My boyfriend, age 31, and me, age 26. We both went on a Carnival cruise when we were in high school (not with each other) but neither of us had a very discerning taste at that age. The Freedom was our third cruise---our second cruise together and our second cruise with Royal Caribbean. Last August, we took a five night cruise on the Enchantment to the Western Caribbean (Key West, Cozumel, and Belize). We had a great time on the Enchantment; both of us are very active and social and found the combination of sports, amenities, and nightlife on RCI ships to suit our taste. I really wanted to try a larger ship, hence the Freedom.?
I don't know the Orlando area particularly well; I'm from Miami and our last cruise left out of Fort Lauderdale. We were flying from DC and I wanted to get in a day early in order to avoid potential problems or delays with our flights on embarkation day. I explored different options for getting to the Port. For two people, a car rental was actually more expensive than a shuttle (when you factor in insurance and gas). We booked a "Snooze and Cruise" package through MDS vacations, which was advertised on the website for the Cocoa Beach Shuttle. The package provided free shuttle service from the Orlando Airport to Cocoa Beach, a free hotel stay on Cocoa Beach (for up to three nights, but we only needed one night), and a free shuttle from the cruise back to the airport once our cruise was over. In exchange, we had to attend a time share presentation at the Ron Jon Resort on Cocoa Beach the morning of our embarkation. I was a bit nervous about this situation, but it worked out wonderfully. The shuttle transportation worked out exactly as it had been explained (we had to pay for the shuttle from the airport, and I was reimbursed in cash after attending the presentation). We were housed at the Best Western, which was perfectly fine for our tastes (although we would have stayed somewhere more central if we were paying ourselves). The Best Western was right on the beach, although our room was a few buildings away from the beach. There was a nice pool with an extensive pool bar (food/drinks). It was clean and there was a nice complimentary breakfast in the morning. We ate dinner at Fishlips by the port, which was above-average bar-trying-to-be-a-restaurant food. We got there too late to watch the ships sail away, but we did see the end of a Mackerel fishing tournament. We played in the Fishlips arcade for a bit and then explored a few of the other restaurants near the port before heading home early. One thing I hadn't considered when looking at rental cars is the fact that you really can't get around Cocoa Bay without a car. We had to take cabs to dinner and back; fortunately, we were able to hail a cab on the street in front of our hotel, and there were many cabs near the port restaurants at night. Our hotel was at the end of the Cocoa Bay strip (closest to the port), and our cab ride still cost over $10 to get to the port area for dinner. This may be something to consider if you'd like to explore the area.
After hotel breakfast, we were given a free cab ride to the Ron Jon resort (we had to be there by 8:45am), where we listened to a presentation and took a tour of the property. The Ron Jon salesmen were very respectful; although we did have to say no to three separate people before we left, I did not feel as though we were being forced, intimidated, or pressured in any way. The resort is quite nice, but neither my boyfriend nor I are in the market for a new time share. The whole thing lasted about two hours. We were then given a free cab ride to the port, and we arrived by 11:30. Check-in was painless and we were on board by noon. We immediately began exploring the ship and taking pictures of the public areas.
The Freedom is absolutely GORGEOUS. I loved the Royal Promenade; I don't think I could return to the smaller RCI ships that don't have one. You really felt as though you were meandering down a lazy street rather than standing in the middle of a cruise ship. I loved that you could grab a table at the Cafe or Sorrentos and just sit with some drinks or snacks while people watching. I regularly availed myself of the free coffee and pastries at Cafe Promenade, and my boyfriend loved the antipasti at Sorrentos. We both sampled the two ever-changing "pizzas of the day" on a regular basis. The public rooms are beautiful and---most importantly---see to hold everyone on board. We didn't have a problem finding seats in the arcadia theater, although we did have to look a bit harder for events in Studio B (the ice rink). I loved the karaoke bar space, but it was unfortunate that there was not more karaoke in it. Karaoke was held for about an hour a day, but since the space is dedicated to karaoke, there should be a way for people to do it more often...perhaps not manned by cruise staff if people cannot be spared. The rock climbing wall is huge and very challenging. I tried the flowrider, which was a LOT of fun. One of the surf instructors (I can't remember her name, but she is blonde and new to the ship) was great about giving instructions and showing you how to position your body on the boards. If someone wiped out immediately, she would invite them back to try one more time. As someone who wiped out within a millisecond on her first attempt but lasted about 20 seconds on her second try, I really appreciated this. Waiting for the flowrider was the only time I really felt inconvenienced by lines; the wait was generally about 20-25 minutes during the day. Devotees could go at 8am when the lines were nearly nonexistant. The gym is very big and has a great view. LOVED the cantilevered jacuzzis and the adult pool....the adults-only rule was very well-enforced, and the pool chairs in this area were cushioned. In general, you really do not notice lots of crowds on the ship; everyone was very well dispersed.
We were pleased to find out that we received an upgrade from an oceanview room on Deck 2 to a balcony on Deck 9! We had some issues with our reservation---prices dropped by over $100 the day after we booked (did you know that Royal Caribbean frequently reduces fares for new bookings on Tuesday? I didn't), but RCI was very unhelpful in giving us any kind of credit or upgrade since we booked through an internet agency and for several other incomprehensible reasons, so receiving the upgrade on board was a wonderful surprise and really eased the sour taste that had been left in my mouth after our booking. The room was very spacious; we had enough room for the contents of my large suitcase and BF's large duffel bag, with lots of space to spare. There were several shelves in the closet and lots of drawer space. I was a bit concerned that we'd feel a lot of movement in the back of the ship, but it was never an issue (beyond the first and last nights, when we had rough seas and could feel movement all throughout the ship). A few times, I noticed a sulphuric smell in the bathroom water, but it was not pervasive enough to be bothersome. Our steward was very friendly and we got towel animals every night except for one. It will certainly be hard to downgrade back to an oceanview.
Main dining room: Absolutely wonderful. We took almost all of our meals in the main dining room and were always pleased. Neither of us are outright foodies, but both of us appreciate good food. There were almost always several options on the menu that looked downright fabulous, and there were only one or two dishes I tried that I didn't care for (mainly pasta dishes). If that ever occurred, I just ordered something different and the problem was solved. We had the 8:30pm seating and really enjoyed the service (Yes, I'm serious, Dwight!). I liked our table mates (four other couples), and it seemed like a few of the couples really hit it off socially. One of the guys is a cruise critic poster, too. (Looks like I beat you to the review, Jim!) In any case, it was nice to feel as though you were getting to know other passengers by seeing them regularly at dinner. We had My Time dining last year and were on the waitlist this year, but stuck with our 8:30 seating. I didn't notice any difference in the quality of service, and the convenience of My Time's flexibility may be counterbalanced by the fact that most events on the ship are planned around the set dinner seatings. Dress code at dinner was not strictly enforced; I wore shorts once and BF wore them almost every night. I understand that this could be bothersome to some people, but we didn't mind it; it was nice to see a range of outfits on formal night. I liked the MDR so much that I started eating breakfast and lunch there, too. Both meals were quite impressive. The MDR had a number of great specialty breakfast foods (huevos rancheros one day, a chocolate-themed breakfast the next) and eggs benedict are always available (although not on the menu for some reason). There was also a hot food buffet and a granola bar. Lunch in the MDR was great as well; there is a salad bar and lots of tasty bistro options (lamb gyro, steak sandwich, grilled fish, etc.).
Specialty dining: BF and I ate at Portofino once and really loved it; despite how much we liked the food in the main dining room, the specialty restaurants really take the quality to a whole new level. It's the kind of food that you put in your mouth and it immediately makes you want to tell everyone around you to just shut up for a second so you can savor the flavors exploding in your mouth. BF had the steak (delicious) and a side of pasta (meh), while I had the Saltimbocca (veal wrapped with prosciutto), which was absolutely delicious. On our last cruise, we ate at Chops which was also excellent. If you can only go to one, I'd recommend Chops (assuming you are a red meat kind of person), but Portofino is certainly worth the meager $20 cover.
Windjammer: Neither of us liked the Windjammer very much; the food was mediocre buffet fare. The service was fine and we didn't have any trouble finding a table, even on sea days. After my second experience with honey-stung chicken, I think I can safely say that I am unimpressed. I guess I will never be one of those Loyal Royals who can't wait to fill up her plate with the stuff.
Miscellaneous eats/drinks: We frequently snacked at the cafe (love those sunflower seed granola bars!!!) and Sorrento's (mmm, chorizo pizza). Also, the ice cream machine on the pool deck can't be beat. I have no idea what they put in that stuff, but it's sooo delicious. Drinks were very reasonably priced. I'm from New York City, so it's not unusual for me to be charged $5 for a beer or $8 for a cocktail. Comparatively speaking, I was thrilled when my favorite (although admittedly girly) cocktail---a Malibu Bay Breeze---only cost $6,33, which included the gratuity.
Productions: Truly spectacular. I wasn't very impressed with the performances we saw on the Enchantment, and I assumed that all cruise productions would be equally mediocre. I've gotta say, though---the cast of the Freedom production shows were absolutely stellar in both vocal quality and dancing ability. The aerial artists were breathtaking, and "Once Upon a Time" was a great way to present lots of classic songs alongside fabulous costumes and impressive set pieces. We did not have trouble finding seats for shows, despite the fact that we showed up to most shows as they were starting. Drew Thomas, the magician, was very good; great mix of large-scale illusions and smaller sleight-of-hand stuff.
Ice Rink: The Freedom Ice Show was also amazing; I was nervous that someone would fall, but everyone landed their stunts perfectly. It's really incredible to watch these skating feats happen so close to you. There were two special guests in the ice show during our sailing; they did a stunt with a full-body metal wheel that was breathtaking. We also went ice skating during free skating hours. It was fun, but mainly fun because you get to say you went ice skating while on a cruise. You'll need long pants and socks in order to participate; I had to borrow BF's pants because I neglected to bring ANY pants with me (who needs pants in the Caribbean??) so be mindful of this, ladies.
Cruise Director/Game Shows: Cruise director Graham was very funny....we watched his morning show daily. A few too many fart jokes for my taste but my boyfriend thought they were hilarious. You can tell that the man loves to perform and loves his job. I have no idea how he seems to be everywhere at once. The standard RCI game shows (love and marriage, the Quest) were very funny. BF loved Graham's comedy show, although it seemed the headline comedian borrowed a lot of Graham's bits for the farewell show the next night.
Nighttime entertainment: During the evening, we enjoyed the musical stylings of the acoustic guitar player, Pedro (who performed an acoustic version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody! How awesome is that??), Cory in the Piano Bar, and Scott at Bull & Bear. Scott's set was particularly spirited; he'd developed a loyal following throughout the week that led to many SoCo shots (his favorite) piling up near his guitar. I highly recommend the "Freedom Live" concert, which features all the musical acts on the ship playing one song each. It was a great way to hear them all. The bar acts stopped playing between 1 and 1:30; after that, the only game in town was the Crypt nightclub. The Crypt is a great space, but the night that we went the only people there were dancing in a big circle which struck us as a bit strange. I think we may have gone on an off night. On our last night, we discovered the fun antics of one of the bartenders at Boleros---she would provide different brainteasers to the bar patrons involving cocktail sticks or physics tricks. Figuring out these puzzles was a great way to bond with the other drinkers and to kill time at the bar.
Daytime entertainment: The cruise compass was filled with activities every day; it was rare that there were no appealing activities at any given moment, although there were certainly fewer things on board while we were at port. BF loved playing dodgeball, while I spent more time lounging by the pool. One event that was not featured on the cruise compass for some bizarre reason was a stunt show at the Flowrider. The sports staff did awesome tricks on boogie boards and surf boards (some involving audience participation)! If you like this kind of thing, find out when it will be held on your sailing; I have no idea why this didn't get more publicity since I haven't seen anything quite like it before.
Casino: BF and I also partook in some of the games at the casino as well. We are mainly poker players, and we were happy to see a full poker table set up; it was run with PokerPro computerized software, which I'm not crazy about, but it meant the table was regularly full. The rake is very high (10%, up to $15) but it's still nice to play against other players and not the house. I played in the Royal Poker tournament; although I made it to the final table, I didn't win the cruise on the Allure. The structure of the tournament has improved since last year---there are no rebuys or add-ons allowed, but if you bust out, you are allowed to buy into a different tournament for a reduced cost.
Thanks to Hurricane Earl, we were rerouted from the Eastern Caribbean to the Western Caribbean. I think a few passengers were frustrated with this, but I thought it was a great advertisement for cruise travel---had we all booked rooms in resorts on St. Thomas we'd be out of luck, but thankfully the captain could sail us into smoother waters (and sunnier weather)! We switched from Cococay/St. Thomas/St. Maarten to Cococay/Grand Cayman/Cozumel.
Cocoay: was nicer than I expected for a private island. There were tons of beach chairs in various parts of the beach (some more populated than others). (free) lunch looked great, although a big breakfast at the Windjammer meant I wasn't hungry until it was past serving time. BF walked along the nature trail and saw some roosters, while I saw a few iguanas hanging out near the water.
Grand Cayman: was a great time....we took a ship excursion to Stingray City and Barrier Reef snorkel. The stingray experience is absolutely amazing and should not be missed...the rays have become accustomed to humans over the years and swim all over you from the minute you step in the water. We got to feed squid to the rays, pet them, and our guides even gave us "stingray massages." They took pictures of us with the rays, but we didn't have enough money with us to buy them ($40 for four pictures on a CD). The barrier reef snorkel was also great; the reef wasn't particularly colorful, but we saw some absolutely gorgeous fish. After the excursion, we walked around the island, ate a rum cake, and tried turtle soup.
Cozumel: we didn't book any excursions so we just walked around for a bit and ate at a local restaurant one of the cruise staff recommended. We tried "Carlos and Charlies" afterwards, but I thought it was a horrific tourist trap and wouldn't return. One waitress actually tried to force a shot into my boyfriend's closed mouth. At Cozumel, we were docked next to the Oasis of the Seas. This probably goes without saying, but it's HUGE! It looks like a fantastic ship that I'd definitely love to sail on, but there was no shortage of fun things to do on the Freedom.
Our cruise ended with two sea days, which was a wonderful way to wind down and really enjoy the amenities on the ship. Because we were cruising in late August, there were not too many kids running wild around the pools. The regular pools were big enough to accommodate people. I did not notice much chair-hogging on this sailing; perhaps because you had to "check out" towels with your sea pass; if you left a towel on a chair for too long, you risked it being taken away, which would result in a $20 charge on your card for each lost towel.
BF and I were in no hurry to get off the ship, so we changed our disembarkation group to one of the last ones (all you had to do was pick up new luggage tags at guest services). Our group was called at around 9:10am. At that point, we woke up, took quick showers, and left the room. Before getting off the ship, we walked up to the tenth floor to look at some of the big suites---at that point, all of the doors were open since staff were cleaning them. We walked through the Royal Suite, which was truly a sight to see...marble bathtub, walk-in closet, piano, and a jacuzzi on the balcony. I'm glad we got to see it! Afterwards, we left the ship and flew through customs (Customs agent: "Are you a US Citizen? Okay, go ahead.") After retrieving our luggage, we had to wait about twenty minutes for our Cocoa Beach Shuttle to arrive (the timeshare company gave us a voucher to use for the return shuttle trip), and then it took another twenty minutes to pick up three additional passengers. The ride to the airport was much more crowded and time-consuming than the ride from the airport, but we had a lot of time to kill before our flight so it wasn't a problem. We made it to the airport within an hour or so of being picked up.
Overall, this was a fantastic ship that felt new. It is huge and will satisfy those with an Oasis-sized appetite. There was an outrageous amount of fun stuff to do at any given moment, and the cruise staff and crew were all wonderful. The food was delicious and the entertainment was stellar. My boyfriend and I had an absolute blast and would sail on the Freedom (or a Freedom-Class ship) again in a heartbeat. In fact, we took advantage of the "Next Cruise" program while on board and have already put money down towards our next Royal Caribbean adventure. We are officially hooked!!