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Cruise Ship Review

Liberty of the Seas - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Liberty of the Seas is the second sizeable offspring in the Freedom-class family, a litter of vessels that began with Freedom of the Seas in 2006 and culminated with Independence of the Seas in 2008. There is little new on Liberty of the Seas that either sister ship Freedom of the Seas or, for the most part, the other five Voyager-class vessels do not already possess -- including popular onshore brands such as Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's, cruising's only ice rinks, a rock-climbing wall, the novel "Promenade" concept, and Boleros Latin lounge.

There were certainly new additions that debuted with the Freedom class, which had the benefit of approximately 15 percent more space than its Voyager-class siblings. In 2006, cruisers became acquainted with surfing at sea through the FlowRider, were able to experience a dynamic new children's offering with the H20 Zone water park, and deal with suppressed rage in the Everlast boxing ring. But the ship's overall concept -- both in terms of design and choices -- actually emerged some time ago. Introduced back in 1999, Voyager of the Seas is the ship responsible for the majority of the above-mentioned features, which are now staples of the Royal Caribbean fleet. (In fact, Johnny Rockets and Boleros have proven so successful they were added to the older Sovereign-class vessels during that class' extensive refurbishment.)

And so, through a culmination of Voyager- and Freedom-class innovations, Royal Caribbean has introduced a ship in Liberty of the Seas that offers infinite options in the areas of fitness, recreation and entertainment. With the sheer number of options onboard (especially if the seas are calm), you may find yourself forgetting that you're actually on a massive floating object, gliding quickly through the Caribbean Sea.

While little has changed in terms of new facilities, dining options and cabin styles, Liberty of the Seas is presenting at least one novel concept, the Explorer Weddings program. This is an extension of RCI's Royal Romance program, allowing guests to create a customized wedding experience or renew vows at sea -- though technically, ceremonies cannot be performed at sea. Marriage licenses must be obtained in port, and a symbolic wedding and reception can occur onboard. See Editor's Picks: Best Cruises for Weddings for more info. What the Explorer Wedding offers is the option for guests to fashion an adventure-minded "ceremony" at onboard venues such as the FlowRider, rock wall or ice rink, or onshore (helicopter ride in Alaska; medieval castle in Europe).

The problem -- and this may not be a "problem" at all if you're a Royal Caribbean fan -- is that the combination of innovative features -- particularly aimed at a younger, more active cruiser -- may make it difficult to ever settle for another line, or even a smaller ship within the RCI fleet, with fewer options.

There's one essential caveat, however. There are two key factors that may make a cruise on Liberty of the Seas the most expensive mainstream cruise you've ever taken. The booming popularity of Freedom-class vessels has summarily driven up base prices for cruising onboard Freedom and Liberty of the Seas. When we compared the rates of Liberty of the Seas against the newest models from Princess and Carnival (same date range in November 2007, same itinerary of seven-night Eastern Caribbean), we were surprised to find prices ranging from $499 for an inside cabin with Princess, $599 for an inside cabin with Carnival, and $849 for an inside cabin on ... Liberty of the Seas. Even its older fleetmate, Radiance of the Seas, featured a November 10 weeklong Eastern Caribbean cruise from significantly less ($599).

And then there are the a la carte items. More so than any other cruise on which I've traveled, Liberty of the Seas' list of a la carte items does harm to cruising's reputation as a relatively all-inclusive experience: Ben & Jerry's, the specialty restaurants, onboard bars, specialty coffee drinks, the most impressive arcade at sea, Johnny Rockets, etc. It's not that other ships don't have these things on offer, but that Liberty of the Seas has all of them -- and more. And the issue? The for-fee items are generally quite hard to resist. The meals in the specialty restaurants are significantly better than those in the dining rooms, and following my first meal at Johnny Rockets (the fourth meal of the day, between lunch and dinner), I was addicted and quite willing to pay for future meals there for the remainder of the cruise.

Dining

A three-deck-high dining room accommodates nearly 4,000 passengers per night in two sittings, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Each floor is named after a Renaissance master -- Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rembrandt -- and an enormous crystal chandelier towers over the space, fitting for a ship of this magnitude. On one particular night, the dramatic two-deck stairway was used by several girls in debutante dresses celebrating their "Quince Anos," a Latin celebration much like a Sweet 16 in the U.S. If you're going to have an important teenage birthday celebration on a cruise ship, and you want to impress your friends, only a Freedom-class vessel will do.

Meals were generally satisfactory, and that's commendable with the sheer number of mouths to feed. There's always a "Chef's Signature Selection," and the Thai BBQ Chicken Breast with coconut-lemongrass jasmine rice was of particular note. Not surprisingly, just about everyone orders at least one "Fisherman's Plate," which is Liberty's version of lobster (consists of lobster tail, buttery garlic shrimp and vegetables). Vitality choices (specially indicated by a symbol) and vegetarian options like Asian Fried Tofu with red curry sauce are sprinkled throughout the menu. Standards such as salmon, chicken and sirloin steak are also always available.

Breakfast and lunch in the dining room, renamed Brasserie 30 for the casual non-dinner hours, are open seating and include the expected breakfast offerings -- Eggs Benedict, omelets, Belgium waffles -- and lunch choices ranging from Grilled NY Strip Loin Open Sandwich to Tempura Catfish Fillet.

With the Windjammer buffet complex, I found the logistical setup far more impressive than the food offerings; all the grub is centrally accessible with all the seating encircling the perimeter of the space. You could easily make your way around, hit up the salad bar, or pick through Jade's Asian choices (sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, rice crackers), then move to the outsides and find a seat around the spacious, window-heavy arrangements. Even during heavy lunching periods, the crowds were never really an issue.

Regarding the food in Windjammer, mediocrity, and fair amounts of it, is the order of the day. There is, however, a salad bar, several very tasty sandwich and wrap choices -- such as chicken salad in a spinach tortilla -- and some above-average Freedom fries. The Asian-theme night, with its added lantern candles, chopsticks, special partitioned plates with receptacles for soy and other sauces, couldn't quite make up for the overly greasy fried rice, wilted bock choy and mildly globular stir-fried pork, as well as the disappointingly bland sushi.

Breakfast choices include eggs, pre-made omelets, hash browns, fruits, yogurt, cereal, etc. Lunch options range from soups, sandwiches and the ubiquitous salad bar to hot dishes like meatloaf, chicken and vegetable stir-fries, carved meats, French fries, etc.

During midday sunning hours, there's a poolside grill serving burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken. As an alternative to the for-fee Ben & Jerry's, the gratis Sprinkles is a self-service ice cream machine open on the Lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. There's also a juice bar, Squeeze, where you can purchase energy shakes, smoothies and fresh juices. On one post-gym morning visit, I enjoyed a delightful mixture of apple, carrot and pineapple.

If the main dining room and buffet venue experiences were adequate if unmemorable, the food in the two specialty restaurants, Italian bistro Portofino and Chops Steakhouse, made a more lasting impression. Portofino's Italian menu includes appetizers like mozzarella, grape tomatoes and pesto dressing; entrees like tender grilled tiger shrimp over spinach, asparagus and squash; and a dressed up version of tiramisu for dessert, complete with an after-dinner shot of Kahlua and cream. The 10-ounce filet in Chops Steakhouse was velvet, as were the choices of sauces -- peppercorn, bearnaise, wine reduction. The communal vegetable plates, with asparagus and a surprisingly pungent, spicy corn dish, offered two of the memorable options. Both restaurants carry a fee of $20.

Johnny Rockets (Deck 12, aft) serves 50's Americana grub like burgers, grilled sandwiches, fries, onion rings and malts. I dined there at 4:30 p.m., between an early lunch and late-seating dinner. In seconds, I was seated at the counter, a plate of onion rings and fries placed in front of me. Without hesitation, my St. Louis burger -- with melted Swiss, pickles, fried onions, bacon and special sauce -- was the best meal I had onboard. There are little Jukeboxes set up at the counter and at tables with classic songs from the 50's and 60's -- Wild Thing (The Troggs), Walk Like a Man (Four Seasons), tunes by the talented Buddy Holly and the less-talented Big Bopper. A $4.95 cover charge applies for dine-in or take-out; you must pay for drinks (milkshakes, malts, floats, sodas) separately.

If you arrive at a busy time and have to wait to be seated, you'll be given a pager that buzzes when your table is ready. With the nearby arcade and sports area, you can spend any time waiting dumping money into the pricey video games or watching people play pickup basketball or rock climb.

Indoors, on the ship's promenade, the self-titled Cafe Promenade, with its standard brown leather coffee-shop couches, is open around the clock for free Seattle's Best coffee, brownies (double chocolate peanut butter fudge), cookies (coconut, oatmeal raisin), cakes, little sandwiches (ricotta, black olive tapanade, red pepper on poppy seed bun) and for-fee specialty coffee drinks, with and without booze.

Also on the promenade, Sorrento's is the popular 1950's Little Italy-themed pizza spot. Beyond offering four kinds of pizza -- plain, pepperoni and daily specials like potato and chicken, and spinach, chorizo and tomato -- it also features several antipasti selections, including zucchini frittatas, marinated mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, slices of prosciutto, and desserts like biscotti, macaroons, fat-free key lime mousse and fruit cups. With the exception of alcohol that's also sold on the premises, everything is free. NYC memorabilia -- including vintage-looking Italian film posters and photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mariano Lanza, Dick Contino and of course Frank Sinatra -- adds a hint of character to the setting.

Liberty of the Seas' Ben & Jerry's is a miniature version of what you'd see ashore with only slightly augmented prices. There are 11 ice cream flavors to choose from, two nonfat frozen yogurt selections and a couple of sorbet choices. Current prices (July 2007, subject to change) come in at $4.75 for a waffle cone, $5.25 for a hot fudge sundae and $4 for a milkshake.

If you're looking for snack food of the chips, pretzels and nuts stripe, the General Store has you covered, though of course you'll have to pay for them. Although you can't eat the following, don't forget your essentials. Deodorant stung me at $6.99. Whoops.

Round-the-clock room service allows you to select from a few different appetizers (Caesar salad, soup), sandwiches (grilled vegetable panini), entrees (burgers, pizza), desserts (cakes, cookies) and beverages. Food is free between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge. The first time I ordered via the interactive TV screen, nothing ever arrived. My next effort was made through my room phone, and the food -- chili chorizo dip with chips -- came within the advertised 30- to 45-minute time frame. On days in port where an early start is desired, you can leave a breakfast request -- a selection of Continental items (croissants, bagels), eggs, sides like bacon and juices -- hanging on your door the night before.

Public Rooms

Royal Caribbean has ingeniously created a two-level promenade that you'll walk through many, many times per day. Along with the well-attended Casino Royale on Deck 4, the Deck 5 promenade, four stories in height, spans much of the length of the ship. Looking as if its been carefully excised from a New Jersey mall, there are a cluster of shops on both sides including stores for logo items, perfume, duty-free alcohol and jewelry, as well as Vintages Wine Bar, the Hoof & Claw British pub, Cafe Promenade coffee shop, A Clean Shave barber shop, etc.

On Deck 7 aft is the modest library, and though not teeming with readers, the space had a few passengers engaged with books each time I passed en route to or from my nearby cabin.

One deck directly above the library is Royal Caribbean Online (connected by a staircase), the ship's Internet cafe. There are 19 terminals, and at least half were often in use. There was a range of connection speeds, from approximately what you'd expect at home with a cable modem to the early days of Internet, the 14.4 dial-up. The flat rate is 50 cents a minute, but if you buy packages, the rate can decrease to as low as 33 cents a minute. The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area hot spots.

A new addition to Liberty of the Seas, a series of interactive touch screen ship maps, is located at the base of the port and starboard stairs (aft) on Decks 4, 5 and 11. Currently, there are no plans to add these maps to other ships, but future guests can expect to see them on the Oasis-class vessels.

One of Liberty's finest public features is the artwork on display in the ship's three stairwells. Focusing on an altered photo collage aesthetic, I found myself stopping to gaze at several of the pieces, some of which were a bit racier than you'd expect from such a wholesome ship (Wim Bosch's "Corridor Wait" with nudie calendar inset in its apartment tableaux, aft stairwell).

At the top of the ship, Cloud Nine, which is next to the Seven Hearts card and game room (adjacent to the Viking Crown Lounge), can be used for private meetings or parties. There are a few Ping-Pong tables just outside the game room. The Skylight Chapel one deck up is the spot for onboard weddings.

With such an enormous vessel, it stands to reason that Royal Caribbean would introduce some sort of audio tour to help guests navigate Liberty of the Seas. And sure enough, there's a tour, led by the voice of journalist, editor and author Tina Brown in the testing stages (not yet available to the public, no date of release yet). Hopefully, the final tour will include some comments on the ship's art collection.

Cabins

For the most part, staterooms represent the standard industry move toward a high percentage of outside and/or balcony staterooms; 842 of the 1,817 cabins, or nearly half, have balconies. All cabins are clean and functional, with peach and teal decor, and equipped with desks, safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen TV's featuring a range of channels (ESPN, Fox News, TNT, Cartoon Network, VHI en Espanol, several RCI ad channels) as well as interactive options (order shore excursions and room service, or check your expenses).

Editor's Note: Because the TV's are modern flat-screen (Samsung), kids can (and do) bring their PlayStations and Wii consoles for in-room use.

More specifically, potential passengers can choose from four different categories of stateroom: inside, oceanview, balcony and suite. Then, within each are different setups at different price points, including larger configurations for families.

Interior and promenade-view staterooms measure 152 square ft. and 149 square ft. respectively -- quite small for a new ship -- and feature shower-only bathrooms with sliding doors as opposed to curtain. A single pump in the shower is preloaded with shower gel/shampoo. Family insides measure 300 square ft. with room for up to six to sleep on two twin beds that convert into a queen plus a sofa and/or Pullman.

Ranging from 161 to 200 square ft., oceanview cabins offer slightly more space and a porthole, an ideal compromise for the semi-claustrophobic cruiser. Family oceanview cabins are 293 square ft. and include a sitting area, two twin beds that convert into a queen, and a sofa and/or Pullman.

Liberty offers two balcony choices, the 177-square-ft. Deluxe (balcony: 74 square ft.) and the 189-square-ft. Superior (balcony: 68 square ft.). Balcony furniture is comprised of a small table and two upright plastic-ribbon loungers.

There are a variety of suite choices, including Junior Suites (287 square ft., tub, walk-in closet, balcony: 101 square ft.), Grand Suites (387 square ft. tub, walk-in closet, balcony: 126 square ft.), and Owner's Suites (614 square ft., tub, walk-in closet, separate sitting area, balcony: 209 square ft.) with names taken from musical nomenclature (Harmony, Symphony, etc.). The one Royal Suite (1,406 square ft., balcony: 377 square ft.) also boasts a whirlpool marble tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano, and a private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to the Concierge Club lounge (Deck 10 midship, open 24 hours, but manned for just over half that), where guests can enjoy complimentary pre- and post-dinner canapes and cocktails. You can also use the concierge on call to book your shore excursions, dining reservations, spa appointments, etc.

For larger family groupings, there are four Royal Family Suites (610 square ft, balcony 234 square ft.) that hold up to eight and feature a living area with a double sofa bed, two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).

Making its second showing for RCI is the Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square ft., balcony 810 square ft.). The suite sleeps up to 14 of your kin and is made up of two master bedrooms with private baths, as well as two smaller bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. Moreover, there are two additional shower-only bathrooms (the same as you'd see in standard accommodations). The 810-square-ft. private balcony (over four-times larger than my cabin alone) boasts a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded loungers.

Like Freedom, Liberty also features the B & J room (6305), a promenade-view cabin overlooking two cow tukases that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor (just below). Cruisers who end up in this obstructed view will receive complimentary ice cream at Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise.

Editor's Note: Beginning January 1, 2008, guests will no longer be able to smoke in their staterooms. Balcony smoking will still be allowed.

Entertainment

Beyond the cruise industry standard offerings -- "R"-rated comedians, the Love and Marriage Game Show, mind-numbing amounts of bingo and karaoke -- Freedom- and Voyager-class vessels feature cruising's only ice rinks, here called Studio B. Guests can watch a group of earnest skaters making the best of the small, choppy ice surface, balancing admirably, at the mercy of the ship's potential for random shudders. Given the circumstances, I found myself rooting for the skaters not to fall and encouraging them when they did. Ice show tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance; check your Compass for details on your sailing.

The Platinum Theater features the ship's nightly production spectacles, including "In the Air," a Cirque de Soleil-style offering where little of the action takes place on the stage.

During the day, guests have any number of typical activity options -- sexy legs, trivia, family pool games, seminars on tooth whitening and attaining flawless skin, wine tasting -- the majority of which are based around the open-deck pool areas, the spa and the Deck 13 aft sports area, which houses the rock-climbing wall, FlowRider, Sports Court and mini-golf course. But a ship with such endless choices couldn't possibly limit itself to simply the status quo. One of the more unique offerings is the D.J. class hosted by Scratch DJ Academy. Check your Compass for times.

Casino Royale makes no claim to be the largest at sea, but its 308 slots and 19 tables provide more than enough real estate for gamblers. Common favorites like Black Jack, Caribbean Stud Poker and Roulette were always well attended, even in the early a.m. hours. And following a relatively popular onshore trend, the casino featured a Texas Hold'Em tournament with a $5,000 prize pool for finalists.

On our particular sailing from Miami, which featured several "Quinceanera" celebrations (a Latin girl's 15th birthday), there was an incredibly high percentage of Spanish-speaking passengers. There was more high-energy evening dancing in Bolero's -- to a poblano-pepper-hot Latin group, Sol y Arena -- than I've ever experienced on a cruise. And although the Cruise Compass listed the closing hour as 1 a.m., the band certainly went well beyond that, catering to the desires of the clientele.

Editor's Note: One side (the side with the dancing and band) is designated for smoking, the other side is nonsmoking.

Located on the Promenade, The Hoof & Claw is ideal for your casual afternoon cocktail. Its black walls, dark brown leather seating and romantic images of eloquent English gentry -- see wealthy palefaces holding court, stroking their mare's mane, or an enormous mastiff with sausage links balanced on his nose -- aim for a vibe of sleepy refinement. I found the staff here to be particularly congenial, engaging guests (first-name basis) in easy conversation ("So I says to him, Frankie, I says ... And he says to me...."). If you're hungry, you can ask for some peanuts to accompany your Murphy's stout (Yank choices also available) or "James Bond" martini. At night, guitar-man Jimmy Blakemore takes your requests.

There are a range of other bars to choose from throughout the ship, including Deck 4's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, Vintage's Wine Bar, the Champagne Bar, a cigar club for decidedly masculine choices (scotch), and of course the popular Olive or Twist (Liberty's iteration of RCI's Viking Crown Lounge), perched atop the ship.

Of course, watching the active sporting pursuits going on around the clock make for excellent entertainment as well. The FlowRider has seats for viewing potential clothing mishaps, and there were in fact reports circulating about a woman with tiny bikini top who was warned to put a T-shirt on, insisted on not doing so, and summarily lost her top.

Fitness and Recreation

The Lido area features two main pools, with one for swimming and one for sports, as well as three Jacuzzis. The H20 Zone, with its kids-only pool, waterfall and abstract colorful sculpture fountains easily garners the most attention. Though adults are not technically supposed to be playing in this pool area, I did in fact run through myself to test out the product. It was enjoyable and an outstanding way to lower your body temperature on a blistering Caribbean day. In the adults-only Solarium pool area, located farther forward, you'll see swinging chairs (surprisingly, usually unoccupied) and the two cantilevered whirpools, which jut out over the side of the ship (they hang 100 ft. above the ocean's surface), and provide fantastic views through clear glass panels.

For your workout, you can head to the ShipShape Fitness Center, the finest gym on a cruise ship, with a number and variety of equipment -- a long row of sea-facing Lifestyle treadmills, plenty of bikes, a large separate room for Yoga, Pilates and stretching classes, weight machines that focus on every individual muscle in your body, free weights in every weight -- mirroring the overall size and offerings of the ship.

Whether your goal is to correct a prematurely hunched posture or to improve your skin in the pore-destroying climate of the Caribbean, there are several morning and afternoon fitness seminars offered for free (with the aim of selling those products or services of course). But frankly, I found the seminars more confusing than beneficial -- restructuring years of bad diet and lifestyle habits in 30 minutes is a bit of a stretch -- and the amount of information on nutrition, metabolic function, water retention, glycemic index levels, fat deposits, Chinese herbs, etc. requires an indefatigable will to focus.

With chocolate sauce ringing the corners of my mouth and a modest-sized brown stain on my shirt, I was relieved that I would be able to sweat out some of my consumption via the various programs. And perhaps that's the idea -- creating a cycle of food gorging, slight guilt, activity, food gorging, guilt, activity. You may pick up some ice cream at Ben & Jerry's, stuff your face with a burger at Johnny Rockets, and then attend a biking class in the afternoon.

Liberty of the Seas has just introduced acupuncture, something that sister line Celebrity has been offering. I attended a seminar on acupuncture, and the acupuncturist noted that it typically takes three or four treatments to notice a visible effect. The main potential side effect of acupuncture is bruising -- if the capillaries right on the skin are irritated -- and bruising is not something that a cruiser would want if they were wearing a backless dress on formal night. My suggestion: Try it on land if you're interested, where you won't pay cruise spa prices, and where more and more insurance companies are actually covering the procedure.

The basketball court featured constant, nearly day-long pickup games, organized tournaments, as well as amusingly violent organized soccer games (pleading RCI staff: "Guys! Guys! Please, keep it clean! Guys!")

We have to mention the FlowRider, the popular surf simulator that's found on all three Freedom-class ships. Surfing is free and open to everyone (check hours), but if you really want to master it, try booking a one-on-one private FlowRider lesson for $75 per person, per hour (up to 8 people per session). Individuals, or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour, with no limit to the total number of participants (50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance).

People aiming to take advantage of all the "fitness" offerings should augment their T-shirt, underwear and socks allocations -- or be prepared to do some laundry. In the muggy 90-degree Caribbean clime, you will sweat through your clothes.

One note of contention from a fellow cruiser: The buffet features oversized ovular plates, and there seems to be a natural inclination to fill the plates to, at minimum, capacity. Why not offer smaller plates? Though RCI, and many, many other lines have gone entirely trans-fat free, there are no vitality options currently offered in the Windjammer dining complex.

Family

Like sister ship Freedom, Liberty of the Seas is easily the best ship for families in the Royal Caribbean fleet. And if the phenomenal number of kids onboard during my summer cruise (nearly 1,300 or 30 percent of the population) is any indication, the fleet is aiming to rival even family stalwart Disney. It will be interesting to see how the family market evolves when Disney's fleet officially doubles by 2012.

Children are broken into five separate age groups that get both their own activities and private rooms. Each room has its own activities area, and Internet consoles line at least one wall. There are Aquanauts (3 - 5) (I admired a "Look What I Did Today!" board displaying chaotic art pieces), Explorers (6 - 8), Voyagers (9 - 11), Navigators (12 - 14) and older teens (15 - 17). Another dynamite option for kids aged 12 to 17 is the chance to attend several free D.J. classes through RCI's agreement with the Scratch DJ Academy. Here you can learn the basics of being a D.J. using the latest equipment.

Also back on Liberty of the Seas are the cool teens-only hangouts Fuel (a mini-club with dance floor, soda bar and Internet terminals) and the Living Room (a lounge that often bustled with activity).

There were also quite a few kids, and especially those in the more awkward teenage phase, who were perfectly content hanging out in packs. I stumbled into Catacombs, the adults-only nightclub (hosting one "teens take over" night), where about 15 teenagers were holding court, touching the gargoyles, snapping photos, etc. As I was leaving the scene before being detected, one particularly saucy teeny bopper casually remarked, "Guys, we're playing truth or dare. You know you want to kiss us."

For younger children, RCI offers the Aqua Babies (6 - 18 months) and Aqua Tots (18 - 36 months) programs, boasting a series of interactive classes developed by early childhood experts at Fisher-Price. This isn't babysitting -- parents are there to spend time with baby and learn how to play properly and safely with a tiny being. You can watch baby play with other tots, help baby learn about the connection between farm animals and the sounds they make, and play with some sweet toys.

Editor's Note: I noticed a grandma returning supplies -- paper, glue, scissors, tape -- to the Adventure Oceans area. If you're looking for a little constructive one-on-one time with your baby's baby, inquire about borrowing the goods. The staff is quite accommodating to any ideas you may have.

Without a doubt, the Challenger's Video Arcade (located adjacent to the Adventure Ocean rooms) is the best arcade at sea, with a fittingly huge number of games. Prices however are a bit excessive -- cheapest game at 75 cents, most at least $1.45 per play -- and it would be easy to amass hundreds of dollars in charges per kid by week's end.

Youths can play bingo (with a parent or guardian) for free -- and they can win too, with only a parent's signature required at the Explorations desk to collect the cash. On our cruise, a young'un won the final jackpot, nearly $6,300. Not sure if his parents, who had every right to do so, snapped that up ("See Mildred, I told you he'd amount to something.").

Fellow Passengers

On my seven-night Eastern Caribbean summer departure, there were over 1,300 children. That's nearly a third of the entire onboard passenger population, and families were certainly the majority of cruisers. Besides seeing one of the youngest demographics in cruising, expect to cavort with mostly North Americans, and out of Miami a large number of bilingual Spanish-English speaking passengers.

Dress Code

Seven-night cruises have two formal nights and five casual nights. A decent number of men choose to wear tuxedos for formal dining, though dark suits were more common on our sailing. Women are typically found in cocktail dresses or gowns.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for tipping in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at guests' discretion.

--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor

Dining

A three-deck-high dining room accommodates nearly 4,000 passengers per night. Passengers choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or RCI's My Time Dining program, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)

Each floor is named after a Renaissance master -- Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rembrandt -- and an enormous crystal chandelier towers over the space, fitting for a ship of this magnitude. On one particular night, the dramatic two-deck stairway was used by several girls in debutante dresses celebrating their "Quince Anos," a Latin celebration much like a Sweet 16 in the U.S. If you're going to have an important teenage birthday celebration on a cruise ship, and you want to impress your friends, a Freedom-class vessel will do nicely.

Meals were generally satisfactory, and that's commendable with the number of mouths to feed. There's always a "Chef's Signature Selection," and the Thai BBQ Chicken Breast with coconut-lemongrass jasmine rice was particular noteworthy. Not surprisingly, just about everyone orders at least one "Fisherman's Plate," which is Liberty's version of lobster (here it's lobster tail, buttery garlic shrimp and vegetables). Vitality choices (indicated by a symbol) and vegetarian options like Asian Fried Tofu with red curry sauce are sprinkled throughout the menu. Standards such as salmon, chicken and sirloin steak are also always available.

Breakfast and lunch in the dining room, renamed Brasserie 30 for the casual non-dinner hours, are open seating and include the expected breakfast offerings -- Eggs Benedict, omelets, Belgium waffles -- and lunch choices ranging from Grilled NY Strip Loin Open Sandwich to Tempura Catfish Fillet.

With the Windjammer buffet complex, I found the logistical setup far more impressive than the food offerings; all the grub is centrally accessible with all the seating encircling the perimeter of the space. You could easily make your way around, hit up the salad bar, or pick through Jade's Asian choices (sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, rice crackers), then move to the outsides and find a seat around the spacious, window-heavy arrangements. Even during heavy lunching periods, the crowds were never really an issue.

Regarding the food in Windjammer, mediocrity, and fair amounts of it, is the order of the day. There is, however, a salad bar, several very tasty sandwich and wrap choices -- such as chicken salad in a spinach tortilla -- and some above-average Freedom fries. The Asian-theme night, with its added lantern candles, chopsticks, special partitioned plates with receptacles for soy and other sauces, couldn't quite make up for the overly greasy fried rice, wilted bock choy and mildly globular stir-fried pork, as well as the disappointingly bland sushi.

Breakfast choices include eggs, pre-made omelets, hash browns, fruits, yogurt, cereal, etc. Lunch options range from soups, sandwiches and the ubiquitous salad bar to hot dishes like meatloaf, chicken and vegetable stir-fries, carved meats, French fries, etc.

During midday sunning hours, there's a poolside grill serving burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken. As an alternative to the for-fee Ben & Jerry's, the gratis Sprinkles is a self-service ice cream machine open on the Lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. There's also a juice bar, Squeeze, where you can purchase energy shakes, smoothies and fresh juices. On one post-gym morning visit, I enjoyed a delightful mixture of apple, carrot and pineapple.

If the main dining room and buffet venue experiences were adequate if unmemorable, the food in the two specialty restaurants, Italian bistro Portofino and Chops Steakhouse, made a more lasting impression. Portofino's Italian menu includes appetizers like mozzarella, grape tomatoes and pesto dressing; entrees like tender grilled tiger shrimp over spinach, asparagus and squash; and a dressed up version of tiramisu for dessert, complete with an after-dinner shot of Kahlua and cream. The 10-ounce filet in Chops Steakhouse was velvet, as were the choices of sauces -- peppercorn, bearnaise, wine reduction. The communal vegetable plates, with asparagus and a surprisingly pungent, spicy corn dish, offered two of the memorable options. Both restaurants carry a fee of $20.

Johnny Rockets (Deck 12, aft) serves 50's Americana grub like burgers, grilled sandwiches, fries, onion rings and malts. I dined there at 4:30 p.m., between an early lunch and late-seating dinner. In seconds, I was seated at the counter, a plate of onion rings and fries placed in front of me. Without hesitation, my St. Louis burger -- with melted Swiss, pickles, fried onions, bacon and special sauce -- was the best meal I had onboard. There are little Jukeboxes set up at the counter and at tables with classic songs from the 50's and 60's -- Wild Thing (The Troggs), Walk Like a Man (Four Seasons), tunes by the talented Buddy Holly and the less-talented Big Bopper. A $4.95 cover charge applies for dine-in or take-out; you must pay for drinks (milkshakes, malts, floats, sodas) separately.

If you arrive at a busy time and have to wait to be seated, you'll be given a pager that buzzes when your table is ready. With the nearby arcade and sports area, you can spend any time waiting dumping money into the pricey video games or watching people play pickup basketball or rock climb.

Indoors, on the ship's promenade, the self-titled Cafe Promenade, with its standard brown leather coffee-shop couches, is open around the clock for free Seattle's Best coffee, brownies (double chocolate peanut butter fudge), cookies (coconut, oatmeal raisin), cakes, little sandwiches (ricotta, black olive tapanade, red pepper on poppy seed bun) and for-fee specialty coffee drinks, with and without booze.

Also on the promenade, Sorrento's is the popular 1950's Little Italy-themed pizza spot. Beyond offering four kinds of pizza -- plain, pepperoni and daily specials like potato and chicken, and spinach, chorizo and tomato -- it also features several antipasti selections, including zucchini frittatas, marinated mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, slices of prosciutto, and desserts like biscotti, macaroons, fat-free key lime mousse and fruit cups. With the exception of alcohol that's also sold on the premises, everything is free. NYC memorabilia -- including vintage-looking Italian film posters and photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mariano Lanza, Dick Contino and of course Frank Sinatra -- adds a hint of character to the setting.

Liberty of the Seas' Ben & Jerry's is a miniature version of what you'd see ashore with only slightly augmented prices. There are 11 ice cream flavors to choose from, two nonfat frozen yogurt selections and a couple of sorbet choices. Current prices (July 2007, subject to change) come in at $4.75 for a waffle cone, $5.25 for a hot fudge sundae and $4 for a milkshake.

If you're looking for snack food of the chips, pretzels and nuts stripe, the General Store has you covered, though of course you'll have to pay for them. Although you can't eat the following, don't forget your essentials. Deodorant stung me at $6.99. Whoops.

Round-the-clock room service allows you to select from a few different appetizers (Caesar salad, soup), sandwiches (grilled vegetable panini), entrees (burgers, pizza), desserts (cakes, cookies) and beverages. Food is free between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge. The first time I ordered via the interactive TV screen, nothing ever arrived. My next effort was made through my room phone, and the food -- chili chorizo dip with chips -- came within the advertised 30- to 45-minute time frame. On days in port where an early start is desired, you can leave a breakfast request -- a selection of Continental items (croissants, bagels), eggs, sides like bacon and juices -- hanging on your door the night before.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for tipping in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking (and must if they opt for flexible dining) or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at passengers' discretion.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor

Dining

A three-deck-high dining room accommodates nearly 4,000 passengers per night in two sittings, at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Each floor is named after a Renaissance master -- Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rembrandt -- and an enormous crystal chandelier towers over the space, fitting for a ship of this magnitude. On one particular night, the dramatic two-deck stairway was used by several girls in debutante dresses celebrating their "Quince Anos," a Latin celebration much like a Sweet 16 in the U.S. If you're going to have an important teenage birthday celebration on a cruise ship, and you want to impress your friends, only a Freedom-class vessel will do.

Meals were generally satisfactory, and that's commendable with the sheer number of mouths to feed. There's always a "Chef's Signature Selection," and the Thai BBQ Chicken Breast with coconut-lemongrass jasmine rice was of particular note. Not surprisingly, just about everyone orders at least one "Fisherman's Plate," which is Liberty's version of lobster (consists of lobster tail, buttery garlic shrimp and vegetables). Vitality choices (specially indicated by a symbol) and vegetarian options like Asian Fried Tofu with red curry sauce are sprinkled throughout the menu. Standards such as salmon, chicken and sirloin steak are also always available.

Breakfast and lunch in the dining room, renamed Brasserie 30 for the casual non-dinner hours, are open seating and include the expected breakfast offerings -- Eggs Benedict, omelets, Belgium waffles -- and lunch choices ranging from Grilled NY Strip Loin Open Sandwich to Tempura Catfish Fillet.

With the Windjammer buffet complex, I found the logistical setup far more impressive than the food offerings; all the grub is centrally accessible with all the seating encircling the perimeter of the space. You could easily make your way around, hit up the salad bar, or pick through Jade's Asian choices (sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, rice crackers), then move to the outsides and find a seat around the spacious, window-heavy arrangements. Even during heavy lunching periods, the crowds were never really an issue.

Regarding the food in Windjammer, mediocrity, and fair amounts of it, is the order of the day. There is, however, a salad bar, several very tasty sandwich and wrap choices -- such as chicken salad in a spinach tortilla -- and some above-average Freedom fries. The Asian-theme night, with its added lantern candles, chopsticks, special partitioned plates with receptacles for soy and other sauces, couldn't quite make up for the overly greasy fried rice, wilted bock choy and mildly globular stir-fried pork, as well as the disappointingly bland sushi.

Breakfast choices include eggs, pre-made omelets, hash browns, fruits, yogurt, cereal, etc. Lunch options range from soups, sandwiches and the ubiquitous salad bar to hot dishes like meatloaf, chicken and vegetable stir-fries, carved meats, French fries, etc.

During midday sunning hours, there's a poolside grill serving burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken. As an alternative to the for-fee Ben & Jerry's, the gratis Sprinkles is a self-service ice cream machine open on the Lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. There's also a juice bar, Squeeze, where you can purchase energy shakes, smoothies and fresh juices. On one post-gym morning visit, I enjoyed a delightful mixture of apple, carrot and pineapple.

If the main dining room and buffet venue experiences were adequate if unmemorable, the food in the two specialty restaurants, Italian bistro Portofino and Chops Steakhouse, made a more lasting impression. Portofino's Italian menu includes appetizers like mozzarella, grape tomatoes and pesto dressing; entrees like tender grilled tiger shrimp over spinach, asparagus and squash; and a dressed up version of tiramisu for dessert, complete with an after-dinner shot of Kahlua and cream. The 10-ounce filet in Chops Steakhouse was velvet, as were the choices of sauces -- peppercorn, bearnaise, wine reduction. The communal vegetable plates, with asparagus and a surprisingly pungent, spicy corn dish, offered two of the memorable options. Both restaurants carry a fee of $20.

Johnny Rockets (Deck 12, aft) serves 50's Americana grub like burgers, grilled sandwiches, fries, onion rings and malts. I dined there at 4:30 p.m., between an early lunch and late-seating dinner. In seconds, I was seated at the counter, a plate of onion rings and fries placed in front of me. Without hesitation, my St. Louis burger -- with melted Swiss, pickles, fried onions, bacon and special sauce -- was the best meal I had onboard. There are little Jukeboxes set up at the counter and at tables with classic songs from the 50's and 60's -- Wild Thing (The Troggs), Walk Like a Man (Four Seasons), tunes by the talented Buddy Holly and the less-talented Big Bopper. A $4.95 cover charge applies for dine-in or take-out; you must pay for drinks (milkshakes, malts, floats, sodas) separately.

If you arrive at a busy time and have to wait to be seated, you'll be given a pager that buzzes when your table is ready. With the nearby arcade and sports area, you can spend any time waiting dumping money into the pricey video games or watching people play pickup basketball or rock climb.

Indoors, on the ship's promenade, the self-titled Cafe Promenade, with its standard brown leather coffee-shop couches, is open around the clock for free Seattle's Best coffee, brownies (double chocolate peanut butter fudge), cookies (coconut, oatmeal raisin), cakes, little sandwiches (ricotta, black olive tapanade, red pepper on poppy seed bun) and for-fee specialty coffee drinks, with and without booze.

Also on the promenade, Sorrento's is the popular 1950's Little Italy-themed pizza spot. Beyond offering four kinds of pizza -- plain, pepperoni and daily specials like potato and chicken, and spinach, chorizo and tomato -- it also features several antipasti selections, including zucchini frittatas, marinated mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, slices of prosciutto, and desserts like biscotti, macaroons, fat-free key lime mousse and fruit cups. With the exception of alcohol that's also sold on the premises, everything is free. NYC memorabilia -- including vintage-looking Italian film posters and photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mariano Lanza, Dick Contino and of course Frank Sinatra -- adds a hint of character to the setting.

Liberty of the Seas' Ben & Jerry's is a miniature version of what you'd see ashore with only slightly augmented prices. There are 11 ice cream flavors to choose from, two nonfat frozen yogurt selections and a couple of sorbet choices. Current prices (July 2007, subject to change) come in at $4.75 for a waffle cone, $5.25 for a hot fudge sundae and $4 for a milkshake.

If you're looking for snack food of the chips, pretzels and nuts stripe, the General Store has you covered, though of course you'll have to pay for them. Although you can't eat the following, don't forget your essentials. Deodorant stung me at $6.99. Whoops.

Round-the-clock room service allows you to select from a few different appetizers (Caesar salad, soup), sandwiches (grilled vegetable panini), entrees (burgers, pizza), desserts (cakes, cookies) and beverages. Food is free between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge. The first time I ordered via the interactive TV screen, nothing ever arrived. My next effort was made through my room phone, and the food -- chili chorizo dip with chips -- came within the advertised 30- to 45-minute time frame. On days in port where an early start is desired, you can leave a breakfast request -- a selection of Continental items (croissants, bagels), eggs, sides like bacon and juices -- hanging on your door the night before.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.50 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $3.50 per person, per day to the cabin steward; and $2 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. Envelopes are provided for tipping in cash, but passengers can also prepay their gratuities at the time of booking or have the amounts added to their shipboard (SeaPass) accounts. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs; tipping for spa services is at guests' discretion.

--by Dan Askin, Assistant EditorLiberty of the Seas is offspring of the Freedom-class family, a litter of vessels that began with Freedom of the Seas in 2006 and ended with Independence of the Seas in 2008. The ship, the second-largest cruise ship in the world behind the Oasis-class twins, boasts all the Freedom-class favorites, including popular onshore brands like Johnny Rockets and Ben & Jerry's, cruising's only ice rink, a rock-climbing wall, the novel "Promenade" concept and Boleros Latin lounge.

Those acquainted with RCI's Voyager-class ships will also feel at home on the Freedom-class trio, though the larger size of the latter has afforded the line more space to play. Freedom-class features include the FlowRider surf simulator, the H20 Zone water park and the Everlast boxing ring. But, Liberty and company's overall concept -- both in terms of design and choices -- actually emerged some time ago. Introduced back in 1999, Voyager of the Seas is the ship responsible for the majority of the above-mentioned features, which are now staples of the Royal Caribbean fleet. (In fact, Johnny Rockets and Boleros have proven so successful they were added to the older Sovereign-class vessels during that class' extensive refurbishment.)

And so, through a culmination of Voyager- and Freedom-class innovations, Royal Caribbean has introduced a ship in Liberty of the Seas that offers infinite options in the areas of fitness, recreation and entertainment. With the sheer number of options onboard (especially if the seas are calm), you may find yourself forgetting that you're actually on a massive floating object, gliding quickly through the Caribbean Sea.

In early 2011, Liberty went under the knife for its first dry dock. During the multimillion dollar refurbishment, the ship gained several features that debuted on Oasis of the Seas, including a cupcake bakery, big-name stage show ("Saturday Night Fever" in this case), a nursery for the youngest cruisers and an outdoor movie screen. New technology knowhow is paraded in the form of interactive in-cabin televisions and the addition of digital deck plan systems, which are located throughout the ship to help passengers navigate with the use of LCD touch-screens that offer customized directions and routing, real time updates and ship factoids.

Dining

A three-deck-high dining room accommodates nearly 4,000 passengers per night. Passengers choose between assigned early or late dining and RCI's My Time Dining program, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.) but can change your reservations on a daily basis or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to prepay gratuities.)

Each floor is named after a Renaissance master -- Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rembrandt -- and an enormous crystal chandelier towers over the space. On one particular night on Liberty's Caribbean sailing, the dramatic two-deck stairway was used by several girls in debutante dresses celebrating their Quinceanera, a Latin celebration much like a Sweet 16 in the U.S. If you're going to have an important teenage birthday celebration on a cruise ship, and you want to impress your friends, a Freedom-class vessel will do nicely.

Meals were generally satisfactory, and that's commendable with the number of mouths to feed. There's always a "Chef's Signature Selection," and the Thai BBQ Chicken Breast with coconut-lemongrass jasmine rice was particular noteworthy. Not surprisingly, just about everyone orders at least one "Fisherman's Plate," which is Liberty's version of lobster. (Here, it's lobster tail, buttery garlic shrimp and vegetables.) A special mention goes to the crab cakes, which I opted for on more than one occasion. However, desserts were a disappointment, managing to be rather bland and offering little choice for the chocoholics.

There is a separate Vitality menu for the calorie-conscious, which equaled the rest of the menu in taste and size. Vegetarian options like Asian fried tofu with red curry sauce are sprinkled throughout the menu. Standards such as salmon, chicken and sirloin steak are also always available.

Staff were above and beyond courteous, and when a tablemate had two waiters clash behind him spilling food on his jacket, our waitress removed the item and had it sent to be dry cleaned before he ever really noticed. Apologies came in abundance, and the next day, both head and assistant waitresses checked with him to be sure that the jacket had been cleaned and returned to his cabin.

Breakfast and lunch in the dining room, renamed Brasserie 30 for the casual nondinner hours, are open seating and include the expected breakfast offerings -- Eggs Benedict, omelets, Belgian waffles -- and lunch choices that range from grilled New York strip loin open sandwiches to tempura catfish fillets.

With the Windjammer buffet complex, I found the logistical setup far more impressive than the food offerings; all the grub is centrally accessible with the seating encircling the perimeter of the space. You could easily make your way around, hit up the salad bar and pick through Jade's Asian choices (sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, rice crackers) before moving to the outsides to find a seat around the spacious, window-heavy arrangements. Even during heavy lunching periods, the crowds were never really an issue.

Regarding the food in Windjammer, mediocrity -- and fair amounts of it -- is the order of the day. There are, however, a salad bar, several very tasty sandwich and wrap choices -- such as chicken salad in spinach tortillas -- and some above-average French fries. The Asian-themed night, with its added lantern candles, chopsticks and special partitioned plates with receptacles for soy and other sauces, couldn't quite make up for the overly greasy fried rice, wilted bok choy and mildly globular stir-fried pork, as well as the disappointingly bland sushi.

Breakfast choices included eggs, premade omelets, hash browns, fruit, yogurt and cereal. Lunch options ranged from soups, sandwiches and the ubiquitous salad bar to hot dishes like meatloaf, chicken and vegetable stir-fries, carved meats and French fries.

During midday sunning hours, there's a poolside grill serving burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken. As an alternative to the for-fee Ben & Jerry's, the gratis Sprinkles is a self-service ice cream machine that's open on the Lido from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. There's also a juice bar, Squeeze, where you can purchase energy shakes, smoothies and fresh juices. On one post-gym morning visit, I enjoyed a delightful mixture of apple, carrot and pineapple juices.

Although the main dining room and buffet venue experiences were adequate and a bit unmemorable, the food in the two specialty restaurants, Italian bistro Portofino and Chops Grille, made a more lasting impression. Portofino's Italian menu includes appetizers like mozzarella, grape tomatoes and pesto dressing; entrees like tender grilled tiger shrimp over spinach, asparagus and squash; and a dressed-up version of tiramisu for dessert, complete with an after-dinner shot of Kahlua and cream. The 10-ounce filet mignon in Chops Grille was velvet, as were the choices of sauces -- peppercorn, bearnaise, wine reduction. The communal vegetable plates, with asparagus and a surprisingly pungent, spicy corn dish, offered two of the memorable options. Portofino's cover charge is $20 per person, while Chops Grille carries a slightly higher fee of $30. Both offer four-course meals.

Johnny Rockets (Deck 12, aft) serves 50's Americana grub like burgers, grilled sandwiches, fries, onion rings and malts. I dined there at 4:30 p.m., between an early lunch and late-seating dinner. In seconds, I was seated at the counter, a plate of onion rings and fries placed in front of me. Without hesitation, my St. Louis burger -- with melted Swiss, pickles, fried onions, bacon and special sauce -- was the best meal I had onboard. There are little Jukeboxes set up at the counter and at tables with classic songs from the 50's and 60's -- Wild Thing (The Troggs), Walk Like a Man (Four Seasons), tunes by the talented Buddy Holly and the less-talented Big Bopper. A $4.95 cover charge applies for dine-in or takeout; you must pay for drinks (milkshakes, malts, floats, sodas) separately.

If you arrive at a busy time and have to wait to be seated, you'll be given a pager that buzzes when your table is ready. With the nearby arcade and sports area, you can wait while dumping money into the pricey video games or watching people play pickup basketball or rock-climb.

On the ship's indoor promenade, the self-titled Cafe Promenade, with its standard brown leather coffee-shop couches, is open around the clock for free Seattle's Best coffee, brownies (double chocolate peanut butter fudge), cookies (coconut, oatmeal raisin), cakes, little sandwiches (ricotta, black olive tapanade, red pepper on poppy seed bun) and for-fee specialty coffee drinks, with and without booze.

Also on the promenade, Sorrento's is the popular 1950's Little Italy-themed pizza spot. Beyond offering four kinds of pizza -- plain, pepperoni and daily specials (like potato and chicken or spinach, chorizo and tomato) -- it also features several antipasti selections, including zucchini frittatas, marinated mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, olives, slices of prosciutto and desserts like biscotti, macaroons, fat-free key lime mousse and fruit cups. With the exception of alcohol that's also sold on the premises, everything is free.

Sorrento's proved a popular eatery. However, after ports of call in Italy, where many of the guests opted for the real thing on day-excursions, numbers dwindled. New York City memorabilia -- including vintage-looking Italian film posters and photos of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mariano Lanza, Dick Contino and, of course, Frank Sinatra -- add a hint of character to the setting.

In place of A Clean Shave, the ship's former barber shop, the line added the Cupcake Cupboard, a Promenade-situated 1940's-style bakery that doles out everyone's favorite confection for $2.50 a pop. Along with a regular assortment, there were a couple of daily specials. At certain times of the day, it even offers cupcake-decorating classes, which proved popular with adults and children alike. Costs are $22 and $15 respectively, and of course you get to eat your creations.

Liberty of the Seas' Ben & Jerry's is a miniature version of what you'd see ashore with only slightly augmented prices. There are 11 ice cream flavors to choose from, two nonfat frozen yogurt selections and a couple of sorbet choices. Current prices come in at $4.75 for a waffle cone, $5.25 for a hot fudge sundae and $4 for a milkshake. (These are subject to change.)

Round-the-clock room service allows you to select from a few different appetizers (Caesar salad, soup), sandwiches (grilled vegetable panini), entrees (burgers, pizza), desserts (cakes, cookies) and beverages. Food is free between 5 a.m. and midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge. The first time I ordered via the interactive TV screen, nothing ever arrived. My next effort was made through my room phone, and the food -- chili chorizo dip with chips -- came within the advertised 30- to 45-minute time frame. On days in port where an early start is desired, you can leave a breakfast request -- a selection of Continental items (croissants, bagels), eggs, sides (like bacon) and juices -- hanging on your door before 3 a.m.

Public Rooms

Royal Caribbean has ingeniously created a two-level promenade that you'll walk through many, many times per day. Along with the well-attended Casino Royale on Deck 4, the Deck 5 promenade, four stories in height, spans much of the length of the ship. Looking as if it has been carefully excised from an American mall, there are a cluster of shops on both sides, including stores for logo items, perfume, duty-free alcohol and jewelry, as well as Vintages Wine Bar, the Hoof & Claw British pub, Cafe Promenade coffee shop and the Cupcake Cupboard.

On Deck 7 aft is the modest library, and though it wasn't teeming with readers, the space had a few passengers engaged with books each time I passed en route to or from my nearby cabin.

One deck directly above the library is Royal Caribbean Online (connected by a staircase), the ship's Internet cafe. There are 19 terminals, and at least half were often in use. Connection speeds are pretty quick when in port, but be warned that once you're at sea, they slow and sometimes freeze up, meaning they eat up your money. The flat rate is 65 cents a minute, but if you buy packages, the rate can decrease to as low as 30 cents a minute (with a 500-minute package). The same rates apply to Wi-Fi, which is available in cabins and in various public area hot spots.

A new addition to Liberty of the Seas is a series of interactive touch-screen ship maps, located at the base of the port and starboard stairs (aft), near the elevators on all decks. They are excellent for finding my way around the ship, meeting people and getting back to my cabin late at night.

One of Liberty's finest public features is the artwork on display in the ship's three stairwells. A new collection was introduced in 2011 where the theme was "everyday life," created by merging photographs and paintings. At the aft end of the ship, many of these works have been influenced by famous artists. There was a group of Hockney-style pictures, as well as some Munch-influenced paintings by Kenneth Blom. At the forward end, everyday images were given a magical approach, based on fairy tales and Aesop's fables. My favorite was a bird-butterfly-man riding a bike by Maggie Taylor.

At the top of the ship, Cloud Nine, which is next to the Seven Hearts card and game room (adjacent to the Viking Crown Lounge), can be used for private meetings or parties. There are a few Ping-Pong tables just outside the game room. The Skylight Chapel, one deck up, is the spot for onboard weddings.

With such an enormous vessel, it stands to reason that Royal Caribbean would introduce some sort of audio tour to help guests navigate Liberty of the Seas. And, sure enough, there's a tour led by the voice of journalist, editor and author Tina Brown. It's in the testing stages, but it's not yet available to the public, and there's no date of release. Hopefully, the final tour will include some comments on the ship's art collection.

Cabins

For the most part, staterooms represent the standard industry move toward a high percentage of outside and/or balcony staterooms; 844 of the 1,817 cabins, or nearly half, have balconies. All cabins are clean and functional, with peach and teal decor, and they're equipped with desks, safes, hair dryers, Wi-Fi Internet access, mini-fridges and flat-screen TV's that feature a range of channels (ESPN, CNN, BBC World, TNT, Cartoon Network, VH1 en Espanol and several RCI ad channels), as well as interactive options (order shore excursions and room service, or check your expenses).

Note: Because the TV's are modern Samsung flat-screens, kids can (and do) bring their PlayStations and Wii consoles for in-room use.

More specifically, potential passengers can choose from four different categories of staterooms: inside, oceanview, balcony and suite. Then, within each are different setups at different price points, including larger configurations for families.

Interior and promenade-view staterooms measure 152 square feet and 149 square feet respectively and feature shower-only bathrooms with sliding doors, as opposed to curtains. A single pump in each shower is preloaded with shower gel/shampoo. Family insides measure 300 square feet, with room for up to six to sleep on two twin beds that convert into a queen, plus a sofa and/or Pullman.

Ranging from 161 to 200 square feet, oceanview cabins offer portholes and slightly more space, an ideal compromise for the semiclaustrophobic cruiser. Family oceanview cabins are 293 square feet and include sitting areas, twin beds that convert into queens and sofas and/or Pullmans.

Liberty offers two balcony choices, the 177-square-foot Deluxe (balcony: 74 square feet) and the 189-square-foot Superior (balcony: 68 square feet). Balcony furniture comprises a small table and two upright plastic-ribbon loungers.

There are a variety of suite choices, including Junior Suites (287 square feet with a tub, walk-in closet and 101-square-foot balcony), Grand Suites (387 square feet with a tub, walk-in closet and 126-square-foot balcony) and Owner's Suites (614 square feet with a tub, walk-in closet, separate sitting area and 209-square-foot balcony) with names taken from musical nomenclature (Harmony, Symphony, etc.). The one Royal Suite (1,406 square feet with a 377-square-foot balcony) also boasts a marble whirlpool-style tub and shower, entertainment center, king-sized bed, baby grand piano and a private hot tub on the balcony. Grand, Owner's and Royal Suite guests have access to the Concierge Club lounge (Deck 10 midship, open 24 hours but not always manned), where guests can enjoy complimentary pre- and post-dinner canapes and cocktails. Suite passengers can also ask the concierge to book shore excursions, dining reservations, spa appointments and more.

For larger family groupings, there are four Royal Family Suites (610 square feet with a 234-square-foot balcony) that hold up to eight and feature living areas with double sofa beds. Each of these suites has two bedrooms with two twin beds that convert to a queen (one also features third and fourth bunks), a verandah and two bathrooms with showers (one with tub).

Making its second showing for RCI is the Presidential Family Suite (1,215 square feet with a balcony that's 810 square feet). The suite sleeps up to 14 of your kin and is made up of two master bedrooms with private baths, as well as two smaller bedrooms, each with two Pullman beds and two twin beds that convert to a queen. Moreover, there are two additional shower-only bathrooms (the same as you'd see in standard accommodations). The 810-square-foot private balcony (more than four times larger than my cabin alone) boasts a hot tub, teak dining set (table and chairs) and padded loungers.

Like Freedom, Liberty also features the B & J room (6305), a promenade-view cabin overlooking the tukases of two cows that stand atop the Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor (just below). Cruisers who end up in this obstructed-view room receive complimentary ice cream at Ben & Jerry's every day of their cruise.

Note: Passengers can no longer smoke in their staterooms, but balcony smoking is still allowed.

Entertainment

Beyond the cruise industry standard offerings -- R-rated comedians, the Love and Marriage Game Show, mind-numbing amounts of bingo and karaoke -- Freedom- and Voyager-class vessels feature cruising's only ice rinks, known as Studio B. Passengers can watch a group of earnest skaters making the best of the small, choppy ice surface, balancing admirably at the mercy of the ship's potential for random shudders. Given the circumstances, I found myself rooting for the skaters not to fall and encouraging them when they did. Ice show tickets are free, but they need to be obtained in advance; check your Compass for details on your sailing.

The Platinum Theater features the ship's nightly production spectacles, including "In the Air," a Cirque de Soleil-style offering where little of the action takes place on the stage. In early 2011, the West End production "Saturday Night Fever: The Musical" debuted in the theater. This celebration of all things 1970's went over very well. A slightly abridged version had the audience dancing in the aisles.

During the day, cruisers have any number of typical activity options -- sexy legs contests, trivia, family pool games, seminars on teeth-whitening and attaining flawless skin, wine-tasting -- the majority of which are based around the open-deck pool areas, the spa and the Deck 13 aft sports area, which houses the rock-climbing wall, FlowRider, sports court and mini-golf course. But, a ship with such endless choices couldn't possibly limit itself to simply the status quo. One of the more unique offerings is the D.J. class hosted by Scratch DJ Academy. Check your Compass for times.

Casino Royale makes no claim to be the largest at sea, but its 308 slots and 19 tables provide more than enough real estate for gamblers. Common favorites like blackjack, Caribbean stud poker and roulette were always well attended, even in the early morning hours. And, following a relatively popular onshore trend, the casino featured a Texas Hold'em tournament with a $5,000 prize pool for finalists.

On our particular sailing from Miami, there were a lot of Spanish-speaking passengers. There was more high-energy evening dancing in Boleros -- to a poblano-pepper-hot Latin group, Sol y Arena -- than I've ever experienced on a cruise. And, although the Cruise Compass listed the closing hour as 1 a.m., the band certainly went well beyond that, catering to the desires of the clientele.

Note: In Boleros, one side (the side with the dancing and band) is designated for smoking, while the other side is nonsmoking.

Located on the Promenade, The Hoof & Claw is ideal for your casual afternoon cocktail. Its black walls, dark-brown leather seating and romantic images of eloquent English gentry -- see a wealthy paleface holding court, a rider stroking his mare's mane, or an enormous mastiff with sausage links balanced on his nose -- aim for a vibe of sleepy refinement. I found the staff there to be particularly congenial, engaging passengers on a first-name basis in easy conversation. If you're hungry, you can ask for some peanuts to accompany your Murphy's stout (Yank choices also available) or "James Bond" martini. At night, guitar-man Jimmy Blakemore takes your requests.

There is a range of other bars to choose from throughout the ship, including Deck 4's nautical-themed Schooner Bar, Vintage's Wine Bar -- this has been given an elegant refit -- the Champagne Bar, a cigar club for decidedly masculine choices (scotch) and, of course, the popular Olive or Twist (Liberty's iteration of RCI's Viking Crown Lounge), perched atop the ship. The Schooner Bar was a huge hit on our cruise, where the large contingency of Irish folks onboard enjoyed pelting out traditional Celtic numbers led by Darren, the entertaining piano player. A rather bizarre incident occurred one night when Darren chose to take a short break and offered the floor to one Brit who gave us a full rendition of that, um, U.K. classic "Ernie the Milkman," which was met by the sound of tumbleweeds rolling through the piano bar.

Of course, watching the active sporting pursuits going on around the clock make for excellent entertainment, as well. The FlowRider has seats for viewing potential wipeouts and clothing mishaps -- there were, in fact, reports circulating about a woman with tiny bikini top who was warned to put a T-shirt on, insisted on not doing so, and summarily lost her top.

Fitness and Recreation

The Lido area features two main pools, with one for swimming and one for sports, as well as three hot tubs. The H20 Zone, with its kids-only pool, waterfall and abstract colorful sculpture fountains, easily garners the most attention. Though adults are not technically supposed to be playing in this pool area, I did run through it myself to test out the product. It was enjoyable and an outstanding way to lower your body temperature on a blistering Caribbean day. In the adults-only Solarium pool area, located farther forward, you'll see swinging chairs (surprisingly, usually unoccupied) and two cantilevered hot tubs, which jut out over the side of the ship and provide fantastic views through clear glass panels. (They hang 100 feet above the ocean's surface.)

A problem noted by a few passengers was the fact that you had to queue to obtain (and deposit) a pool towel on Deck 11, and during peak times -- early morning for collection and late afternoon for dropping off -- the area became very congested. With a fine of $25 for a towel not returned, there is obviously a problem with these towels disappearing, but perhaps a simpler system could be devised. Maybe towels could be put in the staterooms and collected the night before disembarkation to avoid guests "accidentally" running off with them.

As part of the 2011 dry-dock renovations, an 18.5-foot video screen was installed in the main pool area, showing movies in the evenings and entertainment programs throughout the cruise.

For your workout, you can head to the ShipShape Fitness Center, the finest gym on a cruise ship, with a large variety of equipment -- a long row of sea-facing Lifestyle treadmills, plenty of bikes, a large separate room for Yoga, Pilates and stretching classes, weight machines that focus on every individual muscle in your body, free weights in every weight. This facility mirrors the overall size and offerings of the ship.

Whether your goal is to correct a prematurely hunched posture or to improve your skin in the pore-destroying climate of the Caribbean, there are several morning and afternoon fitness seminars offered for free (with the aim of selling those products or services, of course). But frankly, I found the seminars more confusing than beneficial -- restructuring years of bad diet and lifestyle habits in 30 minutes is a bit of a stretch -- and the amount of information on nutrition, metabolic function, water retention, glycemic index levels, fat deposits, Chinese herbs, etc. requires an indefatigable will to focus.

With chocolate sauce ringing the corners of my mouth and a modest-sized brown stain on my shirt, I was relieved that I would be able to sweat out some of my consumption via the various programs available. And perhaps that's the idea -- creating a cycle of food gorging, slight guilt, activity, food gorging, guilt, activity. You may pick up some ice cream at Ben & Jerry's, stuff your face with a burger at Johnny Rockets and then attend a biking class in the afternoon.

Liberty of the Seas has just introduced acupuncture, something that sister line Celebrity has been offering. I attended a seminar on acupuncture, and the acupuncturist noted that it typically takes three or four treatments to notice a visible effect. The main potential side effect of acupuncture is bruising -- if the capillaries right on the skin are irritated -- and bruising is not something that a cruiser would want if they were wearing a backless dress on formal night. My suggestion: If you're interested, try it on land, where you won't pay cruise spa prices and where more and more insurance companies are actually covering the procedure.

The basketball court featured constant, nearly daylong pickup games, organized tournaments and amusingly violent organized soccer games (pleading RCI staff: "Guys! Guys! Please, keep it clean! Guys!").

We have to mention the FlowRider, the popular surf simulator that's found on all three Freedom-class ships. Surfing is free and open to everyone (check hours), but if you really want to master it, try booking a one-on-one private FlowRider lesson for $75 per person, per hour (up to 8 people per session). Individuals or groups looking to "free-surf" without an instructor can book the FlowRider for $350 per hour, with no limit to the total number of participants. (A 50 percent no-show fee will be charged if you don't cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)

People aiming to take advantage of all the fitness offerings should augment their T-shirt, underwear and socks allocations -- or be prepared to do some laundry. In the muggy 90-degree Caribbean clime, you will sweat through your clothes.

Family

Like sister ship Freedom, Liberty of the Seas is easily one of the best ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet for families. And, if the phenomenal number of kids onboard during my summer cruise (nearly 1,300, or 30 percent of the population) is any indication, the fleet is aiming to rival even family stalwart Disney. It will be interesting to see how the family market evolves when Disney's fleet officially doubles by 2012.

New to 2011 cruises is the DreamWorks Experience, with activities and shows including a DreamWorks parade down the Royal Promenade and character breakfasts in the Rembrandt Dining Room, where children can meet all the studio characters. On my cruise, the parade took place at 11 p.m., so be prepared to let the children stay up late. It was packed with people elbowing to get a good view. The breakfast was also very busy, and one Dad I spoke to said he was glad he had reserved a table online before the cruise, as his two girls were chuffed to pieces to meet Shrek and his friends.

Children are broken into five separate age groups with their own activities and private rooms. Each room has its own activities area, and Internet consoles line at least one wall. There are Aquanauts (3 - 5) (I admired a "Look What I Did Today!" board displaying chaotic art pieces), Explorers (6 - 8), Voyagers (9 - 11), Navigators (12 - 14) and older teens (15 - 17). Another dynamite option for kids of ages 12 to 17 is the chance to attend several free D.J. classes through RCI's agreement with the Scratch DJ Academy. There, you can learn the basics of being a D.J. while using the latest equipment.

As part of the 2011 dry dock, the ship gained the ImaginOcean family theater show, which debuted on Oasis of the Seas. The combination puppet show and musical was created by Tony Award-nominated actor John Tartaglia, whose credits include several appearances on "Sesame Street" and a starring role in Broadway's "Avenue Q."

Also on Liberty of the Seas are cool teens-only hangouts Fuel (a mini-club with dance floor, soda bar and Internet terminals) and the Living Room (a lounge that often bustles with activity).

There were also quite a few kids, and especially those in the more awkward teenage phase, who were perfectly content hanging out in packs. I stumbled into Catacombs, the adults-only nightclub (hosting one "teens take over" night), where about 15 teenagers were holding court, touching the gargoyles, snapping photos, etc. As I was leaving the scene before being detected, one particularly saucy teenybopper casually remarked, "Guys, we're playing truth or dare. You know you want to kiss us."

For younger children, from RCI offers a Royal Babies and Tots nursery (catering to those from 6 - 36 months),where parents can leave their under-3's in a safe and fun place with trained staff -- two children to every one caregiver. Various activities have been developed exclusively for RCI by Fisher-Price and Crayola. It costs $8 per hour, and it is advisable to request your times as soon as you board since it only has space for 12 kids. Check your compass for times this service is available, as they vary on different cruises.

Note: I noticed a grandma returning supplies -- paper, glue, scissors, tape -- to the Adventure Oceans area. If you're looking for a little constructive one-on-one time with your baby or your baby's baby, inquire about borrowing the goods. The staff is quite accommodating to any ideas you may have.

Without a doubt, the Challenger's Video Arcade (located adjacent to the Adventure Ocean rooms) is the best arcade at sea, with a fittingly huge number of games. Prices, however, are a bit excessive -- cheapest game is 75 cents, most is $1.45 per play -- and it would be easy to amass hundreds of dollars in charges per kid by week's end.

Youths can play bingo (with a parent or guardian) for free -- and they can win, too, with only a parent's signature required at the Explorations desk to collect the cash. On our cruise, a young'un won the final jackpot, nearly $6,300. I'm not sure if his parents, who had every right to do so, snapped that up. ("See Mildred, I told you he'd amount to something.")

Fellow Passengers

On a seven-night Eastern Caribbean summer departure, there were more than 1,300 children. That's nearly one-third of the entire onboard passenger population, and families were certainly the majority of cruisers. Besides seeing one of the youngest demographics in cruising, expect to cavort with mostly North Americans and, out of Miami, a large number of bilingual Spanish- and English-speaking passengers.

Similarly, a Mediterranean cruise was also swamped with children -- which was probably due to the Easter holidays. There was a wide mix of Europeans, Asians and North Americans, though I would say there were more of the latter on our trip. Again, RCI seems to attract a young crowd, with plenty of 30- and 40-somethings sans kids.

Dress Code

Seven-night cruises have two formal nights and five casual nights. A decent number of men choose to wear tuxedos for formal dining, though dark suits were more common on our sailing. Women are typically found in cocktail dresses or gowns.

On five-night cruises, there is just one formal night. However, it is not compulsory, and many choose not to participate and dine in Windjammers or Jade to avoid the formal attire.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean recommends $3.75 per person, per day to the dining room waiter; $5 per person, per day to the cabin steward (or $7.25 if you're in a suite); $0.75 per person, per day to the headwaiter; and $2.15 per person, per day to the assistant waiter. This totals $11.65 for those in standard cabins and $13.90 for those in suites. Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance (and must be if you opt for flexible dining), added to your onboard bill or paid in cash at the end of the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Effective March 1, Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be pre-paid in advance or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

Gratuity

Royal Caribbean passengers are charged $12 per person, per day ($14.25 for suite guests). Gratuities can be prepaid or will be added on a daily basis to passengers' SeaPass accounts during the cruise. Passengers can modify or remove gratuities by visiting the guest services desk while onboard. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar tabs.

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