Supersize versions of the already supersize Voyager-class ships, Freedom, Liberty, and Independence of the Seas offer everything those ships do and more, though they come very close to being too commercial for their own good.
Typical Per Diems: $80-$125
Freedom sails the Caribbean from Port Canaveral (year-round).
Independence is not currently sailing from North America.
Liberty sails the Caribbean from Miami (Jan-Mar 2011) & from Fort Lauderdale (Nov 2011-Apr 2012).
The second-largest class of cruise ships in the world, after Royal's own Oasis class, these three vessels are, at essence, just larger versions of Royal Caribbean's popular 142,000-ton, 3,114-passenger Voyager-class ships, which introduced the line's now-brandwide "active vacation" image with their rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, and full-size basketball courts; the Freedom ships also sport some new stuff, namely a kids' water park and a surfing simulator. Extremely well designed, the Freedom vessels disperse their large complement of passengers among many interesting public areas -- including the four-story, boulevard-like interior Royal Promenade, which runs more than a football field's length down the center of each ship and is lined with bars, shops, and entertainment lounges. The promenade, with its strollable, urban feel, makes the Freedom vessels a great compromise for couples who can't decide between a tropical cruise and a city vacation. They really do feel like "cities at sea."
The Freedom ships carry at least 500 more passengers (and more if all berths are full) and have a nearly identical layout and ambience to the Voyager ships, but stretched out and with a few new eye-catching activities and entertainment features. But those extras come with a price: the Freedom ships' Royal Promenade, for instance, is more dominated by shops and corporate cobranding arrangements (a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream parlor, a sportswear shop with a dedicated New Balance section, and so on), giving it a feel that's as much mall as theme park. When crowds are low -- say, during the early dinner seating, or late at night -- it can still be a lot of fun to sit at the "sidewalk" cafe or bar and catch a drink, but when things are hopping, you'd be forgiven for thinking your car was parked outside, in lot D.
Just as this book went to press, Royal Caribbean announced a series of upgrades to Liberty and Freedom of the Seas. In 2011, the ships will offer nurseries for babies and tots ages 6 through 36 months; big video screens by their main pools; new digital signage to help you get around; and specialty cupcake shops. Entertainment will also get a boost, with Liberty presenting two major musical-theater shows -- one big-name musical that hadn't been ID'd yet, and another targeted to families with kids. Freedom will run the family show only.
Standard outside cabins are a livable if not overlarge 161 square feet, though standard insides seem small at 152 square feet. All cabins come with Internet dataports, minifridges, flat-panel TVs, safes, pleasant pastel color schemes, regular hair dryers, and supercomfortable beds. Bathrooms are on the cramped side, with little storage space, few amenities (soap and shampoo only), and only a thin sliver of counter. The cylindrical shower stalls, though definitely tight for large-size people, have RCI's standard sliding doors that keep in the water and warmth.
Of the 1,815 cabins, 1,084 have ocean views and 844 have verandas. Suites range from the affordable junior suites (with sitting area and balcony) to a handful of family suites (with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living area with sofa bed) up to the huge Presidential Suite with its four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and 810-square-foot balcony.
For those who want an "urban" (aka voyeuristic) experience, the 168 atrium cabins on the second, third, and fourth levels of the four-story Royal Promenade have windows facing the action below, with curtains and soundproofing to keep most of the light and noise out, when you want downtime.
Thirty-two cabins are wheelchair accessible.
These ships have more than 3 miles of public corridors apiece, and it can feel like a real hike if your cabin is on one end of the ship and you have to get to the other. Running 445 feet down the center of Deck 5 is the bustling, four-story Royal Promenade, designed to resemble Memphis's Beale Street or New Orleans's Bourbon Street. Like those famous thoroughfares, it's lined with shops, bars, and cafés, and has evening musical performances by the ships' various musical groups, including their big bands. Other promenade attractions include a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream parlor, a coffee bar, a casual pizza-and-snacks restaurant, an English-style pub with evening entertainment, a champagne bar, a wine bar with tastings, a small bookstore, several shops, and, for our money, the best thing on the whole strip: a men's barbershop giving old-timey professional shaves spiced with a helping of New Age spa frippery. The half-hour Express Shave includes hot towels, deep-cleansing exfoliation, a superclose shave, and did we mention hot towels? N-i-i-i-ice. Only downside? They use safety razors instead of straight. Wimps.
Down on Decks 3 and 4, the two-level disco is entered through a theme-park-like "secret passage." There also is a huge multistory theater, a casino with more than 300 slot machines, a Latin-themed bar with live music, and the nautically themed Schooner Bar. One deck down, excellent ice shows as well as game shows and fashion shows are held throughout each cruise at the Center Ice Rink, which has a sliding floor to cover the ice during nonskate events. Other public rooms include a library, an Internet center, a sprawling kids' area with huge oceanview playroom, a living-room-style teen center, a jumbo arcade, a top-deck jazz club and cocktail lounge, a card room, and a wedding chapel. There's also a "peek-a-boo" bridge that allows guests to watch the crew steering the ship.
Pool Fitness & Spa Facilities
Sticking with their active image, Royal Caribbean has outfitted the Freedom ships with several features sure to entertain both actual athletes and weekend warriors, as well as their active kids. The biggest hoo-ha is each ship's FlowRider surfing simulator -- similar to swim-in-place lap pools with their recycling currents, except that this one has a stream that flows up an inclined, wedge-shaped surface 40 feet long and 32 feet wide. At the bottom are powerful jets that pump 30,000 gallons per minute up the slope, creating a wavelike flow on which boarders can ride -- at least in theory. Located in the stern of each ship's sports court, spanning Decks 12 and 13, the ride is adjoined by bleachers for gawkers and fans, creating a bonding atmosphere where those who aren't inclined to flow can wager on those who are. We had our money on the kid with the puka beads and board shorts, who did manage to get to his knees before falling off and being swept up and bam! into the padded back bumper -- just like everybody else. It's sports as a metaphor for life: Eventually, you fall down and get swept away by the currents, only here you can get back in line and try again. Participants must sign up for free group sessions and go through a quick introduction, after which they and the other members of their group take turns riding the wave, in either traditional stand-up surfing or less-balance-demanding body-boarding. A soft, flexible surface absorbs the impact when you fall -- which you will.
A free-standing "surf shack" bar near the FlowRider provides drinks. Also nearby are Royal Caribbean's signature rock-climbing wall (the biggest one at sea, naturally), a miniature-golf course, a golf simulator, a jogging track, and a full-size basketball court.
In the ship's gym, an honest-to-God 20*20-foot boxing ring takes the place of the large hot tub that greets guests on the Voyager ships. The ring is part of what the line bills as the largest fitness center at sea, with an enormous number of aerobics and weight machines plus workouts (for a fee) that are rare even in shore-side gyms. Options include Fight Klub boxing training (one-on-one training sessions using speed bags, jump ropes, heavy bags, and padded punching mitts), personal training with Pilates instructors, onboard yoga and a class on the beach at Labadee (Royal Caribbean's private resort in Haiti), Boot Camp X-Treme Training, and linked treadmill workouts. Stretch and fitness tips are located at intervals along the onboard running track, and a program of mapped running/jogging routes is available in the ports of call.
On deck, the kid-friendly H2O Zone Water Park takes up almost half the Pool Deck, with water cannons, jets, buckets, and sprays hidden among colorful cartoon statues, some controlled by motion sensors, others by the kids themselves. The area also includes two wading pools (one geared to toddlers) and two hot tubs, a great place for mom and dad to soak while the kiddies are having a ball. Farther forward, the main pool area has two pools (one traditional, one "sports") and two large hot tubs at port and starboard, extending 12 feet over the edge of the ship and some 112 feet above the sea. Extremely popular, they get socially crowded -- but, of course, with hot tubs, that's the point.
While crowds tend to disperse around the ships' public areas, things can get very crowded on sunny days out on the main Pool and Sports decks. Guests seeking something more peaceful can sometimes find it in the adjacent, adults-only Solarium, where a second swimming pool is bisected by a little bridge.
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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.