Casino Royale—Smokey and nasty, just like Vegas. Looked large and bountiful in terms of offerings. We used the casino as a pass-through to the dining room—that's it! Smells just like a bowling alley. They actually attempt to have a non-smoking night—Thursday night. They put up signs everywhere that all the smokers ignore...NICE!!!
The Royal Promenade—Impressive. There is so much public space on the ship—truly incredible. I think the main reason the ship never seemed overly crowded was because there is so much public space, so many places to explore. Other than the previously mentioned bars and restaurants, there are also several shops selling typical cruise ship stuff—booze, cigarettes, sundries, cloths, jewelry & watches. There are also sidewalk sales going on all the time as well as gold and silver by the yard... The Royal Promenade also hosts a couple of parades during the week. In all, this space serves as an outstanding central core to the ship. It is easy to get to no matter where you are. The purser's desk is at one end—the showroom at the other a football field away.
Shows—We attended exactly one show in the main showroom "The Arcadia Theater". It was the love and marriage show—it was funny. I can not comment on the singers and dancers, comedians, magic shows, etc. because we did not partake. We did go to the ice skating show "Freedom Ice.com"—I have no idea why the ".com" as it is completely irrelevant! The tickets for the ice show are limited and they were distributed on Monday morning. The show was outstanding and still amazes me that it took place on a ship. "Studio B" is the name of the ice venue and there are other non-ice productions as well as free skating for the kids during the week.
Art—The presence of art, art auctions and art galleries at sea seems so random to me. There must be money to be made because it is present on every ship these days. The Freedom of the seas has a dedicated art gallery area and it is nicely secluded on deck three. In addition to art, there was also some great sports memorabilia. Pictures—Very well done on the Freedom of the Seas. There is the typical sales area where you can search yours (and everyone else's) photos, but the coolest part is the computer terminals inside. You simply swipe your sea-pass card and it pulls up, through facial recognition software, all the photos associated with you and your entire group. You can then select all the photos you want and pick them up later. I think Royal Caribbean would sell four times the photos if they sold them for half the price, especially considering how many they produce and throw away.
Ocean Adventure—our little ones went just one day. They were more interested in hanging out with their older cousins. The facility seemed clean and well organized and full of energetic, fun-loving counselors. On the day that our kids attended, they had a great time and came back with colorful arts and crafts.
Port #1 San Juan—We had a full sea day and a half before we pulled into Old San Juan at 3pm Tuesday afternoon. We got off the ship with the intention of walking around and exploring. We walked the shops for a while and then went up to the old fort up on the hill. The fort provided some awesome views of San Juan. After an hour or so of our kids acting up and complaining about the heat, we headed back to the ship. We knew in advance because of the little ones that this would be a quick trip off the ship and it all worked out fine. Exploring Old San Juan for a few hours was enough. Had we been by ourselves, we would have probably booked the excursion to the Bacardi distillery or something like that.
Port #2 St. Thomas—We slept in and disembarked about 10am. Half of group stayed together today and we started off by shopping for a couple of hours. St. Thomas reportedly has the best shopping in the Caribbean. In my opinion all the islands seem to have the same stuff—St. Thomas just has five times more of the same stuff than other islands. After shopping, we jumped in a cab and headed over the hill to Megan's Bay—BIG MISTAKE!!! I think that every passenger from every ship had the same idea. The place was packed and seemed dirty. We did manage to find a relatively secluded spot, but we had to walk a mile to get there. We should have disembarked early and taken a ferry from Red Hook to St. John if we wanted an authentic Virgin Island beach experience—next time!!! On the way back to the ship, our driver did stop at some scenic overlooks and we took some spectacular pictures. The scenery in the VI's is majestic and the views are breathtaking. I don't think I have seen such natural beauty anywhere else, but I am a beach person! We were back on the ship by 4pm. All in all a very enjoyable day!
Port #3 St. Maarten—By far our favorite. We have one big regret about St. Maarten—again we slept in and didn't get off the ship until about 11am. This island had, by far, the friendliest people. The infrastructure getting off the ship is impressive and Philipsburg is spotless. There is a great beach right downtown and great shopping as well—all the same shops... The big draw on St. Maarten is Orient Beach—on the French side of the island. We opted to hang out at Maho Beach, which sits at the end of the airport's runway. The water at this beach was bright turquoise—it almost looked fake it was so blue! I am an airplane buff so this place was right up my alley! There is a great bar called the Sunset Beach Bar—a sensational place to hang-out and watch planes. I sat there and drank Red Stripes and ate Conch Fritters—for me it doesn't get any better than this!!! My family swam and sun-bathed while I watched jumbo-jets land 20 feet from the beach—quite remarkable—every time a plane lands it looks like it's going to crash. Check it out on YouTube if you have an opportunity. We got some amazing pictures. We also had the opportunity to see a 747-400 take off a couple of hours after we watched it land. The planes take off the same direction as they land, so everyone on the beach gets blown into the water if they don't move in time—pretty funny! The ride back to the ship was nice and we had a talkative cab driver who was a wealth of knowledge about St. Maarten. He was from the French side and wasn't bashful about jabbing the Dutch side at every opportunity—classic!
The last two days on our cruise were days we spent at sea. We spent these last two days sunbathing and swimming, drinking Coronas by the pool and enjoying the company of our extended family. Perfect conclusion to a great cruise
Debarkation—We were awoken Sunday morning to the early announcements in Miami advising the "Red Group" to debark. We woke up, had breakfast and left the ship with relative ease. The whole process took less than an hour. Our last cruise was from Galveston and took about five hours—my guess is that Miami is a bit more experienced!