Freedom of the Seas

September 24th to October 1st, 2006

Royal Caribbean had already announced their new Freedom class of ships when we had sailed our first cruise on Navigator of the Seas back in April 2005. While on Navigator, we booked our second cruise on Celebrity’s Constellation for January of 2006. That summer however, features of the Freedom class ships were starting to be announced and Lee was chomping at the bit. He knew that I would never agree to book another cruise before even going on our second. So, he did what any sane person would do: he booked a week and paid my fare so I could not argue with him over it. You won’t hear any complaints from me. It was a HUGE surprise. We went out for dinner one night in July 2005 and he handed me an envelope. There were floor plans and confirmation numbers; I had no idea what was going on. Lee had done a good chunk of contracting work so far that summer, so this cruise was going to be his treat. The kicker however was that we had to wait over a year for the cruise. I thought at first he was telling me we were going on a cruise in September 2005. Our week on Constellation in January 2006 just reinforced how crazy we were about cruising; now we only had nine more months to wait for Freedom. It appears we couldn’t wait nine months though; we went on Enchantment of the Seas in May 2006. We were now full-blown-out-of-control-gotta-book-another-one-right-now cruise addicts.

One great thing about knowing about your travel plans so far ahead is that airline tickets are easy to get using frequent flyer points. As soon as Air Canada released Aeroplan seats for our cruise dates, we booked our flights; we got great connections. Booking a year ahead however, our flights were changed twice by the airline. We also booked a hotel room for the night before the cruise using my Hilton points. Over the year of waiting for Freedom to be launched, we decided to spend a bit more time in Miami before our cruise. It would be hurricane season and the one-day buffer before our sailing out of Miami was making us a bit nervous. A few months before the cruise, we cancelled the Hilton reservation and bid on Priceline for a room for two nights. During that same time period, our friend Melynda decided to come along. She did not want to pay the single supplement to come on her own, so she invited her mother Marika to share her room. In addition, our friends David and Tim who had joined us on Constellation decided they wanted to try another cruise and booked as well. It was going to be a friendly group of six on Freedom. This made us very happy.  Cruising as a couple was fun but we discovered on Constellation (with David & Tim and Tom & Rich), that cruising with friends is great fun. We were a bit disappointed, everyone around us was getting their cruise documents, while we weren't. We called Royal Caribbean, they said they had been sent out. They kindly gave us the link to the electronic versions of the documents. We were so looking forward to getting the cute little spiral-bound book. We knew we didn't really *need* the documents, but it would have been nice to have the little book, even if just for a souvenir. We got over it.

Friday, September 22nd – Miami
Marika was flying overnight from Nanaimo in British Columbia to Toronto and Melynda had arranged to meet her in the terminal in Toronto for the connecting flight to Miami. It ended up that all six of us were going to be on the same flight from Toronto to Miami. We had the alarm set for an early wake up, but we didn’t make it. By 4:20am we were awake and anxious to get moving. Lee and I left Ottawa at 7am on Friday morning and we arrived for our connection in Toronto with plenty of time. We ran into our traveling companions once we had crossed security at Terminal 2. Everybody except for Melynda and I had been pulled aside for extra screening. Lee had to explain why he hade 18 batteries in his hand luggage. (Darn digital cameras and their battery-sucking ways!) Toronto is usually a mess to connect through to the U.S. Luckily it was smooth flying on this day, no delays or problems. All our baggage even made it!

We arrived in Miami at 1:10 pm, right on time. We had booked a mid-sized SUV from Alamo since we knew we would need a lot of space for luggage. Alamo is a great choice for car rentals in Miami as they are cheap and offer a free shuttle service between the rental depot and the port before and after your rental.  Booking early is a wise idea; we watched the price of the same rental slowly creep up as our cruise date approached. We ended up with a Chevrolet Uplander for a rate of $30/day. It was quite a big vehicle, kind of a cross between an SUV and a mini-van. Lee was the assigned driver, he looked pretty nervous driving this huge monster around Miami.

David and Tim set off for their hotel. Lee, Melynda, Marika and I were all very hungry by this time, so we made our first planned stop at the Cheesecake Factory at Dadeland Mall. We are all whores for the Cheesecake Factory, so everyone was giddy with excitement. They fattened us up like pigs going off to slaughter; my GOSH, their portions are huge. We walked around the mall a bit so Melynda could peruse Macy’s, her new favorite obsession, while Lee had a nice sitting massage at a kiosk in the mall. On the way to check into our hotels, we also stopped at Target, the happiest place on earth. We bought some water and soft drinks to bring onto the ship. We had planned to buy some wine to bring onboard as well, but this particular Target store did not have a very good selection.

Melynda bid on Priceline for her hotel room and got the Holiday Inn Coral Gables for $50/night. Lee and I had stayed there last time we were in Miami. We don’t know what happened, but after winning the bid, the hotel was renamed to The Coral Gables Hotel at the Miracle Mile. It was no longer a Holiday Inn. I am not crazy about Holiday Inns, but at least they have a certain degree of standards. Lee researched the hotel on and the comments about the newly renamed hotel were not great. We dropped Melynda and Marika at the hotel around 5pm and told them that if there was ANY problem with the place they should call us. The hotel ended up not being the greatest, but okay for the price. The hotel’s location was good, just off the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, an upscale shopping area.

Our Priceline bid was accepted by the Wyndham Grand Bay in Coconut Grove for $60/night. The hotel was nice, but the room did need a bit of work. The furniture was mismatched, the headboards on the bed had been removed and we had a weird couch crammed into a corner where you would never be able to sit. The patio door fell off its track a couple of time while trying to open the door as well. Our room had a great balcony with a nice view of Biscayne Bay. The hotel only had valet parking; it was pricey at $19/night. Surprisingly, we were never actually charged for the parking on our room charges. One of the first things we wanted to do when we got into the room was take a shower. There were no bath towels in the room however and I had to call down for towels a few times. Finally, we had to leave to meet up with Melynda and couldn’t wait for towels any longer; we used the hand towels to dry off from our showers. The towels were there when we returned later that night. We had a bit of a panic when we came down to the hotel entrance. I could see a silver SUV with a huge dent on its side parked in the same spot where we left OUR silver SUV. I shrieked and ran for the door until I realized it was a different silver SUV.

Since our lunch was so huge that day, Lee, Melynda and I were not particularly interested in dinner. David and Tim had ventured over to South Beach and when we called them, they were settling in for dinner at a place called the News Café on Ocean Drive. We picked up Melynda and met them at the restaurant. Marika was going to stay at their hotel and try to sleep off her long night and day of flying. We parked the vehicle at the public garage at Washington and 12th Street in South Beach. Parking was a $10 flat rate. We got the next-to-last spot on the roof of the garage. David and Tim had finished dinner when we finally found the place, so we joined them for drinks and dessert. The street was just hopping with people out for the evening. It was hard walking down the sidewalk without getting hit in the face with menus from people trying to get you to come into their restaurants. It was 12:30am by the time we got back to the room. Lee was so hyped up; he sat at the desk talking while I tried to fall asleep. That was a weird turn of events as Lee is usually the one moaning about getting to sleep and I’m the one doing just one or two more things late at night!

Saturday September 23rd – Miami
We were up by 8:30am and had no specific plans for breakfast. There were very few places to eat near the hotel. We decided to walk towards CocoWalk to see if there was anything there. Not much luck in the way of food, so we jumped into the SUV and headed off to our first destination, The Falls shopping centre. Lee had forgotten to pack one of his dress shirts, so he wanted to buy a new one. On the way to the mall, we stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s. Macy’s at The Falls was closed for renovations and we couldn’t afford Bloomingdales, so shopping was a bust. It was a very nice outdoor mall though. The stores are all gathered around water fountains, fake water falls and stone-lined streams and creeks. There was a CompUSA nearby, I bought a case for my Palm computer and we also stopped at the Publix store to shop for wine. We nearly bought some champagne before we realized that how really cheap it actually was (not a good attribute for wine!). We found a really good liquor store next to the Marshall’s and Panera Bread, where we bought champagne for David’s birthday and some Bailey’s-like liquor for our balcony breakfasts.  Lee got his dress shirt at Marshall’s. I was trying hard not to run around like a crazed Energizer bunny, so we returned to the room around 1pm with a take-out sandwich for lunch. We sat on our patio and had a nice quiet lunch enjoying our view of the Bay. It was very hot out; the temperature was fluttering around 38C.

The ride between Coral Gables and downtown Miami is quite pretty. There are huge banyan trees lining the middle of the road, and the branches spread out to cover the entire street. At night, they illuminate the trees from below for a very cool effect. We picked up Melynda and Marika and drove down toward South Beach for the afternoon.

Our original plan for the afternoon was to rent Segways and tour around South Beach. We had called the rental place several times in the months before coming to Miami to try and reserve 5 Segways; they said we just need to show up. We called that morning and they said they had four Segways available. Lee took the bullet for the team and said he would pass. At the rental place, the guy told us that one of the batteries was flaky and might not last long. We had our short tutorial and we set off. Melynda got across the street and her Segway battery died. Tim made it to the next corner and then his Segway died. Both Melynda and Tim said they didn’t care about going, so David and I took off for a tour along the path near the beach. It was very hot out and there were many people on the streets. We went quite a ways along the beach path and along Lincoln Road. After we returned the Segways and met up with Melynda and Tim, we walked up to Lincoln Road to meet Lee and Marika , who had gone for a walking tour of South Beach.  It was crazy hot that day in Miami and we were all looking wilted.

For dinner, we went to Bongo’s at the American Airlines Arena. Bongo’s is a Cuban restaurant owned by Gloria Estefan. They have some interesting cocktails made with some special kind of rum (don’t remember the name), and we enjoyed an excellent sampler plate of appetizers. We were somewhat early for dinner (6:30ish) so the restaurant was pretty quiet. I know now that I am not too crazy about Cuban food, but the restaurant itself was quite nice, with big stained glass palm trees and a huge glass pineapple over the bar. We got our parking ticket validated as we left the restaurant. We decided to cross the street and pop into Bayside Marketplace. It’s kind of a combination mall, restaurant complex, and tourist entertainment attraction. We enjoyed some yummy gelato. Lee and Marika almost had to be sedated; some goofball had a big python type snake and was letting people hold it while he took their pictures. Freaks! When we returned to the arena to pick up our car, we found out that the validation on the parking ticket got us free parking for the evening. SCORE! When we left the parking garage around 10:30pm, there was a line forming to get into Bongo’s, which turns into a huge dance club at night. We dropped everyone at their hotels and hit the sack just after 11pm.

Sunday September 24th – Boarding
The big day had finally arrived! We were giddy with anticipation about getting on the ship. We were up by 8am and packed quickly making sure to get all our water and wine packed safely into our luggage. For breakfast, we stopped at the Einsten’s Bagels on the Miracle Mile and picked up Melynda and Marika. Our plan was to drive to the park across from the port and take some pictures of the ship before boarding. After a slight problem with the interpretation of the directions given to us by the rental car agency, we brought the car back to Alamo. The shuttle bus for the cruise port showed up quickly after we arrived. We tried to get our bags on board, but one family was hogging the door and was preventing anyone from getting on the bus until all of their MANY family members and copious luggage were loaded, even though it was clear that the bus would accommodate us all. Lee should be very appreciative of my lack of swearing in their direction which would be my usual style. The shuttle bus was jam packed with luggage and people. Of course, the hillbilly family got off the shuttle at the Carnival terminal.

We joined the boarding line at the Royal Caribbean dock at 11:20am. The line seemed a bit long as they were herding us in at street level, but it moved very fast. It was a little weird, as we moved through the line, people kept waving at us and saying hello. Lee was recognizing some of them as members of the CruiseCritic chat group that he had participated in before the cruise. I had posted a few messages as well and we had made the photos from our last cruises available to the group. Over the next few days, it was not unusual for people to come up to me asking me if I was Mike. I felt a bit like rock star! We actually met another male couple and when we introduced ourselves, they said “you’re Lee and Mike?!” and we found out that folks had been coming up to them all day and asking them if they were us.  I’m not sure why; we’re much prettier. We passed through security and check-in easily and set foot onto Freedom of the Seas right at noon. The line moved the entire time; we did not really stand around during the check-in process.

The doors to the hallways where the cabins were located were locked, so we could not bring our carry-on bags to the room. Our first task was to make reservation at the specialty restaurants. David’s 40th birthday was happening during the cruise, so our first stop was at Portofino to make reservations for his birthday dinner. We were the first on the list for the night of his birthday. Then, we popped over to Chops to make a reservation for date night, our own quiet romantic dinner alone. From there, we popped into the Windjammer for lunch. It was still early and we  found a table easily. The Windjammer was getting more and more crowded over the time we were there. Neither Lee nor I are big fans of the Windjammer, but it was more than adequate for lunch.

By then, it was passed 1pm, and they opened the doors to access our room. Our room was 7708, the aft corner balcony on the starboard side. What a fantastic room. The room itself was a typical Royal Caribbean room. The balcony however, was unbelievable. It was so large! We could see off the back of the ship and had an open, glassless porthole where we could see off the side of the ship as well. We had two lounge chairs, two regular chairs and a small table. We took the coffee table from our room and put it on the balcony. That gave us more space to walk around in the room as well. The rooms on Freedom have wall-mounted flat-screen televisions and great new bedding, fluffy duvets and pillows. We found a nice treat in our room: our friends Tom and Rich sent us a bottle of champagne and some chocolate-covered strawberries. The strawberries were a delightful snack while we unpacked our luggage later that afternoon. The champagne was shared with our table at dinner. Our Crown and Anchor coupon books were also in the room waiting for us. RCTV, the interactive television system, has been upgraded so we used the opportunity to book our excursion in Grand Cayman. We also ran into Patterson, our room attendant. We asked him to separate the beds and to clear out the fridge. He told us that we could just take the stuff out of the fridge and put it on the shelves in the closet. I told them that the shelves in the closet would be needed for our things and suggested he store them somewhere else. Honey, don’t fool with us, we know how it all works! We also asked him for robes.

What came next is one of my favorite parts of the cruise, the mad scramble exploration of the ship. Marika and Melynda met us at our room and we went off looking around the ship. What can I say; it’s HUGE, and lovely. We started at the top and worked down. While we were in spa checking it out, we joined in on a tour to see the facility. Marika practically dove onto a water bed when the attendant asked for a volunteer. Next, we stopped by the sports deck to see the FlowRider, the surf machine. It is very cool, there were staff showing off on it. It looked like a lot of fun. The H20 Zone, the new kid’s pool area has cool water features, fountains and sprayers. Giving children a dedicated pool area was a brilliant idea. Later in the week as we sat by the pool, there were no shrieking children to contend with. Our next stop was the Isaac, Galileo and Leonardo dining rooms to check our table for dinner. Marika was so overcome by the dining room, which she felt was unbelievably beautiful, that she had tears in her eyes.  She said it also reminded her so much of the voyage she and her husband made to Canada when they left Hungary.  Our dining room table was not in the best location. It was in the middle of a busy path from the kitchen, but not bad enough to complain about. The Royal Promenade has increased in size on Freedom, and they have a new pizza restaurant called Sorrento’s. The Promenade Café from other ships is now used as more of a coffee shop with sandwiches, treats and coffee. There is a small book store in the café as well. Lee, the book expert, was unimpressed with their selection of books for sale.  There is also new active wear store called Get Out There and a men’s barbershop. The old standbys: the wine bar, English pub and gift shops are prominent on the Promenade as well. The ship has a large collection of art; this ship seemed to have a lot of photography on display. By and large those people expecting Freedom to be much different than other Voyager class ships are in for a surprise. I felt it was very much like Navigator of the Seas. That is fine though, I LOVED Navigator and I knew immediately that I was going to love Freedom of the Seas.

After our tour, we returned to the room to find only one of our four bags had been delivered so far.  I unpacked this one bag. In the meantime, a Carnival ship was pulling into the basin where we were parked to turn around. I was fun to watch the ship spin around, especially from our delightful balcony. Our neighbors were on their balcony as well and we chatted a bit with them; they were a nice young couple. We saw them a few times during the week, but never heard a sound from them when we were on our balcony. It was very hot and humid out, a thunderstorm was being forecast, but the sky was still clear at this point. The muster drill was called. It was relatively painless. After the drill, we returned our lifejackets to the room and went up to deck twelve to watch the sail away from Miami. Sail away is Lee’s favourite part of the cruise.  It proves that it’s really happening and he loves all the car horns honking, wishing us well on our holiday.  The view up South Beach and Miami Beach from Deck 12 is really something.  On our way back to the room before dinner, I glanced down at some bags that were in the hallway and recognized the handwriting. MINE! Our bags were piled up in the hallway waiting to be delivered. We grabbed then and brought them to our room. We took a quickie shower and went up to the dining room for dinner.

Our table for six was on the Galileo level of the dining room on deck four. Our waiter was Xavier from India and his assistant was Ernestina from the Philippines. They were both very friendly and efficient. For dinner that night I enjoyed an excellent Tuscan tomato soup, Caesar salad, and baked cod. Desert was apple pie, which I did not really enjoy. Lee, Melynda and I purchased a wine package that would allow us to pre-pay for a certain number of bottles of wine at a discount. David and Tim purchased a 5 bottle package. Lee, Melynda and I shared a 10 bottle package. I found the selection of wine in the package was good. Our tablemates were very pleasant; Marika had many stories to tell, including her story of immigrating to North America on a large ship. One disappointment is that all Royal Caribbean ships have the same menus, there were not many surprised when it came  to dinner in the dining room. We have seen the menus before.

We did have one  huge surprise at dinner though. Our waiter from Navigator, Edwin was working on Freedom and he recognized us. We certainly recognized him, and even though he was busy serving his area, he came by and said hi. That was very nice of him.

The opening night show was entertaining. There was a comedian/impressionist called Mike Wilson who did a short set. There was also a couple aerial acrobatics, Jimmy and Anna from Sweden. Jimmie was a total hottie with a slammin’ body. We saw Jimmy and Anna all over the ship over the next few days. The show was hosted by the cruise directory, Ken Rush. Ken was cruise director on our Navigator cruise. He is very friendly and outgoing, but between you and me, his shtick is getting kind of old. Many of the same jokes and bits he did this week we had seen over a year ago on Navigator. He does a great job though, his staff was always busy and enthusiastic and there was always something to do on the ship.

We had chatted with a few guys on our way back from the muster drill, we ran into them again as we were walking through the casino. Norm and Tom were a couple and were traveling with two of their friends, Scott and Rob. They were very chatty and we ended up going to join Norm and Rob for a drink in the Viking Crown lounge after the show while their friends played the tables in the casino. Norm and Tom had just reached Diamond status with Royal Caribbean and were anxious to show us the members-only lounge. It was somewhat unremarkable, but Norm seemed quite excited to be bringing us into the lounge as their guests. We hung out with them for a while before retiring at 12:30am.

The ship was heading full speed ahead towards Mexico. The seas were very calm and you could not feel the ship move or vibrate at all. It was very smooth sailing. The new beds that Royal Caribbean had introduced on Freedom were very comfortable. I slept very well that night. It was a long exciting day and it was nice to finally hit the sack in such comfort. Before going to bed, we decided to order breakfast for the next morning. The interactive television system was very annoying to use to order room service since you had to scroll through a long list for each item. We ended up just filling in the paper order form and hung it outisde our door before retiring. We indicated for breakfast to come between 8:30 and 9am.

Monday September 25th 2006 - Sea day
Breakfast was delivered on the dot at 9am. I like the fact that the servers call you just before they come to deliver your meal so you have time to throw on some shorts and a shirt before they arrive. Our balcony was very hot from the beating sun; I shuffled the chairs around so that we were sitting in the small area of shade on our balcony. It was very hot outside and very cool in our air-conditioned room. When I opened the patio door to go onto the balcony, my glasses fogged up immediately. The mirrors in our room fogged up as well. When I would take my camera outside from the room, the lens would fog up. That ended up being a problem all week. The food was still very hot when we got it. We had bought bottle of fake Baileys in Miami and enjoyed that every morning with our coffee.

Tickets for the on board ice shows were being distributed this morning. While Lee showered, I went down to Studio B to pick up the tickets. Because of the popularity of the ice show, the show itself was being held five times over the week. The tickets are free; they just distribute them so folks don’t show up only to be disappointed that they won’t get in. I picked up tickets for the Thursday afternoon show at 5pm. The line was a bit long in Studio B since it was a few minutes before they were going to start giving out the tickets. There was a lady in the lineup ahead of us who was there for about 15 minutes before asking: “Is this the line up for breakfast?” She was a bit embarrassed when I pointed to the restaurant entrance on the other side of the elevators. Once they started distributing the tickets, the line just flew by. A good suggestion would be to take tickets for shows later on in the week, they are less busy and it is easier to get good seats.

The Meet and Mingle get together for people on the CruiseCritic discussion group was going to be held this morning. Lee had been chatting with these people for over a year, he was anxious to meet them in person. He gabbed with them like they were long-lost family members. It was nice to put some faces to the names that we had seen online for so long. Everyone was so friendly and we were constantly running into people Lee knew on board. The cruise line raffled off some prizes (including a much desired Aqua-mouse) and the Assistant Cruise Directory Abe said a few short words. Tim and David had been teasing Lee about talking to strangers on the Internet; they told Lee that these people could be ax murderers for all he knew. During the Meet and Mingle, they presented Lee with a plastic ax.

After the Meet and Mingle, Lee and I walked around the ship looking at some of the art and popping into the shops. I bought a really nice t-shirt in the Get Out There shop. The shirt was made of a super light and thin performance fabric with the Royal Caribbean logo on it. This store is kind of weird. It is sponsored by New Balance, and they have New Balance shoes on display. They do not sell these running shoes though; they are strictly for display purposes. If you wanted to buy any of these shoes, you’d have to go to a local store. I was quite impressed with the quality of the merchandise in this store. The clothing was all excellent quality brand-name performance wear with somewhat subdued logos on them. While in the Promenade, we stopped for lunch at Sorrento’s. I had pizza, Lee had a panini sandwich. The pizza was great, I really enjoyed it. They have some small deserts as well; the tiramisu was very good and surprisingly light. After lunch, we played spot the gays from the embarkation photos that were displayed in the photo gallery. We went back to our room eventually to finish unpacking our bags and to loaf a bit. I was getting a bit drowsy, so I figured a cup of coffee would wake me up. After finishing putting everything away, I trotted down to the Promenade Café. I loved this space on the ship. You could sit and have coffee and watch people walk by on the Promenade.

I made a promise to myself that I was going to get some exercise on this cruise. After coffee, I went to the gym to use the elliptical-trainer for a while. The gym on Freedom is outstanding; there are a lot of aerobic machines and free-weights. Each machine has a display monitor and you could tune into any of the television channels during your workout. I watched the end of a movie, a documentary about the entertainers on board the ship and some sitcoms. On Freedom they introduced a boxing ring in the exercise area. Seems kind of lame, while I had heard that some people take lessons, most of the time I had been in the gym it was empty. I ran into Lee in the change room, he was using the sauna and steam room.

It was time to get ready for dinner, but the laundry we had sent out for pressing was not back yet. We could not get hold of our room attendant and there was no staff in the hallways we could talk to. Finally, we contacted someone in housekeeping; he said our laundry would be there in 20 to 30 minutes. We’d be late for dinner in that case; I told him we needed it now. A few minutes later, our room attendant came with the clothing. I have since found out that the room attendants are not working at that time; I think we might have gotten him pulled out of his break time. Oops…Up to this point, we were not too impressed with our room attendant. We seemed to be getting resistance to everything we asked for and he seemed to be trying to get away with doing less. Maybe it’s because he thought two guys sharing a room would not be likely to complain. He did redeem himself as the week went on, so we did end up giving him a positive review on our evaluation form.

Tonight was formal night on the ship. Before dinner, we stopped by the Champagne Bar for our customary champagne cocktail. On our way by, I stopped to get my shoes shined at a kiosk setup in front of the barbershop. The attendant did an excellent job, my shoes looked brand new. The cost was reasonable, only $5.00. Dinner this evening was a superb lobster bisque, sea bass and an extraordinary sugar-free coconut cake. The dining room staff seemed to be having an off night. There was a lot of commotion going on around us, trays were being knocked over, and waiters were running into each other. It’s like somehow they got out of their rhythm. It was quite noticeable from our point of view. I saw a few waiters glare at each other for being in the way.

After dinner, we headed to the Captain’s Reception in the Promenade. The place was jam-packed. Other than the Windjammer, the events in the Promenade were the only time that you knew there were 4,000 other people on the ship with you. There was great energy in the place. Of course, all of us loaded up on multiple glasses of champagne while it was being doled out for free. We then headed to the theater for the evening’s show. The theater was filling up quickly. Inside the theater, there was a guy who was saving a whole row of seats; Lee got into a heated exchange with him about saving seats. We ended up sitting across the row. Many people came up and asked the guy about the seats. Finally, somebody ignored him and just sat down. Lee was so ticked off, that is just what he wanted to do. The show was excellent; they sang songs from different musicals like The Boy from Oz, Sunset Boulevard and others. The singers and dancers were outstanding. Royal Caribbean certainly has its act together when it comes to the shows.

After the show, Lee and I changed into some cooler clothing and headed to the photo gallery to look up our latest pictures. They have a system on-board for the portraits. When they take the picture, they swipe your room key. In the gallery, they have computer terminals that allow you to view your pictures on the screen. The prints are also available on the wall, but if you want to see what you should be looking for, it is quite convenient. Our traveling companions had abandoned us by this point, so Lee and I headed up to the Viking Crown lounge for a cocktail. I made the mistake of not telling the server to make my drink in a regular glass; I ended up paying extra for the stupid collector glass. My bad, I should have remembered to tell the server to put the drink in a regular glass. Mind you, I am a little ticked that their default is to sell you the glass unless you tell them otherwise. We hit the sack after midnight.

Tuesday September 26th 2006 - Cozumel
The ship had already docked when we awoke this morning. On our way into the dining room, I made sure to ask the waiter who was seating us for a table for two. The waiters always make it sound like that is such an outrageous request, but we always end up at a table for two when we ask for it. The tables for two seem to be in the crappiest locations, right next to a service station, or next to a high traffic aisle for example. We were quite happy to learn that we had actually docked in Cozumel. Up until just a few weeks before, passengers had to be tendered to the dock. It was nice to just walk off the ship.

We had booked a ship’s excursion in Cozumel. We were going to go to the Playa Mia Beach Resort for a Mexican cooking class. Playa Mia is a resort about 20 minutes from the port. Based on the signs we had seen at Playa Mia, if you wanted to go spend the day at the resort to use their beach and facilities, you could pay $42 which includes drinks and a buffet lunch and use of their water sports equipment. Our instructor for the cooking class was Luis. He and his staff taught us how to make some delicious Mexican dishes: sope (a thick tortilla shell) with chorizo and potatoes, grouper with mango sauce, stuffed peppers and a desert of rice pudding and cookies. All of the grunt work such as chopping the onions and so forth was done ahead of time; we assembled and cooked the items. All the while, a charming waiter was plying us with cocktails. Some of the members of our class got pretty looped on the free margaritas. Everyone worked in pairs, with 4 people sharing a workstation. Lee and I shared our workstation with Amber and Mike, a couple Lee had met online. They were lots of fun. After we spent the morning preparing our food, we sat down for lunch and enjoyed the fruits of our labor with some delicious Mexican wine. We finished our class around 1:30pm. We had another 45 minutes or so to enjoy the facilities of the resort before the bus came to pick us up. We wanted to go into town instead, so we jumped into a cab and headed into San Miguel. The cab ride from Playa Mia to the Forum Shops in San Miguel was $20 US. On our walk through the town, we stopped at a pharmacy to see if some our favorite medications were available. Unfortunately, everything we had wanted was a controlled substance in Mexico. Lee was looking for sleeping pills, which we couldn’t get, but he could have bought anti-depressants or Viagra. Luckily, he doesn’t need either of those. I bought a bottle of cologne at a duty free store and on the way back onto the ship, we stopped in a jewelry store and I bought a stunning new watch.

There was a lot of discussion in the Cruise Critic group regarding the different rooms that people had on board. We were quite curious to see some of the other suites and room styles that were available on Freedom. In order to justify our desire to see everybody’s room without looking like creeps, Lee organized a cabin crawl. People volunteered their rooms to be on the crawl and we tried to see every different style of room that was available. We were very happy with our room up until the time we saw some of the suites. My gosh, there are some beautiful rooms on the ship. Of particular interest were the Grand Suite, and the Presidential Suite, a four-bedroom suite that is bigger than the square footage of my house. It was lots of fun going from room to room rubber-necking. We volunteered our room as part of the tour since our balcony was exceptional. We ended up getting about 30 out of 37 of the tour participants onto our balcony. Watching them pour off the balcony back into our room was like watching clowns coming out of those little wee cars; they just kept coming and coming. We probably got the chance to see 7 or 8 different room configurations, from interior rooms to the mega-suites. To make the cabin crawl even more interesting, everybody who participated was asked to contribute a mini bottle of liquor to the pot. In each room, people were given a playing card. The person with the best poker hand at the end of the tour won the pot...37 mini bottles of booze. The winner ended up sharing her bootie (the bottles I mean) with the group.

Today was David’s 40th birthday, so Lee and I organized a balcony cocktail party in his honour. We bought some mini bottles of Korbel champagne in Miami and ordered some cheese and fruit from room service. It was a lovely little get-together. After drinks, David, Tim, Lee and I headed off to Portofino for David’s birthday dinner. I was anxious to try Portofino, their menu looked wonderful. The service was great; the waiter came to our table and told us that he was looking forward to serving us a relaxing dinner this evening. I said that was great, as long as relaxing meant that we were out by 8:30pm. (Come on, there was a musical in the theater on this night!) He made sure to keep the courses coming at a pace to keep us on time. We finished the whole meal at precisely 8:30pm. The dinner was outstanding. I had an appetizer of risotto with grilled shrimp, a pasta with various seafood and one of my favorite dishes, saltimbocca alla romana (veal with sage and prosciutto). I finished the meal with a dessert sampler, a mini version of each of their desserts. Each course was sublime. The cover charge of $20 was a pittance considering how wonderful the meal was.
The show in the theater this evening was called Once Upon a Time. It was an original Royal Caribbean production that uses pop, R&B and show tunes to tell different fairy tales. For example, Cinderella sings If I Were a Rich Girl in one number, Pinocchio sings Would I Lie to You in another and so forth. The number where Cinderella’s fairy godmother sings Popular from the show Wicked was so good I nearly wet myself. It was one of the best things I have seen on stage. If this show were playing on Broadway, I would pay to see it.  The song choices were very imaginative, the sets were awesome and the performers were at the top of their game. The only negative I could possibly imagine was that we were seeing if for the first time at the second showing. If we had seen the earlier show, we would have been able to go back and see it again.

The cruise director’s activities staff was out of control this week, there were always fun events going on. After the show, we headed to the Promenade for the 70’s Dance Party. This was great fun; the entire length of the Promenade was filled with people dancing to disco hits. There were even passengers in appropriate 1970’s garb (did they bring this stuff with them?). I love the old disco music; I was having a blast. After the dance party, we headed to Studio B for the Quest game. This was almost exactly the same as what Ken had done on Navigator, so it got  tired pretty fast. There was none of the naughtiness that we had on Enchantment at the same event. People seemed to be having fun though. After the Quest (yes, we were still on the go), we went back to the theater for the late night comedy show. We don’t stay up this late at home but we seem to find the extra energy on cruises!

Wednesday, September 27th 2006 - Grand Cayman
I had heard mixed reviews of Grand Cayman. Some people love it, some people hate it. We decided a while back that this would be a good day to do a beach excursion. It was a very busy day in Georgetown, with seven ships in port. We thought that maybe Seven Mile Beach would be very crowded with that many ships in port; a day at an all-inclusive resort would be a nice alternative. The excursion we booked was to spend the day at Spanish Bay Reef Resort. The excursion included transportation, all drinks and lunch, and all activities such as snorkeling. The excursion was sold out before we left, but we knew they hold back a few spots for booking on the ship. One of the first things we did when we got into our room was book the excursion on the television system. Sure enough, we got two spots.

We called for room service when we got up at 8am, and it got to the room very quickly. The ship pulled into Georgetown at 9am, and the tenders started to bring people to shore. We had some time to kill before the bus to the resort picked us up, so we tendered in to port a bit early to look around. The tender boats were quite large; each could hold 350 people. The line to get on the tenders moved very fast, and I don’t think we even had to wait to get on. Georgetown itself was unimpressive, it was basically a town made up of the same collection of gift shops and jewelry stores as all the other ports. It was a bit cloudy out this morning but the temperature was warm. It would have been a scorcher of a day if the sun had been shining.

The bus ride to Spanish Bay Reef was on a very old bus; there was not an empty seat on the bus. Our group looked to be about 24 people or so. When we arrived at the resort, we were herded into a dining room for our orientation. First, they offered us some juice. It took the freakin’ bartender 30 minutes to give each of us a glass of juice because she would pour one, walk it to the person and then pour the next (unless her juice can had run out, which would slow her even more). Then, we had to wait to get our wristbands. The server put the wristbands on one at a time and it took FOREVER. We were getting antsy; we could SEE the pool from where we were. What made it worse was we could see people from another excursion starting to take all the prime pool seats! Time is ticking and we were stuck in the dining room waiting for stupid orange juice. Finally, when Lee and I got our wristbands, we just got up and left the group. People were dumbfounded that we would be so bold as to just walk out, but enough is enough! We didn’t pay that kind of money to watch some slowpoke put on wristbands. Once we got up, everyone followed us. The pool area was nice, with lounge chairs and hammocks. The drinks were strong and easy to get. We tried snorkeling, but got a bit freaked out because the water was so murky. We returned our snorkels and fins and went back to our chairs. Lunch was great, there were grilled ribs and chicken, salads and bread. We ran into a very nice couple by the pool, Don and Jose. Jose had gone snorkeling that morning as well, but he got freaked out by all the jellyfish he had seen. He said there was a lot of shrieking. We talked to them for a while about different cruises they have been on. We ended up inviting them to join us for drinks that night with the gang. It started to rain after lunch, so everyone huddled under the bar awning and drank. The drinks were getting stronger and stronger as the afternoon went on. We left the resort at 3pm. Back in Georgetown, we took a few minutes to shop. Lee found a nice watch at one of the fancy jewelry stores; it took them a long time to actually complete the transaction with all the paperwork. Some guy in the store was trying to negotiate a discount of a couple of Tag Heuer watches. They weren’t going for it.

Our return tender to the ship was very fast. There was lots of room on the boat and we left with only a few people on it. Once we got back on board Freedom, I went up and sat in the hot tubs in the Solarium. The hot tubs are cantilevered off the side of the ship, about 11 decks up from the ocean. It’s less impressive than it sounds. The hot tubs are huge though, you could probably fit more than a dozen people in them.

At this point in the week, Lee started to complain about feeling a bit sick. His throat was sore and he was starting to feel some other cold symptoms. Being on holiday when you are sick is the worst! We scoured the stores on the ship looking for Airborne, a pre-cold medication we had seen. We couldn’t find any, but I did give Lee some of my multi-vitamins I had brought for the week. We found the Airborne in the liquor store on the last night of the cruise (go figure…). Tonight was date night. We had told our traveling companions beforehand that we were going to be going out for dinner alone one night during the cruise. We booked a table at Chops when we first boarded. Dinner was good; I had a smoked salmon appetizer, lobster bisque, and a small filet mignon. No place for dessert, I was overfull. As much as I enjoyed it, it paled in comparison to our meal at Portofino. Unfortunately, with Lee starting to come down with something, he did not have much appetite and he felt vaguely headachy. Lee returned to the room after dinner to have a bit of a nap.

While Lee rested, I went to the Internet lounge to check in with my house sitter to make sure that the house did not burn down and that the cat was still alive. The Internet service was brutally slow. I used up my free 15 minute credit from the Crown and Anchor coupon book trying to read and reply to one message.  It was painful!

We had told people that we ran into during the day that we would be getting together in Vintages (the wine bar) for a makeshift Friends of Dorothy get together. We ended up with a large group at our get together. Lee had chatted on the Internet cruise discussion boards with one young guy from New York (Nathan), who came on the cruise with his partner. His partner’s sister and her girlfriend were with them on the cruise. Everyone in that group but Nathan was a big gambler, poor Nathan spent most of his cruise standing next to his group at the card tables in the Casino. The four Orlando boys came too, bringing along a lesbian couple that Norm had run into earlier in the week. Don and Jose showed up as well, as did our friends David & Tim. We had very nice time chatting. Vintages had a great menu of wine flights, I had flights of 4 different white wines (the next day, I tried the flight of California reds). The portions on the flights were very generous. It almost felt like I had 4 full glasses of wine.

At this point in the cruise, it was becoming very apparent how much I was LOVING our time on board. The ship was so nice and well kept and the staff was friendly and helpful. We had met so many great people, including many from Lee’s chat group. I was plotzing with joy. Work had been mental-crazy busy before leaving for holidays. While on the ship I had forgotten all about the stuff I was worried about. I had a huge grin from ear to ear and was just so happy to be on board.

Thursday, September 28th - Jamaica
Let me say right up front, that I am not a big fan of Jamaica. I have heard so many bad things about it, and their track record in dealing with gay issues is atrocious. I had no intention of supporting the country by contributing to their economy. From day one, we had no intention of getting off the ship. Today was going to be our we have the ship to ourselves day.

We slept in today until almost 9:30am. Lee was still a bit under the weather, but the sore throat had subsided, so we were hoping it was just a short-term thing. We wound up going to the Windjammer for breakfast. I really don’t know why we do this; neither one of us enjoys it up there. Even though people had already started to disembark, the place was still a zoo of screaming children and pushing adults. We finally found a table off in a corner. We didn’t hang around for long. We ate and got out. Since it was going to be a quiet day on board, we decided to try the Flowrider. The Flowrider is a surfing simulator. Water is pumped up an incline at high speeds to simulate the shape of a wave. You lie on a board and ride the wave. At certain times of the day, they also had surfboards where you can try to stand up. We got to the Flowrider about 20 minutes before it closed for the morning, so we only got to ride it a few times. It was fun. They didn’t really give us much instruction, so the first rides were pretty short. Once you got a feel for it though, it was pretty easy to ride boogey-board style (lying on your stomach). I would strongly suggest that if people want to try the Flowrider, go early in the week. As the week rolls on, people are getting used to it and their rides can end up lasting quite long. Early in the week, people are just beginning  to get used to it and your turn comes up quickly. Take note, that you should make sure your trunks are tied tightly. The water is coming at you pretty fast, if you’re not tied up tightly, your shorts could end up at the back of the machine way before the rest of you.

After the Flowrider closed for the morning, we went to sit by the pool. We had our choice of chairs. The pool deck is so pleasant on these days, it is quiet and you can sit wherever you want. For lunch, we went to Johnny Rocket’s. There is a small cover charge to get into the restaurant, but Lee and I had coupons from our Crown and Anchor book, so the only charge I had was for my milkshake. We have been to Johnny Rocket’s a few times on our shopping jaunts to Syracuse, so it was nothing new to us. We were surprised to see that the tables outside were empty, while the inside of the restaurant was full. I thought it would have been the other way around. Then we sat down with the sun beating down on us. Oh…that’s why…it was very hot sitting there eating lunch. The serving staff was very enthusiastic. Finally, we had to tell the server that we did not want any more fries, stop asking us every two minutes. Lee enjoyed his burger much more than when we ate at the Johnny Rocket’s in Syracuse.

The rest of the day was a delight. We walked around the Promenade, we sat in the café and had coffee and read magazines. Lee took a nap and I went to the gym for a workout. It was great; I spent some time in the sauna and steam room and in the hot tubs. The ship was quite empty. Later on in the afternoon, people started coming back on board and you could hear people tell each other their horror stories of being hounded and bothered by the Jamaicans. Melynda and her mother had a horrible time on their excursion. Their bus broke down and they ended up getting back to the ship 3 hours later than expected. They did not have any food since breakfast and they were famished. They were supposed to go to a bird sanctuary. It ended up being some lady’s backyard where there were only a couple of birds. They were hounded by people everywhere for tips, even people who did not provide any type of service to them. We encouraged them to complain to the cruise line about the tour, but I think they wanted to put the bad experience behind them. Tim and David enjoyed their excursion to do a rope and zip line course.

I got back to the room a bit late because of a snafu with the towel attendant on the pool deck. They had taken my room number to get a towel, and then no one was there when I returned the towel. I had to track down an attendant to make sure they had taken me off their list. If you want a towel on the pool deck, go into the change room of the spa and take one from there. They don’t keep track of them there and you don’t have to give them your room number to get a towel. When I got back to the room to take a shower before heading to the ice show, the toilet had broken, and the plumber had just arrived to fix it. I had to wait while he worked on the plumbing. Lee and the girls were ready to go, so they went ahead to get seats for the ice show. The show on Thursday at 5pm was quite empty. We sat in the front row of Studio B for the show. The ice show was very cheesy in my opinion. The ability of the skaters was great, but they were not given very good choreography or music to work with. The skaters were quite an attractive group; their costumes were very…um…flattering!

Tonight was Venetian night in the dining room. Dinner was excellent; I had the scallop risotto, caprese salad, lamb shank and a fantastic warm chocolate cake. This evening’s menu was the best of the week. The wine package we had purchased was working out quite well. Lee and I would share a bottle of wine each evening; the choices available were good. We really enjoyed the Chateau Ste-Michelle Riesling; we had that a few times during the week.

We were really looking forward to the show this evening; the headliner was Charo. She is a fantastic guitar player, and her comedy and singing were lots of fun. She was a total spit-fire. Not bad for a lady in her 60s. At the beginning of the show, the announcer said that flash photography was not allowed. When she got on stage, she said that we could take as many pictures as we liked, then she came into the audience and posed with people. She was a ball of energy, running back and forth while singing. She spent a few days on board the ship and many people mentionned seeing her mingling with the passengers in the Promenade, having pictures taken with people and chatting. At the end of her show, I bought one of her CDs. After the show, we headed to Vintages for a night cap. I tried a really great port wine. We sat for a while and chit-chatted and then headed back up to bed.

Friday September 30th – Labadee, Haiti
It had felt like we had been gone forever. Time was moving ahead at a nice slow pace. We were really getting into a good groove. Today was our last port, Royal Caribbean’s private island of Labadee. Island is a bit of a misnomer, it is actually a peninsula attached to the mainland of Haiti.

Lee and I enjoyed breakfast on our balcony while watching the ship pull in to the channel near Labadee. There is no dock, so tender boats must be used. We watched them ferry someone to tie down the ship just off shore. We took our time getting ready and got onto a tender at 9:40 am. Once again, the tender process went quickly. Once we got to land, people were scrambling to grab empty chairs. At dinner the night before, our waiter told us to keep walking to the end of the road when getting off the tender and there would be lots of room. Sure enough, at the end of the road, there was a nice quiet beach area. We found a great spot, with a shaded leaf parasol. We realized once we hunkered down that we had forgotten the tickets for the floating mats we had reserved. The guy at the rental shack said they would get a list of people who had rented mats, but not until later that morning. So, I took a  tender back to the ship to get the tickets. It took a while to walk back, get the next tender, go to the room, tender back to shore then walk to our spot. Luckily, I ran into Melynda and Marika as well as David and Tim on my trip back and forth. I was able to tell them where we had settled, so we got to all sit together.

The beach and the water were great. We took our rented mats and floated out in the water for what felt like forever. It was so great! We had settled very close to one of the food service areas, so we took turns getting food and bringing it back to our spot. Lunch was good, they served ribs, chicken, salads and deserts. After lunch, Lee and I went off for a walk to take a look at rest of the island. It was all very clean and well kept. We walked up to a lookout called Dragon’s Breath and ran into some Cruise Critic folks. We chatted for a while and took a look in the Crafts Market area. The badgering in the market was getting to me, so I left Lee inside and left the building. He didn’t stay long either. I had wanted to have some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream all week, but I had never felt hungry enough to get any. They had some for sale at a kiosk at Labadee, so I bought some ice cream and we walked back. Melynda and Marika were heading back to the ship, so they left and we hung around for a while longer. Once  it got close to departure time, we walked the long way back to look at the other parts of the resort. The areas closest to the tender docks were jammed packed with people. The further away from the dock you went the quieter and less hectic it got. Take my advice, walk a bit, it’ll be worth it! There are lots of activities you can do at Labadee, including renting jet skis, a water park, kayaks and so forth. It all costs extra though. Still, of all the beach spots I have been to, on a cruise or not, I’d have to say that Labadee is one of the best. At first, I thought it was a bit of a throw-away port. Now, I would have no hesitation to book a cruise stopping here. You get to enjoy the beach experience will all the amenities and none of the harassment (unless you step into the crafts market!)

Once we were back on the ship, I went to the gym for while. I had made a promise to myself that I was not going to restrict my food or booze intake as long as I kept up my exercise routine. I think I did okay in this respect, I made it to the gym about 3 times over the week. The fact that some of the hot skaters and dancers were working out at the same time today was an extra bonus. On my way back to the room, I stopped by my favorite spot, the Promenade Café and got a coffee and a cinnamon scroll (YUMMY!) and went back to the room to watch the ship sail away from Labadee. The light was hitting in a way that made the clouds light up which was very pretty. Sitting on our nice balcony watching Haiti disappear behind us was a real pleasure.

Dinner tonight was casual. The infamous lobster tails were being served. I started with an excellent cream of asparagus soup, the Fisherman’s Plate (lobster tail and garlic shrimp) and finished off with a desert sampler, a plate of a taster sizes of several deserts.  We had a bit of time to wait for the show, so we popped into Vintages to use the 2 for 1 coupon from our Crown and Anchor book. The show this evening was a really BAD magician. The show was painful to watch. Mind you, at the beginning, there was a cool number where the dancers performed while walking up a wall. They dangled from the ceiling and moved up and down as if they were walking and jumping off the vertical wall. Quite cool! Back to the crappy magician...The few tricks we had seen at the start of the show were excruciatingly long. Tim had already fallen asleep by this time. I learned my lesson on the first cruise: if the show is bad, I am leaving. What surprised me was that Lee actually was the one to suggest we all go.  So, we all left. There was a 80s dance being held in Studio B this night, so at the appointed time we went off for some dancing and fun. The music was great and the place was hopping. We all enjoyed the music tremendously. On our way out of the dance, Melynda, Lee, Norm and I went into the karaoke booth to sing Waterloo by ABBA. There are booths that you can go into to sing, while the lyric are displayed on the screen.  You can decide whether you want people to see you sing by darkening the windows in the booth. I was a bit wound up after dancing and singing 80s songs, I was a bit out of control. Lee bailed after a few minutes of Waterloo. He said he hates the song. If we had wanted to, we could have bought a DVD of us singing. That is not something I would want to relive, so we passed on the offer.

The gala buffet was also taking place this evening. By the time the 80s dance was done, the buffet was open for pictures. The chefs had created all kinds of artistic creations using food. After we viewed the buffet, we went up to the Solarium. They had converted the space into a night club called Twenty One; they had a DJ and some dancers doing statue moves on some risers around the room. The music was pretty good, but people in our group were starting to tire out. I walked back to the room with Lee, but decided to head out again. I had not experienced much in the way of nightlife on board, so this was my chance. First stop was the piano lounge. The piano player in the lounge was very good; he had the whole place singing. One of the housekeepers was walking though the bar, the guy at the piano called her over to sing a number. She put down her bucket, them belted out this amazing song. Her voice was fantastic. Then she finished, picked up her bucket and walked on her way. What the heck is someone with a voice like that doing cleaning rooms! I stopped by the Crypt disco, but it was empty. I popped into the buffet to have a couple of chocolate-covered strawberries, and then went back up to the Solarium to see how the party was progressing up there. The music was still going and people were dancing. I heard that at a certain point later that evening, people starting jumping into the Solarium pool fully dressed. In the British pub in the Promenade there was a guy with a guitar singing. You can only hear a lounge singer doing American Pie so often, so I didn’t hang out there for very long. Alas, it was getting late, so I went back to the room around 1am and hit the sack.

Saturday September 30th - Sea Day
Our final day on Freedom! What a great cruise so far. We got up too late to get to the dining room for breakfast, so against our better judgment, we went back up to the Windjammer for breakfast. We must be suckers for punishment or something! It was so busy and crowded. It was a bad way to start a day, especially since there were no tables available. We finally scoped out an empty table and sat down. The place was so clamorous..

Our luggage tags were dropped off in our room while we were out; they had us disembarking at 10am. That wouldn’t work with our 11:30am flight, so I went back to reception and they gave us tags for an earlier disembarkation. Later that day, we went by reception and saw that they had the spools of tags out, so we grabbed some tags for an even earlier disembarkation.

We really enjoyed the backstage tour of the theater that we had on Enchantment. A similar tour was being offered on Freedom. Freedom has a bigger theater than other ships, so we imagined the tour would be different. They split us into four groups and we rotated between the lighting booth, the mixing board area, the stage and back stage. It was cool seeing the equipment and some of the mechanics of the show. The tour went on for a bit too long though, some of the tour guides were a bit on the chatty side. The amount of technology they use for their shows is impressive. I never would have imagined that a cruise ship would have similar technology and facilities to some of the major Broadway theaters. After the tour, we went to the dining room for lunch. I had my favorite lunch items, the calamari appetizer and orange chicken. I spent part of the afternoon in the Promenade Café writing in my journal, and popped into the hot tubs and Solarium pool to unwind at the end of the afternoon.

Our cruise was drawing to an end, time to pack things up. I met up with Lee and we went to our room to start packing. We started by filling one of the suitcases with all our dirty laundry. It surprising how you can have enough room for all your clothes when you leave for the cruise and how little space there is when you head back home.

We met up with David and Tim for some pre-dinner drinks and headed into the dining room for our last dinner. Dinner this evening was pumpkin and apple soup (outstanding), Caesar salad for the table and tempura mahi-mahi. I had the chocolate mousse brownie for desert, but Melynda’s banana crunch something-something was much better. After dinner we went to the photo gallery to take a look at the collection of pictures we had accumulated over the week. One of our Cruise Critic buddies gave us their Platinum coupon for a free photo. We bought our embarkation photo. We have several formal pictures from previous cruises; we didn’t think we needed another. I had bought a new camera earlier this summer in anticipation of this cruise. I took several hundred pictures. I felt kind of silly always schlepping my camera with me everywhere. Looking back now, I am happy I have so many good pictures of the cruise.

After finishing up our final packing we went to the theater for the closing show. This show had Jimmy the hottie and Anna doing more aerial acrobatics and another comedian. The closing show is always a sad event. Not matter how good it is, it is still a bittersweet experience. Of course, they played the cruise in review video to get people interested in buying a copy. We had our final cocktail in the Viking Crown and did one last slow walk back to our room.

Sunday, October 1st 2006 - Heading home
We started hearing announcements for color groups around 6:45 am. We took our time getting ready and had breakfast in the dining room. Somewhere around 8am, while we were still eating, they called our group. They seemed to be running about 20 minutes early. We finished breakfast, went back to the room and gathered our carry-on bags. We were a bit surprised in that there was no line up to get off. We walked down the stairs from our room at 8am. We got through customs, got our luggage and were in a cab heading to the airport by 8:15am. We were checked in for our flight by 8:40am. My gosh, that was smooth sailing! We pretty well did not stop at any point; our bags were already on the carousel when we got out of the Customs area. We walked up, picked up our bags and were out the door without a hitch. The taxi rate to the airport from the cruise port was a flat rate of $24. Royal Caribbean was charging $18 per person for transfers. I think we got the better deal, particularly since we didn’t have to sit and wait for other people, or wait for them to unload the luggage from the bus at the airport.

There was no Star Alliance lounge in Miami airport. Lee had access to a lounge with his Diner’s Club card, but I would have had to pay to go in. He grabbed all the magazines he could find and we didn’t stay. Tim and David were on our same flight through Montreal so we ran into them in the departures lounge. The flight was uneventful and when we got to Montreal, there was no line for customs. We sat in the Maple Leaf Lounge in Montreal since there were few hours to kill before our next flight. We thought David and Tim had gone on to Ottawa on an earlier flight, but when we got to the gate for our final flight to Ottawa, they were sitting there. We felt bad dumping them in Customs when we went to the lounge. Lee gave them some of the chips he had lifted from the lounge.

The taxi drive home from the airport was an experience. The guy had such bad body odor, that I wanted to throw up. Then he tried to overcharge us by claiming we had too much luggage. I wasn’t buying it, I gave him what was listed on the meter and the extra listed on the card for the bags.

What a fantastic week.

There are so many thing that I really about Freedom of the Seas. These are some of the highlights:

• The ship is spectacular. The public spaces are beautiful and well furnished. Everything is in great shape. The shops are well stocked and have things I actually was interested in buying. Though, I find it strange that while we were on the 17th voyage of the ship, they do not yet have any postcards with a picture of the ship.
• While we have been on a Voyager class ship before, there is enough that is new on Freedom to make it feel at least a little bit different. The size difference is not all that apparent to me.  The Royal Promenade might feel a touch wider. New features like the Flowrider, the pizza restaurant, the H2O zone are all very well executed. Others, like the barber shop and the boxing ring are a waste of valuable space.
• There are lots of deck chairs by the pools and I never felt like I had to take a chair in a poor location. Chair hogging did not seem to be an issue. I saw pool attendants going around removing towels from empty chairs.
• The H2O zone keeps many of the kids away from the regular pool, so there is very little screaming and splashing. The pool area was actually quite comfortable and quiet, much like the Solarium on Navigator. The Solarium was nice on Freedom, but I didn’t feel the need to use it all that much since the regular pool was pleasant.
• The shows that were good were fantastic. Once Upon a Time was one of the best things I have seen on stage anywhere. The Broadway-style show was very good as well, though the choice of material was a little strange. The dancers and singers were great. Charo's energy and talent were remarkable. Her show was polished and the room was with her from the moment she came on stage.
• Room service was extremely fast. We had thought it would be better to order breakfast the night before, but the days we ordered breakfast by phone in the morning, it was there in less than 20 minutes, piping hot.
• There were many return cruisers on this sailing. We got to swap stories and learn some secrets that we can use on other cruises. I really like that everybody seems to have different favorite ships. That means there would be something to like with any ship we end up on.
• Tendering was a painless proposition. We tendered in Grand Cayman and Labadee and both times there was no wait to leave the ship or get back. I had heard so many horror stories about tendering that I was prepared for the worst. It was no problem at all.
• Embarkation and disembarkation went smoothly and quickly. We were on the ship by noon on the first day and off on the last day at 8am without really any kinks or problems. Here again, we had read so many poor comments, we were prepared for hassles, but they were completely non-existent.
• Bar service was great. On Constellation, you couldn’t get a drink if your life depended on it. On Freedom, there were never any waits at the bars. The bartenders were very quick at getting people served and cashed out. Mind you, I hate the fact that they assume you want the stupid collector glass when you buy a drink. You have to remember all the time to say that you want a house brand, in a regular glass. As well, on one occasion, we went into Boleros and ordered one of the drinks they had on the Boleros bar menu on Enchantment. We might as well have been talking another language. They had NO idea what we were talking about. Come on, if all the bars are going to be the same on all the ships, at least you can make the menus match too.

Of course, to avoid mentioning the things I didn’t like would be irresponsible. These include:
• Smoking on board is really bad. The staff does not seem to enforce the non-smoking areas in the public spaces and bars. There were several occasions where we had to leave somewhere because of the smoke. I wish there were non-smoking cruises; I would certainly do one of those.
• The quality of the food left something to be desired. Having had many of the same dishes on Enchantment a few months earlier, I know how good the food can be. The dining room food was never really hot, and the presentation did not seem as professional as the other Royal Caribbean ships we have been on (well, okay, there has only been two others, but still…) Portofino was the exception, it was a spectacular meal.
• There were always many activities and events going on during the cruise. However, some of these events were way too short. The 80s dance was great fun, but it was only an hour long. By the time people got encouraged to come onto the dance floor, it was over. Same with the Captain’s Reception. By the time we got out of dinner, we had maybe 10 minutes to get a drink before it was over. Our attention span is not that short that we have to do so many things in one evening.
• Elevator service is really bad. You will see elevators go by in the direction you are heading, but they don’t stop. Because the elevators are so slow, people tend to accumulate, and then the elevators are too full. Walking up the stairs isn’t a big deal unless you are going all the way up.
• The Windjammer is hell. ‘Nuff said…
• Freedom is still just a Voyager-class ship. I think Royal Caribbean could have been a bit more imaginative in creating NEW spaces for Freedom. Sure, they could use the basic design from the Voyage ships, but work to make things unique. I guess you can say they did do this with the barber shop and boxing room, but those were pretty lame.
• The magician on the one night was painfully bad. Did no-one see this guy perform before they hired him? You could practically watch him switch stuff from one hand to another as he tried to do his tricks. And we were seated at the back of the theater! He reminded me a lot of the character of Gob from Arrested Development. All flash, not a stitch of talent. He was all the more embarrassing because of the excellence of all the other shows.

In summary...Mike and Lee give Freedom of the Seas two BIG thumbs up!!