We started the cruise out of Port Canaveral on 11/7/10. The sailing date was chosen because 1) it's after hurricane season and 2) it's before the holiday season. The weather is mild in the Caribbean that time of year (trade winds may have come, which cools things off nicely). Our itinerary was 4 sea days and 3 port days - Cococay, St. Thomas, and St. Martin... or so it was supposed to be.
Sadly, at the risk of revealing the problem that plagued the entire trip, the residual effects of Hurricane Tomas from the prior week plagued the entire trip in one way or another. But more on that later.
Day 1 - Boarding and activities. Port Canaveral is fairly well organized - RCCL has its own terminal, so their personnel herd you into your various waiting areas. As a suite guest, you get priority check-in and boarding. We boarded around 11 am and were able to drop off our bags before beginning our ship exploration. Having been on Voyager last year, we can honestly say that the Freedom class took the inspiration of Voyager to another level. The ship is beautiful - contemporary with lovely artwork, a better promenade than Voyager, and that wonderful Flow rider. We settled in at the Windjammer for the typical buffet lunch (although did not see the famous honey stung chicken). One item to avoid - the "key lime pie." Tastes like bad lime jello mixed with Cool Whip. Ick. After making it past the hard sell of the beer, cocktail of the day, and soda/water packages, we explored further.
Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing on the balcony with a cocktail - for the unfamiliar, the Grand Suite offers a double balcony, king bed, and couch, plus full bathroom with two sinks and actual tub. Truly, the amount of space, nice balcony (room for two chaises, a dining table, and two chairs) is the reason we splurge. Also provides access to the Concierge Lounge for free cocktails from 5 - 8:30 and appetizers. Was impressed overall with the food/cocktails and Amit, the Concierge. He really made the effort to ensure everyone was taken care of. Dinner was of the usual caliber. We did late seating (8:30) and sat at a table for six. Dining room was pretty full, but it seemed less so than the year before. Wondering if the My Time dining has more takers now.... Unfortunately, we were told we would not be going to Cococay due to the rough seas after all. Wasn't sure what to expect, but hoped for the best!
Day 2 - sea day! Took advantage of the lovely gym for an early workout. Did the free abs class, then walk/ran a mile on the track upstairs. Pool deck is nice and well kept up. Looking at the activities, I have to say that when the ship has an unexpected sea day, the plate just isn't as full. Not as much to do on planned sea days, which, if you get bored, can be a negative. We took that as a sign that we needed extra relaxation and booked spa time (facial/massage special) and relaxed in the solarium prior. As we are childless, the solarium is wonderful - quiet and low-key. Did one of the Pilates classes ($12) that afternoon. Dinner again was good - sea days tend to have a fuller crowd for dining.
Day 3 - actual sea day! Activity problems solved! The itinerary was much more robust, and offered a number of things to do. We had signed up for the introductory boxing class, and have to say, it did not disappoint. James, the trainer, first taught everyone some basic moves - jab, cross, and hook. He then paired everyone off - men with men and women with women. The men used the large punching bags to practice various punching combos. The women used the gloves to do the same. Left the workout sweaty and tired (and hungry)! Why else exercise that much if not to eat!? Took advantage of Portofino's for breakfast - suite guests can dine there (rather than fight for a table in Windjammer) and have made-to-order eggs and limited menu. Perhaps my favorite is the homemade muesli (think granola with fresh fruit on top). Yum!!! Did Brasserie 30 for lunch in Leonardo dining room - found it ok, but have enjoyed flexibility of afternoon pizza from Sorrento's or buffet at Windjammer.
Day 4 - LAND HO! Happily made it to St. Thomas. I think even the hardiest of cruisers were happy to see a port at that point. With the seas at their calmest thus far, it was enjoyable. We arrived around 10 am to port, so plenty of time that morning to work out, have a leisurely breakfast, and then hoot and holler at the NCL ship docked nearby as we pulled in and around them. As we had previously been to St. Thomas, our agenda was to hit a few favorite stores and have lunch before returning to the ship. We love Ballerina Jewelry, Mr. Tablecloth, and Little Switzerland (the location nearest the water, not on Main Street). We have found wonderful prices on jewelry and watches. If you enjoy Caribbean food - venture one block away from the main drag. Head past Ballerina Jewelry and there is an alley just a few stores down and to the right. Head there and then hang a left on the block behind to eat at Cuzzin's. Awesome bbq ribs and chicken, fluffy light conch fritters, and local beer available.
We again attended dinner in the dining room, but according to the waiter, this would have been a great day to take advantage of specialty dining. He said the port days are typically a lull in the cruise - food-wise and attendance for dining. Food wasn't memorable that evening, but it was good!
Day 5 - St. Martin! We were told ahead of time that today was St. Maartin/Martin Day and to expect basically all shops to close. Bummer. Luckily, having no shopping planned, we chose a RCCL excursion to a "treetop adventure." The description warned that you should not have back, neck, leg, heart, whatever conditions and you signed your life away on a waiver. I have to say, we basically thought we would be doing some ziplining. WRONG! Now, this was not a bad excursion, but know what you're going into if you do participate. You will get sweaty, you will get dirty, and you will climb rope bridges between trees, then zipline, then climb, and repeat to the end. It is a physically demanding activity and I would not recommend for children. My short legs were challenged at times, almost beyond what I could handle. We returned to port and had some snacks by the pier - tried a "roti" (which is like an Indian version of a burrito). This particular one we're told is more Indonesian, but it's pretty tasty. Even better was the crepe stand next door where we had a Nutella crepe with powdered sugar - YUMMY!! Back on board to relax/collapse and sit on the balcony until departure.
Day 6 - Sea day (again!) - Decided to spend a relatively easy day around the ship. Due to rough seas spent about 3 hours napping in the afternoon, so missed most activities I had planned to attend. Morning was (again) spent in the gym, at Portofino's for breakfast, and then Johnny Rocket's for lunch. Decent burgers and fries, not a favorite, but gives a different option. Went to Chops for dinner. As Voyager didn't have a Chops Grille, we did Portofino's previously and really enjoyed the food and service. Have to say - the food was spot-on perfect. I have rarely enjoyed a filet as thick cut as this was so perfectly prepared. Dessert (chocolate cake) was divine. They also took a drink off of our bill that we just did not like - very good of them to do so. Now, the bad - the service was absolutely abominable. Slow to get us drinks, slow to take our order, waiter was majorly distracted, water was never refilled timely. Just an overall off experience and definitely not what I would expect for how much this place is touted. Would we go back? Yes, because the food was really good and we're willing to give it another chance in the future, but we did NOT give a good review on our survey.
Day 7 - all good things must end - Spent the day much as the prior, with one major difference - FLOWRIDER!! Now, if you're not familiar with this gem, have to say it's really fun. Did both the boogie board and stand-up surfing. Ladies, it will try and steal your swimsuit, so be forewarned!! Other than that, had a nice dinner in the dining room (loved Logan and Karen our waiters at table 445!!!)
Now, the other "bad" for the night - the luggage valet service. It's free to suite guests, so we thought it would be a good thing - you don't worry about your luggage from the night before until your final destination. Yeah.... So, the luggage service couldn't check me in for the flight (and thus my luggage either). In later conversation with the Concierge, he stated it's not RCCL, it's the contractor that does this service. DH was able to be checked in and issued a boarding pass and two luggage tags.
Leaving the ship - able to stay in the suite until the time our pre-arranged transport was to be there. Carried the rest of our bags off and had no problems there.
Part 2 of the luggage valet disaster - one of the two bags did not reach our final destination! As of this afternoon (2 days post cruise) it was finally located. It never actually made it in Southwest airlines AT ALL! It was given to Jetblue who delivered it to Dulles airport. They only found me b/c I had put a luggage tag for Southwest on the bag with my cell number(!). Southwest was wonderful and is FedExing the bag here for delivery tomorrow. Just be forewarned about paying $20 for the service - unless/until RCCL takes more ownership over that process, I don't think it's worth it!
Final impressions - this was by no means our dream cruise - weather sucked, activities cancelled, and service wasn't always spot on. That said, Simon, the cruise director, was great, concierge Amit was terrific, dining room staff was wonderful and overall the ship is lovely and has loads of activities. Would we cruise on her again? Absolutely - just with more ports!!!
Bear in mind that there are two sides - French and Dutch and they really can be different!!
A few notes: normally plenty of shops and restaurants are open in town, so you're not limited as we were for food and shopping. Great place for duty free, but if you're a US citizen, the allowances are higher if you buy stuff in St. Thomas as a US Territory!
A few notes: Taxis are one price - $4 if you're going into town or back to port. Don't let them tell you otherwise!!
There is a bar just adjacent to the dock - looks fun but WATCH THE TIME! There were literally a few people that stumbled from the bar to the ship and almost missed it!!
Meagan's Beach - prettiest on the island
Duty free allowance is higher here because it's a US Territory - $800 per person if goods are bought in St. Thomas (you also get $800 more to buy elsewhere or there = $1600 total per person), plus 4 bottles of liquor per person if made in St. Thomas.