We recently sailind on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas doing a Western Caribbean itinerary. On board with my wife Lisa, daughters Sydney and Whitney and friends Theo and Brandi, we had quite a week of it aboard this beautiful ship with a group from The Villages here in Florirda, the Virginia Trace Cruisers. Come along with us as we explore Freedom of the Seas, on our first sailing of the ship since an inaugural sailing several years ago.
Embarkation and the first day
Embarkation was a breeze. Royal Caribbean's system of getting guests on the ship is quick and efficient. We arrived at the port about 10:15 and were on the ship by 11am. Staterooms were strictly not ready until 1PM so we were invited to tour the ship and have lunch which was being served in a number of venues
We chose the Promenade Cafe, a favorite of ours on all the ships that have them, for a light lunch and Sorrentos Pizza for a little more light lunch before ending up in our cabin enjoying a delicious slice of Bon Voyage cake to end up or light lunch. OK so maybe not so light on the lunch but we had vowed to follow the advice of our dietician and stay away from the buffet. I kind of regret that part because as a guest in a suite, we could have taken our buffet selections to a reserved area and not had to look for someplace to sit in the Windjammer Cafe buffet area, something that can be difficult to do at peak times.
Being a guest in a suite offers other advantages as well though. The list is impressive.
Prior to boarding, we received an email from Amit Chattopadhyay, the ship's concierge dedicated to suite guests. He explained the many benefits along with other information that would prove useful. Upon entering our suite we had a nice follow-up letter from him along with his card offering to be of assistance when needed. One of the best and so far most-used benefits was a special number to dial for priority room service. Regardless of when called, our room service order was delivered in a quick manner as though they made it in the hallway outside of our stateroom. Very impressive and a sharp contrast to our experience aboard Ruby Princess last month where I regularly considered calling back to be sure they had not lost our order. In all fairness, that's not normal for Princess but the contrast was easy to make with the experience so close in memory.
Something odd: "regular" staterooms, like non-suite staterooms don't get pillow mints at turnout. Suite guests get Ghiradelli chocolates on a little plate with a card that says "Sweet Dreams". I felt special.
I felt even more special when our breakfast order was delivered the next morning.
Room Service didn't just drop it off but reviewed the order then served it as though we were in the dining room. Suite guests are allowed to order off the full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu that might be found in the dining rooms. It surprised me that we also were served as though we were in the dining room.
Dinner service the first night in the dining room was good but perhaps a bit slow. Not a problem for others in our group who were having great conversation for the most part. One issue that was of concern though centered around the one performance of the ship's main show of the evening which was at 7:30. With our early dinner seating I really did not even think of going and those who wanted to see it were a bit rushed to get there on time. Reports back from the performance though were good and the Welcome Aboard Show starring comedian Al Katz was well received.
After a long day we turned in early but not before taking a lovely mineral bath in the suite's generously sized bathroom. I think I could get used to this!
A day at Sea
With Embarkation day, always a long day, behind us we enjoyed a leisurely day at sea on the way to our first port of call, Labadee, Haiti.
The topic of Labadee came up in a number of places and from time to time throughout the day. There were mixed emotions from others we talked to on the ship but the generally fell into three categories.
There was the "I'm glad we're going" group who supported Royal Caribbean's decision to visit Labadee in the wake of the recent earthquake. I'm part of that group and seem to find it easier all the time to be supportive. I talked to one Haitian crew member who I wish I could have stuck in my pocket to bring forth when this topic came up. I just simply asked "Tell me, is it good that we are going to Haiti on this ship?" His response was overwhelming to me as he replied "We have to go, the people who work there depend on it" with steadfast authority.
The second category of thought on the subject was the "I'm not really sure about this. I don't know if this is a good idea or not. I liked talking to those people especially. If they had their heads screwed on straight they ended up agreeing with the first bunch once they were made aware of the facts. These people might have begun the day hesitant but ended it planning what they might do on Labadee. The zipline was a favorite table topic at dinner tonight.
The final category was those who might or might not have been in support of the visit but realized we were actually headed there, would be there tomorrow and there was not a lot they could do about it.
All were impressed with the efforts of the cruise line to support and many commented about the loading of supplies bound for Haiti before we left Port Canaveral. We ended up sailing away a bit late because of it which was understood and accepted by all. Before tonight's performance in the Arcadia theater, the ship continued their efforts, raffling off a personal tour of the ship by the Captain with the proceeds going to the relief effort, More on Labadee tomorrow.
Today we had some time to wander the ship we had last sailed on an inaugural voyage about four years ago. The ship has worn well. Freedom of the Seas may not have that "new ship" smell it did back then but looks remarkably the same. No longer the biggest ship at sea as she once was, with massive new Oasis of the Seas winning that title, Freedom is still a stunning beauty of a ship.
This day at sea was good for looking around but we spent a great deal of it in the ample accommodations of our suite. I don't want to go on and on about this but as one of our guests at a pre-dinner cocktail party said "Everyone needs to do a suite at least once". I have to agree. The special attention to detail afforded by this level of accommodations is remarkable. We really have not wanted to leave our stateroom, it's just that nice.
What a sharp contrast to what we may experience in Labadee tomorrow, where we will be so close to such a tragic situation. I suspect that after our call there those three groups may adopt a more uniform opinion of the decision to keep visiting. At dinner tonight, knowing we were headed to an area that needs help from someplace very badly in both the short and long-term did not slow anyone down from enjoying a gourmet meal.
The dining room food and service have been superb so far. Menu selections made it difficult to choose, prompting many to order multiple selections from the various menu categories. Looking around the dining room and talking to others we knew on board, pre-cruise concerns about the quality of dining operations were put to rest. The dining room food alone outpaced many other recent cruise experiences. As cruise line food in general goes, this one has hit the mark so far, passing the test for picky eaters. Has it been over-the-top remarkably great? No, neither the food or service has hit that mark but it's still early in the voyage, we'll have more on this important element of the cruise experience later, when all the votes are in.
A day in Haiti
Haiti is pronounced "Hay-I-Tee" by those who actually live there I found out when I visited Labadee today. Royal Caribbean's private destination has been described as "about 100 miles North of the earthquake area" by many, including me, who talk about the powerful earthquake that hit a couple weeks ago. We were all wrong. The earthquake might just as well have hit right down the center of the pleasure island Royal Caribbean calls at bi-weekly.
"Please go back to the ship and tell everyone to come ashore, we need them"
Behind an honest and sincere attempt to make guests coming off Freedom of the Seas have a great day on their vacation, reality simply and purely overcame the moment. The effect of the earthquake is just as real here as at the center of destruction. Haitians I talked to today were of a proud, hard-working breed reminiscent to me of Jamaicans right after a slow-moving hurricane pretty much leveled the island. I remember writing at the time that they seemed so proud yet so desperate.
Here they are proud but beaten down by a reality so stark, so clearly overpowering that a fight is not even an option. Their world has been turned upside down. They are desperately looking for something to hold on to.
"We don't have a president. President Bill Clinton was a president. We don't have a president""
We pulled into Labadee about 8 am, had breakfast then off to the island to see what was going on. We were not sure if we would simply get off, walk around or stay for a while then go back to the ship for most of the day.
Once on the island we were totally impressed with the quality of the operation and how very nice it was. I hate to compare but this one is way better than the other private cruise line islands like Princess' Cays or Royal Caribbeans other private destination, Coco Cay in the Bahamas.
As suite guests we were admitted to Barefoot Beach, free for Suite guests but bought an oceanside covered cabana for $200 which made it a simply wonderful experience, with Haitian native "Franclin" as our cabana attendant. I asked Franclin about the earthquake and how things were going. His reply to me was a bit unexpected when he said
"Everyone knows many people who are dead or missing. I know 27 dead and 45 missing. That's usually the way it is with every man here"
But what he said next set the mood for a day to be remembered.
"Thank God for Royal Caribbean. We would have nothing without them" and in a dismissive way I would find typical "Not to worry, we will be good, we will be happy, we will have joy"
After several hours at that beach, without another word spoken about the earthquake, we waived good bye to Franclin saying back to him what he said to us all day "Happy Happy Joy Joy", a trademark for the demeanor of most everyone we saw there. Always a friendly wave, always courteous and helpful but not pushy or beggy.
Yeah, I said "beggy"
They don't want anything to do with the whole notion of them being so down and out and helpless.
They don't buy it. They don't sell it. They don't want it.
Talking to a trio of merchants in the expansive and collector-quality impressive marketplace in Labadee, I learned more about what is really going on there than having cable news on 24/7 for a week after the quake. Not about the quake or number of dead or injured but about the real, pressing, in-your-face issue that can't be denied, renders blame irrelevant, and demands change.
They're down, they're out, and they're begging for a chance. An honest chance. They're willing to work, willing to do what's right and just waiting for someone to take the bull by the horns and lead the way.
"We hope President Bill Clinton will fix this, make this right, get us (a) chance"
Sitting here now on the balcony of our stateroom, looking back over to where we were for the day the resounding message I an charged to share with you is clear.
Get off the ship and have a good time.
Then when the cruise is over, consider others just a little bit more. We are fortunate to have the capability to read what you see before your eyes, even more fortunate to be able to agree or disagree with it and way more fortunate than we know to have the ability to impact the lives of others in a positive way.
Our day in Ocho Rios, Jamaica
After visiting Haiti yesterday with a visit to Royal Caribbean's private destination in Labadee, our next stop was Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Traveling with a group of guests on Freedom of the Seas, we thought it would be a good idea to take a tour of the island with our friend, Lincoln Stewart, who has a different approach to showing others the area in Jamaica he has called home for almost 60 years.
On most islands I always recommend a shore excursion booked through the cruise line. Those are safe and one of the big points in favor of them is that the ship will wait for you if the tour runs late. I was really not all that concerned about being back on time, having used Lincoln for about 10 years for these tours.
We started doing tours with Lincoln the first time we visited Ocho Rios, a practice we had made our standard method of exploring an island we had not visited before. Local drivers know the area better than anyone. They know when and where to visit certain stops along the way, which popular tourist attractions are worth the trip, and normally have keen insight on the places visited that can make for a rich experience we can't find on a huge tour bus from the cruise line.
Lincoln, though, takes the tour in a different direction. Typical of so many in Jamaica, Lincoln is very proud of the history and heritage of the island and is happy to share that information that we might not get elsewhere. Viewed through his eyes, areas of apparent poverty, shortfalls and triumphs of the Jamaican government, the warm people of Jamaica and more seem much more real. Rather than a running commentary he mixes in singing Jamaican songs, points out the different places he has lived and answers any and all questions his new "family" members on board might have.
In Lincoln's words that I have heard him speak for years "Once you visit Jamaica, you are family" and he means it. Over the years, when we visited again, he would always ask about anyone we brought along before. He wants to keep tabs on his "family" of guests who have chosen to ride with him.
This is surely not a tour for everyone. With no set itinerary, no automatic stops at tourist hot-spots, Lincoln takes his riders where they want to go, throwing in other features along the way to give us a really good feel for the island. If you're looking for the standard tour bus with someone reading scripted highlights, this is not for you. But if you "get it" and want to see deep within the soul of an island, a tour of this kind is just what you need.
After visiting Labadee the day before, I was in the mood and the sharp contrast between our experience in Jamaica and our experience in Haiti was subtle but powerfully similar. Both islands are not wealthy, not up and coming or on track with a plan to improve the lifestyle of those who live there. But both share a love of life and eagerness to tell others about their home if they will take a few moments to listen.
Contrast both islands to life in the United States and one might easily jump to the wrong conclusion. It would be easy to view the islands from afar and think "Oh these poor people, they have so little". That would be a big mistake. Yes, they don't have the infrastructure we enjoy in our modern America, but they have a frank love of life that is undeniable and stronger than many in lands much more developed. I'm glad we took the time to share that experience with others in our group. I hope they can take this rich experience home with them to share with others. The tour was a couple hours long and to those who "got it" their day in Ocho Rios will mean more than just another stop along the way.
A day in Grand Cayman
Continuing on our sailing of Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, today's stop was Grand Cayman, an island we have visited several times. Instead of going ashore, we stayed on the ship to take advantage of some unique opportunities that can be found on a day in port.
The best part about staying on board while most other guests go ashore is that there are no lines anywhere for anything. Elevators move faster, room service is even more prompt than normal and the wireless internet, always a good connection, is at blazing speed.
Most ship's services are operational with the exception of the dining room and stores that have to be closed while in port. We chose to spend some time on deck where few others had gathered. A quiet, peaceful ambiance took over the area that would be packed with returning guests from shore later in the day.
Freedom of the Seas is a big ship with a lot to offer everyone on board. With a large percentage of guests ashore, services being offered were plentiful and included discounts for spa treatments typical of port days.
So, get the idea? Not as many people on the ship = It's like we have the ship to ourselves.
That makes for a great day to do nothing.
As we have mentioned in other articles on cruise vacation planning, a cruise is just what you want it to be. This one was far from what I had imagined before boarding, even though we had been on the ship before. As part of a group we had a number of activities and classes to attend. The first few days, those had filled our schedule up pretty full and the days zoomed by. Skipping going ashore to focus on simple relaxation was just the break we needed.
The quiet, peaceful ambiance gave way to the bustle of returning guests in the afternoon leading the way to a nightlife full of entertainment and dining options. Tonight was the second of two formal nights and "lobster night", a favorite for many, and the "Chef's Dinner" were a parade of chefs around the dining room gives guests an opportunity to thank them for their hard work in the kitchen.
I have been impressed with the wide variety and number of entertainment options on the ship too. A headline show in the ships main theater is just the start of a list of options ranging from singers, dancers and musicians in various venues to games, activities, dining options so numerous we often found ourselves having to decide on one over another
A day in Cozumel, Mexico
Continuing our series on Royal Caribbean'sFreedom of the Seas sailing from Port Canaveral, today we stop in Cozumel, Mexico
Normally, in Cozumel our go-to place to spend the day is Paradise Beach with our good friend Tom who runs the place. There we have enjoyed some great days at the beach just a short cab ride away from the pier. Today we did Cozumel a bit differently. Sorry Tom, maybe next time.
Cozumel is such busy cruise port that they have two different piers capable of handling a number of ships. Today as we came upon Cozumel, we passed the first, newer pier, already hosting four ships and went on to the older pier which was great news to us. Already at the port were Carnival's Valor from Miami and Conquest from Galveston. We docked next to Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas, a ship very similar to our Freedom of the Seas. It was interesting to note the size difference with the ships docked next to one another.
We wanted to do some shopping and then get back to the ship. With only two days left on our sailing, we had a whole lot more of Freedom of the Seas to experience. We walked off the ship about 10:00, returned to the jewelry store we had bought some rings from last time we visited, quickly found the small silver cross Lisa wanted for a necklace she wears every day and made quick work of it. A stop by the duty-free store to check alcohol prices completed our time ashore and we were back on the ship by 10:30.
Note about duty-free shopping: Check prices in the ship's stores before going ashore. On Freedom of the Seas they make it easy and have prices clearly posted by the products they sell. We found that with few exceptions, the prices on board were every bit as good as the prices ashore.
Back on the ship we headed directly to the Sky deck and the special reserved section for suite guests. While there was never a problem finding deck chairs on our sailing, it was nice to know we didn't have to be concerned with finding chairs even on the busiest days. I like that the area reserved for suite guests is also just steps away from the Sky Bar too.
With a hectic start to our week aboard Freedom, assisting a large group of guests we came aboard with, a nice day of doing nothing was just what we needed. So the rest of the afternoon was spent divided between pool time and nap time. Before dinner we stopped by the Concierge Lounge, one of the many benefits of being in a suite (of any kind except Junior Suites) to relax a bit more with complementary cocktails and snacks. There, Amit the concierge was busy making disembarkation arrangements for other suite guests and took care of our needs in that area as well.
I hate the notion of disembarkation from this ship, truly the best Royal Caribbean sailing we have been on to date, but not just because of the ship. The people on board don't just try hard, they get the job done, exceeding our expectations at almost every turn.
More on that coming up shortly as I take some time on the last full day, a day at sea, to get into more details on highlights of the ship, the crew and more.
Our last day at sea
Today is the last day of our 7-day sailing on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas and the last of the day-by-day accounts of our voyage. We spent one last full day enjoying our suite and all the features this great ship has to offer.
Before we had boarded the ship, Amit the Concierge aboard Freedom sent us a letter outlining all the features and benefits we would receive as suite guests. In that letter he said "Freedom of the Seas was the largest ship in the fleet (Oasis of the Seas is bigger) but now we are the best ship" and I think he may very well be right.
Throughout our voyage the crew of Freedom has been a delight to sail with. Entertainment options set a new standard I had not experienced before on any ship. Activities were seemingly endless onboard for all ages. All in our group agreed that the foodservice staff really outdid themselves. In short, I think Amit is right; Freedom just might be the best ship in the fleet.
Comparing pricing options on this ship, with all it has to offer, to other ships on this and other cruise lines sailing a similar itinerary, Freedom of the Seas offers one of the best values available too.
Something to note on this last day that really stands out is the options available to guests as the cruise comes to an end. On other ships it seems that they sort of wind things down the last day with limited entertainment, activity and dining options. On this sailing the offerings were just as bold, inclusive and interesting as on the first day. That is pretty typical of how they do business on this ship, paying extreme attention to detail and always considering the guest experience along the way.
I'll be sorry to leave Freedom of the Seas in the morning but feel refreshed and eager to get on with "real life". I think that's one of the very best indicators of a good cruise.