Keith Bedford  /  Reuters
Visitors tour the promenade of the cruise ship 'Freedom of the Seas' as it sits at New York Harbor in New York May 13, 2006. At 158,000 tons, the Freedom of the Seas is the world's largest passenger ship.
By Travel columnist
updated 7/12/2006 12:49:00 PM ET 2006-07-12T16:49:00

When you are about to set foot on board the world’s largest cruise ship — one that cost almost a billion dollars to build, spans four football fields and rises 15 stories high — one has, shall we say, certain expectations.

Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas is not only the biggest ship at sea, it is the most ambitious. With its FlowRider surf park, H2O water park, ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall, children’s sundeck, barbershop and boxing ring, it is certainly the ship that has everything.

SHOWTIME
Last week, I took a one-night preview cruise aboard Freedom of the Seas. Preview cruises are never ordinary, but this one was particularly unusual, as the passenger list included 300 workers from “The Today Show,” who were furiously setting up shop all over the ship in preparation for the show’s first-ever broadcast from a cruise ship. Guests were dodging cables, camera booms and lighting equipment all over the ship.

There’s no doubt Royal Caribbean is putting a lot of emphasis on Freedom of the Seas; it’s the new flagship of the fleet, the first of three superliners that are all about flamboyant offerings. The ports of call are touted as highlights but, in fact, the ship itself is the main attraction.

“We have a legacy of offering the unexpected to our guests,” says Royal Caribbean’s president Adam Goldstein. “We knew with Freedom of the Seas we had to come out with something fabulous at every turn.”

After walking around for just a few minutes, I could see Mr. Goldstein’s point. Now she’s ready for her close-up.

160,000 TONS OF FUN
Freedom of the Seas is 160,000 tons of fun. At the center of the funfest is the Royal Promenade, a 445-foot boulevard for shopping, dining and entertainment that looks like an atrium mall and hosts nightly street parades with performers, music and a laser light show.

When there isn’t a parade, promenaders can partake of a number of wide-ranging experiences. You can have a slice of pizza at Sorrento’s pizzeria, sip a glass of wine at Vintages (under the watchful eye of an enormous mermaid sculpture), or drink espresso at the “neighborhood” coffee shop, where you can also slip into the 3,600-volume Book Nook for some relaxed reading. A couple of firsts are a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor and an old-fashioned barbershop, where gents can indulge in a traditional shave, scalp and shoulder massage, haircut or shoeshine.

Freedom offers three pool regions, including the H2O Zone, an interactive water park with fountains and water canons that is a haven for the little ones. The surf park, a 32-by-42-foot FlowRider, is positioned at a 45-degree angle; the water actually flows uphill. This arrangement allows riders to surf or body-board in the pool, which has a flow of 34,000 gallons per minute — enough to fill a regular swimming pool in 60 seconds. The other pool region is the Solarium, an adults-only area with plush chairs, hammocks, a pool and — most remarkably — Jacuzzis that extend out over the sides of the ship.

Freedom is the perfect ship for those who get bored easily. It’s really a floating city, and what with the swimming pools, ice rink, theater, casino, nightclub, and malls of bars, restaurants and shops, it is easy to lose track of things — including the time. The carpets in the glass elevators that glide up and down the atrium are changed every 24 hours to display the current day of the week. One can only assume this little touch is for the “It’s Tuesday so it must be Grand Cayman” passengers.

“This ship has so many features that make me want to cruise again,” says travel agency owner Paula Dozier of DTS Midway Vacations, based in Baltimore. Dozier admits the ship isn’t for everyone, especially those who want a sedate, traditional cruise experience, but she has booked dozens of cruises on Freedom for her clients who want something new and different in cruising.

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STATEROOMS
As with Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class ships, Freedom of the Seas offers several cabin categories, ranging from inside cabins to suites. Of the 1,817 staterooms, 842 have private balconies and 172 have promenade views. Freedom is the first ship in the fleet to use Royal Caribbean’s new bedding, which offers thicker pillow-top mattresses, fluffy pillows, smoother cotton sheets and duvets. The beds were, I’ll confess, truly comfy. I wish I could have spent more time in mine.

All cabins are compact but very cozy and functional. Each has a flat-screen television, bountiful storage space, a large closet with lots of hangers and a bathroom with a shower stall. A nice touch for readers is bedside LED reading lights built into the light fixtures. The balconies on standard verandah staterooms are larger and deeper than those on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class vessels; they’re equipped with plastic chairs and a small table. Another nice design feature are the sliding partitions on the balconies, which can be opened to make one large balcony for families or friends traveling together.

Freedom is also unveiling a new type of cabin, the Presidential Suite. At 1,215 square feet, it is the biggest suite ever on a Royal Caribbean vessel. It has four bedrooms and four baths and there is an additional 800-square-foot balcony with a whirlpool, bar and dining area.

DINNER AND A SHOW
Freedom’s dining experience does not have the “Wow!” factor of its other onboard amenities. The ship offers the usual two nightly seatings with assigned tables and tablemates in its three-deck-high main restaurant; each level is named, oddly, for a famous scientist (Gaileo, Leonardo and Issac). For those wishing to dine on buffet fare, there is Windjammer, the ship’s buffet venue. It is arranged like a food court, which really helps to keep the passenger traffic flowing. There are three additional dining venues within Windjammer: Chops Grille, serving steaks and seafood; Jade, serving Asian fusion cuisine; and Portofino, serving Italian fare. There is also a Johnny Rockets hamburger joint on board.

After guests have their fill of food, they can enjoy Freedom’s wide array of entertainment offerings, from Broadway and ice-skating shows to poker and karaoke. Guests can get in touch with their inner American Idol at the On Air Club, Freedom’s karaoke venue, or they can go dancing in the avant-garde Crypt, the ship’s creepy-but-fun disco. If you prefer a quiet place to drink, you can’t beat the Viking Crown Lounge with its expansive views of the starlit ocean. The ship also carves out plenty of niches for children, including the Adventure Ocean youth facility for younger guests and the Living Room, a hangout for teens.

FITNESS AND RELAXATION
Freedom’s very large fitness-and-spa center offers many options for rejuvenation and refreshment. The fitness area has an amazing array of machines along with vast Spinning and Pilates class areas. And, yo! Wanna to put up your dukes and fight like Rocky? Then jump into the ship’s boxing ring.

The Freedom Day Spa features Elemis treatments by Steiner, which offer the usual spa menu as well as two new offerings: teeth whitening and acupuncture. When I cruise, I like to try different spa treatments. One unique to Royal Caribbean is the “float” treatment. After a massage or seaweed wrap, guests can relax in a puffy heated water cloud. This was the most relaxing spa treatment I’ve ever experienced at sea.

SHIPZILLA
If there is a drawback to Freedom, it is its size. The ship is so large that most Caribbean islands don’t have piers big enough to accommodate it. On stops in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, it will anchor offshore and passengers will tender ashore in small boats. The ship’s official double-occupancy number is 3,634 passengers, but when third and fourth berths are filled, Freedom can accommodate up to 4,328 people. Add to that more than a thousand crew members, and you have a ship with more than 5,000 people on board. The big question among the many travel agents on the preview sailing was how a full-ship embarkation and disembarkation will go. That remains to be seen.

Passengers who like Royal Caribbean’s bigger ships will love Freedom of the Seas for all its new additions. It’s a real family ship and there’s literally something for everyone.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anitaor visit her Web site anitavacation.com.

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