I booked the Carnival Freedom because of the itinerary since we would be going to Cozumel, Costa Rica and Panama. I took my fiancEe with me and because of her love of animals; these were great stops to see a couple of rainforests.
Embarkation and Day 1: We arrived in Fort Lauderdale the night before the cruise on Saturday. Since I have lots of Marriott rewards points, we stayed at the Springhill Suites which has a free airport shuttle as well as a free port shuttle. We signed up for the 10:45 shuttle to the port when we checked in. Had a nice breakfast at the hotel (hot and free) and then boarded the shuttle and then left promptly at 10:45 which arrived at the port about 15 minutes later. Even if you aren't staying at the hotel when you come back, they will pick you up at the port and take you to the airport for $8pp which is much better than Carnival (we made that mistake since we had already booked with Carnival prior to the cruise). I would recommend always checking with your hotel before going to the port city to see if they offer something like that. The ship was great and as some others have pointed out, the dEcor was kind of funny looking but it didn't bother me because I was there to enjoy the cruise and not worry about the dEcor.
The driver took all of the luggage off the bus and then we got off and identified our bags to make sure they were all there and tipped the porters and they took care of them from there. We got in line which at that time of the morning was just barely outside the doors to the building so we didn't have to wait outside for very long at all. We were through the check-in and assigned to Zone 10 within a half hour of arriving at the port. They started boarding the ship at 11:30am and we were called to board about 15 minutes later. For me, Fort Lauderdale is one of the easiest embarkation ports I have been too. We got on the ship and went straight to Lido to have some lunch. I had told my fiancEe (her 1st cruise) that she should look around at all the food before she decided on something and then go back and get what she wanted. We walked around to each of the buffets and also by the deli and grilles before we decided on what to have. Luck would have it that the Taste of Nations was Italian that day so she was in heaven for that. After lunch, we walked around the boat for a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with where things are. Bought soda card for my fiancEe and a wine package for us as well (if you are a wine drinker, very good deal: we saved over $60 on 5 bottles of wine). After that, it was time to get in the pool until the muster drill. We did get into our room about 1:30 but none of our luggage was there. All of it did show up just after the muster drill so we were able to get unpacked. I was very surprised to find out that you don't have to take your life jackets to the muster drill with you anymore. They put your muster station on your sail and sign card so you just have to find that. Also another surprise, the staff was not in the stairwells and elevator areas to direct you to the correct station so you had to look for the signs. This would be harder for a 1st time cruiser I think. We found our spot and weren't really directed until about 15 minutes after the muster drill was supposed to start. I think they might have been running a little behind, but they failed to tell anybody this. We left the port about 45 minutes late and I'm sure we made the other 2 ships late that were leaving after us. One disappointing thing that I found unusual was the we didn't meet our cabin steward until the 3rd day. I guess we were gone too much for him to find us. To be honest, I don't even remember his name since we got a very basic introduction since he disturbed us while we were getting ready for dinner one night. Only saw him once or twice the rest of the cruise. Usually they make it a point to meet you early on and see if you have any questions or need anything specific for the room. I'm such a seasoned cruiser that it wasn't a big deal for me and if I had needed anything, I would have tracked him down very early on.
We selected the late dining option and met up with our tablemates that night. Our head waiter (Chris) and assistant waiter (Iwanan) were awesome and took very good care of us making suggestions each night on what we should eat. The show was a welcome aboard show with the singers and dancers which was very good.
Day 2: Sea Day: We mainly relaxed at the main pool, up on the second level right under the slide. Breakfast and Lunch on Lido and they were as expected. The food was nothing really special, but good food nonetheless. I won my first game of bingo today (3 total for the week). This was elegant night so we had our formal dress on and had a great dinner of lobster, prime rib and shrimp which was all very good. This was the first cruise where I only had one lobster tail since I really wanted to eat all of the prime rib too. The show was a comedian (Jim Brick) who was pretty good. He was doing an R rated show the next night which we didn't make because of being very tired.
Day 3: Cozumel: We chose to book the Carnival excursion to the Mayan Ruins of Tulum. It was a very early start and a long day. It was a good tour, but the travel was over half the trip. 45 minutes on a boat to get to the mainland and then just over an hour on a bus to the ruins with a restroom stop at a Mayan flea market. Our guide Angel was very good, but as all cruise ship excursions are which was extremely commercialized. He was always showing us something to buy and did spiels for the flea market even before we arrived. I'm sure he got a portion of the sales since he was the pitchman. One good thing was they provided beer and water on the bus which was all included in what you had paid.
When you get to the ruins, there is a 15 minute walk to get to them. The parking lot sits next to quite a few shops and restaurants. Angel did point out a couple of good places to eat lunch once we returned back to the parking area. After touring the ruins which by the way is recommended, we walked back to the shopping area and had lunch at a Mayan restaurant. Fish tacos are highly recommended as are the margaritas (be careful, they are very strong). The highlight for me was the salsa called Aye Aye, Aye Aye (spelling?). It is made with habanero peppers so it is very hot, but very tasty. Believe them when they say it is super hot.
Needless to say, the margaritas took hold and we ended up passing out for 3 hours after we got back to the ship. Another nice dinner with only one of the couples and then we did the show which was a hypnotist and was very good and entertaining.
Day 4: Sea Day: Another relaxing day at the pool. Did the water slide a few times and it is fun. Goes really fast, but highly recommended if you want to get wet but not have to jump in the pool. Dinner was nice once again and the food was very good. You have to have the melting cake at least once during the cruise even if you don't eat it all. Show was the Big Easy which was absolutely fabulous.
Day 5: Limon, Costa Rica: We were able to sleep in a little since the boat didn't arrive until 10am. Ate breakfast in the dining room and it was the only way we did breakfast the rest of the week....you have to try the guava jelly (I had forgotten about this or we would have eaten here everyday). This time we had booked with a private company (Greenway Tours) for the Adventure Combo tour. This allowed us to combine the zip line, banana plantation and Tortuguero canals boat ride as well as driving through the rainforest looking for animals. Our guide Olman (Ollie) was the best. They gave us water, soda and snacks throughout the trip. In comparison to the commercialized thing in Cozumel, there were no advertisements here other than talking about taking care of the rainforest because the tour company is very eco friendly. We saw a quite a few monkeys and sloths throughout the trip. I would highly recommend this company even if you do a different tour with them. No issues in getting back to the ship on time and they have a guarantee for that. Normal dinner, nothing exciting and we didn't go to the show this night since we were tired and had to get up early for the shore excursion the next day. I think it was a singer but I don't know if it was good.
Day 6: Colon, Panama: This was an early wakeup since we had to meet for our excursion at 7:40 am. We ate on Lido since it was so early and not enough time to go to dining room. We booked another private excursion which guaranteed us to be back to the ship on time. This one was the CL001 tour through myfriendmario. We were able to go see the Panama Canal where we saw a car carrier going through the Gatun Locks. We then had a bus ride through the rainforest and made a stop and had a nature walk for about an hour through the rainforest (very easy trail). Saw many monkeys and sloths throughout the trip. We also stopped at Fort Lorenzo on the way back to the ship which was ok. Took several pictures since it overlooked one of the rivers that feeds into the canal. Can't remember our guides' name, but he was great too. Again, this tour company is also very eco friendly and talked about how they want to make sure the rainforest is still around for generations to come. Dinner was good as usual with the wait staff singing and dancing. Show was a comedian (Eddie Capone) who is great and has performed for many years on all of the Carnival ships. He did a late night R rated show the next night.
Day 7: Sea Day: Relaxing day at sea. Since we had enough sun the first couple of days, decided to just roam around the ship doing some activities. We did some trivia, played bingo, watched some of the pool games going on, etc. This was the 2nd elegant night so we got dressed in our formals again and had a great dinner. Show was the Beatles music with the singers and dancers which was fantastic and then the R rated show with Eddie which was hilarious.
Day 8: Sea Day: Got more sun today and did a few activities around the ship. Dinner was the usual and it was sad to say goodbye to our wait staff. I miss being served a free dinner every night and being able to choose from so much stuff and have as much as I want. Show was the Legends which always features guests from the ship that dress up and sing songs from famous musicians (Madonna, James Brown, Sonny and Cher, Gloria Estefan, Elvis, etc.) Our cruise director was dressed up as Dolly Parton which was hilarious. Cruise director was Ryan Franklin who was very good. This show was actually a great time. Packed up our luggage and sat it outside our cabin before we went to bed.
Go home: Sadly we reached this day of debarkation. We got up pretty early but didn't get off the ship until about 9:45 since our flight was not until 1pm. Debarkation was pretty smooth. Had no issues finding our luggage and then the lines for customs were a little long so it took us about 30 minutes to get through there which was a little slower than I expected. Since we had booked the Carnival bus to the airport, we easily found this and were onboard. Waited for about 15-20 minutes for them to fill it up and then we were off and at the airport rather quickly. Flight was right on time and unfortunately back to work for the week.
Key suggestions: 1. Fly down the day before the cruise and stay at a hotel. This will make it a very relaxed morning for you on the day of the cruise. 2. Book as many of the excursions as you can with a private company. Just read many reviews just to make sure you know what you are getting and that you don't have to worry about missing the boat. 3. Eat breakfast every morning in the dining room (try the guava jelly). 4. If your airline allows it, check your bags on the ship all the way to your home airport. I believe it is $20/person. If you are flying southwest, you will have to take advantage of this before the cruise. There program is called bags to go. 5. Absolutely do the water slide. 6. If you are a wine enthusiast, buy one of the wine packages. You are allowed to take one bottle of wine per person in your carryon onto the ship. This will give you 7 bottles of wine unless you drink more and need to buy a second wine package. 7. Buy the soda card if you drink a lot of soda (at least 3 cans a day). 8. And the most important thing: Have fun, do everything you want to do. It's up to you to make your cruise memorable. Talk to people and find out where they are from. Talk to the staff, pay attention to where they are from as well and ask them how long they have been doing this. They will gladly take time out of their day to answer your questions.