Freedom of the Seas launched in May 2006 as the world's biggest cruise ship, measuring 155,000 tons, carrying 4,500 passengers and introducing Royal Caribbean's now-widespread FlowRider surf simulator to the cruise industry.
Although the ship is no longer the biggest in Royal Caribbean's fleet – that title is held by the line's newer Oasis-class ships -- it does not feel outdated. If anything, Royal Caribbean is doing a great job of keeping Freedom of the Seas in tip-top shape.
During a 2015 dry dock, Freedom received new cabins, a new nightclub and two new for-fee restaurants – giving passengers a plethora of dining choices that range from Italian to Mexican. (The ship also had some nagging propulsion issues addressed.)
Although Royal Caribbean's 4,500-passenger Freedom-class ships are the line's third-largest (behind the Oasis and Quantum classes), Freedom of the Seas doesn't feel crowded. That's not to say that the ship feels empty or small. Sometimes there's congestion in Windjammer at peak times, you'll wait in a line (a short line, but a line nonetheless) to disembark at tender ports, and dinnertime can be a bit noisy with hundreds of others chowing down around you. At the same time, it's never hard to find quiet, private nooks. The library, Internet cafe, Cafe Promenade, Vintages wine bar and even the Solarium pool are great for getting-away-from-it-all moments, particularly on port days.
Overall, the traffic flow throughout the ship is smooth, but there are times when it comes to a dead standstill along the Royal Promenade (the ship's mall-like main thoroughfare) -- when there's a sale on duty-free watches, for example. Other areas just seem poorly designed. It can be a harrowing experience to reach Deck 3 On Air Bar and Studio B from the front of the ship, as there's no direct access straight through. Passengers have to either walk up one flight to Deck 4 (and through the horribly smoky casino) to the aft and then head down or go up two decks to the often crowded Royal Promenade to walk aft before heading down.
In general, service is personal, since there are so many spaces in which you can become a "regular." Baristas at Cafe Promenade, serving Starbucks coffee drinks, remember complicated beverage orders; the bartenders at Boleros, Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed bar, remember names and poisons; and even the wait staff in Windjammer, the casual buffet, treat kids as the highest-order VIPs.
Daytime: Dress is casual during the day.
Evening: Seven-night cruises typically feature two formal nights and five casual nights. Themed outfits (Caribbean Night, White Night are encouraged but seldom seen. Many men don tuxedos for formal dining, though suits are just fine (and more common). Women opt for cocktail dresses or gowns. No one looks askance if you don't observe a formal night; plenty of families opt for a more casual experience, bypassing the formal nights for laid-back dinners at the Windjammer, Sorrento's or Johnny Rockets.
Not permitted: No tank tops, bathing suits or baseball caps are permitted in the main dining room or speciality restaurants at any time, and footwear is always required. Shorts may not be worn to dinner in any restaurant, except the buffet.
Arcadia Theatre (Decks 3 and 4): The main Arcadia Theater, done up in red and gold, seats more than 1,300 people over two decks and is the venue for nighttime productions, both song-and-dance shows by Royal Caribbean's troupe and performances by guest entertainers, including aerialists, comedians and magicians.
Star Lounge (Deck 5): Nighttime gameshows like Friendly Feud and Finish that Lyric are held in Star Lounge, the secondary show lounge.
Studio B (Deck 3): The ice rink at Studio B also doubles as a secondary show lounge; it's the spot for the onboard ice show and Battle of the Sexes, as well as Quest, an adult scavenger hunt. There are free skate hours listed in the onboard daily schedule. Freedom-Ice.com, the professional ice show, was the best we've seen at sea.
Daytime activities include the ubiquitous pool games (bellyflop and cannonball contests and trivia contests, while Vintages wine bar hosts several tasting sessions throughout the week. Passengers can also find a video arcade, health and port "lectures" (which are mostly just sales pitches), art auctions, cupcake decorating, mini-golf tournaments, basketball shoot-outs, surf competitions, dance classes, bingo and photo scavenger hunts, as well as movies, concerts and sporting events shown on the poolside big screen.
Royal Caribbean's partnership with DreamWorks includes the DreamWorks Experience -- life-sized characters from "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda" that meet, greet and take photos with passengers. A kick-off event on the first day found them in the Royal Promenade, singing and dancing for the kids. (Royal Caribbean will end its partnership with DreamWorks, starting with all sailings that depart on or after April 1, 2019.)
On the evening of our last sea day, the "Move It! Move It!" parade brought everyone back to the Royal Promenade, where characters included Shrek and Fiona, King Julian, Puss in Boots, Gloria from "Madagascar" and Po from "Kung Fu Panda," plus princesses and dragon dancers. The excitement is virtually impossible to resist; we saw everyone, from the oldest and youngest to the surliest teen, dancing along with the music. (Royal Caribbean will end its partnership with DreamWorks, starting with all sailings that depart on or after April 1, 2019.)
The casino is open whenever the ship is at sea and features slot machines in a range of denominations, table games, including craps, blackjack and two types of poker, and a bar. This area can get pretty smoky; if you are sensitive to cigarettes, you might not want to pass through. (Note that smoking is only allowed in the casino and on designated outdoor decks on the port side of the ship.) Promotions, such as "double points on slots," are offered on select evenings. Theme nights, such as Pirate Night in the casino, and tournaments -- poker, couples' slots -- take place throughout each sailing.
After hours, Boleros -- the hip Latin lounge found on many Royal Caribbean ships -- is one of our favourite bars at sea. Though the location (in a hallway, outside the casino, near a staircase) is not ideal, this venue draws major crowds with live music and merengue dancing.
Nightly music is found in other areas of the ship, too. A guitarist/soloist performs rock tunes in the Bull & Bear Pub, and a pianist packs Royal Caribbean's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, taking requests until the wee hours. If you'd like to do the singing yourself, swing by the On Air Bar outside Studio B; there are open-mic hours when you can strut your stuff on stage, as well as private booths for those a little less confident. The TVs there are the spot to catch sporting events.
Royal Caribbean offers a plethora of drink packages, which can be purchased from $8 per person, per day (soda only) to $59 per person, per day (unlimited soda, premium tea and coffee, bottled water, fresh-squeezed juice, nonalcoholic cocktails, most alcoholic beverages and 20 percent off bottles of wine). Note that the drinking age onboard is 21, and each passenger of drinking age is permitted to bring up to two bottles of wine onboard. Free drinks available include tap water, iced tea, lemonade and flavour-infused waters. (We tried the iced tea twice, and it tasted like water both times.)
On Air Bar (Deck 3): Offering nighttime karaoke -- in the open and in private booths -- and sports viewing throughout the day (satellites permitting), On Air is a hybrid karaoke and sports venue that leads the way to Studio B.
Schooner Bar (Deck 4): This nautical-themed bar is a Royal Caribbean staple, often hosting trivia and piano music throughout the day.
Bolero's (Deck 4): This Latin-themed bar is the place to be for lively music and Latin-style dancing.
Star Lounge (Deck 5): The secondary show lounge is used for hosting trivia, live music and private functions, among other activities.
R Bar (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): Added to the ship in 2015, the R Bar -- the closest thing Freedom has to an atrium bar -- replaced the former Champagne Bar and is located directly across the Royal Promenade from the passenger services desk.
Bull & Bear Pub (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): Head to Bull & Bear for live music and a glass, bottle or can of your favourite brew. (Choose from 40 different types of beer carried onboard.)
Vintages (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): A low-key wine bar, Vintages offers tastings, plenty of cushy seating and even Enomatic dispensers that can pour your vino for you when the bar is unattended.
Plaza Bar (Deck 11, Windjammer): This is where you can snag your drink of choice during meals in the Windjammer buffet.
Pool Bar (Deck 11): Feeling like a tipple while you sunbathe? The Pool Bar is your closest bet.
Squeeze (Deck 11): We were disappointed to find that this former smoothie and energy drink bar, located by the pool, now only serves alcohol and juice drinks made from concentrates that come in a carton.
Sky Bar (Deck 12): A nondescript bar overlooking the main pool area, the Sky Bar serves mainly as a secondary pool bar and the place for evening singles meetups.
Olive or Twist (Deck 14, Viking Crown Lounge): Set high atop the front of the ship, boasting floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, the Viking Crown Lounge is another Royal Caribbean favourite. On Freedom of the Seas, this venue is home to Olive or Twist. Billed as and designed with the ambience of a martini bar, it's odd to us that it also acts as the ship's disco. It's the place to be for late-night dancing to music from all decades. On one night of our sailing, there was even a "silent" disco, where passengers use supplied headphones to hear the music that's playing. (Even if you're not a dancer, it's worth a peek, just to see an entire crowd of people dancing in what appears to be total silence.)
Cloud Nine (Deck 14): This little private event space, which shares Deck 14 with the Viking Crown Lounge and Seven Hearts card and game room, was being used when we tried to check it out.
Main and Sports Pools (Deck 11): There are two main pools on the Lido -- one for swimming and one for sports like water volleyball -- flanked by three roomy hot tubs. The area can get crowded on sea days, particularly when movies or sporting events are shown on the giant screen. Mesh deck chairs are available throughout the area.
H20 Zone (Deck 11): Just aft of the main pools is the colourful H2O Zone water park, complete with a kids-only pool, a cascading waterfall, and sculpture fountains and ground geysers that spew water. Frankly, the setup is so cool it keeps kids out of adult pool areas for the most part (though the water was very cold on our sailing, so kids didn't stay in long).
Solarium (Deck 11): The adults-only Solarium pool area is where you'll find shaded deck chairs with ocean views, as well as many in the sun. Two cantilevered whirlpools -- meaning they hang over the side of the ship -- also offer sea views, and wide panels of glass give an incredible view of the ocean directly below, as well.
Rock Wall (Deck 13): This outdoor wall offers rock climbing for anyone who meets the height requirements and signs a waiver. Activities staff help to fit you into a helmet, climbing shoes and a safety harness and offer pointers for an easy climb. Hours of operation are posted in the daily Cruise Compass; time slots are sometimes blocked off for use by the onboard kids clubs.
FlowRider (Deck 13): FlowRider debuted on Freedom of the Seas as the first surf park at sea. A three-inch sheet of water flows up the 32-foot-wide by 40-foot-long incline to create a wave-like reverse waterfall. There are designated hours each day for standup surfing and boogie-boarding; check on the Sports Deck for your itinerary's schedule. There's no signup sheet, but passengers (and guardians for those younger than 18) must sign waivers to obtain the wristband needed to "hang ten." Height requirements also apply (58 inches for surfing, 52 inches for boogie boarding).
Even if you're more of a sunbather than a swimmer, our advice is to get off the bleachers and try the easier boogie-boarding option at least once. When you're up there, it doesn't look nearly as steep (or frightening).
Really want to master onboard surfing? Passengers can book one-on-one private FlowRider lessons for $69 per person, per hour (up to eight people per session with a minimum of four required). Individuals or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor, can book the FlowRider for $345 per hour with no limit to the total number of participants. It can also be rented out with instruction for $552 per hour. (A 50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)
Fair warning: There are wooden bleachers surrounding the FlowRider area, and it's likely you'll have an audience. You have a roughly 50 percent chance of losing your bathing suit; if you're a guy, tighten your trunks, and consider wearing a one-piece suit or leggings and sports bra if you're a woman.
Sports Court (Deck 13): The sports court is open for use during set hours. (Check your daily Cruise Compass.) Activities like free-throw contests and three-point shoot-outs take place throughout each sailing.
Freedom Fairways (Deck 13): This 24-hour nine-hole miniature golf course sits next to a giant golf ball on a tee. Mini-golf tournaments are held during each voyage.
Table Tennis (Deck 13): Visit the FlowRider window on the Sports Deck to snag paddles and extra balls for table tennis.
Shuffleboard (Deck 5): If you're itching for some shuffleboard, you'll find your fix on Deck 5's outdoor decks.
There is only one main sun deck aboard Freedom of the Seas -- Deck 11 -- although it's tiered in places and divided into separate areas for both kids and adults. From the Solarium to the main pool, passengers can find plenty of loungers to work on their tans.
The LCD Wayfinder system utilizes a series of touch screens, placed throughout the ship, that not only show you how to get where you want to go, but also tell you what's going on at that very moment.
The main "front" desk, also known as passenger services (located at the back of the ship on Deck 5), is where you go to resolve issues with your onboard account, get change and ask general questions you might have throughout your sailing. You'll find an ATM there, as well. (Note: On Deck 5, across from the cruise director's office, look for the framed poem "Ode to Freedom," written by Cruise Critic members.)
Shore excursions can be purchased at a desk that shares a wall with the passenger services desk on Deck 5. On our sailing, we tried a fantastic horseback riding tour in St. Maarten, which provided transportation, equipment, a 90-minute ride that ended with us riding our horses waist-deep into the ocean, and rum punch. Excursions like glass-bottom boat tours and parasailing in the Bahamas filled up quickly, as did open-air vehicle tours of St. Thomas and a whole-day sail to Christmas and Honeymoon Coves on a schooner.
Cruisers looking to purchase a future cruise can stop by the NextCruise "store" on Deck 5. Discounts are often offered if you book while onboard. There are racks of brochures to browse through while you wait to meet with a representative.
Need a fresh towel after a day of swimming or lounging in the sun? Trade yours in at the towel exchange kiosks near the pools on the lido. Note: Your card will be swiped when you obtain a towel. Be sure to return it (and have your card swiped again) by the last day of your cruise, or you'll be charged a $25 fee. If you're guilty of chair hogging and someone has removed your belongings, chances are good you'll find them at the pool deck lost and found kiosks, located near the pool area.
The Wilhelmsen Library, on Deck 7, offers a view of the Promenade through floor-to-ceiling glass windows, contains two walls of bookshelves, a wall of board games and several cosy leather chairs for a quiet read. If you left your reading material at home, just arrive early to check out a book from the rather scant selection. (Just remember to return it before you leave; all books are borrowed on an honour system.)
Located one deck above the library, the ship's Royal Caribbean Online Internet cafe houses about 20 computers and a printer. Passengers can access the Web, use email and post to social media through an Internet package that costs $15 per day for unlimited use with one device. (You can use the same package for more than one device, but you have to log out on one before logging in on the other, and you will automatically be logged out after long periods of inactivity.) Access for a second device comes at a 50 percent discount. We found the connection to be considerably faster than we've experienced on other ships, even during peak times. Freedom of the Seas is slated to receive Voom, Royal Caribbean's high-speed Internet, in May 2016.
There's no self-service laundry facility onboard, but laundry and dry cleaning can be sent out, and it's not cost-prohibitive. We paid about $5 to launder a favourite baby blanket.
Contemporary art-lovers might enjoy the art gallery on Deck 3, run by well-known art dealers Park West; there's often a seminar to take in and a revolving selection of works to buy.
Even if you don't buy your pictures, it's a fun diversion to visit the photo gallery on Deck 4, where the staff display all the photos, from your boarding photo to formal nights. You can buy a picture photo CD or even design your own photobook (a combination of your own photos and Royal Caribbean stock photos).
Among the stores you'll find on Deck 5 along the Royal Promenade are a dedicated Michael Kors shop that sells the famous designer's handbags (watch for sales mid-cruise.), a perfume and cosmetics shop, and a general store selling duty-free alcohol and sundries like candy and toiletry items. You can also stop in at the Logo Souvenir shop for all things Royal Caribbean-branded -- T-shirts, mugs, keychains -- you get the idea. You'll also find non-Royal Caribbean clothing from brands like Newport News and Tommy Bahama, as well as shot glasses, flip-flops and various items designed by artist Romero Britto. For higher-end jewelry, pop into Regalia to pick up some designer accessories like watches. And check out Get Out There for all things nautical. Forgot your bathing suit or sunscreen? Not a problem. But with brands like Roxy, you'll pay a premium.
Have questions about shopping in port? The port shopping kiosk along the Royal Promenade can help.
Up by the Viking Crown Lounge, you'll find the Seven Hearts card and game room, which can be used for private meetings or parties.
The Skylight Chapel, the only public space on the ship's highest deck, is the spot for onboard weddings.
Three conference rooms (Barbados, Jamaica and St. Thomas) are available on Deck 2, and a business services desk is stationed on Deck 6.
The onboard medical centre is located on the ship's lowest deck. The vessel has a helipad at its bow, and passengers are able to access the area for amazing views from the front of the ship. Be careful, though: The area is oddly dark and deserted at night, which struck us as creepy and possibly dangerous.
On Deck 12, connected to the Shipshape Fitness Center by a glass staircase, is the full-service Vitality Spa, which houses an impressive 17 treatment rooms. There's nothing special about the decor or the roster of treatments, which run the gamut from wraps, facials and massages to acupuncture, teeth-whitening and even medispa treatments like injectables and fillers. The prices, however, seemed high. The "entry-level" facial was $120. The spa runs daily discounted specials, so keep an eye out for them.
We tried an Elemis Tri-Enzyme Resurfacing Facial, discounted to $99 from the usual $125, and were disappointed with what could have been a relaxing experience that turned into a lecture about our "traumatized" skin, an aggressive sales pitch for $250 in skin products and a chatty discussion about crew shenanigans below deck. Likewise, what was advertised as a group anti-ageing seminar felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch. Attendees were taken individually into a room for a consultation (read: a hard sell for injectables and products). Don't forgo a spa treatment at sea if you're yearning for one, but we'd recommend telling the therapist straight up if you're not interested in buying products and want to avoid the hard sell. (Ours even called our stateroom the next day to ask when we'd be making our purchase!)
The Shipshape Fitness Center encompasses the entire forward area of the Lido Deck, and it's packed with Hammer Strength and Life Fitness machines that include stationary bikes, treadmills and ellipticals, as well as weight machines, free weights up to 70 pounds and curling bars up to 100 pounds. There's also a studio for stretching, yoga and fitness classes; inside, passengers can find yoga mats, exercise balls and light dumbbells. Though we never had to wait for a piece of equipment, the gym does get packed before lunch, particularly on sea days. Get up early for prime real estate at the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Fitness classes are offered -- some free (stretching, aerobics), some levying a charge of about $10 (yoga, Pilates).
Other fitness centre facilities include separate men's and women's locker rooms, steam rooms and saunas, which passengers can use free of charge.
As seems to be the trend on many new and upgraded ships, alternative eateries levying a surcharge outnumber the gratis venues onboard. That doesn't mean you have to shell out a ton of money, though. The main dining room menu is tasty, the pizza shop serves up some of the best slices we've ever had, and the onboard cafe offers 24-hour nibbles, coffee and tea -- all free.
Main Dining Room (Decks 3, 4, 5): The three tiers of the main dining room (Leonardo's on Deck 3, themed after Leonardo Da Vinci; Isaac's on 4, based on Isaac Newton; and Galileo's on 5, named for Galileo) offer traditional, assigned-seating dining during two sittings (5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime between 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Reservations aren't required, but they help if you want to avoid a wait at peak times.) Regardless of the option you choose, be warned that dinner in the MDR isn't a quick affair. Budget at least two hours for your meal. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining need to prepay gratuities. Also worth mentioning is that we opted for the 8 p.m. set seating time and found that it interfered with several of the activities we hoped to attend.)
What's interesting about the three-deck dining room setup is that, although all three decks are connected by a grand staircase (which sometimes serves as a place for a live musician to play), each level has its own entrance from its respective deck and is very much its own themed area. Decor in Leonardo's consists of dark wood with red accents, Isaac's has slightly lighter wood with blue accents, and Galileo's has a light wood motif with green accents. The dining room to which you're assigned will be noted on your SeaPass card.
Dinner menu items change daily, and there are three courses. Impressive and delicious options might include watermelon and raspberry soup, crab cakes with corn and peppers, shrimp cocktail and escargot as appetizers; horseradish-crusted Atlantic salmon, pasta with short rib ragu and parmesan cheese, and Thai chicken breast with red curry and edamame as mains; and blueberry peach crumble, low-fat strawberry trifle, and baked Alaska for dessert. A "Chefs Inspiration" section of the menu lists the chef's recommendations from that night's rotating selections.
Also included on the menu are always-available options like pasta with tomato sauce, grilled chicken breast, broiled salmon, beef sliders, Manhattan strip steak, Bailey's creme brulee, chocolate sensation cake and a cheese plate. Additionally, passengers can order steakhouse items -- a whole lobster, filet mignon or surf and turf -- from the "Premium Selections" list for an extra fee.
We found service to be friendly and efficient, and our servers remembered every name in our party of nine after the first night. The dining staff also did a fantastic job of accommodating one member of our table who couldn't eat gluten. Menu items are marked if they're gluten-free, lactose-free or vegetarian, and these options are available daily.
Breakfast and lunch are served in the dining rooms with open seating. The advantage over Windjammer: If you don't like the communal, serve-yourself nature of a buffet, you'll love this. Although you might expect a protracted eating experience, you can be in and out in 45 minutes. You'll still be able to customize, with favourites like Thai chicken lettuce wraps that come with lots of fresh toppings and two sauces; Caesar salad to which you can add chicken or salmon; and delicious and fresh-composed Nicoise salad. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict, though we loved the huevos rancheros and customized omelettes.
Windjammer Cafe (Deck 11): We liked the fare and atmosphere in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, for its flexibility (long hours, casual dress code) and endless variety. Plus, the waiters went out of their way to bring us things from the buffet so we wouldn't have to get up -- stellar service, especially considering the format.
The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items that travels around the back of the ship in a U shape, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats and petite desserts. In the mornings, an omelette station fixes made-to-order eggs, while other options include cold cuts and cheeses, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, bacon and sausage. In the afternoons, we particularly liked Jade Sushi, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes and goes a bit off the beaten path with ever-changing fare that includes Indonesian and Vietnamese specialities. The buffet is open five times a day: for Continental breakfast, full buffet breakfast, lunch, tea and snacks, and dinner.
Once per sailing, as an extension of the buffet, a poolside grill is set up on Deck 11 to offer burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime. All other days, grilled items are available inside the buffet.
A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer, as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room, with the exception of Jade, which is attached to Windjammer and free of charge. Sushi chefs are hard at work every night, serving vegetarian and other maki rolls.
Sorrento's (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): Located at the aft end of the Promenade is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria. In addition to staples like cheese and pepperoni, there's a selection that changes daily (Mexican or Hawaiian, for example), as well as a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes and olives. It's a fantastic midday snack spot. Gluten-free pizza is available, as well.
Cafe Promenade (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): This venue, midship on the Royal Promenade, is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea. The attached Starbucks coffee bar offers more fancy coffee drinks -- cappuccinos, lattes -- for a fee. Cafe Promenade is a great option if you can't be bothered to go to the buffet or dining room and just want a light bite. Sandwiches include things like prosciutto on olive bread and egg salad on croissants. Note: There are two separate lines -- one for added-fee coffee orders (at the portion of the counter facing the Royal Promenade) and one from which you can order free nibbles like cookies, Rice Krispy treats and hummus with veggies (at the portion of the counter facing the cafe's seating area). Free self-serve coffee and tea are located on the back wall of the cafe.
Sprinkles (Deck 11): This soft-serve ice cream machine on wheels is located on Deck 11 by the pool. On our sailing, it offered cones of vanilla, chocolate or twist. Near the end of the cruise, the vanilla ran out, so strawberry was available instead. Despite the name, sprinkles and other toppings are not offered.
Room Service: Room service is available 24/7. The menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches, but the Mediterranean chicken salad with grilled marinated chicken and feta cheese, and the seeded rye baguette with oak-smoked salmon and brie were both winners, and they were delivered within 30 minutes of ordering. For people who hate mornings, ordering breakfast via a doorknob card is a great option. Royal Caribbean still offers hot items -- eggs, bacon-- on its room service breakfast menu, as well as Continental fare, from cereal to fruit plates. Our hot breakfast was delivered at the early end of the time range we selected, but we were disappointed with the small portions and quality of the food, which consisted of one ice cream-sized scoop of watery powdered eggs and two pieces of undercooked bacon. Our request for tomatoes was also ignored. Caveat: Only Continental breakfast is free of charge; all other orders come with a $7.95 surcharge.
Chops Grille (Deck 11); $35: At this smart-casual steakhouse, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate-lover, do not -- I repeat: Do not -- miss the Mississippi Mud Pie at Chops Grille. It's a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel nuts in the centre. We also loved the warm, dark-wood panelling and cushy velvet seating.
Giovanni's Table (Deck 11); $25 (dinner), $15 (lunch): Giovanni's Table, open for dinner nightly and for lunch on sea days, is the new Italian restaurant that took the place of former Italian restaurant Portofino in 2015. Dark wood and grey brick add to the classy, contemporary vibe, as does an entire wall of wine at the back of the venue. Wood and black wrought iron tables look out over the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows. On the other side of the room, passengers can also watch through a large open area as their food is prepared in the kitchen.
Passengers choose from a five-course dinner menu that includes appetizers, soups, pastas, entrees and desserts. Our favourites included prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella cheese with ciabatta, mixed greens with a Dijon mustard drizzle; vegetarian lentil and root vegetable soup; potato gnocchi with bleu cheese sauce; an eight-ounce grilled beef tenderloin that was so well prepared we could've cut it with a butter knife; and a chocolate-cream-filled cannoli. (Our waiter didn't even flinch when we asked to try a second appetizer.) Bread is placed on the tables, as well, along with oil for dipping. The lunch menu is a bit smaller, with more soup, salad and pasta options; entrees include fish, chicken and steak options. Reservations are recommended.
Sabor Modern Mexican (Deck 4); $25 (dinner), $15 (lunch): We had lunch at this lively but chic Mexican eatery. To start things off, a waitress whipped up fresh guacamole tableside, and homemade tortilla chips and salsa were replenished freely. A bowl of chicken tortilla soup, rice and beans, three barbacoa tacos and a six-item dessert medley (including churros with chocolate sauce, a banana-chocolate chimichanga, chocolate crepes and coconut flan) left us feeling stuffed. Also delicious was the reasonably priced ($18) flight of three tequila drinks. We're told the only difference between lunch and dinner is that the dinner menu includes beef burritos and ceviche, while the lunch menu does not. Reservations are recommended.
Johnny Rockets (Deck 12); $6.95: The at-sea version of this restaurant serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and fries as its land-based brethren. If there's a wait, you can take a pager to the nearby arcade to pass the time until your table is ready. Food is available for dine-in or takeout. The cover charge at Johnny Rockets includes as much food as you'd like, but soda, ice cream, floats and alcoholic beverages come with an additional fee.
Ben & Jerry's (Deck 5, Royal Promenade); $4.75 or less: Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar, across from Cafe Promenade and next to Cupcake Cupboard, is available to satisfy your sweet tooth. The waffle cones are made fresh, and if you happen to walk through the promenade while they're being made, you'll catch the sweet cinnamon scent wafting through the air. Get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. The selection rotates and tops a dozen flavours. They also make floats and shakes and let you sample flavours before committing.
The Cupcake Cupboard (Deck 5, Royal Promenade); $2.50 or less: During a previous revitalization, the Cupcake Cupboard, a vintage-style cupcake shop with a rotating selection of more than 30 cupcakes, replaced the original barbershop. (Fun note: The barber pole and chair were given to members of the crew to use for running their own haircutting business in the crew quarters during their free time.) The elaborate little cakes come in standard flavours like vanilla-vanilla, chocolate-vanilla and chocolate-chocolate, as well as more exciting (and head-scratching) varieties like key lime, orange creamsicle and banana. Cupcake-decorating classes (for $22 per person) pack in the little ones and make for a great photo op. Just make sure to reserve your space well in advance. We booked on the second day of our cruise and clinched the last spot on the last day of decorating.
Freedom has four main types of cabins -- inside, ocean-view, balcony and suite -- but within each are different configurations, including roomier options for families in all categories at different price points. Of the 1,894 staterooms, 880 rooms have private balconies, and 168 cabins have promenade views. All staterooms are equipped with keypad-operated safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen televisions that feature a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, Cartoon Network) and interactive programming (order shore excursions and room service, or check your portfolio).
Cabins include overhead lighting and at the desk/vanity. There are also bedside wall-mounted lamps.
Although Royal Caribbean has done a great job of maintaining the ship, the cabins are where the vessel's age is most apparent. Chipped paint and a colour scheme of peach and teal make staterooms look a bit dated. And while they serve their purpose well, they're average in terms of decor and amenities. There's nothing particularly noteworthy or innovative about them. One exception to this is a group of new oversized ocean-view cabins and suites, added during the 2015 dry dock. Located on decks 3 and 12, they boast a more modern palette of white, tan and blue.
Whichever stateroom you choose, you'll sleep tight: All cabins feature Royal Caribbean's stylish, comfortable bedding. There are pillows and shams, and duvets with cotton blend covers. Custom pillow tops are doubled over when placed on twin beds, but when the beds are in the queen configuration they're unfolded across both (already) plush mattresses to eliminate the dreaded gap. Our room was set up with twins, but other passengers we spoke to assured us the queen configuration was comfortable and gap-free.
Two things of note that we discovered about cabin bathrooms: Upgraded toiletries are available to passengers based on their tier within Royal Caribbean's loyalty program, as well as the type of cabin booked. Generally speaking, most cabins come with bar soap and wall-mounted shower dispensers with combination shampoo/conditioner. However, all passengers in Grand Suites or higher get Gilchrist & Soames bath amenities, while all those in Junior suites get signature Royal Caribbean bath amenities (better than wall-mounted but not as good as Gilchrist & Soames). But if a Crown and Anchor Society Diamond Plus member books an inside cabin, he or she also receives the Gilchrist & Soames.
Also, in our cabin bathroom's storage mirror, the sharp, triangular-shaped glass shelving wasn't secured and fell out at least twice, nearly stabbing us in the foot.
We also found that, as is the case on most ships, the cabins are far from soundproof; be courteous of those in cabins around you, and be prepared in case the neighbours beside or above you are the noisy type.
Interior: Interior and promenade-view staterooms are on the small side, measuring 152 square feet and 149 square feet, respectively. Bathrooms are shower-only, though we appreciate that Royal Caribbean has stuck with sliding doors as opposed to those pesky curtains that always seem to float inward and invariably lead to flooding. Family interiors are nearly double in size (300 square feet) and sleep up to six with two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa bed and/or Pullman. Closet space is adequate for two people.
Ocean-View: Ocean-view cabins add a porthole and a smidge more space (from 161 to 200 square feet). Most family ocean-view staterooms clock in at 293 square feet, with a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen and a sofa bed and/or Pullman. Closet space for both types is adequate. Notable are the panoramic ocean-view (215 square feet), accessible ocean-view (283 square feet) and family ocean-view (406 square feet) staterooms that were added to Deck 12 during the 2015 refit, where part of the rerouted jogging track used to be. These family ocean-views offer wraparound panoramic windows and room for six (seven if there's an infant) via a king-sized convertible bed, two twin beds set aside in a room about the size of a closet (with a curtain that serves as a door) and a pull-out sofa in the sitting area. There's also plenty of room for a crib, should an infant be part of the group. Closet space is ample, and there's a flat-screen TV with a couple of chairs for lounging, as well as a split bathroom concept -- one room with a toilet and sink, another with a shower and sink.
Balcony: There are two balcony options on Freedom of the Seas: Deluxe at 177 square feet (balcony 74 square feet) and Superior at 189 square feet (balcony 68 square feet). The accessible balcony stateroom has quite a bit more room with 286 square feet (balcony 46 square feet, nearly as big as a junior suite) and wider turning spaces, as well as a fold-down shower bench, which turns out to be useful for a toddler. Closet space is decent for two people, and balcony furniture comprises a small table and two chairs.
Suite: Space and amenities increase as you ascend the suite scale. Some Junior Suites (287 square feet, balcony 101 square feet) and Grand Suites (387 square feet, balcony 126 square feet) have tubs.
The eight Owner's Suites (614 square feet, balcony 209 square feet) each have a private sitting area separate from the bedroom, as well as his and her sinks in the bathroom. The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet, balcony 377 square feet) features a living room, his and her sinks, marble whirlpool tub and separate shower, entertainment centre, king-sized bed, baby grand piano and private hot tub on the balcony.
Four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet, balcony 234 square feet) accommodate up to eight people and feature a living area with a double sofa bed; two bedrooms, each with two twin beds that convert to queens (one also features third and fourth bunks); a balcony with teak furniture and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).
The Presidential Family Suite (1,209 square feet, balcony 805 square feet) is the granddaddy of family-friendly accommodations onboard. The suite can accommodate up to 14 people and consists of two master bedrooms with full baths and two additional bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to queens. It also has a sofa bed. There are two additional "standard" shower-only bathrooms. The huge private balcony is outfitted with a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded teak loungers.
Suite passengers have access to a concierge -- who can assist with speciality restaurant reservations, spa treatments and the like -- and the Concierge Club lounge, where pre-dinner canapes and cocktails are complimentary.
One last "special" stateroom is 6305, a promenade-facing cabin with an obstructed view. The window is blocked by the, ahem, behinds of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlour directly below. The good news, though, is that cruisers who find a pair of derrieres pressed up against their window receive complimentary scoops from Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise.