By Krysten Davis
Here’s my first confession: not only had I never been on a cruise before embarking on the Carnival Freedom, I’d never particularly wanted to go. I’ve lived no more than forty-five minutes from a beach for my entire life; the idea of traveling for days just to do what I spend most of the summer doing anyway seemed unnecessary, at best. “Why,” I asked, “would you spend good, hard-earned money to go sit on a beach when we have perfectly good beaches right here?”
Then I moved up north and suffered through my first New York winter—a truly epic, Game of Thrones-style winter without end. I had visions of myself growing white-haired and arthritic before the snow melted, wilting like a plant for lack of sunlight and warmth. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine anything better than spending a week in the tropics. When I heard that Carnival was celebrating its arrival in the Port of Galveston, I jumped at the chance to review one of its newest ships, the Freedom, for a Texan audience. I also brought my mother, who has been my lifelong role model for how to travel with enthusiasm and style. Together, we decided, we were going to figure out what all this cruising fuss was about.
Determined to do my first cruise right, I did my research: what to do, when to do it, what to bring, what to leave at home. Armed with this knowledge, my first act on board the Freedom was to change into my bathing suit and claim a corner of the rooftop pool for my own. Reclining in a hot tub on a glassed-in roof deck, tropical drink in hand, watching the sun set over the Gulf as the port of Galveston faded into the distance, I began to realize exactly why so many people flock to cruise ships every year. For the duration of your journey, you enter a magically luxurious world in which every part of your day is designed to minimize stress and maximize relaxation. Everything is taken care of for you: all you’re expected to do is rest and enjoy it.
ABOARD THE FREEDOM
Cruising is about the journey as much as the destination, and Carnival seems well aware of this fact. The ship successfully balances luxury and comfort at every turn–a neat trick, considering that the Freedom is designed to hold nearly 3,000 people. Despite its size, the ship does a wonderful job of catering to the wants and needs of a wildly diverse passenger base. Whatever a passenger is looking for in a cruise vacation, the Freedom strives to provide it. Families traveling with small children are provided with a variety of accommodations, ranging from daily family-friendly entertainment, extensive shipboard childcare (beginning at 10 am and continuing until 1 am), and dining options designed with picky eaters in mind. Adults who are looking for a peaceful getaway have access to specially designated, child-free “quiet areas” of the ship, along with other relaxing amenities (including a gym with a panoramic view of the ocean, a spa deck with specials running for the duration of the cruise, and an artisanal cocktail bar). Those passengers who are looking for a rowdy, good time may join dancing and drink-mixing contests, visit an adult comedy hour with up-and-coming comedians handpicked by comedian George Lopez, and attend nightly live concerts by shipboard bands, as well as special events featuring artists like Journey, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts, and Styx, among others selected as part of the Carnival Live! concert series.
The ship itself is luxuriously appointed, with décor that recalls the Art Deco style of the Roaring Twenties. From the ship’s three-floor atrium, with its polished chrome flourishes and sleek glass elevator overlooking elaborately patterned carpets and Moroccan tile, to the 1920s-inspired murals on all the residential decks, the ship strives for (and achieves) a Gatsby-esque sense of luxury. In this setting, formal dining evenings on shipboard provide a glimpse of what life must have been like during the early days of luxury liners gliding across the oceans, when railroad barons and bejeweled heiresses dined in their finery under crystal chandeliers every night. Varied dining options range from the relaxed, smorgasbord-style main restaurant to the more formal (and consistently delicious) Posh Restaurant, which provides a nightly three-course dinner at a set time each evening. Those wanting to celebrate a special occasion may venture to the Sun King Steakhouse for truly mouthwatering steaks, as well as a host of other delicacies; and, on the other end of the spectrum, night owls can snack on pizza and ice cream all night at the 24/7 snack stations on the Lido Deck.
Cabins are spacious: our two-bed cabin could have slept a family of four comfortably with the sofa bed extended, and we both loved having coffee on our balcony every morning, watching each new port appear on the horizon. There’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise over the ocean, especially if all you need to do in order to take in the view is roll out of bed!
CRUISING WITH KIDS
Although we didn’t bring any of the kids in the family along with us, my mother and I agreed that they would enjoy themselves as much as we did—in large part because Carnival has gone out of its way with this ship in particular to make sure that kids of all ages have everything they need to have fun and stay safe, with or without their families present. Both the Freedom and its sister ship, the Vista, have giant playrooms that are designed to upgrade Carnival’s previous day-camp option, Camp Carnival, to make it even more appealing to kids and parents. Called Camp Ocean, this new playroom is divided by age groups. Each age group has its own room tailored specifically to the needs of those children: kids age 2-5 are in the “Penguin” room, a large open space with a crawlable igloo, chock-full of toys (sanitized twice a day and then run through a dishwasher at night); kids age 6-8 are in the “Stingray” room, which is set up for active, competitive games with video game consoles scattered throughout; and kids age 9-11 are “Sharks,” in a room full of PS4 and Wii consoles. Additionally, all kids have activities planned throughout the day every day. For younger kids, this may mean creating pirate hats or painting t-shirts; older kids enjoy scavenger hunts throughout the ship and completing on-board ship “quests” by ticking off goals like “complete 2 laps of ship’s running track” and “learn to make towel animals.”
“They love the activities,” said Youth Director Ana Klacinski. “Sometimes they don’t want to go with their families on the shore excursions—they’d rather stay on board the ship and play with their friends. It’s nice because it gives them something that’s just for them on the ship.”
Carnival also goes to great pains to reassure parents about their kids’ safety and well-being while they are at Camp Ocean, Klacinski explained. Video monitors are posted outside the camp so that parents can watch their children from a distance, and cell phones are provided to parents of the youngest children, as well as any children with food allergies or other special needs. Children with special needs of any kind have their name tags written in red as a sign to staff to check their files and make themselves aware of allergies, medications, or other necessary services. All counselors in Camp Ocean must be certified teachers with three or more years of experience working with kids, as well as two weeks of intensive training on board after being hired and a three-month training checklist and probation period.
Finally, Klacinski prides herself and the Freedom on its partnership with the Dr. Seuss estate, which allowed the Freedom to build a “Bookville” reading room with Seuss decorations and host an on-board Seuss parade and storytime for all ages on the last sea day of every voyage. For now, Camp Ocean and the Seuss partnership are exclusive to the Freedom, although they are planned additions on Carnival’s Vista line, debuting in 2016.
While Carnival may justifiably pride itself on its shipboard amenities, the real attraction of the voyage is the shore excursions. In each port, Carnival offers dozens of excursion options. These excursions allow you to experience different local attractions in each of the ports of call. Basic excursions may cost as little as $40 per person, while more deluxe adventures may cost upwards of $100 per person. While it is not necessary to purchase an excursion package in order to enjoy the ports of call—and, in fact, some of my fellow cruisers chose to opt out of these excursions, spending their time shopping in the local markets or enjoying the quiet of the ship while most of the passengers were spending time on shore—I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunities they provide. Paying for an excursion package helps to sustain the deluxe, “everything is taken care of” vibe of being on a cruise ship. Rather than having to hunt for what you want to do or where you want to go, you simply select the kind of things you would like to do in each port of call and allow your guides to make it happen for you.
In Costa Maya, we chose to go on the Jungle Beach Break. An air-conditioned bus picked us up at the port and took us to Uvero Beach, a forty-five minute drive. Some might dislike the idea of spending so much time on the road, but I found that driving from the ports to the different excursion destinations was a good way to get a feel for the different areas we visited and see a little of the countryside. It helped that Uvero Beach was well worth the drive. Although the water is not ideal for snorkeling or swimming, the beach itself is wide and spacious, with comfortable lounge chairs, a covered patio, delicious tacos and fajitas, and free drinks brought to you in your lounge chair on the beach by attentive waiters. My mother and I were content simply to sun ourselves on our lounge chairs, but sea kayaks and a climbing water playground were available for more those feeling more adventurous. I did, however, make a point of visiting the massage tent before we left for the day, and I will happily testify that there is no more luxurious feeling than getting a massage in an open-air tent, with the breeze on your skin, the scent of salt water and sunblock all around, and the sound of seagulls and tropical music playing in the background.
For our next excursion, my mother and I chose to split up. After our mellow beach adventure the day before, I wanted to try something a little more adventurous, while my mother decided to stay close to the port so she could do some shopping after her excursion. I chose the Deluxe Beach, Catamaran Sail & Snorkel, while she went to Chankanaab Beach. Cozumel is famous among snorkelers for its crystal-clear waters and colorful reefs, and I was glad to be able to experience both before leaving. Our catamaran crew sailed us out to the reefs, allowed us time to swim and explore, and then sailed us to yet another gorgeous beach. Again, I ate delicious food freshly cooked on the beach and napped in a beach hammock listening to the sound of the waves. The catamaran crew called us back—too soon, it seemed—and kept us entertained for the entire trip back to the port.
“Today,” our captain, Angel, reminded us, encouraging us to dance on the deck of the catamaran, “you are Mexican. And Mexicans know how to party.”
My mother, while enjoying calmer entertainments (a mini tour of local Mayan history, tequila tasting, and sea lion show on the beach), enjoyed her quiet day on the beach and enthused about how knowledgeable her guides were and how much she’d learned about local culture and cuisine. And the following day in Progreso, we both enjoyed the opportunity to explore local Mayan ruins in Dzibilchaltun, particularly the massive stone calendars and the cenote, or sinkhole spring. Our guide, a descendant of the Maya and certified Mayan instructor, taught us a few words of the language and a great deal about how the ancient Mayans had used the stars and seasons to mark their calendars. And words cannot capture the clarity or the vivid color of the spring’s water. We basked by the spring for over an hour and still could hardly bear to leave.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO BECOME A CRUISEAHOLIC?
On our last day at sea, I genuinely began to worry that the cruising lifestyle had ruined me for real life. There’s something almost magical about going to sleep one night in the middle of a pitch-black ocean under the stars and waking up to glimpse a smudge of new land on the horizon. I’d worried that the lack of Internet or cell phone reception in the middle of the ocean would bother me; instead, I found it tremendously liberating. It was as if I really had abandoned my day-to-day life and concerns as soon as we’d set sail: in the middle of the ocean, none of them could reach me, and I was free to let them float away. Instead, I focused on the new delights each day brought me: ocean water the color of jade, new delicacies at each meal, the sight of a thousand-year-old stone calendar. It may not be possible to become a “cruiseaholic” (and, somehow, I managed to return to my daily life and responsibilities after returning to shore), but I’m certainly a cruise convert, and I cannot wait to see what new vistas my next voyage has in store for me.
Carnival Cruises from the Port of Galveston
- 4-Day Cruise to Cozumel
- 5-Day Cruise to Cozumel and Progreso
- 7-Day Cruise to Cozumel, Belize, and Mahogany Bay
- 7-Day Cruise to Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Montego Bay
- 7-Day Cruise to Key West, Nassau, and Freeport