Cruising 2011

It had been a long time since Claudine and I had a good long vacation to just ourselves.  Sure we’ve taken a weekend here and there but not a real vacation.   We’ve been keeping an eye out for a deal and saving our vacation pennies since September.  We’ve been looking at all inclusive resorts and other destinations, but after doing the math we decided that we might as well take a cruise.

So, the stars lined up and we booked a Western Caribbean cruise with Royal Caribbean aboard the Freedom of the Seas just two weeks from departure.

Now, keeping things in perspective, the last time we took a cruise was 21 years ago.  A 5 day cruise on the Bermuda Star Lines SS Veracruz.   Now it was a ‘smaller’ ship back then, Carnival and other cruise lines had it beat, but we had a budget and it was still highly rated at the time.  It was an awesome experience.  Sailing to Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel Mexico.   Weighing in at a killer 10,000 Gross Tons.  The newer Freedom of the Seas weighing in at 160,000 gross tons, was going to be a completely different adventure (yeah 16 times larger).

If you read this blog, you know how I tend to write my reviews of things.  I call things how I see them.  At the end of the week we had a fabulous time, and we’ll do it again I’m sure.   If you’re looking for a cruise, thinking about a cruise, there are things you should know and avoid.

First and foremost, Royal Caribbean is first class.  I suggest you book directly with them.  We used a travel agent, and while she didn’t cost much, the value provided was basically non-existent.  The flights she booked were horrible choices, in both timing and accommodations.  Our flight into Orlando landed at 12:36, and the cut-off for the last Royal Caribbean shuttle was 12:30, which meant we had to make alternate accommodations.  Again, not the end of the world, we were originally told we’d have a limo/town car waiting to pick us up.   That turned into; call them when you get there, you shouldn’t have to wait for more than an hour for them to pick you up.   Well, we didn’t have an hour to wait so we found an alternate shuttle.   Not the end of the world but an inconvenience we should have not had to deal with using a travel agent.  After looking at the transfer debacle we did some flight searching and found much better options.   It was too late to change but they were there.

So bypass the agent, you don’t need one to book a cruise.

Pre-buying off ship excursions.   Don’t do it unless you really, really feel the need.   We were told from day one that certain things were ‘sold out’ and other things were ‘filling up so you better book them now’.    In Labadee Haiti, we were told the Zip line was almost 100% booked two weeks before and that the jet boats were already full.   Turns out we could have participated in either the day of had we chosen too.

The one thing we really didn’t like was the over-hyping of activities and the push to get you to sign up for things.  While I realize that some of these things do actually fill up, we honestly had our pick of just about anything we wanted to do.   Also, unless you have a compelling need to be hand-held and given deadlines or step by step instructions for your excursions, you can almost certainly do better doing it yourself.  Example: the excursion to the Duns River falls in Ocho Rios Jamaica was $80 per person, plus your $15 entrance into the falls ($95.00 each) and you’d be there with 60 or more other strangers being ushered up the falls.    We got a cab to the falls for $14 each, that included taking us there, picking us up, dropping us off in the shopping district, picking us up again and taking us to the pier.  Our cost for the same thing on our time was $29 per person.

Our story starts with an very early flight out of Dayton International Airport.  One of the best places to fly out of and into because it’s so small.   The security check point has one of the body scanners.  When they say take ‘everything’ out of your pockets, they mean everything.   I left cash in my front pocket, the scanner picked that up and earned me a shake down and a talking too.  Other than that it was a pretty plain airport security experience.

From Dayton we flew into Atlanta, with a 1 and a half hour lay over.   (Note to travel agents, there is no reason NOT to fly people from Cincy to Orlando ‘direct’.   No need to take a 2 hour flight and make it a 6-8 hour experience).

From Atlanta to Orlando, pretty routine.   We grabbed our Luggage, called our shuttle, had to wait about 20 minute, but got to the pier with an hour to spare.   We were on-board by 3pm.

Our first impression of the ship, or at least mine was “Holy Cow, this thing is big”.  We were parked in Port Canaveral, next to two Carnival cruise ships which were quite small in comparison.

I didn’t get a shot that showed them both together, but the size difference was significant.

Our room was in the bottom of the boat (Deck 2), which initially I wasn’t excited about.   We’d hoped for an upgrade, but the ship was full, and no such upgrade presented itself.   We had a rather large portal window and the close proximity to the elevators made it work out well.

All ship rooms are somewhat small, but we found ours to be very comfortable.   The online photo showed a couch in the room, but that turned out to be a chair.  With only two people it was very comfortable.  Four would have been too crowded.

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After getting settled, we waited for our luggage and took a tour of the ship.  Not a guided tour, just a walk around and get your bearings.  Where are the stairs, elevators, bathrooms, bars, and most importantly where is the Casino?

We also wandered up to the Spa to book our first massage.  We got roped into a Spa tour, which sucked.  It was each station, hocking their wares, from massages to facials and even Botox, if you wanted it.  Of course everyone claimed they filled up quickly so book your appointment NOW.  We really didn’t like the hard sell every time we turned around.  We did take advantage of a first day special that let us book our couples massage early and save a little money.   We booked our massage for Monday morning and then got out of the Spa as quickly as possible.

With all of that out of the way we waited for the mandatory lifeboat drill.   My cruise tip for you:  Don’t be early to the drill, we stood around on deck for nearly an hour waiting for it to get started.  Once you’re in your designated spot you aren’t permitted to leave until the drill is over and the Captain is happy.

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Beverages

Cruises aren’t all-inclusive anymore.  I remember 20 years ago that I didn’t pay for much.  Even some alcohol was free (your basic Budweiser/Miller, etc).   Now days, water and Ice-Tea are free, nothing else.   On the way on the ship we signed up for the unlimited Soda, which gave you a Souvenir cup with an RFID tag.   We were told there were fountain stations on board and we could refill at any time.  Turns out there is only (1) guest accessible fountain station and that was up on the pool deck.  You could get a refill at any bar though, provided you had your card with your special sticker.   Unlimited Soda was $45 each, we obviously didn’t do the math properly.  I would much rather have been charged $40 more for my ticket just to not have to hassle with this.   If you have kids, traveling with you, then the math might make sense but for adults, even if you don’t drink alcohol, it’s probably not worth it.   Soda was only $2.00 per drink if you bought it so you’d need to drink 6 per day to make it worth while.  On the other hand it wasn’t hot when we were there.  Temps ranged from 70’s to low 80’s.  Had it been much hotter I may have drank more.   I just didn’t like having to provide my card every time I wanted a beverage, and the waiters kind of, sort of frowned when you had the package.  I guess that meant they didn’t get the 15% automatic gratuity for serving you a coke.

We knew bringing alcohol on board was prohibited.  But had we known we could bring soda, we’d probably have brought a 12 pack of something and saved quite a bit.

Overall, beverage prices were about $7 for just about any drink.  Some beers were $6 others $8.  Knob Creek on the rocks was $7, margaritas were $6.50, but others drinks were more.  Figure about $8 a drink and you’ll be good.

Dinner the first night was casual.   The food and the dining room experience was outstanding.  We had good service, others including the elderly couple at a nearby table did not get good service.   We only experienced poor service once, and that was at breakfast and it wasn’t with our normal waiter.

Dinning

Because we booked our cruise sort of last minute, our dining options were limited.   There were two fixed dining times plus the ‘My Time Dining’.   My Time dining was already booked as was the early seating so we were stuck with a late dinner time.   We were a little disappointed at first, but this turned out to be a good thing.   For starters, the My Time Dining, which allows you do come to the first two floors of the dining room at any time between 6:00 and 9:30pm to get a table, almost always had a line, and what looked like a 20 minute wait.   I’m sure there was probably some ‘sweet’ times where you could get in without waiting but were were glad to not have to deal with that.    A late meal meant we got to get all of our activities and off ship excursions done without having to rush back to the ship.   It worked out well for us in the end.

Again, our dining experience was exceptional for the most part.  I only had one bad meal and that was the first night.  I opted for the pork medallions and they simply were not good.  Some of the toughest pork loin I’ve ever had.   Our waiter, Rodel, was very good.  He pretty much had us figured out after the first night.

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We had requested a table for two, and lucked into a table by a window.  Since we were dining late at night, it turned out that looking outside meant we’d see nothing after dark.

After dinner was Casino time.  The slot machines were not kind to us the first night, but we did win a little bit at Blackjack.   Enough so that we were ahead by the end of the evening.  I also signed up to play in the Texas hold-em tournament, with a chance to win a cruise aboard the OASIS and a seat at the $100k tournament.

Day (1)

Day one was an at-sea day.  Cruising on down to our first stop in Labadee Haiti.  We spent the day chillin, hanging out on the pool deck and time in the hot tub.   It was still a day of getting familiar with the ship.  Our massage at 10:30am was perfect.  1pm was tournament time.  It started out well, and was in the final four when I went all in with two pair (Aces and 5’s) but the other guy had pocket 5’s to kick my butt.   That’s how it goes sometimes.  We rounded out our day just being vegetables on a cruise ship.

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It was however the first of two formal nights.   If you know me, you know how excited I was to get to dress up for dinner.  :)  But we had fun, and yes I do actually own a suit.

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After dinner was the first of many shows.  The first Broadway type production was a medley of music from our generation and was outstanding.  No I don’t remember the name of the show but even I, a hater of plays and productions was impressed.

 

Day (2)

Labadee Day.   Our first off the ship day.  I actually got up with Claudine to watch the sunrise (yep you read that right).  Of course I also wanted to see them dock this big behemoth in Haiti.

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Labadee, Haiti.    Isn’t the smashed by an earthquake Haiti you’re thinking of.  It’s a private island, or part of the island that’s owned and operated by Royal Caribbean.   This means you get the service of the cruise ship while you’re there.  Everything is staffed by crew from the ship.   On the island/resort, the food barbeque is produced on the ship, or by the ships staff.   

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There is anything you could want in terms of Beach stuff.   Great surf, calm lagoon, great sand, tons of shade, chairs and hammocks everywhere.   Kids could play in the water park, and you could rent jet ski’s or ride the zip line.   We opted to park our butts in chairs on the beach for the first half of the day, then had lunch.

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That sand is clean, the walkways are paved and easy going.  There was an Artisan’s market.   Word to the wise, unless you really need a Haitian wooden shot glass, or some other crap made in China, just avoid it.  The vendors were horrible.  If you’ve done a Caribbean cruise or trip before you know how aggressive they can be.  “Come here, I have something just for you”, etc, etc.   This was that only 10x worse.   I was actually really disappointed that for a private beach area that this wasn’t controlled a little better.   It was made worse by the fact that once you entered the area you were pretty much trapped and forced by all of the vendors on the board-walk.   Very irritating to say the least.

We managed to get through though, and migrated to the other side of the beach after lunch.  Found a couple hammocks and relaxed some more while watching the Zip liners fly over the cove.

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After our day was over, we headed back to the ship.  It’s just amazing how large that thing is.  Also amazing was the security to get back on board.  It was like the airport all over again, only with less luggage.

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The rest of the evening was fairly anti-climatic and involved hot tub time, and other activities not appropriate for this blog.  Since the show the first night was so good we made it a point to see the magic show on Tuesday night.  It also didn’t disappoint.  If you’re a magic fan, see this, but don’t see it from the balcony as we did, you’ll discover that some of the magic isn’t in fact magic.

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If you wanted to, you could learn to DJ…

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Day (3)

Originally, our itinerary called for stopping at another private beach area in Jamaica.  Falmouth to be exact.  But apparently it wasn’t quite ready so they took us to Ocho Rios instead.  We didn’t have any killer excursions planned.   One of the big things here is the Dunns River Falls.  We decided this was something we wanted to do but didn’t want to pay $80 each to do it.  We got off the ship, and negotiated with a taxi driver, who then took us and a few other folks up to the falls and on a tour.  We were the only couple to get off at the falls.  Some didn’t want to pay the additional $15 to get in.   We knew a head of time there was a charge but it felt a lot like a bait and switch.  The taxi driver told us we had two hours, more than enough time to do the falls and left us.

Much like Haiti, the folks were a bit overbearing, offering to braid our hair and sell us junk.  After the Haiti experience we decided we’d simply bring our iPod’s, put the ear buds in and ignore them.  That strategy worked out well.

Claudine didn’t wear her swim suit and didn’t want to get in the water so she walked along as I climbed about half the falls.  I too wasn’t in a position to get into water that was waist deep (or more) so I chose my path carefully.

The falls are well worth doing.

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We were done with plenty of time to spare and were beginning to wonder if our taxi was going to make it back to pick us up.  It wasn’t crowded when we got there, but by the time we were done the place was packed with tour busses.

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(note headphones, also known as our Jamaican-beggar shields)

The taxi arrived pretty much on time, about 2:05pm and took us to the shopping district where we had a nice lunch at Mama-Marley’s.   Some really good Jamaican Jerk Wings.

We had just about wrapped up our lunch when the Taxi driver informed us we needed to go, the other folks were ready and needed to had back towards the ship.   We wanted to hit a shopping district that was recommended on the cruise ship but settled for the area near the pier.  

We found a few really nice, or what we thought were nice prices on jewelry but didn’t buy any of it.  We did pick up 2lbs of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, and a Cuban cigar for me for later.

We still had an hour to kills so we did so at Margaritaville.

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This is your standard $17.50 (US) Gold Margarita with souvenir glass.  The entertainment at the bar was *special*

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And by that I meant very entertaining.   In this instance 5 different women were trying to win a T-shirt, trying to fill a cup in this poor volunteers lap by squeezing a bottle of water between their legs.

Yeah, good bar entertainment.

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That pretty much wrapped up day 3, the rest of the evening was spent in the hot-tub, casino, etc.

Day (4)

Was supposed to be a stop in Grand Cayman.   Unfortunately this ship is too large to dock so the plan was to tender us in.  Weather prevented that from happening so it turned into another full day at sea.   While we really wanted to see Grand Cayman, we were fine with a sea day.   Plenty of activities on-board.

The weather was awesome.  Seas picked up to 15-20 foot swells.  Not quite the ‘Deadliest Catch Seas’ I was hoping we’d experience some of but still pretty active nonetheless.    Waves were crashing up against our portal window and the boat was rocking pretty good.   Even so, that meant you could finally feel some rocking.  That thing is so big that you really don’t notice much movement at all.  While we did see quite a few people throughout the week wearing anti-motion sickness patches, we didn’t see anyone get sick at any time.

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Even with these seas, playing shuffle board wasn’t a problem.

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It’s really hard to get a feel for the scale of the waves.  It was a pretty busy day at sea.

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It was also formal night again.

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So I again got to play dress up with my lovely wife.   It was also the captains dinner, which meant we got to eat extra-good.  Which for me was quite a few lobster tails, and plenty of escargot.

It also meant another show.  This time a medley of Broadway and opera stuff.   Which in my opinion was not nearly as good as the first show but we made it through followed by more Casino action.

Not as many pictures taken on this day.

Day (5)

Cozumel.  This stop was kind of important to us as it was also a destination on our honeymoon cruise 21 years ago.   While in port the Voyager of the seas pulled up and parked along side us.  Man these boats are huge.

Also in port were two Carnival ships so we figured it would be a busy day.

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We had toyed with the idea of a couple different excursions but again decided to set out on our own.

There were plenty of shops right inside the terminal where you could buy just about anything including our diet pills, Viagra, and of course your anabolic steroids.   We considered stocking up on antibiotics, but with $4 prescriptions at Wal-Mart it just didn’t make sense.

Right off the ship and outside of the terminal we picked up a Scooter and rented it for the day.

Tip #1, don’t rent from the first person you see.

Tip #2, if you rent a scooter test ride it for a mile or so before you commit.

We paid $40 for the day plus $5 for gas, the attendant couldn’t make change so he asked me to pay the $5 when we returned.   I thought that was kind of shady as it wasn’t on the paperwork that we had to pay $5 for gas.  But what the hey.

We were off.  It was about 5 miles down the road that I realized just what a pile of junk this thing was.  The suspension was shot, and it pulled to the right.  The roads were horrible, so that meant instead of enjoying the view I got to fight the scooter.   Heck I only had another 40-50 miles to ride it how bad could it be?  It was bad.  (Still fun, but bad).

We stopped every now and then to play on the beach or check out some of the beach clubs, and/or resorts.  Doing a 4-5 day all inclusive resort on Cozumel was one of the things we had considered so why not check them out.

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Outside of the crappy scooter, and the horrible roads, we never once felt unsafe.  For the most part we traveled on the ‘old road’ which had limited access and limited traffic, as well as limited pavement.

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Beaches a-plenty.

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We stopped and had lunch at Coconuts.

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Food was good, pricey but good.  The Margaritas looked excellent, but since I was still piloting the ‘Scooter of Death’, I decided not to have any.

After Coconuts the weather looked threatening so we beat feet for the ruins.

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Which as you would expect were just a big pile of rocks.

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I’m a helmet advocate.  I wouldn’t ride without one, but to be honest I was more afraid of what this helmet might do to me in the event of an accident.

After 50 or so miles of scooter torture we turned that sucker in.  I tried to explain to the guy just how unhappy I was with it, and that I felt it was unsafe.  He just kind of scoffed.  I probably wouldn’t have said anything but we came across plenty of other scooters that were in much better shape.  I asked how you say Piece of $@#$ in Spanish.   He didn’t much care and just wanted his $5 for gas.   He was holding my Sea Pass and I was holding the key to his scooter.   I explained I wasn’t going to pay that $5.   He explained then that I wasn’t getting my sea pass.  I said *fine*, you keep it, and I have a souvenir (holding up the key to his scooter).  I had my passport and wasn’t worried about getting back on the boat, and they could make me another sea pass.   I walked over to security and told them I’d lost my pass, and handed them my ID.  They stated to make a big deal about it, and asked for my wife’s ID and sea pass.  Fortunately she was there to show her stuff.

The scooter guy walked over and showed the security guard that he had my pass, and said I owed $5.  I clearly explained that he wasn’t getting $5 from me, it was a matter of principle at that point.  It wasn’t on my receipt, and wasn’t listed as part of the deal.   He looked a bit disgusted then handed my sea pass to the security guy.   Once I got my pass from him I handed him the key to the scooter.    It was kind of exciting for a moment.

All in all we had a great time in Cozumel, but I would never rent a scooter again.  At least not unless I test rode it first.  I should have taken it back, but by the time I realized how bad it was we were too far away.

So shop your transportation.  Don’t take the first deal you see, that was our mistake, and I learned a lesson that day.  Fortunately it didn’t cost me much to learn it.  No one was injured.

Back on the ship we hung out on the deck and watched the sunset as other boats departed.

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The evening was wrapped up pretty much the same as the rest.  A little more Casino, a little more hot tub, etc, etc.

Day (6)

Day 6 was our final real day at Sea.  Both Sunday’s were really partial days, one arriving and the last day we’re out at 7am so I’m not sure that really counts as a day.

We spent the day at a very leisure pace.  Up for a relaxing breakfast in the Windjammer restaurant, lots of shuffleboard, and hanging out on deck here or there.

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We finally managed a nice sunset at sea.

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Dinner was casual again and we got to deliver our tip envelopes.   Which was a pleasure since our service was fantastic.

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I wrapped up the evening with some Knob Creek and the Cuban Cigar I bought in Jamaica.  It was a perfect evening. 

We packed up our bags and debated the early departure versus fighting to get off with everyone else.  In the end early departure won and that turned out to be a smart move.

We got to the airport early, perhaps a little too early, but that’s better than being late any day.

The flights home were uneventful.

More photos are here in the Google/Picasa Gallery:

http://picasaweb.google.com/mdisher/Cruise2011#

I do believe cruises are the best bang for the buck, that is if you don’t get sea sick.  Even if you’re afraid of that, today’s ships are so big that there is just enough motion to be settling and know you’re on a ship, but none of the really bad action.   Even on our worst days, it wasn’t bad at all.

Conclusion

Royal Caribbean, if you read this, these are the things you need to know.

1) Just charge everyone $30 more and drop the whole Soda/Drink thing.  The people don’t like it, the waiters don’t like it, and it’s just a hassle.   You have accountants and bean counters, do the math, I’m sure some people will abuse it, but the same folks can game the current system if they want too.  It will all average out and things would just be smoother if you did.  In the same vain there are just too  many premium services and items. I understand you can’t make everything free, but charging for fresh squeezed orange juice wasn’t not a good plan.  I actually didn’t see that sold at any time that I was watching.  It’s sad that the only good ice cream with the exception of dinner desert was a premium.   It’s these little things that add way more value than they would or should cost.  If you can’t kill the drink thing, add more public walk up places to get drinks.  We shouldn’t have to hassle a bartender for a soda.   That would make it much easier all the way around.

2) Graham the cruise director is outstanding.  You need to keep him at all costs, but you probably already know that.

3) Jazz up the food at the Windjammer.   While it’s nice and generally good, it should be better than Golden Corral and most of it wasn’t.  (Not that there is anything wrong with Golden Corral).

4) Put a stop to the hard sell everywhere you go.  We probably would have bought 2-3x more Spa services if we hadn’t been so turned off by the hard sell.

5) Same thing for Haiti, and your private beeches.  You really need to patrol the vendor areas.  While I respect their right to try to make a buck, getting the same aggressive spiel from all of the vendors selling the same stuff just isn’t much fun.

6) Bring back the bridge tour.  It would be great to have been able to have a ‘behind the scenes’ type of your of that ship.  I understand a ‘paid tour’ is in the works.   I probably would have paid for that, but think that should be something you should be able to do without charging.   I’m also sure there are parts of the ship that would be cool if they were exposed.  Windows into the kitchen, engine room, etc.   They could be tucked down a hallway but a look at some of the stuff you probably don’t want us to see would be pretty cool.

7) Bull and Bear Pub?  It’s not a pub if it doesn’t have pub food.  An English themed bar that doesn’t serve anything different than any other bar is kind of a waste.  Serve some pub grub.  Please.

8) Kudos for some great shows.  While I don’t care for or appreciate ice shows, one at sea is impressive.  Even if there aren’t any sticks or pucks.

9) Kudos for the great over-all service.  We had a few no-so bright spots but they were few and far between.

10) Pizza shop.  Free Pizza is always good, but it could have been just a tad bit better.  The basic pizza’s were pretty plain, as in just a notch above frozen pizza.   We just sort of expect a bit more on a cruise ship, especially one of this caliber.

11) Kudos for having a lot for the kids to do.  While we didn’t bring ours, we didn’t feel as though any of the kids onboard were problematic.  They all seemed entertained.

Well that pretty much sums it up.   I’m sure more will come to me over the next few days as things sink in.

Again, I highly recommend Royal Caribbean and the Freedom of the seas.

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