Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cruise Review - Freedom of the Seas - Sept. 2007

Freedom of the Seas - Western Caribbean - Sept. 2007

Pre-cruise: We flew in one day before the cruise and stayed at the Hyatt Regency Miami. Rented a car through Dollar and parked it onsite at the hotel ($27 charge for parking). On a direct flight from NYC to Miami, American Airlines sent one piece of luggage to San Juan. We were very thankful we had the car as we were able to go back to the airport when the flight from San Juan arrived and pick up the luggage. Had we not had the car, I am not certain we would have had the luggage before getting on the ship.

Despite reading mediocre reviews of the Hyatt online, we found the hotel very nice, the staff very professional. We returned our car to Dollar near the airport the next day and took their free shuttle to the pier.

Embarkation: We arrived at the pier at 12:30, hoping to avoid the initial crowd of people embarking, but there had been a security breach on the prior cruise and the entire pier had been shut down for about 2 hours. When we arrived, the line to get on the ship was long and people were still getting off the ship. It took 1 hour and 10 minutes from the time we arrived but once the lines started moving, they moved.

Cabin: We were in balcony "hump" room 8346. Our traveling companions were next door in 8348. We asked our room attendant, Ericka, if she could open the divider between the balconies. She could not locate a key, but my husband was able to jiggle the lock and opened it. Each balcony had a small table and two chairs. We were at the rear of the hump with a view of the back of the ship. The room was very spacious. There was a king sized bed with extremely comfortable bedding (we slept like babies!) and a sofa with table. There was a desk with flat screen TV. There were six drawers in the desk for clothing. The end mirrors on both sides of the desk mirror opened with more storage. There were four shelves in the large closet, plenty of hangers and a safe. Our luggage fit under the bed.

The bathroom was the usual small cruise ship bathroom, but the shower had doors instead of the shower curtain that blows away when you are showering. We had plenty of hot water and great shower pressure. Soap bars and a dispenser of shampoo (supposedly with conditioner) are mounted in the shower. Bring your own shampoo and conditioner - the shampoo was awful and we had to wait until we got onto one of the islands to buy a bottle of conditioner, as they do not sell any in the ship stores. The room was very clean at all times, but you may have to request extra towels. When we arrived, there were four bath towels and two beach towels in our room, but that was the last time we saw four bath towels - the rest of the week, we only had two bath towels (and two beach towels). The refrigerator was stocked with a mini-bar. We asked Ericka to remove everything from the mini-bar so we weren't tempted to use anything - the charges for a candy bar were $3.00 or more. She did with no problem.

A note on the refrigerator - there is no freezer section in it. One of the people we were traveling with used insulin and needed to keep ice packs frozen to take his insulin on the islands. There was no facility to freeze the packs. He went to the purser's desk to inquire, he was told to call room service to have them frozen. When he called room service, the girl who answered said she had never heard of this and would ask her supervisor. They called back and said they cannot freeze the packs. He took the packs down to the Medical Office and the doctor was very accommodating. However, the medical office is only open certain hours that were not always conducive to when we got off the ship. Our friend again went to the front desk one day later to advise them that room service would not freeze the packs for him. They apologized and told him he should have been properly told to call housekeeping. When he did, they quickly sent our room steward to take the packs and she returned them frozen every morning. (But the people at the purser's desk also told a passenger to go to the Medical Office to get a pair of cuff links for his tuxedo. When the poor doctor had no idea what the man why they sent him there for cuff links, passenger flew into a tirade at the poor doctor instead of going back to the front desk.)

Food: We were assigned to early dining in Isaacs Dining room at table 478 with Reimos from the Philippines as our waiter and Dube from South Africa as our Assistant Waiter. They were delightful, efficient and polite. Up until this cruise, our favorite food of all cruise lines we have been on was Celebrity. The food on this ship finally held up to our experience with Celebrity. (We sailed RCCL four years ago on the Sovereign of the Seas and did not like the food). There was nothing we had in either our dining room or Windjammers that we did not like. Desserts were especially wonderful in both venues and there were plenty of sugar free desserts for those who cannot eat sweets. Formal nights were Monday and Thursday. Lobster was on the menu Thursday night. We ate one night at Chops and one at Portofino. Service was excellent at both restaurants, but we enjoyed Chops more than Portofino. Portofino was good but we expected an experience similar to that of Princess' Sabatini's and were disappointed that is was not the same. The desserts in Portofinos were outstanding - try the dessert sampler. In Chops, our group of four had filet mignon and it was cooked to perfection and soft as butter.

We availed ourselves to Sorrentos a few times. Pizza was very good, and there are antipasto and salads to try as well, plus those delicious desserts. We enjoyed sitting at the Cafe Promenade and watching people. Plain coffee in the Cafe is free, specialty coffees have a charge. There are pastries and small sandwiches available that are free. We did not eat at Johnny Rockets, as we found the hamburgers in the Windjammer fine with no extra charges. We also did not try Ben & Jerry's - there was a limited menu of ice cream flavors and we found the ice cream machine on Deck 11 to be just fine to satisfy our ice cream itch.

I had one issue with RCCL in the food department that they really need to address - the lack of hand sanitizers. The only hand sanitizers we saw are at the entrance to the Windjammer - one on each side near the wall. The sanitizers are hand wipes and there is a garbage can under them to throw out the wipe. However, of the few people that used the sanitizers, if you stopped to wipe your hands and throw out the wipe in the can, you started blocking the people that were coming in behind you. If you take the wipe into the Windjammer and wipe your hands as you walk - there is no garbage can to throw them in. There should be more sanitizers and they should be the gel type so there is no need to throw anything out - it is more environmental friendly as well. The sanitizers should be at every spot that dishes are picked up, as they are on other cruise ships. Twice we sat near the entrance and counted how many people used a sanitizer and by our counts, only 3 out of 10 people used the wipes when walking in. I blame the location, since a few times I walked past them and had to go back. This is a noro-virus outbreak waiting to happen.

The ship: What can I say - the ship is magnificent. Whoever invented the Flow Rider is a genius. I could have spent all my free time watching people try boogie boarding and stand up surfing. It was fabulous and one of the coolest spots on the ship on a day at sea with a beautiful breeze going. People started out not doing too well and by the end of the week, those same people were doing tricks. A lot of bathing suits were lost (ladies - do what RCCL recommends and wear a t-shirt over your suit!). Everyone had a chance and the staff that manned the Flow Rider was great, especially with the kids. We tried mini-golf a few times, but it was just too backed up with people during the times we tried. The Rock Climbing wall was interesting, but open only limited hours. There was also a basketball court.

Pools - there are three different pool areas. The first is the H2O Zone for kids. Kids (and grown ups) loved it. The second area is the Sports Pool and has some hot tubs. That is where the contests are held. There are two pools in that area. Finally, the third pool area is the adults only Solarium, with two hot tubs that jut out the side of the ship. I do have to say the staff controlled the area and made sure there were no children swimming in the pool. On sea days, the pools were mobbed.

The Promenade was very striking - it felt more like walking though a Mall than being on a cruise ship. Many parties and events were held here at night, such as a Dance Party and a Circus. They were delightful to watch, but it gets too crowded. Not for the claustrophobic. If you don't like being in crowds there are many other spots to watch these events from - on decks 6, 7 and 8 you can watch from the forward section of the ship and on the aft side, there are chairs in the library and Internet Cafe that overlook the Promenade as well as several "balconies" near the elevators that one or two people can stand in and watch.

In my opinion, some of the stores in the Promenade were wasted. The Logo shop sold limited items - I was looking for tee shirts appropriate for 10 and 11 year olds and there was a very limited selection. The stores that carried sundries also were limited - I needed a bottle of hair conditioner and they didn't carry any. There is a shop that sells RCCL branded sports clothing that hardly anyone was in. Not many men availed themselves to "A Clean Shave". There was what appeared to be a book store next to the Cafe Promenade that I never saw open.

In speaking to a few passengers what I realized is missing on the ship is an appropriate sized venue for passengers that like to dance. The bars and clubs were terribly small. For example, there were many Latin Americans on our cruise and Boleros had wonderful Latin music with a too small dance floor. People were dancing in the walkways on Deck 5 because there was insufficient room in Boleros - which is too bad because that was the place we enjoyed most watching people dance. The Crypt seemed to be the most crowded spot and is a must see, even if you don't like to club. It was very unique.

Entertainment: Becky Thomson was the Cruise Director and what a Cruise Director she was! I am not one that particularly pays attention to Cruise Directors, but she was absolutely fabulous. I have never seen anyone so energetic. The Bingo Dingo was also excellent as were many of the other staff. We went to a few shows -our favorite was Spectrum, a group that did a Motown show. They had the audience up on their feet - they were outstanding. We also saw "Once Upon a Time" - I thought it was very creative and the sets were terrific for a cruise ship. The Illusionist (Phillip Kaiser) was good, but there was too much singing and dancing during his show - it was distracting. We also went to the Comedy Show featuring Phil Tag, he was okay with the usual cruise ship jokes.

Do NOT miss the Ice Show! It was wonderful and the Oxana and Adam were fantastic - what she can do with hoola hoops! Watch your Cruise Compass for the day and time tickets are distributed and get down to the Promenade at least a half hour before the stated time. Once they start distributing, the line moves quickly, but the tickets were sold out the day they were listed, so don't wait thinking you can get a ticket he next day. We also made it to Quest - get there early, it is fun adult only entertainment.

Ports of call: With the exception of Labadee, we had sailed all the islands before (Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel). Labadee was the best private island I've been to on a cruise. It was set up very well. There were plenty of lounge chairs available and plenty of staff available to help drag those chairs wherever you wanted them. We started at Barefoot Beach for snorkeling and then moved to Dragons Breath for more shade later in the day. We did go to the Haitian Market and while I expected it to be high pressure sales, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed. I would have been more apt to buy more but having sellers chase you down hammering prices in your ear was just too much. Tenders in both Labadee and Grand Cayman were very well organized. It was quite a difference from our experience on Sovereign of the Seas four years ago. The tenders were large and there were never long lines to get on. Jamaica was the only island we booked an excursion on. We were there 7 years ago and I found the island to be frightening. At that time, we walked to the Taj Mahal Mall and it was guarded by men armed with machine guns and we had been accosted by locals walking. It was very different this time around - a new shopping center has been set up outside the pier gates and we were not accosted by locals. We even had a pleasant walk to the Taj Mahal.

We booked the Inner Tubing excursion in Jamaica. We were picked up by bus and taken to the River. It was a lot of fun - the beginning of the river has some white water "rapids" that were fun to negotiate. The excursion did stop mid way and we were taken out of the river to be shown pictures we could purchase (and a Red Stripe too). We were there about 15 minutes - too long. We then went down the rest of the river - which was pretty dirty at the end of it. The excursion also advertised time on the beach at the end - we were given a drink of rum punch and taken back to the ship, no beach time. The only issue we had was we were required to wear life preservers that were absolutely filthy. They were kept on the dirt and smelled awful. By the time we got to the bottom of the river I had a rash from my neck to the bottom of my chest that itched unbearably and last until after we got home from the cruise. I had to buy Benedryl tablets and lotion and use them throughout the rest of the cruise.

In Grand Cayman, we walked outside the gate and found buses giving tours of the Western part of Grand Cayman for $20 per person that we took advantage of. We hopped on and went to Hell and around some beaches before being dropped into town to shop.

In Cozumel, we planned to take a cab to Paradise Beach ($12 for the cab plus entrance to the beach). However, we found a girl who was offering full use of the El Cid resort right next to the ship pier for $35 - all you can eat and drink. We decided to do that and had a wonderful time. There was a beach to snorkel at (and a strong current), two pools and a hot tub. There was a beachside restaurant that had a buffet lunch and the servers were very generous with the liquor - we drank Pina Coladas all day. It was wonderfully relaxing and very convenient.

The weather was perfect throughout the cruise until the last night on the way back to Miami from Cozumel. There was some thunder and lightening and at about 1:30 AM, I woke up and realized I was rolling off the bed. I stood up and realized we were "tipped" - the starboard size of the ship was raised. We had items on the bathroom vanity that rolled off onto the floor and I could hear passengers in the hallway shouting. The ship stayed that way for a good 5 - 7 minutes before finally evening out. Our Captain came on the loudspeakers at 2 AM to announce that we had hit a wind squall of 60 - 70 knot winds on the starboard side and the ship tilted 5 degrees until he could steer into the wind to even it out. While I was ready for awhile to grab the lifejackets, it was really such a small tilt that many passengers slept through it and were only awakened by the Captains announcements.

Staff: In my experience, we did not encounter any rude staff at all on this ship. Throughout the ship we were greeted by staff that we met in hallways and public areas. From our waiters to the deck hands, we had a great experience. We did have two issues with being given incorrect information at the Customer Service Desk - but it was always delivered with a smile.

Disembarkation: We had beige tags that were the second color called. We waited until the second call before going down to the disembarkation point. The line was long and not moving. We were on line about 25 minutes before they opened a second line to go through Customs. Once that happened, we wee off the ship fairly quickly. For the first time in all my cruising, we had no problem finding our luggage! RCCL has a wonderful system in Miami in which there are belts similar to the luggage belts in the airport that luggage is placed on to go around. We waited 10 minutes and found our bags. Every cruise port should consider using this system, it was very easy!

We bought RCCL transfers from the port to the airport and were quickly loaded on to the buses by our porter and were at the airport within a half hour.

We loved this ship and the cruise. I highly recommend this ship for families cruising with kids. It offers plenty for kids to do and is great for an age group that has outgrown Disney. We purposely chose this cruise for a time when the kids went back to school yet there were a lot of kids on the ship anyway. Except for some issues with the kids not having a clue about elevator etiquette, we witnessed few problems with any of the kids on board, from the small kids to teens. There is so much for them to do. I questioned parents and kids who were using the kids programs and all the kids said they loved the RCCL program. Parents said they hardly saw the kids and that the kids couldn't wait to go to the programs every day.

If you'd like to see pictures - we have them!

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