Getting There: I flew into MIA the day before. I actually had missed my flight that morning and had to pay Delta $50 to move me to the next one. I will say that Delta has made great strides in recent years with their service. I connected in Atlanta (of course) and about half the plane was recognizably gay and going on this cruise. The plane had interactive televisions in every seat, so us gays played trivia against each other, and got quite into it.
Embarkation: Freedom is a huge ship and I expected longer lines than I experienced. The layout of the boarding was different from when I sailed with Royal on their smaller vessels. Previously the longest lines were for the check in desk, and once through them you walked directly onto the ship. In this case there was no line for the check-in (and at 1:30 too!) but once done there we had to wait in a lobby area for them to call our color to board. The wait wasn't long at all however.
The Cabin: Huge! I was surprised by how large it was. We had a D2 superior balcony stateroom and it felt like a standard sized hotel room. I would have been comfortable living there long term if I could afford it. The colors and artwork were neutral enough that I didn't really notice them, which I consider to be a good thing. The bathroom was larger than I expected and the shower was really amazing; you can fit two in it, trust me ;). I loved the circular shape and curved glass doors. I have a weird habit of sitting down in hot showers and relaxing for an hour; on other ships the nasty curtain sticks to me and cold air flows in under it. Freedom's shower was my mini-spa for the week and I wouldn't change a thing about it. The balcony was larger than I expected and had plenty of room to spread out. I had breakfast on it one morning while we were in Haiti and it was great. There were two chairs and a small side table on the balcony, but with all of the space RCCL gave us it would have been nice to have one lounger out there as well. We even were able to sleep with the balcony door open for three of the nights because the weather was the perfect temperature for it. The sound of the waves, wind and distant dance music from the pool deck was a great way to fall asleep.
Dining: This was by far the biggest disappointment onboard. Atlantis forces RCCL to make all the dining open seating during their cruises which when combined with the flat-rate prepaid gratuities led to questionable, if not downright bad service. I missed the classic set seating service of having the same waiter who learns your preferences and tries to make your dining experience great. The food was also disappointing; although never bad, it was also never particularly good. Majesty of the Seas had amazing food every night so this was a letdown. The main dining room is absolutely stunning however. It is so grand and beautiful; I think I may have taken more pictures of it than anything else! The windjammer is standard buffet faire. The lines were never long but the food was never memorable either. I was looking forward to trying the sushi in Jade but only did so once before I learned my lesson; free sushi is not good sushi. One thing I did notice in the windjammer was the movement of the ship. Freedom is huge and as a result she doesn't roll too much, but in the side seating of the windjammer I could really feel her rocking and rolling. Even the plants in that area were swaying. The specialty restaurants were hit and miss. Portifino was amazing and worth every penny. The waiters were amazing, everything was very well presented, and the food was fantastic. I was most looking forward to Chops however as I LOVE steak. When I walked in I was completely ignored for 5 minutes with no Maitre de to be found. A waitress asked me to move as I was "in her way", even though I was standing in front of the hostess stand. When he finally did appear there was a line stacked up behind me. He physically leaned around me without saying a word and asked the people behind me how many were in their party. He seated them and then disappeared for another few minutes. We were seated about 15 minutes after we arrived, and the restaurant was virtually empty. The steak was boring and no different from what you'd find in the main dining room, I was surprised by how thin it was. We waited 30 minutes (no joke) after our main course was taken away for them to bring us desert menus. They apologized with out prompting for the way we were treated at the end of our meal but all that tells me is that they know they messed up.
Ports of Call: Labadee was disappointing. I wanted to see a more authentic Haitian experience, possibly even a guided (and guarded) mini-bus tour outside the RCCL compound, but naturally one is not offered. There really isn't much to do on Labadee that you can't already do better onboard the ship, unless you are willing to pay $85 to take a zipline or other token excursions. The water has very bad visibility, far, far too poor for snorkeling off the beach, and the swimming areas are small and roped in. I thought RCCL did a much better job with Coco Cay which at least had clear water, great snorkeling, and a cool little nature trail. Why can't Freedom have stopped there instead? San Juan, PR - I was pleasantly surprised by Old San Juan. Initially I had wanted to go to the El Yunque rainforest but the short time in port made that impossible. I had heard bad things about Puerto Rico before but found Old San Juan to be the perfect quick day trip. The old city is gorgeous and very European looking, you would never guess it is a part of the U.S. Castillo San Marco is a very cool old fort and a great picture opportunity. I would advise people to stay away from Calle de Fortaleza. It seems that they've done a good job of shoveling all of the typical tourist crap onto that street, by avoiding it you get a great impression of how pretty Viejo San Juan really is. I'm not sure what I would do if I stopped there again however, it seems like a "been there, done that" kind of place. St. Maarten - I was most excited for this port as I have wanted to go there since I was very young. We were docked across from Celebrity Solstice and it was fun watching all of the older couples in their white robes on their balconies slowly realize that our ship was all men, most of whom were hardly dressed! I started early that day (difficult considering how late I partied the night before) and took the water taxi to Philipsburg. I had initially planned on walking the distance from the cruise ship pier to the city, but the area is under a massive amount of construction and I didn't want to risk it. $4 was well worth it to take the water taxi directly into the downtown area. Philipsburg was very touristy and downright trashy. I walked around for a bit looking for the galleries and brand-name shops I had heard about, but once I saw what the Polo Ralph Lauren store looked like I gave up. I took a taxi to Maho beach ~$18 to watch the planes land. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was jetblasted by a 747 and buzzed by an A340. I could die happy after that. The beach there is also nice although very rocky. The locals said it wasn't normally rocky at all but that we had come right after a big storm pulled all of the sand away. Next I bummed a ride with some friends who had rented a jeep. We went to Orient Beach on the French side. It's funny how immediately the roads change when you cross onto the French side. The streets get wider, the potholes disappear, and sidewalks magically form! Orient Beach was beautiful and we watched the sunset from the peninsula just south of the nudist resort. From there you can clearly see St. Barths and even Saba. I bummed a ride once more, but this time to dinner. I had heard great things about "Talk of the Town" in Grand Case (it really was the talk of the whole island!). Our driver knew the owners and told us not to worry; they would call us when our meal was done so she could pick us up again. The host then greeted us with a "We were expecting you!" The food was great and downright dirt cheap. The prices are in Euros but their exchange rate is 1=1! Ribs were $4, conch sausage was $2. The food was cooked on a big grill right in the open. It was a very cool and very foreign place. Right on time our driver appeared when we were done and whisked us back to the ship. The island earned it's slogan of "The Friendly Island", everyone was so nice and welcoming, quite the contrast to the surly, angry locals on most of the islands in the Caribbean.
Activities: Freedom has an amazing gym; I was worried that with 4000 gay men onboard the lines for the gym equipment would be longer than the ship itself, but it never felt too crowded. The main pool deck is huge and was where most of the parties were hosted. The decorative shade sail between the main pool deck and the water park area caused allot of wind to come down to the pool deck however. They should redesign the sail to keep the wind out. The Solarium was nice but the hot tubs were often out of order for maintenance. The kid's water park area seemed way oversized. Granted with no children onboard it just looked like wasted space, but I have trouble imagining that children need that vast space to play in the water, especially considering most of them will just want to be where the adults are anyways. The ice rink is surreal. We could see Cuba out of the windows when we went, how many people have gone ice skating within sight of Cuba? The sports deck is amazing and what really makes RCCL stand out. The rock wall was huge, actually to the point of being too big. I got freaked out when I climbed to the top and looked out over the water. It is really, really, high! The basketball/tennis/volleyball court was always in use, but I never once saw the mini-golf even open. The flowrider is a blast. There is a definite learning curve, but figuring it out is half the fun. The best riders were guys who had been on a Freedom-class ship three or more times before. They were smart enough to bring wetsuits with them, as it gets chilly in the wind and water on the back of the ship. RCCL should really offer wetsuit rentals for the flowrider.
Parties/Entertainment: Atlantis goes all out when they take over the ship. The main dance party started every night at 11pm on the pool deck. A parallel party started at 1am in Studio B (the ice rink with a dance floor over it). At 5am the main party moves to The Crypt to avoid the sunrise; that party wraps up around 11am. From 5-7pm we had our afternoon T-dances. The themes were amazing (Brazil, Mardi Gras, Dog Tag, 70's, 90's Divas, Under the Sea, Splash, and The White Party). The whole crew got involved and you would see them up dancing while they worked or in their off time which was very cool. There were allot of entertainers they bring as well. Miss Richfield 1981 is a drag queen comedian, Cashetta is a drag queen who does magic and more stand up, they also have a dueling bingo night. Charo and Andy Bell held concerts. They had more comics and piano singers than I could count, even a gay hypnotist. Andrew Christian was onboard, they sold his bathing suits and underwear in the shops, he also held a few fashion shows during the trip. The RCCL productions were pretty great too. FreedomIce.com was amazing, and Atlantis threw in a crazy guy on a spiked wheel which was one of the best parts. Once Upon a Time is not to be missed. The shows were packed and got standing ovations. The biggest problem was coming to terms with missing things. There just isn't enough time in the day and at a certain point you have to sleep. I would have been happy to just go out to sea for 7 days without any ports.
Disembarkation: Due to the fact that a full 27% of the ship was foreigners they split the gangplanks into forward (foreign travelers and those traveling with them) and aft (U.S. passport holders only). We didn't have any terrible lines onboard or through Customs, but did have to wait a very long time for our luggage. (Over an hour from when our tag color was called.)
Getting Home: I was staying in downtown Miami, just a few blocks from the port, but certainly didn't want to walk with all of my suitcases across the bridge and through downtown, but no taxi would take me. Every time I told them where I was going they would wave me away. I finally had to trick a cabbie into taking me by mumbling something about an airport and then waiting until he pulled away to tell him where I was really going. He got very mad until I just yelled "How the hell else am I supposed to get there?" He continued to complain that I had cost him $80 he could have made taking someone to FTL but I ignored him. At least where I live it's illegal for cabbies to do that. Delta ended up delaying my flight enough to cause me to miss my connection in Atlanta. They offered to book me on an American flight that night but I told them they would be able to pay me to fly American Airlines (hell lives in a silver plane at 35,000ft). They ended up putting me up in a hotel for the night in Atlanta and booking me on the Delta flight the next morning, they even waived the $50 extra bag fee as an apology. I did not use the Luggage Valet service RCCL offers but 2 out of 3 of my friends who used it didn't get their luggage home on time. It still has not arrived for one of them (6 days later).
Atlantis cruises may cost more than twice what the same ship on the same itinerary at the same time of year runs, but it's worth every penny. I'll see you guys on Atlantis Liberty of the Seas 2010!