Liberty of the Seas is offspring of the Freedom-class family, a litter of vessels that began with Freedom of the Seas in 2006 and ended with Independence of the Seas in 2008. The ship, the second-largest cruise ship in the world behind the Oasis-class twins, boasts all the Freedom-class favorites, including popular onshore brands like Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's, cruising's only ice rink, a rock-climbing wall, the novel "Promenade" concept and Boleros Latin lounge.
Those acquainted with RCI's Voyager-class ships will also feel at home on the Freedom-class trio, though the larger size of the latter has afforded the line more space to play. Freedom-class features include the FlowRider surf simulator, the H20 Zone water park and the Everlast boxing ring. But, Liberty and company's overall concept -- both in terms of design and choices -- actually emerged some time ago. Introduced back in 1999, Voyager of the Seas is the ship responsible for the majority of the above-mentioned features, which are now staples of the Royal Caribbean fleet. (In fact, Johnny Rockets and Boleros have proven so successful they were added to the older Sovereign-class vessels during that class' extensive refurbishment.)
And so, through a culmination of Voyager- and Freedom-class innovations, Royal Caribbean has introduced a ship in Liberty of the Seas that offers infinite options in the areas of fitness, recreation and entertainment. With the sheer number of options onboard (especially if the seas are calm), you may find yourself forgetting that you're actually on a massive floating object, gliding quickly through the Caribbean Sea.
In early 2011, Liberty went under the knife for its first dry dock. During the multimillion dollar refurbishment, the ship gained several features that debuted on Oasis of the Seas, including a cupcake bakery, big-name stage show ("Saturday Night Fever" in this case), a nursery for the youngest cruisers and an outdoor movie screen. New technology knowhow is paraded in the form of interactive in-cabin televisions and the addition of digital deck plan systems, which are located throughout the ship to help passengers navigate with the use of LCD touch-screens that offer customized directions and routing, real time updates and ship factoids.
Royal Caribbean has ingeniously created a two-level promenade that you'll walk through many, many times per day. Along with the well-attended Casino Royale on Deck 4, the Deck 5 promenade, four stories in height, spans much of the length of the ship. Looking as if it has been carefully excised from an American mall, there are a cluster of shops on both sides, including stores for logo items, perfume, duty-free alcohol and jewelry, as well as Vintages Wine Bar, the Hoof & Claw British pub, Cafe Promenade coffee shop and the Cupcake Cupboard.
On Deck 7 aft is the modest library, and though it wasn't teeming with readers, the space had a few passengers engaged with books each time I passed en route to or from my nearby cabin.
One deck directly above the library is Royal Caribbean Online (connected by a staircase), the ship's Internet cafe. There are 19 terminals, and at least half were often in use. Connection speeds are pretty quick when in port, but be warned that once you're at sea, they slow and sometimes freeze up, meaning they eat up your money. The flat rate is 65 cents a minute, but if you buy packages, the rate can decrease to as low as 30 cents a minute (with a 500-minute package). The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area hot spots.
A new addition to Liberty of the Seas is a series of interactive touch-screen ship maps, located at the base of the port and starboard stairs (aft), near the elevators on all decks. They are excellent for finding my way around the ship, meeting people and getting back to my cabin late at night.
One of Liberty's finest public features is the artwork on display in the ship's three stairwells. A new collection was introduced in 2011 where the theme was "everyday life," created by merging photographs and paintings. At the aft end of the ship, many of these works have been influenced by famous artists. There was a group of Hockney-style pictures, as well as some Munch-influenced paintings by Kenneth Blom. At the forward end, everyday images were given a magical approach, based on fairy tales and Aesop's fables. My favorite was a bird-butterfly-man riding a bike by Maggie Taylor.
At the top of the ship, Cloud Nine, which is next to the Seven Hearts card and game room (adjacent to the Viking Crown Lounge), can be used for private meetings or parties. There are a few Ping-Pong tables just outside the game room. The Skylight Chapel, one deck up, is the spot for onboard weddings.
With such an enormous vessel, it stands to reason that Royal Caribbean would introduce some sort of audio tour to help guests navigate Liberty of the Seas. And, sure enough, there's a tour led by the voice of journalist, editor and author Tina Brown. It's in the testing stages, but it's not yet available to the public, and there's no date of release. Hopefully, the final tour will include some comments on the ship's art collection.
For the most part, staterooms represent the standard industry move toward a high percentage of outside and/or balcony staterooms; 844 of the 1,817 cabins, or nearly half, have balconies. All cabins are clean and functional, with peach and teal decor, and they're equipped with desks, safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen TV's that feature a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, BBC World, TNT, Cartoon Network, VH1 en Espanol and several RCI ad channels), as well as interactive options (order shore excursions and room service, or check your expenses).
Note: Because the TV's are modern Samsung flat-screens, kids can (and do) bring their PlayStations and Wii consoles for in-room use.
More specifically, potential passengers can choose from four different categories of staterooms: inside, oceanview, balcony and suite. Then, within each are different setups at different price points, including larger configurations for families.
Interior and promenade-view staterooms measure 152 square feet and 149 square feet respectively and feature shower-only bathrooms with sliding doors, as opposed to curtains. A single pump in each shower is preloaded with shower gel/shampoo. Family insides measure 300 square feet, with room for up to six to sleep on two twin beds that convert into a queen, plus a sofa and/or Pullman.
Ranging from 161 to 200 square feet, oceanview cabins offer portholes and slightly more space, an ideal compromise for the semiclaustrophobic cruiser. Family oceanview cabins are 293 square feet and include sitting areas, twin beds that convert into queens and sofas and/or Pullmans.
Liberty offers two balcony choices, the 177-square-foot Deluxe (balcony: 74 square feet) and the 189-square-foot Superior (balcony: 68 square feet). Balcony furniture comprises a small table and two upright plastic-ribbon loungers.
There are a variety of suite choices, including Junior Suites (287 square feet with a tub, walk-in closet and 101-square-foot balcony), Grand Suites (387 square feet with a tub, walk-in closet and 126-square-foot balcony) and Owner's Suites (614 square feet with a tub, walk-in closet, separate sitting area and 209-square-foot balcony) with names taken from musical nomenclature (Harmony, Symphony, etc.). The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet with a 377-square-foot balcony) also boasts a marble whirlpool-style 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 the Concierge Club lounge (Deck 10 midship, open 24 hours but not always manned), where guests can enjoy complimentary pre- and post-dinner canapes and cocktails. Suite passengers can also ask the concierge to book shore excursions, dining reservations, spa appointments and more.
For larger family groupings, there are four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet with a 234-square-foot balcony) that hold up to eight and feature living areas with double sofa beds. Each of these suites has two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).
Making its second showing for RCI is the Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square feet with a balcony that's 810 square feet). The suite sleeps up to 14 of your kin and is made up of two master bedrooms with private baths, as well as two smaller bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. Moreover, there are two additional shower-only bathrooms (the same as you'd see in standard accommodations). The 810-square-foot private balcony (more than four times larger than my cabin alone) boasts a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded loungers.
Like Freedom, Liberty also features the B & J room (6305), a promenade-view cabin overlooking the tukases of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor (just below). Cruisers who end up in this obstructed-view room receive complimentary ice cream at Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise.
Note: Passengers can no longer smoke in their staterooms, but balcony smoking is still allowed.
On a seven-night Eastern Caribbean summer departure, there were more than 1,300 children. That's nearly one-third of the entire onboard passenger population, and families were certainly the majority of cruisers. Besides seeing one of the youngest demographics in cruising, expect to cavort with mostly North Americans and, out of Miami, a large number of bilingual Spanish- and English-speaking passengers.
Similarly, a Mediterranean cruise was also swamped with children -- which was probably due to the Easter holidays. There was a wide mix of Europeans, Asians and North Americans, though I would say there were more of the latter on our trip. Again, RCI seems to attract a young crowd, with plenty of 30- and 40-somethings sans kids.
Like sister ship Freedom, Liberty of the Seas is easily one of the best ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet for families. And, if the phenomenal number of kids onboard during my summer cruise (nearly 1,300, or 30 percent of the population) is any indication, the fleet is aiming to rival even family stalwart Disney. It will be interesting to see how the family market evolves when Disney's fleet officially doubles by 2012.
New to 2011 cruises is the DreamWorks Experience, with activities and shows including a DreamWorks parade down the Royal Promenade and character breakfasts in the Rembrandt Dining Room, where children can meet all the studio characters. On my cruise, the parade took place at 11 p.m., so be prepared to let the children stay up late. It was packed with people elbowing to get a good view. The breakfast was also very busy, and one Dad I spoke to said he was glad he had reserved a table online before the cruise, as his two girls were chuffed to pieces to meet Shrek and his friends.
Children are broken into five separate age groups with their own activities and private rooms. Each room has its own activities area, and Internet consoles line at least one wall. There are Aquanauts (3 - 5) (I admired a "Look What I Did Today!" board displaying chaotic art pieces), Explorers (6 - 8), Voyagers (9 - 11), Navigators (12 - 14) and older teens (15 - 17). Another dynamite option for kids of ages 12 to 17 is the chance to attend several free D.J. classes through RCI's agreement with the Scratch DJ Academy. There, you can learn the basics of being a D.J. while using the latest equipment.
As part of the 2011 dry dock, the ship gained the ImaginOcean family theater show, which debuted on Oasis of the Seas. The combination puppet show and musical was created by Tony Award-nominated actor John Tartaglia, whose credits include several appearances on "Sesame Street" and a starring role in Broadway's "Avenue Q."
Also on Liberty of the Seas are cool teens-only hangouts Fuel (a mini-club with dance floor, soda bar and Internet terminals) and the Living Room (a lounge that often bustles with activity).
There were also quite a few kids, and especially those in the more awkward teenage phase, who were perfectly content hanging out in packs. I stumbled into Catacombs, the adults-only nightclub (hosting one "teens take over" night), where about 15 teenagers were holding court, touching the gargoyles, snapping photos, etc. As I was leaving the scene before being detected, one particularly saucy teenybopper casually remarked, "Guys, we're playing truth or dare. You know you want to kiss us."
For younger children, from RCI offers a Royal Babies and Tots nursery (catering to those from 6 - 36 months),where parents can leave their under-3's in a safe and fun place with trained staff -- two children to every one caregiver. Various activities have been developed exclusively for RCI by Fisher-Price and Crayola. It costs $8 per hour, and it is advisable to request your times as soon as you board since it only has space for 12 kids. Check your compass for times this service is available, as they vary on different cruises.
Note: I noticed a grandma returning supplies -- paper, glue, scissors, tape -- to the Adventure Oceans area. If you're looking for a little constructive one-on-one time with your baby or your baby's baby, inquire about borrowing the goods. The staff is quite accommodating to any ideas you may have.
Without a doubt, the Challenger's Video Arcade (located adjacent to the Adventure Ocean rooms) is the best arcade at sea, with a fittingly huge number of games. Prices, however, are a bit excessive -- cheapest game is 75 cents, most is $1.45 per play -- and it would be easy to amass hundreds of dollars in charges per kid by week's end.
Youths can play bingo (with a parent or guardian) for free -- and they can win, too, with only a parent's signature required at the Explorations desk to collect the cash. On our cruise, a young'un won the final jackpot, nearly $6,300. I'm not sure if his parents, who had every right to do so, snapped that up. ("See Mildred, I told you he'd amount to something.")
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.
Beyond the cruise industry standard offerings -- R-rated comedians, the Love and Marriage Game Show, mind-numbing amounts of bingo and karaoke -- Freedom- and Voyager-class vessels feature cruising's only ice rinks, known as Studio B. Passengers can watch a group of earnest skaters making the best of the small, choppy ice surface, balancing admirably at the mercy of the ship's potential for random shudders. Given the circumstances, I found myself rooting for the skaters not to fall and encouraging them when they did. Ice show tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance; check your Compass for details on your sailing.
The Platinum Theater features the ship's nightly production spectacles, including "In the Air," a Cirque de Soleil-style offering where little of the action takes place on the stage. In early 2011, the West End production "Saturday Night Fever: The Musical" debuted in the theater. This celebration of all things 1970's went over very well. A slightly abridged version had the audience dancing in the aisles.
During the day, cruisers have any number of typical activity options -- sexy legs contests, trivia, family pool games, seminars on teeth-whitening and attaining flawless skin, wine-tasting -- the majority of which are based around the open-deck pool areas, the spa and the Deck 13 aft sports area, which houses the rock-climbing wall, FlowRider, sports court and mini-golf course. But, a ship with such endless choices couldn't possibly limit itself to simply the status quo. One of the more unique offerings is the D.J. class hosted by Scratch DJ Academy. Check your Compass for times.
Casino Royale makes no claim to be the largest at sea, but its 308 slots and 19 tables provide more than enough real estate for gamblers. Common favorites like blackjack, Caribbean stud poker and roulette were always well attended, even in the early morning hours. And, following a relatively popular onshore trend, the casino featured a Texas Hold'em tournament with a $5,000 prize pool for finalists.
On our particular sailing from Miami, there were a lot of Spanish-speaking passengers. There was more high-energy evening dancing in Boleros -- to a poblano-pepper-hot Latin group, Sol y Arena -- than I've ever experienced on a cruise. And, although the Cruise Compass listed the closing hour as 1 a.m., the band certainly went well beyond that, catering to the desires of the clientele.
Note: In Boleros, one side (the side with the dancing and band) is designated for smoking, while the other side is nonsmoking.
Located on the Promenade, The Hoof & Claw is ideal for your casual afternoon cocktail. Its black walls, dark-brown leather seating and romantic images of eloquent English gentry -- see a wealthy paleface holding court, a rider stroking his mare's mane, or an enormous mastiff with sausage links balanced on his nose -- aim for a vibe of sleepy refinement. I found the staff there to be particularly congenial, engaging passengers on a first-name basis in easy conversation. If you're hungry, you can ask for some peanuts to accompany your Murphy's stout (Yank choices also available) or "James Bond" martini. At night, guitar-man Jimmy Blakemore takes your requests.
There is a range of other bars to choose from throughout the ship, including Deck 4's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, Vintage's Wine Bar -- this has been given an elegant refit -- the Champagne Bar, a cigar club for decidedly masculine choices (scotch) and, of course, the popular Olive or Twist (Liberty's iteration of RCI's Viking Crown Lounge), perched atop the ship. The Schooner Bar was a huge hit on our cruise, where the large contingency of Irish folks onboard enjoyed pelting out traditional Celtic numbers led by Darren, the entertaining piano player. A rather bizarre incident occurred one night when Darren chose to take a short break and offered the floor to one Brit who gave us a full rendition of that, um, U.K. classic "Ernie the Milkman," which was met by the sound of tumbleweeds rolling through the piano bar.
Of course, watching the active sporting pursuits going on around the clock make for excellent entertainment, as well. The FlowRider has seats for viewing potential wipeouts and clothing mishaps -- there were, in fact, reports circulating about a woman with tiny bikini top who was warned to put a T-shirt on, insisted on not doing so, and summarily lost her top.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Lido area features two main pools, with one for swimming and one for sports, as well as three hot tubs. The H20 Zone, with its kids-only pool, waterfall and abstract colorful sculpture fountains, easily garners the most attention. Though adults are not technically supposed to be playing in this pool area, I did run through it myself to test out the product. It was enjoyable and an outstanding way to lower your body temperature on a blistering Caribbean day. In the adults-only Solarium pool area, located farther forward, you'll see swinging chairs (surprisingly, usually unoccupied) and two cantilevered hot tubs, which jut out over the side of the ship and provide fantastic views through clear glass panels. (They hang 100 feet above the ocean's surface.)
A problem noted by a few passengers was the fact that you had to queue to obtain (and deposit) a pool towel on Deck 11, and during peak times -- early morning for collection and late afternoon for dropping off -- the area became very congested. With a fine of $25 for a towel not returned, there is obviously a problem with these towels disappearing, but perhaps a simpler system could be devised. Maybe towels could be put in the staterooms and collected the night before disembarkation to avoid guests "accidentally" running off with them.
As part of the 2011 dry-dock renovations, an 18.5-foot video screen was installed in the main pool area, showing movies in the evenings and entertainment programs throughout the cruise.
For your workout, you can head to the ShipShape Fitness Center, the finest gym on a cruise ship, with a large variety of equipment -- a long row of sea-facing Lifestyle treadmills, plenty of bikes, a large separate room for Yoga, Pilates and stretching classes, weight machines that focus on every individual muscle in your body, free weights in every weight. This facility mirrors the overall size and offerings of the ship.
Whether your goal is to correct a prematurely hunched posture or to improve your skin in the pore-destroying climate of the Caribbean, there are several morning and afternoon fitness seminars offered for free (with the aim of selling those products or services, of course). But frankly, I found the seminars more confusing than beneficial -- restructuring years of bad diet and lifestyle habits in 30 minutes is a bit of a stretch -- and the amount of information on nutrition, metabolic function, water retention, glycemic index levels, fat deposits, Chinese herbs, etc. requires an indefatigable will to focus.
With chocolate sauce ringing the corners of my mouth and a modest-sized brown stain on my shirt, I was relieved that I would be able to sweat out some of my consumption via the various programs available. And perhaps that's the idea -- creating a cycle of food gorging, slight guilt, activity, food gorging, guilt, activity. You may pick up some ice cream at Ben & Jerry's, stuff your face with a burger at Johnny Rockets and then attend a biking class in the afternoon.
Liberty of the Seas has just introduced acupuncture, something that sister line Celebrity has been offering. I attended a seminar on acupuncture, and the acupuncturist noted that it typically takes three or four treatments to notice a visible effect. The main potential side effect of acupuncture is bruising -- if the capillaries right on the skin are irritated -- and bruising is not something that a cruiser would want if they were wearing a backless dress on formal night. My suggestion: If you're interested, try it on land, where you won't pay cruise spa prices and where more and more insurance companies are actually covering the procedure.
The basketball court featured constant, nearly daylong pickup games, organized tournaments and amusingly violent organized soccer games (pleading RCI staff: "Guys! Guys! Please, keep it clean! Guys!").
We have to mention the FlowRider, the popular surf simulator that's found on all three Freedom-class ships. Surfing is free and open to everyone (check hours), but if you really want to master it, try booking a one-on-one private FlowRider lesson 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. (A 50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)
People aiming to take advantage of all the fitness offerings should augment their T-shirt, underwear and socks allocations -- or be prepared to do some laundry. In the muggy 90-degree Caribbean clime, you will sweat through your clothes.
Seven-night cruises have two formal nights and five casual nights. A decent number of men choose to wear tuxedos for formal dining, though dark suits were more common on our sailing. Women are typically found in cocktail dresses or gowns.
On five-night cruises, there is just one formal night. However, it is not compulsory, and many choose not to participate and dine in Windjammers or Jade to avoid the formal attire.
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