Foreword This was the 7th cruise for our family (my husband and myself, who are in our 40's, and two sons, 6 and 4) and our 3rd on RCI. (Our other cruises were on Carnival—twice—Princess and Celebrity.) We loved RCI as much as our kids, who can hardly wait to get to Adventure Ocean as soon as we board. After being on the Mariner last summer (on the Nickelodeon Cruise), we decided to stick with RCI as much as possible. The Liberty looked like a newer, extended version of the Mariner—with its H20 Zone and all that jazz (Flowrider)—and that's why we chose it. We had never cruised before during January, though, and it would never have occurred to us that it could be COLD in the Caribbean. But it was! We nearly froze! Of course, this was unseasonable weather for Florida and the whole region. I just thought, the farther south we got, the warmer we would be. Not so. Our one, perfect, sunny day was our first day shore side, in Labadee, which was glorious. Our coldest day (and night) was the last at sea, when high winds and hard rain closed all the pools, no one in their right mind would venture outside (the pool water was sloshing out of the pools and achieveing "big air" as it did so), and the temperature felt like below freezing out on the balcony once darkness had fallen. Of course, this all has nothing to do with the Liberty or RCI or the price of bread, but I thought I would add it as a caution to prospective winter cruisers. I don't know that I would choose to book a January cruise in the Caribbean again.
Embarkation A great cruise started off badly: embarkation was a complete and utter nightmare. We had never had a single, even minor problem before with either embarkation or disembarkation, so I guess we were due.
For some reason that will never be clear, processing of the guests waiting to board did not begin until after 2pm at the Miami terminal. We arrived at the terminal at about 11am by taxi, having stayed the night before at the Hilton near the Ft. Lauderdale airport. (We chose this hotel as the La Quinta from our last pre-cruise stay turned out to be disgusting and graffiti covered, meanwhile the Hilton had full room service until midnight, and we always fly in pretty late from the West.)
The line grew longer and longer as we stood there, waiting for the doors to open. We waited and waited and waited and waited. Since we came straight from breakfast and expected to be on the ship long before working up an appetite for lunch, we had no drinks and no food with us to give our ever-more-hungry boys. In fact, we didn't even have gum! Usually we don't travel this light—no reading material or anything—but we never expected a holdup of such magnitude. Luckily, a very kind group of Australians nearby in line shared their can of Pringles.
Finally, our party cleared the front entrance at near 5pm. I thought the wait was nearing an end, but actually we had another hour and a half to go inside the terminal. This was all preceding the security line. I'm not sure why it took so long, actually, since once we got there it didn't seem much different than at an airport. However, there were only two security gates open. Once inside the actual embarkation terminal, we proceeded directly to the priority line and waited just a few minutes before getting to the counter. Our Australian friends told us they waited another 45 minutes at this point. One man, seeing a terminal worker allowing us to "cut" (really we were just entering from the priority line), completely lost it and started screaming at her and us. It was understandable after such a long, weary wait out of the blue on the docks, but unfortunately it was sort of a taste of things to come as regards the manners of many of the passengers we encountered on the ship. A lot of rudeness, line-cutting, pushing, not saying "excuse me" or the like, etc. We met lots of great people, too. (As the only adult in the pool ever, I met a lot of great kids!)
For the future, if such a delay were to happen again, I would hope that RCI would work a bit harder at communication. We had not idea what was going on out there in line, and no timeline for the afternoon. We didn't know if one of us might have been able to walk a block or so and look for a snack/drink in an open kiosk. Would have been nice. I really felt for the employees in the terminal, though. They were doing their best, only to bear the brunt of irate passengers' outbursts, meanwhile the delay was obviously not their fault.
General Other than nasty embarkation and a few experiences of rudeness among the passengers the Liberty was fantastic! The crew were wonderful, from our room attendant (Neil) to our waiters at the early sitting to the fabulous, fabulous casino staff working under J.J. We also had a very solicitous head waiter—unfortunately I have forgotten his name—who even called me in my room one night to check on my dinner when it had to be sent after me because I left the MDR a bit under the weather.
Casino My husband and I spent every night in the casino—in fact, we each had been comped a few hundred dollars for pick up (in cash) in the casino thanks to a bit of high-rolling on our last RCI cruise (7/09). At the end of that cruise we were invited to join Club Royale and book future cruises through CR (for discounts!). However, instead of booking at a discount, we chose the cash payout option. I believe that I was comped $600 and my husband $400 (my slot play being greater—well, not "greater," but higher). We both played slots and particularly poker (my husband also roulette), both of us entering the qualifying rounds for the poker tournament on the last day (to win a cruise for 2 on the Oasis!) and both of us actually making the final table. This was beyond exciting. Because one seat was open at the final table (not enough people showed up for one qualifying), this meant that we had 1 in 4 chance of winning the Oasis cruise! Of course, we did not win. But at least I didn't go out first. As far as I know, in fact, I was the only women in the entire poker tournament. Why don't more women play poker?! I love the game, but I don't so much love the boys' club atmosphere I have to endure while I play it.
All in all, the Liberty's was the best, biggest, most beautiful casino I have seen at sea! It was also incredibly friendly, though I wouldn't call it the no. 1 friendliest just because I have found so many casino staffs to been so great. There is one PokerPro table, and that is where tournament play took place—from 7-9 or so, after which the table opened up to players on a first-come, first-served basis. It was ALWAYS full, and thus impossible to join later in the evening, after playing slots or going to a show or something. For this reason, I played only in the tournament and not at all during the regular play. This was surely a disadvantage, since I not only got less practice (Liberty was my first-ever tournament, and tournament play is different from regular play. It was also my first time even playing NO LIMIT!) but also missed out on a chance to get to know the other players' styles and learn to read them.
H20 Zone THIS was the main reason we booked this cruise to begin with. My kids are too young to go on the Flowrider or play basketball, etc. But they love the pool more than life itself. More than chocolate milk, at least. As stated, the entire pool desk was like a ghost town many days because the weather was so off, and diving into icy lazy river, I thought my heart would stop. For a few seconds, at least. Then we warmed up and rough-housed and chased each other to our hearts' content. It was nice to have the swimming to ourselves. The lazy river is so small, I can't imagine what it would be like with a full crowd. I had a great time getting the exercise of swimming "against the stream" while the kids swirled around me in the other direction. Fun! All the pools were great, and sitting in the hot tub on a goosepimple-inducing day, eating soft serve, is not to be sneezed at! (Don't worry, we only took this liberty—the kids braving the cold and I—because no other adult even came NEAR the hot tubs the whole time!)
Suite life and Concierge service The only other thing that really stood out was our day in RCI's own Labadee, Haiti, "private port." Our first time in this port. We rented a cabana for the day ($200 a pop and the most we have ever spent on any single excursion item, but totally worth it) through our concierge in the Concierge Lounge. This was really the only service our concierge performed for us during the cruise—offering advice on the benefits of various cabanas vis-à-vis one another. She (Althea) was a bit chilly, but I didn't have too much contact with her (see below for more on the CL). But she did us a solid with the cabana. About the private beach for Suite guests: it's lovely. But small. We only landed there because we had booked the cabana, and this is where they were available. It was sort of a pre-digested experience: our own, private attendant; our private beach closed off to "the public"; towels provided for us there (no need to lug to and fro from the ship); a complimentary barbecue/grill-style spread; as well as free floaties and rafts for our use. Pricy though it was, the cabana was a must-have for our all-too-pale family. (It was enclosed on three sides, with thick canvas cushions lining the benches in the inner, covered hut section; the ceiling sported a welcome ceiling fan. Then, in front, on an open wooden platform, were two heavy wooden recliners with the same thick cushions—very comfy. There is the choice between shaded, fully sunny and beachfront cabanas, as well as those up rough stone steps amidst leafy plants, and of course the many in the back, farther from the beach and closer to the food/entranceway.)
I have to say, though, that the (open to all) beach across the path looked just as nice. Haiti is a great stop for RCI, and I hope that the fact that cruise ships continue to go there will really help this lovely country. The locals staffing the place could not have been more friendly and kind. As we were leaving, the manager (as far as I understand, of the entire Labadee operation) gave us a quick grand tour in his golf cart—zipping us over to the vendors with their crafts (who quickly descended on us—I managed to pick out a huge conch shell amidst the onslaught, and then we made our escape), all the way to the gangway. All this because we had put down "5-star, wouldn't change a thing" about our experience among the cabanas. (Evidently we were the first to offer this particular praise.)
The Owner's Suite (1334) Wow. WOW! This was our first OS, but not our last. I don't think it's possible to go back from here. Now, for the record, we don't book a suite for the perks, though the free cappuccinos are nice enough. The only show we go to (failing a magician) is the ice show, so the reserved seats only came in handy for that. We DO love to order in MDR food and eat it at the little dining room table in our room—but only because, some evenings, the kids are just not fit for public consumption after a rough day of sun, sand and fun. As such, I guess this suite perk would be really hard to give up, especially considering how paltry the room service menus have become on RCI. But anyway, the sole true reason we book this cabin is because we need the room. My tall husband with his electronica and gear, my two boys (6 and 4) with their Pokemon cards and Legos and tickle fights, and myself with the contents of my always overstuffed suitcase. We've sailed in a regular balcony cabin and a Grand Suite. The latter seemed somehow quaint—quaint that anyone would call that a suite. The OS, however, is a true suite. The master bed is in an alcove all by itself, and a curtain separates it from the living room area. The LR area, with the bed safely hidden behind the curtain, is WIDE. Like a real room! On land! The dining area is spacious. There is tons of storage space everywhere. And the balcony is just lovely, running the full length of the room. I spent so many serene hours there. An A+ for the cabin (and cabin service overall).
The Concierge Lounge Traveling with small children, we didn't spend too much time being chatted up in the CL over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. I popped in one or two evening, sat down for a few minutes with a glass of wine and a small plate of apps, then ducked out quickly. The concierge permitted this (taking my wine and plate with me). But, after I had seen a family bring their small daughters in one evening before dinner, I stopped by with the boys for the same service. Althea told me this was not allowed. I totally understand this. I would never had done it had I not thought it was being tacitly permitted—we just wanted a few bites to eat to stave off the pre-dinner hunger pangs. Actually, we didn't want to be there at all—it didn't feel comfortable in the CL, and we certainly didn't want to bother anyone really enjoying the ambience (such as it was) there. So we mostly grabbled and scrammed. During the day, it was ideal for a pop-in attack: espresso drink for me, hot chocolate for the boys. Sometimes there would be appetizers or cookies left over from lunch, and we might take a few.
Everything else What else to add? The food was serviceable, Cozumel is great for shopping as always, and everyone who worked at Adventure Ocean seems to be a champ. We met some nice RCI people who had been on the 7/10 Nickelodeon Cruise with us and even remembered the kids. We had such a great time, we're cruising again this week and have just booked our first B2B, for December. Neither will be on a Freedom-class, however. For this reason, I look forward to getting back on the Liberty.