Myself, my partner and a friend of ours picked the Carnival Freedom March 21st sailing because we all like the itinerary and the dates worked perfect for all of us. This was my 5th Carnival Cruise and I have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Princess and Disney. We flew to Ft. Lauderdale on the evening before our cruise and rented a Dollar Rent A Car and stayed at the Hampton Inn Fort Lauderdale Downtown, off of Broward Blvd. This was actually cheaper than staying at one of the hotels closer to the port, which is not really in an area where there is much to see or do. Having previously lived in Ft. Lauderdale, this gave me a chance to see and visit some of my old "haunts". Fort Lauderdale is a beautiful city to experience and a great way to get into vacation mode prior to a cruise. The Hampton Inn is a fairly new hotel and centrally located, and turned out to be a great choice for us. We went to dinner at Ernie's BBQ, on Federal Hwy, a Ft. Lauderdale landmark , where l have been going since I was a kid ( 47 now). It's nothing fancy, but well known for their Bimini bread, conch chowder and BBQ. Dollar has a location right by Port Everglades where you can drop off (or pick up) your car and they provide shuttle service to/from the pier. Very convenient and a time saver!
We got to the pier by 12 noon and was on the ship by 12: 50 pm. The cabins were available by 1.30 pm so we went to the Lido deck to the buffet for lunch. They had a good variety of food, including a deli sandwich station, Asian stir fry station, salad bar area and the standard buffet area with a variety of foods. The different stations are scattered so you have to do a walk thru to see where everything is and plot your strategy for which line you want to get in!. As the seating area was crowded, as is always the case for the buffets on embarkation , we went up to the 2nd level of the restaurant where there was plenty of empty tables and the Fish & Chips station, which offers a variety of seafood choices. The upper level never seemed to get too busy during the cruise and is where we went for breakfast and lunch on most days. I don't think many people ever ventured up the stairs and realized there was additional seating , nor did the staff suggest it to people looking for tables. We met one of the dining room waiters on our first day, who was working double duty (as many of the staff do) in the buffet, Donavan from Suriname. He was very friendly and made us feel right at home. This was a good start to a great cruise.
We had cabin 7396 a Cat 8C cabin on the Empress deck. This was a great location near the rear elevator bank with cabins below and above us, so as not to hear sounds coming from a lounge or people walking around the pool deck. The cabin was the typical Carnival cabin with balcony, exactly as expected. We did take along a power strip to use for our lap tops, phones and cameras as there is only one plug in for the cabin. The cabin, like the ship, was very clean and well maintained by our steward, Dennis, who did a fine job. One new addition since the last time I sailed with Carnival was the mini fridge, which was stocked with cans of soda, a few beers and some mini bottles of liquor. This was a nice addition for when wanting a soda or cocktail while enjoying the balcony. The cost for these drinks, are added to your room bill, like all beverages on board with a 15% tip, fair enough.
We had late seating for dinner in the 2 level Posh dining room. We were able to get a booth for the 3 of us which worked out great. We were originally booked at a table for 10, which we do not care for as we like this time at dinner to talk freely amongst ourselves, and not make small talk with a table full of strangers. We were able to get our dinning arrangements changed by visiting the Maitre d' soon after boarding, which was the only time we saw him during the cruise. I believe this was the first cruise I have been on when the Maitre d' did not come around to say hello and check on things at least once. One thing we learned years ago is to check the dinning arrangements and table assignment soon after boarding and to request and changes if required as soon as possible! They also offer "My Time" dining which was sold out when we booked, and did not hear any feedback on this option by fellow cruisers. Our waiter, Raj, just started his "tour of duty" on this ship coming back from some time off, but had been with Carnival for over 12 years on other ships. While he was a bit more "reserved" and low key than some of the other waiters we have had on Carnival in the past, his service, along with our bus boy, was great. We were always served promptly and he remembered our usual requests like lemon for the water, iced tea etc. We all agreed that the food on this cruise was the best that we have had. We did not have a single meal that we did not like. All of the meat and fish dishes were excellent, as were the soups veggies and pastas! The three of us eat out a lot in NYC and have dined at some of the best restaurants in the city (yes we are be picky) but all agree the food on the ship was great. It was always as ordered,at the right temperature, tasted fresh and well presented. As they serve thousands of people within a few hours every night that is no small feat ! We all agreed the food was better than on our last RCCL cruise. I have to wonder if some of the negative reviews for the food on this ship are from people so used to the mediocre and microwaved meals from Applebee's, Chilli's etc. that they have forgotten what good food is like? We dined in the Sun King Steakhouse on the third night of the cruise. It was very nice and the steaks were great. Two of us had a porterhouse that was more then we could eat, and one had the fillet mignon. All were cooked exactly as ordered and delicious. The onion soup we all had for appetizers was the best we ever had! This was well worth the $30.00 + tip per person and a great pleasure while on vacation! The live music and dancing advertised to take place in the steakhouse did not take place when we were there. I must say the service was not as sophisticated as on the RCCL Freedom of the Seas' Italian or Steakhouse options, but still very enjoyable!
The entertainment on the ship was OK. There were two production shows. One show with a New Orleans theme and one based on the music of the Beatles. Both were OK one they got going. The lead singers and dancers were good, better overall then on some past Carnival cruises. The comedian that was supposed to perform on the third night did not get to the ship in Key West so his performance was delayed until the last night, we did not see him, and I am guessing not too many others did either. There was a singer from London on the third night, who was good and sang standards, however I think many people were also expecting to see the comedian and a good portion of the audience left before the show was over. He cut the performance short, as was obvious when the musicians started pulling some of their sheet music from their stands and throwing it on the floor after he whispered back to them after one of his numbers. I felt bad for the singer as he was very talented and it was not fair to him. But for many he was just not what they wanted to see.
The main pool area was very crowded on days at sea, as expected. On our first sea day I staked out a lounge chair in the adults only Serenity area of the ship up on decks 12 and 14 at the front of the ship. To reach the area you can go to the spa deck and then take the stairs up. This is a nice 2 level area with lounge chairs, a few hammocks and "claim shell" style loungers, 2 hot tubs and a bar. The area is nice and quiet and no kids allowed. I really enjoyed spending a nice quiet and relaxing day there enjoying the view of the ocean, hot tubs and a few cocktails! There are also shaded areas for a break from the sun. After a day in the sun I visited the Spa and tried the steam room and sauna , both with floor length windows with views of the ocean, followed by a cool shower, a nice way to end a relaxing day in the sun, which to me is what cruising is all about! They have a very nice gym and spa area with a wide range of services including massages and skin treatments. They even have barber services and men's facial services.
We did spend some time in the casino which was nice and large enough, again standard Carnival casino. I did OK and actually had over $100.00 on my account by the last day of the cruise, my traveling companions did not do as well. The live music on the ship was good and ranged from easy listing to country. They rotated the music groups to different venues throughout the cruise. One night we wanted to visit the jazz lounge, which was very attractive, but it was closed. The piano bar seemed to be fairly busy and the disco attracted the college age crowd of which there were many on our sailing during Spring break, but they were well behaved.
We also went to one of the art auctions, which we have done before. They can be interesting if you are into it. They were very hard sell on this ship, and besides the auctioneer had a few other staff combing thru the crowd to try to make sales. We did not buy anything but I did win a print, and they give everyone who stays for the whole auction a free small print.
Ports of call: Key West was a lot of fun. We rented a 4 seat electric vehicle for 2 hours and drove all over the island past some beautiful beach areas and neighborhoods. We saw a lot that we would of otherwise not of seen. Duvall street is a lot of fun to browse and enjoy a few cocktails, something for everyone.. including a bar with an Elvis impersonator! In Grand Cayman we took our time and browsed thru the sops near the dock area. In the past we have also visited one of the beach areas there which are awesome! For Ocho Rios, having been there before and not too impressed, we pre booked a day at the Sunset Jamaica Grande through www.jamaicaforaday.com. This was a great option and is not sold by the cruise ships. For $69.00 per person they picked us up at the pier, with a host names Byron who was very friendly and accommodating. Upon arrival to the resort, which you can see from the ship, he introduced us to a representative from the hotel who gave us wrist bands and showed us around the pool areas. There were 5 pools, 2 with swim up bars, a water slide and a beautfil beach area. The price also included unlimited cocktails and food at the pool grill (which had burgers, hot dogs and delicious jerk chicken) and the buffet which had plenty to choose from! Bartender Monica at one of the pool bars was a real delight! She made sure we always had one of her "special" cocktails on hand. All of the staff that we met at the resort were very friendly and welcoming! They also had a nice gift shop with well priced t-shirts and souvenirs, and some local vendors selling their wares. Byron came to pick us up at the agreed upon time and dropped us off at the Taj Mahal shopping area for some quick shopping for Blue Mountain coffee jerk seasonings before walking back to the ship. It was a great day and we would highly recommend it for a fun and relaxing day in Jamaica!
Disembarkation was a breeze. As we were not in a rush to disembark we opted for the assisted disembarkation. We had breakfast in the buffet and our group number 8 was called around 8.30. There was no line to leave the ship and we were able to walk right off . The other option is the unassisted disembarkation, where you carry your own luggage off of the ship. This is great for people with early flights. They do this by calling deck numbers and you then just get up and go with all of you bags in tow. They started the unassisted debarkation around 6.30 AM.
Over all we had a really great cruise and would recommend the Carnival Freedom and this 6 day itinerary to anyone!