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So, she's finally here: Freedom of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's much-anticipated, much-publicized, 160,000-ton, 3,634-passenger answer to Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and all the other super-megaships in the cruise market. Besting QM2 by 9,000 gross register tons and carrying 1,000-plus more passengers (based on double occupancy), she's the new sheriff in town. The heavyweight champ. The fat lady whose high-C puts and end to the our-ship-is-bigger-than-your-ship one-upmanship of the past ten years . . . at least for now.

So is she great? Is she marvelous? Is she everything the biggest passenger ship in the world should be? Well, it kind of depends on what your definition of "great" is. Read on.

All That Size, in Perspective

First off, yes, she really is very big, and to show just how big, here's a little historical breakdown, beginning back in the day:

  • Lusitania (Cunard, 1907): 31,938
  • Titanic (White Star, 1912): 46,329
  • Queen Mary (Cunard, 1936): 81,235
  • United States (United States Lines, 1952): 53,329
  • France (French Line, 1960): 66,343
  • QE2 (Cunard, 1969): 65,863
  • Sovereign of the Seas (Royal Caribbean, 1987): 74,000
  • Carnival Destiny (Carnival, 1996): 101,353
  • Grand Princess (Princess, 1998): 109,000
  • Voyager of the Seas (Royal Caribbean, 1999): 142,000
  • Queen Mary 2 (Cunard, 2004): 151,400
  • Freedom of the Seas (Royal Caribbean, 2006): 158,000

For a more entertaining take on her size, consider that:

  • Freedom is as large as Royal Caribbean's first four ships put together.
  • She's longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall.
  • She has enough berths to host every single player and coach in the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, in one sailing

And yes, she's a very big ship.

But Does Size Really Matter?

Answer: No, it does not. What matters is what a cruise line and its designers do with that space. Some massive ships feel cramped and uncomfortable, while others are so well designed you wonder where all the people are. For cruise lines, it's all about balance: maximizing the number of cabins (and thus revenue) aboard while also making sure passengers won't feel lost in the crowd. For passengers, it's about deciding how many bells and whistles you want in a ship, and how many other humans you're willing to travel with.

Freedom of the Seas pushes the line on that balance.

The ship is, at essence, just a larger version of Royal Caribbean's popular, 142,000-ton, 3,114-passenger Voyager-class ships (Voyager, Explorer, Adventurer, Mariner, and Navigator), which introduced the line's now brandwide "active vacation" image with their rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, and full-size basketball courts. Extremely well-designed, the Voyager vessels disperse their large complements of passengers among many interesting public areas -- including their four-story, boulevard-like interior Royal Promenades, which run more than a football field's length down their center and are lined with bars, shops, and entertainment lounges. These promenades, with their strollable, urban feel, make the Voyager vessels a great compromise for couples that can't decide between a tropical cruise and a city vacation. They may be the first ships to really live up to the old "city at sea" clich¿.

Freedom, carrying at least 500 more passengers (and more if all berths are full), offers a nearly identical layout and ambience to the Voyager ships, but stretched out and with a few new eye-catching activities and entertainment features (about which more below). But those extras come with a price: The Royal Promenade, for instance, is more dominated by shops and corporate co-branding arrangements (a Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor, a sportwear shop with a dedicated New Balance section, etc.), giving it a feel that's as much mall as theme park. When crowds are low ¿ say, during the early dinner seating, or late at night ¿ it can still be a fun spot to sit at a "sidewalk" caf¿ and catch a drink, but when things are hopping, you'd be forgiven for thinking your car was parked outside, in lot D.

Things can get very crowded, too, at big draws like the Flowrider (see below) and at dinnertime, outside the main restaurant.

The Big Draws

Sticking with their "Get Out There" active image, Royal Caribbean has outfitted Freedom with several new features sure to entertain both actual athletes and weekend warriors, as well as their active kids.

The biggest hoo-ha is the ship's Flowrider surfing simulator, which stars in the line's recent "Longboard, shortboard, onboard" TV commercials. Created by WaveLoch, Inc. (www.waveloch.com) of La Jolla, CA, the FlowRider is similar to swim-in-place lap pools with their recycling currents, except that this one features a stream that flows up an inclined wedge-shaped surface 40 feet long and 32 feet wide. At the bottom are powerful jets that pump 30,000 gallons per minute up the slope, creating a wave-like flow on which boarders can ride -- at least in theory.

Located in the stern of Freedom's sports court, spanning decks 12 and 13, the ride is adjoined by bleachers for gawkers and fans, creating a bonding atmosphere where those disinclined to flow can wager quietly on those who are. I had my money on the kid with the puka beads and boarder shorts, who did manage to get to his knees before falling off and being swept up and BAM! into the padded back bumper ¿ like everybody else. It's sports as a metaphor for life: Eventually, you fall down and get swept away by the currents, only here you can get back in line and try again.

Participants must sign up for group sessions and go through a quick introduction, after which they and the other members of their group take turns riding the wave, either in traditional stand-up surfing or less-balance-demanding body-boarding. A soft, flexible surface absorbs the impact when you fall. Which you will.

In the ship's gym, an honest-to-god twenty-by-twenty foot boxing ring takes the place of the large hot tub that greets guests on the Voyager ships. The ring is part of what the line bills as the largest fitness center at sea, offering workouts that are rare even in shoreside gyms. Options include:

  • "Fight Klub" Boxing Training: Passengers can sign up for one-on-one training sessions with an experienced instructor using speed bags, jump ropes, heavy bags, and padded punching mitts. Groups of three can set up supervised sparring sessions with freestanding bags, and those wanting the full monte can arrange three one-hour sessions with a boxing coach.
  • ShipShape Class Program: The first-ever dedicated Pilates reformer studio at sea will offer personal training with Pilates instructors, while onboard yoga classes throughout the week bracket a class on the beach at Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private resort in Haiti. Other onboard classes include stretching, toning, "Boot Camp X-Treme Training," "Salsamania" dance workouts, and a group class using six linked treadmills cycling through various intensity levels and inclines.
  • Life Fitness' Cable Motion Weight Machines: New equipment gives exercisers the freedom to move their limbs independently of one another within a user-defined range, or to use different weights for each limb.
  • Mapped Running/Jogging Routes in the Ports of Call: Part of a new deal between Royal Caribbean and New Balance, which also includes stretch and fitness tips at intervals along the onboard running track.

For kids, the H20 Zone Water Park takes up almost half the pool deck, with colorful cartoon statues in which are hidden water canons, jets, buckets, and sprays, some controlled by motion sensors, others by the kids themselves. The area also includes two wading pools (one geared to toddlers) and two hot tubs, a great place for mom and dad to soak while the kiddos are having ball. Father forward, in the main pool area, two large hot tubs are suspended like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon from port and starboard, extending twelve feet over the edge of the ship and some 112 feet above the sea. Extremely popular, they get socially crowded ¿ but of course, with hot tubs, that's a good thing.

All the Rest, from Stem to Stern

Like the Voyager ships, Freedom has more than three miles of public corridors, which can feel like a real hike if your cabin's on one end of the ship and you have to get to the other. On the bustling, 445-foot Royal Promenade, a champagne bar, a wine bar, an English-style pub, an ice cream parlor, and two cafes share space with six shops. The Promenade is also the venue for musical performances by the ships' various musical groups, and for a nightly parade with lasers, clowns, music, and other entertainers.

In total, there are more than two dozen places aboard each ship to grab a drink, including the Viking Crown complex on the top deck, with its elegant jazz club; the romantic, nautically themed Schooner Bar; the Wipe Out bar near the Flowrider; Boleros Latin-themed bar; the Plaza Bar, offering sake; a juice bar; and the clubby cigar bar. As aboard the Voyager, there's also a Gothic-dungeon-themed disco entered though a theme-parky "secret passage," plus a huge theater, an enormous casino, and the Studio B ice rink, which presents excellent ice shows as well as game shows and fashion shows (held on a sliding floor that covers the ice) and open-skate sessions.

Dining options include the three-level main dining room, which ¿ like its cousins on the Voyager ships, is among the most stunning and classy aboard any of today's megaships. Linked by a large open area and grand staircase at their center, the three levels are each considered a separate dining room, though service and menus are consistent throughout. A pianist or piano trio entertains from a platform in the aft end of the room and a huge crystal chandelier hangs overhead, both setting an elegant mood.

For a dining alternative, the oceanview Portofino restaurant serves Italian meals in a cozy setting, while Chops Grill is a woody room for manly steaks. The pleasant, spacious Island Grill and Windjammer casual buffet restaurants include an Asian-themed buffet, while out on deck the popular Johnny Rockets diner serves lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks in a1950s-style atmosphere, either indoors or out.

But It's the Little Things That Count

For this man's money, Freedom's biggest winner is one of the simplest but most enjoyable new options I've seen aboard a ship in years: a mens' barber shop on the Royal Promenade offering old-timey professional shaves spiced with a helping of New Age spa frippery. Forty-three bucks will get you the half-hour Express Shave, which includes hot towels, deep-cleansing exfoliation, a super-close shave, and did I mention hot towels? Niiiice. Another thirty bucks adds a face and scalp massage and "deep pore-cleaning mask, while $94 buys you all the above plus a hand-and-arm massage. Royal Caribbean may not be able to drag some men to their main spas, but by cloaking this annex in the aura of a real barbering experience, they're almost guaranteed to get bodies in the chair. But hey, why not offer daily shave packages, throughout the whole trip, with personalized shaving mugs kept on a shelf and yours to take home at the end of the cruise, along with your own quality razor and bristle brush? That's the kind of gimmick I'd fall for in a minute. (Note to RCI: If you use this idea, please send mug. You have my address.)

The Report Card

Overall, let's give Voyager a B+, taking off points for over-commercialization and a sometimes crowded feeling. That said, she does offer the big, active, city-vacation feel that's the Voyager ship's stock in trade, and that ain't a bad thing. If you're the type that's already been attracted to the Voyagers, there's no real reason to stay away. On the other hand, there's little reason to specifically seek out Freedom instead of the Voyagers, which in a way is good ¿ with six ships to choose from, you can pick your trip based on the destination, which is what you should be doing anyway. Now of course, if you're a surfing fan or want a good shave, that's another matter entirely . . .

Freedom sails 7-night Western Caribbean itineraries from Miami calling in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Montego Bay (Jamaica), and Labadee, Royal Caribbean's private peninsula in Haiti.

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