Western Caribbean on the Freedom of the Seas

8/27/06 to 9/3/06 

 

Ports of Call:  Miami, Florida;  Cozumel, Mexico; Georgetown, Grand Cayman;
Montego Bay, Jamaica;  Labadee, Hispaniola

 

Preface:

When people ask us for recommendations for booking a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season, we have always strongly recommended against it.  Living in South Florida, we are well aware of the risk of potential itinerary changes.  But with the brand new largest cruise ship in the world, the Freedom of the Seas, sailing out of Miami, we couldn’t resist the temptation to spend a week with her.  We are so glad we didn’t resist, because the Freedom is an awesome ship with a great crew.

As our embarkation day approached Tropical Storm Ernesto was headed into the same waters as all four of the Western Caribbean ports.  I couldn’t see any way that we would be able to keep the original itinerary.  Sure enough on Saturday, the day before our sail date, our original port itinerary was changed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Maartin and Labadee.  We were disappointed but decided to take the change in stride, especially since the Freedom herself was our main destination.

 

Embarkation: 

As usual, we arrived at the port early in hope of embarking as soon as possible.  We parked in the parking garage adjacent to the Freedom terminal, and at 11:10 AM we got into the line outside to enter the building.  Although there were lots of folks anxious to board the Freedom, the line moved smoothly and the process was well organized.  Once we got to the registration area where you go up to the agents at the counter, there was no wait at all.  Then, with cruise cards in hand, we headed for the security area.  There was a slight traffic build up there, but with three x-ray machines it moved adequately.  Thirty minutes after we got in line we were in the waiting lounge ready to board the ship.

But then everything slowed way down.  We were in a large room with very few places to sit.  Carol was able to squeeze into a space on a bench next to a group that we later found out was a wedding party.  They had been told to have everyone in the waiting room to board the Freedom at 10:00 for the wedding.  Since it was 11:40 when we arrived in the waiting area, we really felt sorry for this group.

We asked the security people when they thought we would be able to board; and they said probably around 1:00 PM, since everyone getting off the ship hadn’t cleared customs yet.  We couldn’t imagine why it was taking so long, but we would find out seven days later.

While waiting, we recognized some of the people from our Cruise Critic Roll Call from a photo collage that Carol had put together. It was nice to finally meet some of the folks we had been chatting with for several months.

We were thrilled when they told us that we were going to be doing the original Western Caribbean itinerary.  We couldn’t imagine how it was possible based on the path we had seen.  We found out that Hurricane Ernesto had taken a major directional change toward the North.  That was a “good news, bad news” thing for us, since it now meant that our house 50 miles North of Miami could be in the path.

Upon entering the waiting room, everyone had been given colored boarding tickets with a number.  This determined the order in which each group would board the ship.  With us being Platinum Crown and Anchor members, we received a ticket with “Priority” on it, which was to be the first group called.  The waiting would have been much easier if Royal Caribbean had provided more seating.  After about 30 minutes we, finally boarded the Freedom at 12:10 PM.

What a beautiful ship!  I really wanted to see it all, but we had things to do first.  The hallways to the cabins were blocked by doors that were shut and had signs saying that they would not be opened until 1:00 PM.  I’m sure that the room stewards really appreciate that, and are able to turnover the rooms much more efficiently without the new passengers getting in their way.

That worked fine for us, since we needed to go up to the Windjammer and get lunch before our normal routine started.  

         

Carol and Mike                                             Beth and Jamie

On the way, I stopped by Chops and Portofino to make our reservations for later in the week.   We had planned in advance the nights and times we wanted.  Waiting to make reservations can result in not getting the day and times that you prefer, since the restaurants are not that large and they are very popular.

After lunch we headed down to our cabin and began our usual routine.  While Carol unpacks and sets up her nest I run around the ship like a madman taking pictures of everything before it gets too crowded with people.

 

           

         

The muster drill was at 4:45PM.  This was one of the few disappointments on the cruise, related to the ship.   I don’t understand why some ships have their muster drills inside and others outside on the Promenade deck.  Unfortunately, the Freedom’s muster was outside, which is not where you want to be on a hot summer day in South Florida. 

To add to the misery, they made many announcements in multiple languages that didn’t relate to the muster; and that made it last longer than it needed to last.  Plus it was very difficult to hear and understand the announcements coming over the speakers.  Another thing that I didn’t understand was that in the pre-drill announcement, we were told to wear our life preservers to the muster drill rather than carry them.  In the hallway, before you got out onto the Promenade deck, the muster team checked to make sure you had the jacket on properly.  While we were standing out in the hot sun, the captain told everyone how to put on their life preservers and the muster team folks showed us again, how to put them on after we already had them on!

 

I understand and thoroughly agree with the importance of this muster.  However, I think that people would listen and learn more if the procedure were not unnecessarily uncomfortable.  Someone needs to review this process.

 

Cabin:   

With the end of August being so very hot, we had decided not to book a balcony cabin.  We knew we wouldn’t use it much, plus the sun beating on the curtains would make the cabin warmer.

         

Promenade Cabin # 6277

One of the unique features of the Voyager and Freedom class ships are the interior cabins that have a window that looks out onto the Promenade.  Since the Promenade is like a main street or mall in the center of the ship, it is a main activity hub.  With the Promenade cabin, we could watch the events and also just people watch from our cabin.  With the ship being the main destination, the Promenade cabins are a great lower price alternative to a balcony cabin.

         

                                                Our view                                               Carol in the window

Some people are worried that being in a Promenade cabin would be too noisy.  We were quite surprised at how quiet the cabin was.  It is very well insulated from the sounds on the Promenade.  The only time that we could hear much was when the sounds were amplified and pumped through the loud speakers.  Normal sounds were non-existent or very muffled. 

On the other hand, we had some noisy neighbors that came back to their cabin between 4:00 AM and 5:00 AM every morning and were a bit rambunctious.  The hallway and wall insulation couldn’t stop that noise!  This would have been a problem in any cabin.

          

Our steward Anthony                          Towel Animals

Being an inside cabin, it is small.  At only 149 sq. ft. we were worried that it would be too crowded.  It turned out to be quite adequate for a seven day cruise.  Having the bowed window with a cushioned seat really made a big difference.  It was like having an extra couch in the cabin.  The bowed window was covered by a very effective blackout curtain.  It kept the room very dark and made it very easy to “sleep in”. 

The new bedding used on the Freedom is just wonderful.  It is a major upgrade over any bedding we have ever had on a ship.  It was just too comfortable and yet provided great support.  Plus the sheets and duvet cover are very soft.  RCI has set a new standard for sleeping comfort on board ships.  We have been spoiled.

 

Royal Caribbean has done an excellent job of fully utilizing all available space for storage.  At first the closet looks too small; but the design makes it very functional and was more than adequate without us having to utilize the extra hanger rod that was available.  The beds are also a bit higher than normal and allow for easier storage of suitcases.

 

One design flaw is that there is a shelf area above the closet that was probably intended to store the lifejackets.  Unfortunately, it is just a little too narrow and they won’t fit up there out of the way.  Therefore, they had to be kept on the closet floor.

On each side of the desk mirror is a section like a bathroom medicine cabinet.  At first the very narrow shelves look useless except for very narrow objects, since they are only about 1.5 inches deep. But surprisingly we were able to put fairly large objects, like hair spray and cold drink cans in there with no problem.  The desk also had double electric outlets, which meant we didn’t need to use our power strip. 

 

There are 4 small dresser drawers and 2 very small bedside drawers in the room.  Had there not been shelves in the closet, it would have been a big problem.  Since these cabins are designed for no more than two people, it worked out okay for the amount of things needed on a 7 day cruise.

Like all of the newer RCI ships, the bathroom had the sliding doors on the shower which is, in our opinion, much better than a shower curtain.  It makes the small bathroom feel roomier.  It did seem like the commodes were quieter on the Freedom.  The loud “whoosh” sound they normally make seemed to be toned down a little. 

               

The flat panel TV was another great addition, since it didn’t take up much room and the quality was quite nice.  However, we were disappointed that the external inputs had been disabled.  We were hoping to be able to see our photos on the TV screen, but since it was not available, I was glad I had brought my laptop.  This could be a problem for those that are hoping to watch DVDs they bring from home.

The refrigerator was the standard cruise ship size and did its job well keeping drinks cold.  It was quite silent.  The safe, which is in the closet, was positioned where it was easy to access.  The locking system works very well and allows for easy access and closure.

 

Ship

Because the Freedom of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship in the world, it is very difficult to even see all of the public rooms on the ship.  Believe me, I tried and I know I didn’t see them all.  I just didn’t have the time.  I was still discovering new spots on the last day of the cruise.  We did feel that the ship felt a little crowded, particularly at night when more people were onboard and not off on excursions or out by the pools.

Before discussing the various public rooms and attractions, I want to briefly discuss the main reason the Freedom is such a great ship --- the people. We were so pleased to find that Captain Erik Tengelsen was interested in talking with and spending time with the passengers. He absolutely beams with the pride he feels in this ship.  He is very friendly and acknowledged or spoke to us when we ran into him several times on the ship.

He is very approachable.  Carol told him that the hurricane was heading toward our home, and that she didn’t know its strength.  He said that he would try to remember to give an update during his morning announcements.  We were very pleased that, with every thing else he had on his mind, he did remember; and he was able to tell us that Ernesto was only a tropical depression when it reached our area.

Capt. Erik Tengelsen, Carol, and Hotel Director Benny Weidacher  

We also met the Hotel Director, Benny Weidacher.  We told him about a possible accident waiting to happen with our bathroom cabinet door, where the inside edge of the metal strip was very sharp.  He said he would take care of it, and immediately got on his radio and reported it.   Sure enough it was fixed the next day, and one of the supervisors told us they would check the other cabins to see if they had a similar problem.  Later in the cruise Benny thanked us again for reporting the problem.

The biggest star of the Freedom is the Cruise Director, James Andrews.  He is just too much!  James is an Aussie with an incredible sense of humor and energy.  His expressions and mannerisms kept everyone in stitches, both during shows as well as during other activities.  His antics hosting the Love and Marriage show and Quest were just incredible.  He is hyperactive and just doesn’t stop.  He is everywhere and is always creating fun.  He is the most energetic and entertaining Cruise Director we have ever had.  Be sure to cruise with James before he burns himself out!  Just kidding, but seriously he is a treat that should not be missed.

              

Cruise Director James Andrews

Now, on to the ship herself!  Since she is so new and so large, this review will be more in detail about the Freedom than the ports.  Below are some of the various public rooms and attractions on the fabulous Freedom.  There are a bunch of them, but remember I couldn’t get to all of them.

 

Navigator and Freedom - nose to nose in Miami  06-03-06

Dining Room – The dining room is located at the back of the ship on three levels, with each deck having a different restaurant name even though it is actually one large, open dining room.  Deck 3 is Leonardo’s, Deck 4 is Isaac’s and Deck 5 is Galileo’s.  (Menus)

              

The grand staircase and the chandeliers were gorgeous.  It is a beautiful and quite elegant room.  The arrangement of the tables allowed an adequate amount of room between them for the wait staff to get around easier than on some ships we have been on.

              

Arcadia Theater – The biggest ship in the world needs to have the biggest theater on a cruise ship.  The Arcadia is very big; and although some seats are pretty far from the stage, they still offer a good view.  There is an outstanding array of electronic equipment that puts out some fantastic sounds and lighting displays.

My only minor complaint concerns the drink holder on the seats.  The seats are very comfortable, but unlike many ships, rather than a lift up movable tray to put your drinks on, a slot in the arm rest is used to hold the glass.  Since the arm rest is short, the glass sits very close to you and is easy to knock around and spill.  I ended up holding my drink since I was worried that I would spill it on someone next to me, or it would be knocked over.  This is not a good design.

The temperature control in the Arcadia was very good.  It was not too cold and there was no vent in the floor blowing directly on you like some ships we have been on.

Royal Promenade – This is the heart of the ship and takes up most of Deck 5.  It contains all sorts of shops, bars and eateries.  It is just a fun place to hang out and enjoy this wonderful ship.  You can stroll along and window shop or enjoy a bite to eat while people watching from the comfort of a sidewalk cafe.

              

 

                      

              

Sorrento's Pizza                                                Bull and Bear Bar 

              

Barber Shop                                                  Down to the Casino

The centerpiece of the Royal Promenade hangs from the ceiling, and is a sculpture of a female diver entering the water.  It’s quite a sight.

              

Since the lighting in the promenade changes with the time of day, the area is always changing in its appearance.  At night, when it is dark, the lighting changes colors making the promenade look quite lovely.

              

At each end of the Royal Promenade are centrums that extend up to Deck 11.  They are quite impressive.

Aft Centrum Stairs 

              

Looking down from deck 11 into the Forward Centrum and the Aft Centrum

Day Spa – This is a first class spa facility and is quite appealing.  It is beautifully decorated and feels so serene that it really pulls you in.  We just didn’t have time to experience it.  It is at the front of Deck 12.

 

                

Solarium – This is the 16 and older pool/hot tub area on Deck 11.  Most ships have this as a covered area; but I guess that since the Freedom will only be sailing the Caribbean, RCI felt that an enclosure wouldn’t be needed that much.  It is a pretty and relaxing area with a lovely pool.

              

The highlight of the solarium is the two cantilevered whirlpools that hang out over the sides of the ship.  They are quite nice and give a unique perspective as you look down at the water.  The nighttime effect is very romantic.

              

H2O Zone – Oh to be a kid again!  What an incredible area for the children to spend their days in.  The bright colors and the many ways that they can play with the water and get soaked make this area irresistible.

              

Just watching the kids and their parents, who are using the kids as an excuse to be there, is a pleasure.  I can see this type of area being added to other ships in the fleet.  It is a real winner.

              

FlowRider – The FlowRider is just too cool.  I certainly wanted to try it, but common sense won that argument.  This attraction is not made for overweight 59 year olds.  It would be pretty easy for me to damage myself enough to ruin the rest of the cruise, maybe even the rest of my life.  But it surely would have been fun trying.  Maybe the next time I am on a Freedom class ship, I will give it a try --- if I can lose enough weight before then!  Everyone was having so much fun with it.

              

Pools – Other than the Solarium Pool, there are two other pools on deck 11.  They are separated by a walkway.  The main pool is for swimming, and the Sports Pool is used mainly for various sport activities like scuba lessons and water volley ball. 

              

The Freedom has their own volleyball team that won every game I saw them play.  Although they were very good players, since Cruise Director James Andrews was on the team, they had a lot of fun and were quite entertaining.

Deck 12 – This is where the kids hang out at Adventure Ocean and the Challengers Arcade.  This is quite a popular area.  Of course Johnny Rockets is very close so they can get their junk food fixes when needed.

                

              

Deck 13 – This is a sports area where in addition to the FlowRider, there are several other sporting attractions.  They include basketball, miniature golf, the golf simulator and the very popular and highest rock climbing wall on any cruise ship.

                

                               

Deck 11 restaurants – At the back of deck eleven is the Windjammer Café.  It is a very nicely arranged buffet with multiple food lines and islands.

              

The Windjammer is separated into two sides that are exactly the same with the Jade buffet line at the front of each section.  Jade serves Asian food as well as other items.

With the island arrangement it was relatively easy, even at high traffic times, to be able to get something to eat. A nice feature of the Windjammer is that since it is at the back of the ship, the back of the restaurant is a great place to sit to enjoy the lovely aft view.

              

Breakfast in the Windjammer                               Jamie & Beth enjoy the view

Also on Deck 11 are Portofino, RCI’s fine Italian dining restaurant and Chops, the home of high quality steaks.  They are located across from each other right before the entrance to the Windjammer.

              

Portofino Italian Restaurant 

              

Chops Grille

Shipshape Fitness Center – This is a great workout facility in the front of Deck 11.  I normally see the fitness center on the first day and never get back to it.  I guess there are just too many other more enjoyable things to do.  I would have liked to try out some of the equipment, since it looked better than the gym I normally go to at home.  Maybe next time.

                        

A unique attraction here is the boxing ring.  It is interesting to see what a real boxing ring looks like, but I don’t understand having one on a ship.  I don’t know if anyone used it during the cruise; but I’ll bet that the Liberty doesn’t have one, especially since it takes up a lot of space.

Library – Freedom has a very well stocked library that is located just outside the rear Centrum on Deck 7.  It has a nice selection of both hardbacks and paperbacks on a wide variety of subjects.  Even though it is an open area, instead of being a closed off room, it is still quiet and a relaxing place to curl up with a book.

              

 

Royal Caribbean Online – I could not believe how small the internet café was on this huge ship.  It is on Deck 8, just above the library.  It only had twenty stations.  The one time I used it was when we were in port and it wasn’t crowded at all, but it must have been ugly trying to get on during sea days or at night.

Deck 3 - The main reason to go to Deck 3 is to go to Studio B to see the fabulous ice show.  Studio B is also where they play the Quest Game.  During the Quest, the ice is covered with a floor.

              

Just in front of Studio B is the On Air Club.  This is a sports bar with lots of TVs.  In front of this is the Art Gallery, but the main art auctions are held in the Pharaoh’s Palace.



Pharaoh’s Palace – This show lounge is located at the front of Deck 5.  It is a lovely room in an Egyptian motif, and just has a really nice feel to it.  The room is used for entertainers, dancing and various other ship activities, as well as some of the private functions. 

                

                

 

Connoisseur Club – This cigar smoking lounge is located in the entry hall to the Pharaoh’s Palace.  As expected it is a very dark room with comfortable furniture and smoking decorations.  Although it is clearly marked, due to its unassuming location, I never knew where it was until the last day, when I just happened to notice the door.

              

 

Deck 4 – This is a very popular deck with the Casino Royale in the center of it.  It is a huge casino and was very popular at night.

                

              

It was the one area on the ship where the cigarette smoke was a bit much.  But since we don’t gamble a lot it didn’t affect us unless we had to pass through it going to the photo gallery.  There is a direct access to the casino by a circular staircase from the Royal Promenade.  It was quite a convenient way to get there.

                

On either end of the casino are large bars.  The Schooner Bar has the standard old sailing vessel décor as on most RCI ships.  As usual there are some lovely ship models on display.

              

The Schooner Bar

At the other end of the casino is Bolero’s, home of the best Mojitos around.  I was hoping to enjoy several of them on this cruise, but only had one due to too many other things keeping me busy.  I guess I need to book another cruise, but this time with more sea days to enjoy the many venues.

              

Bolero's Bar 

 

Deck 4 is also where you can check out the many photos that the ship’s photographers will take of you.  With the large number of passengers, it was much more difficult to find your picture than on smaller ships.  They tried to separate the different photos as best they could; but with Labadee all of them were just mixed together.  It made me think we were looking for a needle in a haystack.  We never did find one of the photos they took that day. 

Another bar on deck 4 is the Crypt.  This is a strange room with a graveyard feel to it.  It is a two level room that has stairs going down to the dance floor on Deck 3.

                

              

The Crypt is used for adults 18 and older only, late night events; or on other nights, teen dance parties.  I never got to see it when there was anything going on, but I’ll bet it can be a fun place.

 

Deck 2 – This is where you will find the Screening Room, Freedom’s movie theater.  It looked like a nice theater, but with all the other things to do on this ship, I just didn’t have time to go to a movie.  If we had experienced bad weather, it probably would have been packed.  Deck two is also where you will find the conference center.  It is much bigger than I expected and quite a nice facility for meetings.  I really wish I could convince my company to have some business meetings on the Freedom, so that we could try it out.

              

Screening Room                                                  Conference Room

 

Dress:

We enjoy dressing up for formal night.  Let me correct that, Carol likes to dress up for formal night, and I cooperate with her.  On this cruise, at early seating, most men did not wear tuxedos and quite a large number did not even wear suits or jackets.  More women dressed up, but it was not as formal as we are used to, more tea length dresses than floor length.  Caribbean cruises are just more laid back.

Carol and Mike

              

Tablemates Judy and Steve                                Tablemates Roman and Linda

We were quite surprised at the number of people who wore shorts into the dining room on several nights.  I don’t understand why the “no shorts” rule is not enforced.  I saw a lot of dirty looks aimed their way by the other passengers, and I’m sure there were complaints made about it.

One of the reasons we do like formal nights is to get our formal portraits.  We couldn’t believe how long the lines were to have portraits taken.  They were so long that we would have been late to dinner or the shows if we had waited in them.  I don’t know where all the people in formals came from, since they weren’t at the main seating.  I guess they were probably from the second seating.

 

Food:  (Menus)

We had been disappointed in the dining room food on our last few Royal Caribbean cruises, so our expectations were low.  We had also read reviews complaining about poor service in the dining rooms and servers with bad attitudes on the Freedom.  We were very pleasantly surprised that this was not the case!

The service was impeccable, and the presentation excellent. But, no matter how great the service and presentation, it's the food taste that counts. The prime rib, med. rare, was perfection. I have never ordered the pork chop before because I always expected it to be too dry. This one was delicious and not dry at all. The N.Y. strip steak was thin, but cooked just right and tasty. As always, the Vidalia Onion Tart and the Wild Mushrooms Pastry were excellent. The cold soups were much better than on Princess or on previous RCI cruises. The roasted peach and the strawberry are always good. I was very skeptical about trying "Chilled Forest Berries and Buttermilk Soup" because I'm not keen on buttermilk, but it turned out to be one of the best I've ever had.  It was creamy, sweet, and more like a dessert than a soup. Overall, the Freedom food was some of the tastiest I have had on a cruise ship. 

The beef selections were very good and the side vegetables were varied, unlike our previous RCI cruises where the vegetables seemed to be repeated every night.  The seafood selections other than the lobsters were quite good.  I keep hoping to find a decent lobster tail on a cruise, but I think I am going to quit ordering them.  They just aren’t that special.

We had a wonderful wait staff.  Our waitress was Mina from Serbia, our assistant waitress was Sochiula from India, and our Head Waitress was Mary Ann from Chile.  This is the first time we have had an all female dining room team, and they were just great.  Very pleasant with prompt service and an obvious desire to please.

Head Waitress MaryAnn 

Breakfast and lunch are open seating in the dining room.  Breakfast has the same menu every day, which is okay. Unfortunately, the lunch menu was also the same every day except for one additional selection that they clip onto the menu each day.  There should be more variety for lunches in the dining room, since many people prefer eating there.  The Windjammer food was good, but the variety seemed to be less than I remember for lunch.   Of course there were several other lunch options with Café Promenade and Sorrento’s Pizza both on the Promenade, as well as Johnny Rockets.  The pizza at Sorrento’s was really great, the best we have had on a cruise ship.

We have previously enjoyed Chops and Portofino on other RCI ships, and looked forward to another visit.  As soon as we got on the ship, we made reservations for both restaurants.  With the number of activities that were going on, we had to make sure that we booked on nights that weren’t formal nights and didn’t conflict with the ice shows or production shows.  We ended up booking Portofino on Tuesday at 8:00 after the 7:00 second seating early Production show; and Chops for Wednesday at 6:00 before the 9:00 ice show.

Portofino was everything that we remembered.  Wonderful food and service!  Or waitress was Editha from the Philippines and the restaurant manger was John from India.  They were just wonderful.  It is quite a special restaurant and one we will return to on future cruises.

              

              

Carol with John                                                   Editha and Carol 

While eating our appetizers, we struck up a conversation with the couple at a table next to us.  We found out that Joni and Nick also live in our town of Boynton Beach, Florida and are actually just a few miles from us.  Editha noticed that we were enjoying our conversation with our neighbors; and when we told her about our discovery, she insisted that we push our tables together.  John came over and helped her rearrange them, and it made for a very nice evening.  Attention to detail and anticipating our needs made the service exceptional.

Carol, Nick, Joni, and Mike

For dessert I had to have the Tiramisu that everyone raves about.  It was indeed a wonderful treat.  In addition, it came with a shot of Baileys floating on Kahlua.  Just a lovely way to finish a special meal.  Carol got a dessert sampler that had a small portion of each dessert that was offered.  Quite nice also.

                        

Tiramisu w/ kicker                                     Dessert Sampler

Chops was a treat as always.  Wonderful service and great food.  A new item that has been added since our last visit is the Dungeness Crab and Shrimp Cake.  It was so good that Carol even considered ordering more as the main course. 

                

                             

Elffy                                                             Jesus 

They have also replaced one of our favorites, New England clam chowder with a lobster bisque.  It was very good, but we like the chowder better.  The steaks were tender and delicious as always and cooked to exact perfection.  We had two yummy desserts.  One was an apple bread pudding and the other was a coffee / mocha-cheesecake type thing.  Just as we were enjoying our desserts, Nick and Joni walked in!

              

 

Entertainment:

In our opinion, Royal Caribbean has always had the best entertainment of any of the lines we have been on.  They exceeded our expectations on this cruise. 

With 4,200 guests on board, I assumed that the theater would be standing room only for most shows.  I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case.  With all the different activities going on, there were always seats available in this huge theater.  They weren’t always up close on the first level, but everyone was able to sit and enjoy the show in this wonderful theater.  This is a top notch venue with an incredible sound system. 

Shaughn, Krystal, and Teri waiting for the show

Production shows - There are normally two production shows on a seven day cruise.  They were “Marquee”, which was a very nicely done Broadway show tunes production and “Once Upon a Time”, a nice mix of popular music set to fairy tales.  The sets for the fairy tales were unbelievable for a show at sea.  Coupled with the colorful costumes and fine singing and dancing, this was quite an enjoyable show.  It was also pretty humorous at times.

              

              

              

On this cruise we also had a third production show in the form of a magic show, with the singers and dancers performing during and between the tricks.  They did one song where the dancers climbed the back wall, that was super.  The magician, Drew Thomas, is quite a performer; and the illusions he did just don’t seem to be possible.  In my opinion, this is a “Don’t Miss” show.  Just outstanding!

              

              

Headliner show - We were very pleased to find out that our headliner show was going to be the twin sons of Ricky Nelson, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, who go by the name "Nelson" (http://www.thenelsonbrothers.com/).

They put on a great show performing their own songs and their father’s hits. They were very good and everyone really enjoyed them.

                   

The Arcadia Theater shows normally run just under an hour.  Their show ran an hour and 15 minutes till 10:15.  They just wanted to keep entertaining us.  After the show they posed for pictures with passengers and signed autographs.  With the second show starting at 10:45, I am really surprised that they were so accommodating. 

                   

They also gave a 30 minute show the next night at 10:30 PM on the Promenade.  We were expecting them to be on the bridge over the Promenade, but they performed right on the main street.  It made it more difficult to see them, but it was certainly enjoyed by the crowd.

              

Other Arcadia Theater shows – There were two excellent comedians.  On the first night we had Al Romas, who was quite good and on the last night, DJ Hazard (http://www.djhazard.com/) who is a well known comedian and just hilarious.  Unfortunately, since DJ was on the farewell show which is devoted primarily to selling the cruise video, he was only on for about 15 minutes.

DJ Hazard

Both comedians were preceded by acrobatic flyers, Jimmy and Anna.  They provided beautiful performances as they sailed above the audience on suspended lines.  They are awesome athletes and put on a very memorable show.

              

Jimmy and Anna

Ice Show – The ice shows are presented on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.  Since there is no show in the Arcadia Theater on Wednesday, it is the best day to get tickets if you don’t want to miss any of the other shows.

              

The ice shows are always a pleasure to watch and rather amazing to see on a cruise ship.  In addition to the amazing ice skating talent the performers have, this show also had a “Quick Change” couple.  This is where they change costumes within a few seconds while they are briefly hidden.  Quite amazing!

              

              

Parades – The cruise has two parades that are performed down the middle of the Royal Promenade.  We really enjoyed both of the parades on our Navigator of the Seas cruise, so we were anxious to see what was in store for us on the Freedom.  The first parade, "Party Around the World", is on the first day at 11:15 PM.  We were anxious to watch the parade from our Promenade Cabin, since we could look down on it and not have to fight the crowd to see it.  Our view of the parade was great, but the parade itself was a real let down.  With that title, we thought it would be similar to Navigator’s “Mardi Gras Around the World” theme, which had been great, with very fancy, colorful costumes.  The “Party Around the World” costumes were boring, and it was mostly just an introduction to the different ship departments.  It just wasn’t very exciting. 

              

The second parade, "The Greatest Show at Sea", was at 5:45 PM on day 6.  Now this was the type of parade we were hoping for.  It was very good with colorful costumes and lots of interesting and funny characters.  Although we enjoyed watching the parades from our cabin, I think that it's more fun being in the crowd and being able to see everything that is going on all down the promenade.

              

Krooze Komics - I am always amazed at how RCI is able to find great talents such as these guys who entertain all over the ship.  Their pre-show performances in the Arcadia Theater were just hysterical.

                        

They did some balancing feats with huge objects that didn’t seem possible to do.  At least not by comedians!  I was so awe struck when he balanced a tall step ladder, that I didn't get the picture.

Meet and Mingle: 

The Royal Caribbean / Cruise Critic.com “Meet & Mingle Party” was held on Monday, our first sea day.  Unfortunately, it was held at 5:00 which was the same time as the first Freedom Ice show.  Monday was also our first formal night, so the timing was inconvenient for the early seating diners.  We had to either come to the party in our formal wear or leave the party early to get dressed.

              

Ethan, Resa, and Gerry                                          Allison, Bob, and sons

              

Alex, Hannah, and Markus                               Shaughn, Terri, & Krystal

Even so, we still had a decent attendance of 27 people.  We really enjoyed meeting face to face with some of the people we had been talking to online at (www.cruisecritic.com).  We had only been on the thread since April of ’06, but some of those at the party had been talking since September ’05.

              

Erica and Stephen                                             Nancy and Barbara

              

The RCI hosts, Desire’ and Robin did a great job.  The hors d’oeuvres were in abundance and very tasty.   We each received Royal Caribbean waterproof boxes, and were entered in a raffle.  Nancy (NanNik) won a new computer Wave mouse.

              

Nancy wins a Wave mouse                                Ruth Ann, Robbie, Morris, & Janet

Although the timing was not good, it was well worth the effort to attend the Meet and Mingle.

 

Ports:

We normally book cruises for the ports on the itinerary.  Not so for this cruise.  We booked the Freedom to enjoy the ship.  We had been to Cozumel several times on cruises and land tours; and had visited Grand Cayman and Labadee on previous cruises.  It was very difficult to find new excursions, but we thought we picked some good ones.  We were blessed on this cruise with clear weather everyday, so it made for a nice week.  Apparently Ernesto had pulled all of the rain with it as it headed north.

Cozumel, Mexico –

We had heard that the International Pier repair might be completed by the middle of August. I can’t imagine where a rumor like this could have gotten started.  It has been shut down since Hurricane Wilma devastated Cozumel last year.  It is shocking to see this once massive pier so badly damaged.  The concrete was badly crumbled, and huge pieces of the pier were totally broken off.  It is also a much shorter version of what was once there.  Somehow, the Carnival Ecstasy was able to dock at the remaining part of the pier, but we had to tender using the locally controlled Cozumel boats.  It was slow, but better than we have experienced in some other Mexican ports.

              

We had been to Cozumel several times, and I had spent two separate weeks here on scuba diving trips.  We enjoy coming here primarily for the excellent shopping.

              

Since the ship’s departure time was an early 4:00 PM, we knew we wouldn’t have much shopping time unless we just took a morning excursion.  Knowing how hot Cozumel can be this time of year, we also knew that whatever we did, we wanted it to be in the water.  While in Bora Bora last year, Carol did a helmet dive while I went scuba diving.  She hasn’t stopped raving about how wonderful an experience it was and how she couldn’t wait to do it again.  Since I didn’t have time to do a two tank scuba dive here, I decided to see if I would enjoy the helmet dive with Carol.

              

The helmet dive is a neat concept, where you wear a helmet with a bubble shaped glass front.  The helmet sits on your shoulders and air is pumped in through a hose that is supplied from the surface.

              

In Bora Bora, Carol was in a boat that anchored a little ways off the island, and the water was crystal clear with no current at all.  Cozumel, however, is known for its excellent drift diving.  This is because it has very strong currents.  Currents are not a friend of helmet divers.

              

It reduces visibility and makes it difficult to stand up and walk around.  I was immediately concerned about how good this excursion was going to be when we were shown that we were going to enter the water right next to the building.  The ladder took you down into about twelve feet of water. 

              

Sure enough, the current was rather strong and the water had a lot of floating sediment.  In order to move around, the whole group of us had to hold hands and form a chain.  It was difficult to keep your balance, and the tour guides had us either sit down or kneel while they tried to find things to show us.  We were not allowed to move about freely as Carol did in Bora Bora.

                        

There weren’t many fish around to look at either.  Since I am a scuba diver I assumed I wasn’t enjoying the dive because of my previous diving experiences; but when we got back on the surface, Carol told me how disappointed she was with it also.  I guess Bora Bora is just a better place for this type activity.  In all fairness, some of the others that went down with us, loved it and thought it was fantastic.  My advice would be, if you’ve never been below the surface of the ocean, give it a try; but if you are a diver or have done this in clear waters, don’t waste your time doing it in Cozumel.

Afterwards, we decided to go back to the ship to shower, drop off our swimming gear and have lunch.  The port lecturer had recommended not returning to the ship, since it would take so much time.  She was right.  We should have listened to her.

              

We were anxious to get to town and hit the stores to see what treasures were available.  Carol has been trying to find emerald cut tanzanite earrings to match a pendant she purchased on a 1999 cruise.  We have been on a quest for these for the last seven years trying to match the cut and color.  At last, after all this time, she finally found a perfect match.  Our visit to Cozumel turned out to be a good one after all.

              

We got back to the pier at about 3:15 PM, 15 minutes before the final tender was supposed leave.  We couldn’t believe what we saw.  There was a long line weaving through the shopping area leading to the pier where the tenders were.  The line was not organized, and many people were breaking in ahead of others.  Adding to the confusion was the fact that the Carnival people were having to go through our line to get to their ship.

We knew that this was going to take awhile.  We finally got on board just before 4:00 PM, but there was a long line behind us still waiting to get a tender.  We didn’t leave port until around 5:00 PM rather than the scheduled 4:00. 

  

Georgetown, Grand Cayman –

Once again we had to tender into the island.  It went much smoother here than in Cozumel.  There were three other ships in port, so as expected, it was crowded in town. 

              

Even though we have been to Grand Cayman a couple of times before, we were looking forward to a return visit.  We had booked two excursions that looked really good.  One was a snorkel trip and the other was a two man bubble sub.  When we checked the times on our excursion tickets the day before, we discovered that the snorkel time had been changed from what we had originally booked.  As a result, we had to cancel that excursion because it would run over into the time for the bubble sub; and we weren’t about to miss that adventure.

We spent part of the morning shopping and went to the Hard Rock Café for lunch.  It was very loud, but the air conditioning was just awesome.  It was very hot on Grand Cayman, and the break in a cool environment was just what we needed.  Georgetown is a pretty area, and it was nice to look at it from the cool comfort.

              

While looking out the window, we saw the this pirate ship.  It is one of the excursions to be had on Grand Cayman.  Later in the day, we saw it again; and chuckled that it was going to have a rough time attacking the Freedom!

              

At last it was time to head for our two man bubble sub excursion.  This is an excursion that is unique to Grand Cayman.  After we saw the pictures on the website of the vendor who provides this excursion for RCI (http://bubblesub.com/), we just had to try it.  

(picture from www.bubblesub.com )

There only eight of these unique vessels in the world.  Two of them are used for undersea exploration by universities, others are used by scientists, and this company owns two of them.  They only use one of them at a time and keep the other as a backup and to rotate for maintenance.  Since the dive itself lasts from thirty to forty minutes, there aren’t a lot of time slots available to be able to experience the sub, so you have to book early. 

              

A small boat took us out to the platform that was positioned between the beach and the Freedom, putting it closer to shore than we had expected.  As we boarded the platform we could see that the sub was waiting to take down the couple ahead of us.

              

This vehicle really looked like something you would see on the Discovery Channel.  I was sure it was going to take our underwater experiences to a new level.

Unfortunately, they were running behind schedule because one of the morning couples had arrived 30 minutes late, pushing all the other tours to a later time.  Very inconsiderate!  We were concerned about being the last trip of the day and having our dive cut short. 

Since the last tender was at 5:00 PM and the excursion was scheduled to be 1 ½ hours, there didn’t seem to be much room for error.  There were two diver/tour guides on the platform.  Each of them would sit on the back of the vessel in scuba gear and guide the sub. They alternated dives. 

              

While waiting for the bubble sub to finish the current dive, our guide Robert told us what was going to happen as well as facts about the sub.  He also assured us that we shouldn’t have a problem getting our full time in.

              

However, for some reason the other guide decided to give a longer than normal dive to the couple ahead of us, which really made Robert have to rush to get us set up and descended. 

After a quick safety and instruction briefing, we began our descent.  This was very cool as the water started covering the bubble.

              

              

The guide was able to talk to us and tell us what was happening as he maneuvered us around the coral.  As we looked back at Robert, he wasn’t sitting on the sub anymore; he was suspended in the water holding onto the controls. 

              

The bubble itself is pretty compact and doesn’t leave a lot of room for stretching out and turning around.  One thing we hadn’t expected was that due to the curvature of the bubble, everything looked much smaller than it really was.  That coupled with the low visibility in murky water and not a lot of sea life, kept this from being as good of an underwater viewing experience as we had hoped for. 

             

Even so, the experience of being in this incredible vessel and actually being able to drive it myself was awesome.  Robert drove whenever we got close to the coral formations, but when moving over the sand he would let me take over.  Since the control was like an X-Box hand pad, it felt like playing a video game.  Even Carol took a turn at maneuvering.

It is a shame that due to the logistics of needing to be near the cruise ship docking area, they can’t have the dive in some of the very beautiful diving areas around Grand Cayman.  This type of activity in a place like French Polynesia would really be incredible.

              

Since there really wasn’t that much different to see at the various spots Robert took us to, we weren’t as upset about only having a 30 minute dive rather than 40 minutes.  We were just grateful that we had been able to experience the awesome two man bubble sub. We got back to the platform at about 4:50 PM.

              

We hustled out of the sub and into the boat to take us back to the tender area.  The driver really turned up the speed to get us back by 5:00 PM.  Unlike the experience in Cozumel, this really was the last tender and there were just a few people on it waiting to head back to the Freedom.  We were glad we weren’t the last passengers to arrive.  Another excursion came in right after us.  All in all it had been a very hot and tiring day with a unique experience we will never forget.

 

Montego Bay, Jamaica –

Jamaica was the one island on this cruise that we had never been to.  On a previous cruise, Jamaica was taken off the itinerary due to it being considered too dangerous for the cruise passengers at that time.  Since it is a regular port for many cruise lines now, we assumed that the situation had improved. 

              

I was anxious to go up to Deck 12 to check out where we were and get some photos of the area.  After being on relatively flat dry islands for the last two days, it was a real treat to see tree covered mountains. In addition, the buildings and hotels in the port area looked pretty modern and nice.  Plus this was the only port that we didn’t have to tender into.  It was so nice to just be able to walk off the ship to the pier.  Also, the location of the ship made for a very short walk to the terminal.   I was now looking forward to exploring Jamaica.

We had booked the Rose Hall Great House tour.  From other reviews, this sounded like an interesting excursion to get a taste of the area and get to explore this well known supposedly haunted house.

                   

The house was owned at one time by Annie Palmer, also known as "The White Witch of Rose Hall".  Annie delved into black magic and killed her three husbands.  She was apparently a very cruel person with a violent temper, who would walk her plantation at night with a whip to beat her slaves.  She also took her slaves to be her lovers, one of which ended her life at 29 years old when he strangled her in her bedroom.  Since there have been sightings of her ghost at the Rose Hall Great House, this is considered a haunted house.

              

Annie's bedroom                                                        Her sitting room

Once again this was going to be a hot day.  We were wishing that the great house would be air conditioned, but knew that was a pipe dream.  On the way to the great house, we stopped at a souvenir shop perched on the side of a mountain with a very nice view overlooking the area.  The most popular item in the store seemed to be the famous Blue Mountain Coffee.

We got back on the bus to head down the road to the great house.  Our tour guide was a real pleasure.  She was quite funny and entertaining as she told us about the history of the area and the infamous Annie Palmer.

              

The stories are quite fascinating, but I have a feeling that they have been embellished over the years.  As we drove around getting a general tour of the area, our guide would sing some local songs in between her telling us about the area.  Once we arrived at the Rose Hall Great House, we were quite pleased with the lovely grounds and were looking forward to our tour of this infamous property.

              

              

At one time there were a seven hundred of these large plantation homes in Jamaica, but there are now only a handful of them remaining, with this one being the best known.  Apparently most of them were burned during the slave rebellion in Jamaica during the 1830’s.  This house had deteriorated into a terrible state when the restoration began in 1965.  The $2.5 million project was completed six years later in 1971. 

              

They did a fine job because the house was quite lovely.  The rooms were furnished with lovely period pieces.  We did not see any ghosts, which I don’t think anyone minded. We were disappointed that the house wasn’t air conditioned, but I must say that a nice breeze was blowing the whole time we were there, and kept us relatively comfortable.  We enjoyed our visit there.

                   

              

After our tour, we piled onto the bus to go into town for an hour of shopping.  On the way there we passed by Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant and bar.  I had planned on coming back there after we got through with the tour.  We were taken to what is called the City Centre Mall.  It is just a short strip of stores not too far from the pier.  None of the major retailers that are on Cozumel or Grand Cayman are in Montego Bay.  Most of the shops are locally owned. 

As the port shopping lecturer, Tasha, had told us, we did find items for sale here that were different from the other ports.  She also said that the prices for many things would be better. It did seem that the cruisers agreed with her, since the shops were packed with Freedom passengers, many of them coming away with packages.  We were one of them.

When it was time to return to the ship, I decided that I would have to pass on Margaritaville.  We were just too exhausted from the heat and needed to stop for awhile.  Our first visit to Jamaica had been a pleasant one.

 

Labadee, Hispaniola –

Although it seems like Labadee is an island it’s really a peninsula that extends from the coastline of Haiti.  Our first visit to RCI’s private port had been in 2003.  We enjoyed it then and were looking forward to this visit, since we had booked a ride on the Thriller Powerboat.  RCI has mastered the art of tendering here, and it is as painless of a tender operation as can be had.  Relatively fast and very well organized.

              

              

We were surprised at how many new buildings and attractions had been added since our last visit.  There was something for everyone and it is certainly the most relaxing port on this itinerary.  The beaches are very nice and the surrounding area is mountainous making for a great setting.  The kids’ activities are everywhere and they really seemed to enjoy all the attractions that RCI had provided for them.

              

              

The Thriller Powerboat is a 55 foot Cigarette type boat with twin 500 horsepower engines.  Judging by the smiles of the people getting off the ride before us, I knew this was going to be an enjoyable trip.  We had a pretty full boat load of people.  There were about 7 rows of three people on each side, so around 42 passengers and two drivers.  It’s not small!

              

The Thriller cruised slowly by the Freedom in the no wake zone and then quickly accelerated into the open water.  Wow!  This boat really hauled ass.  Pardon the expression, but it is the only one that I can think of that describes it. The seats were well padded and comfortable, which was a good thing, since this ride was bumpy at times.  For the most part the water spray didn’t get in the boat, since we were going so fast.  This was really fun. 

The Northern coastline of Haiti was much prettier than we had expected.  We made three photo stops on our tour:  at an old fort near one of Haiti’s towns, a wrecked ship that was still sticking out of the water and a Haitian beach area for locals.

              

The highlight of the ride for me was that they let us drive the Thriller.  Anyone that wanted to was allowed to get in the driver’s seat and feel what it was like to control this high powered vessel.  It was really fun to push up the throttle and be in control of that much horse power.  I was really surprised at the extreme under-steer.  To change direction, you really needed to turn the steering wheel a lot.  I had been expecting a quicker response.

              

This was a great excursion and I highly recommend it.  A word of warning though, put lots of sunscreen on.  Since you can’t wear a hat while traveling at the high rate of speed, the areas that are normally protected by your hair are fully exposed due to your hair being blown straight back.

After returning to the water activity pier, we took a quick tour of the island before Carol returned to the ship.  The heat was really getting to her and she is not a beach person.  It was getting to me to, but I had to get more photos and do some swimming before I finished for the day.  My favorite area on Labadee is Dragon’s Breath Point.  It is a rock covered point that is very picturesque and has some great views of the area.   

              

Another pretty area is by the Old Bell Tower.  Since it is up on a hill, it provides a nice view of the Freedom.  For such a small area, Labadee really has so much to see and do.   It is easy to understand why so many people rate Labadee as one of their favorite Caribbean ports.

The Haitian Market is a conglomeration of locals selling their wares.  It is amazing how much stuff is available for sale.  It literally covers the mountainside.  With Haiti being such a poor country, making and selling their handicrafts has to be a major source of income in this area.

              

There is also an Artisan’s Market right next to the Haitian Market.  It offers items that are of a little higher quality, but still very inexpensive.  The merchant’s in the artisan area do not hassle the shopper’s, so for us it is more pleasant.

              

When in Labadee, the Windjammer is closed so that the dining staff can set up the barbecue buffet on shore.  I love barbecue, but this buffet just isn’t that tasty.  Probably a good thing, since it kept me from overeating that day.  On the other hand, the drinks are just wonderful.  The specialty on Labadee is the Labadoozee.  It is a great drink, especially in the sweltering heat.

As we headed back to the tenders, RCI provided a free bottle of water and a very cold, wet towel in a baggie that had been sitting in ice.  These two treats really helped everyone to recover some from the heat of the day.  As I headed back, I knew that the next time I got off the Freedom it would be in Miami to return home.  This cruise was almost over.

 

Disembarkation:

RCI has a unique process called Express Departure.  From 6:30 to 7:00 A.M. you could get off the ship if you were taking all of your luggage with you.  We weren’t there at 6:30 to see how popular it was; but if you have to get off early, I highly recommend it, since the alternative is very slow.

At 7:00 AM they begin calling colors and numbers.  This goes on until about 10:00 AM.  Since we are Crown and Anchor Platinum level, we were in one of the early groups, but didn’t rush to get in line since we were not in a hurry to leave the lovely ship.  After we finished our light breakfast, we decided to get in line to get off at about 7:45 AM.  Oh my, what a mess this was.  The line stretched all the way into the casino and it wasn’t moving. 

Every once in a while a small group would be let off the ship, and the line would move up some.  But they kept calling more numbers or colors, and that added more people to the line.  Since the line was not organized, it just weaved around and snaked all over the place.  Quite a shame to finish a wonderful cruise with this type of experience.  

Once we finally got off the ship itself, we got into another line in the terminal that was moving very slowly, but at least it was well organized.  It was the line going to immigration.  This was where the hold up was.  There just weren’t enough immigration agent stations to move the line faster.  We finally got through immigration around 50 minutes after we stepped into the line.  Because we had exceeded our purchase limit, we had a slight delay while the agents calculated the duty we had to pay.

We then went to the baggage area.  Instead of all of the luggage being lined up in rows; it was on carousels like the airports use and divided into the colors of our departure tickets. Great way to do it.  Much faster and easier to get our luggage.  In total, it took us about 1 hour 15 min. to get off the ship and get our luggage, although it seemed like several hours.  We were very glad we were driving home rather than having to make a flight.  We were home by 10:00 AM.  I would have been quite worried if we had an early flight to catch.  If possible, don’t get too early of a flight, unless you deal very well with stress.

 

Recap –

A cruise on the Freedom is everything a Caribbean cruise is supposed to be.  We got to visit some nice ports, go on some interesting excursions, be spoiled by a fantastic crew, have some fine dining, enjoy some wonderful entertainment, have some relaxing down time and meet some new cruise friends. What more could we ask for.  The Freedom of the Seas is an awesome ship.  You really need more than a week to experience it all.  I guess that’s a good reason to return!

 

Below is a link to the Shutterfly albums with other photos from the vacations:
Shutterfly Albums

 

Portofino, Chops and the Main Dining Dinner Menus:    Freedom Menus

 

© 2013 ThePreismans.com • All Rights Reserved