My husband and I recently returned from our 8 day/ 7 night voyage aboard Freedom of the Seas to the Eastern Caribbean (ports of call: San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Martens) and had a fantastic time. We previously cruised with Princess Cruises to Alaska aboard the Dawn Princess a few years ago. We enjoyed both cruises immensely. However, we will probably cruise with Royal Caribbean more in the future because of all the activities (like rock climbing and surfing) that are offered on the ship. The food was much better on Princess Cruises, but I understand that with the economic downturn all the cruise lines are scaling back the sumptuousness of their menus a bit so maybe things have changed with Princess as well.
Embarkation on FOTS was MUCH MUCH MUCH easier than any other cruise experience I have had. I cruised with my parents a few times as a kid and I have memories of standing around in a warehouse for hours waiting to get on the ship. The Alaska embarkation was similar waiting in a warehouse for a LONG time to get on board. With RC, we were through security and on the ship in a matter of minutes. Tip: Don't try to be cute and smuggle booze on in your carry-on luggage. This will slow you down. Some people have perfected ways of getting flasks of alcohol on board in their checked luggage (I guess the key is to put it in innocent looking containers and check it instead of carrying it on). The people in front of us, however, had cans of Budweiser right on top of their carry-ons and were pulled out of line so the staff could deal with them. What a waste of time!
I have to tip my hat to the folks at the Downtown Marriott in Miami, where we stayed before boarding the ship. According to our instructions from Royal Caribbean, we weren't supposed to try to get on the ship until 2:00 pm. We were going to wait in the hotel lobby until then, but the hotel's staff told us at 11:30 that we could grab a shuttle and get on the ship in the morning. We took a chance that they knew what they were doing and took their shuttle to the ship. They were right and we got to spend a couple of extra hours exploring the ship (and the soft-serve ice cream dispenser) instead of watching CNN in the Marriott's lobby! Yay! Also, another gold star for the Marriott folks, they recommended a restaurant to us called the Knife. It's an Argentine-style restaurant with fantastic grilled meats. All you can eat salad and meat is included in the price (about $26 per person) as well as a dessert and a bottle of wine PER PERSON. Talk about a great deal!
The dinners on the cruise were a major disappointment a few evenings. It wasn't awful, but I would liken it to something you would get at an awards dinner held at a nice hotel. It won't amaze you, but it won't feature any truffled sauces or port compotes, but it will be adequate. The nice thing is that the portions are a bit smaller in size so if you can't decide between two appetizer options, you can order them both and it won't stuff you too full of food. I was unimpressed by all the chilled fruit soups everyone had raved about. Sorrento's (FOTS' pizza place) was a wonderful place to grab a quick lunch away from the crush of the Windjammer. However, while the Dawn Princess offered freshly wood-fired pizza, Sorrento's does the baked pizzas most people are familiar with from various cafeterias or mall food courts. Still, the service there was exceptionally friendly and we had our "own" waitress who remembered our names and what we liked to eat. Sorrento's does not have iced tea or coffee, which was inconvenient because you'd have to bring your own from another part of the ship or the waitress would go get it. It does have good desserts. I liked the amaretti cookies and macaroons, my husband liked the tiramisu.
The cafe promenade was another favorite of ours. I would stop by early in the morning on the way to the gym to pick up a cup of coffee. After my workout, I'd stop by for more coffee and bring some back to the room for my husband. After the first day, the workers would greet me and ask if I was heading off for a run. When I'd come back from my workout, they'd ask if I had a good run and wish me a good day. I missed one day because of a foot injury and they asked me if I was okay because I'd missed my workout! Keep in mind, these are not the waiters who are assigned to me at dinner, these are the guys at the busy cafe who are doling out pastries (I loved the apricot granola squares) and coffees around the clock! I was very impressed that on one of the world's largest passenger ships so many people were familiar with my habits and went out of the way to make me feel at home.
I wish the same could be said for Windjammer itself. Some mornings, we would get great service and people would come by to ask if we'd like coffee or juice. Other mornings, we probably couldn't get arrested if we tried. We'd see tables around us receiving service, but finally I'd have to get up and get our own beverages to go with breakfast. This isn't a huge issue, but cruising in the past was marked by impeccable service. The food overall in the Windjammer was above average for buffets. I usually am not a buffet fan, but this was good. The desserts they offered were always excellent. A note about sushi: I did not see a lick of sushi at the Jade. There are Asian options (seaweed, tofu, miso broth etc and there ARE California-type rolls, but who knows what's in those. The type of sushi I like (fresh fish with rice) was not there.
The prices for drinks were surprisingly reasonable. The drink of the day was always over-priced (it includes a souvenir glass). But glasses of wine ran about $6.50 or $7.00 about what you would pay in a low-end chain restaurant. We had a few mixed drinks as well and expected to be charged an arm and a leg but these were also comparable to what a regular bar or restaurant would charge.
The service in the main dining room was fine (we were seated at a large table and our waiter had to handle several other large tables. I would recommend sitting at a smaller table. Often, he would be serving dinner to the large table next to us before he'd even taken our order. When you have late seating for dinner, that is torture! The assistant waiter remembered which people at the table liked to have iced tea with dinner, so it was not necessary to order it after the first day. All in all, it was fine but not outstanding. The cuts of meat tended to be fattier than I'm used to and one night my husband's prime rib was over cooked. There are two restaurants on board that I understand are very nice if you pay the $20 or $25 per person cover charge. Our dining companions (all very experienced cruisers) recommended Chops Grille but all dismissed the Portofino restaurant. Next time, maybe my husband and I will give Chops a try. It galls me just a little to have to pay extra for gourmet dining when it was all included on Princess cruises. One last gripe about the food: the menus seemed very disjointed. Every evening a low-calorie menu (part of RC's Vitality program) would be offered. I ordered this one night and was hungry when I left the table. Also, Indian dishes are offered every night. However, sometimes the appetizers don't seem to complement the dishes that are being offered. It's just a bunch of random food choices instead of a pairing of dishes.
As I mentioned in my introduction, the shows and the activities more than made up for what the food lacked. On Princess, my husband and I literally cringed at the cheesiness of the shows (it was like amateur Lawrence Welk). The shows and entertainment on FotS is not to be missed. We were amazed at the sets, special effects, dancing and choreography. It was excellent. For this reason, we will probably continue to cruise primarily with RC. I probably don't need to eat all that gourmet food anyway! The staff who worked on the FlowRider and the Rock Climbing wall were very nice, camp-counselor types. Very sporty and positive. I'm not much of an athlete, but I felt very comfortable trying out the activities. My husband did the ice skating but I called it quits after one go-round. With my limited skills, it was too crowded and there were too many expert kids zipping in and out in front of people for me to feel comfortable. It's nice to have the option to ice skate, but it would be better if there were adult only times for skating.
I was a little disappointed that so much of the Vitality program (fresh juices, protein shakes, yoga classes, etc.) cost extra on RC. It is still possible to be healthy and active without these extras, but the Vitality program as advertised on the RC website made it seem like yoga and juices were included. That's not the case. The gym was great: large, clean, and all equipment worked (this is a newer ship). I would get there around 7 am and there would be plenty of treadmills, bikes, etc. open. One of my dining companions would get there around 10 or 11 am and everything would be full. If workouts are important to you, I recommend FOTS gym, but get their early or work out at night.