My wife and I are in our mid fifties and we like to travel during the mid September to mid October time frame when she is on break from year round school. Since the children are grown up we have the ability to travel when the ships and resorts are less crowded. I know this is hurricane season which makes for great last minute deals since the ships are rarely full during this time but it is also more likely to be interrupted due to weather. This is our sixth cruise in twenty five years with five of them coming in the last ten years. We have cruised the Caribbean three times and the Mexican Riviera three times. We prefer the Caribbean due to the variety of the ports and the beautiful waters in the Bermudas. We have always cruised the Caribbean during Hurricane season and have yet to be really affected by weather but this one was close.
Being from California it is far more expensive for us to travel to the Caribbean than Mexico but it is worth the extra money. We usually fly Southwest Airlines who have pretty cheap rates and we use our Starwood member points to book a hotel in Florida. This helps us keep the costs in check so we have more money to spend on the cruise. This trip we flew into Ft. Lauderdale the day before the cruise and took a shuttle to the Sheraton fly and port hotel. This was only about ten minutes away from both the airport and the cruise terminal. This is a really nice Sheraton with a great location and a very helpful staff. The rooms are nice and the beds are comfy. I received a text message from Carnival that night that said our itinerary was being changed due to Tropical storm Matthew. I checked the web site and found that we were being redirected to some Eastern Caribbean ports due to the weather. We were initially disappointed because we had been to all these places before. The next day after we boarded the ship we learned that the storm had disapated over our area and we were back onto our original itinerary.
We booked this 8 day cruise to Cozumel, Costa Rica, and Panama about fifty days in advance through Carnival's website. We originally booked a Premium Balcony room. About three weeks before sailing I received a call from Carnival offering us an upgrade due to a last minute cancellation, I think it was an Balcony Suite. I declined the offer but after reconsidering I called back the next day to see if it was still available. It had been sold but they had just received a cancellation on a Grand Suite. Their offer was very reasonable, about $450 per person upgrade so we took it. This was a very good decision on our part. We had cruised in a suite before with Holland America and once you do it is hard to go back to a regular room.
Our Carnival Freedom Stateroom was stunning to say the least and had a lot to offer. It was huge with lots of closet spaces, a desk area, five person sofa with two chairs and coffee table, refrigerator, bar, king size bed, special lighting controls over the bed, a large dressing room with lighted mirrors sink and closets, a huge bathroom with 2 more sinks, a whirlpool tub, shower, bidet and telephone. We also had a large balcony with 2 chairs and 2 chaise lounges with tables. You also board from a special VIP lounge where you can wait with refreshments and are brought on board first.
There are only ten of these cabins on board and they are worth the extra expense in my opinion.
We had cruised in an extended balcony Deluxe Verandah suite with Holland America and it was even nicer than this one and it included access to a private lounge where you had special desserts, espresso, large screen television, reading area, and concierge services. It also included complimentary laundry and pressing services, early VIP boarding and a private party with the ships Captain and crew while the other guests were boarding the ship.
The rest of the Carnival Freedom was pretty typical and had great entertainment in some areas and just OK entertainment in others. The Two Tones (a male female duet) were awesome to listen to, the main shows were good, the comedians were kind of funny but the piano bar was really sad.
We always thought that the food on Carnival was a notch below Holland America but the entertainment was better. The Freedom kept that opinion alive but the entertainment was not as good as our last cruise on the Carnival Valor. The Freedom's main dining room was good but the steakhouse was exceptional and worth the extra $30 per person charge. The Lido deck food was not as good as we had expected and seemed more like a typical cafeteria than a cruise ship. Our waiters were exceptional in the main dining room.
The Freedom has a great area forward of the main pool called the Serenity deck. This area is adult only and is protected from the wind with large glass windscreens. It features really nice padded chaise lounges and several two person hammocks. What we really liked was some really cool private round "bed like" loungers. These were round and had a canvas top that you could raise to cover half of the cushioned area. The whole thing was on a swivel so you could position it in any direction you wanted. When the top was raised it kind of looked like a clam shell. It easily held two people and gave you protection from the sun, wind, and privacy at the same time. We would spend hours on these reading and relaxing. There was also an adult only hot tub in this area.
The pools looked to be smaller than some ships but did not bother us since we tend to avoid public pool areas. There is a nice area around the outdoor Gigantic big screen where they showed movies, football games and videos.
The casino was nice but really smokey. I wish someone would invent a better ventilation system to capture the cigarette smoke and remove it. I used to smoke so I am probably over sensitive to it.
It seemed that there was an over abundance of photographers lining the walk to the dining rooms and they were out there almost every night. This must be a gold mine for the ship because they seem to overdo it. Walking to dinner is like walking the gauntlet at a carnival with barkers on each side trying to get your business. Carnival should cut this down to "formal nights" only and then be appointment only the rest of the time.
We did not participate in the ships activities except for a black jack tournament in the casino. The rest of the activities did not interest us since we had a really nice private deck to spend time on so we could not comment on those.
We did use the gym and walking track every day not in port. The gym is kind of small for a ship that size with long waits for an elliptical machine during peak hours. The walking track was nice and there was a basketball court, a volleyball court, mini golf course and a shuffleboard area.
Staff and service
The staff was excellent everywhere we went. We had a really great cabin steward who always seemed to be in the corridor outside our room waiting to greet us or ask if we needed anything.
Our dining room staff was exceptional and very attentive. They learned our likes and dislikes very quickly and made sure we had whatever we needed sometimes before we knew we needed it.
We booked two excursions through the ship and one on our own. The ship excursions were in Cozumel and Panama.
We went on the "Twister boat to Isla Passion" This was a great trip to a private island where they film the Corona commercials. It is a high speed ocean boat that does some sharp turns and gets you wet. The island beach was exceptional and the Mexican buffet was really good. The open bar was also nice. I would highly recommend this one.
We booked a tour through "Your Lucky Tours" in Costa Rica because we had read rave reviews about them and the owner Eduardo, we were not disappointed. Within hours of leaving a request for contact on their website we received a phone call at home from Eduardo who discussed tour options with us. We then decided to take the Coffee Plantation, Banana Plantation, and Canal tour that ended at La Playa Bonita. Eduardo then followed up with an e-mail detailing the tour details and a description of where to meet him including a picture of the area he would be waiting for us. Eduardo even found me on face book and communicated with us using the face book page. After our tour was over he posted pictures of our group on his page. Unfortunately I did not bring the where to meet picture with me and it took a few minutes to find him. When you get off the boat and walk down the pier you are met by dozens of tour operators that are booked by the cruise lines. These guys are allowed inside the gate and you have to work your way through them and walk out of the security gate to meet with the non cruise sponsored tours. Here we found dozens of other tour operators but spotted our names on a sign with Your Lucky Tours within a few minutes. We were then escorted to a small (15-20 passengers) waiting bus where we waited for the rest of the group to show up. We then took the bus to a small coffee plantation that also grew pineapple, papaya, coconuts and a sweet lemon. The operator of the fruit stand had samples of each for us to try. This was down some small roads that could never have been reached by the larger buses. We then boarded the bus and went to the banana plantation where we took the same tour as the larger tour groups. This was pretty interesting but the best part was on the way there. We stopped alongside the road where a young man boarded the bus and brought a young Sloth with him. We were able to look at the sloth up close and actually petted him. We then headed to the Canal tour which was fascinating. We boarded a small boat (16 passengers) with a tour guide and were taken on a tour of the canals where we spotted many species of birds, howler monkeys, sloths, bats and a Caiman (small crocodile). After the tour we headed for La Playa Bonita, which is a Bar and grill with live music. The food was Ok, the music was fair and the beer was good. ($2 beer) We then headed back to Limon where we had a tour of the shopping area and then dropped off at the pier. The cost was $45 per person which is considerably less than anything offered by the ships and was very personal which is an advantage of a small group. Eduardo is very personable and has a great sense of humor and is a good tour guide. If you are considering a tour in Costa Rica I would recommend Eduardo and "Your Lucky Tours".
We took the Panama canal tour by ferry boat, this is a great tour. We boarded buses in Colon and took a 90 minute ride to the Pacific side and the city of Panama. There we boarded a ferry that took us through the Pacific Ocean side locks and across Miraflores Lake to the next lock and then through Gaillard Cut to Gamboa on Lake Gatun. Here we boarded buses for the trip back to Colon. This tour was about 7 hours from start to finish and was by far the most interesting of our excursions, a must do if you have never been in the Panama Canal. We really enjoyed this trip as we had an excellent tour guide who spoke impeccable English and seemed to know every fact possible about the Canal and Panama.
Disembarkation was very orderly and went smoothly. We put our luggage out the night before and were among the first to be allowed to leave the ship due to VIP status.
We then stayed an extra night in Ft. Lauderdale at the same Sheraton. Since we were off the ship by 9:00 am we checked into our hotel and took a shuttle over to the water taxi that takes you through the inter coastal waterway. This is a great deal for $15 per person you can ride the taxi all day. We went to Las Osos street and shopped in the really nice stores and then ate lunch and later dinner in the area. The water taxi takes you by some beautiful homes and wild yachts that all cost fortunes. They are pretty knowledgeable tour guides as well. You can easily spend all day here looking around at the multi-million dollar yachts, or $200,000 cars parked on the street.
We hated for it to be over but we had a great time and are planning our next get away.
We experienced some wind and overcast skies several of the days we were out to sea, but this was actually not a bad thing as the temperatures were still relatively high. One night it rained on us and drove us inside from the outdoor big screen that was showing Monday night football. The weather never seemed to affect the roughness of the sea too much. There was a little roll here and there but nothing that most people could not stand. The dining rooms were never affected as there were very few empty chairs if any.
I think it is worth it to travel during the hurricane season as I enjoy the slightly cooler temperatures and don't mind a little rain, and the sea breezes are refreshing. The seas were never rough and the ports are usually uncrowded. The prices are low which allows us to get great last minute deals. If this was my once in a lifetime cruise them I would not chance hurricane season but since we can go when we want to it works for us.