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Cruise Ship Review

Carnival Freedom - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

It may not be the SS Poseidon, but our expectations for the ship were turned completely upside down.

First, there's the matter of decor. Carnival Freedom -- the fifth and final incarnation of Carnival Cruise Lines' highly successful Conquest class -- was built for summering in the Mediterranean, taking over where Carnival Liberty left off. When we sailed sister ship Carnival Valor, which spends its life in the more youthful, higher energy Caribbean, we found it amazingly subdued having been designed by Joe Farcus (known for glitz and kitsch). We expected that Freedom would bear a similar patina of elegance and sophistication befitting its annual six-month sojourn in Europe. What we found instead was a hodgepodge of design choices that had us scratching our heads, wondering how they came up with an ambience that was at the same time dark and gaudy.

Metallic accents are generally in copper rather then the brighter choice of brass. Lighter colors -- beiges, creams and whites -- appear seldom, and then only as accents. Lighting sconces throughout the Freedom Restaurant, the ship's buffet venue, are fashioned from disembodied heads of the Statue of Liberty casting eerie watery light through their translucent blue fiberglass faces. And all over the ship there are banks of pulsating lights that constantly change color.

Patterns from nature are used as major background elements, but as if seen through a distorting filter. For example, in the Millennium Atrium and throughout the public decks, wood paneling with hyper-emphasized grain patterns in bright orange, black and gray proliferates -- looking like the result of a tiger and a zebra falling into a plywood-manufacturing machine. The ceilings and walls in both main restaurants are done in a black and deep red metallic snakeskin pattern.

Secondly, we expected to mainly find typical Carnival loyalists, more into merrymaking than museums and mosques. On this count we were both right and wrong. We found a high percentage of repeaters, but almost entirely at the upper end of the age spectrum. And while we anticipated that they would by and large be Mediterranean newbies -- present only because it was a) Carnival, b) a new ship, and c) a brand-new itinerary -- we were wrong again. On our voyage we found ourselves among a group of savvy, experienced travelers, who either had visited Europe in the past, or were perfectly comfortable exploring on their own.

Freedom's basic architecture is a conventional sandwich with most public rooms on Decks 3 through 5; most fitness, spa and casual dining on Deck 9 and above; and most passenger cabins in between or below the public room decks. This basic design has been a template for Carnival new-build construction since the introduction of Destiny in 1996. There have been some changes and improvements in attributes and amenities since the class was launched in 2002, most notably the addition of the Seaside Theater, a giant outdoor screen poolside on the Lido Deck, but Freedom suffers from the same passenger-flow bugaboos as do the others in the class. For example, it is impossible to get from the Posh Dining Room at the aft end of the ship to the Victoriana Lounge (main showroom) all the way forward without having to climb or descend one or two decks, and even then one has to pass either through the other dining room or the cigar bar.

Dining

Carnival Freedom has four full-meal dining venues. The two main restaurants, Chic and Posh, are situated midship and aft, respectively. The sprawling two-story Freedom Restaurant on the Lido Deck handles breakfast and lunch buffet chores, and provides an alternative casual dining venue at dinnertime. The Sun King Supper Club, named for Louis XIV, is Freedom's for-fee, upscale alternate nighttime restaurant.

The Freedom Restaurant, with its repetitive use of the iconic Statue of Liberty, is an open and light space with beaucoup choices for all palates. Morning options begin with early bird Continental breakfasts, followed by typical buffet offerings augmented by several omelet stations. In the main buffet area there are several lines and plenty of room to maneuver with your tray. But guests requiring assistance carrying their food to their table will find availability limited at best. Indoor seating is available on the Lido Deck (Deck 9) and the mezzanine one deck above. Outdoor tables are plentiful around the central pool, or on the fantail surrounding the aft pool, which is topped by a closeable dome.

In addition to the standard lunchtime buffet choices, there is a deli window with made-to-order sandwiches; an Asian window with Japanese, Chinese and Thai choices that change daily; a grill that serves not only burgers and hot dogs, but also tasty steak sandwiches; and a 24/7 pizzeria. Our favorites were a new stir fry section, where diners select and fill a bowl with their choice of ingredients and hand it over to a chef who wok-cooks with a choice of sauces, and the Fish & Chips Cafe, which serves Bouillabaisse, shellfish, ahi tuna appetizers, fried oyster sandwiches and grilled fish over green salad -- in addition to its namesake.

Hint: The cafe is tucked away in the corner of the Deck 10 upper level of the restaurant, and many passengers don't discover it till four or five days into the voyage. Our recommendation is to visit it early in the trip when there are no lines. Dinner is also served in the buffet nightly for those who want a casual meal, with selections similar to what's being served in the main dining rooms.

The two main dining rooms are virtually identical in decor. The lower levels of these rooms stretch the entire width of the ship and are open in the middle, allowing those not along the outer walls a quieter and less claustrophobic dining experience. We preferred dining on the upper level as it was less crowded and relatively more intimate. Both dining rooms have numerous banquettes accommodating parties of four, and an adequate number of tables for as many as 10. It should also be noted that Freedom also has a large number of tables for two, more than 30 by our count.

There are two traditional dinner seatings at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Service is friendly, patient, professional and refreshing from a dining room staff that is becoming increasingly Eastern European in makeup. We found the food tasty, promptly and accurately served, and usually piping hot. Each dinner menu also included "Spa Menu" courses, and vegetarian selections.

It did seem to us, however, that there has been a quantum shift in style of cuisine since our previous experience with a Conquest-class ship, and, again, given the fact that we sailed Freedom in its theoretically more sophisticated European stomping grounds, the shift went in the opposite direction from what we would have expected. On Carnival Valor there was a tendency toward more cutting-edge, fusion cuisine, featuring unusual pairings with such exotic ingredients as yuzu, baby bok choy, Yukon gold potatoes, rose hip, etc. Moreover, there were occasional degustation (multi-course tasting) menus featuring smaller portions of up to six courses.

Though the quality of preparation on Freedom was consistent and competent, the preparations were simplified. Even the offerings of Georges Blanc, Carnival's celebrated star consulting chef (who parted ways with the line in 2008), are mostly what we dub Continental comfort food -- such European standbys as osso bucco and beef bourguignon. When a cruise line spends hundreds of thousands of dollars for an uber-chef to provide unique menu choices, generally the expectation is that he or she will deliver recipes that can't be found in the frozen aisle of any local supermarket.

The Sun King Supper Club, located on Deck 10, and isolated from the rest of the ship's nighttime hullabaloo, serves the same fine steakhouse cuisine as its equivalents on other Conquest-Class ships, but lacks an atmosphere of intimacy and refinement. With all the painted-on gold color and crystal chandeliers it feels a bit like dining in the Liberace Museum.

Decor aside, there are still two major attributes that make the Sun King a great diversion. First and foremost is the cuisine; nothing cutting-edge here but if dry-aged prime meat, quality seafood and a great wine list ring your chimes, enough said. Secondly, Sun King is a true supper club, with a small combo that plays at a volume level that doesn't annihilate conversation; on the dance floor, before dinner or between courses, it's possible to tango and talk at the same time.

There is a $30 per-person charge to dine here, plus optional gratuity. Reservations are required, but we found the room lightly booked. For those that want to play it safe, there is a signup desk in the lobby on embarkation day right at the end of the gangway. Dress code for the Sun King is "upscale casual" (no jeans, shorts, T-shirts, etc.).

One little-known fact about the Conquest-class supper clubs is that the bar and dance floor are open to all passengers, even those not dining there. This provides a nice, intimate lounge to enjoy a quiet pre-dinner cocktail or a late night tete-a-tete. Those just enjoying the bar can order caviar from the dinner menu ($45) to toast one of those very special occasions.

Other food options include free soft-serve ice cream and yogurt in the Freedom Restaurant, and either sushi or tapas served at cocktail hour at the Deck 5 Meiji Sushi Bar. Coffee drinks and pastries are available for a fee at the Viennese Cafe. There is continental breakfast available during breakfast hours through room service, and there is a typical 24-hour menu of snacks, desserts and sandwiches. All room service is free of charge.

Public Rooms

For us, this was another serious case of "What were they thinking?" The location, size or designated use of many public rooms seemed ill-conceived. Consider the Internet Cafe. Its sole entrance is buried inside the Habana Bar, the ship's lounge for cigar aficionados, forcing anyone who wants to use the ship's computers to wade through a miasma of stogie smoke. Fortunately, there is Wi-Fi throughout the ship at the same rate as the Cafe ($0.40 through $0.75 per minute) so it makes sense to bring a laptop.

The choice of placement and size for Habana itself is another head-scratcher. This lounge recreates the atmosphere of Cuba during the 1940's. Giant reproductions of cigar box art of the era decorate the walls, and the clubby leather chairs and sofas are time- and place-appropriate. In a particularly quintessential Joe Farcus touch, the supports for the cocktail tables and barstools are in the form of giant lit cigars. Our praise notwithstanding, the lounge stretches the entire width of the ship, and seats 147. We never counted more than six actually partaking of cigars, but that was enough to make passage through the room unpleasant, though it is one of the main corridors necessary to pass from bow to stern on Deck 4. On the other hand the ship's sports bar Player's -- always a major attraction on Carnival vessels -- held only about a third as many.

In addition to the musical entertainment provided in the lounges, the Babylon Casino does a bang-up job with a slew of slots and just about every table game you've ever encountered. For those who want to get on the real poker (as opposed to "Caribbean Stud," "Let it Ride," and their ilk) there's a new high-tech gizmo which deals Texas Hold 'Em electronically to terminals situated around a typical green felt casino poker table. Guests put a cash deposit at the cashier's cage on a magnetically striped card which they insert into their terminal. There is no human dealer; a central computer deals electronic "cards" and keeps track of the bets. It's true casino poker (without having to tip the dealer) but the action moves at a lightning pace and those without a load of Hold 'Em experience under their belts can see their electronic stake disappear in a heartbeat.

Cabins

Carnival's cabin color scheme has become fairly consistent fleetwide, and Carnival Freedom is no exception, with a predominating palette of burnt oranges carried by the upholstery, carpet, bedspread and curtains offset by cream-colored wall panels. Cabinetry, end tables, moldings and other accents are natural-finished wood.

Carnival's cabins are spacious, with the minimum size (of standard inside staterooms) at 195 square ft. Sixty percent of standard outside cabins have balconies, though the smallest at 35 ft. are really too small for enjoying sunning or dining. Some cabins have extended balconies at 60 ft. or wraparounds at 75 ft.; ours had two reclining chairs and a small table, but there wasn't enough space to completely recline either of the chairs.

We found the amount of storage space available in both the bathroom and closets and drawers to be the most generous we've encountered on a mass-market ship. Plush terry robes hang in all staterooms. In the bathrooms -- all with stall showers except for suites -- there is a bowl o' promotional samples, the sort that appear in your mailbox about the time Procter & Gamble launches a new product. Our selection included toothpaste, pain relievers, moisturizer and face cream, mouthwash, antacids and disposable razors. Shampoo and body wash dispensers are in the shower stall. One nice inclusion in bathrooms was a swing-out magnifying makeup and shaving mirror.

All include television, with satellite feeds of the major networks, CNN and cable movies, a host of infomercial-style offerings hyping everything from onboard shops to spa treatments and shore excursions. There is also a channel devoted to broadcasting talks, activities or other events in the Victoriana Lounge. Interactive choices include onboard account review and shore excursion descriptions and booking. Each stateroom also has a safe and mini-fridge, stocked with a good selection of beer, wine, water, juices, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, as well as snacks. Cabin stewards check the fridge once or twice during the cruise and refill as needed.

Suites are slightly less than twice the size of standard cabins at 350 square ft. (275 in cabin, 65 on the balcony), and include the additional amenities of bathtubs and VCRs. One penthouse suite at 430 square ft. (345 in cabin, 85 on the balcony) adds a dressing room with vanity and walk-in closet. There are 18 "family staterooms" with floor to ceiling windows (so parents need not worry about Junior deciding to play "I am the king of the world!" while balancing on the balcony railing). These measure 230 square ft. and are located on Deck 11 (Spa Deck), one deck below the kids' pool area and Camp Carnival.

Prospective passengers should exercise care when booking to avoid nasty surprises. Six Category 5A standard outside staterooms, for example, have portholes rather than windows, a number of Category 6B outside cabins with obstructed views, and a fair number of cabins with twin beds that can't be combined into a single king bed.

Entertainment

Sea days are to Carnival what county fairs are to livestock breeders; they are the stock and trade, the raison d'etre of the enterprise. And nobody does activity-laden sea days better than Carnival. However, we found that the type of sea day activities on our European voyage was shifted from the physical to the intellectual. For every pool game or hairy chest contest there were at least four trivia or quiz games, for which every lounge and suitable venue throughout the ship was used sometime during the day, including the 270-square-ft. LCD screen poolside.

There are two likely reasons for this shift, both tied to the specifics of European vs. Caribbean itineraries. First, our 12-night Mediterranean voyage by virtue of length, region and cost attracts an older demographic than does a Caribbean sailing. On top of that, out of 12 days only three were sea days, and the remaining nine were high-intensity morning-to-night touring days. On sea days, we really felt like kicking back and engaging in low-impact, low-intensity activities -- as most of our fellow passengers. We assume that winter-season activities, when Carnival Freedom sails the Caribbean, will be more like the typical Carnival paradigm: physical, outdoor activities.

Regardless, our cruise included many of the usual staples: bingo, cooking and towel-folding demonstrations, and competitions derived from popular television shows: "Survivor," "Family Feud" and "The Newlywed Game." For those who like to compete on a different level, there are the ubiquitous art auctions where passengers can butt heads to see who can snare the most objets d'art. The few lectures and seminars are really not-so-thinly disguised self-promotional presentations mounted by the boutiques or spa.

Freedom has a complete range of musical offerings from heavily classical to heavy metal. For those who enjoy spending their days soaking up rays around the pools, there is a four-piece cover band that plays from after lunch till just before dinner. A classical trio holds forth at tea in the Posh Dining Room and before dinner in the lobby. Other choices on our sailing included a solo guitarist (who performed just outside the Casino), a jazz trio performing nightly in the Habana Bar, three different duos that performed in the Sun King, and Swingtime Lounge and Lobby Bar after dinner, and a pianist at the rotating piano in the center of Scott's Piano Bar. We found all these performers to be excellent at their craft. The International Lounge was home to a nightly round of Karaoke, and the 70's Dance Club was disco-central late nights.

Victoriana, the main show lounge, covers an expanse of three decks. We found a substantial number of seats less than desirable due to intervening columns or being under a claustrophobia-inducing balcony overhang. Seating is in banquettes with small fixed pedestals for drinks, or wide, theater-type seating in the balconies. The name of the lounge is supposed to hark back to the era of Queen Victoria, though with its tented-like ceiling of olive and salmon stripes with cream and gold filigrees, it looked to us more like Buckingham Palace meets Ringling Brothers.

The ship, however, does make good use of the room's capabilities. Though we normally don't review specific productions -- since they change fairly regularly -- we feel compelled to comment on two of the three production shows mounted for our sailing. The first, titled "The Big Easy," paid homage to New Orleans. Not only are the music styles -- jazz, blues, gospel, Zydeco, Dixieland -- of this great city overdue to be made the centerpiece of a cruise ship production extravaganza, but the timing is a real boon to NOLA, which needs to be kept in the public eye to continue generating tourism and awareness. The second show, "Ticket to Ride," is based on the music of the Beatles, and makes the best use of the technological capabilities of a modern cruise ship show lounge we've ever seen. State-of-the-art blending of computer animation with live onstage performance and laser light show effects had our boomer-intensive audience on their feet cheering by the final curtain.

One nice touch: The Seaside Theater features films every evening, complete with freshly-popped popcorn (available at $1 a bag from the poolside bar).

When in port, the ship mounts a very efficient shore excursion operation. Shore excursion personnel don't regularly accompany guests on excursions as they do on some ships, but ship's photographers and videographers often do.

Fitness and Recreation

One innovative architectural attribute of the Conquest class is that the sunning area has been maximized by structuring eight tiered plateaus from just above Deck 10 (Panorama Deck) to the surface of Lido Deck (Deck 9), creating an expanse of space to place chaises. That's not to say it makes enough difference that there isn't still a problem with books and towels mysteriously appearing on lounges at 7 a.m., though no actual guests show up to use the chairs till after 11 a.m. However, we never had a problem finding an empty chaise, even on sea days.

Kids have their own wading pool on Deck 12 (Sun Deck) right outside Camp Carnival. As for adult pools, there are three: two on Deck 9, each with two whirlpool spas, and one on Deck 10, basically a splash pool at the end of the water slide.

Freedom's spa is a Steiner's franchise operation, offering sauna, massage and salon services, with prices ranging from $60 for a standard Swedish massage through $195 for teeth whitening, and everything in-between. There is also a fully equipped gym with loads of modern workout machines, free weights and a whole area devoted solely to spinning. The facility faces forward, offering dramatic views through picture windows.

Other fitness options include a jogging track on Deck 11 (Spa Deck) with nine circuits equaling a mile, and basketball and volleyball courts. There is a golf-driving cage, and instruction is offered through the ship's onboard golf program; for those whose golf horizons are more limited, there is a nine-hole miniature golf course.

Family

Carnival sets the gold standard for family vacations, both in programming and in physical facilities. Kids are broken into groups by age. There are three groups under the Camp Carnival banner, ranging from preschool to preteen (2 through 5, 6 through 8, and 9 through 11). There is an additional young teen group for 12- through 14-year-olds. A new program, Club O2, has been developed in conjunction with Coca-Cola, for older teens (15 through 17 years old).

Generally, the younger the group, the more their activities are conducted in the Camp Carnival playroom; the youngest ones are there for 90 percent of their supervised activities; the Club O2 kids' programs range the entire extent of the ship. The playroom measures 4,200 square ft. and features a video wall displaying nonstop movies and cartoons, a soft play area for under-2's (admitted only for supervised nighttime group babysitting), and ample space and equipment for arts and crafts -- everything from the standbys of papier mache and painting to devices that make spin and sand art, and even candy.

For preteens and teens there's the 1,800-square-ft. Club O2 Teen Club facility featuring a huge video arcade, a non-alcoholic bar, and dance club with its own D.J. On port days there are "just for teens" shore excursions for the 12- through 17-year-olds, and, in selected ports, Carnival offers "Family Shore Excursions"; however, this is more a matter of marketing than substance, since the experiences on these excursions differed little from those offered on the standard list, at least on our Eastern Mediterranean sailing. One popular aspect is the youth spa program where kids aged 12 through 14 can enjoy spa treatments together with their parents on port days.

Dining options in the formal dining rooms include the usual kids' menus and a daily kids' special. Kids can also dine nightly with the youth counselors sans parents in the Freedom Restaurant.

Group babysitting (which is available to under-2's) is available nightly at a rate of $6 per hour for the first child and $4 per hour for each addition child from the same family.

Fellow Passengers

There is a marked difference in passenger demographics between the Caribbean and Mediterranean cruising regions. In either region, expect a casual, largely American group with high energy and a penchant for having fun. Caribbean sailings generally attract the younger end of the scale. (Carnival estimates only 30 percent over 55), whereas European sailings lean toward the older age of the Carnival spectrum. Carnival's passengers are inclined to be fiercely loyal, and the European sailings tend to be more heavily populated by repeaters; the Caribbean attracts a higher percentage of first-timers.

Dress Code

Casual. Though blue jeans are now off the verboten list, shorts and T-shirts are still unacceptable at dinner -- but that's about it. Even Sun King does not have a dress code beyond the vague "dressy casual." There are two formal nights, and a larger percentage of passengers go to the formal end of the scale: men in tuxedos, women in cocktail dresses and evening gowns.

Gratuity

$10 per person per day is automatically charged to guests' shipboard accounts. This amount can be adjusted in either direction by visiting the purser's desk. Also, passengers can augment the automatic charge with a little extra cash in an envelope. Maitre d's are not included in the $10 daily charge. A gratuity of 15 percent is automatically added to drink orders.

--by Steve Faber. South Florida-based Faber is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic. Beyond Cruise Critic, Faber's work has appeared in a myriad of outlets including Cruise Travel Magazine, "The Miami Herald" and "The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising."Editor's Note: The original review was written when Carnival Freedom was sailing in the Mediterranean. While there is some Euro-centric information, details about the ship are otherwise accurate. Carnival Freedom now homeports in Fort Lauderdale, offering six-, seven- and eight-night cruises to the Eastern and Western Caribbean.

It may not be the SS Poseidon, but our expectations for the ship were turned completely upside down.

First, there's the matter of decor. Carnival Freedom -- the fifth and final incarnation of Carnival Cruise Lines' highly successful Conquest class -- was originally built for summering in the Mediterranean, the destination for our voyage. When we sailed on another Freedom sister, Carnival Valor, which spends its life in the more youthful, higher energy Caribbean, we found it amazingly subdued having been designed by Joe Farcus (known for glitz and kitsch). We expected that Freedom would bear a similar patina of elegance and sophistication befitting future sojourns to Europe. What we found instead was a hodgepodge of design choices that had us scratching our heads, wondering how they came up with an ambience that was at the same time dark and gaudy.

Metallic accents are generally in copper rather then the brighter choice of brass. Lighter colors -- beiges, creams and whites -- appear seldom, and then only as accents. Lighting sconces throughout the Freedom Restaurant, the ship's buffet venue, are fashioned from disembodied heads of the Statue of Liberty casting eerie watery light through their translucent blue fiberglass faces. And all over the ship there are banks of pulsating lights that constantly change color.

Patterns from nature are used as major background elements, but as if seen through a distorting filter. For example, in the Millennium Atrium and throughout the public decks, wood paneling with hyper-emphasized grain patterns in bright orange, black and gray proliferates -- looking like the result of a tiger and a zebra falling into a plywood-manufacturing machine. The ceilings and walls in both main restaurants are done in a black and deep red metallic snakeskin pattern.

Secondly, we expected to mainly find typical Carnival loyalists, more into merrymaking than museums and mosques. On this count we were both right and wrong. We found a high percentage of repeaters, but almost entirely at the upper end of the age spectrum. And while we anticipated that they would by and large be Mediterranean newbies -- present only because it was a) Carnival, b) a new ship, and c) a brand-new itinerary -- we were wrong again. On our voyage we found ourselves among a group of savvy, experienced travelers, who either had visited Europe in the past, or were perfectly comfortable exploring on their own.

Freedom's basic architecture is a conventional sandwich with most public rooms on Decks 3 through 5; most fitness, spa and casual dining on Deck 9 and above; and most passenger cabins in between or below the public room decks. This basic design has been a template for Carnival new-build construction since the introduction of Destiny in 1996. There have been some changes and improvements in attributes and amenities since the class was launched in 2002, most notably the addition of the Seaside Theater, a giant outdoor screen poolside on the Lido Deck, but Freedom suffers from the same passenger-flow bugaboos as do the others in the class. For example, it is impossible to get from the Posh Dining Room at the aft end of the ship to the Victoriana Lounge (main showroom) all the way forward without having to climb or descend one or two decks, and even then one has to pass either through the other dining room or the cigar bar.

Dining

Carnival Freedom has four full-meal dining venues. The two main restaurants, Chic and Posh, are situated midship and aft, respectively. The sprawling two-story Freedom Restaurant on the Lido Deck handles breakfast and lunch buffet chores, and provides an alternative casual dining venue at dinnertime. The Sun King Supper Club, named for Louis XIV, is Freedom's for-fee, upscale alternate nighttime restaurant.

The Freedom Restaurant, with its repetitive use of the iconic Statue of Liberty, is an open and light space with beaucoup choices for all palates. Morning options begin with early bird Continental breakfasts, followed by typical buffet offerings augmented by several omelet stations. In the main buffet area there are several lines and plenty of room to maneuver with your tray. But guests requiring assistance carrying their food to their table will find availability limited at best. Indoor seating is available on the Lido Deck (Deck 9) and the mezzanine one deck above. Outdoor tables are plentiful around the central pool, or on the fantail surrounding the aft pool, which is topped by a closeable dome.

In addition to the standard lunchtime buffet choices, there is a deli window with made-to-order sandwiches; an Asian window with Japanese, Chinese and Thai choices that change daily; a grill that serves not only burgers and hot dogs, but also tasty steak sandwiches; and a 24/7 pizzeria. Our favorites were a new stir fry section, where diners select and fill a bowl with their choice of ingredients and hand it over to a chef who wok-cooks with a choice of sauces, and the Fish & Chips Cafe, which serves Bouillabaisse, shellfish, ahi tuna appetizers, fried oyster sandwiches and grilled fish over green salad -- in addition to its namesake.

Hint: The cafe is tucked away in the corner of the Deck 10 upper level of the restaurant, and many passengers don't discover it till four or five days into the voyage. Our recommendation is to visit it early in the trip when there are no lines. Dinner is also served in the buffet nightly for those who want a casual meal, with selections similar to what's being served in the main dining rooms.

The two main dining rooms are virtually identical in decor. The lower levels of these rooms stretch the entire width of the ship and are open in the middle, allowing those not along the outer walls a quieter and less claustrophobic dining experience. We preferred dining on the upper level as it was less crowded and relatively more intimate. Both dining rooms have numerous banquettes accommodating parties of four, and an adequate number of tables for as many as 10. It should also be noted that Freedom also has a large number of tables for two, more than 30 by our count.

There are two traditional dinner seatings at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Service is friendly, patient, professional and refreshing from a dining room staff that is becoming increasingly Eastern European in makeup. We found the food tasty, promptly and accurately served, and usually piping hot. Each dinner menu also included "Spa Menu" courses, and vegetarian selections.

It did seem to us, however, that there has been a quantum shift in style of cuisine since our previous experience with a Conquest-class ship, and, again, given the fact that we sailed Freedom in its theoretically more sophisticated European stomping grounds, the shift went in the opposite direction from what we would have expected. On Carnival Valor there was a tendency toward more cutting-edge, fusion cuisine, featuring unusual pairings with such exotic ingredients as yuzu, baby bok choy, Yukon gold potatoes, rose hip, etc. Moreover, there were occasional degustation (multi-course tasting) menus featuring smaller portions of up to six courses.

Though the quality of preparation on Freedom was consistent and competent, the preparations were simplified. Even the offerings of Georges Blanc, Carnival's celebrated star consulting chef (who parted ways with the line in 2008), are mostly what we dub Continental comfort food -- such European standbys as osso bucco and beef bourguignon. When a cruise line spends hundreds of thousands of dollars for an uber-chef to provide unique menu choices, generally the expectation is that he or she will deliver recipes that can't be found in the frozen aisle of any local supermarket.

The Sun King Supper Club, located on Deck 10, and isolated from the rest of the ship's nighttime hullabaloo, serves the same fine steakhouse cuisine as its equivalents on other Conquest-Class ships, but lacks an atmosphere of intimacy and refinement. With all the painted-on gold color and crystal chandeliers it feels a bit like dining in the Liberace Museum.

Decor aside, there are still two major attributes that make the Sun King a great diversion. First and foremost is the cuisine; nothing cutting-edge here but if dry-aged prime meat, quality seafood and a great wine list ring your chimes, enough said. Secondly, Sun King is a true supper club, with a small combo that plays at a volume level that doesn't annihilate conversation; on the dance floor, before dinner or between courses, it's possible to tango and talk at the same time.

There is a $30 per-person charge to dine here, plus optional gratuity. Reservations are required, but we found the room lightly booked. For those that want to play it safe, there is a signup desk in the lobby on embarkation day right at the end of the gangway. Dress code for the Sun King is "upscale casual" (no jeans, shorts, T-shirts, etc.).

One little-known fact about the Conquest-class supper clubs is that the bar and dance floor are open to all passengers, even those not dining there. This provides a nice, intimate lounge to enjoy a quiet pre-dinner cocktail or a late night tete-a-tete. Those just enjoying the bar can order caviar from the dinner menu ($45) to toast one of those very special occasions.

Other food options include free soft-serve ice cream and yogurt in the Freedom Restaurant, and either sushi or tapas served at cocktail hour at the Deck 5 Meiji Sushi Bar. Coffee drinks and pastries are available for a fee at the Viennese Cafe. There is continental breakfast available during breakfast hours through room service, and there is a typical 24-hour menu of snacks, desserts and sandwiches. All room service is free of charge.

Also available on all of Carnival's ships is The Chef's Table dining experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option usually takes place in a nontraditional venue, such as the galley or library, and it can be booked onboard at the information desk for a per-person cost of $75.

Gratuity

$10 per person per day is automatically charged to guests' shipboard accounts. This amount can be adjusted in either direction by visiting the purser's desk. Also, passengers can augment the automatic charge with a little extra cash in an envelope. Maitre d's are not included in the $10 daily charge. A gratuity of 15 percent is automatically added to drink orders.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff. An envelope is provided on the last night for those who want to extend thanks to the maitre d'.The 2,974-passenger Carnival Freedom -- the fifth and final incarnation of Carnival Cruise Lines' highly successful Conquest class -- debuted in 2007. Like its Conquest-class sisters, Freedom features a decent ratio of cabins with balconies, a poolside jumbotron, an energetic casino, an ornate three-deck theater, more than a dozen bars and lounges, and a series of shops. The hard-to-please teen set get their own nightclub, too (which is located along the promenade with the rest of the "adult" fare).

Freedom's basic architecture is a conventional sandwich with most public rooms on Decks 3 through 5; most fitness, spa and casual dining on Deck 9 and above; and most passenger cabins in between or below the public room decks. This basic design has been a template for Carnival new-build construction since the introduction of Destiny in 1996. There have been some changes and improvements in attributes and amenities since the class was launched in 2002, most notably the addition of the Seaside Theater, a giant outdoor screen poolside on the Lido Deck (now on almost every Carnival ship), but Freedom suffers from the same passenger-flow bugaboos as do the others in the class. For example, it is impossible to get from the Posh Dining Room at the aft end of the ship to the Victoriana Lounge (main showroom) all the way forward without having to climb or descend one or two decks, and even then one has to pass either through the other dining room or the cigar bar.

But what really sets each Conquest-class ship is the design choices, some of which will invariably have you scratching your head, wondering how they came up with an ambience that was at the same time dark and gaudy. Metallic accents are generally in copper rather then the brighter choice of brass. Lighter colors -- beiges, creams and whites -- appear seldom, and then only as accents. Lighting sconces throughout the Freedom Restaurant, the ship's buffet venue, are fashioned from disembodied heads of the Statue of Liberty casting eerie watery light through their translucent blue fiberglass faces. And all over the ship there are banks of pulsating lights that constantly change color.

Patterns from nature are used as major background elements, but as if seen through a distorting filter. For example, in the Millennium Atrium and throughout the public decks, wood paneling with hyper-emphasized grain patterns in bright orange, black and gray proliferates -- looking like the result of a tiger and a zebra falling into a plywood-manufacturing machine. The ceilings and walls in both main restaurants are done in a black and deep red metallic snakeskin pattern.

Zaniness aside, Freedom ultimately gives you what you'd expect from any of the "Fun Ships" -- gambling, dining, partying, lounging and fun for cruisers of all ages.

Dining

Carnival Freedom has four full-meal dining venues. The two main restaurants, Chic and Posh, are situated midship and aft, respectively. The sprawling two-story Freedom Restaurant on the Lido Deck handles breakfast and lunch buffet chores, and provides an alternative casual dining venue at dinnertime. The Sun King, named for Louis XIV, is Freedom's for-fee, upscale alternate nighttime steakhouse.

The Freedom Restaurant, with its repetitive use of the iconic Statue of Liberty, is an open and light space with beaucoup choices for all palates. Morning options begin with early bird Continental breakfasts, followed by typical buffet offerings augmented by several omelet stations. In the main buffet area there are several lines and plenty of room to maneuver with your tray. But guests requiring assistance carrying their food to their table will find availability limited at best. Indoor seating is available on the Lido Deck (Deck 9) and the mezzanine one deck above. Outdoor tables are plentiful around the central pool, or on the fantail surrounding the aft pool, which is topped by a closeable dome.

In addition to the standard lunchtime buffet choices, there is a deli window with made-to-order sandwiches; an Asian window with Japanese, Chinese and Thai choices that change daily; a grill that serves not only burgers and hot dogs, but also tasty steak sandwiches; and a 24/7 pizzeria. Our favorites were a stir fry section, where diners select and fill a bowl with their choice of ingredients and hand it over to a chef who wok-cooks with a choice of sauces, and the Fish & Chips Cafe, which serves Bouillabaisse, shellfish, ahi tuna appetizers, fried oyster sandwiches and grilled fish over green salad -- in addition to its namesake.

Hint: The cafe is tucked away in the corner of the Deck 10 upper level of the restaurant, and many passengers don't discover it till four or five days into the voyage. Our recommendation is to visit it early in the trip when there are no lines. Dinner is also served in the buffet nightly for those who want a casual meal, with selections similar to what's being served in the main dining rooms.

The two main dining rooms are virtually identical in decor. The lower levels of these rooms stretch the entire width of the ship and are open in the middle, allowing those not along the outer walls a quieter and less claustrophobic dining experience. We preferred dining on the upper level as it was less crowded and relatively more intimate. Both dining rooms have numerous banquettes accommodating parties of four, and an adequate number of tables for as many as 10. It should also be noted that Freedom also has a large number of tables for two, more than 30 by our count.

There are two traditional dinner seatings at 6 and 8:15 p.m., or passengers can opt for "Your Time Dining," which offers open seating in one restaurant from 5:45 to 9:30 p.m. for those signed up. Service is friendly, patient, professional and refreshing from a dining room staff that is becoming increasingly Eastern European in makeup. We found the food (salads, soups, mains, desserts) tasty, promptly and accurately served, and usually piping hot. Each dinner menu also included "healthy" courses, and vegetarian selections.

Sun King, located on Deck 10, and isolated from the rest of the ship's nighttime hullabaloo, serves the same fine steakhouse cuisine as its equivalents on other Carnival ships, but lacks an atmosphere of intimacy and refinement. With all the painted-on gold color and crystal chandeliers it feels a bit like dining in the Liberace Museum.

Decor aside, there are still two major attributes that make the Sun King a great diversion. First and foremost is the cuisine; nothing cutting-edge here but if dry-aged prime meat, quality seafood and a great wine list ring your chimes, enough said.

There is a $30 per-person charge to dine here. Reservations are required, but we found the room lightly booked. For those that want to play it safe, there is a signup desk in the lobby on embarkation day right at the end of the gangway. Dress code for the Sun King is "upscale casual" (no jeans, shorts, T-shirts, etc.).

Also available on all of Carnival's ships is The Chef's Table dining experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option usually takes place in a nontraditional venue, such as the galley or library, and it can be booked onboard at the information desk for a per-person cost of $75.

Other food options include free soft-serve ice cream and yogurt in the Freedom Restaurant, and either sushi or tapas served at cocktail hour at the Deck 5 Meiji Sushi Bar. Coffee drinks and pastries are available for a fee at the Viennese Cafe. There is Continental breakfast available during breakfast hours through room service, and there is a typical 24-hour menu of snacks, desserts and sandwiches. All room service is free of charge.

Public Rooms

Carnival Freedom's central public hub is its eight-deck-high atrium, punctuated by hundreds of color-changing lights, and a stunning glass elevator bank. On the atrium's ground floor, passengers will find the guest services and shore excursion desks, as well as a bar. Adjacent to the "lobby" area are the ship's art gallery and a card room.

Up one deck, passengers will find the tiny Monticello library, which features a smattering of best sellers and the like, and the photo gallery. Climb another flight of stairs to find the Fun Shops, a series of stores selling the obligatory jewelery, duty-free booze and cigs, and Carnival-ia. Passenger can rent formal attire at an adjacent storefront.

The somewhat hidden Internet Cafe is buried inside the Habana Bar, the ship's lounge for cigar aficionados, forcing anyone who wants to use the ship's computers to wade through a miasma of stogie smoke. Fortunately, there is Wi-Fi throughout the ship at the same rate as the Cafe ($0.30 through $0.75 per minute, depending on which package you opt for) so it makes sense to bring a laptop if you're intent on logging on.

Cabins

Carnival's cabin color scheme has become fairly consistent fleetwide, and Carnival Freedom is no exception, with a predominating palette of burnt oranges carried by the upholstery, carpet, bedspread and curtains offset by cream-colored wall panels. Cabinetry, end tables, moldings and other accents are natural-finished wood.

Carnival's cabins are spacious, with the minimum size (of standard inside staterooms) at 185 square ft. Sixty percent of standard outside cabins have balconies, though the smallest at 35 ft. are really too small for enjoying sunning or dining. Some cabins have extended balconies at 60 ft. or wraparounds at 75 ft.; ours had two reclining chairs and a small table, but there wasn't enough space to completely recline either of the chairs.

We found the amount of storage space available in both the bathroom and closets and drawers to be the most generous we've encountered on a mass-market ship. Plush terry robes hang in all cabins. In the bathrooms -- all with stall showers except for suites -- there is a bowl o' promotional samples, the sort that appear in your mailbox about the time Procter & Gamble launches a new product. Our selection included toothpaste, pain relievers, moisturizer and face cream, mouthwash, antacids and disposable razors. Shampoo and body wash dispensers are in the shower stall. One nice inclusion in bathrooms was a swing-out magnifying makeup and shaving mirror.

All include televisions, with satellite feeds of the major networks, CNN and cable movies, a host of infomercial-style offerings hyping everything from onboard shops to spa treatments and shore excursions. There is also a channel devoted to broadcasting talks, activities or other events in the Victoriana Lounge. Interactive choices include onboard account review and shore excursion descriptions and booking. Each stateroom also has a safe and mini-fridge, stocked with a good selection of beer, wine, water, juices, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, as well as snacks. Cabin stewards check the fridge once or twice during the cruise and refill as needed.

Suites are slightly less than twice the size of standard cabins at 350 square ft. (275 in cabin, 65 on the balcony), and include the additional amenities of bathtubs and VCRs. One penthouse suite at 430 square ft. (345 in cabin, 85 on the balcony) adds a dressing room with vanity and walk-in closet. There are 18 "family staterooms" with floor to ceiling windows (so parents need not worry about Junior deciding to play "I am the king of the world!" while balancing on the balcony railing). These measure 230 square ft. and are located on Deck 11 (Spa Deck), one deck below the kids' pool area and Camp Carnival.

Prospective passengers should exercise care when booking to avoid nasty surprises. Six Category 5A standard outside staterooms, for example, have portholes rather than windows, a number of Category 6B outside cabins with obstructed views, and a fair number of cabins with twin beds that can't be combined into a single king bed.

Entertainment

Sea days are to Carnival what county fairs are to livestock breeders; they are the stock and trade, the raison d'etre of the enterprise. And nobody does activity-laden sea days better than Carnival. There are pool games like the vaunted hairy chest contest, trivia competitions, bingo, live music, bar-related activities (cocktail tasting), cooking and towel-folding demonstrations, and competitions derived from popular television shows: "Survivor," "Family Feud" and "The Newlywed Game." For those who like to compete on a different level, there are the ubiquitous art auctions where passengers can butt heads to see who can snare the most objets d'art. The few lectures and seminars are really not-so-thinly disguised self-promotional presentations mounted by the boutiques or spa.

Freedom has a complete range of musical offerings from heavily classical to heavy metal. For those who enjoy spending their days soaking up rays around the pools, there's usually a cover band that plays from after lunch till just before dinner. A classical trio holds forth at tea in the Posh Dining Room and before dinner in the lobby. Other choices on our sailing, which are subject to change, included a solo guitarist (who performed just outside the Casino), a jazz trio performing nightly in the Habana Bar, three different duos that performed in the Sun King, and Swingtime Lounge and Lobby Bar after dinner, and a pianist at the rotating piano in the center of Scott's Piano Bar. The International Lounge was home to a nightly round of Karaoke, and the 70's Dance Club was disco-central late nights.

Victoriana, the main show lounge, covers an expanse of three decks. We found a substantial number of seats less than desirable due to intervening columns or being under a claustrophobia-inducing balcony overhang. Seating is in banquettes with small fixed pedestals for drinks, or wide, theater-type seating in the balconies. The name of the lounge is supposed to hark back to the era of Queen Victoria, though with its tented-like ceiling of olive and salmon stripes with cream and gold filigrees, it looked to us more like Buckingham Palace meets Ringling Brothers.

The ship, however, does make good use of the room's capabilities. Though we normally don't review specific productions -- since they change fairly regularly -- we feel compelled to comment on two of the three production shows mounted for our sailing. The first, titled "The Big Easy," paid homage to New Orleans. Not only are the music styles -- jazz, blues, gospel, Zydeco, Dixieland -- of this great city overdue to be made the centerpiece of a cruise ship production extravaganza, but the timing is a real boon to NOLA, which needs to be kept in the public eye to continue generating tourism and awareness. The second show, "Ticket to Ride," is based on the music of the Beatles, and makes the best use of the technological capabilities of a modern cruise ship show lounge we've ever seen. State-of-the-art blending of computer animation with live onstage performance and laser light show effects had our boomer-intensive audience on their feet cheering by the final curtain.

One nice touch: The popular Seaside Theater features films every evening (and concerts and TV shows during the day), complete with freshly-popped popcorn.

In addition to the musical entertainment provided in the lounges, the Babylon Casino does a bang-up job with a slew of slots and just about every table game you've ever encountered. For those who want to get on the real poker (as opposed to "Caribbean Stud," "Let it Ride," and their ilk) there's a new high-tech gizmo which deals Texas Hold 'Em electronically to terminals situated around a typical green felt casino poker table. Guests put a cash deposit at the cashier's cage on a magnetically striped card which they insert into their terminal. There is no human dealer; a central computer deals electronic "cards" and keeps track of the bets. It's true casino poker (without having to tip the dealer) but the action moves at a lightning pace and those without a load of Hold 'Em experience under their belts can see their electronic stake disappear in a heartbeat.

Fitness and Recreation

One innovative architectural attribute of the Conquest class is that the sunning area has been maximized by structuring eight tiered plateaus from just above Deck 10 (Panorama Deck) to the surface of Lido Deck (Deck 9), creating an expanse of space to place chaises. That's not to say it makes enough difference that there isn't still a problem with books and towels mysteriously appearing on lounges at 7 a.m., though no actual guests show up to use the chairs till after 11 a.m. However, we never had a problem finding an empty chaise, even on sea days.

Kids have their own wading pool on Deck 12 (Sun Deck) right outside Camp Carnival. As for adult pools, there are three: two on Deck 9, each with two whirlpool spas, and one on Deck 10, basically a splash pool at the end of the water slide.

Freedom's spa is a Steiner's franchise operation, offering sauna, massage and salon services, with prices ranging from $119 for a 50-minute Swedish massage through $350-plus for a couples teeth whitening treatment, and everything in-between. There is also a fully equipped gym with loads of modern workout machines, free weights and a whole area devoted solely to spinning. The facility faces forward, offering dramatic views through picture windows.

Other fitness options include a jogging track on Deck 11 (Spa Deck) with nine circuits equaling a mile, and basketball and volleyball courts. There is a golf-driving cage, and instruction is offered through the ship's onboard golf program; for those whose golf horizons are more limited, there is a nine-hole miniature golf course.

Family

Along with Royal Caribbean, Carnival sets the gold standard for family vacations, both in programming and in physical facilities. Kids are broken into groups by age. There are three groups under the Camp Carnival banner, ranging from preschool to preteen (2 through 5, 6 through 8, and 9 through 11). There is an additional young teen group for 12- through 14-year-olds. A new program, Club O2, has been developed in conjunction with Coca-Cola, for older teens (15 through 17 years old).

Generally, the younger the group, the more their activities are conducted in the Camp Carnival playroom; the youngest ones are there for 90 percent of their supervised activities; the Club O2 kids' programs range the entire extent of the ship. The playroom measures 4,200 square ft. and features a video wall displaying nonstop movies and cartoons, a soft play area for under-2's (admitted only for supervised nighttime group babysitting), and ample space and equipment for arts and crafts -- everything from the standbys of papier mache and painting to devices that make spin and sand art, and even candy.

For preteens and teens there's the 1,800-square-ft. Club O2 Teen Club facility featuring a huge video arcade, a non-alcoholic bar, and dance club with its own D.J. On port days there are "just for teens" shore excursions for the 12- through 17-year-olds, and, in selected ports, Carnival offers "Family Shore Excursions"; however, this is more a matter of marketing than substance, since the experiences on these excursions differed little from those offered on the standard list, at least on our Eastern Mediterranean sailing. One popular aspect is the youth spa program where kids aged 12 through 14 can enjoy spa treatments together with their parents on port days.

Dining options in the formal dining rooms include the usual kids' menus and a daily kids' special. Kids can also dine nightly with the youth counselors sans parents in the Freedom Restaurant.

Group babysitting (which is available to under-2's) is available nightly at a rate of $6 per hour for the first child and $4 per hour for each addition child from the same family.

Fellow Passengers

Expect a casual, largely American group with high energy and a penchant for having fun. Caribbean sailings generally attract the younger end of the scale -- Carnival estimates only 30 percent over 55 -- and feature a healthy blend of Carnival loyalists and first-timers.

Dress Code

Casual. Though blue jeans are now off the verboten list, shorts and T-shirts are still unacceptable at dinner -- but that's about it. Even Sun King does not have a dress code beyond the vague "dressy casual." There are two cruise elegant nights, and a decent percentage of passengers go to the formal end of the scale: men in suits or tuxedos, women in cocktail dresses and evening gowns.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff.

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