EASTERN CARIBBEAN: Fort Lauderdale, St Thomas, Anitgua, Tortola, Nassau, Fort Lauderdale

Jan/Feb 2012

ARRIVAL: We arrived Fort Lauderdale a day before our cruise.  Airplane scheduling, routes, and oversold flights create the perfect storm for delays and missed connections necessitating self-insurance by arriving a day early for your cruise. The price of a hotel is worth the peace of mind to ensure you do not miss your cruise. Arriving a day early also creates a less stressful start to your vacation and allows a little relaxation at the beginning of your escape from the everyday demands of reality.  Getting there is no longer half the fun – it is quite often torture. As we arrived a day early on a nonstop early morning flight, we encountered no delays and were in Fort Lauderdale baggage claim by 9:30am. Once we had our luggage we contacted La Quinta for a pickup and were informed of an upgrade to a suite. A nice start to the day even if the suite was only a one night stay. Our shuttle arrived within 15 minutes and we were on our way for the short ride to La Quinta. We checked in and discovered they no longer store your luggage until your room is ready (something you may want to consider when booking your flight). Fortunately, the second room booked on our name (for the parents) was ready so we dropped off our luggage and went for a brief walk. La Quinta provides breakfast for its guests, but they do not have a restaurant or bar. A 5 minute walk from the hotel provides several options: movie theater, Red Lobster, TGI Friday’s, Dave and Buster’s, Italian restaurant, and other facilities. You can arrange transportation for nearby attractions or you can soak in the sun at the pool. We signed up for the 9am shuttle to the ship and relaxed the rest of the day. The next morning we boarded our shuttle for Port Everglades which was very busy this Saturday morning with 8 ships in port (Oasis of the Seas, Crown Princess, MSC Poesia, Grand Princess, Island Princess, Carnival Freedom, Eurodam, Celebrity Constellation) offering some great photo ops. Our shuttle dropped off ship crew for Eurodam, Grand Princess, and Carnival Freedom. We were the only passengers on the shuttle that were actually going on a cruise for vacation. We were definitely early arrivals as security was not ready to process us in the terminal. It was a short wait to pass security, check in and receive our sail and sign cards, but we had a two hour wait to board the ship. At least we would be the first ones to board; unfortunately, as we boarded, our sail and sign card did not work so we were given temporary cards and directed to proceed to Guest Services for new cards. Guest Services did not open until 11:30am, so instead of standing in line for 15 minutes, we filled up the camera card on a self-guided tour of the ship’s interior public spaces.

CARNIVAL FREEDOM:  A quick tour of the empty ship (as boarding had just begun) allowed us time to enjoy each public space and take in its décor.  Each space had the Joe Farcus (Carnival’s interior designer) flare and each unique to one another all lacking the bright, shiny colors typical of sister ships and expected on a Carnival ship. The color combinations sans bright neon create a more laid back atmosphere versus the raucous, boisterous themes on other ships.  The theme of the Carnival Freedom is “Decades through the Centuries” with each public space representing a different decade through history. Whether or not you know the ship’s theme before you board, you notice that there seems to be something missing as you tour the ship. Each space is represented by a period in time, but there does not seem to be a flow from one space to the next. Public spaces representing its own decade, with each decade scattered about, are absent of one common thread to tie each one to the next as you move about the ship. Your first vision when you board is the atrium, a 12 deck high cavernous gathering spot for pre/post dinner cocktails and entertainment. Millennium atrium represents the decade of 2010 and is one of my favorite areas. Its décor is a little hard to describe with its motif of copper, red, and gold tints, and stainless-steel elevator doors adding to this modern design of geometric curved, bulging forms with headlights poking out – think early Cadillac bumpers with lights front and rear. It is a very cool modern design and a great place to relax and people watch. The Victoriana show lounge named after Britain’s Queen Victoria takes its cue from the 1880’s London West End theaters with a crystal chandelier, colorful paintings surrounded by arched molding with gold accents and scrolls. The cream colored gold tinted scroll work continues above and around the theater accenting this classy room with just the right mix of colors, creating a very classy and elegant theater which gives it the number one spot on my list of favorite rooms on the ship. Sitting in the upper levels offers the best view, but the uppermost level is a tight fit with very straight backed seats that are a bit uncomfortable. The Babylon Casino represents 1000BC and the palace of Hammurabi. This is another room where you expect to see the bright and colored lights of neon and slot machines, but in the decade of choice, the colors and designs are many and varied with decorative touches of stonework, blue tile with glyphs transporting you back in time to an era of ancient civilizations. The room features the right amount of color accents and designs while disregarding the gaming tables and slot machines; this is my third favorite public space. The Babylon Casino allows your mind to transport you to another era, which is what the ship’s theme is supposed to inspire. The Habana Cigar Bar represents 1940’s Havana Cuba and also achieves the theme of the ship transporting you to another time. This is my second favorite room on the ship and as soon as you enter this large lounge you notice the symbolic “cigar” motif everywhere. There are paintings of cigar box labels adorning the walls framed in dark lacquered woods, white columns and scrollwork fill the room of comfy chairs and sofas with glass tables having their bases in the shape of a label branded cigar. The stool bases at the bar are also the shape of a branded, label wrapped smoked cigar. This is a very unique and inviting venue on the ship. Studio 70 dance club represents the Disco years and takes its lead from Studio 54 in New York. Stainless steel, video screens, mirrored disco balls, and a lot of color changes create the lively evening dance venue of the evening.  Scott Joplin and the 1910’s are found at Scott’s Piano Bar where passengers gather around the piano/bar to sing along to favorite tunes. Bright lacquered blues, reds, yellows, and tin tiles featuring piano profiles on the walls and ceilings accompanied with passengers passionately singing their favorite tunes brings life to this nook.  Swing Time jazz club represents 1930’s jazz and is a very classy room with white lined sheers draped as swags flowing across the ceiling from each column. Walls are adorned with metal scrolls with bas reliefs of dancers enjoying the music. International Lounge at the rear of the ship seats 425 and the furniture evokes the international style of the 20th century.  International Lounge is the home of Punchliner’s Comedy Club which features several comedy shows each cruise and is standing room only.  Cub O2 is the 21st Century teen hangout spot.  Player’s Sports Bar pays homage to the “golden era of sports” with memorabilia of the 1950’s. Take a step back in time to the 1890s at Bar Nouveau wine bar. Designed in art nouveau style with a stained-glass backlit dome and inlaid marble walls and floor, reflective mirrors on the ceilings and walls, this tiny venue is situated next to Scott’s Piano Bar and a nice spot for pre-dinner drinks. The Monticello Library is a quaint quiet room with a patriotic 1770’s Jefferson American colonial style. It’s easy to walk past this tiny room, but poke your head inside for a quick look.  The Chic and Posh dining rooms represent the 1990’s with ornate grillwork on the walls and ceilings. The Chic dining room is located in the middle of the ship and seats 744 guests on two levels with the lower level reserved for “your time dining” and is the most impressive dining room with the central double staircase. The Posh dining room is at the rear of the ship and seats 1122 guests and offers great sea views through its large windows on all three sides of the dining room. The staircases are located on the sides of the dining room, thereby offering great views of the sea. The Posh dining room is the perfect dining venue for lunch during sea days. The Sun King Supper Club is Carnival’s alternative (for an additional fee) dining steak house. It is named after King Louis XIV of France in the 18th Century elaborate style during his reign. A beautiful chandelier in the skylight dome reflects the sun’s rays like beams of light brightening the surrounding paintings and staircase below: very ethereal. Smaller versions of the chandelier with murals and mirrors surround this elegant dining venue. The Freedom Restaurant is the ship’s Lido buffet and represents the 1980’s. The Statue of Liberty depicted between the staircases leading to the upper level to Fish and Chips is the central focus of the room. Blue lit floating Lady Liberty heads provide an eerie and haunting effect throughout the room and I am sure that was not the original concept of this feature. The length of deck 5 starboard side connecting the public rooms between the Millennium Atrium and Decades atrium at the stern is Centuries Promenade. Marble floors, comfortable seating, and large windows to view the sea/port of call beckon you stop for a short rest and listen to the live entertainment and enjoy a refreshment or dessert. The Viennese Café serving coffee and pastries, Meiji Sushi Bar has a selection of “snacks”, the Centuries Bar, and the live entertainment all enhance the senses as your day’s journey takes you down this boulevard.  Heading outdoors to the open decks and bright, warm sunshine the Carnival Freedom offers many places to have fun or to relax and soak up the rays.  The Stressless pool is at the base of the corkscrew waterslide. The waterslide does not empty into the pool, but should not stop you from taking a quick dip. The surrounding pool deck area is tiered, facing aft and morphs into the Lido Deck below. Down on the Lido deck is the main pool Timeless, and it is surrounded by more sun loving chairs, a bar and a grille. At the stern of Lido Deck is Endless pool which also has a bar, Pizzeria, and Tandoori.  Endless also has a retractable glass roof that is used during inclement weather. On Deck 11 you can burn off some calories at the jogging track or go up one deck and play miniature gold. After jogging or golfing, relax in the adult only retreat Serenity. This quiet respite features deep seating lounge chairs, sofas, clamshells, and chaise lounge chairs. It is a great escape from the noise and traffic found at other areas of the ship; unfortunately, the Lido music was loud and interrupted the peaceful serenity of this area.

DINING: There are many dining options available during the day; unfortunately, your choices are limited in the evening with the main dining room being the featured venue. Chic and Posh dining rooms serve traditional dining at 6:00pm and 8:15pm with “your time dining” available from 5:45pm to 9:30pm.  Salad, appetizers, soups, entrees, and desserts are all delicious and cooked to perfection, which is amazing considering how many meals they serve at one time. We had all of our dinners in the Chic dining room and I would not eat anywhere else. A shout out goes to our dining room team of Richard, Georgica, and Chaiyakul. The service was great, very personable, and always with smiles. Bar service from Imade was fantastic and always with a friendly appreciative smile. Jogi, our maitre d’, came to our table each night ensuring we were enjoying a fine dining experience. We have never had a maitre d’ come to our table each night on any of our cruises so this was a nice and much appreciated gesture. Some of our favorite menu selections were: penne mariscos, spinach ravioli, bbq ribs, braised short ribs, shark and langoustino firecracker roll, seafood newburg style, marinated pork steak, beef stroganoff (lacking sour cream flavor, which makes the dish), lasagna bolognese, grilled red snapper, escargots, chateaubriand, basa fillet, mahi mahi, panko crusted shrimp, prime rib, bacon mac n’ cheese, lobster tail, warm chocolate melting cake, butter pecan ice cream (large pecans throughout), baked Alaska, coconut cake (the cakes on this cruise were sensational – moist and flavorful), lemon cake, cherries jubilee, cinnamon bread pudding, and orange cake. The one thing I did notice on this ship is that the portions were much smaller than on any other ship (Carnival and competitors). I can’t say I left the table hungry, but the meals were noticeably smaller than even our most recent cruise on the Carnival Dream. The Freedom Restaurant offers limited choices on the buffet, day and night, and the food quality and options were unimpressive and uninspiring and the temperature of the food was hit or miss. There are great sea views in the restaurant, but seating in the Freedom Restaurant is close and cramped. For an added fee you can dine at the Sun King Steakhouse, but again it is an added fee and the meals in the main dining room (Chic and Posh) are outstanding. During lunch your choices are many including lunch in the Posh dining room during sea days. The Freedom Restaurant offers buffet style lunch and features a different theme (Taste of the Nation: French, American, etc) each day.  I ate once at the buffet and viewed the menu options each day and chose elsewhere as the selections and quality were poor. On sea days, the Posh dining room is your best choice. You do not have to dress up for lunch in Posh and meal service is quick. When you are in port, the Grille, Pizzeria, or Deli are your best choices.  The Grille serves big juicy burgers and hotdogs, fries, sautéed mushrooms, and large juicy meaty chicken tenders along with other sides. The Deli serves very good sandwiches, but if the line is long (as it quite often can be) skip it. The Tandoori is another option serving spicy Indian food. The Pizzeria serves several different flavors and offers huge slices. It is unfortunate that the main feature (the Freedom buffet) is no longer up to par in selections or quality. The Mongolian Wok is another popular option. Choose your ingredients and they cook your creation while you wait. One deck above the Freedom Restaurant is Fish and Chips. This is a hit or miss dining option. One time the fish and oysters will be lightly battered and cooked perfectly, the next time the batter will be heavy and grease laden with the fish tasting very strong.

ENTERTAINMENT: Evening entertainment was varied and full of choices each night, making it very hard to choose. The Victoriana lounge featured the main shows of the week. The Welcome Aboard show was tired and uninspiring. The Cruise Director (Brad Calabrese) was not engaging during this show or at any time during the cruise. The show Beatles-Ticket to Ride was fantastic. I am not a Beatles fan and did not expect to enjoy the show, but the costumes, choreography, interpretation, and effects were amazing. Do not miss this show. The Big Easy was the other featured show. The music was not the type you would expect for a tribute to New Orleans, but it was very good with a great ending. Kat Fehrle is a phenomenal vocalist. There are a lot of subpar vocalists on cruise ships, but Kathleen is not one of them. Carnival should extend her contract now before someone else hires her. The Big Easy is the other show I would recommend on your cruise. There were many live entertainment choices throughout the ship. Latin tunes with Latin Fever and Diamond Heart are two options I would definitely skip.  Stan Corliss Groovy Tunes (by the time this is published Stan will be off the ship) is Carnival’s money maker and they should offer him anything he wants. His deep voice allows him to perform hundreds of songs and can make you a fan of any music genre. His personable interaction with the crowd makes his performances more enjoyable and he quickly draws a crowd. He usually performs across from Centuries Bar, which is where Carnival makes money as the bar is very busy from the following Stan draws. When Stan’s set is over the crowd disappears. Scott’s Piano Bar draws a nice crowd for this small room. Studio 70 is usually hopping and there are performances in the Millennium atrium. A big draw each evening is in the International Lounge and Punchliner’s Comedy Club. There are two comedians who perform several evenings and at different times each night, offering different shows for each performance. The adult themed shows draw the biggest crowds. Later in the cruise two new comedians are brought on board and the rotation starts again, each offering a different show at different times with the adult shows being most popular.  Jerry Goodspeed and Ira Proctor are two comedians whose adult shows should not be missed. The outdoor Seaside Theater featured movies and popcorn on the big screen under the stars each evening. Daytime entertainment choices are not as plentiful. Outdoor on the open decks you can listen to Simple Vibes. Why you would want to I have no idea. If you are in earshot, they are very annoying. You can participate in trivia, bingo, art auctions, ping pong, basketball, etc during the day, but for a cruise that has two sea days in a row, the entertainment choices during the day are lacking and not involving. The Cruise Director is not engaging and it seems to permeate the ship, becoming very noticeable during the day. I always look forward to sea days to enjoy the ship and all it has to offer, but on this cruise I was with the majority and was quite happy to get off the ship at the first port of call. The Carnival Freedom is desperately in need of the Carnival 2.0 upgrades; however, I understand with the 2.0 upgrades Carnival eliminates the bands and groups in a cost cutting measure.

OUR CABIN: Unlike competing cruise lines, Carnival is very miserly with upgrades; considering how many Carnival cruises we have been on and how far in advance we book. We had an outside cabin on deck 1. Cabin 1273 was your typical comfortable outside stateroom with light colors and a large window. The first thing that we noticed when we walked in was the hot room temperature. We were told it was because of all the doors being opened while the rooms were cleaned before departure. While the room finally did become lower in temperature, it was never cool. The second thing we noticed was the light white/gray color on many of the flat surfaces. It was a thick layer of dust. The room had not been dusted in weeks. The bathroom was the same way. I did not mention this until our second day when our room steward left us with a stained/dirty towel and removed our glasses and did not replace them. I called housekeeping and discussed our issues with Flavius Dragan (manager). He agreed the room was unacceptable and that housekeeping/laundry should have removed stained linens and towels from service. He said he would address the situation and check back with us throughout our cruise. Our cabin was given a thorough cleaning, but we never heard from Dragan again. That is OK as our immediate issues were resolved. This is the first time we have had an issue with our stateroom and the service. The bathroom offered more shower room than we have had in the past. A basket of toiletries is provided and a hair dryer in the desk drawer is available. Storage space was plentiful with several sections not used. Our cabin was very noisy (ship noises) and very sensitive to motion. Being as low in the ship as we were, I was surprised to feel so much motion. I believe the Carnival Freedom is one of the most unstable ships we have ever been on and we have been on rougher oceans than this cruise. The ship was constantly rolling, pitching, and vibrating. Vibrations were felt far from the engine area of the ship. This was very strange and unusual, but not a cruise spoiler, just noteworthy.

EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION: As we arrived extremely early on embarkation day, it is hard to evaluate the efficiency of the process. Everyone was friendly and I did not hear any horror stories. Luggage service was extremely fast. We had our luggage and were unpacked long before the lifeboat drill. This is quite the opposite of what we experienced on the Carnival Dream. Debarkation was fast and painless. Carnival has not yet adopted silent debarkation, but the process was smooth, efficient, and absent of any long lines (timing is everything).

PORTS OF CALL: Some tips for the ports of call featured on our itinerary.  San Juan was canceled months before our sailing. Carnival gave no explanation, even when queried on twitter and facebook. This meant our first two days were at sea which I was looking forward to, but the Carnival Freedom is not the ship to be on for two sea days in a row. On sea days we were interrupted often with updates from the Cruise Director as to the day’s schedule. (Sell, Sell, Sell). This is one thing that needs to stop. We all receive the Fun Times each evening and they are scattered about the ship. We can read, so we really don’t need someone interrupting our day to read to us from the Fun Times. Out on the open decks chair hogging was prevalent; towels on chairs for hours with no one ever occupying the chair. Also, passengers arranged chairs in the aisles creating an impasse in some areas of the ship. Carnival did not address either issue. St Thomas was fantastic as always with so many options to fill your day – including shopping which is a sport and excursion when in St Thomas. Megan’s Bay, Coki Point, Emerald Beach, snorkeling, sailing, diving, St Thomas has it all. Tours to sister island St John are popular with snorkeling at Trunk Bay the most popular. Don’t waste your money on the St John island tour. We walked into town, about two miles from the pier, had a fruit smoothie at a local stand, had pate lunch at a local food cart, shopped, then headed to Paradise Point for the famous Bushwacker and great views of the island. Antigua is another great island and features 365 beaches (one for everyday of the year). First timers to the island can incorporate a beach with an island tour, which I recommend. See the highlights of the island and relax on a beautiful beach. There is a small straw market and shopping near the pier. I was informed that the zip lining excursion here was a highlight. We went to Dickinson Beach for a morning of sand, sun, surf, and relaxation. Before we headed back to the ship we visited the little straw market near the pier. The people of Antigua are very friendly, appreciative, and always smiling.  Tortola was our next port of call. A short drive from the pier is the town, but for hardcore shoppers, this is not the place. Get out and enjoy the island. Taxis are very expensive and when comparing to the cruise line’s excursions, it is cheaper to book a tour with the cruise line. There is a small straw market a short walk from the pier, but this port of call is one in which to explore. We sailed over to Virgin Gorda to explore the Baths and Devil’s Beach. A German cruise ship arrived in port before us and they were already at the Baths when we arrived so it was a little crowded. The many large boulders can make it hard to navigate your way from one side to the other, but no one seemed to mind. The water is multiple shades of blue and the sand, well; you can sink to your ankles in the soft sand. Our next day was a sea day and then our last day was Nassau. Most of Carnival’s excursions for Nassau involve the Atlantis resort and are very expensive. Other cruise lines have many more options for Nassau. The wind was too strong for parasailing and all those tours were cancelled. We decided to explore the local scene by visiting the newly built straw market. We helped support some of the locals here and made purchases in some of the shops. We took a self-guided tour of the town ending at the Queen’s Staircase which is full of history and is the amazing result of hard labor in the late 1700’s.  At the end of the day it was hard to board the ship as we knew the end of the cruise was near and the next time we disembarked, it would be our last time. Fort Lauderdale was a port of call for us as our flight was changed to a much later hour than we originally booked. To occupy our day we pre-reserved transportation with KSA tours to pick us up at the ship, take us to the Jungle Queen, pick us up at the Jungle Queen and take us to the airport. If you have time in Fort Lauderdale, pre/post cruise, book the Jungle Queen, a three hour tour along the rivers showcasing Millionaire’s row and the cruise port. It was an enjoyable, relaxing trip and one I recommend. After our tour we had lunch at nearby Bahia Cabana. The menu is filled with fresh seafood choices, making it hard to choose. We didn’t choose - we were on vacation so we sampled four dishes. After stuffing ourselves we walked some of it off by walking along the wide expansive beach. We walked to the cruise port and back, about 90 minute’s roundtrip.

RECAP: The Carnival Freedom was definitely lacking in direction from the crew. The ship receives high ratings each month from the guest survey, but we found the ship to be mediocre. There were not enough active venues to keep the cruise vibe in motion during back to back sea days. I predict in six months when there is a change of crew (captain, cruise director, etc) there will be a different vibe and the ship atmosphere will be better. The Cruise Director was not engaging, the Guest Service desk personnel were rude and short, some of the crew appeared to be in slow motion and not in any hurry to provide service – there is an overall lack of attention to detail: dirty cabin, dirty towels, dirty table napkins, small dining room portions, weak mixed drinks, pecan ice cream with orange sherbet on it, food not hot in buffet area, etc; the little things that make the difference.  Sleeping in on vacation was a challenge as the crew was very noisy in chatter and work detail. 7am announcements on a sea day from Guests Services searching for a passenger were unappreciated. Seriously, where was the passenger going that they had to request the passenger dial 777?  We have sailed on Carnival more than any other line and we will continue to sail with Carnival. With that being said, we made the best of it and overall had a very nice cruise vacation with great ports of call and some outstanding crew on the ship that made our cruise memorable.  Each ship has its own personality, but its life comes from its crew and I don’t believe that the Carnival Freedom and most of its crew were up to Carnival’s standards. I believe that is a reflection of the management team onboard, which will change over time and the whole personality of the ship, crew, and cruise will change; hopefully, for the better.