… for one of my favorite Carnival ships
PART ONE: GETTING THERE IS HALF THE BATTLE
Just back from my fifth cruise on the Carnival Freedom, which is beginning to feel like my home-away-from-home. I was there in February 2015 for the repositioning, when we brought her from Fort Lauderdale to her new home in Texas by way of St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Curacao, Aruba, and old standby Cozumel. And what a cruise that was.
Next, I sailed her for my very first ever solo cruise in August 2015, a “working cruise” spent alternating relaxing and writing and enjoying some much-needed solitude as well as the intermittent company of the one friend (and her family) who was on board. A month later, I was on her again in September for my birthday cruise (the “big one”) with my husband and several of the great couples I’d met on the February Repo sailing. Then in February 2016, even more Repo friends joined up on Freedom again for our first annual reunion on John Heald’s Blogger Cruise BC9 – where I also made many new friends.
This past week, I had yet another taste of Freedom. I had booked this short 5 day early December sailing almost a year earlier, a quick getaway with my husband to celebrate our 22nd anniversary – but unlike all my others, I’d kept the date and ship a secret so we would have the ship all to ourselves (well, except for a few thousand strangers). Only after it sold out did I divulge our plans to my friends.
I’ve got a secret (cruise)
I’ve been on many cruises with much more exciting itineraries, but the point of this one was rest and relaxation and minimal hassle factor. Because Tom had limited days off work left, I booked a “shortie” out of Galveston (thus avoiding potential flight delays during the busy holiday season with unpredictable weather) on a ship I knew well, with ports we had both been to before (Progreso and Cozumel).
Because I booked early, I got an excellent price on a Junior Suite on the Lido deck at the front of the ship – convenient both to the buffet and to the gym (for working off the consequences of the buffet). Since Tom enjoys the “foodie” aspects of cruising, I also booked us on the Chef’s Table and made reservations for the steak house for the last night of the cruise.
I did everything I could think of to try to make it all go smoothly and easily, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans, and although I’m neither a mouse nor a man, Murphy’s Law kicked in again. Just as I hadn’t been able to control the ATC strike in Greece that turned my careful planning for the Vista cruise upside down in October, my name carried no influence with Mother Nature. Obviously somebody had not been nice to her, and she decided to take it out on me.
Weather or not
I had expected this cruise to have its ups and downs. I hadn’t expected it to start out quite the way it did. After a series of minor crises leading up to “The Day,” we headed down to Houston, where we had booked a hotel for the night so we’d have an easy drive (in theory, at least) to the port the next morning. The weather forecast for the days ahead in Mexico, after weeks with no precipitation, didn’t look very promising.
However, it ended up being the weather right here in Texas that caused most of our problems. Anyone who’s lived here for any length of time (and I’ve lived here almost all of my rather lengthy life) knows that the cartoon we frequently see making the rounds of the Internet is all too true.
Unfortunately, the wheel of (mis)fortune landed, on the weekend of our departure, on the slot labelled “torrential rainfall.” The skies opened about halfway to Houston, and the second half of our drive was on a wet roadway – but that was nothing compared to what we faced the next morning.
We made it to the hotel safely, though, and the rain actually stopped long enough for us to get the luggage inside. The Homewood Suites where I’d stayed before didn’t disappoint; the rooms were spacious: living area, full fledged small kitchen (with microwave, two-burner cooktop, full size refrigerator), dining table for two, separate bedroom and large bathroom. We were hungry but exhausted, didn’t want to go out in the rain, so we bought a couple of frozen entrees and heated them up in our suite, and went to bed early.
The next morning, the rain was still coming down, and as we drove through Houston, it got worse and worse.
In Galveston, Harborside Drive – the street the cruise terminal is on – was flooded and so were many of the other streets. For a while it appeared this cruise wasn’t going to happen. We made it to higher ground without drowning the car and waited it out; finally the rain let up and we were able to find a roundabout route to get to the port. At least we didn’t have to worry about being late, though, since we had already gotten a notice that Freedom would be boarding two hours late.
Then a minor miracle happened: the rain actually stopped long enough for us to get our bags unloaded and for Tom to take the car to Galveston Park N Cruise (blatant plug for them here – we’ve used their indoor parking facilities many times and the people there are great) and get back across to the terminal without getting soaked. Things were looking up.
Membership has its privileges
Thanks to my Platinum status, embarkation was simple as 1-2-3. We bypassed the long line and got through security in minutes. The “booze police” did spend an inordinate amount of time examining our two bottles of wine – which really did contain wine and had never been opened – before letting us pass. In the VIP lounge, there were only five people ahead of us; since boarding had already started, it was a quick stop to get our Sail & Sign cards and walk through to the boarding area, where we once again were able to bypass the crowd and walk through the almost empty priority line to get onto the ship.
As a matter of fact, the VIP treatment continued throughout the entire cruise. There weren’t a lot of priority level passengers on this one (only five Diamonds on the entire ship), so they were going all out for those of us who comprised their “most loyal” clientele. We got special goodies and super-prompt service over the course of the five days. That’s the nice thing about sailing on an “ordinary” cruise like this, versus the Journeys cruises, repositioning cruises, and other “special” cruises like the inaugurals, European sailings and transatlantic crossings where there are hundreds of people with Platinum and Diamond cards.
I’ll mention here that unlike the last time I was on her last February, Freedom now has the hand-held scanners like those on Vista instead of the big machines to read your S&S card, which does speed up the process. I found it interesting that the photo attached to my card (which comes up on the device when they scan it) was my passport photo, rather than the picture that they had taken when they issued the card. Not sure if that’s always the case or I broke the camera in the VIP lounge, seeing as how I had gotten wet a couple of times that morning and definitely wasn’t looking my best.
We’re on a boat … well, a ship
With the hard part over (we hoped), we made our way up to the Lido deck where our cabin was located. We had stayed on deck 9 on Freedom before – in fact, this was my fourth time and Tom’s second – in the Grand Scenic Oceanview cabins. I was a little curious to see how the Junior Suite compared to that.
I’d have to say that, having done both now, if I were given a choice I’d take the GSOV any day, even if it didn’t cost quite a bit less. In theory, the suite gives you more: a balcony, a bigger bathroom with a jetted tub with glass doors, and a separate dressing area.
In practice, we were rarely able to use the balcony because the next-door neighbors in the captain’s suite had a direct view to ours as well as directly into the interior of our cabin. And they were out on their balcony a lot, usually standing in the corner closest to ours. The big captain’s suite balcony sticks out so that there was not a lot of privacy – either for us or for them. It was an unexpected downside of these suites and would even make me think twice about using the balcony of the captain’s suite itself, if we should ever decide to spring for it.
As for the bathroom in our suite, it’s very nice, with granite countertops and two sinks instead of one. However, the tub is extremely narrow, so that if you only take a shower (which is what we both used it for), you actually feel as if you have less room than in the small bathroom showers with the shower curtains in a regular cabin.
The little dressing area, though, did prove to be useful, since it was a place you could change clothes without having to close the curtains so the captain’s suite people couldn’t see you, even if someone else was using the bathroom.
Don’t get me wrong: the suite was lovely and well worth the low price that we got on it, but if I sail on Freedom (or another Conquest class ship) in the future, I’ll save some money and opt for a GSOV on Lido or one of the big double-sized, double-window corner oceanview cabins down on deck 2 (where I’ve also stayed before).
Mean Mr. Muster
Experienced cruisers know what comes after you board and get settled in your cabin: the dreaded muster drill (or “mustard drill,” as you’ll inevitably hear someone on the ship call it, and not always in jest). It’s more dreaded on some ships and in some weather than others, and this was one that I expected to be bad. Those expectations weren’t off – it was definitely the second worst muster drill I’ve experienced (nothing will ever rival that almost two-hour one on Miracle last year when they had people still boarding the ship while we stood at our muster stations watching them lug their luggage on, and had to wait for them all to get there before they even started talking).
The problem was that Freedom is one of the ships where the muster stations are all outdoors That means in summer, you sweat through it and in winter, you shiver. This was a day for shivering. We stood in the cold as the crew went through their routine, and as an extra added bonus, we’d gotten lucky enough to be standing in a spot where water was dripping on our heads. On the up side, they used the card scanners to do their count instead of the cumbersome manual method of the past, so that part did go a tad more quickly (albeit not quickly enough).
Why, oh why can’t they do it on all ships the way they do on Dream class ships and Vista – with everyone sitting down in the dining rooms and lounges? I don’t mind those at all. I think I’m going to start telling them I’m old and unable to stand up that long so I can go to the “special needs” place for muster.
Fortunately, it’s not only all good things that come to an end; bad things usually do, too. So we got through it, and when they announced that it was over, it felt like – well, Freedom.
In Part two, things are looking up as we explore the ship (complete with just-done holiday decor), meet our sweet cabin steward, enjoy a delicious dinner with excellent service in the Main Dining Room, and come back to the cabin to find our first towel animal of the cruise.