My spouse and I had taken only one cruise together (on the Splendour of the Seas in 1999) and, since it was a positive experience, we decided to choose Royal Caribbean again. This time it would be with our two teenagers during their school's winter break. Given our options, we chose the Freedom of the Seas because Port Canaveral is a reasonable day's driving distance for us.
Wow! We didn't know that the Freedom was the biggest ship shy of the company's newest Oasis, and we were pleasantly surprised to learn of and experience its award winning entertainment firsthand.
Since a big vacation was overdue for our family, we decided to go first class all the way and stayed in a Grand Suite (of course, our kids are now spoiled for life and may never be able to cruise again without such accommodations and amenities). Therefore, the following observations are not only from a cruise novice but from one that experienced the best possible experience on the Caribbean (short of the Oasis) during the peak rate season:
Embarkation - while the information we received said that boarding was at 1:30 PM, we arrived closer to 12:15 and were surprised to get the last ground floor shaded parking space near terminal 10 (I guess the printed time is "wink, wink, nudge, nudge"). In any case, our passes enabled us to go to the queue and sign-in desk on the right hand side (instead of the left), but the lines on both sides were short and everyone has to board through the same corridor and ramps to the gangways so I'm not sure what the advantage of "Priority check-in" is supposed to be. While it felt like we waited quite a while in line to get our pictures taken and receive our Golden Tickets - e.g. suite SeaPass cards - we were actually able to eat lunch in the Windjammer and arrive at Deck 10 by 2 PM, a few seconds before the hallways to the suites were opened for access.
Our Grand Suite - we'd stayed in a mini-suite hotel room the night before and had told the kids that our accommodations on the ship would be huge compared to most of the cabins (we only had a porthole on our only previous cruise) but that the square footage would still be less than that hotel room. While we were right, the Grand Suite is expansive and, because of the location of our specific suite, its balcony extended out further than most of the others. On the right, there's a granite mini-bar countertop with several drawers and a mini-refrigerator underneath that divides a "dressing room" area (complete with three closets) from the "living room" which contained a couch (that became a queen bed for the kids at night), two chairs, a matching granite-topped coffee table and two end-tables with lamps. On the left, there's a door to a large marble bathroom with two granite-top sinks, mirrors and a tub with a shower. When one walks straight into the "living room" (past the bathroom), the left side opens into a "master bedroom" complete with a king bed and a mirrored dressing table with plenty of drawers and cabinets for clothes etc.; plus, there are two bedside tables with drawers for still more storage. One really great feature is the floor-to-ceiling curtain that can be pulled out from the wall to divide the suite into two bedrooms at night. While the balcony only had two (vs. four) chairs and a table, ours "notched out", enabling us to look forward towards the front of the ship without leaning out over the railing. We were lucky by happenstance to be on the starboard (right) side of the ship; we had a great view from Deck 10 of Port Canaveral and every other port; the port (left) side of the ship had a (mostly) seaside view.
Service - we had a terrific suite attendant (Edy) that we met right away; he learned our names quickly and greeted us in the hallway at least once almost every day, otherwise we never saw him (e.g. cleaning our room, which he did perfectly and promptly after we left it). We also met our concierge (Wilfredo) right away; after we'd been in the room for a very short time that first day, our suite's phone rang and "Wili" had our shore excursion tickets to deliver, which he subsequently brought to us. He was patient with us as he answered all of our many "first-timer" questions then and throughout the week when we'd see him at his desk in the Concierge Club, which we had access to 24 hours a day with a special keycard. The club had continental breakfast from 8-10 AM and hors d'oeuvres after 5 PM; though we only sampled them once (and both settings were good), we ate our meals elsewhere during the cruise. There was also a library of DVDs available, but I think the kids only borrowed 1-2 to watch.
Food - we had dinner every night in the dining room, second seating (Leonardo's, Deck 3), and were served by Dalton and his assistant Victor; the head waiter Rakesh visited us every night as well, though I'm not sure what he does. Dalton was excellent, especially with his nightly recommendations, and so was Victor, who supplied us with bread and non-alcoholic beverages and entertained us with brain teaser puzzles on several nights. The food was very good, but nothing was exceptional or particularly memorable. There were enough choices such that everyone found at least one and usually two items to choose between for each course (one night I even had two appetizers). The kids loved being served, and having three courses every night, especially dessert. The two formal nights' menus were the best. We didn't feel the need to try the premium options for dinner - Portofino or Chops Grille ($20 or $25 cover charge/person, respectively) - but did eat at Johnny Rocket's ($4.95/person & shakes were extra) for lunch on Monday, and the kids were too full to even order a dessert! We were greeted enthusiastically and got our breakfast every morning at the Windjammer, but (per our suite status) chose to sit by the window in the quiet of Portofino's where Mina served and/or refilled our juice glasses. For lunch on that first Sunday and on Saturday (a cruising day), we ate at/in Windjammer/Portofino, otherwise we had something to eat during our shore excursions. We also snacked once or twice on Deck 5: pizza at Sorrento's (nothing special) and croissant sandwiches & cookies at the Cafe Promenade. We bought unlimited soft drink privileges for the kids in advance (supposedly at a discount, though it appeared to be the same price onboard) but they didn't use it every day; it's probably worth it for the convenience though since their SeaPass cards indicated to anyone that they could get a Coke whenever they wanted one without having to sign a receipt. The kids also loved being able to go to the pool area (Deck 11) to get soft-serve ice cream (at Sprinkles) every day from 11 AM to 8 PM.
Ports of Call/Cruise Enhancements - our first stop (Tuesday) was Labadee, a private Royal Caribbean resort area with beaches etc. on the north end of Haiti. Offloaded from the ship were tons of relief supplies which, as we saw while departing port later that day, were loaded on to trucks for transport to Port-au-Prince. We were told that the roads were so bad in the country that the supply caravan takes 10 hours to travel the 100 miles distance. Labadee itself is a paradise with lots of activities including a Barefoot Beach Club (exclusive for suite guests) and the Dragon Flight, "the world's longest flight line over water"; a 500 ft drop, 2,600 ft long zip-line. We enjoyed the beach club first: waded, swam and/or floated in the clear warmish water, lounged in beach chairs, had the obligatory Labadoozie island drink, and ate lunch there too. Then, after signing waivers, donning a harness and partaking in a brief training run, we rode in Jeep vehicles up a bumpy path to ride the Dragon Flight down and over the windy side of the peninsula's beach. It was very fun; my only regret being that I failed to depress the button on my video camera to tape the experience. The whole thing takes about a minute, meaning that you're traveling approximately 30 mph but it doesn't feel very fast and it's not scary at all (unless perhaps you're afraid of heights). The view from the top is fantastic and worth the ($99/person) price of admission. We hoped to beat the crowds back to the ship to avoid standing in a long line - it was hot - but it ended up taking 20-30 minutes even though we headed back at 2:30 PM and "all aboard" wasn't until 4:15 PM. We then watched from our balcony the returning throngs which included seeing a couple that didn't appear to be in a hurry walking down the pier after the appointed time.
Our second port of call (Wednesday) was Ocho Rios, Jamaica. We were initially going to choose the 8:30 AM Horseback Ride & Swim but opted for the 11:30 AM session instead; we didn't want to have to get up early and possibly miss breakfast. However, we then had more than an hour to kill and attempted to experience the area round the port on our own. Big mistake! Firstly, we tried to walk to the beach (to the left of the port) to sit and relax, splash in the ocean, whatever; when we found out that it was going to cost us $10, we decided to go back the other way. Big mistake again! We were more or less accosted by the locals who were soliciting cab rides, bus rides, other tours, or merchandize for about two blocks before we finally escaped into a shop. We then decided to return to the protected dock area where we waited about 45 minutes until our Chukka tour bus left for the horse farm. Our impressions of Jamaica were then considerably improved: we had a terrific guide on the bus (she told us about her country) and we had a very positive experience on the horseback riding adventure. While the Ride part on the horses was a pretty standard nose-to-tail walk (though our horses were led through an inlet that we were told was used for the final scenes of the movie Papillon (1973)), the Swim part was incredible. We stopped near a beach where we dismounted so that the English saddles and bridles could be replaced with nylon-covered saddle pads and lead ropes. We then rode the horses into the surf such that their legs (and half their bodies!) were completely submerged and "water galloped or swam" three times around a cove in what was an exhilarating (I almost fell off) and, likely, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our guide let the kids go twice, so I tipped him well. The only real stress I felt was when I looked at my watch and thought we'd run late getting back to the ship for the early (3:15 PM) "all aboard", but it was "No problem, Mon". This was the only day we skipped a meal (lunch was not included in the tour).
Our third port of call (Thursday) was Georgetown, Grand Cayman. We knew we had to see the Stingray City that the island is famous for, and we added the Barrier Reef for a 2-stop snorkel tour. What I didn't know in advance was that Stingray City is out near the reef, about a 30 minute boat ride from shore. We met in the Arcadia Theater (Deck 3) at 8:15 AM and boarded one of the first tenders to the port where we then took a bus that went north along the Seven Mile Beach before traversing east to the other side of the island. Once there, we received instructions about how and where we could touch the stingrays and then boarded the boat that took us out to near Rum Point. After a longish boat ride, we happened upon a shallow, waist deep area that was teeming with stingrays. We were told to grab our swim masks and encouraged to jump in among the rays where we could interact with them, take pictures and have our pictures taken. Our guides (who happened to be Jamaican) assisted by catching and holding various rays for those who weren't adventurous enough to touch the many that swam around; it was another very unique experience for us all. After re-boarding the boat, we traveled a short distance to the reef where we donned our masks, snorkels and fins (provided) and swam around for (too short) a period of time. As my spouse said, after experiencing Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Aruba and Kauai, Hawaii, the Grand Cayman reef we saw was not very impressive (though it could have just been the time of year or specific place we were taken that day). We were returned to Georgetown where we had some Dairy Queen ice cream sundaes for lunch and did some shopping before returning to the tender boat. Since they had to cram it full before it left, it took a while to unload it once we were alongside our ship.
Our fourth and final port (Friday) was the island of Cozumel, Mexico, but we didn't really spend any time on the island because, after meeting in the Arcadia again and walking as a group down the dock past the Voyager of the Seas (moored on the other side from us), we boarded a catamaran water taxi that took us across to the mainland (a 40 minute trip) at Playa del Carmen; we then had a short walk to a bus that took us (approximately 1 hour) to the Mayan Ruins at Tulum. It was a hot day and we had to walk (or ride for $2 roundtrip) about a third of a mile to the entrance of the ruins where we saw iguanas and the only port site that the Mayans built. Our part-Mayan guide Julio gave us a great history lesson during the bus trip and our Mayan guide Nacho gave us a very enthusiastic if overlong (we had no time to explore on our own) tour of the ruins. Given the 90 degree heat, we were fortunate that we were there less than an hour. We rode the bus another 15-20 minutes to the Ak'iin Beach Club where we had a buffet lunch of authentic Mexican fare. After lunch, we had perhaps an hour to get in the ocean, lounge or walk on the beach etc. before we had to return to the bus. There were showers available for those that wanted to get cleaned up after dipping into the sea. Again, it appeared as if our ability to make it back in time for "all aboard" was in doubt, primarily because we got to our 4:30 PM water taxi at 4:40, but they held it for us and we made it aboard the ship with about 20 minutes to spare before 5:45 PM. Needless to say, this was a full (and educational) day; my only regret was not bringing my bathing suit!
Our last day aboard the ship (Saturday) was somewhat depressing knowing that our dream cruise was coming to an end and that soon the reality of our somewhat less exciting lives would be upon us once again. However, there were still a lot of activities onboard the ship to discover or re-explore that day.
Ship's Features - there are so many activities going on aboard the ship at all times that boredom is only possible if you desire it. Personally, I liked the Flowrider (which is a wave-generating surfing machine that shoots up to 60,000 gallons of water per minute across a soft ramped surface) best; I rode it on a boogie board on my chest and knees, and tried (unsuccessfully) to stand on a board. I also scaled the 'rock' climbing wall, 'swam' in the pool, sat poolside (there's a reserved area for suite guests), soaked in the hot tubs, and played miniature golf (on that last day). We explored the library but surprisingly the kids weren't really interested in the game room or the many other teen activities and clubs until the last day or two. I think that if we didn't have such a large and comfortable suite that the kids wouldn't have wanted to spend so much time just lounging in the room watching its flat screen TV. Channels about the ship, from its speed and present location (like one finds on an airplane) to its construction and activities as well as nightly viewings of Scooby Doo were favorites. We ice skated and also enjoyed browsing the "shopping mall" environment of the Royal Promenade on Deck 5; seeing "The Greatest Show on Sea Circus Parade" on Saturday was fun too.
Shows - Evidently the Freedom of the Seas' entertainment is top rated and award-winning, and it was easy to see why. Every night we took in one and sometimes two shows, before and/or after dinner. Being a cruise novice, I wondered beforehand whether scheduling our dinner seating early or late would affect our ability to see all of them; I didn't realize that the ship's shows are strategically scheduled so that everyone (attendance permitting) can see each show. Our Gold (suite) SeaPass enabled us to sit in reserved seating - the first two center rows of the balcony - during Arcadia's shows and the left-side front row for the ice skating show (which also featured Alexey Sirota) in Studio B on Deck 3. None of the (second seating) shows that we attended were constrained, seating-wise and attendance at a few of them was surprisingly sparse. Cruise Director Abe Hughes is terrific, funny and affable, a perfect host. We enjoyed Mosaic best of all, a six-man vocal band that can really sing all while imitating (with their mouths) drums, a bass violin and a trombone "a cappella"; amazing! The Freedom of the Seas singers and dancers were also great - they did a couple of shows; the Broadway tribute Marquee was better than the comedy musical "Once Upon a Time" - as was Drew Thomas' "Now You See It" magic show. My spouse and I also really enjoyed the "Love & Marriage" and Quest shows hosted by Abe and his British assistant. The Freedom Live music concert was good; comedians Carl Guerra & Dan Wilson and the aerial artistry of Agnes & Peter were average.
Other Perks - I've already mentioned a few related to having a Grand Suite, but we also received a couple of food trays, one was cheese the other dessert, and (per Wili) received an invitation to tour the ship's bridge on Saturday during which we met Captain Manolis Kasselas as well. We enjoyed using the complimentary bathrobes and receiving special chocolates at turndown, and the kids really liked the towel animals (but everyone on the ship gets these, right?). We didn't need or use all of the suite services; for instance, we never called room service, which would have enabled us to get food from the main dining room (what food do the other guests get?). Also, because we'd cruised previously and had membership in RCI's Crown & Anchor Society (their frequent cruiser club), there were two complementary fanny packs and a pretty nice carrying bag (as well as two discount coupon booklets which we hardly used) in our suite the day we arrived. We also received a bottle of wine, which we brought home, from our travel agency.
A few odds & ends - on the first Sunday, before the ship had departed, an empty van in the parking lot of terminal 10 caught fire (it looked like it overheated and proceeded to burn out the engine) and we watched while the fire fighters finally arrived and doused it with water. The cars next to it were engulfed in smoke and later also sprayed with water as the van fire was extinguished. Also, not long after our ship followed Carnival's Sensation (Disney's Wonder was still docked) out to sea, there was an announcement by the captain that a passenger was ill and that we'd have to return to Port Canaveral. The process took a while (perhaps we had to wait until the Wonder had departed?) and I believe that we docked during dinner that night; it could be that the pitch of the ship was exacerbated by the speed at which we had to travel to make it to Labadee at the scheduled time that Tuesday morning. Lastly, even though we'd been told to take our picture ID (passport) with us at each stop except Labadee, we never needed more than our SeaPass card to get back on the ship.
Value - Whoa! O.K., we went first class during peak season, so our trip cost a fortune. I know that, if we had we gone a couple of months later (in May), we could have saved $2,000 on the suite alone; I don't know if the shore excursion prices are less during non-peak seasons or not. Still, it's not a vacation I can envision us ever taking again and if I couldn't rationalize it as a recognition trip for two special occasions I'd have probably had a heart attack when paying the bill (or thrown myself off the back of the ship in the early hours of the last Sunday morning's cruise to enable my spouse to pay with the life insurance). The suggested tips seem reasonable given the service and one has to remember to take cash for tipping the various tour guides and bus drivers on the shore excursions; obviously we also tipped our concierge. We used the 55 cent/minute Internet access sparingly; the one time we used Skype to call someone in the States (from onboard, while in port at Jamaica) it cost $7.70, and the connection wasn't very good. It's also a bit of a rip-off that one has to pay for non-alcoholic beverages like Cokes and water bottles. Disembarkation - Again, we were novices at this so we were surprised that the paperwork for leaving the ship on Sunday was placed in our suite halfway through the cruise and was due on Friday (I think). Of course, I didn't want to think about the trip ending until (at the very least) our shore excursions were complete and then read that I'd missed the deadline for turning in our departure time preference. But Wili was able to rescue me and get us a 7-7:30 AM time (with a long drive ahead of us, we wanted to get an early start); turns out this is one of the benefits of having a suite. The fact that daylight savings time was after that Saturday night meant that getting up Sunday morning would be even harder, though the kids did fine. As suite guests, there was a special waiting room serving breakfast but when it turned out to be strictly continental fare, we opted for the Windjammer one last time. After eating, we returned to the waiting room briefly before leaving the ship. It was quick, easy and not crowded (especially when compared to boarding) going through customs, though our luggage didn't come out on the baggage conveyer belt until 7:45, so we had to wait about 15 minutes for it. Since we'd parked close-by, we were to our car and out of there in no time, watching forlornly as our ship disappeared in the rearview mirror.
Some final observations - we were blessed with terrific weather throughout our cruise; having read some other "cruise critic" reports about inclement weather that prevented tendering at Grand Cayman or rain that spoiled other parts of a cruise, we were very lucky given that the beginning of March can be unpredictable weather-wise. But it was warm enough to swim in the pool and even the ocean, though it did get quite windy on the top deck at times. That we were solicited by Royal Caribbean (and the shore excursion) personnel constantly to have our pictures taken all the time and everywhere was bothersome at first, and it added a delay by backing up the people traffic while exiting the ship at every port, but we did purchase some of these high priced photos and I'm sure that we'll appreciate the fact that we did in the more distant future. Being on Deck 10 means that you don't hear anyone in the cabin above walking around "on the ceiling", but there were a few occasions when we heard the crew 'scooting' large objects across the top deck. We felt the pitch of the ship more than we thought we would, something we didn't remember from our previous cruise, and one of our kids felt some seasickness on the cruising Monday. I'm not sure how many passengers were aboard during our cruise, but it never really felt crowded, and we only occasionally had to wait for an elevator. I suppose the size of the ship is so vast that it swallows up all of its occupants, but then we didn't spend time in any of its smaller venues (such as the bars).