Carnival Freedom Cruise Review

We did a 12-day Southern Caribbean repositioning cruise
on the Carnival Freedom in February of 2015.
Here's my review, with LOTS of photos and videos:

Click here to go to my main page

Let's start things off by introducing myself...

Jim Zimmerlin and Kellyn Zimmerlin

I'm Jim Zimmerlin (everyone calls me Jim Zim) and I always cruise with my wife, Kellyn.  (Pronunciation tip: it rhymes with Helen.)  We're from Grover Beach, California...  a little beach town on the California coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  We've been cruising since 1996, and this was our 28th cruise overall...  our 23rd with Carnival.

After 20+ cruises with Carnival, we decided to do a little experiment in 2014 and cruise with some other cruise lines to see what they had to offer.  It wasn't that we were unhappy with Carnival...  quite the opposite, actually...  we just wanted to see if we were missing out on anything good that the other lines had to offer.  So, in 2014 we did two cruises with Princess...  and also sailed on the newest ships from Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.  We enjoyed those cruises a lot, and even concluded that the Norwegian Getaway was the best cruise ship in the entire world right now, but came back to Carnival in 2015 due to a unique opportunity.  Carnival was going to reposition the Carnival Freedom from her old home in Fort Lauderdale to her new home in Galveston...  and the repositioning cruise was going to feature an unusual 12-day Southern Caribbean itinerary.  Caribbean cruises longer than 8 days are very rare on Carnival, so we jumped at the chance.

I'm a pretty good photographer and enjoy all the fantastic photo opportunities that a cruise presents.  On this page, you'll find over 100 high-quality photos that I took during our cruise...  most of them shot using my Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera.  Let's get to it...


Carnival Freedom Overview

Carnival Freedom cruise ship

I want to start by saying that we had a really great cruise on the Carnival Freedom!  In this review, you'll see me point out a few "areas for improvement" that Carnival should pay attention to...  but I sure don't want any of those comments to leave you with the wrong impression.  Overall, I really love Carnival and can't wait for my next cruise!

Now, let me give you an introduction to the Carnival Freedom, for anyone new to Carnival Cruise Line...
Carnival Freedom is a Conquest-class ship that is nearly identical to her sister ships:  Carnival Conquest, Carnival Glory, Carnival Valor, and Carnival Liberty.  (The Conquest-class ships were all introduced post-9/11, thus the patriotic-themed names.)  If you've sailed on any of the other Conquest-class ships, you'll find Carnival Freedom quite familiar.  The interior decoration scheme is different on each of the ships, and the Carnival Conquest is the only one of the five that doesn't have a Serenity Retreat, but other than that they are nearly identical.

I really like the Conquest-class ships and have sailed on all of them except the Carnival Liberty.  It's probably just a matter of time before I make it on to the Liberty!  There are two things that I really like about the Conquest-class ships:  all but the Carnival Valor have received the Funship 2.0 upgrades such as Guy's Burger Joint...  and they all have an adults-only pool at the rear of the ship which features a sliding glass dome that can be closed during periods of bad weather.

Adults only aft pool on Carnival Conquest

I totally LOVE the aft pool area and end up spending a LOT of time there during a cruise.  The mid-ship pool drives me crazy with all the loud music, the screaming kids, and the noisy events such as the hairy chest competition and the mixology contest.  Plus, when the ship is underway, it can sometimes be a little windy by the mid-ship pool.  So, the aft pool is my retreat.  The music mix is different than at the mid-ship pool and plays at a very low volume...  there are no screaming kids or obnoxious event announcers...  and if the weather goes downhill, they'll close the glass dome.

On some of the Carnival ships I've been on, it seems like they had a policy of only closing the sliding glass dome as a last resort...  when there was actual rain falling.  I was completely delighted to find that on Carnival Freedom, they had a very different attitude about the sliding glass dome:  they closed it much more frequently than on other ships.  They closed it nearly every evening to provide a warm wind-free environment at the back of the ship...  and left it closed all the way until after sunrise the next morning.  And when we hit some cooler weather at one point in our cruise, they left the dome closed during the day, too...  even though there was no threat of rain.  The folks in charge on Carnival Freedom really seemed to understand that there are a lot of situations other than rain where it would improve passenger comfort to slide the dome closed.  I really appreciated it!

By the way...  when Carnival renovated the Carnival Destiny and turned it in to the Carnival Sunshine, they completely removed the aft pool on that ship to create space for the Havana Bar.  When I cruised on the Carnival Sunshine in 2013, I found that the lack of an adults-only aft pool was a big problem for me.  There wasn't a quiet place for me to hang out by the pool...  as their Serenity Retreat, which has its own pool, was located too close to the sound system at the main pool.  In other words, it wasn't serene at the Serenity Retreat and there wasn't an aft pool to retreat to.  So, even though I'm totally in love with the Carnival Sunshine's Cruise Director, I don't think I'll be sailing on Carnival Sunshine again.  The Conquest class is perfect for me!

Carnival Freedom aft pool at night

I like the aft pool area so much, and spend so much time there, that I always try to book a cabin at the aft end of the ship.  My favorite class of cabin is the aft-wrap balcony... known in Carnival language as a "Premium Vista Balcony" cabin.  Take a look at this video if you want to see what those aft-wrap cabins are like.  There weren't any aft wraps available when I booked this cruise...  so I opted for a standard balcony cabin instead.

A few months after booking, my personal vacation planner gave me a call and told me about a special sale that Carnival was having and how it presented an opportunity for me to save about a thousand dollars on my cruise fare...  if I was willing to do one thing I always said I would never do:  accept a "guaranteed" cabin, where Carnival assigns a cabin to me rather than me picking a specific cabin.  I really struggled with the choice...  as I know that when you get a cabin assigned to you in this manner, it's going to be one of the least desirable cabins on the ship...  probably a cabin in a bad location, like one floor above a noisy restaurant or lounge.  But it was too good of a deal to pass up...  taking my $3000 cruise fare down to $2000...  which is a heck of a deal for a balcony cabin on a 12-day cruise.  $83 per person, per day, for a balcony cabin.  An excellent deal...  but whether I would regret taking the deal was all going to boil down to what cabin they assigned to me.  If they put me in a cabin directly above the disco, I would never get to sleep with all the bass coming through the floor.  I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best, figuring that if Carnival was going to screw somebody and put them in a cabin above the disco, it probably wouldn't be one of their Platinum-level guests with 20+ Carnival cruises to his credit.

A few weeks before the cruise, I received my cabin assignment from Carnival.  I had been assigned to cabin 6441.  The good news was that this cabin was at the aft end of the ship, which is where I like to be...  close to the adults-only aft pool, the Lido buffet, and the comedy club.  It was also conveniently close to the aft elevators, which cuts down on the amount of walking you have to do anytime you want to go anywhere...  but it was not so close to the elevators that there would be a lot of noise.

The big area of concern, as I studied the deck plans and tried to figure out how good or bad of a cabin 6441 would be, was that the cabin sits directly above the Alchemy Bar, and not very far away from the disco.  I've been on ships with an Alchemy Bar before, and they didn't strike me as being particularly noisy, so I wasn't completely unhappy with my cabin assignment and knew it could have been a lot worse.  I hoped that our cabin would be far enough away from the disco that I wouldn't hear it...  but from the deck plans, I just couldn't tell if it would be or not.


Carnival Freedom Stateroom 6441

Balcony cabin 6441 on Carnival Freedom

If you've sailed with Carnival before, you know that the layout and decor of their balcony staterooms is very consistent...  at least until you get in to the Dream-class ships, where they started to get away from their love affair with the color orange.  In looking at these pictures of our cabin, they pretty much could be pictures of just about any standard balcony cabin on most Carnival ships.

Balcony stateroom 6441 on Carnival Freedom

A few things to point out for anyone who has NOT sailed with Carnival before:

There is a safe located under the television, behind those two cabinet doors.  On this class of ship, access to the safe is made using any kind of card with a magnetic stripe...  such as a credit card or a grocery-store loyalty card.  On the newest Carnival ships, they have a more convenient safe system that uses a 4-digit code for entry...  but the Conquest-class ships don't have that.

There is a refrigerator behind the cabinet door under the desk.  There is ONE and only one electrical outlet at the desk...  so if you have multiple electronic items to charge at night, bring a multi-plug adapter.

The king-sized bed is actually two twins pushed together...  and that creates an awkward bump in the middle.  Your cabin steward can separate the beds for you, if you prefer two twins to one king.  The bed sits high enough above the ground that you can store all your suitcases underneath it.

Balcony cabin 6441 on Carnival Freedom

There's a hair dryer located in the top desk drawer.  There are three closets near the door to the hallway.  Two of the closets are set up with hangers, and the third is set up with shelving.  The bathroom is across from the closets.

cabin 6441 bathroom on Carnival Freedom

Carnival stateroom bathrooms aren't luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but they get the job done.  If you want luxury, you should spend the big bucks and stay in The Haven on Norwegian Getaway!  (See this video to learn more.)

I like the magnifying mirror on the wall, and the way they provide body wash and shampoo in the dispensers in the shower.  (Remember to bring conditioner.)  There's one electrical outlet awkwardly located near the ceiling, which you can use to run an electric shaver or to charge an electric toothbrush.

After 20+ cruises with Carnival, I was quite comfortable with the bathroom arrangements and expected the same kind of thing when we booked a cruise on Princess in 2014.  I was shocked to find that Carnival bathrooms were significantly better than the bathrooms in the standard balcony cabins on Princess.  We sailed on two different Princess ships in 2014, in standard balcony cabins, and both times the showers were unacceptably small.  I'm never going to book a standard balcony cabin with Princess again...  I'll have to go with at least a mini suite in order to avoid the super-cramped showers.  If you find that topic interesting, take a look at this video I shot during our Princess Alaska cruise that shows how small the shower is in a standard balcony cabin...  and what you get if you upgrade to a mini-suite.

One trick we've learned in all of our cruising is to bring a small spray-can of a nice smelling deodorizer with us.  We keep it in the bathroom and spray it, as needed.  Some of the cruise ship bathrooms we've been in have had a problem with sewer gas venting in to the bathroom, causing a bad odor.  We did not experience that problem in this particular cabin, but it's always good to have that deodorizer with you if you need it.

Now let's take a look at the best cabin feature of them all...  having your own private balcony!

The balcony on Carnival Freedom stateroom 6441
My wife likes to sit on the balcony and read books on her Kindle

As this is just an inexpensive category 8B stateroom, it's not a gigantic balcony...  but it's plenty large enough for relaxing and enjoying the beautiful views.  Oh my...  the views!  Here's a photo I snapped of the sunrise one morning, from our balcony.

Caribbean sunrise, as seen from our cruise ship balcony
More beautiful sunrise and sunset photos to come...  further down the page!

In our 20+ Carnival cruises, we've tried a wide variety of cabin types:  everything from the cheapest inside cabin that doesn't even have a window, to the most expensive suite on the ship.  (I'm referring to "The Captain's Suite".  Click here for a tour.)

We won't even consider cruising in an "inside" or an "oceanview" cabin anymore.  A balcony cabin is our minimum...  and an aft-wrap is our preferred choice.  We really like having our own quiet place outside where we can sit without listening to background music or other people talking.  It's also great, when the ship is coming in to port, to be able to quickly step outside and see how close we are to being there...  and to watch all the steps involved in docking a big cruise ship.

It's also fun to have a private place to enjoy a cocktail while taking in the ocean view...

margaritas on a Carnival cruise

We don't do a whole lot of drinking -- we're certainly not candidates for the all-inclusive drink packages they offer on the ship -- but every now and then during a Caribbean cruise it's fun to have a cocktail.  It just takes one margarita to loosen me up!  But usually at some point in the cruise, typically on a sea day, I'll go up to the Blue Iguana Cantina and bring back a pitcher of margaritas...  which is enough for each of us to have two, and which is quite a bit cheaper than buying four individual margaritas.  It's nice to enjoy those margaritas out on our own balcony, rather than in a bar setting where you sometimes run in to loud drunk people.

Malibu rum, diet Pepsi, Baja Fresh cup

Speaking of booze...  I have to confess that I also successfully smuggled a small bottle of Malibu Rum aboard.  I like to drink diet cola mixed with a tiny bit of Malibu rum mixed in.  I actually don't do it for the alcohol...  I do it for the coconut flavor.  One of the big cola companies ought to come up with a coconut flavored cola...  because it's really good!  A small 12 ounce bottle of Malibu rum was enough to last me the entire 12-day cruise.  That should give you an idea of how little of it I would mix in with a diet Pepsi each day.  Carnival only serves Coke, and I prefer Pepsi...  so I brought a few diet Pepsis from home for the first few days of the cruise, and then I bought some more in St Maarten.  I also get frustrated with the tiny glasses they use on cruise ships...  so I bring a big plastic cup from my favorite casual Mexican restaurant back home.

Now that I've shown you pictures of our cabin, let's get back to the thing I started talking about before...  the location of our cabin being right above the Alchemy Bar and not too far from the disco.  I certainly never would have chosen this cabin on my own.  I'm always careful to pick a cabin on a floor that is at least two levels away from potential noise sources.  The only reason I ended up in this cabin is because it saved me a thousand dollars off the price of the cabin I had originally booked.  I was also curious about what kind of cabin Carnival would assign to a Platinum-level guest who had booked a guaranteed cabin category.  I assumed that Carnival wouldn't stick a loyal Platinum-level guest in a horrible room.

On the first night of our cruise, I started to worry that I had made the wrong decision.  There was a surprising amount of noise coming up from the Alchemy Bar, directly below us.  I guess the bartender would make some kind of spectacular flaming drink...  because every now and then, we would hear the crowd at the bar erupt in to cheering.  Very late at night, I guess things really got going at the disco, too...  because we started to hear the pounding sound of bass through the floor.  We were far enough away from the disco that it wasn't very loud, but in a totally quiet stateroom at 1 AM, we could definitely hear it.  There was also some kind of weird loud noise that woke us in the middle of the night every night of the cruise.  We never could figure out exactly what it was...  some kind of machinery being operated either on deck five below us, or in the crew-only area in the center of the ship on deck six.  We never could identify the specific source.

For some reason, the noises from the Alchemy Bar and the disco were only a factor during the first few days of the cruise.  After that, we never heard the bass from the disco again and we only very rarely heard the cheering from the Alchemy bar.  Perhaps someone complained?  The unidentified mechanical noise at random times between 1 AM and 4 AM went on all week, though.

In the end, I think I made the right decision to save a thousand dollars on a cabin assignment that was out of my control.  It wasn't a great cabin, and there definitely were noise issues at night, but it wasn't unacceptable.  However, I don't think I'll be booking a guaranteed cabin category ever again.  Too risky!  Eventually, I bet I'd get stuck on top of the disco.

In walking up and down the corridors on deck six during the evenings, we noticed that we got very lucky with our cabin assignment.  Some of the other cabins on deck 6 had some much worse noise problems!  Deck five is a public deck featuring not only the disco, but the casino, too.  There's a rock band that plays in the casino at night, and the amount of noise coming from that band in to some parts of deck six was incredible.  We were so lucky to not get stuck in one of those deck six cabins near the casino!  The other deck six cabins that have a real noise problem are the ones down near the forward elevators.  There's a musical duo that plays in the atrium... and because of the open layout of the atrium, the music comes through very loudly on deck six near the forward elevators.  I imagine that if you're in one of those first 4 or 5 cabins near the elevators on deck six, and you're lying in bed at night while the music is playing in the atrium, it will come right through your cabin door and bother you.

The bottom line is that deck six on a Conquest-class ship is one of the worst cabin locations you could find yourself in.  Beware, and avoid!


Interior Decorations

You've already seen the photos of the very outdated orange color scheme that Carnival used on most of their cabins up until the introduction of the Carnival Magic and Carnival Breeze.   Back when the Conquest-class was the latest thing, the principal ship architect for Carnival was Joe Farcus...  and he wanted to express the fun of a Carnival cruise with a particularly loud style of interior design:  lots of neon, shiny stuff, bright colors and over-the-top craziness that sometimes bordered on tacky.  Luckily, by the time the Carnival Freedom came to be (it was the last of the Conquest-class ships), Farcus had started to tone things down just a little.  You can see the famous Joe Farcus style in the Grand Atrium of the Carnival Freedom, but it's certainly not as brash as some of the other Carnival ships!

Carnival Freedom atrium dancing

Carnival Freedom atrium

To go along with the post-9/11 theme of patriotism, which inspired the ship's name, Farcus used the Statue Of Liberty as his design inspiration for the "Freedom restaurant"... which is the casual buffet restaurant on Lido deck.  You'll find a big Statue Of Liberty overlooking the "sweet spot", and several hundred faces of the Statue Of Liberty integrated in to the light fixtures throughout the restaurant.

Sweet Spot on Carnival Freedom

 

I like the fun, but classy, colors and interior design of the "Chic Restaurant"
also known simply as the Main Dining Room, or MDR...

Chic restaurant on Carnival Freedom

While we're on the subject of the main dining room, take a look at this picture of a "table for two"...  and then let's discuss one of my major grievances!

Carnival Freedom main dining room

<RANT>
Look at tables 610 and 612, which are each considered by the Maître D' to be a "table for two".  Yikes!  Way too close together!  We went to the Chic Restaurant for dinner on the first night of the cruise and specifically asked for a "table for two with some privacy".  We were seated at the middle table of THREE tables that were next to each other in the manner you see in that photo.  It was about the furthest thing from "privacy" that you could get in the restaurant, short of being put at a table for 10.  We never ate in the Chic restaurant again for the duration of the cruise.  Trying to make small talk with the strangers seated next to us is not our idea of a fun dinner.  For some people, that wouldn't be a problem, I'm sure...  but for us it was, especially after specifically asking for a private table.
</RANT>


Entertainment

I mentioned that during 2014 we experimented with cruising on other cruise lines besides Carnival.  So, it had been nearly a year since our last Carnival cruise...  and during that time, they came out with four new "Playlist Productions" shows.  Those are the big song and dance shows that are performed in the big theater at the front of the ship.  We had been getting a little tired of seeing the same shows over and over during our frequent Carnival cruises, so it was a real treat to see four brand-new shows during our cruise on Carnival Freedom.  It was such a big deal, Carnival put out a press release about it.

Of the fours shows, our favorite was "80's Pop To The Max"...  a song and dance show based on some of the biggest hit songs from the 1980s.  I worked as a radio DJ during the 1970s and as the Music Director and Program Director of several radio stations in the 1980s...  so I think I'm in the unique position of being able to judge how good of a job they did in picking the songs for a musical about the songs of the 80s.  I give them a 10 on a 10-scale for song selection in this show!  It was all the right songs from that era...  instantly recognizable to all the passengers on the ship.  I wish they had played such good music as background music in the public areas of the ship!  (More about that, later.)

Here are a few photos I took during "80s Pop To The Max":

Ya Ya Williams on Carnival Freedom
This girl, Ya Ya Williams, did a fantastic Whitney Houston number

 

Carnival Freedom Playlist Productions singers
Easy on the eyes, aren't they?

 

Carnival Freedom 80s Pop To The Max
A standing ovation for the finale

Sorry that I wasn't able to get the entire cast in to that picture!  I was using a big zoom lens and couldn't zoom out any further.  It might surprise you to know that I was actually sitting in the back row of the upper balcony...  one of the furthest seats from the stage!  I like to sit way back there when snapping photos so that my camera and big zoom lens are as unobtrusive as possible.  I was using Canon's big 100-400mm zoom lens, so that I could get shots that wouldn't look like I was shooting from the back row.  If you look at the quality of that first photo of Ya Ya Williams singing the Whitney Houston song, it's amazing to consider that it was shot from the back row, which you can see in this next photo of the theater.  I was sitting in one of those seats under the four windows at the back of the theater.

Victoriana theater on Carnival Freedom
The Victoriana theater...  looking from the front towards the back

Another show that I enjoyed a lot was "Getaway Island".  Any show that features Kenny Chesney's song "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem" is all right with me.  Why wasn't that song -- which is all about taking a vacation to a beach in Mexico -- played at least 20 times a day on a 12-day cruise that finishes up with a stop in Cozumel?!?!  Don't get me started.  I'm saving my rant about the background music played throughout the ship...  for later.

Getaway Island on Carnival Freedom
A musical number from the "Getaway Island" show...  featuring the 1958 hit "Tequila" by The Champs

This brings up something that I find interesting about the "Playlist Production" shows on Carnival.  Back in my high school days, I was fascinated with sound and lighting for the theater.  I volunteered on the stage technical crew of just about every theatrical production during my high school years.  Sound, lighting, and set design for the theater have always been of interest to me.  It's come a long way since I worked behind the scenes on stage shows during the 1970s!

Back in those days, they would paint a physical backdrop.  The best stages had a flying loft over the stage, so that various new backgrounds could be dropped down on to the stage in between acts.  If the stage didn't have a flying loft, you'd push in a physical backdrop from the wings.  It was that way on Carnival stage productions for a long time, too.  Then along came "Playlist Productions" and the advent of digital screens.  Take a look at this shot from "Getaway Island"...  where it's hard to tell where the physical set ends and the digital screen begins.

Carnival Freedom Playlist Productions

A still shot of the digital backdrop doesn't do it justice, though...  as they are video screens, so the production designers are free to unleash their creativity and introduce motion in to the backdrops.  Take a look at this video from "Getaway Island", which really shows how adding motion to the video backdrops can take the fun to a whole new level that we couldn't do in the old days:

Please note that the flickering lines that appear on the video screens in my little video clip are NOT seen by the audience.  That's a function of my video camera not being synched with their video screen.  To the people in the audience, the video screens appear crystal clear.

Another one of the new Playlist Production shows is "Heart Of Soul".  As you might guess from the title, this one features romantic R&B and soul songs.  The songs in the show are from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and Al Green.  Here are a couple of photos:

Carnival Playlist Productions "Heart Of Soul" finale

Carnival Playlist Productions "Heart Of Soul"

It's cool how they coordinated the green lasers with the green lighting and the green "Aurora Borealis" display on the video screen.

The fourth of the four new stage shows was "88 Keys", featuring the music of famous piano players such as Elton John, Billy Joel, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  I didn't shoot any photos or videos of this particular show, as I didn't get there early enough to get a seat with a straight-on view.  I like that you don't need reservations to see a show on Carnival (reservations were required for the shows on the Royal Caribbean and Norwegian ships I was on last year), but it's a good idea to arrive quite a bit early to get the best seats.  "88 Keys" and "Heart Of Soul" also have a pre-show...  which starts 15 minutes before the posted show time...  and the pre-show really just segues right in to the main show, so you need to arrive well in advance of the pre-show to get a proper seat.

Since "88 Keys" is all about piano-centric artists, the pre-show features the entertainer from the ship's piano bar.  He plays a roll in the main portion of "88 Keys", too.  Unfortunately, the piano bar entertainer on the Carnival Freedom, Russell Blues, was the worst piano bar performer I've seen in 20+ cruises...  so this was, by far, the weakest of the four shows.  But I enjoyed all four of the shows...  and it was especially cool that all four were new to me.  My guess is that these are the shows I'll be seeing on all my Carnival cruises for the next several years.

It's fun to see big production shows during a cruise, as I would just never go out to see live theater at home.  The one downside to seeing four Playlist Production shows during a 12-day cruise is that all four shows have the exact same cast.  The songs are different, the sets are different, the costumes are different, the choreography is different...  but it's all the same people each time.  Imagine watching music videos on MTV, but with every music video featuring the exact same performers every time.  (Of course, I am speaking of the days when MTV actually played music videos...  I'm just that old!)


Comedy

Of course, big production shows aren't the only entertainment on the ship!  I love the standup comedy shows on a Carnival cruise.  Having sailed on four different cruise lines in 2014, I can say without question that Carnival is the most dedicated to stand-up comedy.  Normally, on a 7-day Carnival cruise, you'd be able to see performances by four different standup comedians.  Since this was a 12-day cruise, Carnival went all out and featured SIX different comedians over the course of the cruise.

Comedian Jim Brick in the Punchliner comedy club on Carnival Freedom
Comedian Jim Brick

I like that you don't need a reservation to see a comedy show on Carnival.  On those Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruises I did last year, I needed to plan the whole week out and make reservations for everything...  including comedy.  I hate having to plan everything out like that.  I much prefer to just wing it as the week goes on.  The only downside to that is that there's a lot of competition for seats in the comedy club...  so get there early!  My wife brings her Kindle and I bring my tablet to help pass the time...  and we get there 30-45 minutes before show time so we don't get stuck in a bad seat.

A funny story about something I saw in the comedy club...
There was a group of people sailing together on this cruise, and two of them were deaf.  Two other people in their group knew sign language and would do a sign language interpretation for them at shows.  I saw them do this in the main theater one night, and I also saw them do it in the comedy club.  It was so funny for me to watch the sign language interpreter do the signs for dirty jokes!  We were at an R-rated adults-only comedy show, and every time the comedian did a blow-job joke...  I looked over to the female sign language interpreter to see the expression on her face as she signed the joke.  Sorry I didn't get it on video...  you'll just have to imagine it!  It certainly made me laugh.

Besides traditional standup comedy, there were some other funny shows during our cruise.  My favorite featured ventriloquist Phil Hughes...

Comedy ventriloquist Phil Hughes

Phil's show starts with a traditional dummy act, along the lines of what you'd see at a Jeff Dunham show.  The highlight of Phil's act comes later...  when he finds a 13-year-old boy in the audience and brings him up on stage.  The boy is all outgoing and confident...  up until the point where Phil finds an 18-year-old girl in the audience, and brings her up on stage.  The boy's awkwardness when the girl moves a little too close to him was laugh-out-loud funny...  and then things got downright hilarious when it was revealed to the boy that he was going to have to kiss her!  Lucky for you, I got it all on video.  Take a look:

I was laughing so hard that I had trouble holding the camera steady during a couple of parts of the act!


A Special Musical Performance

Because this was a rare 12-day cruise, the entertainment staff put on a couple of special shows to broaden the entertainment mix beyond what is offered on a normal 7-day cruise.  One of the special shows was a guest talent show...  but that didn't end up being much to write home about.  It was pretty much just a glorified version of the Superstar Live karaoke show, in a larger venue.

A special show that was MUCH more interesting to me was appropriately billed as "A Night To Remember".  It featured the Playlist Productions performers backed by the ship's band, known as the Steel City Groove band.  It was held in the smaller International Lounge at the back of the ship rather than in the big Victoriana Theater at the front...  so there was an intimate feeling to the show.  Here are a few pictures:

Carnival Freedom singers

The show was organized by the Dance Captain of the Playlist Productions cast.  While not normally designated as one of the ship's singers, he sang well during this special performance.

The girl with the long brown hair was incredibly beautiful, and I couldn't keep my eyes off of her.  As a photographer, a woman that beautiful must be photographed!

Carnival Freedom adorable brunette
I bet she has never had any trouble meeting men!

Something I found interesting about this "Night To Remember" concert was the song selection.  I mentioned earlier that I was Music Director and Program Director at a couple of different radio stations in the 1970s and 80s.  Choosing the right music for your audience has always been something I've understood.  I laugh when watching American Idol on the occasions where someone shoots themself in the foot by choosing the wrong song to sing.

I have a feeling that when these singers first started planning this "Night To Remember" show for the unusual 12-day repositioning cruise, they approached it as a unique opportunity to put on a special show...  like they would if they could invite a bunch of their friends over for a one-time concert.  The problem is that their friends are probably 25 years old and the median age of the passengers on this cruise was probably 65!  I've been on a lot of cruises...  but this was definitely the oldest group of passengers I've ever sailed with.  The fact that it was a 12-day cruise in the middle of the school year scared off almost all of the families and younger people.  One could have easily imagined these passengers belonging on a Holland America cruise...  not Carnival.  So, it was an audience full of geezers...  and that requires a special kind of song selection.  A few of the singers were on target...  doing songs by Anne & Nancy Wilson of Heart.  They also got the closing number right...  picking "Mustang Sally", a geezer classic.  But the majority of the songs they sang were totally wrong for the audience they were singing to.  I think everyone in the audience felt the passion and the fun of the performances, though.

Ya Ya Williams performs on Carnival Freedom

While we're on the subject of musical choices for a geezer cruise, we've got to discuss the background music that plays throughout the public areas of the ship...  especially the songs they play in the lounges and theaters before a show.  I don't know exactly who picks the music that's played...  perhaps it's the Cruise Director or someone else on the entertainment staff...  or perhaps it's actually someone back at the home office in Florida.  Whoever it is...  we need to talk.  When picking the music for a 12-day repositioning cruise that attracts a passenger demographic in the Holland America range...  especially a cruise full of Texas rednecks, since the ship was being repositioned to Galveston...  don't play rap music, urban music, European music, or music that was a hit in the last 10 years.  This is not what this audience craves.  If you don't believe me, go to a performance of Superstar Live and listen to the songs that the passengers choose to karaoke to.  George Strait, Jimmy Buffet, Garth Brooks, Michael Buble, Neil Diamond, Chicago, The Eagles, Martina McBride, James Taylor, Shania Twain...  that's what you ought to be playing.  I get that it's The Fun Ship and you want the music to be fun.  But it's got to be fun music that is recognizable to your audience.  And on this 12-day cruise, at least, your audience was REALLY old and really Texan!

Don't mess with Texas women


These Carnival Guys Are Smart, Really Smart!

So, I've just finished chewing out the folks at Carnival for failing at music selection.  Let's flip it around and look at some of the smart moves they've made over the last ten years or so.  They've actually made quite a few.  This is the stuff that keeps me coming back!

Guys Burger Joint The Ringer
"The Ringer" from Guy's Burger Joint

At the top of the list would have to be Carnival's tie-in with Guy Fieri of the Food Network.  That was a genius move.  Those Guy Burgers are FANTASTIC.  My favorite is "The Ringer"...  which has an onion ring on it.  The fries are to die for, too.  The challenge going forward is to deploy Guy's Burger Joint to every ship in the fleet as quickly as possible...  because it's a real winner.

On Cruise Critic, there are probably 100 positive comments about Guys Burger Joint for every one oddball that says it sucks. My guess is that the few people that say Guy Burgers suck didn't try "The Ringer".

We've already talked about the moves Carnival has made since the Carnival Magic to add some sophistication to the interior design of the ships...  and to get away from those gawdy atriums and orange colored cabins.  The Carnival Breeze is really beautiful!

Carnival Breeze atrium
The atrium of the Carnival Breeze

Developing their own destinations such as Grand Turk, Mahogany Bay, Amber Cove, and Half Moon Cay was a very smart move.  I would so much rather sit on Carnival's private beach at Mahogany Bay rather than sit on a public beach and get hassled by vendors and beggars.

Lately, they've started to add some longer voyages to the mix.  For a while there, the 15-day Hawaii was just about the only longer-than-8-days cruise Carnival offered.  Sprinkling in a few 12-14 day Caribbean cruises was a smart move.

Making a big commitment to standup comedy and offering 4 different comedians on a 7-day cruise totally fits in with the whole Fun Ship thing.  Very good move.

The Green Thunder Waterslide!  Oh my... now THAT'S a great waterslide!  I hope that whoever came up with that one got a big promotion.  But why do you keep sending the ships with Green Thunder waterslides to Australia?  Carnival needs to put Green Thunder slides on many more ships in the fleet.  Start with the Conquest-class ships...  as those waterslides seem really dated now.

Finally, there's the addition of the Serenity Retreat on almost every ship in the fleet.  Great move!  (But why doesn't Carnival Conquest have one?!?)  Here's a photo of part of the Serenity Retreat on Carnival Freedom.  It's actually so large, and on two different levels, that you'd never be able to get a photo of the whole thing without a drone or a helicopter!

Carnival Freedom Serenity Retreat

I do have a suggestion for the Carnival Management folks who are in charge of future ship design:

Putting the Serenity Retreat at the back of the ship (like was done on the Spirit-class and Fantasy-class) works out much better than putting it at the front of the ship.  At the front of the ship, it gets REALLY windy.  The Serenity Retreat is almost unusable on a lot of sea days...  just too windy!  Another good thing about having the Serenity Retreat at the back of the ship is that it's isolated from the noise of the mid-ship pool.  There's nothing serene about the Serenity Deck if it's located too close to the big sound system for the mid-ship pool area.

Royal Caribbean actually came up with a good solution to the wind problem.  They have something on their Oasis-class ships that is similar to the Serenity Retreat...  but they call it the Solarium, because they've surrounded it with glass that blocks the wind.  Take a look at this photo of Royal Caribbean's solarium, which I snapped during a cruise on Allure Of The Seas last year.

Allure Of The Seas Solarium
The solarium on Royal Caribbean's "Allure Of The Seas"

See how they've protected this adults-only quiet area at the front of the ship from the wind by using big glass panels that go way up in to the air?  The area is not fully enclosed in glass, which helps keep it from getting TOO hot...  but the glass goes up high enough to totally block the wind.  This is a great design that Carnival should steal if they want to keep putting the Serenity Retreats at the front of the ship.  Notice that Royal Caribbean has also used live plants and a water feature to make their solarium much more serene than Carnival's serenity retreat.


Swimming Pools, Jacuzzis, & the Water Slide

Carnival Freedom has three swimming pools, eight Jacuzzis, and a waterslide.
Here are a few pictures of them...

Carnival Freedom splash party Lido pool
A "splash party" at the mid-ship pool.
Don't sit near the pool during this event if you want to stay dry!

The mid-ship pool on Lido deck is pretty much the heart and soul of the ship.  There is always something going on here!  It's a lively, fun place...  but also usually noisy and crowded.  This is the place for fun-seekers, not lovers of peace & quiet.  Several nights during the cruise, the loungers are removed from around the pool and a deck party takes place...  usually around 11 PM.  By then, the geezers are in bed and the party people are all that remain.

Carnival Freedom deck party

 

During the day, they'll quite often put a rock concert on the big screen:

Carnival Freedom big screen television

At night, this becomes the dive-in movie theater where you can watch full-length movies.

 

Here are some folks watching a movie one night on Lido deck...

Carnival Freedom Lido pool at night
It was so warm that some kids were still swimming at that hour

 

The underwater pool lights change color over time...
Carnival Freedom swimming pool at night
If you sit and watch the pool lighting for about ten minutes,
you'll see it slowly cycle through several different colors

 

It's rare to see the Lido pool empty like this...

Carnival Freedom Lido deck

I was only able to get that shot of an empty Lido pool because I'm a Platinum-level guest and therefore I get priority boarding.  I was one of the first onboard on embarkation day, and snapped this photo of the mid-ship pool before the main crowd arrived.

There's probably not a cruise ship in the world that doesn't feature a bar next to the main swimming pool...  but on Carnival ships which have received the Funship 2.0 upgrades, there are two:  The Blue Iguana Tequila Bar, and the Red Frog Rum bar.

Carnival Freedom Red Frog Rum Bar

In this next shot, taken at sunset, you can see the two Jacuzzis that are located on Lido deck near the mid-ship pool.  There's another Jacuzzi and a small swimming pool one level up, near the base of the waterslide.

Carnival Freedom at sunset

 

Here's a photo that shows the pool and Jacuzzi at the base of the waterslide:

Carnival Freedom pool, Jacuzzi, and waterslide

Due to their location at the base of the waterslide, this pool and Jacuzzi tend to get taken over by kids on most cruises.  But since this 12-day repositioning cruise attracted a demographic that was quite a bit older than the normal Carnival crowd, I actually saw adults in them quite a few times.

 

Here's a look at the top of the waterslide:
Carnival Freedom water slide

The waterslide on Carnival Freedom is pretty tame...  bordering on lame.  Kids under the age of 14 will think it's the greatest thing since Disney Radio, but adults aren't going to get much of a thrill from it.

Some of the newer Carnival ships, such as Carnival Breeze and Carnival Magic, have better waterslides than the ones on the Conquest-class ships.  The best waterslides in the whole fleet, however, are on Carnival Legend and Carnival Spirit.  They have the "Green Thunder" water slide...  which is a vertical-drop waterslide that will scare the heck out of you for the first two seconds of the ride!  Here's a video I made about the Green Thunder slide on the Carnival Spirit:

By the way, that video of the Green Thunder water slide went viral on YouTube and has been viewed over 37 MILLION times!  It's is, by far, the most viewed YouTube video about a cruise ship.  I'm very proud of that video.  Not many videos get 37 million views on YouTube!

Carnival certainly has Royal Caribbean beat when it comes to water slides. Royal Caribbean doesn't have any on their ships, as far as I know. Same for Princess. So, that's a clear advantage for Carnival when it comes to families cruising with kids.

However, there are two cruise ships that have got Carnival beat in the area of water slides. Those two ships are the Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Breakaway. They've really set the bar high for waterslides on cruise ships... by not only having better waterslides than Carnival, but lots more of them... which reduces the lines during peak times. So, if you've got kids that are totally in to waterslides, check out Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Breakaway. It will be interesting to see if Carnival ups the ante on waterslides with their next generation of ships.

My favorite Jacuzzis and swimming pool are the ones at the aft end of Lido deck, past the buffet and the aft elevators.  I like them because they're for adults-only...  it's very quiet and relaxing back in that area...  and because of that sliding glass dome that can be opened or closed depending on the weather.

Here's a shot of the aft pool area on embarkation day, before the crowd had arrived:

Carnival Freedom aft pool

The statue of the skinny girl in the bikini is a weird design idea from the mind of Joe Farcus.  He seems to like to put a little statue of some kind near the swimming pools on ships he designs.  Some of them can be quite weird!  If you look real carefully at this next photo, of the Carnival Spirit docked in Acapulco in 2009, you'll see a weird bird statue that looks a little like a vulture... hovering over the pool area, waiting to scavenge the bodies of any dead geezers...

Carnival Spirit in Acapulco Bay Lido Deck at night

 

Looking down from the Panorama deck, with the sliding glass dome open on a warm night, you get a good view of the two Jacuzzis that sit right next to the aft pool...

Carnival Freedom aft pool at night with dome open

Just like the lights in the mid-ship pool, the underwater lights at the aft pool will change color over time.  If you sit out there at night for about ten minutes, you'll see the color cycle from green to blue to red and back again.

Another thing to notice in that previous picture is all those tables and chairs just on the other side of the Jacuzzis.  Notice that the Panorama deck overhead provides cover over these tables and chairs...  so even with the dome open, it's a covered area.  There are huge picture windows at the back of this area, so you have a fantastic view of the trailing wake behind the ship.  This is one of my favorite places to sit with a Pepsi or to enjoy a frozen yogurt cone from the nearby soft-serve ice cream and yogurt machines.  Sometimes Kellyn and I would sit at one of these tables and read a book for a while...  just to give our cabin steward some time to clean our room.

A funny story...
I found it especially ironic one day when Kellyn and I were sitting at one of those tables by the Jacuzzis and I noticed the guy at the next table was reading the bible.  It was ironic because I was reading a book, too...  Fifty Shades Of Grey.  It's nice that we're all free to worship in our own ways!

There are also two Jacuzzis up in the Serenity Retreat at the front of the ship:

Carnival Freedom Serenity Retreat

While there are a total of eight Jacuzzis on the Carnival Freedom, most people will only ever find seven of them.  That's because this next one is hidden fairly well, in a place that few lazy vacationing cruise ship passengers ever go... the gymnasium!

Secret hidden Jacuzzi in the Carnival Freedom gym

That Jacuzzi sits in a glass-enclosed room between the gym and the locker rooms.  The funny thing is that it's REALLY tricky to get to!  You can stand in the gym and look through the glass right at this Jacuzzi just a few feet away... and you still might not be able to figure out how to get to it.  There's no door through the glass wall... you can only access it from the locker rooms.  I actually made a YouTube video about secret places like this on Carnival Freedom's sister ship, the Carnival Glory.  Since the Glory and the Freedom are nearly identical, let's take a look at the video... and whenever I say "Glory", just think "Freedom".


Kellyn's Favorite Game

My wife gets a big kick out of playing air hockey.  It seems a little unusual for a woman in her 50s, but I just roll with it!  On the rare occasions during a cruise when we get a little bored, we'll head to the arcade and play a game.  Just about every cruise ship we've ever been on has had an air hockey table in their arcade.  On this cruise, we were delighted to find that they had an upgraded type of air hockey game that we had never seen before.  It's called PacMan Smash...

Pac Man Smash air hockey

It plays pretty much like normal air hockey, with one fun twist.  At random times during the game, 20 smaller pucks are all released on to the table at the same time.  So, you'll just be playing a normal game of air hockey with a standard sized puck, and then all of a sudden with no warning 20 smaller pucks drop down on to the table.  It gets crazy!

Kellyn won every single game of PacMan Smash that we played during the 12-day cruise.*


The Cruise Director

Carnival Cruise Director Jen Baxter
Jen Baxter, Cruise Director of the Carnival Freedom

Jen did a fine job as CD.  Having a good Cruise Director is important to me.  I've sailed with the best (Jaime Deitsch on Carnival Sunshine) and I've suffered through a few that really drove me up the wall.  (Hello, JC Sanchez on the Norwegian Getaway, just to name one!)  Anyway, we knew we were in for a good experience on this cruise as soon as we learned that Jen Baxter would be the CD.  We've sailed with her before...  years ago, on the Carnival Spirit.  I'm glad to see that she's still with Carnival.

Jen Baxter Carnival Cruise Director

It will be interesting to see who Carnival picks to be the Cruise Director of their new ship in 2016, the Carnival Vista.  Seeing who they assign to a brand new ship tells you a lot about who they think their best employees are.  Let's see if they think as highly of Jaime Deitsch as I do!

Carnival morning show with Jen Baxter

Jen does a TV talk show in the morning that is broadcast on the big screen by the mid-ship pool and is also available on the TVs in all the staterooms.  We didn't have anything going on one morning, so we decided to go the the Victoriana theater and watch Jen do the show.  As part of the show, she asked some trivia questions to the audience...  and one of them was about a song from the 1970s.  Since I was the Music Director of a couple of radio stations back in the old days, that was as easy for me as shooting fish in a barrel.  My prize was one of those "solid gold (plastic) ship on a stick" thingies you see on her table.

Carnival ship on a stick with award winning cruiser Jim Zim

I shared the photo with my friends back at home and joked that they should all now refer to me as "the award-winning cruiser, Jim Zim".

While it was a stroke of luck to have Jen Baxter as our Cruise Director on Carnival Freedom, we didn't get as lucky when it came to our cabin steward.  Unfortunately, he and his assistant just didn't work with our schedule at all.  A good cabin steward will pay attention to your schedule and work within it.  For example, if they notice you tend to go out for breakfast at 7:30 AM every day, they'll make a point to clean your cabin at that time.  But this time, we had one of those cabin stewards that works from one end of their assigned block of cabins down to the other end...  working on the cabins pretty much in order as they moved further and further down the hallway.  That's simple for them, but it was super inconvenient for us.  They paid no attention to our comings and goings at all.  We sometimes left for hours at a time, only to come back to our cabin and find out that they hadn't gotten to our cabin yet.  So, we'd have to go off and find something else to do for a while.  Very inconvenient for us, so no extra gratuity for those two.  And yes, in case you're wondering, we ALWAYS put out the cruisin' sign when we left the cabin during the hours the cabin stewards were on duty.

In spite of his shortcomings, our cabin steward was quite good at making towel animals...

Carnival cruise frog towel animal

Carnival cruise towel animal

 

My favorite Carnival Freedom crew member was not the Cruise Director and it certainly wasn't our stateroom steward...  I'd have to say it was Ram, the guy that made an omelet for me every morning.  He was friendly, learned my name, and had good English skills.  Oh yeah, he made a great omelet, too!

Ram omelet chef for Carnival

Carnival cruise breakfast omelet

In case you're wondering about the Lawry's seasoned salt,
I bring that from home to enhance the taste of eggs and potatoes at breakfast


The Steakhouse

We had a very nice experience in the Sun King steakhouse one night.  The meal was delicious, and the service was excellent.  I've had some good experiences and some bad experiences in Carnival steakhouses over the years...  but this was one of the better ones.

Here's the steak that I had:

Sun King steakhouse on Carnival Freedom

Kellyn had the surf & turf...

Surf and turf on Carnival Freedom
Steak and lobster

Sorry about the lousy quality of the pictures of the food from the steakhouse.  They keep the lighting pretty dim in there to set a classy and romantic mood.  I didn't want to disturb anyone by using a flash.

There were two things about our meal in the steakhouse that really impressed me.  The first one was Gabrielle, one of the servers.  She was very friendly and pleasant.  I liked the way she spoke to us...  it was just right.

The second thing was the fact that they gave us some privacy from the other passengers who were dining there.  We got there right when they opened at 5:30 PM, and we were the very first customer of the night.  Later, as other couples showed up for their dinner, they kept a very large separation between all the couples.  I've been in restaurants where there have been a very small amount of people in a very large restaurant...  and sometimes they put all the people together in one section to make it easy for the servers to keep track of all the customers at the same time.  I hate that!  If the restaurant has lots of room, spread the people out so they all have some privacy!  That's exactly what they did in the Sun King steakhouse on Carnival Freedom...  and I really appreciated it.  We had a very nice dining experience with plenty of privacy from the other passengers who were there.

I do wish Carnival would offer some better cuts of meat in their steakhouses, though.  Would it kill them to get some Porterhouse steaks, or some T-bones?  I also think the $35 per person upcharge is too high.  I can definitely get a better steak dinner for two at my favorite local steakhouse for less than $70.  My final complaint about the steakhouse is that it drives me crazy when they serve a good-sized steak with a teeny-tiny serving of potatoes.  I ended up asking for two additional servings of mashed potatoes just to have enough to go along with my steak.  Each serving was a ridiculously small size...  approximately 4 or 5 spoonfuls!

But in spite of a few areas for improvement...  I enjoyed our dinner at the steakhouse, and I walked away full and satisfied.


Fish & Chips

Carnival cruise Fish And Chips
Fish & Chips with Bouillabaisse

There's a fish & chips restaurant on deck ten that a lot of people never find because it's somewhat hidden.  It's one of the places I featured in my "secret places" video I made on the Carnival Glory.  If you're in to seafood, and you ever find yourself on a Conquest-class ship, make a point to check out the Fish & Chips restaurant on deck ten.


Sunrises and Sunsets

As a photographer, I always enjoy the photo opportunities on a Caribbean cruise.  Sunrises and sunsets are almost always spectacular.  I slept through a few sunrises and was busy eating dinner during a few of the sunsets...  but here are a few I did get pictures of:

 

Watching the Today Show at sunrise on the Carnival Freedom
Out of all the cruise ship sunrise photos I've ever taken, this has got to be one of my favorites.
The colors are amazing, and I was lucky that the timing worked just right to get the Today Show logo on the big screen!

 

Sunrise off the coast of Aruba in the southern Caribbean
A beautiful sunrise, as seen from our balcony as the ship was approaching Aruba

 

Caribbean sunset
Sunset

 

Carnival Freedom at sunset
Sunset as seen from the Panorama deck

 

Carnival Freedom jogging track at dawn
The jogging track at sunrise

 

Sunrise over the Caribbean
I like shooting sunrise photos from our balcony because I don't have to be fully dressed!

 

Sunrise over the Caribbean
Are you bored with sunrise pictures yet?
It was a 12-day cruise...  there were a lot of beautiful sunrises and sunsets!

 


Smoking

Last year, Carnival tightened up their smoking policy and completely banned all smoking on stateroom balconies.  This was fantastic news to us, because on one of our previous Carnival cruises we had a balcony cabin downwind from some chain smokers.  It was almost impossible for us to use the balcony we had paid for because of those darned smokers next door.  After that incident, I started booking Spa Balcony cabins, because there was a no-smoking policy on those balconies...  or aft-wrap balconies because any smoke from the neighbors would blow away from us.  Anyway, thanks to Carnival finally banning smoking on all balconies, we don't have to worry about that now.

As you might imagine, the new ban on smoking on balconies really pissed off some of Carnival's passengers who are addicted to smoking!  To appease them just a bit, Carnival agreed to set up a nice area on deck where smoking would not only be allowed, but which would be set up with comfortable seating and even a few umbrellas.  This new area is up on Panorama deck, near the big screen TV at mid-ship, on the starboard side.  Walk through there at your own risk...  because it stinks of cigarette smoke!

Carnival Freedom smoking area

<RANT>
If you've ever seen the dissected lung of a smoker, or talked to someone with Emphysema, you would never allow yourself to pick up this deadly habit.  It makes about as much sense as cutting off your own arm.  I understand why people would smoke cigarettes 100 years ago...  but to do it in this day and age when the health effects are known and undisputable...  that just amazes me.
</RANT>


Our 1st Port Of Call:  St Maarten

From the very first time I saw YouTube videos of the planes landing above the beach at Princess Juliana airport in St Maarten...  I've wanted to go there and see it for myself.

Maho Beach, St Maarten

I actually made it to St Maarten last year during a cruise on the Norwegian Getaway.  I chickened out about seeing the planes land at Maho Beach, however, because I would have had to venture out on my own and take a taxi all the way across the island to get there.  Even though I'm an experienced cruiser, I still prefer to do a ship-sponsored shore excursion rather than heading out on my own.  NCL didn't offer any shore excursions to Maho Beach, so I didn't get to see it last year during my time on St Maarten.

But this year, on Carnival Freedom, I was determined to finally see Maho Beach and the famous low-flying planes.  I got my courage up and took that taxi ride that I had been worrying about.  It turns out that I had nothing to worry about at all.  It couldn't have been much easier.  All we had to do when we got off the ship was head out to the front of the terminal, where there's a taxi stand full of many other people that -- just like me -- wanted to venture off to somewhere at the other end of the island.  The taxis were all lined up in a big line, just waiting for passengers.  Now when you say "taxi" on St Maarten...  that could mean anything from a four-person sedan all the way up to a 15-passenger van.  And they don't use meters!  Everything is a fixed rate, based on where you want to go.  The more people that the taxi can take at one time, the lower the rate per person.

We were lucky enough, when we got to the front of the line, to get matched up with a bunch of other people who all wanted to go to the same place...  and so we all piled in to a 15-person van and we all got the benefit of a lower per-person rate.  Kellyn and I were in the far back seat of this big 15-passenger van...  and I have to admit that I had a little bit of a claustrophobia panic attack when I started imagining the van getting in to an accident and I was stuck in the far back seat.  But I got over it, put on my vacation smile, and soon enough we were at the world-famous Sunset Bar & Grill at Maho Beach.

Sunset Bar And Grill, Maho Beach, St Maarten

We had a wonderful day at Maho Beach.  The weather was absolutely perfect, and I got to swim and snorkel as well as have a lot of fun watching the planes land!  It was mostly small planes in the morning, and that gave me the opportunity to practice and refine my technique.  Shooting pictures of the planes landing is way harder than I imagined!  Those things move fast, so it takes some practice to get the framing and the focus just right.  Also, I had to experiment with finding the right location to shoot from.  Would it look more dramatic if I shot from the height of the restaurant's deck...  or from down at water level. 

Maho Beach, St Maarten
A test shot from beach level, with a small private plane making a fairly high and un-dramatic approach.

During one attempt at shooting while standing in the surf, I was paying so much attention to the planes that I stopped thinking about the surf...  and promptly got knocked down by a wave.  My camera very nearly went in to the water.  I was just barely able to hold it up above the water line as I tried to get back on my feet and regain my composure.  (And hope no one saw what happened and was laughing at me!)

Eventually, I figured out that it was not only safer to shoot from the restaurant's deck, but it also provided a more dramatic angle to the photos.  Here's the best picture I got that day, after much practice:

Jet landing at Maho Beach St Maarten

There's more to a day at Maho Beach than just watching the planes land.  There's food and drink at the Sunset Bar & Grill.  Also, the beach itself is really nice...  with warm water and nice sand.  You can rent a pair of loungers under an umbrella for $20...  a good way to prevent a sunburn.  We saw a LOT of people get burned on that beach that day!  Also, bring some snorkeling gear.  There's some rocks near the restaurant and the fish hang out there.

But the other cool thing besides watching plane landings is watching planes takeoff!  The end of the runway is right next to the beach, and the big jets sit there at the end of the runway and power up their engines before they finally take off the brakes and head down the runway.  Those jet engines send a powerful blast of wind on to the beach...  blowing sand everywhere, as well as blowing away all lightweight items such as hats, papers, and empty plastic bottles.  It's crazy to watch!  I didn't catch it on video, but this video from YouTube shows it very well...  although the beach was certainly less crowded in the video than on the day I visited!

I experienced something very unusual that day at Maho Beach.  Kellyn and I were sitting up at the Sunset Bar & Grill having a very nice lunch and watching the planes land.  It had been mostly small planes up until that point.  Finally, there was a fairly large commercial jet that was ready to take off.  From our perch up on the patio of the restaurant, we had a really nice view of it.  It was a spectacular takeoff, with the big jet engines blowing all sorts of stuff from the crowded beach in to the water.  I had seen it a whole bunch of times in YouTube videos, but seeing the real thing was so much more intense.  I became overwhelmed by it all as this unusual experience unfolded in front of me...  not overwhelmed by jet blast or sand or anything like that...  I was way out of the line of fire.  I was emotionally overwhelmed by it all.  I had wanted to come to this place for so many years.  It was so much more spectacular in person than it was on YouTube.  I literally just started to cry.  Really!  It was so overwhelming.  Who cries at the sight of a plane taking off?!?!  So, it's confirmed...  I'm officially weird!

After a wonderful day on on Maho Beach, we took a taxi back to the cruise ship.  One of the things that worried me about venturing off on our own rather than being on a ship-sponsored shore excursion was the concern that we might get ourselves over to Maho Beach and then not be able to find a taxi to take us back to the ship.  It turns out I was worried over nothing.  Look at those pictures of Maho Beach, and all the people there.  About half of them came from the cruise ships, and all eventually needed a ride back.  There were taxis EVERYWHERE.  We lucked out and found a taxi driver that was driving a nearly-new Toyota Highlander.  Most comfortable taxi ride, ever...  and a vacation day that I will not soon forget!


Our 2nd Port Of Call:  St Lucia

Carnival Freedom in St Lucia
Carnival Freedom docked in St Lucia

We have some friends that frequently vacation in St Lucia... and today I could see why!  It's a really beautiful place, and again we had some fantastic weather.  You have to remember that this was February...  and while we were swimming and snorkeling and basically living the dream...  the folks in the midwest and eastern parts of the USA, not to mention our friends in Canada, were shoveling snow and freezing their butts off!

The ship docked in Castries, which is the capital and largest city on St Lucia.  When I researched Castries on the Internet, I found a pretty cool picture of the port area.  It's a gigantic high-resolution panoramic picture...  too large to display here.  Click here to open it up in a new browser tab or window.  Remember, it's very high resolution...  so once it opens, find your browser's zoom controls so that you can zoom in and out of the picture to take a better look at it.

For our day in St Lucia, we chose to go on a snorkeling excursion that Carnival calls the "Catamaran Cruise To The Pitons".  The Pitons are two unusual rock formations that you've probably seen in pictures many times.  They are to St Lucia as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco.  Iconic.

As a photographer, I figured it would be good to take a photo-op to the Pitons.  Plus, there'd be a stop along the way for snorkeling... and I love to snorkel.

Catamaran Cruise To The Pitons
Good times and happy people on the catamaran cruise to the Pitons

Our snorkel break was in Anse Cochon Cove... and it was some of the best snorkeling I've ever experienced.  What I liked about it was that most of the people who were on this excursion were not interested in snorkeling... they just stayed on the catamaran.  Only a very small number of us jumped in to the water with our snorkel gear, and that's a great way to snorkel.  Sometimes I've been on snorkeling excursions with large numbers of people snorkeling all at the same time in the same place.  Too crowded!  You ended up kicking people with your flippers, and getting kicked, too.

So, there were just a few of us snorkeling at Anse Cochon Cove...  and we all spread out.  It was like having the whole place to myself.  Under the water, it sure was beautiful... lots of plant life and marine life.  Like an idiot, I somehow managed to forget to bring my underwater camera with me that day.  So, you don't get to see how pretty it was down there.  Sorry!

I found a picture on the Internet that shows a nice aerial view of Anse Cochon Cove...

Anse Cochon Beach in St Lucia
Source:  CNTraveller.com

See that resort on the cliffs overlooking Anse Cochon Cove?  What a great location!  I'm going to try to remember that one...  in case someday I have the chance to meet up with my friends that vacation in St Maarten.  Who knows...  maybe someday I'll find myself spending a few nights in one of those bungalows overlooking Anse Cochon Cove.

I like that the bungalows are up on the cliff, which would give them a beautiful view...  but also that there's a path leading down to the beach.  The resort has loungers and umbrellas and even a bar down at the beach.  Paradise found!

Anyway, back to the story of our shore excursion...

Unfortunately, when we finally made our way down to the Pitons, the clouds and the position of the sun created some unfavorable lighting conditions and it was impossible to get a very memorable photo.  Here's one, shot from the catamaran, that at least helps you see what the Pitons are...

The Pitons in St Lucia

On the way back from the Pitons, the catamaran made a little diversion in to Marigot Bay...  just so we could take a quick look at this beautiful spot on St Lucia.  I shot a bunch of photos of beautiful Marigot Bay, but I won't bore you with more than just this one:

Marigot Bay, St Lucia

Does that look like a little slice of paradise, or what?  If I'm not mistaken, that's the Marigot Beach Club in the photo.  I wouldn't mind spending some time there!

Oh!  I almost forgot to share a video with you that I shot this morning as our cruise ship approached St Lucia.  It's a time lapse video, and there are several unusual things about it.  It's interesting how the video appears almost black & white at the beginning, due to clouds and the direction of the sun... and by the end of the video all the colors come alive, not unlike something out of The Wizard Of Oz.

Notice the arrival of the pilot boat about 13 seconds in to the video. After dropping off the local pilot (who helps guide the ship in to port safely) you see the pilot boat leave a few seconds later.

A little more than a minute in to the video, the Captain turns on the side thrusters in order to spin the ship 180 degrees around. You can see the sand that is kicked up by the thrusters. Once the ship has spun around, it's in the right position for an easy straight-out departure later in the day.

Here's the video:

This was shot from the balcony of our cabin.  The metal structure you see in the upper left corner of the video is simply the edge of the next deck above us.


Our 3rd Port Of Call:  Curacao

Cabana Beach, Curacao

We took the "Beach Day" excursion in Curacao and had a very nice day at Cabana Beach.  On the bus ride to the beach, I was able to snap this photo of the Carnival Freedom:

Carnival Freedom cruise ship in Curacao
Notice how colorful all the buildings are in Curacao!

The thing about Curacao is that it sits just off shore of the coast of Venezuela.  So when you're in Curacao, you are way down deep in the southern Caribbean...  practically in South America...  and not all that far from the equator.  If you want to be about as warm as you can be in February, without actually flying to the Southern Hemisphere, this is the place.

Of course, if you want to experience the warmest ocean water of the year, you'd have to come here in August or September.  Hurricane season!  It's the warm water temps that feed those hurricanes and allow them to form.  No danger of hurricanes in February, that's for sure...  but the water was still plenty warm enough for snorkeling.  Today I successfully remembered to bring my underwater camera with me...  and was able to get a pretty good shot of a school of fish that was hanging out along the breakwater.

a school of fish at Cabana beach in Curacao

We also spotted an interesting creature on the land, too...

Iguana or some other type of lizard
I have no idea if this is an iguana or just some other kind of lizard.  It was fun to see him, though!

At Cabana Beach, they had a nice little area set aside for those of us on the Carnival shore excursion.  We found a couple of loungers and pulled them under the shade of a palm tree so that we wouldn't get sunburned.

Carnival Beach Day excursion at Cabana Beach, Curacao

It was a very nice place.  There were bathrooms, a snack shack, and a bar with the most delicious margaritas I've ever had in my entire life!  Unfortunately, we didn't discover the margaritas until it was just a few minutes before our bus would be taking us back to the ship.  It would have put an entirely different spin on the day if we had discovered those margaritas a few hours earlier!


Our 4th Port Of Call:  Aruba

We did the "Sailaway Snorkel & Beach Cruise" excursion in Aruba.  It was similar to our excursion in St Lucia in that we headed off on a catamaran and did some snorkeling.

Sailaway Snorkel & Beach Cruise excursion in Aruba

I like these catamaran snorkeling excursions because it's a great way to do a little snorkeling and also to have a nice day sailing on a catamaran.  I don't have any interest in ever owning a little sailboat of my own...  but it's nice to have someone else take me sailing on their boat every once in a while!

Sailaway Snorkel & Beach Cruise excursion in Aruba

As we passed Eagle Beach on our way to the snorkel site, I snapped this picture which really shows off the beauty of the beaches on Aruba...

Eagle Beach, Aruba

At the snorkel site, there was an incredibly large school of fish!  Luckily, I had my underwater camera, and caught it on video:

Once we finished snorkeling, they opened the catamaran's bar and started serving various beers and rum drinks.  As you can imagine, everyone had a lot more fun on the catamaran ride back from the snorkel site than they did on the way there!  But our shore excursion was still not over!  The catamaran docked at Pelican Pier and we were all treated to lunch at a restaurant on the pier.  It was a darned good lunch of barbecue ribs and chicken.  After lunch, we had some time to spend on the beach.  While Kellyn and I were sitting in loungers in the shade at the beach, a stray dog came up and hung out with us for a while!  Since we are definitely dog people, his visit was very welcome.

a stray dog on the beach in Aruba

Eventually, it was time to go back to the ship.  Rather than taking us back by catamaran, they had a nice air conditioned bus...  which got us back quickly.  We opted to be dropped off in town, rather than at the ship...  and had a nice little walk around their commercial district.

I really enjoyed this shore excursion.  Look for it if you ever take a cruise to Aruba!  It's called the "Sailaway Snorkel & Beach Cruise" excursion.


Our 5th Port Of Call:  Cozumel, Mexico

Carnival Freedom and Carnival Breeze in Cozumel, Mexico

It took two sea days at nearly full speed to get from Aruba in the deep southern Caribbean up to Cozumel.  With all that northward travel, we managed to get in to some slightly cooler weather.  While our friends back home in San Luis Obispo county, California, were experiencing an unusual February heat wave with temperatures in the 80s, the high temperature in Cozumel on this day was only about 75 degrees.

Kellyn and I decided that this was a little too cool for a snorkeling day or even a beach day, so we just had a very lazy morning on the ship followed by a quick dash ashore for lunch.  While we were lounging around on the ship, the Carnival Breeze pulled in right next to us.  I caught it on a time-lapse video from our balcony.  You'll see the Carnival Breeze arrive at about 28 seconds in to the video:

It was cool to see the Carnival Breeze again!  We did back-to-back cruises on her a couple of years ago...  and we'll be on her again for another B2B later this year.  She's our very favorite Carnival ship.

By the way, if you're wondering how I create those time-lapse videos...
It's actually pretty simple.  They're created with my Android phone, using an App called Framelapse Pro.  The trick to making it work is to mount the phone securely on something so that it is stable during the entire time you shoot.  All you need is this neat little gadget from Amazon.com which makes it easy to clamp your cell phone to something secure, like the railing of a cruise ship...  and you're all set to go. 

In the video, you may have noticed some pier construction.  Carnival owns that particular pier, and is building a second segment on to it so they can dock more Carnival Corporation ships (including Princess, Holland America, and others) here at the Puerta Maya cruise terminal in Cozumel.  Here's a better look at the construction...

Puerta Maya pier expansion

I got a kick out of watching the Mexican agricultural inspectors work on the pier.  They had two dogs with them, who were trained to sniff for any food products.  The goal was to prevent passengers from bringing any food products from outside of the country in to Mexico.  The dogs were REALLY good at their jobs!  The inspectors and the dogs just mingled with the passengers who had come down the gangway off the ship.  If the dog expressed any interest in any particular passenger, the inspector would ask that passenger to set their bag down on the ground for the dog to sniff.  The dog would take a good sniff, and if the dog was sure that there was food inside the bag, the dog would sit down.

working dog

If the dog sat down, the inspector would ask the passenger if they were bringing any food items ashore, and then he would confiscate the food item and throw it in a collection bucket.  I saw a lot of fruit getting seized, and even a sandwich.

When lunch time rolled around, we got off the ship in search of a nice Mexican lunch near the pier.  One frustrating thing about a Carnival cruise to Mexico is that they serve almost zero Mexican food.  What little Mexican food they do serve tastes like it was cooked up by a chef from India rather than Mexico...  because it actually was.  So, when in Cozumel, we always try to have some Mexican food rather than eating on the ship.

Chips and salsa at the Three Amigos bar in Cozumel

With a lot of time to kill before we needed to get back onboard, we also browsed through some of the shops near the pier.  Browsing through shops is really not my idea of a good time, but I did see this one item that would look kind of cool in my back yard...

toucan from a shop in Cozumel

I didn't buy it, though.  Wrapped properly to protect it for the trip home, it would have taken up too much space in my suitcase.  You wouldn't happen to know an online shopping site where I could buy something like that and have it shipped to my house, would you?  Email me with a link if you any suggestions.

Carnival Breeze and Carnival Freedom in Cozumel
Carnival Breeze and Carnival Freedom docked next to each other in Cozumel

 

With the two ships docked next to each other at the pier,
a cruise ship canyon was created!

Cruise ship canyon
Carnival Breeze and Carnival Freedom docked side by side in Cozumel, Mexico

Speaking of Mexico...  this seems like a good time to tell you a funny story!  One day, when we got back onboard the ship after a shore excursion, I spotted something next to a crew-only elevator that really made me laugh!  For you to appreciate why it was so funny to me, I have to tell you the back story...

For Christmas last year, Kellyn gave me a map of the Caribbean.  (Along with a few other things, of course!)  I posted the Caribbean map on the wall of my office at work, and put a push-pin on every spot we had ever visited during a cruise.  Unfortunately, the map didn't go all the way over to the western Caribbean...  so there were a few places like Cozumel that I had visited which weren't on the map.  Plus, the entire west coast of Mexico wasn't on that map...  so it didn't show all my visits to places like Cabo San Lucas, Puerta Vallarta, and Acapulco.

Luckily, there was plenty of room on my wall for a second map...  so I ordered a map of Mexico from an online poster store.  Unfortunately, when my order arrived, it turns out they had sent me a map of Japan and Korea rather than a map of Mexico!  No problem...  I contacted the customer service folks at the place I bought it, and they agreed to send me the correct map.  Also, as if to reinforce the fact that I had paid WAY TOO MUCH for the map, they said I could just throw the map of Korea and Japan away...  as it would cost more than it was worth for them to pay the return postage to get it back.

So, a few days later, I got another package from them in the mail...  and when I opened it up, it was another map of Japan and Korea!  Obviously, there was some kind of FUBAR in their warehouse, and in the place where maps of Mexico should be, there sits a bunch of maps of Japan and Korea...  and the guys that pick the merchandise have still not figured it out.

OK...  so that's the back story...  back to our cruise.  We're on Carnival Freedom, which regularly cruises to Mexico, among other places...  and which, as far as I know, has never sailed to Japan or Korea.  I don't think they even have any crew members from Japan or Korea.  We've just come back from a shore excursion and we enter the ship on deck 0 and walk by a crew-only elevator there.  I bust out laughing, because this is what I see...

map of Japan and Korea


Sick Again?!?!

You've probably read about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships.  They always seem to get a lot of publicity when they occur.  As often as you hear about them in the press, you might be tempted to think they happen a LOT on cruise ships.  But think about the large number of cruise ships in the world.  Carnival Corporation alone has over 100 ships, and then when you add in Royal Caribbean and Disney and all the foreign cruise ship companies out there...  there are a lot of ships sailing on any given day.  A norovirus outbreak is actually a fairly rare occurrence on a cruise ship.

The reason that I mention it is that in spite of the large number of cruises that Kellyn and I have taken, there's never been a norovirus outbreak during any of them.  But that's not to say that we've never picked up a little bug of some kind.  It's never actually been norovirus with the vomiting and the diarrhea, but lately I've had some bad luck with getting less seriously ill on cruises.

There was some kind of bug going around the ship when we sailed on the Carnival Sunshine in 2013.  Even the Cruise Director had it the week I was there, and I started having symptoms about half way through the cruise.

On Allure Of The Seas last year, my timing was slightly better.  There must have been some kind of bug going around the ship, but I was lucky in that I didn't start showing any symptoms until the day we got home.  I was really glad that it didn't start before our flight home, because having a head cold on an airplane as the air pressure changes is no fun at all!

This time, on Carnival Freedom, I knew I was in trouble a few days in to the cruise when I started hearing the neighbors coughing in the cabins on both sides of us.  Sure enough... a few days later, I had it, too.  Kellyn lives a much healthier lifestyle...  salads and vegetables and all that kind of healthy food...  and she must have a much better immune system.  She didn't get the bugs on the Carnival Sunshine or the Allure Of The Seas...  and all she got on Carnival Freedom was a sore throat.  Luckily, since it's happened to me before...  I was prepared this time and I had brought along some cough syrup and some over-the-counter cold medicine.  So, it didn't really put much of a dent in my vacation.  However, once we got home I started feeling much worse...  and ended up having to take a few sick days from work during what should have been my first week back on the job.

Besides bringing cough syrup, just in case, I also brought some throat lozenges that came in an unusual foil wrapper that made them look very much like a pack of condoms.  As a joke, I would carry one of the packets in my pocket, wait until we were in a public area, and then pull it out and give Kellyn a wink like we were in an Erectile Dysfunction commercial or something.

To be honest, she doesn't think I'm funny!


Public Restrooms

I noticed something interesting last year while sailing on Royal Caribbean's Allure Of The Seas and on the Norwegian Getaway.  I noticed that Carnival is way behind the curve regarding the comfort and luxury of public bathrooms onboard.  The public restrooms on Carnival are tiny, cramped, and not at all stylish.  They are utilitarian, and just have no class or pizzazz to them at all.  The stalls are so uncomfortably tight that you wonder if some of the morbidly obese passengers you see on the ship could even fit in them.  I really liked that the public restrooms on Allure Of The Seas and Norwegian Getaway were spacious, beautifully decorated, and comfortable.  Carnival needs to do this with their next generation of ships.

restroom on Allure Of The Seas
One of the public restrooms on Allure Of The Seas.  Classy and stylish!

 

Norwegian Getaway restroom
Norwegian Getaway:  room for five, without crowding
 

Carnival Freedom restroom
Carnival Freedom:  room for only three.  Not spacious, and definitely not classy or stylish.

 

Even one of NCL's oldest ships, the Norwegian Star, has nicer public restrooms than any Carnival ship:

Norwegian Star restroom
This restroom has a million dollar view of Acapulco!
(Or wherever the ship happens to be at the time)


Internet Access

The Internet is a big part of my life now, so it's important for me to have a good Internet connection even when I'm on vacation.  I was excited when I heard that Carnival had installed some new technology on the Carnival Freedom that was supposed to improve Internet connectivity...  and I was DELIGHTED when I found out that they would be offering an unlimited Internet package for the entire 12-day cruise for only $99.  I paid more than double that amount for 7-days of unlimited access on our recent cruise on Royal Caribbean's Allure Of The Seas.

The thing about Royal Caribbean's system, however, is that they use some new technology from O3B Networks involving low-altitude satellites that significantly reduces the latency of the Internet connection and significantly increases the bandwidth.  It worked really well, it was just too pricey.

I couldn't find a whole lot of details on Carnival's new system...  other than it involved land-based towers on various Caribbean islands that would allow the ships to make a better connection.  Norwegian made a big fuss about a new system they had involving land-based towers...  but when we cruised on Norwegian Getaway last year, I discovered that it didn't work very well at all.  So, I had some concerns about how well Carnival's new system would perform.

The best way to determine the quality of an Internet connection in objective, quantifiable terms is to use a little web site called Speedtest.net... which can very quickly perform a few tests to measure how good your connection to the Internet is.

At home, with a cable modem, I typically get a SpeedTest ping time of 15ms, a download speed of about 60 Mbps, and an upload speed of about 4 Mbps.

For those of you who are not familiar with upload/download speeds and ping times:

The ping test measures how "responsive" the connection is.  Basically, it measures how long after you click on something does the server at the other end find out that you clicked on it.  Smaller numbers are better.  The smaller the number in the ping test, the quicker things happen as you click on things.  My 15ms ping time at home is BLAZING fast... cable modems are really good at that.  You're never going to get anything even close to that at sea.

The download test is also very important, especially if you are dealing with very data-intensive tasks like viewing videos or even sites with pictures.  For example, on the web page you're viewing right now, with over 100 still photos and a whole bunch of video, too...  we're talking about a big chunk of bandwidth just to view this page.  Just getting all the pictures to load on to your screen can take a long time if you don't have a good Internet connection with snappy download speeds.  When evaluating the speed test results, the larger the number in the download speed test, the better.

Of the three things tested on an Internet speed test, upload speed is really the least important.  It most noticeably comes in to play when you are sending pictures (for example, in an email to family or friends) or if you are uploading a video to YouTube.  Since I do shoot some video on my cruises, it would be nice to be able to upload them to YouTube from the ship rather than waiting until I got home.  But it's not critical.  So, if upload speeds are not great, it's not the end of the world...  but if they are great, it's a bonus.

Three years ago, I did a Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Magic when Carnival was testing some new high-speed Internet equipment that MTN communications had developed.  At the time, it was the fastest Internet connection I had ever experienced at sea, and it was a real joy to use.  It worked well, and provided a good user experience.  The download speed was about 2 Mbps, and the upload speed was about .5 Mbps.  It was certainly not even close to the great connectivity I get at home, but for a connection at sea it wasn't bad.

Last year, on Allure Of The Seas, using the new low-orbit satellite system developed by O3B networks, I consistently got a ping time of about 185 milliseconds, a download speed of about 4 Mbps, and an upload speed of about .9 Mbps.  In other words, it was about twice as fast as what I experienced on Carnival Magic three years ago.

So, with all that in mind...  how good was the connection on Carnival Freedom?

The short answer is that it wasn't as reliable and consistent as the connection on Allure Of The Seas using the O3B Networks system.  I ran the speed tests multiple times, every day of our cruise, and the results were very inconsistent.  For the first part of our 12-day cruise, when we were in the Eastern Caribbean, it seemed to work a lot better than it did during the second part of our cruise when we were out in open waters very far from any land.

Here are the actual results I recorded:

Location Ping Time Download Speed Upload Speed
Docked in Ft Lauderdale 861 1.25 .55
Docked in Ft Lauderdale 720 10.06 .60
At sea, near Ft Lauderdale 696 2.12 .80
At sea, 5 AM 712 4.83 .51
At sea, 2 PM 721 1.74 .85
At sea, 6 PM 702 15.42 .61
At sea, 6 AM 683 13.30 .71
At sea, 1 PM 686 5.49 2.46
At sea, 3 PM 697 5.34 .97
Near St Maarten 686 7.65 .38
Docked in St Maarten 689 6.16 .33
Near St Lucia 675 7.95 2.47
Docked in St Lucia, 9 AM 661 5.88 .43
Docked in St Lucia, 5 PM 810 1.03 .57
At Sea 658 2.53 2.39
Near Curacao 711 9.47 .31
Docked in Curacao 695 6.90 .34
Docked in Aruba 747 2.32 .97
At Sea, 10 PM 2842 .15 .04
At Sea, 6 AM 654 4.26 .38
At Sea, 6 PM 1082 .3 .21
Near Cozumel 669 .8 .44
Docked in Cozumel, 8 AM 752 1.42 .70
Docked in Cozumel, 3 PM 791 .76 .50
At Sea, 6 AM 713 8.31 .32

You can see that the numbers are all over the board.  On Allure Of The Seas, with the O3B satellite system, the numbers were very consistent throughout the whole cruise.  Clearly, the Carnival system works in a very different way and provides an inconsistent user experience.  Sometimes it works OK, sometimes not.

The ping times were consistently very high...  right around 700ms most of the time...  which was well over 3 times slower than I was getting on Allure Of The Seas.  There were a couple of points down in the Southern Caribbean where the connection was just horrible and the ping times got hugely worse.  I should also note that there were probably a dozen times during the cruise when I just completely lost all connection and had to re-connect to get it to work again.

Upload speeds were consistently slow.  It looks like .5 Mbps was the average, although there were a couple of times in the Eastern Caribbean where it improved.

The download speeds were all over the board.  They were a lot better at the beginning of the cruise, and got worse in the second half of the cruise.  Speeds got very bad at a couple of points in the southern Caribbean.

Forgetting the numbers and focusing for a minute on how it just seemed to me overall as I used it...  I'd have to say it seemed acceptable during the first half of the cruise.  It didn't feel steady as a rock like the O3B Networks system did...  which just always seemed to work...  but it was very usable.  During the second half of the cruise, when we spent a lot of time at sea in the Southern Caribbean, it seemed much slower and more flaky.

It would be interesting to just do a standard 7-day eastern Caribbean cruise and see if the service worked well most of the time.  Was it that we were in a dead zone in the Southern Caribbean during the second half of our cruise...  or was it that more passengers were all trying to use the system at the same time during those sea days?

My final thought on this subject is that Carnival has definitely made some improvements in Internet access.  It's not perfect, but it's better than it was.  However, the O3B Network system used by Royal Caribbean works much better.


The Concert

To celebrate Carnival Freedom's arrival in her new home of Galveston, Carnival arranged to put on a special concert for some military personnel and their families.  The star of the concert was country music superstar Martina McBride.  In order to stage the concert, Carnival Freedom spent an extra day in Galveston after the end of the repositioning cruise, rather than heading immediately back out to sea that night.  On February 15th, the Lido deck was transformed in to a stage for the big concert.  Those of us who were on the repositioning cruise did not get to attend the concert...  we all left the ship the day before.  But I found some pictures of it on Carnival's web site:

Martina McBride concert on Carnival Freedom in Galveston
Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

 

Martina McBride concert on Carnival Freedom in Galveston
Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

 

Martina McBride on Carnival Freedom
Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

As part of the festivities, Carnival presented a check for $100,000 to Operation Home Front...  a group that provides emergency and other financial assistance to the families of service members and wounded warriors.

Preparations for the concert started long before the day of the show.  The stage and some of the sound and lighting equipment was actually loaded on to the ship in Ft Lauderdale, stored up on Panorama deck for the entire 12-day repositioning cruise, and then set up once the ship arrived in Galveston.  When we boarded the ship in Ft Lauderdale, we could see the equipment being loaded on to the ship.  You couldn't miss it!  They had a gigantic crane picking equipment up from the dock and lifting it all the way up to Panorama deck...  something you don't normally see on embarkation day!

big crane at Ft Lauderdale cruise ship terminal
A big crane picks up concert equipment from the dock in Ft Lauderdale

 

concert equipment on Carnival Freedom
The equipment was secured on Panorama deck and sat there for the entire 12-day cruise

 


The Captain's Suite

Carnival Freedom is one of a few Carnival ships which feature a very special category of cabin known officially as a "Grand Suite - Forward" but which are more commonly referred to as "The Captain's Suite".  Surprisingly, the newest ship in the fleet, Carnival Breeze, doesn't even have them.  Only a few ships do.

While we didn't stay in such a luxurious stateroom on this particular cruise, we did actually get to enjoy one the Captain's Suites in 2013 when we cruised on the Carnival Sunshine.  Here's a photo of me in all my glory, feeling very much like a VIP in the most expensive suite on the Carnival Sunshine...

Carnival Sunshine Captain's suite 9115

The Captain's Suite features three beds, two bathrooms, a GIGANTIC balcony with a million dollar view, two big screen televisions, and huge picture windows looking out in front of the ship...  with electric blinds that can be closed at the touch of a button. 

Describing it with words is not good enough.  You have to see it!  Take a look at this video I made of The Captain's Suite on Carnival Sunshine:

To help you visualize exactly where the Captain's Suites are located, take a look at the Carnival Freedom deck plans and locate staterooms 9202 and 9203.  Those are the two Captain's Suites.  Cabins 9196 - 9201 are pretty cool, too...  they have pig picture windows with amazing views...  but no balcony.

It's pretty easy to identify Carnival ships that feature Captain's Suites.  (Ships that have them actually have two of them, one on each side of the ship.)  If you take a close look at the bridge of any particular Carnival ship...  notice whether or not there is a row of windows one level ABOVE the bridge.  If no windows above the bridge, then no Captain's Suites.  As far as I know, none of the Carnival ships were outfitted with Captain's Suites when they were originally built at the shipyard.  All of the Captain's Suites were added later, as part of a refurbishment and upgrade program.

For example, here's a picture I took of the front of the Carnival Freedom as it exists today...

Carnival Freedom bow

If you look at the bridge, you'll see it actually has two levels.  The bottom level is the actual navigational bridge, and the top level is cabins...  including The Captain's Suite.

Compare that 2015 photo to this next photo, taken years ago, before The Captain's Suites were added above the bridge...

Carnival Freedom original configuration
Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line

If you'd like to see more pictures of The Captain's Suite on the Carnival Sunshine, which is basically the same as The Captain's Suite on Carnival Freedom and the other Conquest-class ships...  take a look at my Carnival Sunshine review.


Before The Cruise...

We live in a small town in California, so it usually takes a couple of connecting flights to get out to Florida for a cruise.  Especially when you're talking about a cruise in February, where winter weather can wreak havoc on airline flight schedules, you'd be crazy to try to time your flights so that you can go straight from the airport to the cruise ship.  What if there is a flight delay or -- God forbid -- a flight cancellation?!?  You absolutely do not want to miss getting on that cruise ship...  so why risk it?

A much smarter way is to leave LOTS of wiggle room in your travel schedule...  so that you've got more options in the event that your travel plans get fouled up by weather or mechanical delays.  So, booking at least one night, if not several nights, in a Florida hotel is a smart move.  And if you're going to stay in a hotel in Ft Lauderdale...  don't stay in a hotel near the airport...  live a little!  Stay at the beach!

Ft Lauderdale beach
Ft Lauderdale beach in February.  Windy, but still bikini weather!

On our last visit to Ft Lauderdale, we stayed in an amazing luxury resort right on the beach, near where the cruise ships enter and exit the harbor.  We had this incredible beachfront room that opened right out to the beach, and we were able to walk an easy distance to a perfect spot to watch the cruise ships come in at dawn and head out in the late afternoon.  The only reason we were able to afford it was because it was considered "low season"...  so the room rate was only a heart-stopping $350 a night.

February is considered "high season" in Ft Lauderdale, because that's when all the people from the Midwest, Eastern US, and Canada try to escape winter and go on a cruise.  So that very cool Ft Lauderdale beachfront resort was now charging an impossible-to-justify $500 a night.  Fuhgetaboutit.  We had to try something slightly less pricey, without totally slumming it and staying out at one of the hotels at the airport for $150 a night.

To read all about our pre-cruise stay at a beachfront hotel in Ft Lauderdale, click here.  You'll not only see a few cool pictures I snapped before this cruise, but also a few I shot during our first visit to Ft Lauderdale a few months earlier...  at the super luxurious but way-too-expensive resort!


Why Cruise In February?

Carnival Freedom cruise ship

January and February are great months for cruising in the Caribbean.  Cruise fares are usually quite reasonable in January and February...  because lots of people have kids in school at this time of the year and therefore cannot cruise.

Jen Baxter told me that there were less than 100 people under the age of 18 on the Carnival Freedom during our cruise.  That right there is a great reason to cruise this time of year, as far as I'm concerned!  We're in our 50's and we've raised our children already...  we like peace and quiet now!

Jen noticed a young kid in the audience during the Welcome Aboard show, and asked him why he wasn't in school.  He replied with a simple two-word answer that got a big laugh out of the audience:  "Life Experience".

The weather can sometimes be a little cool in the Caribbean in January and February.  On my ideal Caribbean beach day, it would be in the mid 80s.  Sometimes in January and February you're looking at temps in the 70s, though.  Taking a southern Caribbean cruise during this time of year is a good idea...  as you can pretty much count on some warm weather down in the southern end of the Caribbean just about any time of the year.  And you certainly don't need to worry about hurricanes when you cruise in January or February!

One good resource for keeping an eye on the weather in the Caribbean is a little web page I put together featuring the latest satellite weather photos from all the places I tend to visit in the world, including the Caribbean.  You might find that page useful when trying to visualize what the weather is at your home or at your travel destination.  Another excellent site, especially if you'll be in the Caribbean from June through November, is the National Hurricane Center's web site.


Packing List & To-Do List

Here's my official packing list.
Perhaps this will help you think of things to pack for your cruise.
On a few of the unusual items, I'll provide a link to the exact version I recommend at Amazon.com

Passports
Airline boarding pass
Cruise boarding pass
Luggage tags
If driving, printed directions to the hotel & cruise terminal
Wallet (I actually forgot this on one cruise!)
Swimsuit
Flip-flops
Waterproof beach shoes
Sunglasses
Backup pair of prescription glasses, in case you break the main pair
Underwear & socks (incredibly, I actually forgot to bring socks on one cruise)
One dressy outfit
Shirts
Pants
Shorts
Sweatshirt
Deodorant
Q-tips
Hair brush
Nail clippers
Razor
Medications
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Sun block
Hand lotion
Conditioner  (Carnival supplies shampoo and body wash, but no conditioner)
Travel-size Kleenex for the airplane
Lint remover
Lawry's seasoning salt
Laptop computer or tablet computer, including charger
Digital SLR Camera
Waterproof camera
Camera tripod, or selfie-stick
Binoculars
Wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer
6-outlet power strip
MP3 player
Noise-cancelling headphones
Cell phone & charger
Wrist watch
A deck of playing cards
Band Aids

My pre-cruise to-do list:
Stop newspaper and mail delivery
Book shore excursions
Send an email to family members with my travel plans & itinerary
Turn off water to the house to prevent the chance of a pipe break
Turn down (or turn off) the water heater to save energy
Make sure garden sprinklers are on
Make sure house is locked and alarm system is active

On the last day at work:
Update voice mail message to indicate my return date
Update out-of-office email message, and turn it on
Make sure my temporary replacement has an updated desk guide
Put a sign at my desk indicating my return date

 

I used to recommend bringing a bungie cord, to be used whenever you'd like to prop open the balcony door.  However, I learned a very valuable lesson on this cruise about why using a bungie cord on the balcony is a very bad idea!

On embarkation day in Ft Lauderdale, with the ship still tied up at the pier, I decided to use a bungie cord to prop open the balcony door.  I had one end attached to the balcony railing and stretched the bungie cord almost fully taut to attach the other end to the door.  Somehow, I lost my grip on the end of the bungie cord and all that potential energy in the stretched bungie cord was released.  It flew through the air something like shooting a rubber band with your fingers...  only with a LOT more power.  Much to my embarrassment, it shot right over the side of the balcony and down to the pier below...  where workers were busy loading stuff on to the ship.

I sure hope it didn't hit anyone!  I was horribly embarrassed at my stupidity for doing something that was dangerous to the people working below.  I'm never going to use a bungie cord to prop the door open again, that's for sure!  A much safer way to do it is to use a big rubber door stop.  Add that to your packing list!
 


What Camera Do I Use?

Whenever I post these cruise reviews, I always get questions about what camera I used to take the photos.  I actually bring two cameras with me on a cruise, plus my cell phone.

One is just a fairly inexpensive waterproof camera, so I can shoot pictures and videos while snorkeling.  The one I use is an Olympus TG-830.  However, that's a slightly older model now...  and if you're in the market for one, you should get the new version which is the Olympus TG-850.

Olympus TG-850
Olympus TG-850 waterproof camera

For everything except the underwater stuff, the camera I use is a Canon EOS-70D digital SLR camera.  I bring several different lenses with me on a cruise, too.

Canon EOS 70D
Canon EOS 70D

The 70D is probably too much camera for most people...  so if you're in the market for a very high quality digital SLR camera, the one I actually recommend for most people is the Canon Digital Rebel T5i.  If you get one, make sure you get the T5i with the 135mm lens, not the cheap version with the 55mm lens.

I also like to have a Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens with me when I'm on a cruise ship.  This is a wide angle lens, which is extremely useful when trying to shoot in small spaces (for example, the photo of the bathroom in our cabin) or when shooting something very large (like a cruise ship, when you're standing on the pier next to it.)

Every now and then I see something photo-worthy when I don't have either of my camera's with me.  When that happens, I'll shoot with my cell phone, as a last resort.  I don't think I used any cell phone photos on this page, but if you notice any horrible looking photos on the rest of my site, you might be looking at a cell phone photo.

One important technique that I use with my Canon DSLR, since I'm looking to getting the highest quality photos possible, is to shoot in RAW format rather than JPG.  This preserves the photos with the highest possible quality, and gives me the greatest ability to tweak them after shooting them.  However, it does require a lot of extra work.  Any photos which I want to share (via email, Facebook, or on this web site, for example) have to be converted from RAW to JPG.  This takes some time and effort, but it's worth it to me in order to get the best end results.  Just about all the photos you see on this page have been tweaked to some extent to give them the best finished look.  For most photos, I do some sharpening and color correction.  On some photos, I have to do even more tweaking than that to get them to look just right.

I also bring along a tripod with me, to allow me to shoot long-exposure shots in low-light situations.  It's also handy to have for shooting "selfies".  I've got a tripod that is just the right size to fit inside my big suitcase but which is heavy duty enough to be stable.  It also has a fluid head, which is something that's very important to look for in a tripod if you intend to use it when shooting video.

Jim Zimmerlin and Kellyn Zimmerlin
A selfie, shot with the camera on a tripod and using a 10-second delay

The funny thing about posting pictures of myself here is that I do actually get recognized on the ships by people who have read my cruise reviews!  I hadn't been onboard the Carnival Freedom 15 minutes when some guy recognized me in the Freedom restaurant and stopped to tell me about how much he had enjoyed reading about the cruises we've been on.  It was a fun start to the cruise!  And that was definitely not the first time it had happened to me on a ship.


A Great Series Of Books About Cruise Ships

After you've been on at least one cruise, there's a book that you really should read!  It will give you a whole new perspective.  It's a book that was written by a guy that worked on several Carnival ships...  and he shares some funny stories about life on a cruise ship.  To give you an idea of what kind of book this is...  the story starts as he is staying in a hotel room in Miami, the night before his very first day working on a cruise ship.  Even though it's the day before his first day onboard, he's basically "on the job", so Carnival is paying for the room.  To save the company money, they don't give him a private room...  he shares it with someone else.  So, he checks in to the room, and the first thing he does is to take a nice long shower.  And when he's finally done with his shower, he discovers that his roommate has shown up...  and is in the middle of having sex with a woman right there in their shared hotel room!  Does that give you an idea of the kind of book this is?  Well, that's just the beginning...  and things get even more interesting once he starts working on the ships!

If you've ever wondered what life is like for those people that work on cruise ships...  what kind of hours they work...  how much they're paid...  and what they do when they're not working...  this is the book for you.  The overall plot of the story is that the author, Brian Bruns, meets a girl named Bianca in Las Vegas and quickly falls head over heels in love with her.  It turns out that she's on vacation from her job as a waitress on the Carnival Conquest.  Soon enough, the vacation is over and Bianca heads back to the ship...  and Brian must make a decision about whether this was just a quick fling, or something more.  He decides it was something more, and takes a job with Carnival in order to be with Bianca.  Ship life is tough, and creates one roadblock after another between Brian and the girl he loves.

It's a huge love story that literally follows them all around the world.  If you just want to hear Brian's best inside stories about life on a cruise ship, you don't even need to read all four books...  just get the first one.  But if you find yourself loving all the dirty details of life on a cruise ship, and want more...  or if you get hooked on the love story and you want to find out whether ship life breaks up Brian and Bianca or whether there's a classic happy ending at the end...  buy all four.

  Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4  

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The Cruise Ships We've Been On

If you've enjoyed this page, you would probably also enjoy reading my web pages about:

November 2015 Carnival Miracle cruise
September 2015 back-to-back Caribbean cruises on Carnival Breeze
April 2015 Back-To-Back on Independence Of The Seas
The largest cruise ship in the world: Allure Of The Seas
The best cruise ship we've ever experienced: The Norwegian Getaway
Our June 2014 Alaska cruisetour with Princess
Our first cruise with Princess!  January 2014 Sapphire Princess
2014 back-to-back eastern/western Caribbean cruises on the Carnival Glory
The completely refurbished Carnival Sunshine
The newest ship in the Carnival fleet, the Carnival Breeze
The second newest ship in the fleet, the Carnival Magic
Our 2013 cruise on the Carnival Conquest
One of the oldest ships in the fleet, the Carnival Inspiration
Our first Caribbean cruise:  the Carnival Glory
Our many cruises on the Carnival Spirit
Our February 2010 cruise on the Carnival Splendor
Our April 2009 Carnival Paradise cruise
Our January 2008 cruise on the Carnival Elation
Our April 2008 cruise on the Norwegian Star
Our first cruise!  1996 on Carnival Cruise Line's MS Holiday

Click here to see the complete chronology of all the cruises we've ever taken.
 

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