Sunday, August 13, 2006

Freedom of the Seas: The heavyweight champ

Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas is the most anticipated new-build since Cunard's Queen Mary 2. Sure, part of the buzz surrounds its size -- so to speak. Freedom surpasses the Queen by just 7,000 tons and carries 1,014 more passengers, so the size differential is more hype than reality.

In essence, Freedom of the Seas, which will spawn two sisters (Liberty of the Seas will debut in May 2007 and an as-yet unnamed vessel will launch in 2008), is a stretched version of Royal Caribbean's hugely popular Voyager class of ships. When Voyager of the Seas debuted, the first in the class of five, it made headlines for it's biggest-ever status. But these ships also introduced enduring innovations, such as the first at-sea Johnny Rockets, ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall and indoor promenade.

And because Freedom of the Seas is a variation on this theme, fans of Voyager-class ships will find much that's comfortingly familiar. The promenade is back, as is the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, Johnny Rockets, the Promenade Cafe, Ben & Jerry's and Portofino. Indeed, in many public areas, there are hardly any changes in decor and design.

What's really exciting about Freedom of the Seas -- and after a night onboard I found much to get excited about -- are its innovations. Firsts at sea continue with the FlowRider surf park, the magical H2O Zone water park, a children's sun deck, solarium whirlpools that are cantilevered off the side of the ship, a boxing ring and even a men's barber shop!

Ultimately, what I found onboard Freedom of the Seas was a ship that was evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature. Its new features will no doubt attract the attention of first-timers. At the same time, they are anything but ho-hum for experienced cruisers. While there's something of interest for everyone -- it's also the best ship ever for families.

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