This was our second RCCL cruise and fourth cruise overall. We have previously sailed Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival. We chose this cruise because we really wanted to experience the largest cruise ship in the world and wanted to visit the Western Caribbean as we had previously only sailed the Eastern itinerary.
Pre-cruise: We stayed at the Best Western on the Bay Inn & Marina in North Bay Village. It's about a 15-minute shuttle ride to the pier, making it an easy pre-cruise hotel. We flew a red-eye out of Seattle and landed at MIA at 6:05 a.m., called the Best Western after collecting our bags at about 6:55 a.m. and were picked up by the complimentary hotel shuttle at 7:30 a.m. We were very fortunate that it was off season, as our room was ready and waiting for us! We enjoyed the complimentary continental breakfast before going straight to bed where we slept until about 3 p.m. We spent the afternoon walking around the area and wound down with a nice dinner next door, dockside at Shuckers.
Embarkation: The cruise shuttle from the hotel cost us $10/person and dropped us off at the Port of Miami at 12:25 p.m. the next day. We were checked in and on the ship by 12:45 p.m. It was an easy and quick process. From embarkation until sail-away, we spent our time walking around the ship, visiting the Windjammer for a nice lunch, puttering around the pool deck(s), and taking in the beautiful view of Miami. This was our first sail-away from Miami and I must say that the view of Miami from the ship was absolutely gorgeous! For a moment, I felt like I was on The Love Boat during sail-away as onlookers and passersby honked their horns and waved to us as we slowly sailed out to sea.
Cabin: We had booked the Ben & Jerry's "Sweet", also known as the "Cow Butt" cabin - Stateroom 6305 on Freedom, Liberty, and Independence. You might be asking, "What is different about that cabin?" Well, the Ben & Jerry's Sweet, as it's called, is an Inside Promenade cabin with an obstructed view of two cows' behinds as one looks out the window! Because of the view (which I learned was unplanned by RCCL), passengers in this cabin each receive a complimentary ice cream item every day of the cruise (yes, that means that between the two of us we received 14 items) plus Concierge Club benefits! Concierge Club benefits are typically restricted to Diamond cruisers or those who have booked the Royal and Family Suites, Presidential Suite, Owners Suite or Grand Suite. However, the Ben & Jerry's Sweet also qualifies for these benefits which include use of the Concierge Club on Deck 10, admission to the Ice Show without waiting in line for tickets, and complimentary appetizers and beverages (alcohol included) each evening from 5 to 8:30 p.m., among a host of other benefits. The cabin itself is a bit kitschy, decorated in a cow theme, but RCCL really wanted to turn this "unfortunate" design into something that is now "cowveted" and cute!
Our cabin steward, Marcia from Jamaica, seemed to be working non-stop. Every time I was in the hallway, whether leaving for the day, returning from port, going to dinner, or returning from a nightcap, Marcia always seemed to be greeting us and even opened the door for us with her key card when she saw our hands were full! I must say that she was the most attentive and friendly of any cabin steward we've had. She was genuinely interested in how we enjoyed each port and how we spent our time onboard. She even offered to cook for us at her home in Jamaica the next time we cruise with her! We hope to see her on future cruises!
The Ship: Freedom of the Seas, currently the largest ship in the world, was big, but didn't have the HUGE feeling we thought it would. We expected lines of people wherever we went, a long wait for elevators and the potential inability to visit every nook and cranny on the ship by the end of the sailing. However, none of that happened. The layout made the foot traffic flow nicely, and we rarely had to wait longer than 2-3 minutes for an elevator. Though the ship was full, there were only 421 children on this sailing which could have contributed to the feeling of not being overwhelmed with the number of people. Three weeks before our sailing passengers enjoyed the company of over 1800 children!
Food: We ate in the Main Dining Room every night, as we weren't really in the mood to splurge at Chops or Portofino's this time around. We found the food to be pretty good, but my husband did notice a slight decrease in quality of selections since our last cruise on Jewel of the Seas in February, 2007. There were two nights, however, where we were challenged in finding something on the menu to get really excited about. Something new on the menu for RCCL is the $14.95 steak from Chops. Yes, you read that correctly. You now have the choice of ordering a steak from Chops for $14.95 while you dine in the Main Dining Room. One of our tablemates ordered that steak and stated that it was very bland, and that he would not order it again. This steak was offered on the menu every night, and on some nights, a steak for no extra charge was offered. The big steak-eater at our table felt that the $14.95 steak was no better and no worse than the steak on the menu offered at no extra charge. As a vegetarian, I was pleased with the many options on the menu every night except just a couple of nights when I didn't care for the vegetarian alternatives. On those nights, I ordered two to three appetizers and felt satisfied and full in a jiffy.
Our favorite after hours eatery by far was Sorrento's. This Italian eatery stayed open very late in the early morning hours (3 a.m., I believe), and served up pizza, deli foods, and dessert. My husband loves pizza, so it pretty much became a ritual of his to grab pizza each night. I was enamored with the deli eats that were offered at Sorrento's - everything from eggplant and roasted red peppers to corn salad and mozzarella balls - the servers would scoop up a spoonful of whatever I wanted and serve it on a plate for me with my choice of Italian breads as an accompaniment.
Café Promenade, a bit different than the Café Lattetudes found on other RCCL ships, was one deck below and across from our cabin which made for easy viewing to check on the length of the line before venturing down for a morning coffee. Café Promenade did not offer a coffee punch card as does Café Lattetude on other ships, and the cost of a small soy latte is comparable to what I would pay on land. Plan to pay $3-$5 for a latte depending on size and any additions you may like. Two days into our sailing we realized that all of the cookies, pastries and sandwiches at Café Promenade were available at no additional charge.
Entertainment: We enjoyed the Ice Show one evening where a featured guest (I really wish I could remember his name) performed acrobatics on a cylindrical device over the ice. Picture a hamster in a wheel, but with an 18-year old athlete rolling around inside, never allowing the wheel to lie flat on the ice. He WOWed us!
Eric Lydon performed on Adult Comedy night, and if you have a chance to see him, DO IT! I cannot tell you the last time I laughed for 30 minutes straight without stopping!
Other performers from dancers to a magician really performed like typical cruise performers, and were entertaining, but didn't bring the WOW factor.
Nightclubs: The Crypt is a late-night club that we visited on the first night, then not again. We really enjoy music and like to dance, however, only hip hop intermingled with some Latin vibes were played during the two hours (or so) we were in the club. A few in our group requested other styles of music - techno and 80s - but the DJ wouldn't play them. We didn't return to The Crypt and decided to spend our evenings at other locales because of it.
Other Activities: The Quest - As usual, this is the most fun to be had on the ship! We thought our team had won (and so did the winning team), but I guess we came in second. We really don't know what happened with the scoring, but our group had so much fun playing that it didn't matter. If you don't know about The Quest, just picture a cross between a scavenger hunt and a co-ed wedding shower taken up a notch to an R and sometimes X-rated level. If I told you any more than that, I may have to shoot you. You just need to go participate!
Name the Lyrics - This is a "finish the tune" type of game. Honestly, it was pretty boring, but we went to this because my husband is so good with music lyrics. If he had not been in the contest, continually advancing, and then WINNING it, I would have left from boredom. He's such a ham and a showman that he kept it interesting. His winnings included a pen, luggage tag, lanyard, waterproof case, hat, and bag all branded with the RCCL logo.
Sexy Legs Contest - RCCL makes this a fun poolside event. This contest was won by a 7-year old which goes to show that you really don't need to be "sexy" to participate or even win. I really think the crowd makes this game what it is, and contestants respond to the energy and start to get a little crazy.
Ports of Call: Labadee - We lounged in the sand near Dragon's Breath to watch the zip lines. The sand was a bit more on the "reefy" side, with some rocks so we ventured about 200 yards away to Hideaway Beach where the sand was soft and water was b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l! Beach staff found us lounge chairs, some in the sun, some in the shade, but we didn't use them. It was so hot on Labadee that we stayed in the water to cool off. The only time we emerged was for the BBQ. As a vegetarian, I was pleasantly surprised with the food offerings at the barbecue. I indulged in Greek salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, cheese and bread. For the carnivores, choices included hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs, and chicken.
Ocho Rios - We took the ship's excursion to Dunn's River Falls, and boy was this fun! We were driven through downtown Ocho Rios for a tour of the area before heading up to Dunn's River Falls. We arrived to the falls at about 10 a.m. and were among one of the first groups to start the climb. We probably had about 20 people in our group, led by two guides. One guide was capturing the footage of our climb on a camcorder, and helping us step on the right rocks, while the primary guide was making sure everyone was safe, having fun and getting wet, and holding our cameras to keep them safe and dry. He would then take photos of us with our own cameras at various points along the climb. The climb itself took about 45 minutes to an hour and was a lot of fun. I highly recommend this for anyone who is stable on their feet and doesn't mind getting very wet!
Before returning to the cruise port, the tour included a stop at a couple of shopping spots. Our favorite was Taj Mahal, as we were looking for a good deal on Blue Mountain coffee. We negotiated to $17 per pound, which I'm told is a decent price, while some were selling it for up to $25 per pound. I am drinking my Jablum Blue Mountain coffee as I write this, and I highly recommend it if you like a robust flavored coffee!
After this excursion, we walked to Island Village which is about a five-minute walk from the cruise port. We visited the Reggae Xplosion Museum where we learned the history of reggae through a guided tour. If you really enjoy reggae and its roots, take this tour! Cost was $15 per person.
Grand Cayman - We took a taxi to Sea Grape Beach from the cruise port. Cost was $5 per person. The taxis will not depart until they are full, so do your best to select a taxi that looks on the crowded side. The taxi made two stops along the way to drop off additional passengers, the first group at Royal Palms and the second group at the Beach Colony. Sea Grape was the last of the three stops and we were very glad we chose this beach as it was deserted when we arrived. Calico Jack's is a restaurant located at Sea Grape which is a public beach. They rent chairs, umbrellas, and water sports equipment right there. The cost to rent two chairs and an umbrella was $21 so we opted to save our money and walk about 50 yards to grab one of the free cabanas with another couple. Each cabana housed a picnic table in the shade and was the perfect spot for eating lunch and storing cameras, bags etc. We used the ship's towels to enjoy the sun and sand right there at Sea Grape until the clouds rolled in. Showers emerged on the beach, though it remained 90 degrees and humid of course. We waited it out under our cabana for a short while, then took a cab back to the cruise port for some shopping. There are several shops right there at the cruise port, and this is where we picked up a six-pack of the famous Tortuga Cayman Islands rum cake. This is good stuff! The store even lets you sample the rum cake before purchasing it, and also sample their selections of rum, which isn't a bad thing. ?
Cozumel - In this port we grabbed a cab with some cruise friends and headed over to Chankanaab Park. Once there, we snagged a couple of palapas and some lounge chairs, ordered some cerveza and chips and lounged and chatted for a long while. The beach here is very reefy and good for snorkeling, but if you're looking for a place to wade or beach comb, you will have some challenges. The water does not roll up to the sand at the beaches here. Instead, there are steps that lead down to the water, and once off the bottom step you will be in very deep water. The water was ultra clear and we could see many fish without even using snorkeling equipment. We took the opportunity to cool off and swim out to the dock a couple of times. We were originally going to rent snorkel equipment, but when it came down to it we just ended up lounging in the sand and hopping in the water for a cool down when needed. This was a very relaxing stay as the beach only appeared to be about 20% full due to the off season timing of our visit. The food was average, but I would not recommend the guacamole. It tasted like it came out of a can.
From Chankanaab we took a cab downtown were we walked through a few shops then found a plaza area where we grabbed a lunch. The plaza area was full of shops and eateries providing outdoor seating perfect for people watching. The area is very village-like and is only one block off of the main drag that takes you to the cruise ship. If you are sailing on Carnival, the ships dock in downtown. If you cruise RCCL like we did, you'll want to take a cab to enjoy the downtown area.
When we got back on the ship we found out that Flowrider was having an "Adults only" session starting at 3:30 p.m., so we waited in line for about 20 minutes and boy was it worth it! The schedule for Flowrider is posted on the wall across from the Flowrider registration booth. I recommend reviewing it and planning accordingly to better optimize your Flowrider experience. We each enjoyed the Flowrider four times before we simply got too tired. Something to note is that the bottom of the Flowrider is padded, so falls really do not hurt. Important message for females: wear a tank top and shorts over your bathing suit. I lost my shorts and a portion of my bikini bottoms and many women were losing their tops!
Sea Days: We had two sea days on this itinerary, which was just about right for me. My husband would have liked an additional sea day as he likes to relax a bit more. Sea days were spent at the pool deck in the water and simply relaxing in the sun. The sundeck immediately above the Sky Bar was an unofficial topless deck filled primarily with Europeans. There was no sign identifying this deck as a topless deck, but while we were there about half of the women had removed their tops for sunbathing. Nothing was said to them by other passengers or the Deck Patrol and cocktail servers who visited often.
This is the first cruise of our four where I have found lounge chairs any time I needed them. So, even though this ship is so large, and sailed full, there were ample chairs for anyone who wanted to enjoy the sun on the pool deck. The only exception to this being the Solarium, which was fully occupied nearly 100% of the time. Why? The padding on the lounge chairs was wonderful. We were also disappointed that the Solarium was not self-contained, and by that I mean that if you wanted to get something to eat, you needed to leave the Solarium. The only comparison I have is Jewel of the Seas where they served pizza, wraps, sandwiches and crepes in their Solarium.
Disembarkation: Because we were in no hurry to leave the ship, we stayed in our cabin as long as we were allowed - until 8 a.m. We had a little breakfast in the Windjammer and then headed to the Champagne Bar where we lounged until about 9:30 or so. We were off the ship by 10 a.m., found our luggage immediately, and grabbed a cab for South Beach.
Post-cruise: Because of the flight schedule from Miami to Seattle, we had arranged a post-cruise stay in South Beach for one night. We took a cab to The Kent Hotel, arriving at about 10:30 a.m. Our room was not yet ready, so we dropped our luggage and walked up to Lincoln Rd for some browsing and sightseeing, and enjoyed a wonderful and healthy lunch at Pasha's. I must say that the BEST fresh-squeezed juice I have ever consumed is the melon juice at Pasha's. Do not skip this place! We continued our afternoon with a stroll through the famous and historical Delano Hotel, followed by a visit to the sands of South Beach. We walked the beach from 16th down to 11th which is the cross street for The Kent, arriving back to our hotel about 2 p.m. when our room was ready. The Kent is an art deco style hotel, with lavender being a primary color choice in the rooms. Though the room was equipped with everything we needed, it smelled of cigarette smoke badly. I initially thought we'd stop smelling the smoke, but we never did. The smell was so bad that we would likely not stay at The Kent for future South Beach visits even though the location is one block from the sand and the nightspots of the lively South Beach.
In Summary: This was such a fun cruise not only because the ship had something to offer us during any given moment, and the ports of call were inviting and fun, but also because of the friends we made along the way. We are social people, but really connected with people on this cruise and already have plans to sail with them again on Oasis of the Seas! From the activities, to the ports, to the enjoyment of our fellow cruisers, this was a cruise we will always remember!