There were 31 of us on board the Freedom of the Seas for a 7-night W. Caribbean cruise (August 17-24, 2008). The oldest was 80 years old and the youngest being 2, spanning 3 generations.
Pre-cruise One third of us flew from Toronto Canada on a direct flight in the morning of the sail date, one third of us drove to Orlando, stayed there for a week before joining the last third 1 night before the cruise in Miami. 20 of us booked 4 one-bedroom suites and 1 two-bedroom suite at Hyatt Summerfield Suites close to Miami airport and were all upgraded to two-bedroom suites upon arrival. Summerfield Suites provided free hot breakfast buffet, free internet, and taking the shuttle from the hotel to the port was only $10 per person. The journey took less than 20 minutes on a Sunday morning.
Embarkation & Cabins We arrived at the port at about 11:30 a.m. Those who flew from Toronto got to the port even earlier as they took the transfer provided by RCI. We were able to get on the ship before 12:30 p.m. Our 10 cabins (6 D1 on Deck 10, 1 interior on Deck 10, 2 E1 on Deck 8 & 1 Promenade-interior family stateroom that can house up to 6 pp. on Deck 8 with over 300 sq-ft) were all great. Each of the 3 aft cabins (1400, 1402 & 1404) had a huge balcony with 2 lounge (bed) chairs, 2 regular chairs and 1 round table & plenty of room to move around (most D1 only had 2 chairs & 1 small table in the balcony). Taking afternoon naps on the lounge chairs in our own private balconies was added luxury that only suite guests would experience. Rooms were all ready at 1 p.m. but luggage was delivered close to dinner time at around 5:15 p.m.
Dining & Food We had 4 tables in Leonardo Dining Room on Deck 3 by the window. Food was quite good, considering they had to prepare over 1000 sets at the same time. Dinners at Portofino ($20 extra) and Chops Grille ($25 extra) were exceptional and well worth the extra bucks. The setting, the food presentation, the food quality and taste & the service (everybody had their own personal waiter that brought the food out at the same time!!) all contributed to extremely satisfying fine dining experience. I tried to book all 31 to dine in specialty restaurants together but they could only take 6 the most at one time, so I had to make arrangement with the very helpful manager the very first minute that I boarded the ship. Food at Windjammer was regular buffet food but they had Jade that offered some kinds of pretty authentic Chinese food like rice noodle in soup with your own choice of ingredients like shrimp, Chinese mushroom, chicken, spring onions, etc. For dinner, tables were set in Asian style with chopsticks, Chinese soup spoons & teacups, etc. We only saw the setting but never tried the Asian food as we liked to be served in the more formal dining room. The sandwiches and pizzas (especially the Seafood Pizza) offered on Deck 5's Promenade were mouth-watering. You could easily find tables there when it's past midnight. Kids (they are 14-20 years old) said Johnny Rocket was so good that they had to give them extra tip. The Midnight Buffet (now they called it family get-together night club) was down-sized & didn't even offer viewing time. There were only a few ice sculptures and the food presentation was only average. Selection was very limited too.
Entertainment It was surprisingly good (way better than last year's Mediterranean cruise onboard Voyager of the Seas). The solo entertainer, the RCI singers, the magic show were all worth watching. However, the Ice Show was not as good as the ones on Navigator or Voyager. It was probably because we have seen it so many times before & it was not thrilling any more, even with the wheels, wings, etc. The 70's & 80's dance parties and the parade were great! We loved to sing in Karaoke & met some friends too. The Quest & Love-&-Marriage show were fun to watch. Ken Rush, our Cruise Director was quite good.
Outdoor Activities We played in the H2O zone, the Flowrider, rock climbing, mini golf & different types of ball games & had a lot of fun. The Adventure Ocean (kids program) was so good that all 2 to 17 years old enjoyed that very much.
Ports & Excursions This was the part that made this cruise so much more fun, enjoyable and memorable. In beautiful Labadee we went on the waverunners, then did kayaking & parasailing... expensive but a lot of fun. Magnets with a list price of $5 could be bargained to $1 in the Labadee market. As we were a big group, we boarded a 28-seater van (had to hold the young children) that took us to Ocho Rios' Dunns River Falls and went on an island tour (5 hours in total & $20 each person including tip). We got the van from the white info booth located right outside the pier. Admission to Dunns River was $15 each. It was a blast & half of us climbed the whole 650-ft. falls. It was tiring but we had great fun & didn't feel the heat as we were in water the whole time. We bought the video (quality was below average but still worth it as a big group) for $40. Bring your own Aqua shoes so you don't have to pay $5 to rent them or $15 to buy a pair ($9 at Wal-Mart).
Grand Cayman was the best as we had a private group tour to Stingray City & Coral Gardens for snorkeling. We had our own private boat so we didn't have to worry about our belongings when we were in water playing with the Stingrays. There were 4 guides for the 31 of us and they brought the stingrays for us to touch, to take photos & to feed them with squids. One guide took a lot of photos for us and sent them to our e-mail addresses for a reasonable cost (about $5 - $15 per picture, the more we bought the cheaper per pic). We also had our own water cameras & that's a must. No shoes were allowed so you wouldn't step on the stingrays and hurt them. Watch the tails as they're hard & could sting you if you are not being careful. Our 2-year old had a real fun time with the stingrays & he was not scared at all. We booked it through Best Value Water Sports & it's about $30 cheaper per person than booking the same tour with RCI.
We didn't book any excursions in Cozumel so we just went downtown ($6 per cab ride) for shopping. Carnival parked very close to the shops but RCI docked way further. The head-bobbing colorful turtles & other sea creatures for $1 each were great souvenirs. Last time we were in Cozumel we rented a jeep to a private beach with big waves and yummy barbecues, so it's great to see Cozumel with the locals this time. Street sellers had hand-crafted 3-D baskets (pushed down to one flat piece of wood or push up to form a basket), we had the biggest size for $10 each. They were gorgeous!
Spa The ladies of our group enjoyed the facial, massage and champagne offered. We felt so relaxed that most of us slept through the soothing and relaxing treatment.
Parking at Port & Disembarkation Parking is now $20 per day, so parking cost us $140, yet it's extremely handy to have our own vehicle after disembarkation & we were able to leave the port in less than 10 minutes after getting our luggage. We were given color tags Beige 1, that was called at 6:40 to get off the ship, though we chose not to leave the ship till 7:20 a.m. The line got quite long & we actually had to stand & wait to go through immigration for about 20 minutes. We left the port at 8 a.m. and were able to arrive at the awesome Miami Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort (between North & South Beach in Aventura) at 8:30 a.m. The hotel was wonderful & we were upgraded to a big room (almost 600 sq. ft) with a sitting area and golf course view right away. We were able to sleep for a few hours before lunch.
This was the 6th cruise we went with RCI & it's the best. We loved the big ship and we enjoyed the time to chill with our friends. It was a pity that Oasis was not open for public booking when we were on the ship, we just couldn't wait to get on board of the even bigger Oasis of the Seas. We're hoping that next year's 12-night Scandinavian Cruise on Jewel of the Seas will be another wonderful and positive cruise experience.