Big Enough For Ya? The Witty Traveler’s Review of Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas

Liberty of the Seas
The Liberty of the Seas docked in Cozumel, Mexico
With each passing year it seems that cruise ships become increasingly large. I’m sure that given enough time they’ll eventually have Formula One racetracks, regulation size soccer fields and 50 acre horse farms on board. But for now the current giants of the seas are content with such “compact” amenities as ice rinks, rock climbing walls and wave riding pools. Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas is just such a ship, and I recently had the chance to sample some of these over-the-top experiences while at sea, plus many more. Here’s a rundown on the good, the bad, and everything in between.

The Pros

The first pro for me was a convenient departure port. Living in Houston meant that in just a little over an hour’s drive I could be down in Galveston, ready to board. Though fog had closed the port until the time of our intended departure, the staff did their best to get us processed and in our staterooms in the timeliest way possible considering the circumstances. Which brings me to the next pro… With so much homogeny among cruise lines, its the little things that set them apart. I had to say that I was very pleased with not only the friendliness of the staff, but the sincere effort to be of help that they exuded. Normally I don’t pay all that much attention to such things, only noticing when something isn’t right. But I give them credit – all those guests and they still had a smile that didn’t appear to be just a mask hiding the raging desire to throw any and all tourists overboard.
Waterslide
The geometry of fun – Waterslides on Liberty of the Seas
Another pro was the ship itself. These days, the massive behemoths plying the cruise circuit are intended to be a destination unto themselves, and the Liberty is no exception. The top decks are literally overflowing with attractions – from a pair of waterslides, to rock climbing walls just perfect for public embarrassment, to a simulated surf pool where bleacher seating guarantees your public embarrassment. There are ample pools, both for kids and just for adults, plus two hot tubs extending out over the side of the ship for some vertigo to go along with your soaking.
Promenade
The promenade on the Liberty of the Seas
In the interior of the ship there’s a long promenade that not only serves as an effective conduit and point of reference, but also hosts a variety of shops and specialty restaurants (more on that later). The gym is sufficient and there’s a dedicated walking/running track outside just in case you didn’t work up enough sweat exercising in the air conditioning. I’m not a gambler, so I can’t really comment on the casino’s merits, but it seems ample and rather (in)conveniently placed when traversing the ship. I should also mention that despite the large amount of passengers onboard, there are lots of quiet places tucked away throughout the ship where you can find some peace and even (gasp) some solitude. Lastly, I should also mention that RC is consistently at the lower price range on their cruises, making it a great value for the money. With that in mind, we have a better context for the cons.

The Cons

Honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot to complain about, but since I’ve already dedicated a section to doing so, I might as well do my griping now. My first observation upon entering the ship – other than awe at the cavernous space I was standing in – is that there were a good number of  ‘attractions’ that weren’t included. In fact, during a stroll down the promenade there are numerous little restaurants and shops that incurred additional fees, like anything other than regular (weak) coffee or a treat from the cupcake shop. There’s a Johnny Rockets onboard, where you could really pig out for a flat fee, but if I’m going to consume my entire daily caloric intake in one meal, I want to do it for free – know what I’m saying? Of course, there are several specialty restaurants which require additional fees, and I think that I’ve already made myself clear on how I feel about that. Considering that the main dining rooms – artfully tiered over several decks at the stern – offered better than average fare, I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to try them unless you see something on one of the menus that you’ve really got a hankering for. I know that cruise lines make a good portion of their profit from onboard sales, but these days many cruise lines, much like the airlines, now give the vibe that they see you as a ripe cash cow just waiting to be milked. Cocktails were unnecessarily pricey – which is expected – but what annoyed me the most was the blatant markup of even basic products in their store. When my wife came down with a cold, I nearly got sick myself when I had to pay $17 for a small bottle of Day-quil. Naturally, I still got it for her, but come on guys – is that really necessary? Are you somehow associated with the company that makes Epi-Pens? The only other minor complaint would be with the general communication with the guests. When we had some unexpected delays, they weren’t all that quick to convey this, resulting in lines at the Purser’s Desk and confusion regarding shore excursions. Not that this ruined anything, but when it turns out that I didn’t have to get up until an hour later than what was originally said, I got a little cranky (FYI- not a morning person). Lastly, and I really can’t say it is a con in and of itself, the itinerary – Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica – is rather pedestrian. Those places are nice to be sure, but are so cliché to anyone who has cruised more than once, that I feel at least one port beyond the ordinary would do much to make the destinations as appealing as the ship.

A Great Not So Secret Deal – The Chef’s Table

Remember when I implied that it felt like guests were being viewed as a bunch of sunburned dollar signs? Well, this actually worked out well to our advantage on at least one occasion. While munching on lunch in the Windjammer Café that every ship seems to have, a waiter approached us with an interesting proposition. For about $85 per person, our group (adults only) could have a very special dining experience in a select, secret location. Intrigued, and feeling a little cheap that we didn’t splurge on any of the specialty restaurants, we all decided it was a good idea (especially when Dad decided to treat everyone!) and as a result I had one of the top two best meals of my life. The other was on the Italian island of Ponza, but that’s another story… To start we were asked to meet at Vintages – a wine bar on the promenade, where we were given a glass of champagne (all alcohol in this package was included). Once sufficiently ‘relaxed’ we followed our host to the stern, where on the top tier of the dining venues, right at the balcony overlooking it all that I earlier had said ‘wouldn’t it be cool to eat at that table’, we were seated around a private table screened off from the riff-raff of our fellow guests. The head chef came out and told us about how he personally was preparing this meal, what we could expect, and how much we were going to enjoy it. At first I was a little skeptical, especially when they brought out our appetizer of scallops that were so finely sliced I thought it was just a film on our tiny little dishes. They were tasty, but if we were going to be in for some weirdo kind of dining experience where the food came in spray form or a beam of light, I wouldn’t be having any of it. But when the soup came out – tomatoes roasted for 6 hours and poured hot into a bowl with soft cheese – all fears dissipated. In fact, it was so tasty I just wanted to stand up and punch somebody. This was followed by a main course of filet mignon so tender I could use it as a spread, plus a shared order of truffle ravioli so delicious I wanted to cry. We finished off with some fantastic dessert, and I should also mention, finished off another round of wine. Each course came with a specifically (and sometimes expensive) paired wine, which left us feeling beyond full, yet very happy. It wasn’t cheap, but I’m sure it beat any specialty restaurant out there.

Odds and Ends

The entertainment on board ranged between ‘that’s pretty cool/funny/nice’ and ‘meh’. The shows were usually packed, so unless you get there early you might be forced to stand – that is if you can, after dinner. The ice show was definitely worth seeing, and really what’s not to like about watching pretty girls being flung around, often inches from the ice? I’m a bit too old and married to be hitting the clubs, but even in the evening it didn’t seem much like a party ship – whether that’s a pro or con depends on you.
Ship
The Liberty of the Seas in (giant) profile

Summary

Weighing the pros and cons, I’d definitely have to give it to the pros. Sailing on the Liberty of the Seas was a great value and a good time despite the run-of-the-mill itinerary. Sure it’s big, and yeah, just about every point on the ship is about half a mile from your cabin. But in a sea of giants, with bigger giants on the way, this one was gentle enough to be worth the walk.
Have you cruised on the Liberty of the Seas? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.

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An Apology to the 14 Countries I’ve Visited More Than Once Without Doing Them Justice

I’d like to start by apologizing to Mexico. I know it is a country with a rich cultural background, amazing natural scenery, and world-class architecture. It’s just that in the five times that I’ve been there, it was never my intended destination. I don’t mean that in a ‘kidnapped-and-left-for-dead-in-the-Sonoran-Desert’ sort of way. It’s just that my visits (3 times to Tijuana as a day trip from California + two stops in Cozumel via cruise ship where I literally spent 80% of my time underwater) were never about Mexico and I kind of feel bad about that. It also got me thinking about the other 13 countries where I’ve “visited” more than once and haven’t always given them the attention they deserve. So Mexico, and you other countries I’ve neglected, this one’s for you.

Germany

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Castles aplenty in the Rhine Valley, Germany

The first time I visited Germany it was for a few days on my whirlwind honeymoon road trip through Europe. Staying near the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, my visit was certainly deliberate. My return however was a matter of chance. My Lufthansa flight on my way to Zimbabwe had a ten hour layover in Frankfurt, giving me just enough time to rent a car, overcome some terrible directions and taste the flavor of the stunning Rhine Valley (for more on this adventure see the post The Rhine Valley Has All You Need, Unless You Need Directions). I know I haven’t truly gotten to explore this beautiful country as much as it deserves but am open to someday doing so.

Japan

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The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

Few cultures are as dominant and distinct in Asia as Japan. My first trip there – a few day layover after a visit to China – got me to Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and of course, Disneyland. I happened to pass through a year to the day later, this time on my way to Thailand, but did little more than explore Narita Airport and try to get comfy on the floor while waiting for my continuing flight. My apologies to you as well, Nippon. I know you deserve better. Maybe next time…

Spain

This one-time seat of empire boasts far more World Heritage Sites than my own U.S.A. but other than a three day layover to explore the museums and plazas of Madrid on my first visit, my second visit was limited to traversing (with much grumbling I might add) the entire breadth of Barajas Airport for my connecting Iberian Airlines flight, which was inconveniently parked somewhere near the border with France. I know Spain deserves further time and exploration to it justice. Next time I just hope they park the plane a little closer.

South Africa

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Members of the infamous Big 5, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa

My first visit to South Africa was a delightful week in 2009 where we explored the northeast’s animal reserves and traveled the awe-inspiring Panorama Route. My second time didn’t take me to any such places. Instead, I was connecting for my flight to Harare in Johannesburg’s massive airport, shopping at the same airport shops as I did 5 years earlier. Amazingly, it was all the same stuff. Next time Cape Town is calling, even if the souvenirs are the same.

Costa Rica

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Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

While my trip of 2006 was exclusively to this Central American jewel, my return was for just one day when my cruise ship docked at the shady Pacific town of Puntarenas. At least this time I was able to see something else, taking our rental car down to Quepos and the idyllic Manuel Antonio National Park. It wasn’t the two weeks in the jungle I would love to do, but at least it was better than nothing.

Jamaica

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Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

 
My first trip to Jamaica was on a FAM (familiarization trip) trip through Sandals resorts. For $50 agents were flown down from a snowy NY to Montego Bay, so as to experience firsthand a Sandals Resort before being flown back home later that afternoon. I took the occasion to lose my group, sit at the bar, eat like a pig, drink like a fish and nap on the beach before it was time to go home. I’m proud to say that my second visit- this time via cruise ship – allowed me even more time to visit amazing Dunn’s River Falls and drift the White River before I was again compelled to leave the country after less than 24 hours. One of these days I’ll stay longer Jamaica – I promise.

As for you, Italy, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, Greece & Vatican City, I’ve had my reasons for coming and going and was not disappointed by my experiences there. Keep an eye out for me, as I just may return. And to you Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, get ready for my return in November 2016. I will try to do you justice, but just in case, I apologize to you in advance, as I have for these countries here.


Have you traveled to the same country more than once – perhaps just passing through? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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Humble Pie in Ocho Rios

Looking back to the starting point
Looking back to the starting point

I admit it. I’ve become a bit of a travel snob. Gone are the days when I was just thrilled to be leaving the country. Now, it seems that unless the destination is far away and relatively obscure, my inner snob considers itself above all that. And just like any snob, the antidote for such arrogance is a heaping serving of humble pie. I got just such a serving when I disembarked my cruise ship in one of the most routine ports of call in the entire Caribbean–Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Though located in a lovely setting with lush green forest spilling down the mountainsides to the azure blue water of the Caribbean, it’s a scene I’d seen many times before, and like I said, I’ve become a bit of a snob, so it takes a little more than that to impress me. As I saw the hordes of tourists disgorging from the ship and packing into their waiting tour buses for the ride to Dunn’s River Falls–just as I was–my expectations dropped, and I thought this excursion could never live up to its billing as a world-class site with so many people converging on it at once. But the humble pie was ready to be served, and as our group gathered at the base and looked up at the human chains working their way up the multi-tiered cascades, I figuratively had my mouth full.

Going up?
Going up?

Suddenly the throngs of fellow tourists didn’t seem such a nuisance, and I quite enjoyed the unspoken camaraderie as we all made our way through the jungle and scampered over wet rocks in between stops to take pictures. Having been to New Zealand, Alaska, and the National Parks of the west USA, I thought I’d become a bit jaded to the spectacle of falling water. Not here. Each level had its own character, and watching the dappled sunlight reflecting in the swirling pools, I told my inner snob to choke on it.

Ready to tube the White River
Ready to tube the White River

Once that was done, I thought that the show was all over and that there’d be nothing else worth seeing. Well, apparently humble pie is best served with gravy, and our gravy was in the form of the swift running turquoise waters of the White River. Floating on an inflated inner tube and meandering along the curves brimming with green, even my inner snob had to finally admit that he was badly mistaken.

So for all you elitist travelers that consider yourselves above visiting any place that doesn’t require getting thirty-seven vaccinations, remember this one important fundamental truth: If a place is popular, its not without reason. Ocho Rios is one of those places. So get your bathing suit on, check the seal on your waterproof camera, and get ready to eat some humble pie. And since this is Jamaica, it might even be available in the form of brownies 😉

All Caribbean Islands Are Not Created Equal (Despite What The Beach Boys Imply)

Trunk Bay, St. Johns, USVI
Trunk Bay, St. Johns, USVI

 

“Aruba. Jamaica. Oooh I want to take you to Bermuda, Bahama. Come on pretty mama…” Thanks a lot Beach Boys. Your song Kokomo just reinforces a stereotype that geographically-challenged Americans have about the Caribbean. Namely, that it’s all the same. Now it’s up to me, and others like me, to set matters straight, and I can do so in two words, not counting the contraction: It’s not.

 

Sure, I suppose there are some common elements—turquoise waters, coral reefs, a laid back lifestyle and such. But saying that the islands of the Caribbean are all the same is like saying all dogs are alike, or telling an Italian that any type of pasta will do. Not only is it blatantly wrong but also likely to raise the ire of those who know better (especially the Italians). So in the spirit of setting the record straight, here’s a brief overview of the Caribbean and the various flavors to be found within.

 

Bermuda & Bahamas

 

Turtle Cove, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
Turtle Cove, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

Technically neither is a ‘tropical’ destination since both lie north of the Tropic of Cancer. And since we’re being technical, Bermuda isn’t even in the Caribbean Sea but rather due east of the Carolinas. Regardless, many lump these in with the Caribbean Islands so I’ve included them here. Bermuda, while enjoying much milder temperatures than the North American landmass to the west, is not a year-round destination if you’re looking for sand and sun. By October things are starting to cool down, and while there are still things to do and see, it is much more pleasant when you can lie comfortably on one of their famous pink sand beaches.

 

As for the Bahamas, this archipelago consists primarily of flat, sandy islands with green vegetation. Not much in the way of mountains or waterfalls here, but if it’s a pleasant beach or interesting dive spot you’re after, so long as you hit the weather right in the winter it is a nice destination if you can avoid the persistent vendors. Continuing to the southeast, the Turks & Caicos Islands are more of the same—flat, relatively featureless topography with azure waters on all sides. The only difference in my estimation is the political boundary.

 

Greater Antilles

 

Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica
Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

This term refers to the largest islands of the Caribbean: Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti & the D.R.), Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Forming the northern boundary of the Caribbean Sea, these islands have rugged, mountainous interiors, palm-fringed beaches and colorful colonial histories. With the exception of Cuba which is still pretty much off-limits to American tourists, and Haiti which has an underdeveloped infrastructure and relative political instability, tourism is alive and well. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are extremely popular all-inclusive destinations, though with the proper tour operator and/or a good head on your shoulders there’s plenty to see outside the resort’s grounds—especially Dunn’s River Falls near Ocho Rios. You’ll have to run a gauntlet of vendors but it truly is a world-class site.

 

Lesser Antilles

 

Roadside Bar, Roseau, Dominica
Roadside Bar, Roseau, Dominica

The Lesser Antilles are basically all the islands starting from the U.S. & British Virgin Islands & curving down to Trinidad and the northern shores of South America. These islands are what most envision (erroneously) the entire Caribbean as being—mountainous, waterfall-strewn, jungle-clad jewels of green in a turquoise setting. And while they share the same general topography, the varied colonial heritage of each island makes the local flavor a bit different from the next. You have your former English colonies at Antigua, St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados and Montserrat. You’ve got your French islands like Martinique & Guadeloupe. And you even have the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten that’s half French and half Dutch. Try telling them that it’s all the same.

 

The ABC Islands

 

Playa Knip, Curacao
Playa Knip, Curacao

This term refers to the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. In contrast to the Antilles both Greater and Lesser, you will not find lush rain forests, gushing waterfalls or emerald mountain ranges here. These islands are dry, windswept, & semi-desert-like. On the windward side of the islands waves batter & scour the jagged coastline, whereas on the leeward sides you’ll find tranquil clear waters and some great diving and snorkeling. Standards of living are a bit higher here and colonial towns such as Willemstad & Oranjestad offer charming architecture and plenty of shopping opportunities. All of this is fine—just know what you’re getting into.

 

I hope this brief overview clears up some of the common misconceptions about Caribbean islands, and may it serve as a lesson to those who accept songs at their word. For the sake of truth, knowledge, and geographical consciousness everywhere, before you lump an entire geographical region all together, consult a map, consult a professional, or even consult me. Just don’t ask the Beach Boys 🙂