Since my eldest son takes a cruise with us once a year, we did not object to taking the Freedom again on the same itinerary as we had some 18 months ago as he had not been to the Eastern Caribbean.
Our youngest son lives in Central Florida, so having our eldest son with us, it was a family reunion of sorts, so we drove to Florida and visited with our youngest son for a few days. My eldest son had 2 weeks off, so we took an alternate route which added about 150 miles to the already long 1,200 mi trip to Florida. We took a detour so we could spend an afternoon at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fl. We figured we would not return this way for awhile as our next two cruises with our eldest son is earmarked for Bermuda and Alaska.
As you may have figured out from my websites, I am a photo nut. I had occasion to take a new lens with me on this trip - a Tokina 80-400mm f/4.5~5.6 super telephoto. Needless to say, I was really anxious to use the lens on the cruise.
Weather. The two or three days leading up to our departure, a low pressure system stalled over Florida. So much so that it was on the verge of being a named storm. Consequently, we had high winds and tons of rain for most of the duration of our time in Florida.
Departure. The day before our departure, we drove over to Port Canaveral and stayed at the Country Inn, and took advantage of their Park-And-Cruise package. I signed up as a member of Carlson Club, similar to those memberships that Hampton and other hotels offer for repeat customers. But to our surprise, since we were members, we were upgraded to a suite for the same price as our normal room would be.
This was a nice hotel and I highly recommend it. While we stayed at the Hampton Inn the last time we cruised out of Port Canaveral, we had thought we'd try the Country Inn. We had initially thought that we would run down to Jetty Park in Port Canaveral and watch the ships leave the night before, but the monsoon we were having prevented that. Like most hotel Park-And-Cruise packages, for a few dollars, you can park your car for the week and they will transport you to the cruise terminal and back.
When it was time to head for the ship, around 10AM, a shuttle picked us up. They dropped hotel passengers off at the Disney terminal first, and then our ship as we were the furthest from the port entrance. We had priority check-in as we were finally Diamond level in Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor society. Beginning with Platinum, and continuing through the higher levels (Emerald, Diamond, Diamond Plus, Pinnacle, and Suite guests), you get a few additional perks. Not a big deal, but it's nice to have Priority check-in. We literally walked into the terminal, and after going through the security lines, there was virtually no waiting at the priority check-in counter. We spent maybe 15 minutes checking in until we got on the ship.
Since our son was with us, we booked a category D1 balcony, as it had a nice sofa bed that my son slept on.
The Weather, Take 2. We left port on time, and while the forecast was for 10-15 ft seas and 35kt winds, this was nothing for a large, modern cruise ship. But we did notice that the pilot boat was having an awfull hard time in picking up the pilot. We then heard that the port was closed by the authorities, and the other two ships were staying in port. There is still some controversy over this, and finger pointing of course, but after seeing the difficulty in boarding, I am certain the pilots thought it too dangerous to transfer from the ship to their boat. I believe that may have been the situation why the port was "closed".
For the first couple of hours the cruise was pretty uneventful. But then the winds begain to raise and waves became rougher. The captain told us that we were in hurricane force winds from a microburst that came out of nowhere. So the captain did what you are supposed to do, putting the ship into the wind and rode the storm out. During the event, the ship did heal a bit, and some first-time passengers were a bit afraid, and I will admit, it was as worse as I have ever seen it. But we rode out the storm and soon after we were on our way again. So much for an accurate weatherman.
There was some news stories about our adventure, but in reality they were blown way out of porportion. One news outlet even had us lying on our side. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is unfortunate that a news outlet would print such an irresponsible exaggeration.
CocoCay. Unlike the last time we cruised the Freedom, this time we were successful in tendering at Coco Cay. My eldest son and I did some snorkeling, and my wife rented a floating raft. Unfortuately, due to the prior evening's storm, the water was pretty murky, and it was hard to see the bottom. Even though I had my underwater camera with me, there were no useful photos.
St. Thomas. At St. Thomas, the reversing ring saga still continues (see my prevous Freedom review). The last time we were here, my wife got a diamond replaced in the ring. But she somehow managed to lose yet another diamond. So like before, we dropped the ring off before our excursion and picked it up on our return. This ring-thing is getting kind of old.
Our excursion this time was Magen's Bay. It was a beautiful spot, and on National Geographic's list of the 10 most beautiful beaches, but I have a secret. We're from Michigan, and have our own small yacht slipped in one of the harbors on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. From my point of view, the beach at Magen's bay, while nice, is no better than the beaches on Lake Michigan. And while Magen's Bay was perhaps a 1/2 mile long beach, the beaches on Lake Michigan continue on for 250 miles. It is the mid-west's best kept secret.
True, the water on Lake Michigan is cooler, and the beach is seasonal, but the sand and water is just as wonderful - and Lake Michigan is fresh water. Finally, you don't have to worry that you are not on the highest level of the food chain when swimming in Lake Michigan. OK, I have said my piece.
St. Maarten. This was our fourth visit to St. Maarten, which continues to be one of our favorite islands. This time we decided to go to the French side and take in a semi-submersible excursion in Grand-Case. The excursion was pretty much the same as our Coral World adventure in St. Thomas that we took 18 months ago the last time we were on the Freedom.
Since the Oasis and Allure have made St. Maarten a port-of-call, the cruise port has undergone quite a change. A second pier has been constructed, and on this visit, we were the only ship in port, so we docked at the new pier. It looks like they are still looking to construct more shops pier side, but I am not sure. We're scheduled to return in May 2012, so it will be nice to see what, if anything has been added.
Arrival. While on board, we booked a future cruise on the Explorer for Oct 2012, where we will be heading to Bermuda. We have seen about everything there is to see in the Caribbean, so we thought it might be a nice new venue.
Tip #25. Cruise ships are safe. Even if you get caught in a bad storm, and while it might be scary at the time, we encountered hurricane force winds with no issues.
Port Canaveral offers express departure if you want to take all of your bags - but unlike the last time, you are restricted to one bag. Since we had 3 bags and 2 carry-on bags between the three of us, we just took the normal departure. Even then, we were back at the hotel by 10AM.