Biggest, Most Innovative Cruise Ship Afloat Offers Everything & More

By Karen Rubin

It was about 1 a.m. and I was sitting around with my sons, 21 and 17, listening to a singing guitarist at the Bull & Bear on the Royal Promenade of Royal Caribbean Line’s newest phenomenon, Freedom of the Seas.

Mother’s Day had officially ended an hour before, but as I looked at these two young men, I was thinking, “I am the luckiest mother that ever was.”

That night, we had gone from show to show, venue to venue, enjoying music and entertainment together; now we were working our way down the Royal Promenade, trying to different eateries. That day I had watched them tackle RCL’s latest seafaring marvel, the “FlowRider” which simulates riding the surf, a fitting companion to RCL’s signature rock climbing wall, which they scampered up like a “spider”.

At their age and in the frenetic society in which we live, it is harder and harder to find time to be together, especially for a family vacation. But a cruise together creates this perfect environment-you are all self-contained on this vessel, in a kind of fantasyland of “dream come true” activities, food, and every conceivable manner of luxury, but, in Freedom’s case, in a space the size of a small town.

Freedom of the Seas'H20 Zone water playground keeps kids active as they romp in the spray (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Freedom of the Seas, 160,000 gross tons, 15 decks high, 1,112 feet long, 185 feet wide, is now the largest passenger ship ever to sail the seas, overtaking the Queen Mary 2 for the title. It is the first of RCL’s Freedom class ships to be built.

The ship is so long, that if it would be set upright on its bow, it would be taller that the Chrysler building (1,046) and taller than the Eiffel Tower (986 feet); at 185 feet wide, it is wider than the White House is long (168 feet). When measured from the waterline to the top of its funnel, it towers 208 feet tall, about the same as two Statues of Liberty placed head to toe.

It has 15 decks (the wedding chapel, is on Deck 15) and can hold 4,375 guests in its 1,815 guest staterooms, all attended to by a crew of 1,360 (the most of any ship).

Freedom affords the size to really move around, and the space to provide the most incredible array of activities ever assembled on board a passenger vessel. It takes RCL’s slogan, “Get out there,” to new levels.

It is so large, and yet, so cleverly designed that you don’t feel overwhelmed; rather, with all the nooks and crannies and intimate spaces, you feel very cozy.

Freedom of the Seas provides a particularly idyllic atmosphere, taking everything that RCL has found enormously popular and successful with its other ships, now totaling 20 in the fleet.

It also provides an extraordinary level of innovation:

There are so many features that are dazzling like the ice skating rink, which is also the venue for an original ice show that incorporates theatrical lighting, video screens and the Internet. The show was absolutely incredible-one number, in particular, was a living work of art with neon green costumes and blue light; another was like a magic show, with the skater instantly (magically) changing costume to reflect different heritage themes.

David body surfs in Freedom of the Seas' innovative FlowRider® (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

This ship is very literally dazzling-the same quality of the entertainment that incorporates the most incredible lighting effects, is used throughout the ship. You may not notice it, but I was struck by the utterly magnificent design components-the way the staircases are lit from below and change colors; the way the Royal Promenade, this exquisite venue that makes you feel you are in a village square, can change atmosphere with the lighting effects; and literally all through the ship.

The artwork-4,700 pieces in all-is amazing, mostly themed to celebrate nature as well as man’s technological achievements; commissioned pieces are valued at over $8 million. Everywhere you look, there is something fascinating and fanciful.

Keeping with this theme celebrating man’s technological achievement, the three dining rooms-an achievement in the way they are really one dining room, with three tiers-are named for Galileo, Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci.

The shows are amazing productions-the performers are tremendously talented, and the quality of the choreography, costuming, staging and effects is simply amazing.

We were treated to a “taste” of what passengers on the seven-day cruises (Freedom will sail out of Miami on seven-night Western Caribbean itineraries), will experience.

Like the quality shows that Disney and Universal have managed to create, Royal Caribbean has discovered that magical formula for appealing to all generations. Its big-production show, “Once Upon a Time” takes up popular Brothers Grimm fairytales but in such a way as to be absolutely delightful even for a teenager, with pop music and dancing and extremely imaginative staging. During a seven-day cruise, passengers also see the musical “Now You See It” magic show, and Marquee, a medley of performances, in the art-deco-style Arcadia theatre, which seats 1,350 guests (though you wouldn’t know it from its clever layout).

Similarly, the Circus of the Seas parade that takes place down the Royal Promenade most nights (Party Around the World takes place on the first night of every cruise) had a circus theme that would make the most crotchety person smile with delight. Once again, the way they use lighting and all the space-even having a trapeze performer suspended from the ceiling-was awesome.

Eric hangs 10 on Freedom of the Seas' FlowRider® (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

In fact, Freedom really extends the bounds of family-friendly.

The new “H2O Zone” is a virtual waterpark with fanciful sprays from brightly colored sculptures that kids (of any age) scamper through-keeping them active in ways that would never be possible in old-fashioned wading pools. This “aqua environment” also includes a circular current pool and a swimming pool fed by a waterfall. And rather than being at one end of the ship (in the way of keeping young children out of sight), it is more in a middle section, yet well separated from other pool environments. A clever innovation here is Sprinkles-a self-serve frozen yogurt station. There is also an extremely clever Squeeze, a juice bar where they will make you protein shakes or smoothies designed for weight loss or muscle building.

The Adventure Ocean Youth Facility, on Deck 12, has areas for youth programming for guests 3 to 17, plus Fisher-Price Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots interactive classes and Adventure Art by Crayola.

Nearby, there is Challenger’s Arcade, an entertainment area; The Living Room, a teen hangout furnished with TVs, a coffee bar and games.

Families will also enjoy Johnny Rockets, a 1950s themed burger joint, one of several themed dining venues.

Array of Activity

The array of activity on this ship is remarkable: the newest innovation (you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it), the FlowRider® creates a wave-like water flow of 34,000 gallons per minute within a 32-foot wide by 40-foot long space. You can either body surf, or (with help from the attendant), try to surf, much to the delight of the crowd that watches from all sides.

The Freedom Fitness Center has a PowerBox Ring-an actual boxing ring and another first for the cruise industry-for boxing-related activities in the largest cruise ship gym afloat; Studio B, an onboard skating rink, offers skating lessons and free skating during the day; a full-length basketball court (clever surface and screening to minimize the effects of wind and roll; a nine-hole miniature golf course, golf simulator, paddleball and volleyball.

There is also an enhanced version of its signature rock-climbing wall that was seen for the first time aboard Voyager of the Seas in 1999. This rock-climbing wall is the largest afloat: 43 foot tall by 44 foot wide, with a central spire that adds a whole new dimension. There are routes to the top easy enough for a six-year old.

The live musical production, "Once Upon a Time" will enthrall "children" of all ages (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

The active pool area has two pools that are basically rectangular shaped so you could swim laps (as I did) if you wanted to, yet surrounded by a curved area just deep enough to wet your feet. The main pool area features a dedicated sports pool, which is used for team competitions ranging from water volleyball to hilarious synchronized swimming contests.

Another marvel are two cantilevered whirlpools, one on each side of the ship, extending 12 feet out, so you are literally hanging over the water with a bay-window effect, with views down to the ocean 112 feet below, yet sheltered from the wind.

Then there is the Solarium-an adults-only oasis that affords a very quiet place with a jungle theme-for quiet lounging, resting, reading around its own pool (where you can listen to underwater music), or hang about in a hammock sheltered from the wind.

There are pools and whirlpools that are open 24 hours.

Freedom of the Seas, though, has managed to be equally a place for adults as well as families. The Casino, for example, with a fun Roaring 20s theme running through the décor, bustles with 19 gaming tables and 308 slot machines.

Lap of Luxury: the Freedom Day Spa offers a huge range of services, plus novel ones such as acupuncture, teeth whitening and therapeutic stone massage. There are also new “Time for Men” menu and Generation YSpa, a menu of treatments for teenage guests.

Teenagers will get a kick out of the On Air Club, a karaoke venue with state-of-the-art theatrical lighting, video cameras and flat-panel TVs, and a green screen for aspiring music stars to record their own music video.

Entertainment options abound. The absolutely best music on the ship (and the best place for dancing) was a Canadian band, Stingrays, performing in the Egyptian-themed Pharaoh’s Palace, where they offer karaoke; Boleros is the place for live Latin beats, mojitos and caipirinhas.

The Crypt, a wonderfully themed night club, is a rocking place, with a kind of gothic theme effected with odd oil paintings, stained class, gargoyles, a dramatically lighted bar, set on two levels (during our cruise, an hour was set aside, 10 to 11 p.m., for families).

The Circus Parade was a perfect metaphor for the way Freedom of the Seas' entertainment appeals to all ages (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

The Viking Crown Lounge, on the top of the ship, offering a sophisticated and subdued environment in which to relax with wine or cocktail, with stunning panoramic views and live music day and night and the Olive or Twist jazz club, featuring martinis and smooth jazz. The Schooner Bar is a cocktail lounge and piano bar where guests were really getting into the “sing-along.”

The Royal Promenade is a remarkable architectural innovation: a way of turning a huge ship into a homey village. Freedom’s Royal Promenade is an entertainment boulevard, 445 feet long (125 feet longer than a football field), with shopping, dining, bars and lounges, an overhanging bridge, and nightly midnight parade. You can come here any time of the day or night and see some kind of activity.

There are marvelous little nooks and crannies: Book Nook, filled with 3,600 books, has the ambience of a rare bookseller’s shop, and offers a café where you can linger over a book and a light snack; Ben & Jerry’s 1950s style ice cream parlor; Vintages is a wine-tasting bar with décor reminiscent of a 1930s stone cottage; Bull and Bear Pub has dark and distressed wooden décor (it looks like it was simply lifted from an old English pub); Sorrento’s pizzeria serves superb Italian pizza and delicacies.

In addition to the marvelous menus served in the regular dining rooms, guests have the option to choose casual buffet selections at the Windjammer café, and Jade, where you can select well-prepared Italian, Thai and Chinese dishes, and sample innovative sushi and exotic beverages like sake, plum wine and Singapore Slings.

There are two specialty restaurants, as well, which provide a more intimate dining experience (you can arrange for nightly activities for the kids and enjoy an evening out): Chops Grille serves marvelous steaks and fresh seafood (the Portobello mushrooms were an incredible appetizer), while Portofino serves classic Italian specialties (you need reservations and there is a $20 surcharge).

We were surprised at the fresh food and fruit selections everywhere (there are racks of fresh fruit at the Solarium, and Squeeze, the juice bar at the H20 Zone, plus low fat and low calorie selections and desserts in the dining room, where you do not have to sacrifice taste or gorgeous presentation. Really, there is no excuse to go off a diet, while still indulging.

Comfortable Cabins

Each voyage on Freedom of the Seas features a Circus parade where trapeze artists perform suspended from the ceiling (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

The creature comforts extend to the staterooms: there is new bedding that is absolutely the most comfortable mattress anywhere, 220-thread count cotton blend sheets, and new flat panel TVs.

Freedom of the Seas, offers several different family-focused stateroom categories specially designed to accommodate larger families and groups of friends.

The biggest addition is the 14-person Presidential Family Suite, the largest stateroom the line has offered to date, with 1,215 square feet of interior space and an 810-square-foot outdoor living area. The oversize suite has dual entryways as well as two master bedrooms; sleeping two people each, with 30-inch, flat-panel televisions and en suite bathrooms with bathtubs. Two additional bedrooms accommodate four people each, with convertible twin/queen beds and two Pullmans. Both of these rooms feature a 23-inch, flat-panel television, which also is found in all staterooms ship-wide. The common area includes two additional bathrooms with showers, a spacious living room with a sectional sofa that sleeps two, a card/dining table and an extensive entertainment center, including a 42-inch, plasma TV. Suite guests will be tempted to spend all their time outdoors on the spacious balcony equipped with a whirlpool, wet bar, eight lounge chairs and a 14-person table for dining al fresco.

Freedom of the Seas offers five additional types of extended family accommodations over and above the standard triples and quads. Each category includes twin beds, convertible to a queen bed, as well as additional bunks to accommodate the whole family.

There are four eight-person Royal Family Suites, each with two bedrooms, including a master bedroom with an en suite bathroom with bathtub, a second bathroom with shower, and a living area with a sectional sofa and an entertainment center with a 30-inch, flat-panel TV. Royal Family Suite balconies have four lounge chairs and a dining table for eight. Each of the suites can be expanded to fit 10 people via a connecting door to a neighboring stateroom. (588 square feet with a 234 square foot balcony).

There is one 6-person Accessible Family Stateroom offers 423 sq. ft. of space with a 120 sq. ft. balcony, a curtained-off sleeping alcove with bunk beds, sleeper sofa, an accessible bathroom and shower. Ten 6-person, 293-sq. ft. Family Oceanview Staterooms each have a curtained-off sleeping alcove with bunk beds, sleeper sofa and two or more windows; four 6-person, 355 sq. ft. Promenade Family Staterooms offer a curtained-off sleeping alcove with bunk beds, sleeper sofa, walk-in closet and bathtub, and two windows, each with a window seat, overlooking the Royal Promenade. Two 6-person, 337 sq. ft. Inside Family Staterooms, each with a curtained-off sleeping alcove, sleeper sofa and walk-in closet.

There are also four Family Suites, 588 sq. ft., with a 234-sq ft. balcony, that consists of two bedrooms with twin beds (one room with third and fourth Pullman beds), two bathrooms and a living area with double sofa bed; 10 family staterooms, 293 sq. ft., with two twin beds, sofa and/or Pullman beds, sitting area and private bathroom; and six family staterooms, 300 sq. ft.

Ours was a modest cabin, an inside, regular cabin with two twins (that could have been done as a queen) but with pull-down bunk beds, and yet it was comfortable even for two adults and two grown kids.

This was the inaugural cruise, a chance to experience Freedom of the Seas from Cape Liberty in Bayonne, New Jersey. It offered just a taste of what the regular cruise would be like, but it was plain that the ship offers as glamorous and sophisticated an experience as you would like, or one that is as fanciful and whimsical and as fun as a theme park.

Freedom of the Seas features an onboard ice skating rink, where a dazzling ice show is performed (© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Freedom of the Seas is sailing seven-night Western Caribbean itineraries from Miami, calling in Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and royal Caribbean’s private destination, Labadee, Haiti.

Royal Caribbean International is a global cruise brand currently with 20 ships in service and three under construction. The line also offers unique land-tour vacations in Alaska, Canada and Europe through its cruisetour division. For additional information or to make reservations, visit your travel agent or go to www.royalcaribbean.com or call 800-327-6700.
© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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