Although our travel agent recommended another cruise line, we decided on the Carnival Freedom because Carnival pricing offered the best value. We had read mixed reviews about this ship but decided to book Carnival based on this site's recommendation for first time cruisers and teenagers-- my son is 15. We even upgraded to an Ocean Suite as the cost was still in our price range. We flew to Florida two days before departing and stayed at the Delray Beach Marriott - a wonderful hotel on the beach (to visit family).
Embarkation: We drove to return the rental car at Ft. Lauderdale Airport on the morning of our cruise- good to know- National Rental Car has a courtesy bus that will bring you to the port for free! If you didn't rent a car, a short cab ride is all you need to the port from the airport, as it is very close. Because we booked a Suite, this is considered "VIP". We were ushered right past any lines or crowds- nice surprise! We were promptly given cruise ID cards and walked right onto the ship. A friendly teen activity director who introduced himself to our son greeted us. He let us know that there were about 300 teenagers on this cruise so he would not be alone. He then told us to proceed to the Lido Deck for the buffet lunch. We walked around all of the buffets before deciding what to select. There were plenty of choices, even for me, a very picky vegetarian. It was very crowded, but we found a place to sit down and just take it all in. Our first buffet was tasty and everyone was happy with their choices.
Service: The stewards for our stateroom were outstanding. If I called for any problems (there were few), they were resolved promptly. The room was always clean and the evening turndown was always fun because we looked forward to the adorable "towel creatures" that they would create. When we ordered room service, the food was delivered in a timely manner and was delicious. Dining room service was not always "fine" dining standards, but was good.
Dining: That night we went to dinner and were disappointed to find a long line for the dining room for our "anytime dining". It was not that bad though; we made the best of it by meeting other cruisers and enjoying the conversation. After about 20-25 minutes, we were seated and the dinner was worth waiting for. Each night after this, the wait was minimal and dinner was always very good to excellent. Every waiter, host, and all restaurant staff were friendly and attentive. I ordered vegetarian or a seafood main entrEe and each night we were very pleased with our selections. If you can get to the dining room in time for breakfast and lunch when it is available, you will feel much more pampered; it's so nice to be served at a table with linens in pleasant surroundings. However, the buffet offerings were also consistently good.
Special Restaurants: Especially memorable was the "Chef's Table Dinner" This was a bit costly- $75. per person, but well worth it. It included a tour of the kitchen with champagne and canapEs for 12 guests. Then we went to a private dining room where 10 waiters served a 7-course gourmet meal including wine. My husband and I live in the NYC area and we are tough critics. This was one of the most outstanding meals we have ever had. If you are celebrating a special occasion you MUST reserve this meal- it's once in a lifetime! The Sun King Steak House was also good, but after the Chef's Table Dinner, it was a tough act to follow. The restaurant is beautiful, service excellent, but the steak was average compared to finer steak houses on land.
Entertainment: On the first night, we went to the show in the main theatre, checked out all of the entertainment options and explored the ship. The main theatre show was kind of "campy", but each night after that, the shows were much better. The "Beatles" tribute was well produced, choreographed and staged. All other bands, comedians, nightclubs and casino were great. Each night my husband and I got the hang of ship nightlife and had lots of fun. If we were not thrilled with one club, we just went to check out other entertainers.
Teenage entertainment: Our 15 year old LOVED the Club O2 scene and met other teens from all over the country and world. We knew he was safe and having fun so we were able to have fun as well. During the days at sea, he played basketball, voleyball, hot-tub or swimming with his new friends so much that we had to plead with him to meet us back in the cabin by dinner. The beverage card deal is a must for teens; he was able to get all the sodas he wanted from any bar.
Days at sea: Fun and so relaxing. The beauty of this ship is that you can find whatever you want to do. Exercise at the gym; get a spa treatment, hot tub on the deck, basketball or volleyball, or just chill out. We opted to just relax on the Serenity "Adult only" deck. As far as cleanliness, the crew does an amazing job at keeping everything spotless without being intrusive. Hand sanitizer is available all over the ship, paper towel dispensers are mounted by all doorknobs, and decks were always clean and tidy.
Summary: Overall, we were very pleasantly surprised by the quality of our Carnival Cruise. As far as what to wear for evenings-- I was under the impression that Carnival was a very casual cruise line. But there were at least two nighs when almost everyone dressed up in suits, long dresses and other formal wear. Next time, I will be prepared with dressier items and my husband will bring a suit as it always good to be prepared!
After it was all over, we were sad to leave; my son asked when we are going again. My husband is already checking Carnival cruises for next year.
Ports and Excursions:
Key West: This was our first time to Key West and they had record cold temperatures, so I can't really give the port a fair rating. My husband and 15-year-old son decided to rent an electric golf-cart style car and just explore the area. We decided not to book any particular excursion. We were not happy with this plan as we found out that there is NOWHERE to park the vehicle and walk around. The price of the rental was also very expensive (about $135.)- so just be careful when they approach you at the dock when you leave the ship. It's a better idea to just bypass these hustlers and walk around on your own in town if you want to explore. If you are looking for a great local restaurant for lunch- go to BO's Seafood. There will be a long wait, but have some drinks and talk to the other patrons who are very friendly.
Grand Cayman: My husband and I decided to book a snorkeling excursion on a coral reef and shipwreck as we thought this would be cool for our 15 year old. We had snorkeled in Caribbean water during our honeymoon and it was so beautiful. Well, this was nothing like the snorkeling we had hoped for. The tour director was a lovely quick-witted Brit who made the brief ride on the boat enjoyable. But, the boat ride did not bring us any further than the harbor, not far from the cruise ship. I had expected to snorkel in a more remote cove, not in the middle of the sightseeing boating lanes. The coral there was hardly the brilliant colors and lively sea garden that I remembered. It was OK, and my son loved it, but I was not thrilled. Perhaps the stingray city or turtle farm is a better bet for this port. If you are into shopping (I am not), you can get great deals on all kinds of jewelry here. The ship has a "shopping expert" to assist you with finding reputable shops.
Jamaica: Jamaica is a lush rain forest-like island and we signed up for the famous Dunn's River Falls and Bamboo Beach Party. The falls are thrilling and a bit scary, but the Jamaican guide did a great job of bringing us all to the top. When it was done we felt like we accomplished something! After this, we went on a bus ride to Bamboo Beach for a party that included drinks and lunch. The beach was very small and jammed in with people- not the kind of sprawling stretch of beach that you see in all the TV commercials. The food was fair but they served drinks often-- stick with the beer-- the mixed drinks are strange. I had a much better time after a few beers and joined the Jamaicans on the plywood "dance floor". There was loud Reggae music and if you got up out of your chair and joined the fun, then the surroundings were not so bad. Next time, I would like to take a nature tour of the island or some other excursion that explores the habitat.