We flew in from Maine a day early and used Melbourne Airport instead of Orlando. Great choice. Melbourne Airport is small, no rush, no hassle. Rented a car from Budget and took a scenic, relaxed drive up the coast to Cocoa Beach, (about 1/2 hr) where we were staying the night pre-cruise. We stayed at the International Palms Resort, right on the beach. Got the room for $50 on one of the discount booking sites. The hotel is undergoing major renovations, and when done, it will be amazing. We had one of the older rooms, worn, but clean. For one night, clean is all we care about. We chose it because it was right on the beach, and we took a long sunset walk before turning in.
Turned in the car, got shuttled to the ship, around 10:30. Were in the Windjammer buffet by 11:45 or so. Embarkation was organized and easy.
THE SHIP: The biggest and absolutely the most beautiful ship we have ever been on. The decor is gorgeous. For the huge amount of passengers aboard, it never felt crowded. Nor did we encounter any long waits for elevators. You will be amazed at the Promenade, with all it's shops, eateries, etc. You have to remind yourself you are on a ship, and not downtown somewhere. Watch your Cruise Compass for daily events carefully. Many of them take place here in the Promenade. If you like to star-gaze, make your way forward to the Helipad at night. It's dark up there, and lots of stars. Windy, though! Deck 4 is great for walking around the ship outside, day or night.
STATEROOM: We had an oceanview room on the lower deck (2). We always take the lower deck, it's quiet down there, and it's a quick one flight down the stairs away from the gangway, when we are in port. We did find that the room was a bit smaller than the Carnival equivalent stateroom, less closet and drawer space. But, we made do. Bathroom is tiny, but it has those lovely sliding shower doors, instead of the clingy shower curtain. No free little sample goodies, but, no biggie. Room Steward very personable, and kept the room spotless.
CREW: Never have seen such a happy, friendly crew. From the moment we stepped aboard, we were met with huge smiles, jokes, enthusiasm from everyone. Everyone on board went above and beyond to please.
FOOD: So many reviewers complain about the food. It's "bland", it's un-inspired", there isn't much selection, etc. Well, I think there must be another Freedom of the Seas, out there in a parallel universe......because these comments don't describe the food on our ship. We found the food, in every venue, to be very good......as good, if not better, than any of our other 6 cruises (not all on Carnival, by the way).
DINING ROOM: We had first seating, Isaac Dining Room. I requested, and got, a table for two by the window. Our waiters, Ozzy and Carlito were great. Carlito refilled our iced tea glasses so quickly we never could actually finish a glass. The Maitre'D was very attentive......he made the rounds to all the tables every night, to check on our satisfaction with the night's meal. The first night's dinner service was slow. We scooted out at 7:30, before dessert was served, so we could attend the Welcome Aboard show. Our waiters were crushed that we were leaving early, and couldn't stop apologizing for the delays. But, we assured them it wasn't their fault, that the show was just scheduled too early. Which it was, at 7:45. The rest of the week was better, but you should know that supper in the dining room is usually about a 1-1/2 hour affair. If you like quick, grab and go meals, the dining room isn't for you. Some of the dishes we especially enjoyed were: the Vidalia Onion Tart, the Prime Rib (perfectly cooked), the Turkey Dinner, the sliced Beef dinner (sorry, can't remember the exact name) and the Rack of Lamb. Yes, the Lobster tails were small (especially to us Mainers), but you can order more than one. Oh, and the Tiger Shrimp dinner had only 5 or 6 shrimp. Order two!
WINDJAMMER BUFFET: The Greeter at the entrance was always so jolly, and he had a different get-up every day, to match the mood of the ports we visited. Fun! Again, don't know where all the negative comments come from. It was never crowded, we always were able to score a seat by the windows in the back. The food was always good, and had a nice selection. Everyone raves about the Honey Stung Chicken. Can't say I was impressed. It's a breaded Chicken Pattie, for Pete's sake, nothing special that I could see. I was surprised to see that you could get scrambled eggs with baby shrimp in them. Never saw that before. By the way, not one morning were the scrambled eggs watery, another common complaint. What WAS watery was the OJ, if you didn't purchase the fresh squeezed. Drinks are pre-poured, you don't have to juggle your plates and try to pour your juice from a machine at the same time. I liked that.
OTHER EATING VENUES: Sorrentos and the Promenade Cafe had delicious munchies, either for a quick snack, or you could fill up with different items. We literally couldn't walk through the Promenade without grabbing a bite of something that was calling to us from inside the eateries. We didn't eat at any of the extra charge restaurants.
ACTIVITIES: So many things to do! My husband did the Climbing Wall, and, at 65 yrs old, scrambled up it faster than some young guys. The Flowrider was fun to sit and watch, but we didn't try it. Didn't do the ice skating, either, couldn't squeeze it in. The Bellyflop contest was hilarious, and, now, with the big screen poolside, they project it up there, so everyone gets a good view. There is a screening room to watch recent movies, and, in the main theater they show 3-D movies now, several times a week. We watched "How To Train Your Dragon". Tons of Trivia, Seminars, Classes. There is so much to do!
ENTERTAINMENT: Cruise Director Graham Seymour "makes" the cruise. He is a riot.
SHOWS: Not crazy about the two Production Shows. They were very well done and all, but we don't care much for "song and dance" type shows. Just personal preference. The magician show was really good, and left the audience in awe with his last illusion. Love and Marriage always fun to watch, and Graham really knew how to maximize the experience. The "Quest". Don't miss it! It's on late, had to nag my husband to stay up and watch it, but it's the funniest thing we saw all week. Really. Don't miss it. We had the Nelson Brothers (Gunnar and Matthew) on our cruise. They did a Tribute to Ricky Nelson as one night's show, then the next day they performed again in the Olive or Twist Lounge. They stayed and chatted and posed for pictures, until the last guest had left the lounge. A real class act. Not sure if they are on every sailing, we picked them up in Cozumel, I think. Oh, and the Ice Show. Another "don't miss". Amazing. Do not miss! Everybody will be talking about it. There is a parade in the Promenade on the first night. It's late, 11p.m. I think. It's a very lively parade, great costumes, dancing, music, Dreamworks characters, etc. I was wide awake and all pumped up after that! The parade is repeated again later in the week, a better time for young children. It's at 5:45, but you will still have time to get to the dining room if you have first seating. Maybe 5 minutes late. It's impossible to touch on all the fun activities to do in your week on the Freedom. My advice is to read your daily Cruise Compass very carefully, and highlight what interest you to do for the day. Then, make a plan to try and squeeze it all in. You can rest when you get home!
DISEMBARK: We did self-assist, were off the ship by 7 a.m. Easy, easy, easy.
LABADEE, HAITI: The most beautiful place I have ever seen. We did the Dragon's breath Zipline, the 9 a.m. group (cooler in the day). I know, at $85 it's awful pricey, but it's the ride of a lifetime. To watch it, it seems like you hit hard at the end of the line, because it makes a loud "clang" noise. But, the seat swings up, so you don't feel a whiplash effect or anything. There is some snorkeling at the beach area under the zipline, but it's not that great. B-B-Que lunch is plentiful. Is it the best B-B-Que food I've ever had? No.....but you are eating it in paradise! Little roaming musicians play music, but they are a bit pushy about trying to sell you their CD's. There are shows in a little amphitheater with cultural dancing. Unfortunatley, there is no shade, so it gets really hot. They have a donation basket after the performance. We chilled out at Columbus Cove (follow the signs) for the day, nice calm water, loungers, shade. Had a Labadoozie...............tasty, but not much rum in it. Labadee is just a great, relaxing day, in a picture perfect place. You'll love it.
FALMOUTH, JAMAICA: Port area still under construction, but it will be nice some day. We took a ship excursion.....Mountain Valley Bamboo Rafting. It involves a 1 hr bus ride (get a chance to see some countryside), then a 45 minute river ride on a long bamboo raft, poled by a Jamaican guide. Along the way, the guide stopped and brought us some fruit to try, then later cut open a coconut for us, and had us drink the coconut milk with a bamboo straw, then scooped out the coconut meat for us to eat. Then, he took some stones (like pumice stones)and gave me a foot massage with them, then later washed my feet off with leaves he pulled from the riverbank. Quite the experience! Later, the group got a little demonstration about rums, and we got to try a couple of liquors. Then, onto an open air tractor to a small banana grove, for a little talk on the many uses of banana products. Lastly, we had a quick lunch of chicken, slaw and rice and beans. Another 1 hr ride back. We really enjoyed our little Jamaican experience tour. I would tell you, though, that some of the roads to get to the river are seriously bumpy, you will get bounced around. A lot. Be on the dock side of the ship for sailaway, there are dancers and marchers that give the ship a fun send-off.
GRAND CAYMAN: Took a short island tour that included Hell, the Turtle Farm, the Rum Cake Factory. Not very exciting, but now we can say "been there, done that". If you haven't yet done the Stingray excursion, do that. It's a "must-do". Husband snorkeled at Eden Rock (free if you have your own stuff), just a short walk from the tender dock. Lots of big Tarpons there, and other colorful fish.
COZUMEL: Took a cab/tour to San Gervasio Mayan Ruins. It's a small site, but actually had more than I anticipated. It takes about an hour to roam around and see the ruins. The cab was going back to the pier, but we negotiated with him to drop us off at Chankanaab National Park instead, for no extra charge. What a beautiful park! $21 entry fee, but free loungers, palapas for shade. Best snorkeling of the trip. Husband took tons of "fish" pictures. We lounged, swam, relaxed there the rest of the day. Another little slice of paradise.