Number of Cruises: Many
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Freedom of the seas
Sailing Date: June 4th, 2006
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
On June 4, 2006, I boarded the Freedom Of
The Seas for the “maiden voyage” – which means the first voyage on the full
itinerary with paying guests. But to be truthful the ship had already played
host to thousands of passengers courtesy of the cruise line.
The media frenzy was unlike any I’ve seen in many years as Freedom Of The Seas had an extended coming out party – several weeks’ worth of complimentary preview cruises and public events for travel agents, dignitaries, and other VIPs. One could reasonably assume the shine on the new star had been dulled a bit. But it wasn’t so!
Superlatives are often a mistake when it comes to writing reviews, but I cannot resist it. Freedom is a magnificent vessel which offers a cruise experience unlike any I have ever had. There is truly something for everyone on this ship. It is huge yet intimate at the same time. From surfing to ice skating, quiet time on an almost abandoned stretch of deck, pool fun for adults or kids, this ship has it all. Add to that the most polished crew I have cruised with, and a few thousand fellow passengers, and you have the makings for a memorable cruise.
Embarkation Day Arrives
We arrived at the pier at approximately 11am, fully expecting a crowd and a long wait to board the ship. The first pleasant surprise of this cruise was that there were no crowds at the pier. Our limo stopped, our luggage was handed off to the porters, and we were graciously directed to the entrance. Once inside we were immediately ushered to the “Welcome Aboard” photo area, then on to security screening, and then on to the check-in desk. About 5 minutes had passed since we arrived at the terminal. I had done the on-line Set Sail check-in and merely had to provide the sheet I printed at home, our passports, and the credit card for our account. In moments we were checked in and directed to the security photo station. Once this was completed we headed for the ship. As we boarded the ship we were offered glasses of champagne and finally had a chance to catch our breath. It was not quite 11:30am. I was amazed at how smooth it had all gone.
One thing to note is that they were quite adamant about no one going to their cabins until 1pm. This was to allow for unencumbered cleaning from the previous night’s cruise, which was an overnight deal for a local charity. Ship’s personnel were stationed in the passageways to politely but firmly shoo away anyone wishing to challenge the edict. I expect this is the rule for all subsequent cruises.
After a couple glasses of champagne and getting copies of the Cruise Compass from the Guest Relations Desk, we headed off to the Windjammer for lunch - schlepping our carry-on baggage along with us.
There were seats available and the staff was doing a good job bussing tables. It is always an annoying part of embarkation day – mob scenes at the buffet - but it really wasn’t too bad on the Freedom. We found a table and took turns hitting the food lines while someone stayed with the luggage. A good variety of items were offered and the quality was excellent. I noted the line was getting quite long for making reservations for Chops and Portofino, which are the specialty restaurants. I later learned all the tables were filled in short order and a waiting list was the best one could hope for. So if you wish to taste the offerings from these places, my advice is to get there early on embarkation day and make your reservation.
After watching the first few passengers brave the Flow Rider, we headed for our cabin. It was exactly 1pm.
Cabin 8566 is on the port side and part of the “mini-hump” which is formed under the cantilevered hot tubs in the Solarium. Our balcony benefited from this as it was larger and also on the back side of the hump, which meant lessened wind effect. I was happy I’d made this choice. RCCL has trumpeted their new bedding and I must say it lives up to the praise. The cabin was of average size for an outside with balcony, and had sufficient storage. The standard issue RCCL bathroom was familiar. The flat-screen TV is a welcome feature. It easily pivots to accommodate the viewer no matter where they are sitting in the room.
After many emergency drills where we were some the first to arrive at the station – and as a result being in the back and pressed against the bulkhead in often stifling heat – I have adopted a new rule. We wait in the cabin until the alarm sounds and then head for the lifeboat station. This time we were in the front row and our drill was infinitely more comfortable and shorter in duration. After about 15 minutes we were released from the drill and a buzz was perceptible as the throngs prepared for the epic sail away on Freedom on her maiden voyage!
This Is A Maiden Voyage Sail Away?
The skies crackled with lightning amid heavy rains as the Freedom sat at the pier. But then came the time to get underway and Royal Caribbean couldn’t have scripted it better. The rain and thunder subsided, giving way to sunshine and not one but two rainbows as the Freedom Of The Seas made her way down the channel and to open seas.
And here it is: my one big disappointment with this cruise. For a maiden voyage, RCCL did very little to make it special. It started here with the sail away. Nothing out of the ordinary happened as we headed out from the port of Miami. The passengers were lining the rails waiting for something special to unfold. I’ve never seen so many people on deck during a sail away. We all waited and waited for something that never transpired. Things got very quiet as we passed the breakwater and everyone essentially shrugged and started heading back inside.
Main Dining Room
We were at table 580 which is in the highest level of the three-deck dining room. Our wait staff impressed me when they knew our names as we approached the table that first night. Service was friendly and attentive, although there were some glitches as the cruise unfolded. Every night saw at least one person not being served something they ordered or being served the wrong thing, and in one case the galley ticket being lost and not noticed until it was dessert time and my son’s pizza had not been delivered. In each case the gaffe was immediately corrected when identified and not a huge problem. I attributed it to the galley and dining room staff still ironing out their rhythm. A certain anxiety was perceptible in many of the waiters and their assistants. Head Waiters were quite noticeable and ours was a fixture every night.
Dining Room food was good for the most part, but the menus are not especially exciting. Perhaps the thought is fewer things that are given more attention by the chefs and cooks equals better meals. I had the chicken stuffed with brie and prosciutto. It was moist and delicious. For the first formal night dinner I had escargots, lobster bisque, and roast duck. It was all good and very nicely prepared. The duck portion was huge and the skin was nicely crisped. Dinner one night was “surfer” themed – no doubt attributable to the Flow Rider. Non-stop Beach Boys music played and fish played a prominent role on the menu. The music grew tedious after a while. The Malaysian fish soup was good but quite spicy. Surf and Turf was the featured entrée, and in this case it was beef filet and grilled shrimp. There were only 3 shrimp per plate and they were dry and not too good. The steak came with wasabi mashed potatoes and snow peas. The beef didn’t have a lot of flavor to it, but it was tender. The chocolate banana cream pie was excellent. There is also an Italian themed dinner night. I enjoyed this meal very much, although the waiter forgot my salad. They had lamb shank, rigatoni, scampi, minestrone, garlic soup, and caprese salad (which I didn’t get to try). A nice tiramisu topped it off. If you are a fan of Eggs Benedict – and I certainly am – I am happy to report it is perfectly prepared on the Freedom. Everyone was raving about it. Dining room breakfasts are much more relaxing than the buffet could ever hope to be. One sad note though – they don’t serve the Eggs Benedict on debarkation morning.
I didn’t find time to have lunch in the dining room. Too much to do on this massive ship!
Windjammer, Sorrento’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Café Promenade, and Johnny Rockets
The Windjammer offerings were generally very good. In many ways, the food here was more interesting and tasted better than that offered in the dining room. As is common these days, the Windjammer was heavily used for breakfast and lunch. But a very nice dinner is served here as well.
I had a delicious bagel with cream cheese and salmon on the last morning at sea. I noted the buffet breakfast has something for everyone….miso soup and rice, bagels and all the traditional NY fixings, and for us southerners they even have biscuits and sausage gravy. Made to order omelets are available. The main offerings are the same every day – scrambled eggs, turkey sausage links, pork sausage links, bacon, waffles, pancakes, fried potatoes, oatmeal, a huge selection of fruit. And it is all cooked to a high standard.
We went to the Windjammer for dinner one night. They had prime rib, baked potatoes, and my favorite shellfish, mussels. They had a great jerk-style chicken too. My only complaint is it closes too early – at 9pm. I think 10pm would be a better time. There was wine service available and the table staff was very pleasant. Although I like the main dining room experience, I have to admit that I could easily have more than one dinner in the Windjammer.
We went to Johnny Rockets one afternoon. We were seated outside, which didn’t bother me too much but the diner ambience of the inside seating adds much to the meal. Perhaps it is me but the burgers didn’t seem very flavorful and the meat had an overly processed texture – sort of like Salisbury steak. Love those onion rings!
Sorrento’s is the pizza parlor, and to be honest the pizza is only so-so. The more interesting thing is the antipasti offerings they have.
It took a lot of will power to walk by Ben & Jerry’s and not get something. The smell of the waffle cones wafted out and smelled wonderful! If you book promenade cabin 6305 – the one with the cows blocking the window – you get unlimited free ice cream for the whole cruise.
Café Promenade was open around the clock and featured Seattle’s Best coffee. They also had sweets and small sandwiches. A Book Nook was in the back but it was not open that often and seemed to be a confused place.
Shows, Pools, and Other Amusements
The big production show Once Upon A Time was excellent and lived up to its hype. Most cruise ship shows are pretty generic revues aimed at impressing the first-time cruiser. This show was sort of that way, but the production was kicked up and the ensemble displayed more energy and talent than I am used to seeing on a cruise ship. They had two shows, one early and one late. It was worth seeing. As an aside, I did note that our 10:45pm showing was not a capacity crowd.
The other shows were good, but if you are reserved I urge caution if you attend the adult-themed shows. They can be a little risqué – including seeing several passengers and the Cruise Director parading around in their underwear.
The Flow Rider is smaller than it appears from photos and TV images. The water is also faster! It was not crowded on the first day or so, but things picked up as people found the courage to try it. A waiver must be signed each day, and you get a wristband in return. A different wristband was used for each day, which became a status symbol among the devotees who, by cruises end, were sporting an arm full of wristbands. Like many amusement rides, no jewelry or glasses can be worn on the Flow Rider. This ruled me out since I am quite blind without my glasses. Bleachers surround the Flow Rider and it is surprisingly enjoyable to sit and watch.
The pools are expansive. Freshwater is used in the pools, which is a change for RCCL. The H2O Zone is a popular place for kids and young families. The main pool area – while busy – never seemed overwhelmed by crowds and I noted that lounge chairs were available even in the afternoon and near the pools. This despite the early morning assault by the lounge chair hogs, who mark their territory with a flip-flop or book placed on the chairs. I almost called a general alarm when I noted several chairs with personal items in them, but no one in the pools! I feared they had all vanished!
The Solarium, which is designated as an adults-only area, was not ever full of people and could actually be called barely used. The bar here was never crowded. Bowls of fruit are available all day for the taking.
Freedom is loaded with bars. It seemed I was never more than a few steps from one. Bolero’s was my favorite, mostly because of the very engaging staff and my favorite cocktail the caipahrina. Second place goes to Olive Or Twist, which is the Viking Crown Lounge bar. It has an excellent bar staff and features relaxing views of the water. The Tasting's wine bar was also pleasant, although somewhat cluttered and dark. For a pub, the Bull And Bear was disappointing in that it had a limited selection of British style beers and ales – especially the draft choices.
It was sunny and hot in Cozumel all day. We did the Passion Island beach tour. This is a small island (sand bar really) on the north side of Cozumel which lays a few hundred yards offshore. It takes a while to get there, over a pothole filled road and then to a 15 minute boat ride. Freedom was the only ship in port and there were only 41 people signed up for this tour. So we had as close to a private island experience as we’ll probably ever have. About a half mile of beach with just 41 people! Add to that an included open bar and a buffet lunch and you have a very relaxing day. The tour only had 3 hours on the island though and most of us felt it should be longer. The tour guide, Alex, was great. He memorized everyone’s name by the time we arrived at the island.
The island of Cozumel still bears many scars from Hurricane Wilma. Everywhere you look you see ravaged trees and vegetation. There are miles of trees lying on their sides. The island looks gray from the dead wood as opposed to the usual green. How sad. The docks are still being worked on. We tendered to International Pier and the close up views of the destroyed portions of the dock speak volumes about the terrible power unleashed by the hurricane.
It was an off and on day of rain in Grand Cayman. Tendering took longer than it did in Cozumel. The big reason is that the ship was just a couple hundred yards from the pier in Cozumel but not so in Georgetown. No one seemed to be in charge at the Arcadia Theatre, which was the gathering point for some tours. A big bottleneck occurred when returning to the ship. The security station was not especially efficient. They only had one card reader operating and so you had a tender load of passengers being funneled one at a time through the checkpoint. It took a good 20 minutes or more to empty our tender. Another card reader was available but not manned. But this is the first voyage and so these kinds of things should be expected. Hopefully they will be fixed.
In Grand Cayman we did the Nautilus semi-submersible and the butterfly farm. The Nautilus was good. The butterfly farm wasn’t. The rain started again; just as we arrived and so we spent 45 minutes standing under an umbrella listening to the guide explain the lifecycle of butterflies. All the butterflies took refuge from the rain and we saw very few of them. After that it was lunch at Senor Frogs and then back to the ship.
They have a new cruise ship receiving area in Georgetown. The new area is much nicer than the old one. As least on our cruise, the local tourism officials provided free bottled water and soft drinks, and samples of rum cake.
We were late mooring in Montego Bay. We were supposed to be there at 7am but didn’t tie up until 8. We still had to be back aboard by 3:30pm. They had a concert for us on the pier with the famous singer Shaggy. Montego Bay rolled out the red carpet for us! Really! They had a red carpet at the entrance to the terminal. Free rum poured at the Appleton Estates tent on the pier. Beer and punch was handed out at the concert.
Nothing is within walking distance of the port area. The shuttle was $3 to Town Centre per person, or $4 per person if you went from the port to Jimmy Buffet’s. This was quite reasonable. There were dozens of transportation people in the terminal welcoming us and guiding us to the shuttles or taxis if needed. No hassles involved, which was a refreshing change.
One thing I noted is the buffet breakfast and dining room didn’t open until 7am in Montego Bay, yet some tours were supposed to meet on the pier at 7:15am. Had we arrived on time, those passengers would not have had much chance to eat anything more than coffee and donuts, unless they had ordered room service. I think at least the buffet should have opened at 6:30am if the ship has tours starting at 7:15.
Labadee has changed since I was last there a few years ago. The property has been developed with many huts and buildings. There are three buffet lines and bars set up everywhere. The lunch was good. Grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, ribs, corn on the cob, potato salad, fruit, etc. The beaches are maintained very nicely and it was not especially crowded. It seemed many passengers chose to remain aboard.
One bartender told me this was the first cruise where they used the computers to charge for the drinks. He said the preview cruises had open bars. As a result they have found some problems with the bar computers. The system crashed more than once.
The Crown and Anchor party was very well planned. It was at the ice rink, which was used for many events on this cruise. They had the ice removed and instead had four tables set up with chafing dishes full of snacks. Waiters had bowls of cold shrimp. Drinks were plentiful and of good quality. It was the best food and drink I have seen at any repeater’s party.
We had a surprise visitor board the ship on the evening between Jamaica and Labadee. The President of Royal Caribbean International (Adam Goldstein) came out at the beginning of the evening show to thank the passengers and extol the wonders of this vessel. I personally think this was a little bit of damage control because of passenger complaints all week about the maiden voyage being mostly a regular voyage with little in the way of special touches.
The automatic doors on deck 11 are slow to open and one often has to stand there for a few seconds before a door opens. I observed one door (starboard side leading from the main pool to the solarium) that closed on a passenger as he walked through, which caused him to spill his coffee. Be wary of these doors and don’t expect them to open quickly. At the aft end of the H2O zone there are two powered revolving doors which lead inside to the Windjammer. While a good idea for keeping the cold air inside, these doors are temperamental. If you enter them and try to push the door along it will stop for an uncomfortable moment or two. Do not touch the doors. Simply walk along in the open space and hopefully you will get through it. They need to replace these with conventional sliding doors.
I’ve always felt that many ships have one bar more than they need, and this bar will eventually be closed or made into another venue. In the case of the Freedom, I bestow this dubious honor on the Squeeze juice bar adjacent to the H2O Zone. The place is vacant most of the time, and a crowd is perhaps two people. I haven’t asked but since there is a speed rail of liquor inside, I assume they serve regular bar drinks in addition to the juices and power drinks. I predict this bar will be closed within a year.
Although some complained about slow Internet, I had fairly speedy service all cruise long with my laptop and using the wi-fi option. I used my laptop everywhere and never had a bad signal. Please note that the previously available $100 flat rate unlimited service is no longer available.
Captain’s Corner was an event featuring Captain Bill Wright and Cruise Director Ken Rush. Some tidbits they gave out:
Freedom can go from full speed (24 knots) to full stop in 3 ship lengths. Rather than reverse the props they simply rotate the azipods 180 degrees.
The anchor is not needed to keep the ship in one position while in port. A computer constantly adjusts the azipods to keep the ship still.
The ship rides so well that the stabilizers were not used on the Atlantic crossing, and we only used them once on our cruise – when leaving Montego Bay because of the ice show.
Inside slogan for the Genesis ship is ”Game Over”.
On the last day of our cruise the ship was dangerously close to running out of toilet paper. Passengers were actually seen carrying rolls around with them!
We had a debarkation glitch, which was eventually blamed on a miscommunication between the pier and the ship. They called the luggage colors 1 hour to 90 minutes early. Our color was called at 7:45, but our bags didn’t appear until 9:30 and one was on the wrong carousel. The ship did debark those carrying their own bags at 6:30 and it was pulled off flawlessly, with some people getting to the airport and on earlier flights by a little past 8am.
I was very pleased with the Freedom Of The Seas. The Captain lauded the crew at every opportunity, and rightly so. I would not hesitate to book another cruise on this vessel and I highly recommend it to one and all – old and young, those with children, and those with none! As testimony to this, within a week of leaving the Freedom I booked passage on sister ship Liberty Of The Seas for the summer of 2007.