The main artery that runs throughout the ship is the Royal Promenade, a Main Street USA type thoroughfare where you can visit the purser's or excursions desk, grab a drink or a snack, people-watch, or shop. At A Clean Shave, gentleman can get a haircut, shave or shoe shine, and all of the ship's galleries and stores are located here. The general store sells incidentals, duty-free liquor and edible souvenirs like rum cakes; a separate venue specializes in perfume and cosmetics, and there's a gift shop as well selling logo items, T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, key chains and other odds and ends. You can buy workout wear at the Get Out There store (FlowRider paraphernalia is for sale up on the Sports Deck).
A library with a view of the Promenade through floor-to-ceiling glass windows contains three walls of bookshelves, and several cozy leather chairs for a quiet read. Above the library is Royal Caribbean Online, the ship's Internet cafe. The actual connection is touch-and-go; expect slowness unless you log on while most folks are sleeping or sightseeing. The charge is 55 cents a minute; however, if you buy packages you can pay as little as 37 cents a minute. The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area "hot spots."
Cloud Nine, next to the Seven Hearts card and game room near the Viking Crown Lounge, can be used for private meetings or parties; the Skylight Chapel one deck up is the spot for onboard weddings.
Shameless plug: On Deck 5, across from the cruise director's office, look for the framed poem "Ode to Freedom," written by Cruise Critic members!
Freedom of the Seas launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship. The vessel introduced a new class of ship for Royal Caribbean, measuring just shy of 155,000 tons with a double occupancy capacity of 3,634 passengers (siblings Liberty and Independence of the Seas debuted in May 2007 and 2008, respectively). It surpassed Cunard's gargantuan Queen Mary 2 by 7,000 tons and carried 1,014 more passengers. (Of course, the Freedom-class ships have since been, er, belittled by Oasis of the Seas, the massive 225,282-ton, 5,400 passenger beast that debuted in fall 2009.)
Besides its size, Freedom of the Seas also made waves in other ways. It was the first ship to feature a surf simulator, a regulation-sized boxing ring, an interactive water park for kids and even a barbershop. Yet in many ways, Freedom was merely an evolution, not a revolution, of the Voyager class that made its own headlines when it launched with biggest-at-sea status back in 1999. The layout is nearly identical and the promenade is back, as is the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets, the Promenade Cafe, Ben & Jerry's, etc. It is almost as if Voyager of the Seas was simply super-sized, and beefed up with innovative spaces and concepts.
Which brings us back to our original quandary: Would the extra space, extra people, extra "everything" live up to the hype ... or leave us feeling claustrophobic?
We got off to a rough start: Embarkation took nearly two hours from curb to cabin, and because so many people were late coming on, the lido buffet was kept open an extra half hour and the time for the muster drill was pushed back; dinner was also delayed 15 minutes so everyone could settle in and get ready.
Surprisingly, in terms of lines and congestion, this was the first and last time we felt truly frustrated. Crowds elsewhere -- at the pool, waiting for elevators -- were equal to if not less than what we've experienced on Voyager-class ships. That's not to say that the ship (as well as Voyager and its siblings) wouldn't benefit from another bank of elevators. It's still a mass-market, big-ship experience, and there will almost always be a half hour or so wait to eat at Johnny Rockets on a sea day. You'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks -- we loved Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool for getting-away-from-it-all moments.
We were also amazed by how personal the service was in general, despite the number of passengers. The two bartenders who worked every night at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remembered our names and our poisons, and on the last night swapped heartfelt goodbyes and hugs with numerous passengers who had imbibed there throughout the week. When our cabin steward noticed us coming down the hallway, he'd pop his key in the door and hold it open for us -- a nice gesture, particularly when we were coming back from shore with tote bags and purchases.
Size does matter, and in Freedom's case it is a plus, not a negative -- especially for families, first-timers and fans of Voyager-class ships that are ready for the next "big" thing.
The three-deck-high dining room (Leonardo, Isaac and Galileo) offers traditional, assigned-seating dinings during two sittings (6:30 and 8:30 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)
Though our meals were generally good (we especially liked the surf-themed menu exclusive to Freedom -- try the steak and shrimp with wasabi mashed potatoes), the logistics left much to be desired.
After embarkation, we visited the maitre d' to request a switch from early to late seating, which was handled quickly. Our first batch of dinner pals, a family from Florida, decided after the first night that they wanted a table closer to the middle of the dining room. Not wanting to sit alone at a table for eight, we asked to be moved again and were seated with another group of relatives traveling together, which went swimmingly ... until the next night when we arrived and strangers were in our seats! After forced interaction with two different families, we were loathe to repeat the experience a third time, and on Thanksgiving no less; we visited the maitre d' again who apologized for the "human error," and thankfully made it right. We asked to be seated alone and were placed at an empty four-top (there are just a few tables for two) where we remained for the duration of our cruise.
But who needs this kind of hassle on vacation?
One of the byproducts of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place we found service to be inconsistent. Our very first waiter was practically invisible, never cracked a smile and at the end of the day didn't even ask us if we wanted a cup of coffee with dessert. Our last waiter, on the other hand, couldn't do enough for us: When we asked mid-cruise if he could hook us up with Indian food, he said he'd "see what he could do"; on the last night, he brought us a shrimp curry that wasn't on the menu in the dining room or anywhere else on the ship. We're not sure if it came from crew rations, but it was delicious and we sure appreciated it. He was also at the ready with whatever else we needed: more sauce, more vegetables, more whipped cream for our pie....
Our advice? Make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any requests you may have pertaining to the main dining room (early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) early on.
Lunch and breakfast are served in the dining room open seating. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict. Otherwise, we thought the fare in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, was far superior for breakfast and lunch. The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the morning, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes like sweet and sour chicken. A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6 -- just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat burning, protein rich).
A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room with the exception of Jade -- we visited for "sushi" night and it actually felt like a "specialty" restaurant. The tables were dressed with white cloths and soy sauce; shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi were at the buffet; and servers were quick to offer drink service.
If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants: Portofino is an Italian trattoria, and Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery. Portofino offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert here is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. At Chops, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate lover, do not, I repeat, do not miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It is a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel-y nuts in the center.
A cover charge applies for each ($20 in Portofino and $30 in Chops), but is well worth it. If I could splurge on only one, I'd have to pick Chops -- both are intimate, but the cuisine and service there was just a touch more impressive. I loved the warm dark wood paneling and cushy velvet seating (and the Mississippi Mud Pie alone is almost worth the fee to dine there).
Johnny Rockets is identical in layout to those on Voyager-class ships, and serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries. We waited 30 minutes to eat here, but were given a pager that we were able to take into the arcade with us to painlessly pass the time; we were buzzed when our table was ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine-in or take-out; drinks are charged separately.
Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea (the adjacent Seattle's Best coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc.). New to Freedom, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria (check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum). In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot! Of course, Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar is available to satisfy your sweet tooth; the waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. Items are mostly under $5.
Finally, room service is available 24 hours, though the menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches. We would have liked more options -- the last time I sailed onboard Voyager of the Seas, there were some snacks you could buy a la carte, like chips and guacamole. However, my tuna salad pita was tasty and delivered in the time frame quoted (30 minutes). You can order breakfast in via a doorknob hang card; Royal Caribbean still offers hot items and even omelets on its room service breakfast menu, which we appreciate, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.
Freedom of the Seas Cabin Photos
There are four main types of cabins -- inside, oceanview, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. There are 1,817 staterooms; 842 have private balconies and 172 have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions featuring a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) as well as interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).
Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square ft. and 149 square ft. respectively; bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Pumps in the shower are preloaded with shower gel and shampoo. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square ft.), and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.
Oceanview cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (these range from 161 to 200 square ft.); family oceanview staterooms clock in at 293 square ft., with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen, and a sofa and/or Pullman. Before moving into suite territory, there are two balcony options: Deluxe at 177 square ft. (balcony 74 square ft.) and Superior at 189 square ft. (balcony 68 square ft.). Decor in our balcony stateroom was teal, peach and white, with lighting overhead and at the desk/vanity, as well as bedside wall-mounted lamps; balcony furniture comprised of a small table and two loungers (metal with mesh covering) -- much nicer than the plastic ribbon variety.
Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square ft., balcony 101 square ft.) and Grand Suites (387 square ft., balcony 126 square ft.) have tubs; walk-in closets are standard in both. The Owner's Suites (614 square ft., balcony 209 square ft.) add a private sitting area separate from the bedroom; the one Royal Suite (1,406 square ft., balcony 377 square ft.) also features a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano, and a private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to a concierge who can assist with specialty restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like, and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.
Four Royal Family Suites (610 square ft, balcony 234 square ft.) accommodate up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed, two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).
The new Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square ft., balcony 810 square ft.) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard, and exclusive to this class of ship. The suite can accommodate up to 14 guests and consists of two master bedrooms with private baths, and two additional bedrooms each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs), and padded teak loungers.
One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view: the window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise!
Whatever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: All cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable bedding -- a huge improvement from the glorified cots of old. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed atop twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they are unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.
Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.
|Fitness and Recreation|
There are two main pools on the lido -- one for swimming and one for sports -- flanked by three roomy Jacuzzis. Here, as on balconies, tacky plastic ribbon deck chairs from earlier ships are replaced with nice mesh loungers. Just aft, children get a colorful water park, H2O Zone, complete with a kids-only pool, a cascading waterfall, and sculpture fountains and ground geysers that spew water. The setup is frankly so cool I wanted to splash around myself -- and it kept kids out of adult pool areas for the most part. The Solarium pool area is where you'll find peaceful hammocks and two whirlpools that are cantilevered, meaning they hang over the side of the ship; wide panels of glass give an incredible view of the ocean you're dangling above!
Grand old favorites like the rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course are back, and there's also a sports court, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong and a jogging/walking track. But the main attraction is the FlowRider -- the first surf park at sea. A three-inch sheet of water flows up the 32-ft.-wide by 40-ft.-long incline to create a wave-like reverse waterfall. There are designated hours each day for stand up surfing and boogie boarding (check on the Sports Deck for your itinerary's schedule). There's no signup sheet; however, passengers (and guardians for those under the age of 18) must sign a waiver every day to obtain the wristband needed to "hang ten."
Even if you are more of a sunbather than a swimmer, our advice is to get off the bleachers and try the easier boogie boarding option at least once. I was convinced to give it a go after watching a woman much older than me -- who walked with a cane -- jump right on in. Trust me: Once you're up there, it doesn't look nearly as steep (or frightening)! Professional photographers will be snapping away so your sopping-wet self can be immortalized pre-wipeout for a mere $15 ... it was worth every penny.
Really want to master onboard surfing? Passenger can book one-on-one private FlowRider lessons for $75 per person, per hour (up to 8 people per session). Individuals, or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour, with no limit to the total number of participants (50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance).
The Shipshape Fitness Center encompasses the entire forward area of the lido, and is packed with free weights, stationary bikes, treadmills and elliptical machines. Though we never had to wait for a piece of equipment, the gym does get packed before lunch, particularly on sea days. Get up early for prime real estate at the floor-to-ceiling windows. Within the fitness center is another first for Freedom, and the industry: a boxing ring. The boxing program is intended to promote physical conditioning (meaning you can't just throw your husband in there for kicks); sadly, it was empty on my two visits to the fitness center. It could be because it is not cheap: A personal one-hour session was $83. There are scheduled group workouts, however, for $10.
Additional fitness classes are offered -- some free (stretching, aerobics), some levying a $10 charge (yoga, Pilates).
One deck up is the full-service Freedom Day Spa, operated by London's Steiner Leisure. There's nothing new and unusual about the decor or the roster of treatments, which run the gamut from simple wraps and massages to acupuncture and teeth whitening. The prices, however, seemed high: The "entry level" facial was $120. We opted instead for pedicures at the adjacent salon. Look for discounts on port days, but ask questions -- oftentimes these treatments cost less because they are shorter in length.
Seven-night cruises typically feature two formal nights, and five casual nights (theme outfits are encouraged, but seldom seen). Many men don tuxedos for formal dining, though suits are just fine and quite common; women opt for cocktail dresses or gowns.
Freedom of the Seas is the best ship for families in the Royal Caribbean fleet, and a leader industry wide. The H2O Zone is a huge success -- the kids love it, and it keeps them out of adult whirlpools. There were a ton of kids on our Thanksgiving week cruise (1,029 to be exact!), but the ones we did see on the decks were well behaved. We have to give credit to the youth staff for keeping them occupied with age-appropriate activities.
Children are broken into five separate age groups that get not only their own activities but also their own private rooms. The Adventure Ocean Program includes several different groups: Aquanauts (3 - 5) might color and play games while Explorers (6 - 8) learn to make their own candies or kites; Voyagers (9 - 11) might take a backstage tour of the Arcadia Theater or participate in sports activities. Navigators (12 - 14) and older teens (15 - 17) can attend parties at Fuel, the teens-only club; hang out in the Living Room, a posh teen lounge that often looked packed; or chill on the Back Deck, a private outdoor area for teens. Challenger's Arcade offers modern games like Dance Dance Revolution as well as classics like Ms. Pac Man; there are also racecar games and three air hockey tables.
There are no supervised programs for children younger than 3 or non-potty-trained tykes. However, special Royal Babies (6 - 18 months) and Royal Tots (18 - 36 months) programs -- offered in conjunction with Fisher-Price and Royal Caribbean's youth staff -- are scheduled throughout the cruise for parents to attend with their wee ones. Babysitting for children age 1 and older is offered as a group activity; the cost is $5 per child. In-stateroom sitting is offered when personnel is available; parents or guardians must reserve this service at the Purser's Desk 24 hours in advance. The cost for this is $8 per hour for one or two children within the same family or $10 per hour for three children within the same family.
As well behaved as the kids were onboard, it was almost nice to see children acting childishly once in awhile. Our last night onboard, we were in the elevator en route to Sorrento's for one last slice of pizza. The elevator door opened on a random floor and a group of about four boys no older than 10 sang (loudly), danced and giggled until the door closed again. You knew that they were hitting the button over and over again to put on their little show ... but who cared? We wanted to get our last few kicks in before the end of vacation, too. It really summed up the whole experience: too much fun to be had, not enough time.
With the FlowRider, H2O Zone, and age-specific children's facilities, Freedom of the Seas is an obvious choice for families. However, the ship also appeals to active couples, mainly in their 30's to 50's; we met plenty of fun-loving seniors as well. Our sailing attracted a large number of repeat Royal Caribbean cruisers (over 1,000). The majority of passengers hail from North America, though many guests on our cruise came from South America and Europe.
Afternoon activities include the ubiquitous pool games and trivia contests; Vintages wine bar hosts several tasting sessions throughout the week (we attended one that was $15, and much more intimate than the dining room variety; we were part of a 12-person group). Al fresco bars include the Pool Bar, Sky Bar and Wipe Out! bar, and the drink of the day in a souvenir glass will run you $5.95; Casino Royale is open whenever the ship is at sea, and features slot machines in a range of denominations, table games and a bar; this area can get pretty smoky at night -- if you are sensitive to cigarettes, you may not want to pass through.
The main Arcadia Theater seats more than 1,300 guests over two levels and is the venue for nighttime productions; on our sailing, shows included "Once Upon a Time," a beautifully done Broadway-style fairy tale; a concert featuring the Nelson brothers and the popular newlywed contest, which was side splittingly funny as always (how can you not laugh when a woman who has been married for 50 years discusses her coconut bra in front of a live audience?). Late-night comedians and magicians fill out the roster; Pharaoh's Palace is a secondary show lounge for musical combos and private parties.
The ice rink at Studio B also doubles as a secondary show lounge (it was the spot for the Crown & Anchor welcome back party, as well as the Quest, an adult scavenger hunt). There are free skate hours listed in the Compass. Freedom-Ice.com, the professional ice show, was the best I've seen at sea. Even though our ship was moving due to rough weather, nobody fell -- and the amount and speed of wardrobe changes were mind-boggling. Tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance; check your Compass for details on your sailing.
After hours, Boleros -- the hip Latin lounge that Royal Caribbean has begun installing on its ships -- is one of my favorite bars at sea. Though the location (in a hallway outside the casino near a staircase) is not nearly as cozy as the stand-alone bar on, say, Empress of the Seas, the two bartenders there were absolutely fantastic, made a mean mojito, and juggled bottles and shakers for us. It felt like "Cocktail" without Tom Cruise. This venue also draws major crowds with live music and merengue dancing.
Nightly music is found in other areas of the ship as well. A guitarist/soloist performs rock tunes in the Bull & Bear Pub, and a pianist packs Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, taking requests until the wee hours. If you'd like to do the singing yourself, swing by the On Air bar outside Studio B; there are open-mic hours where you can strut your stuff onstage, as well as private booths for those a little less confident. The big screen here is the place to catch sporting events, too. For late night dancing, there's the two-deck Crypt nightclub, whose spooky decor features bar stools shaped like headstones.
Even with all of these options, we can never resist pre-dinner bubbly at the Champagne Bar, or a nightcap at Royal Caribbean's signature top-of-the-ship Viking Crown Lounge, here called Olive or Twist (there's a special martini menu, and it is a jazz club at night).
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