Royal Caribbean's newest and biggest ship plies the Caribbean Sea and gets a full inspection from FTF's cruise admiral and her kids.
I admit it was the promise of on-board surfing that inspired us to try a seven-day Caribbean cruise on the new Liberty of the Seas. But once on board, my 14-year-old daughter Chloe and I discovered that surfing is just part of the ship’s new Vitality Program, which turned out to be surprisingly appealing, even though one of us is a gym-phobe and the other is – well – a teenager.
During our weeklong voyage, which included three at-sea days, we also sampled just about everything the ship had to offer in terms of shopping, dining and, of course, hitting the spa. Here’s how we made out:
Quick and easy from the Port of Miami, but cruise passengers should keep in mind that the snarl up at check-in can be as much about the embarkation port as about the cruise line. (Let’s just say that we applaud the improvements on tap for New York’s Manhattan Cruise Terminal.)
Tip: Single parents (or those traveling without their spouse) need to have notarized permission from the child’s other parent to travel outside of the country. I always travel with such a form, but this time I misplaced it. I wasn’t asked, but I could have been, so this is a clear case of do as I say and not as I do.
The Liberty is a Freedom-class ship, the signature feature of which is an atrium-style interior Promenade lined with shops, restaurants and pubs. This is the heart of the ship, and although scheduled shows still take place in the theater, on any given hour along the Promenade you can expect anything from classical trios playing on a bridge over your head to clowns and magicians entertaining the youngest cruisers.
Only about half of the staterooms on this ship are inside, but unlike on most ships, some offer views overlooking the Promenade (vs. no view at all). Since a big part of cruising for me is watching the ports of call come into view each morning, I’m not tempted, but if you think you won’t mind not being able to gaze out to sea from your room, it is an option. We had plenty of room in our nearly 190-square-foot superior balcony stateroom for the two of us, even when we were competing for mirror space and the hair dryer on the two formal nights. We also liked the upgrade features, such as the flat-screen TV and Wi-Fi.
The bathroom was tight quarters – after a few days I start to fray around the edges without a bathtub – but there was plenty of closet space for the two of us. Had we brought the rest of the family, we could have opted for a family stateroom or even a two-bedroom, two-bath Royal Family Suite to keep from stepping on each other’s toes.
Because this is a new ship, many of the wait staff are veterans of other RCI ships, which means they already know the ropes. Even when we changed tables more than cruise passengers typically do, in order to try specialty restaurants and the Windjammer dinner buffet, the staff were unfailingly attentive.
Rave: When I found an error on my bill on disembarkation morning, the staff person at the purser’s desk did back flips to get the item erased from my account – despite the early hour, the long line behind me and the relatively small error (about $30).
We tried the lobster dinner, a few of the Vitality healthful options and just about every dessert on the menu at the tri-level main dining room – called Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt, depending on which floor you are on. Although I like breakfast in the main dining room, I spared Chloe that formality and we started our days at the Windjammer for fresh fruit and made-to-order omelets. The Windjammer is also open for lunch, along with the poolside grill and, our favorite, Johnny Rockets for highly caloric onion rings, burgers and floats. We even dropped a few dollars at Ben & Jerry’s once or twice for ice cream sundaes, even though there is a perfectly good soft-serve ice cream dispenser by the pool that serves free cones.
The two specialty restaurants are Chop’s Steakhouse, where I could barely finish half of my cooked-to-order steak, and Portofino’s Italian restaurant where if you are a carb-phobe, you are in serious trouble. There is a $20 surcharge for the two specialty restaurants, and be sure to reserve ahead.
Note: Starting this year, RCI has introduced trans-fat free options on its menus fleet-wide. The salad bar at the Windjammer buffet was consistently good, and cruisers will find plenty of low-fat and vegetarian choices at the buffet, as well. I would have liked to see more vegetable options for low-carb diet devotees, however.
As my children have morphed into teens, the days are gone when I could just drop them at the kids club and know they would be entertained for hours. Even the most outgoing teens can find the concept of wandering alone into a teen club daunting, but this doesn’t mean that the programs don’t have their place in a family cruise vacation. Although spending time alone with your teen daughter is pure gold at this age — and Chloe and I made the most of it — I also wanted her to meet kids her own age, as she has always done on cruises. With that in mind, I sent her to the Navigators club over her protests (“I’m fine, Mom. I’ll just lay out by the pool.”), with orders to find a friend. Within an hour, she returned with another girl in tow, and the two joined forces during our down time for the rest of the cruise. Recognizing that they are helping older kids break the ice with each other, the youth staff wisely keeps the organized activities low key for that age group, concentrating their most intense efforts at scheduled play for the younger kids.
New parents will appreciate being able to attend Aqua Tots and Aqua Babies play / stimulation programs developed with Fisher-Price for sailors ages 6-months to 18-months. For the record, the five age groups supervised by counselors are: Aquanauts for ages 3 to 5; Explorers, 6 to 8; Voyagers, 9 to 11; Navigators, 12 to 14; and an unnamed group for the elusive 15 to 17-year-old set. As with all Freedom ships, the children’s facilities are gorgeous, with all the latest technology and even a teen-only dance club called Fuel and a Living Room lounge.
Remember when ship’s spas were a perfunctory afterthought to the main public areas (which centered around drinking, eating and the casino)? Today’s cruise lines take the whole spa concept to a new level, and the Liberty Day Spa on Deck 12 is a case in point. With its Zen-like dÃ©cor and trendy treatment menu (from straightforward massages to such oddities as teeth whitening), the spa draws unsuspecting passengers in like flies into a web. I especially liked the Generation YSPA program, which features treatments like Acne Attack Facial, Beach Babe hair ritual and Surfers Scrub for kids (those 16 and under need to have a parent present). I’d like to say that we took advantage of the Mother and Daughter Paradise Massage, whereby Mom and kid are “pampered side by side,” but in all honestly, the idea seemed a little creepy to both of us. Mom and daughter salon treatments, however, particularly pedicures in startling colors, were a big favorite.
Tip: As with any ship’s spa, book the minute you get on board or, better yet, on-line before your cruise. Be aware that the competition for slots on at-sea days is ferocious, and be prepared to endure a tour of the spa and a long line at the appointment desk on embarkation day.
The Vitality Program on this ship – also set to come on line on the Freedom of the Seas by the end of the year — is so robust that we gave it its own category. I’m not sure how many of the fitness options are actually new, but what’s different here is that the program is much more proactive about getting people to participate by offering rewards (tokens good for prizes) and cross-marketing the activities with designated Vitality menu, seminar and shore excursion choices. During our weeklong stay, for example, we tried Tai Chi, yoga on the beach, Pilates and stretch and meditation.
I even participated in a couple of seminars on body age assessment, metabolism testing and acupuncture. Normally, I probably wouldn’t have done any of those things (and there were plenty that we didn’t get to, including making use of the jogging trail and working with a personal trainer in a boxing ring), and once I got into it, the program added to the cruise experience. Chloe and I also ran on state-of-the-art treadmills and made our way around the strength-training circuit a couple of times, and still had plenty of time to lounge by the pool.
There are two outdoor swimming pools, but we were all eyes for H20 Zone, where kids can splash in a variety of water features or hit the waterslide. (Note that children who are in diapers or not yet potty-trained will be sent to their very own Baby Splashzone.) We also liked the ice rink, although we skipped actually skating in favor of watching the first-rate ice show (tickets are free but must be picked up in advance.) The real draw, however, is the sports deck, where kids and adults compete for time on the rock-climbing wall, minigolf, basketball and, most of all, the FlowRider continuous-wave surfing pool. Not only is the surfing popular for kids, but the romantically inclined can get married with a pro surfer riding the wave expertly behind them via a new Royal Romance program.
Tip: Consider wearing a T-shirt on the FlowRider, as bathing suit pop-offs and wedgies are not uncommon.
Our weeklong cruise featured three days at sea and a day each in Labadee, Haiti; St. Maarten and Puerto Rico. In the spirit of the Vitality Program, we took part in two activities in Labadee – yoga on the beach and a 2,600-foot Dragon’s Breath zipline flight over water. Both were topnotch, although in very different ways, obviously, and we spent the remainder of the day loafing on a white sandy beach and swimming in the rocky but clear, warm water.
I did feel qualms about wallowing in luxury in such a poor country and used the experience as a talking point with my daughter, but our attempts to spend money locally by shopping in the shaded craft market were thwarted by the hyper-aggressive sales people.
We spent our day in Puerto Rico horseback riding in the rainforest, and again, the excursion was very well managed, the horses were seemingly well cared for and the scenery was spectacular.
Rant: Our Loterie Farm Treetop Adventure Tour on the French side of St. Maarten was described in the shore excursion brochure as “exhilarating,” and it was. Chloe and I were expecting a zipline course – something we’ve done numerous times and loved – and, indeed, that was part of the experience, along with rope swings and suspended rope bridges. My issue with the adventure is that, except for the first zip, participants were expected to hook their own clips to the overhead cables at each of the 30-plus stops with no staff member in the trees with you to ensure that the cables were hooked correctly. Not only was I uncomfortable with this set up, but I was worried about the safety of my daughter, who was zipping just ahead of me. In addition, there were two children in the group who were deemed not to be tall enough to do the course, so they sat it out (for nearly two hours) while their parents zipped ahead. Clear height regulations at the outset would have eliminated that problem.
On the plus side, the course was – did I mention exhilarating? — and we certainly worked off that extra cake from dinner.
I’m not a huge fan of shipboard entertainment, but Chloe and I both liked the Somewhere in Time music and dance revue and we loved the Encore Ice Show. The good news is that there is so much else to do onboard, from karaoke, blackjack tournaments, piano bars and an impressive video arcade, that we had plenty of other options when we didn’t want to attend a show.
Price & Details
For the winter 2007-2008 season, seven-day cruises start at $649 but rates vary according to season and cabin choice. Contact your travel agent or call Royal Caribbean International directly at 866/562-7625 or visit www.royalcaribbean.com.
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