My fiance and I have just completed our second cruise and decided to join the forum since we definitely see ourselves as being perpetual cruisers. I am looking forward to meeting many of you and exchanging ideas / experiences.
Having just returned from our voyage on RCI's Oasis, everything is still fresh in my mind, so I figured I would share some not-so-few words about the experience =)
We caught the red-eye out of LA the evening before embarkation and arrived at Ft. Lauderdale at around 10:00 am the following morning. FTL International for me, was a huge improvement over Miami International with respect to the layout, design, and crowds, but keep in mind that the last time I was in Miami was forour first cruise in '09. We caught a cab directly to the cruise terminal (expect the ride to be $15-20 and have ID in hand - there is a checkpoint before entering because the docks are adjacent to a petro plant) and got checked in, setup within about 30 minutes. Here, compared to Miami, I found the cruise terminal experience to be just as efficient.
We wound up boarding around mid-day and found that all ship amenities, save for the guest rooms, were available and open for business. We checked out the new areas we are read about i.e. Central Park, The Boardwalk, and then headed up to the familiar Windjammer Cafe for a quick bite.
Embarkation was at 4:15 pm EST and this was where I preferred Miami over Ft. Lauderdale. The Miami departure takes the ship along a major freeway (not familiar with the area and not sure which one) whereby the people in cars wave to the ship...sometimes out of their windows, sometimes out of their sunroof, but there is definitely a cool dynamic going on.
PREFERENCE: EMBARK FROM MIAMI
We had an interior balcony cabin which overlooked the new Central Park area. This is similiar to a garden view at a hotel, with more exposure to noise from guests and music that I prefer. I like to be in the 'mix' or center of the action - however, if you prefer the quieter balcony space, I would recommend sticking with ocean view, which also gives you nice views of ports when embarking.
Cabin size was no different from the Freedom, although the Oasis upgraded to the nicer LCD TVs. The main complaint is with the safe, which only accomodates a Kindle, but is too small for an iPad.
I won't go into all of the different things you can do on-board since you can read the same information from RCI's website. What I will say is that Oasis is much more kid / family friendly due to the Boardwalk feature which has a multitude of activities for the kids. As an FYI, the Boardwalk (and ajacent Aqua Pool) are at the aft / rear end of the ship. This said, there is also a larger adult are, compared to the Freedom, called The Solarium. This is located on the bow end and is a great way to see port entries.
My fiance and I are adult travelers and really only used the Boardwalk to get to Johnny Rockets and the Aqua Pool. There is also a stairwell to a rear deck past the Aqua that allows you a clear view of ports when embarking (if the ship has docked back-in).
Outside of the aforementioned, Oasis also has one zip-line and a second rock climbing wall (that was closed most of the time since it was not needed). All other activities were very similar to those provided on The Freedom, though since it is wider and higher, has more space for bars i.e. On Air and booths through the Promenade.
Contary to The Freedom which at the time, featured more frequent and smaller productions, The Oasis cast (to us at least) was comprised of higher calibur actors, singers, acrobats, etc. They performed the Broadway musical, Hairspray over a three night period, in addition to a couple other aerial and water acrobat shows. The latter had the feel of Cirque de Soleil type performances. I can honestly say that Hairspray was equivalent to some of the other productions I've seen at the Pantages / Ahmanson / similar theaters in LA.
PREFERENCE: SHOWS ON THE OASIS
DINING and DRINKS
Windjammer Cafe - MUCH better than what was offered on the Freedom. The meat was tender in almost all cases and pasta was excellent (cooked to al dente, an except for the large shell pasta which did not have enough filling). I highly recommend the lamb and some of the Indian cuisine. We ate here for the majority of meals.
Park Cafe - Nice healthy fair. Good salads, and pretty good quesadillas. FYI, the chorizo is not really that, but more of a Hilshire Farm type deal. Nonetheless, if you prefer a guilt-freer meal, this is the place. Standard coffee and tea are free, while specialty coffees are available at a premium. There is an outdoor bar about 20 steps down. Several butterflies have been given homes aboard and will land on your food from time to time - please DO NOT kill them!
Izumi - For me, VERY hit and miss. While the gyoza, salad, and soup were delicious, the nigiri / sashimi was watered down. Also, the rolls were not created to what would be considered traditional. I would recommend against going here.
150 Park Central - A very whimisical, yet elegant decor for one of the more posh restaurants aboard. As an FYI, the menu is 6 - 8 course prie fixe and you have the option to add wine pairing at the time. You do not need to book pairings ahead of time. Wine selection was decent and the main proteins, scallops / beef were cooked perfectly to my order. This said, not all courses were mind-blowing and a few were just OK. The head chef (who is a real cool dude) comes around to meet and greet all tables.
We did not use room service / main dining nor go to Chops Grille, Giovanni's Table, or Vintages.
PREFERENCE: GENERAL DINING ON THE OASIS / NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR SPECIALTY RESTAURANTS
DEFINITELY one area where Freedom destroys and pulverizes Oasis. Personally, I make hotel gyms a part of the vacation experience and have enjoyed many domestically / abroad. However, compared to Freedom Gym which overlooks the ocean where you can see sunrises / sunsets, the Oasis Gym has been parked on a lower deck with portholes out. Replacing the gym on the Oasis, is The Solarium which I can understand will have stronger mass appeal, but for people like me, is disappointing.
I was constantly bumping into people when using free weights and could not wait to get my workout over with. Equipment wise, everything is clean and state of the art, but there is something to be said about ambience, even with workouts.
Another mentionable is the fact that the track has been moved to a lower deck. If you are used to other RCI ships where the track is on the top deck, then be aware that you will be running next to the life boats. I actually prefer this though, because there's nothing nastier than sunbathing with someone sweating on you.
PREFERENCE: GYM ON THE FREEDOM
Excellent as I have come to expect from the first Freedom cruise. Our cabin attendant was very friendly and somewhat of a historian of the world, which is no surprise since he has seen so much of it.
No complaints about the wait staff whatsoever.
SALSA, SALSA, AND MARGARITAS ============================ I should proceed this review by saying that I was really reluctant to book Salsa and Salsa for one of our cruise excursions in Cozumel. However, after a lot of coaxing from my fiancé I finally gave in and in hindsight, must admit that I probably had even more fun than she did.
As some of the reviewers have described, the excursion begins with a quick change into the chef's apron, hat, and a brief intro before segueing into the mixing of a Margie on the rocks. Afterward, everyone works in groups of two, to prep, combine, and customize a series of seven salsas. You are given chips and quesadillas to test out your concoctions. I highly recommend volunteering when offered as it only adds to the experience and fun. Finally, they day is concluded with instruction on the basic Salsa dance steps and a dance-off.
Our activity coordinators or "dancing chefs" as they are known (Pamela and Amanda) were awesome, funny, and high energy. They accommodated our group of about 30 people, giving personal attention to all while keeping things moving. I learned during the tour, that they have worked with groups as large as a hundred participants. Especially neat, was their ability to turn table strangers into "friends" - an extension, no doubt, of their personalities. Equally friendly and efficient was the wait staff who made sure our glasses were always full and ingredients replenished.
I highly recommend this event if you have the time - you won't be disappointed.
"Artisans" were overly aggressive and all sold the same thing, booth to booth. What was particularly disturbing was the fact that while one salesperson was speaking to you, another would be trying to pull you to their booth.
If you are 'forced' to port in Labadee, check out Dragon's Breath for some majestic views. The point gets its name from the waves that cause 'hissing' through rock crevasses.
While in Jamaica, we participated in two excursions:
DUNN'S RIVER FALLS ================== The Falls in itself is beautiful and set upon a lush and green backdrop of tropical trees and foliage and thus, the three stars for my review is for the excursion and not the natural beauty that is Dunn's River.
The climb is basically an easy ascent up a "stair of rocks" as i refer to it. I realize that easy is a relative term, but really, the only aspect which made it challenging was the fact that the rocks are wet. Between the slow moving human chain, a pre-determined path, and the fact that large foot holes are filled in by sandbags, safety is not a major concern. Personally, I would have liked to have had the option of choosing among different paths up of varying difficulty to make the excursion more enjoyable.
Contrary to some of the reviews, you do not need water shoes. In fact, I found that my breathable Adidas running shoes (sockless) offered more traction. The water shoes are there more for those who do not want to get their sneakers wet. In fact, I saw a couple people climbing in Crocs, which I personally wouldn't recommend.
Finally, our guides were friendly and accommodating. They carried a few of my fellow climbers' cameras, keeping them dry, and taking photos at designated scenic points on their behalf. All in all, the day was fine, just not great - I would definitely return to the Falls, but more so as a photog than a climber.
DOLPHIN ENCOUNTER ================= We were a bit apprehensive prior to booking this excursion, with regard to the conditions in which the dolphins are kept. However, after reading a number of positive reviews, we decided to book and were happy to find that these reviews were in fact, quite accurate. Firstly, the dolphins are kept in a large lagoon type area with ample space to swim and play. More importantly though, in speaking with the handlers / trainers, I learned that they are very knowledgeable and seemed to truly care for the animals.
We did the full swim experience which included the dorsal pull, kiss, and swim by. The water time was about 30 minutes and there is a photographer / videographer filming throughout. DVDs and image CDs are available for purchase afterward and they take all major credit cards. We paid $109.00 for the DVD and the all photos.
Following the excursion and lunch, we returned to the pool to find all of the dolphins (5 of them) playing together, which was nice to see since they deserved a break as well. Budget about 2-3 hours for the outing and have a great time.