Ahoy Cruise Critic-ers!
If you're reading this, it probably means that you are (a.) Interested in a cruise on the Freedom, (b.) are going on the Freedom soon, or, (c.) are wondering why some people gave Freedom three stars and below as their overall impression (I know, can you believe it?). I'm writing this report a little late, but it's never too late to help out future cruisers who are interested in going on (at the time of writing) the BIGGEST cruise ship in the world!
PRE-CRUISE: Cruise Critic is an awesome website (no shameless plug needed) and getting to chat with fellow cruisers who are about to board the same vessel that you are in mere months only adds to the excitement. Everyone in your group is usually in a spectacular mood and the excitement helps the weeks fly by. Traveling on this cruise is my husband (35) and myself (26). This is our 5th cruise, and 3rd with Royal Caribbean. Our other two were Princess (we were the youngest ones on the boat) and Disney (beyond awesome, words can't even describe). However, Royal Caribbean fits our cruise style - and by this, I mean that it caters to all ages, has tons of activities, isn't as old as HAL or as nutty as the S.S. Booze N' Gamble (can you guess which line that is?). We chose this particular itinerary because of the ship rather than the ports. We had been on the Eastern Caribbean with Disney so we decided to go on the Western Caribbean with RCCL. I had heard great reviews about the Freedom and spent the months prior to our vacation recording and watching Samantha Brown's "Freedom of the Seas Cruise" from the Travel Channel (check your local listings, it's on quite a bit if you want to record it!) I also forgot to mention that for some strange reason this particular week of cruising was really cheap. I'm assuming it's because it was January. We booked it in May of 2008 so maybe we got an early-booking discount. The trick is to find when you are available and check each week that you might possibly want to go. For us, there was a $200 difference between one week and the next. I still couldn't believe the price we got. So check out the off-season, it's worth it and the weather is still warm!
GETTING TO FLORIDA: The supersweet folks I chatted with pre-cruise on the cruise boards had it easy when it came to flying to Florida (except for one lady who came from England, wow!). They only had to fly about two hours south. However, they had to battle the huge snowstorms in the north and east. We're from California. So we had sunny skies to leave behind, but it was a heck of a flight getting across the country on two planes. My husband and I left the day before just to be safe (and there was no physical way to get across the United States and onto a boat by 1pm). We flew out on Delta who had super low fares at the time. It was ½ the price to fly into Ft. Lauderdale instead of Miami. So we opted to choose that route and pay a separate van company to drive the 30 minutes south to the port. We ended up waking up at 4am, getting to the airport at 5am, taking off at 6:45am, landing in Atlanta at 2pm (Eastern), then eating and flying to Ft. Lauderdale and getting in at 5:30pm. Whew! We stayed at the Hilton Ft. Lauderdale Airport Hotel (not to be confused with the "regular" Hilton Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale) and it was EXCELLENT. I would highly recommend it. The hotel was beautiful, only one mile from the airport with free shuttle, had a gorgeous lobby with a bar and restaurant, the rooms were modern and big, and the bed was to die for! Beware though, there aren't any restaurants nearby and if you don't have a car you're stuck eating at their fancy restaurant in the lobby. It's called "Blu". It's trendy, but the food is fabulous and worth every penny. The servers are also very friendly. We woke up the next morning and after having breakfast and pricey Blu waited outside for our van to pick us up at 11am. We went through "SAS Transportation" which was highly recommended by some Cruise Critic folks. They will drive you from your location to the Port of Miami for $15 cash per person. Compared to the pricey cruise line busses and other private transportation, I thought this was great. The driver arrived at 11am on the dot with another nice family in the back seat and we were off to the Port! Now, coincidentally, they just happened to be putting up new freeway signs and decided to close the 95 South that day. Luckily the driver got around it and took us through the "scenic" (and by "scenic", I mean back alleyways that you wouldn't want to be caught in after dark) part of Miami. No worries though, we were still to the port in 35-40 minutes. However, on the ride home, there just happened to be the Miami Marathon in town and ALL of the busses and vans were backed up by an hour. It took our van driver almost 2 hours to come and get us. Normally I would be upset, but there was no way around it since they almost closed off the port to outside traffic. Otherwise, I would recommend SAS Transportation if you want an inexpensive ride down to the port from your hotel or from Ft. Lauderdale Airport.
EMBARKATION: I read somewhere that the Port of Miami is the largest cruise port in the world. The port is on a little island connected with a bridge, and is basically one long terminal serving a few cruise lines. The boats all line up bow to stern, and I think they can fit up to 7 ships all at once! The Freedom was on the far left, or back of the line. Royal Caribbean's terminal is very, very nice inside. One little tip: Get there early! We were at the terminal around 11:45'ish and it was PERFECT. We walked through security and up the escalators and the room was just started to hustle and bustle. You could see tons of ropes for the huge queue lines that would ensue later in the day, but we just breezed right through up to the front! They have about 30 windows open with staff to begin the paperwork boarding process. Each time a window opens up, they hold a paddle and a nice representative escorts you through. There's a lady with a huge straw hat with outrageous colors and feathers and flowers. She looked like she loved her job. Anyway, all you have to have in hand are three things: your passport, your SetSail pass, and the card you're putting your expenses on. That's it! If you have those three things, you won't be standing at that window longer than 5-10 minutes. They give you your handy dandy Sea Pass cards (the cards that you will need 24/7 to buy stuff and get on and off the ship) and you're ready to board. After leaving the check-in window, you head towards the back wall where there is a very short line to get a blue sticker on your SeaPass card. I'm assuming this is for checkpoint/security purposes. Then you're off to another hallway/stairwell/escalator to head up to the ship! Oh, by the way, it really is massive. I mean, I've been on some good sized ships so I wasn't blown away entirely but it truly is "beefier" than the normal-sized ships that are out there. You really don't get to see it in it's entirety unless you drove to the port from the opposite side of the island, or until a few days later when you finally get off the boat. As we finally made our way through the glass hallways up to the deck, photographers are waiting to take your cheesy photo next to the cheesy sign that has your itinerary printed on it. This is their first attempt to get you to buy stuff. And there are about 583 more attempts after this. But don't worry - it's all good because you're on vacation! And yes, I bought that photo. I think the staff are trained to ask "where are you from?!" because we got that a lot. We answered a basic answer for all of them, which was, "California! Same weather, but without the humidity!" All in all, the staff is very friendly. You enter in through the middle of the ship, I forgot where, but I'm assuming it's some sort of open hallway. Rumor is that the rooms don't open up until later in the afternoon, so make sure you're only carrying a small duffel or carryon bag (unless you have kids which I understand is tenfold more). I heard that everyone rushes to the Windjammer buffet to eat when they board. To avoid the crowds, hubby and I stumbled into the Promenade mall (that massive mall-like thing you keep seeing pictures of) and ate at Sorrentos Pizza. It was totally empty in there, yet totally filled with food! It's a great place to set down your bags and have a snack before the crowds appear.
FOOD: Now you've probably all heard a few stories about cruise food. You've probably heard one version, which is: "Man, this food is like cafeteria food. There are crowds. You have to wait in lines! It's a mad rush! My food was cold! It looked like it was frozen and had been heated up!" And then, there are the other stories of cruise food, consisting of, "Wow, it was 5 star all the way! I'd never eaten that quality of food in a long time! I had lobster and filet mignon! It was delicious! I had two entrees and two desserts! I gained 10 pounds! I went back for thirds!" Which one of these stories is correct? They both are. Honestly folks, you'll encounter both situations. First off, there are about four thousand people on this ship other than you. And each of these four thousand people say they're gonna eat healthy and only grab a snack or two when in reality there is something that happens to your body when you go on these types of vacations. Your stomach literally says to you, "Yeah I know you just ate, but look at that food...it's just sitting right there... going to waste." Royal Caribbean offers a pretty good variety. You could easily have salads and salmon and sugar free cookies and be totally healthy. Or, you could have Johnny Rocket's burgers, Mississippi Mud Pie, pasta, and Ben & Jerry's. The choice is yours. Just remember: you're on vacation, it's free, EAT IT! When are you EVER going to have prime rib and baked Alaska and filet mignon and stuffed shrimp and chocolate mousse and lamb and veal just sitting on your plate at home? Enjoy it while it's there! And if you must, do 4 laps around the deck on the walking track and you'll feel less guilty. I digress. Here is a breakdown of my personal opinion of how I felt the food was:
WINDJAMMER: Yes, the stories are true. Windjammer is usually always packed. There are tons of people trying to eat at the same hour you're trying to eat. Royal Caribbean has many stations, or islands, of food set up with the same thing. So it's not like you have to wait in one line. You can zigzag from the breads to the eggs to the fruits to the juices and be just fine. Finding a table is kinda like finding the Lost City of Atlantis. It's rare, but if you try your dardest it's possible. The trick is to send one member of your party to scout out a table and guard it with your life. It's like a parking lot - if you circle enough times, a space eventually opens. The farther away from the food area, the lesser crowded the tables and the more likely it is for one to open up. We ate there for breakfast for most of the days. The breakfast was pretty good. Not spectacular, but good enough to get a jump start on the day. They have a great variety of fruit, an omelet station, meats, breads and bagels, juices, biscuits and other hot items, French toast, pancakes, etc. Out of the other 4 cruises we've been on, the scrambled eggs have always been runny and powdery and fake. They're pretty gross, like you could scoop them out with an ice cream scoop. Not so on the Freedom! The Freedom's scrambled eggs actually resembled real scrambled eggs (even though I'm sure they're powder) and tasted almost as good as that of Denny's and the like. However, the pancakes and French toast pieces are a little dreary and small and are lesser quality than you would expect in a frozen Eggo box. However, they weren't bad, and I still ate them of course. We didn't go to Windjammer for lunch, so I can't really comment on that. We did go there one night for dinner. I think it was because we had eaten a late lunch or ran out of clothes to wear to the dining room (we severely underpacked). Dinner consists of a smaller version of what is in the main dining room, just without the bright lights and frantic waiters and murmuring of noises. If you want a dinner that is "away from it all", you can try out Windjammer for a night. They have a station for red meat, vegetables, potatoes, healthy selections, fish, fruit, and an assortment of desserts. It wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't bad. I felt just fine going back for seconds.
CHOPS GRILLE: Chops Grille was great. Very much worth the $25 fee. They swear that they have "the best steaks on the high seas", and my husband agreed. The restaurant is small and intimate. The dress code is fancy, meaning at least a simple dress for women and a collared shirt and khaki's for men. However, we saw many couples walk by us in jeans and shirts! We were so offended! So please, make the waitstaff happy and wear a collared shirt or tie please! Hubby and I both had filet mignon with a side of potatoes and mushrooms. The steak was excellent. The staff treats you wonderfully and even brings out a rolling cart of all the fresh meats they have with a complete speech presentation about how each one is cut and cooked. It's impressive.
PORTOFINO'S: Portofino's is Freedom's fancy Italian restaurant by reservation. It is also small and intimate with a 13-year-old and above age restriction. But did this stop people? Nope! People still came in with their babies and toddlers crying while mom and dad wore jeans and t-shirt! Come on people! The maitre d' was clearly upset and came by our table to apologize for the noise. We weren't upset, but it did make us feel better knowing he was aware of the age and dress restrictions. My husband had a pasta dish with squid (I nearly heaved when I saw them) and I had a pasta dish as well. Hubby swore his meal was amazing, but mine was just a few Lean Cuisine's tossed into a fancy white bowl. Next time, I'll order something different. The staff is friendly, but they try to get you to stay for 2 hours which is much too long for a 2-person dinner, view or not. I must add that both Portofino's and Chops are right outside the loud, busy Windjammer, which is a little odd. It is also one floor below the kids club so you might routinely hear stomping and running going from left to right above the ceiling. Nothing horrible, but worth a mention. Cruisers who are Diamond Club members (have sailed with RCCL 4 times or more) get to sit in these specialty restaurants for any meal instead of fighting the crowds at Windjammer. It sounds like a neat perk.
MAIN DINING ROOM: My husband and I opted for "My Time Dining" and LOVED IT. It is the most brilliant steal RCCL could've done (and yes I say "steal" because we all know NCL had it first). Though we like other folks, we just aren't the type to be sat down with 8 strangers and miraculously get along fabulously. We tried it once, and it wasn't too amazing. With My Time Dining, you can eat dinner anytime between 6pm-9:30pm. It is on the third level of the dining room. You meet at a little stand where the lady takes down your room number and will sit you down at a table. The table we had stayed the same or was in the same area throughout the entire cruise. You might get a different waiter each night, but since they place you in the same area, you're likely to see the same waiters for three or four or more nights. It is intimate, a table for two, with great ocean views. Here's the BEST part: When they take your room number down, it prints out a paper with both of your names (or all names in the party). That paper somehow secretly goes to your waiter. And by the time he or she comes up to your table, they greet you with, "Hello Miss Emily" or "Good Evening Michael!" without even looking down at the paper. They also get to know what you like. For instance, my husband had a pasta dish with shrimp. They somehow knew he loved the shrimp and just decided to bring by a plate of shrimp "just cause". They also see if you've finished a meal too fast (for instance, the ravioli, which you only get 6 of) and will automatically bring you a second plate. It's dizzying trying to remember all of your servers. You have the guy who gets your bread, the one who pours water, the main server, the lady who is in charge of the main server, the lady who seats you. It's insane, but they treat you like you're gold. At least they did for us, and I hope they do for you. The dining room is beautiful and since each night has a theme, you may find that there is specific music being played. On "Surf Night" they played the Beach Boys through the speakers which sounded horribly out of place for such an elegant dining room. They also do a fun Italian singalong for Venetian night as well as a parade on the last night I believe. I don't remember our servers names, except that our main waiter was "Bongay" (pronounced bohn-guy) who was simply incredible. He made us laugh, welcomed us with a huge smile, cut our meat for us, even opened up my baked potato. We truly felt like we were one in a million in the dining room every night. The waiters on the Freedom seem like they really like their jobs. They seem upbeat. I would guess that since Freedom is their flagship ship, that they put their best staff on it. We ate breakfast in the main dining room once. I had two issues with this: the first is that they try to keep you clustered, so they put us at a table with 10 other people all squished together. The second issue was the food. It was good, but the portions were really tiny. One man ordered French toast, and that's all he got - literally—was 4 pieces of toast. The combo I got consisted of a tiny ball of eggs, two bacon pieces, and a pancake or two. If you like tiny, intimate breakfasts, this may be for you. But if you like hearty breakfasts at your own pace, I would actually suggest Windjammer.
JOHNNY ROCKETS: We ate at Johnny Rocket's a few days into our trip while in port. They upped the price a dollar to $4.95. Since were were Crown & Anchor members, we got one free meal per booklet. The burger was alright, the onion rings good, and the fries good as well. The shakes are very, very good! But - watch out. There's a catch. Nowhere on the menu (or at least I saw) was there a price for anything. But apparently the shakes are $4-$5 each. When we checked our stateroom account and saw a $15.45 Johnny Rockets fee, I thought it was a mistake. We called the operator and she said "Did you order shakes? That's why." I was miffed because had I known I wouldn't have ordered a shake, even though everyone said they were great and to try it. The food was "just alright" and we ended up not going back to use the second coupon. However, the servers do a little dance for you which is cute if you have a camera or camcorder nearby. The service was excellent as well. Though, the song they danced to wasn't quite from the 50's........
SORRENTO'S PIZZERIA: Sorrento's was very nice. The cozy feel of the booths with all of the fun stuff on the walls and the jukebox made it very comfortable to spend awhile talking and munching. They usually have a selection of pizzas, paninis, salads, and a few quirky sides. Their desserts are little blended frothy things in cups, like Key Lime and Tiramasu. They're a little odd tasting, but still nice. The service, again, was great in here. They walk up to you and have a real conversation, ask you to remember their names, and tell you to come back often.
CAFÉ PROMENADE: This was a gem that I wished I had visited earlier in the cruise. It serves little mini-sandwiches, coffee, tea, fancy drinks, and desserts. Right after I had eaten a so-so meal at Sorrento's, I walked by Cafe Promenade only to find that they had little tuna rolls which sounded so much better! I thought you had to pay to eat there, since I saw the prices up on the wall, but ended up learning that those prices are for the specialty coffees. All of the sandwiches and snacks behind the glass are free. The atmosphere inside is also quite nice. You can relax on a comfy sofa or chair and relax.
BEN & JERRY'S ICE CREAM: This was the typical setup of other Ben & Jerry's on RCCL ships except, this one was bigger, brighter, and had the infamous cows perched on the roof. The ice cream was good, but I always cringe at paying $4 bucks for ice cream when you could get a whole gallon or so at home for that price. Call me cheap. But we did go once, just because.
OVERALL SERVICE: I'd really like to take a moment to thank Royal Caribbean for putting their best people on Freedom. I'm sure every week is different and everyone has a different opinion, but frankly on this particular week, the service was spectacular. Everyone seemed to like their jobs, everyone was friendly, and everyone seemed to care about you without the fake glaze on their face. Like I mentioned before, I think they take their best staff from prior ships and advance them to the Freedom. If you're nice to them, you'll be treated wonderfully in return.
ACTIVITIES / SHOWS: If you're sailing on the Freedom, you can expect activities out the wazoo. The staff has done a good job of adding so many activities that you actually feel bad that you can't make it to them all. The only age group I worried about was the teens. They had their own clubs and dance parties but I wasn't sure what else they could do during the day. Lay out by the pool I suppose? Play sports? I had heard a rumor that the "Once Upon A Time" broadway show aboard was really good. My husband had eaten too much at Chops Grille that night and was sick (typical guy) so I went alone. I knew I couldn't miss it. Let me just say that it was AWESOME. It is a mixture of storytelling of classic fairy tales along with rock music (think...Shrek). If you are a fan of pop culture music from the 70's, 80's and now, you must see this show. I realized halfway through that my jaw was literally open. I was stunned by the dancing, sets, routines, special effects. It wows you every 5 minutes. The show is about 45 minutes and flies by. The second show they had was "Marquee" which highlighted a bunch of real broadway shows. Since I hadn't heard of a few of them, I passed on this show. Another thing RCCL did spectacularly was hire the best talent they could find. On all the other cruises we've been on, the comedians and magicians and special acts were horribly cheesy. Not so on this ship. The first comedian, Carl Strong was Hilarious. And let me tell you, it takes a lot to get me to laugh out loud. I was actually wiping tears I was laughing so hard. His set is all about the cruise line world and cruise line types of people. This basically means he makes fun of everyone and everything on the boat. People were in hysterics, I'm serious. The second comedian came on the last night. I didn't get to catch him, but watched his performance on the stateroom TV later that night. He was also hilarious. I actually woke up out of a sleep and sat up in bed just to watch his act. He had some very funny bits about the life of cruising as well. Please try to see the comedians if you get a chance. You have nothing to lose. This, of course, brings us to the man who makes all of this possible: the cruise director, Richard Spacey. Folks, if you go on this cruise for one reason and one reason only, it is to see Richard Spacey. I would pay double just to go back on the boat to see him alone. His is, by far, the most over-talented, impressive, witty, amazing, good-looking, superb Cruise Director ever created. If you don't like him, there is seriously something wrong with you. He is phenomenal and gives 110% every day, all day, from morning to midnight. I wanted to go to activities just to see Richard. If you get him on your cruise, you are in for a treat. This man needs a sitcom. There is also the Love & Marriage Game Show. Richard will tell you to come to this show if it's the only show you pick out of the whole week. He was right. We went, and the show was hilarious. Richard uses his improve talent to really get the audience cracking up and the contestants to give hilarious answers. It's worth it to join in on the fun, and is a great way to end the cruise week. The ice show was also extremely impressive. The rink is half the size of a normal ice rink, maybe even smaller, and the tricks that they did were truly amazing. I only counted two falls during the whole hour-long show. Plus, there was a bonus act of a guy in a large wheel doing tricks. It may sound nuts, but it was a "wow" moment. Please take the time to grab the free tickets and check out the ice show. It's worth it! I never got a chance to go on Flowrider, as much as I promised myself I would. I did stand in the bleachers with the crowd and watch everyone else wipe out. If there wasn't a huge long line, I would've done it. I saw many people nearly get their shorts pulled down. It looks like a blast, and it's fun to watch! Also, we never got around to minigolf or the rock wall either. There's just too much to do on this ship! There were also other smaller things to see on the ship, like ice carving and some very, very impressive bartender bottle tricks (think of the movie Cocktail, times ten). Then of course there's cooking demonstrations and towel folding and scrapbooking and digital camera seminars. Oh, also, the Belly Flop Contest is worth a gander if you're up on deck. Quite funny. Also, I was so happy to hear that Freedom had lots and lots of live bands. Some lines try to cut costs by having DJ's, but it was so refreshing to see a Caribbean band up by the pool playing great vacation music, a live Latin band playing in the Latin clubs, pianists in the bars, a folk singer in the British pub, etc etc. Thank you Royal Caribbean for giving us real entertainment!
PORTS & SHORE EXCURSIONS: Our first stop was Labadee, Haiti. Take a tip from me: before you leave for your cruise vacation, DO NOT tell your coworkers or family that you are going to Haiti. You will be bombarded with concerned people telling you that Haiti is an awful country and that you will be mauled while you're there. Here's the truth: Yes, Labadee is on Haiti. But it's simply a peninsula leased by Royal Caribbean with armed guards (no joke) to keep the crazy folks out. It is a fabricated island with white sandy beaches and perfectly placed palm trees with lots of hammocks. In short, it's beautiful. There is a Haitian Village with certain vendors that are allowed in. If you go near them, you will get heckled. You will get talked to in a very annoying way. If you don't like this, I'd advise you to stay away or ask someone else in your party to go craft shopping for you. I tried the "look down and wear sunglasses and say no" trick, but it didn't work. They're very pushy. And if you dare touch something, they'll do everything in their power to sell it to you. They all wear pink shirts which lets you know they're trusted vendors. There are tons of wooden trinkets, necklaces, bowls, masks, etc. There are little buildings you can also go in. The building farthest away from the crazy vendors seemed the quietest and safest. There, we could browse and ended up getting a cute little painted pineapple wooden candleholder thingy without being bothered at all. We did the Dragon's Flight Line (zip line) excursion and it was awesome!!! We chose this as our only excursion because (1) excursions are horrifically expensive, and (2) it was something you "couldn't do anywhere else" since it was the longest zip line over water in the world (2,600 feet my friends). You actually wear a very thin nylon harness, do a test drop, then take a very awesome safari Land Rover (think Indiana Jones Ride) up to the top where you go down the huge drop. It's worth every penny, even if it's only a minute of you flying through the air. I highly recommend it for adventure seekers and adults who want to do something different and fun. It's slow, it's easy, it's safe, and you wont regret it. The next stop was Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I had heard horror stories from people on Cruise Critic about how they were harassed and offered drugs and prostitutes on this port. I even heard people say "Jamaica should be wiped off the itinerary completely!" Here's what we experienced: We got off the boat and used our map to guide us to a few tiny shopping centers west of the dock. There were a few people that asked us for cab rides, but we politely declined. There's a Taj Mahal shopping center that has lots of neat stores. I got a Jamaican Bobsled Team shirt and a nice wooden bowl for our Caribbean-themed bathroom at home. There's also an island village shopping center tucked away in the trees that is worth a gander. The foliage is beautiful, the people are friendly, and there's a very pretty Margaritaville that has a great view behind it. So, if you stick to the touristy areas, it was a pretty nice town. Let me also say this: the Jamaican folk don't heckle or attack you. Usually it's nice women who work in the stores. They are quiet and sweet. Their whole tactic is "If you like it, I'll give you 10% off. Okay fine, 25%. Okay how about $10 flat?" Whenever they see you touch something, they usually say, "You like that? I can give you a better price." Which they usually do. I saw lots of designer purses for astonishing prices. My mom swears they were fake, but I could've sworn I saw the actual logos printed on the insides. Who knows? They looked great. Grand Cayman was next. I was excited about Grand Cayman because people said it was the "safest of all the Caribbean ports". You have to tender in on big tender boats. Do not try to get on a tender first thing in the morning. You will be stuck in a crowded, stuffy, claustrophobic hallway on Deck 2. I don't mind tendering, but I wish there was a way to move the crowds better. But getting thousands of people off a ship is a lot of work and I understand why it takes awhile. Instead, hubby and I would eat a casual breakfast, go up top to scope out the island and the tender process, and then make our way down around 11am or so. For some ports the tenders leave both in the front AND the back of the ship. So if one line looks long (usually the aft) try the forward gangway. Cayman was nice, but a little city-like and cramped. We simply walked around town and saw another Margaritaville. We ate at an oceanfront cafe called "Breezes By The Bay". Warning: it is ridiculously overpriced!!! I think our lunch was $50. I was so upset, but oh well, it's vacation food and I didn't want to search for another place out on the streets. Great view, though. The last stop is Cozumel, Mexico. Be forewarned, I'm a little biased when it comes to Mexico. Our first cruise was a Mexican Riviera cruise and we hated the ports, then we went a second time on a Baja cruise and it included Ensenada and we still didn't like it. We thought the third time would be a charm because Cozumel is on the eastern side of Mexico where it is more of a "tropical feel" than a "downtown Los Angeles" feel. This turned out to be partially true. While the water was a bit more aqua, Cozumel was still a busy "city" stop with very aggressive angry merchants and a feeling of uneasiness. The really cool excursions to the Mayan Ruins were 2 or 3 hours away and the beaches were a hefty cab fare to the east. The map RCCL gives you is completely backwards because there are a few docks. A (thankfully) nice cab driver saw a bunch of us wandering mindlessly into nowhere and offered to take us into town. "Town", by the way, is a 4-mile drive west, and only walkable if you're in good shape. It consisted of a busy boulevard with shops on the northern side. We got completely hounded by every single merchant. When we got to the end of "town", we crossed over to the ocean side which was much smarter since they couldn't yell at us from across the street. We figured we'd come this far, so we stopped at (yet another) Margaritaville. This particular Margaritaville went right out to the beach and you could literally leave your table and jump in the water if you wanted to. The aqua waters were beautiful against the colors of the restaurant. The waitstaff is friendly and a tad raunchy. They do that whole tequila shot head shaking thing that I think is silly, but if you're the partying type, it's for you. We simply had a quesadilla appetizer and a foo-foo blended drink. It was nice, and then we said adios to Mexico for the last time. I forgot to mention the weather: In Haiti, it was cloudy and then ended up pouring rain for about 20 minutes, then stopped. Jamaica and Grand Cayman had patchy clouds and sun, and Mexico was sunny. It was normally 75 degrees. This was all in the middle of January. So pack clothes for sun and maybe a sweatshirt at most.
STATEROOM: We love the balcony staterooms. They're simply awesome and worth the extra money. Our room on this particular cruise was a very basic balcony room on Deck 7. The room number was 7654 which took my husband half the cruise to remember despite my repeatedly saying "It's 7, 6, 5, 4...like counting down. Remember?" Deck 7 was great because it was two floors up from the promenade mall and restaurants, and four floors down from the Windjammer Cafe that we took the stairs up to as a mini-workout for what we were about to eat. The flatscreen TV's in the stateroom are awesome. Not only do they save space, but they swivel and are a pretty good size. Not the typical 13" tube that most ships have. I really, really liked the layout of the room where you walk into the couch and glass table first, then to the bed which is near the sliding glass door. On previous ships, you'd always gash your shin into the glass table as you were walking out to your balcony. I also must mention the beds. People swore up and down that the beds were heavenly. My husband loved the bed, but the egg-carton foam thing was a little too pointy under the thin sheets. However, I must say that the bed linens were to die for. They were the perfect blend of not too heavy and not too light. I loved them. Our stateroom hostess was nice, but unfortunately she forgot to leave a couple key pieces of paperwork for us on most nights. For example, I totally missed the Royal Caribbean Meet & Mingle gathering because I didn't get the card until our second day at sea, when the meeting was on the first day. She also forgot to give us our invitation to Portofino for dinner, and we had to call the front desk to double-check our reservations. However, our room hostess did a nice job of cleaning up and making us towel animals every night. She also chatted with us on the balcony on the day we departed. Overall, it wasn't something to worry about. P.S. The hairdryer is in the top right drawer of the writing desk. I looked all over the bathroom and in every drawer and swore I couldn't find it (who would think to look in a desk drawer?!) I called her to say I looked everywhere, and as soon as I hung up the phone, she knocked on the door in seconds; opened it, found the hairdryer, and made me look like a complete goof. So ladies, no need to pack your own. This mini-dryer does just fine. Also, we were lucky we didn't have loud neighbors or smokers on either side of the balcony. The bathrooms were nicer than on prior RCCL ships. However, instead of a standing tub with a shower curtain, they now have..... THE TUBE. Yes, it is a vertical Star Trek type of cylinder that you stand in to take a shower. If you're claustrophobic or 300+ pounds, it might be a little interesting. It's a great space saver and doesn't leak water, but it makes for some funny jokes coming from the ship's comedians.
DISEMBARKATION: I couldn't have asked for a smoother disembarkation. Folks, if you can, try to get a flight home at 2:30pm or after. I know you might have to wait a little while at the airport, but you are in the heavenly disembarkation zone as far as the ship goes. If you have a super early flight (say, noon) you can choose to be the first off the ship. However, you must carry all your bags and high-tail it off by 6am or so. So if you're an early bird, this is for you. For everyone else flying out before 2pm, you are to leave your stateroom by 8am, eat breakfast in Windjammer and wait in the lounges until your color is called. The trick is having a later flight. Ours was at 3:11pm. If you have a later flight, you can leisurely get out of your stateroom by 8:30am, have a leisurely breakfast, and then meander around the ship until you feel like getting off at your leisure. What we did was walk around up on the top deck and stare down into the glass hallways to watch how many people were exiting the ship. When it looked like the crowds slowed down, we grabbed our stuff and got of the ship. This worked perfectly because all of the earlybirds had already exited and there was NO line at customs. We just showed them our passport, turned in our customs form, and ta-da! We were off in 5 minutes! Also, if you are flying a few hours home, please take advantage of the program they have where they take your luggage and print out your boarding passes. I know it sounds steep at $20 a person, but it is worth it! If you pay this fee, Royal Caribbean will take your luggage at midnight and tag it all the way to your hometown. That means you don't have to search for it in Miami, drag it on a bus, or even carry it through the airport. It magically arrives in your hometown destination. They also print out your entire set of boarding passes so all you have to do is go to the airport and head straight upstairs to your gate. It's pretty sweet.
IN SUMMARY: Okay, I'm on page 10 of this report here at home. I hope this helps some of you who might have questions about your upcoming cruise, or for those out there who obsess over the details (like me). Thinking back, my husband and I agreed that Freedom was " a little bigger than we had liked" and way more crowded. The crowds are dispersed throughout the ship of course, but I think we might stick to the normal-sized ships for future cruises (that's not to say I wouldn't love to go on Oasis). With these mega-ships, it's starting to take away from the ship/sea/away from work feeling and is making you feel like you're right back home in a club or shopping mall with all the citylike features. Overall though, we will remember the service as being excellent, the entertainment being phenomenal, the promenade and elevators as being crowded, the photos being overpriced, the food being awesome, and the trip being memorable.
Thanks for reading, and happy cruising!
If you have any further questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my Freedom of the Seas photo album at: http://travel.webshots.com/album/563599715yPaRAs