Friday, June 30, 2006

How far is it?

That's the question I hear the most. My answer: Two movies, a novel and an Ambien.

I've been flying to Asia since 1986, when I cleaned out my savings for a ticket to Hong Kong. I learned then that long flights are all about mind-set.

BA -- that's "Before Ambien" -- flights were two movies, two novels and a guidebook. Still, it was all about expectation and anticipation. I expect the flight to be long, but there's so much to look forward to!

Of course, heaven forbid that my three hour flight to New York stretch to five. Talk about getting crabby!

On this monster haul, I'll be drinking plenty of water, wiggling my toes and taking the occasion stroll around the plane. No alcohol for me, either. That's all advice from experts, but I've found it sound over time ... landing in an unfamiliar country with a hangover is NOT a good idea.

As for the "how far is it?": Here we go:

Miami to LA: 2341 miles, 5.25 hours
LA to Sydney: 75-9 miles, 14.35 hours
Total travel time including layover in L.A.: 22.35 hours

And yes, for those who keep asking: I fly last class. But I always order an aisle seat. Climbing over a stranger to get to the loo just isn't fun.

Adventures in Australia

You told us where to go. We heard you.

Each year we ask Miami Herald readers to tell us the places they'd most like to read about. For each of the past three years, Australia has been one of your top picks.

So here I go.

Don't count on me to be hanging out in all those places you've read about, though. My job, I figure, is to discover the Down Under you don't know, beyond The Big City and the Great Barrier Reef.

For the next 18 days, I'll be traversing the Outback via car, foot and camel. My
itinerary includes a three-day camel trek into the desert (yup, I'm in a tent!), a stop at the world's largest monolith (Ayers Rock), a long drive to the mining town of Coober Pedy, a stop in the Flinders Range, wine-tasting in the Clare and Barossa regions, a visit to Adelaide, and a sojourn with the koalas and 'roos on Kangaroo Island.

I'll post most days, but some I'll miss: My tent doesn't have wireless.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Costs: The bottom line

Hi. We had a question about costs, so we thought we'd fill you in.

First, cruises CAN be all-inclusive....but it means staying out of shops, the spa and off of shore excursions. Here are some guidelines.

What's included: Your cabin cost (more about that in a minute) covers your cabin. It also covers dining in the main dining room and other no-charge venues (on Freedom, that includes Sorrento's Pizza and Lattitudes coffee shop, where coffee and snacks are free but specialty drinks like latte and cappucino carry a cost similar to what you pay on land.) All onboard shows are included, as is use of the fitness center, rock-climbing wall, ice rink, Flowrider and mini-golf. A selection of non-alcoholic beverages is offered for free at each meal; that's mostly iced tea, lemonade and coffee.

Cabin cost: Inside cabins start at $859 per person, double. Outside cabins start at $1,049 per person, double; outside cabins with balconies start at $1,299 per person, double. A variety of suites is offered. Bear in mind that the earlier you book, the more likely that you're going to get a good price for the cabin you want. And if the price goes down, you CAN request a refund...though you'll need to keep an eye on pricing to know if that happened.

Bottom line: So the bottom line for your trip with accommodation, food and onboard entertainment is the price you pay for your cabin, plus tips. Tips are optional, but these people work hard and cheaping out is uncool. The recommended tip is $10 per traveler per day.

For a fee: Some onboard amenities do have a fee. These include the golf simulator ($25), all spa treatments and some fitness classes ($10 for yoga, pilates or a group boxing class. Children's programs are included but the video arcade charges $1.25 per credit (and these can really rack up.)

Some food outlets have a charge: Portofino ($20), Chops Grille ($20) and Johnny Rockets ($3.95 cover charge plus the cost of drinks.) Cocktails run about $6 each, wine from $4.50 to $7.50 per glass; wine by the bottle prices are less usurious than in landside restaurants. Sodas cost extra; if you drink them often, your best bet is to buy a week-long pass for $48.30 for an adult, $32.80 per child.

Shore excursions: Yup, they're expensive. You can generally arrange many if not most of the excursion experiences on your own. This means getting a good guidebook -- Lonely Planet or Moon -- figuring out what experiences are available, doing some research ahead of time online. I've even e-mailed in advance so that the operator has set aside kayaks for my group. Also, some experiences are offered for a lesser price at booths right on the dock.

But -- and this is worth considering -- if your port time is limited, you may not be able to do what you'd like without having arrangements pre-set. Also, if your tour bus breaks down or there's any delay, the ship won't wait for you unless you're on an excursion organized by its staff. In Cozumel, for instance, you'd be taking a big risk to try to make the trek to Tulum on your own; too much distance and too many variables when you have only a few hours in port. (If you're on an itinerary that allows more time, you might manage it.)

So why not just hang out in the town? Most port towns in the Caribbean look pretty much the same. That's not to diss the ports -- many are interesting if you get out of the mainstream areas or rent a car to go exploring. But just walking around can lead you from one Colombian Emeralds shop to the next...they're all much the same, and on the items I've checked, the prices are the same one island to the next.

What I spent: My goals were two-fold: Try every last experience I could, and lose weight. This meant a single glass of wine, no cocktails, but lots of active shore excursions.

I saved my shopping for Haiti, where the people really need the money. Everywhere, I haggled. My tab:

Wine: $7
Dinners in Portofino and Chops: $20
Maya Sweatlodge excursion, Cozumel: $98
Snorkeling excursion, Grand Cayman: $28
Canopy Tour, Montego Bay: $89
Yoga class, $10
Pilates class, $10
Fitness consultation, $33
One-on-one boxing class, $83
Spa treatment, $89 plus $10 tip
Accupuncture, $150 (first session)
Internet access, 300 minutes: $100
Water on shore: $10
Onboard souvenir: $50
Inexpensive jewelry in Jamaica: $20
Silver jewelry in Cozumel: $45
Hammered tin artwork, Haiti: $50
Salad bowl set, Haiti: $60
Doll, Haiti: $10
Taxi, Cozumel: $7
Taxi, Montego Bay: $10
Onboard tips: $70
Other tips: $20

Total expenses above cabin cost: $1,079

Sunday, June 11, 2006

More blogs, more cruising, more answers

Early this week I'll try to answer questions you've posted in the comments. They will be posted near your comment, so take a look there!

For more on Freedom of the Seas, see my review on June 25 in The Miami Herald. It will be posted online at

Also check out comments at Cruise Critic . More than 140 of its members were onboard, including the 40 members of The Pink Boa Society, a group of 40 cruisers who met online as they planned their trips aboard Freedom.

Also see Cruise Diva Linda Coffman's review Cruise Diva.

My next blog chronicles my one-month trip as I drive solo from Miami to Seattle in search of the real America. I'll also investigate whether a woman can travel safely in the U.S. when she's on a tight budget.

My driving blog begins August 20 at If you've got tips for places I should check out on my drive, please post them here. See you soon!

More scenes from Freedom's voyage

Freedom of the Seas, which carries more than 4,400 passengers at full capacity, seen from Royal Caribbean's private beach at Labadee. Top, the H20 Zone aboard the ship is a hit with kids...and surprisingly, adults too.

Scenes from Freedom's maiden voyage

Top: Rock-climbing wall is about 10 feet taller and wider than on previous ships; mermaid sculpture hangs from the ceiling on the Freedom of the Seas' internal promenade; the Flowrider is a hit with spectators as well as boogie boarders and surfers. (Photos by JANE WOOLDRIDGE / COPYRIGHT THE MIAMI HERALD.)

Above: Jane (third from left) with Teri, Emmy and Angela, members of The three were part of a group that met on the website and wrote a poem about the Freedom in anticipation of their trip; they dubbed themselves the Pink Boa Society. About 40 Pink Boa members were on board.

Great cruise, painful debarkation

General review on the Freedom of the Seas's inaugural cruise: A big thumbs up from most voyagers. (For more details, see my review on June 25 at

Yup, there are some start up problems -- dining service is uneven, especially in the casual Windjammer buffet. There are some size challenges -- it's hard to find a seat in the Windjammer during busy morning hours, and the wait for the Flowrider can be as long as 45 minutes. And there are some policy changes that made past cruisers uphappy: Royal Caribbean has instituted a $3.95 cover charge in Johnny Rockets (free on previous ships) and has eliminated unlimited-use Internet passes (particularly irritating since the Web connections are REALLY slow.)

But all in all, a great experience. Great activities, fun shows, friendly staff, beautiful ship, decent-to-better food.

What wasn't great was luggage handling today at debarkation.

Debarkation is assigned in groups, designated by color. Theoretically, when your color is called, you're good to go. But today, groups were cleared well before luggage was ready shoreside.

Example: At 7:30, my group, Orange, was cleared. Add in 20 minutes to exit the ship, move through immigration and customs, and I was standing at the luggage conveyor belt at 8 a.m. But it was after 9 a.m. when the first Orange bags were put on the belt, and it was 9:30 before my bags came around. Royal Caribbean supervisors were invisible.

Result: Huge groups of people were standing or sitting on the floor for over an hour (there are no chairs in the luggage pick-up area.) And since the Port of Miami has no staging area for drivers, passengers being picked up by local residents, and those who had one person in the party run ahead to move their car out of the parking lot, were left circling with no place to wait.

The situation didn't make sense. Royal Caribbean is limiting the number of passengers on the Freedom's first half-dozen voyages to 3,600 -- the same number it loads and unloads weekly off its Voyager of the Seas in Miami. They have a good reputation for getting those bags handled smoothly.

Said one man next to me, "Why didn't they just let us sit on the ship until the bags were ready?''

Saturday, June 10, 2006

And finally, the Flowrider

I'm not very good at sports ... just not a natural athlete. But I had to try it all.

First, the rock wall. This one is about 10 feet taller, and a lot wider, than the wall on previous ships. I tried it on another ship and bombed. This time I got about 20 feet up before I freaked out...maybe a better instructor.

Then, the Flowrider. If you've seen pictures (see my first posting) you know that the surf park has a physical wave, or bump, in it. Turns out the water goes UP that ramp, not down it....all 34,000 gallons per minute of it.

This was all a bit daunting, but I knew if I didn't try it, I'd come back feeling like a chicken. I went for the boogie board stand-up surfing for me!

Well, it scared the bejesus out of me...but I did it. Yup, Wipe out! But it was fun...REALLY fun. The surface under the mat is a soft cushion made from recycled tires, like a gym mat, and it really made the wipe out least physically.

The ego is another subject. There are plenty of people around to watch you. The Flowrider has turned out to be as popular as a spectator sport as it is an active sport...though you will see everybody from kids to grandparents on the thing. There are specified hours when it's open, and the wait is usually around 10 minutes. On sea days, the wait can go up to 30 minutes...especially in the afternoons after the teens roll out of bed.

Freedom's boxing ring

Freedom of Seas features the first cruise ship boxing ring. But you can't just wander up and use it. You either have to be part of a Powerboxing class ($10) or have a personal session ($83.)

Because I'm a klutz, I went for the personal training session. First you get your hands wrapped to protect them and strenghten the wrists, then you put on the mitts. The instructor doesn't spar -- at least not with a newbie like me. Instead, she puts on instructors' mitts and teachs you to move and punch.

I sweated like, well, a boxer. What a blast! If you're a Type A personality, I recommend it. And no, I didn't get bruised or even swollen. Nearly hit myself in the cheek though.

Friday, June 09, 2006

On the beach at Labadee

Most of us think of Haiti as a place of strife, but the beach area near Labadee -- reserved for use by Royal Caribbean guests -- was an unexpected highlight of the trip. The 260-acre area is big enough for three separate beach areas, a waterpark, shaded seating under seagrapes and coconut palms, and three barbecue restaurants. No one went wanting for a chair (free), snorkel equipment ($16) or float mat ($5).

The private beach features parasailing and sea scooters. There's a large craft market, and though the salesmen were assertive, they were polite and backed off when you declined to look. Top picks: Beautifully honed wooden bowls, bright paintings, hammered tin artwork.

Here, more than any place on the voyage, your purchases have an impact; Royal Caribbean is one of the few significant employers in the country. The musicians all work for tips, so if you come, throw a dollar in the hat.

The one drawback: Royal Caribbean's food operation wasn't quite on target, at least today. Service dishes weren't quickly replenished, and the offerings were limited.

But the place is beautiful, a peninsula flanked by wooded mountains in a postcard-ready setting. Said fellow cruiser Kaki Lybbert of Dallas, "I wish I'd known how nice it is, so I could have looked forward to it the whole trip.''

Fab food, late night

Midnight buffets are no longer a nightly thing, but most cruise lines offer them at least once per voyage.

The Freedom of the Seas' Grand Buffet is held on Friday night of the voyage, and grand is good name for it. There's more than enough to feed your fancy: sushi, roast pork, chocolate-dipped strawberries, multi-layer cakes, cheese and fruit. But what's really amazing is the decor: ice-sculpture angels, marzipan mermaids, harp and guitar made of bread, watermelons carved with bucking broncos, intricate vegetable flowers. The whole thing takes about 300 man hours to produce, said cruise director Ken Rush.

Portofino: Specialty restaurant

Like most big ships these days, the Freedom of the Seas has two fine-dining restaurants. To dine in them, you pay an extra $20.

Last night I dined in Portofino, the Italian restaurant washed in subtle Venetian golds and reds. Was it worth the money? If you're a foodie, the answer is yes. Menu options included starters (carpacio, caprese insalata and a salad with smoked duck, among the others) and three pastas -- I had a creamy pappadelle with funghi and a mascapone sauce. For a main, I had the saltimbocca -- beautifully prepared, but a little heavy for my taste, and I wished I'd ordered the spectacularly-presented seafood skewer with lobster, scallops and fish. Desserts are a work of art ... you hate even to touch them.

What to wear: There's a mix. Some men were in shirt sleeves, others in jackets and still others in suits. For women the dress ranged from trousers to cocktail dresses.

Tip: Getting a reservation is a tad easier on formal nights and on lobster night in the main dining room.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Jamaica: Jane hits the jungle

I’m strapped into a harness, hooked onto a pulley, and flying through the jungle 250 feet above the floor at 30-plus miles per hour. I’m on a cruise ship excursion.

Just a few years ago, cruise ship shore excursions came in one flavor: Vanilla. But in the past two years, Royal Caribbean has made a concerted effort to see that it’s active excursions are really, well, active, says Craig Milan, president of Royal Caribbean Tours. He’s one of the execs on board this inaugural trip.

I’m a believer. While a fellow cruiser reported she’d been trapped on a bland bus tour (yes, they still exist), I was playing Jane of the Jungle on a canopy tour.

I’ve done four canopy tours now – two in Costa Rica, one in Ecuador, and this one in Jamaica. The idea: You get up high (there’s usually climbing and hiking involved), then “fly’’ from one platform to another along cables. This tour included six traverses, some as brief at 30 feet, the longest more than 1000 feet long.

This wasn’t the longest or most rigorous canopy trip I’ve done, but it was the most enjoyable, thanks to the humor of our two canopy guides, Kim and Fitz. They weren’t just safe, they were fun.

The rating from the 12 fellow canopy fliers in my group: “Awesome’’ – even from the woman who was so scared that she had to be carried across an early traverse by the guide.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Snorkeling report

Thanks to 2004's horrific hit from Hurricane Ivan, Grand Cayman's reefs aren't what they were, the locals told me. But while the reef has lost its soft corals and its color, the fish are still plentiful: triggers, rays, parrotfish, angels, Bermuda chubb.

Four ships were in port, which meant shops, reefs, Stingray City were all crowded. Though we had only about 30 people on our reef-and-wreck shore excursion, we shared the reef with a couple of other snorkeling boats plus a pair of glass-bottom boats. A little crowded, but still worthwhile despite a thundering downpour.

Caribbean port areas seem much the same; to see much that's unique to each place, you need to get away from the Duty Free jewelry shops. Fellow cruisers Rhona and Larry Kalkstein of Marco Island did just that. They walked just a few blocks from the main shopping area, ate lunch in a local restaurant and had a great time, they reported...and didn't see another tourist.

Specialty restaurants

Most big ships now offer a couple of specialty restaurants, which require an additional fee usually $20 or less) and promise an intimate, fine-dining experience.

On Freedom, as on several other Royal Caribbean ships, those restaurants are Portofino, with Italian cuisine, and Chops, a grill room. Both are packed on this sailing -- more than 1,900 of the 3,600 guests aboard are repeat cruisers -- and even top execs are having trouble getting space.

Though Freedom is bigger than all other cruise ships at sea, its specialty restaurants can handle only about 100 guests per night...about the same as on the Voyager class chips.

So our advice: If you want to dine in these restaurants during your voyage, you'd better book as soon as you board the ship.

Wednesday: Grand Cayman

Shore excursions are often canned experiences – dozens of people on a big tour bus with some a guide who has given the spiel for eons. But for the last few years, all cruise lines have tried to create smaller, more intimate experiences as well.

Yesterday, in Cozumel, those included a tequila tasting for 10 under an open-air palapa that left my dining table mates raving.

I spent my Cozumel morning with 9 fellow cruisers in a traditional Mayan sweatlodge – apty named, as you literally sweat out a half to a full gallon during 90 minutes in what is essentially a brick kiln heated by lava rocks from a fire and splashed by the shaman-in-training with water and herbs. The idea: To reorder your energies and cleanse your system. Sounds a bit New Agey, but my fellow excursion-takers were pretty much 50-plus church-going Americans, and everyone reported feeling great afterward.

Today we’re in Grand Cayman, where snorkeling and Stingray City are the main attractions. Both involve larger group sizes. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Some excursion notes:

Cozumel: No. 1 excursion is a visit to the Maya ruins at Tulum (and if you’ve never seen them, you should.) Given the limited time you’re in port, best bet is to go with the ship’s excursion. Snorkeling and diving are also popular; these are trips you can do on your own if you’ve brought or rented gear, or you can arrange them at a (non-ship-run) booth as soon as you get ashore.

Weather: The trick to getting space on the small excursions is booking early. But excursions are non-refundable....which means that on a mediocred weather day (today is one of those) you're going unless the excursion is cancelled. Something to thin about.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More questions, answers

Though I don't respond to each of you, I am reading your comments and will try my best to answer as many questions as I can. Keep your thoughts coming! Otherwise, it gets lonely. And check out comments and reviews from other Freedom cruisers at

Your questions, my answers:

On food: The buffets in the casual-dining Windjammer Cafe have been quite good. I've eaten there every day for breakfast and lunch, and while I'm doing my best to stay healthy, I've tried at least bites of many dishes.

At breakfast, there's a bit of everything: Eggs made to order, pre-made ham & cheese omlettes that are wonderfully crispy, bagels, smoked salmon, fruits, cereals (hot & cold), waffles....I can't think of much that isn't there.

At lunch, there's a selection of salads, sandwiches, hot dishes (fish, pork or steak), burgers and pastas. Unlike the Voyager ships, the Jade Asian-inspired buffet is adjacent to the Windjammer, which means more food options and more food stations.

The main dining room is, as a fellow cruiser from Pennsylvania put it, average. "There's nothing that jumps out at you from the plate,'' he said. I've had seabass that was a tad dry and an herbed breast of chicken. My table mates gorged on lobster bisque, escargot, beef, duck...the variety is good, the preparations fairly sophisticated. All the food seemed to be more than satisfactory, but none evoked raves. The sugar-free desserts (I've tried them all) are actually really tasty.

In my experience, the food in the main dining room aboard Carnival's newest seven-day ships is a little tastier. So is the food in its specialty restaurants. However, both of Freedom's specialty restaurants, Chops and Portofino, have new menus, so I'll reserve comment until after I've tried them.
Crowds: Still fewer lines than expected (almost none in fact). Elevators are a bit leisurely but are rarely packed. The ship ran multiple tenders today in Cozumel so there seemed to be few problems. But remember, for the first month, Freedom of the Seas is intentionally running about 600 shy of full capacity, to get the crew up to speed, according to Royal Caribbean President Adam Goldstein.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Thumbs up for shipboard shows

When it comes to the shows presented in shipboard theaters, I'm not usually much of a fan. But the three shows I've seen so far on Freedom of the Seas may make me a convert. All were funny, clever and relevant.

First came commedian Don Friese's Seussian-riff on technology and cell service ("I cannot call you from a tree, I cannot call you after 3.'')

Next, the ice-dancing show in the Studio B rink. The "Age of Aquarius'' segment seemed a bit forced (bell-bottoms, hip-huggers and headbands looked pretty silly on the ice). But the quick-change costume routine -- nearly a dozen outfit changes right on the ice that will leave you mind-boggled as to logistics -- and a Captain Hook pirate number brought everyone to their feet.

Best: Once Upon a Time, a smart comic musical (think Wicked) that marries fairy tales, pop tunes, incredible costumes, jazzy sets, stellar voices, sharp dancing and some hysterical moments. Cinderella sings a rap version of "If I were a rich girl'' a la Fiddler on the Roof while two huge guys dressed as the evil stepsisters dance on; a trio of Rapunzels belts out "I need a Hero!"; "Mr. Sandman'' serenades a gumby-like Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood drives through a video version of "Route 66'' on her way to wolf country. The choreography includes only one semi-balletic scene, and it's mercifully short. This is one show I'd actually pay to see on land.

What to do on a day at sea

I usually find days at sea boring...unless I'm engrossed in a great read. Here, there's so much to do that I can't keep up with it all.

Mini-golf, rock-climbing, the fun kids pool featuring bright Botero-esque sculptural waterspouts (left), Bingo, the art auction that seems inescapable on nearly every cruise ship, the much-talked-about Flowrider....

I'm determined to lose weight...or at least not gain any on this cruise. So part of my day has been spent trying to lose weight: Yoga ($10) in the morning, then a fitness lecture (free), then a consultation session with a fitness expert ($33).

My take: The fitness lecture and consultation were both interesting, but they were also sales pitches. That's often the case, I've found, with onboard programs run by the Steiner company, which runs spa and fitness centers on most cruise lines. The lecture was a teaser on how to detox, the consultation also stressed the value of the detox program ... a series of pills that costs about $100 per month for a minimum of three months. I think I'm going to talk with my doctor before I invest.

I'm still undecided about the $150 accupuncture session oriented to weight-loss. Could help with indigestion, I'm told.

My personal plan: Work out at least once a day (aiming for twice, but hey, it's a pretty day out). Walk and take the stairs instead of the elevator (I've only cheated once so far.) Eat the healthy stuff (I did use the lecture on having 40 percent carbs in the diet as an excuse for a slice of pizza, but I learned in the consultation that it's not THAT kind of carbs I'm supposed to have. Oh well.) Avoid alcohol (now, that's painful; there's a wine bar on board.)

This evening: The ice-skating show. Tomorrow: A steamlodge excursion in Cozumel, followed by a one-on-one boxing lesson in the first boxing ring at sea. And Wednesday, just maybe, I'll try the Flowrider.

Your questions, our answers

Response to a few questions we've had:

Yes, they have it, and it sort of works. Online access is slightly flakey but generally OK for e-mail; it costs 50 cents per minute. If you buy it in batches of $50 each, the price drops to 33 cents per minute.

On cell phones: They do work on board. Royal Caribbean says they have agreements with T-Mobile, Verizon and Cingular, but the guy sitting next to me says his Sprint phone also works. The signal is much clearer today at sea than the signal I got last night. Price is determined by your cell provider. Mine is T-Mobile; they're charging a whopping $4.99 per minute. The gentleman next to me is paying $1.99 on Cingular, he says.

Shore excursions: Yes, they're expensive. Some are priced over $100 each; others cost around $40 or $50. Multiply that by a family of six, and you're into some serious dollars. A woman in the cabin next to me says she already spent $16,000 to bring her family of six on the cruise...and as she puts it, they aren't rich people. So it's important to make the shore excursions count.

About 40 percent of the guests on Royal Caribbean's big sailing the Caribbean go on excursions, says the excursions director. My advice: Take the ones that offer unique experiences that you can't do on your own.

At each port we're going to check out options on-your-own, so you can get an idea about what makes the most sense for you. We'll let you know; check back at the end of our trip.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Not your father's cruise ship

OK, so everybody uses that line these days. And really, not many cruise ships are sedate anymore. Certainly not those from Royal Caribbean, Carnival or NCL.

But if you still think cruising is boring, you should have been on the interior promenade that runs down along the center of the Freedom of the Seas tonight for the Party Around the World parade. It wasn't just the elaborate costumes (Indians, ETs, Mandarins, a Buffalo Bill guys on stilts riding a stuffed buffalo), or the rock music, or even the confetti. It was the leather-clad rocker playing his red electric guitar suspended from the ceiling that truly and finally erased any idea that cruising is has to be staid.

Not that everyone saw it. A healthy crowd -- teens to grandmas -- were cheering and singing and laughing it up in On Air, the karaoake room, which has the distinct advantage of being in a room that's more open than most lounges, so you can actually stumble on the action.

Not all the modern conveniences work perfectly. The onboard cell service, for instance, gives a strong signal and I could hear just fine. But the guy on the other end -- a coworker trying to help me fix a computer problem -- couldn't hear a word I said.

Which is why no pix at the moment, I'm sorry to say.

Tomorrow: A day at sea.


Read comments and reviews from other Freedom cruisers at

We're sailing!

The stormy skies over Miami have cleared, the lifeboat drill is over and we're finally sailing. Drivers along the MacArthur Causeway beeped their horns; others parked along Watson Island to watch the ship go out.

Several people who have seen news clips and stories about Freedom of the Seas in New York and Miami have asked why this is called the maiden voyage. It's because this is the first real voyage -- with paying passengers aboard. (Previous sailings were for media, travel agents and invited guests.)

There are 3,600 of us aboard, I'm told by a company spokesman. So far, so good! I boarded about 2;30 -- no lines for security, no lines for check-in, no lines to get aboard. No lines in the Windjammer Cafe for a late lunch. The only line so far: To make spa appointments!

A few early impressions:

- The Freedom is much like Royal Caribbean's Voyager class ships...but bigger. Promenade, pizza parlor, plenty of bars ... and one of the biggest gyms I've ever seen.

- The art photography that adorns stairwells throughout the ship is a welcome surprise. It's not so outrageous that it gives you a headache, but many -- like the Geof Kern photgraph (left) of a woman "flying'' over a lawn -- will give you pause, even make you laugh.

-- The staterooms are bigger than on some ships, and quite comfortable. My standard outside balcony stateroon has as pretty sea-green decor, a full sofa and a closet that might be big enough....if I hadn't overpacked.

Where we're going

The jazz about Freedom of the Seas is all about the ship, its giant size and its onboard attractions like the Flowrider surfing simulator and the boxing ring. To read about how Freedom compares with other behemoths, click here.

Of course, the Freedom does sail, with two full days at sea plus stops at Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Labadee, Haiti.

Here’s a map of where we’ll be going:

Is bigger really better?

Is a bigger ship really better, or does it just mean you stand in longer lines? I'm heading aboard the world's largest cruise ship to find out.

When Royal Caribbean's new Freedom of the Seas sets sail today on its inaugural voyage from Miami to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Haiti, I'll cruise along. You can come too … at least virtually … via the trip reports I'll file here at least twice daily.

Send me your questions and ideas, and I'll let you know whether it's really possible to Hang Ten at sea on the ship's new Flowrider surfing simulator. In my case, probably not … but then, I can't surf anyplace else, either.