Summary - I sailed the Carnival Freedom's 6-day itinerary from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West, Grand Cayman, and Ochos Rios, Jamaica. Overall it was a good cruise experience that I would recommend. Carnival continues to be a great vacation value. The condition of the ship and the quality of the food, service, and entertainment were high relative to the cost of the cruise.
Pre-Cruise -â€" Earlier in the year I had stayed at the Embassy Suites Hotel on SE 17th St. in Ft. Lauderdale. I liked the hotel and the location so much, I booked it again for a 2-night stay before for this cruise. Since I didn't get a rental car, it was important to me to stay somewhere that had what I needed within walking distance.
The Harbor Shops are located behind the hotel, and feature a variety of shops and restaurants. I bought wine to take onboard with me at Publix, as well as snacks and food for lunch. There's also a wine store for those with more upscale tastes. Both nights I ate dinner at locally owned restaurants within the complex. The day before the cruise I got a manicure at the Harbor Shop's nail salon for a fraction of what one would cost onboard the ship.
There's a Walgreen's a few blocks away from the Embassy Suites, as well as an assortment of other stores and eating establishments. Further down 17th St. is a water taxi stop located underneath the causeway bridge next to the Hilton. The only problem I encountered was crossing the 6-8 lanes of traffic on 17th Street. The pedestrian lights are short and the traffic is heavy. Anyone elderly or disabled may find it difficult or next to impossible to cross within the allotted time.
Due to the number of ships in port Saturday and Sunday, the Embassy Suites was booked to capacity both nights. The number of people staying at the hotel, combined with the atrium design and indoor waterfalls, created a loud, echo chamber effect. The lobby tended to be crowded with groups of pre- and post-cruise ship passengers waiting to go to the port or check into the hotel. I used the hotel's port shuttle that costs $12 per passenger.
Boarding -â€" There were five ships in port the day of embarkation, including Allure of the Seas, one of the Royal Caribbean ships that holds over 5,000 passengers. It was chaotic, but the lines in the Carnival terminal kept moving and I was onboard the Freedom within 45 minutes. I spent the half hour until the cabins were ready at 1:30 pm waiting outside one of the lounges on Deck 5. My strategy was to go to my cabin and start unpacking instead of heading up to the Lido, figuring that the people who boarded early would be done with lunch and tables would be available. When I arrived at my cabin, my suitcase was sitting outside the door, so I was able to start unpacking immediately. I headed up to the Lido at 2:30 pm, only to find a scene even more crowded than the port and cruise terminal. It was difficult to find a table, and assembling a meal involved waiting in line at various food stations.
The saving grace in all of this is that I discovered the outdoor Tandoor station that offered a variety of tantalizing Indian dishes, including fresh baked naan. I ended up eating lunch there four out of the six days I was onboard.
Cabin -â€" I booked an aft 9B premium balcony cabin on Deck 8. The room was huge, with plenty of storage space and room to walk around in. The balcony was slightly larger than those in the regular balcony categories. My cabin steward was Rodney from Trinidad and Tobago. He and his team kept my cabin spotless and always greeted me by name in the hallway.
The Ship -â€" The Freedom is the largest ship I've ever sailed on. Even though I've heard you don't notice the extra passengers, I did. The ship also has a very confusing layout. There are two 2-level restaurants (Posh and Chic) on Decks 3 and 4, creating "dead" spaces that require passengers to either go up or down a few decks to get around them. Both of these decks contain a large number of public areas, including the main show lounge. On the last day of the cruise there were still passengers walking around with puzzled looks on their faces, not sure of what direction to head in to get to their shipboard destination.
The layout of this particular class of Carnival ship would not stop me from sailing it again, but given a preference, I would much prefer cruising on a Spirit class ship. The Carnival Spirit was the best ship I've sailed on in terms of layout and ease of navigation. It's too bad Carnival only built four of that class.
Dining Room and Food -â€" I chose the late fixed dining time (8:15 pm) and was seated at a table for eight, but only four people showed up -â€" me, a man traveling by himself, and two other female solo cruisers. Every night there were empty tables around us. Some nights one or two people would show up and then never appear again. It still puzzles me as to why adults would prefer lukewarm serve-it-yourself food in the Lido to a sit down meal in the dining room.
As mentioned previously, there are two dining rooms on the Freedom. Posh is used for fixed, traditional dining, and Chic is used for anytime dining. I predict that within a few years most cruise lines, including Carnival, will move to only offering the anytime dining option that Norwegian Cruise Line pioneered.
I ate all my dinners in the dining room, and also had breakfast and lunch there when it was open for those meals. The food ranged from good to excellent. Some of the standout dishes included the braised short ribs, West Indian roasted pumpkin soup, pepper pot soup, Mongolian beef salad, cream of wild mushroom soup, Jamaican red bean soup, sweet potato soup, amaretto cake, and Grand Marnier soufflÃ©. You can probably tell I really enjoyed the soup selections.
The first night in the dining room, I ordered the Indian vegetarian meal from the everyday menu and it was outstanding. The meal included a side item consisting of cumin-scented red onions baked into a yeast flatbread. It was one of the best things I've eaten in my entire life. The lobster tail served with shrimp on one of the elegant nights was mushy.
One day I had a great Reuben sandwich from the deli grill in the Lido, and the oatmeal in the dining room at breakfast was always served hot with no lumps. I used room service one time for lunch. I ordered a shrimp salad sandwich that was delivered promptly. The sandwich was fresh and tasty, and served with potato salad even though I ordered potato ships. I attribute the spud mix-up to a language barrier.
Crew - The crew on this ship was consistently polite, friendly, and helpful. I didn't care for the Cruise Director, Brad. I found him to be rather silly, and everything was incredible -â€" "I'd like to thank our incredible stage crew for the incredible job they've done putting on this incredible show for our incredible passengers". You get the picture.
Entertainment -â€" My favorite evening production in the show lounge was "The Big Easy" that had, as you might suspect, a New Orleans theme. Both the singing and dancing were high energy and very good. Normally I don't listen to Latin music, but passing through the atrium bar on the first night, I heard the band Latin Fever. They were excellent, and featured a female singer on lead vocals. I made a point of catching them every night in whatever lounge they were playing in.
I played bingo whenever it was held, and won $1,000 in the jackpot game held on the last night. It's nice to come home from a cruise with cash in hand.
Ports -â€" I did Key West on my own, and booked excursions through the ship in Grand Cayman and Jamaica. This was my second trip to Key West, so I wanted to visit places I didn't get to the first time. I walked down Whitehead St. to the buoy marking the southernmost point in the USA. Then I headed back towards town on Whitehead and stopped at Harry Truman's Little White House where I took the guided tour. After lunch on the ship, I stopped by the post office to mail some postcards and then walked over to Duvall Street to take in the sights and people watch. Before getting back on the ship I thought I would get a dish of key lime sorbet, but at $5.50 (!) a scoop, I took a pass.
On Grand Cayman I took an island bus tour that included a stop at the Turtle Farm. I had second thoughts about my decision to take the Sky Explorer aerial tram at Ochos Rios as we headed up the mountain. Both of my palms were sweaty as I hung on for dear life. Once we reached the top, there were some interesting displays documenting the history of Jamaica and featuring famous Jamaicans such as musician Bob Marley and athletes Patrick Ewing and Usain Bolt. There was also the requisite gift shop, bar, and restaurant, as well as a lookout point. The trip back down the mountain was less scary than going up.
Photographers - I've never seen so many on a cruise ship, and I found them generally annoying.
Future Cruise Certificate -â€" I liked my cruise so much I purchased a future cruise certificate for $100. This was the first time I purchased one from Carnival. The $100 serves as the deposit on a future cruise, and you get onboard credit depending on the number of days in the itinerary. The future cruise must be booked within two years of the certificate purchase, and you have three years from the certificate purchase to actually take the cruise.
Debarkation -â€" Prior to leaving home I had purchased Carnival's bus transfer to the airport. Debarkation was painless and orderly, and I had time for a leisurely breakfast in the dining room before my number was called. Ft. Lauderdale Airport was anything but leisurely and orderly. Seven ships came into port that morning, including Oasis of the Seas. With seven ships' worth of passengers trying to fly out of Ft. Lauderdale and the same number of passengers trying to fly in, it was worse than anything I've ever experienced, including the day before Thanksgiving. You just had to laugh, but not everyone appreciated the humor. After the noon hour it started to thin out a little bit to the extent that you could actually find a seat at your gate.