Ooooh! It’s Soo Big!

You’ve heard about how big it is. You’ve heard about how beautiful she is. You’ve heard about her first time. You even heard about how people can treat her like trash. But how is she doing, now that she’s been around the block a few times? Is this some hussy I’m talking about? Nope. I am talking about the largest cruise ship out there (at least, the largest cruise ship as of this writing) — Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas.

In August, I packed my bags, grabbed my kids and checked my carry-on bags (“No toothpaste aboard the airplane, sir!”) and headed to Miami to take a keen eye to this vessel that has gained such notoriety in such a short time. “Today” broadcasted a show from the ship when it arrived in New York, and Magic Johnson launched a new travel venture on board.

Is the ship really all that? Ever the skeptic, I wanted to know. And you know what? It’s not all that. But it comes damned close! There is plenty that Royal Caribbean does right, but like any groundbreaking product, there are kinks to be worked out.

Embarkation. When we stepped off the transfer bus at the pier, we all groaned in unison. The lines were beyond belief! It turns out the crowds we saw were a combination of people embarking and others disembarking. Once we figured that out, we navigated our way to the entrance and sailed through check-in. Note to RCCL: There should be more people street-side to direct your guests to the proper entrance and to advise how long the wait isn’t.

The safety drill. We all need to know about emergency procedures and safety at sea. But when you are sailing a small city, gathering everyone at one time in several locations seems problematic to me. For our safety drill, we were summoned to our lifeboat stations, dressed in the oh-so-fashionable orange life vests, and made to endure the Miami sun and humidity. If I had to sum it up in two words: freaking miserable!

I suggest putting the safety drill on the televisions in the cabins, have the passengers stand outside their cabins for life-vest inspection by the crew, then have them report to the lifeboat station anytime in a six-hour window to be checked in by a crew member. This would ensure that all on board are advised and aware of the safety procedures, and lessen the likelihood of anyone passing out on deck.

Food and drink. The food was great in all the venues from Johnny Rockets to the main dining rooms to room service. I did not dine at Portofino (the Italian specialty restaurant), but I did dine at Chops (the steakhouse), where I had the best filet I’ve ever eaten anywhere — on land or sea. The service was excellent, too, with waiters and waitresses there at every turn.

The disco, called The Crypt, was hip and the DJ was great. It’s a great place to hang out, but quite loud. For some peace and quiet, the Olive or Twist lounge is the place to be. The views from the almost-top deck are phenomenal, the drinks are strong and the staff is top-notch. Strangely, though the ship carries more than 4,000 passengers, the lounge was never crowded; in fact, a window seat was always available.

The only dining problem I encountered was at the breakfast buffet in the Windjammer Cafe, where there never seemed to be enough crew to handle the crowds. Tables were scarce during peak hours, and most of the available tables were dirty. On three of the days, our cruise director, James, had to make announcements to the effect of “Eat up and get out — others are waiting!”

Here’s another worrying sign: The majority of the servers I spoke with said their contracts were ending soon, and they probably would not be renewing. Is this expected turnover related to the ship’s size? Is the meal service just too big to handle? Or is it just the same old story: The cruise industry pays a pittance for incredible amounts of work, and the “romance” of the sea fades fast for the crew?

The ship. Without doubt, the ship is magnificent. From the spectacular promenade to the cantilevered hot tubs to the “Flow Rider” (onboard surfing and boogie boarding) to the food and the service — it’s all top-notch. Every cabin has flat-screen TVs, which make for a roomier cabin, and they have large screens to boot. The balcony was roomy and the beds rival any I’ve slept in, even during the recent hotel bed wars.

One complaint I heard several times from others is that there is no midship elevator. Elevators are found only at bow and stern, and a midship lift would have been welcomed by hundreds. My personal gripe is the modular construction. Obviously this is a way to cut time and costs during shipbuilding, but there were spaces on the ship (for example, my cabin and the main dining room) where I felt I was in an upscale mobile home. Everyone in my group said I was crazy. It certainly did not affect my cruise, but it is something that still bugs me.

The water. There are plenty of places on board to get wet and have some fun. The H2O Zone is a wonderful water park for younger kids, but I found that my own children (ages 15, 12 and 9) all grew bored with it very quickly. The Flow Rider, on the other hand, was incredible — there is no other word to describe 30,000 gallons of water rushing up at you as you surf or ride a boogie board 120 feet above the ocean, or — in my case — try to ride a board. While the littlest kids cannot do it, most kids 8 and up should be OK.

The main pool, I’m sorry to say, is entirely too small. (The main pool is actually two small pools, separated by a walkway.) On sea days, it looked like a Turkish sauna: wall-to-wall people. It was horrible. Same thing for the adults-only pool, though that pool was much more comfortable on port days. Now, I am not an engineer, but I could play one on TV, and my suggestion for the next ship is to scale down the H2O Zone, elevate that deck into a bridge and enlarge the main pool. (RCCL: My bill is in the mail.)

The entertainment. Again, excellent. The ship has everything you could ask for — comedians, magicians, wonderful production shows, fun and games with the cruise staff — and no one seemed to leave any venue disappointed. All but a few shows were appropriate for all ages. My kids did not partake in any of the “kids clubs,” but the cruise staff was always looking for ways to engage the kids, offering everything from karaoke to family game shows to interviews at the Flow Rider on RCTV.

The ports. As I had suspected, the ports of call on this cruise were secondary to the experience on board the ship. In fact, it seemed that most of my shipmates were veteran cruisers who had already visited most of the ports; many stayed aboard ship during port calls.

From the day this ship was built, I wondered how the company would tender thousands of sightseers from ship to shore. Well, Royal Caribbean nailed the solution. Since very few piers can accommodate this ship, the company has hired local ferry operators to service the transport. Instead of two tenders taking 50 or 75 people to shore, now there are two to three 400- to 500-passenger ferries to move the masses. Well done, RCCL! Your passengers thank you, and I’m sure the local economies thank you!

All in all, the cruise was fantastic, and I would certainly do it again. The few glitches and issues I encountered are truly minor in the scope of things, and the memories will last a long time. If you want a peek into my trip, I can send you a copy of the menus, and you can see some photos from the largest ship afloat.

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