Review: Spirit of Freedom Live-Aboard Dive Trip

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

Spirit of Freedom

We were greeted in Lizard Island by Captain Tony and the Spirit of Freedom crew.  After a short walk to the northern beach, we boarded a dinghy in crystal clear water and motored off to the mothership!  After a thorough introduction and safety presentation, we were shown our rooms.  Since it was all that was available at the time we booked, my dad and I shared a quad room with four bunks and a bathroom.  It was exactly what we expected, and all we needed during the trip.

The Boat

The boat itself is basically a three-story yacht configured to make it a diving vessel.  As such, there’s 1/3 of a deck fully dedicated to SCUBA diving operations — equipment setup, tank filling, storage, etc.  Inside from the dive deck is kitchen and dining room where we enjoyed the wonderful meals aboard Spirit of Freedom.   Further forward on the same deck is the main lounge on the boat, which featured a huge sofa, a bar, and television – it was really a great place to relax between dives.  Six of the cabins were located a deck lower, and a few were on the top deck, just forward of the good-sized sun-deck and aft of the bridge.

The Diving

Spirit of Freedom certainly delivered on the promise of world-class diving.  Over the four days, we enjoyed no less than fifteen dives!  Yes, 15!

On the day of arrival, we enjoyed two afternoon dives on Ribbon Reef number 9 on the Great Barrier Reef.  These dives featured incredible corals and marine life, including a school of barracuda and a large hammerhead shark!

Disclaimer:  The below diving pictures from this trip were compiled by the guests and crew of this dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom from 02 January to 06 January, 2014 — I unfortunately did not take these pictures
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School of Barracuda at Ribbon Reef #9

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Hammerhead on the GBR

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Incredibly clear water makes divers 50m away visible

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The Spirit of Freedom from below

Overnight, we steamed over a hundred miles out into the Coral Sea to Osprey Reef – an atoll basically in the middle of nowhere — certainly not a commonly dived part of the world.  The water here was so clear, it was breathtaking.  Visibility was upwards of 200 feet, and was some of the clearest water I’ve experienced anywhere — including the notoriously crystal clear freshwater of the Florida Springs.

We dived five times on the second day of the trip.  The first two dives were on the North Horn.  The second dive was a shark feeding dive, where a box of bait was essentially lowered on to the reef in the middle of about 30-40 sharks.

A feeding frenzy ensued.  And it was awesome.

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

Shark Dive at Osprey Reef

That afternoon, we took in two more dives on Osprey Reef, including “Secret Caves” and “Admiralty” – both dives were complete with a network of tunnels and caves, which were some of my favorite dives of the trip.  After dinner, we enjoyed a night dive of Admiralty, and it was purely spectacular.

The next day, we steamed South to Shark Reef, where we saw an abundance of Silvertip Sharks an unbelievably clear water.  Later in the day, we dove Vema Reef and then returned to the southern tip of Osprey Reef for the final dive of the day at “Rapid Horn” which was probably the best dive of the entire trip due to the impressive wall, abundant sea life, and sheer number of large sharks.  The final day was spent at Bouganville Reef for a fourth day of spectacular diving.  That final day, diving ended a bit early so we could cruise back to Cairns, where we disembarked on the morning of January 6th.

Food

The food was outstanding.  It was far better than I expected, and was frankly better than almost any cruise I’ve ever been on.  The presentation and taste of every meal was top-notch.  Every day, we were woken up at 6:30am for a light breakfast before our first dive.  This was usually a continental affair featuring cereals, muffins, yogurts,  juices and coffee.  We then proceeded to do our first dive of the day.  Upon finishing the first dive, we returned to the dive boat with the aroma of a freshly cooked breakfast greeting us as we walked inside.  This was a hot breakfast of pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a variety of other goodies.  Lunch was usually quite elaborate, and featured a wide range of cuisines throughout the trip.  Dinner was alway a treat, as the staff served us course by course with some delicious meals ranging from beef tenderloin to chicken to a wonderful fish dish.  The final night of the trip was highlighted by an on-deck barbecue with chicken, steak, sausage, and kangaroo, along with delicious sides — it was just amazing having the meal on deck in the middle of the Coral Sea.  There was PLENTY to eat, and all the food was just first-rate.

The Crew

Simply fantastic.  They bent over backwards for us all week.  The trip director, Nic led an amazing lot of dives, and provided excellent dive briefings before every dive, and summaries of the day every evening.  Hostess Jill and the team really couldn’t do enough for us all week — everything we needed was taken care of.  The crew was really as good as it gets!

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Spirit of Freedom Crew

Overall

I really can’t say enough about our time on the Spirit of Freedom.  It was a SCUBA diver’s dream — plain and simple.

The diving was some of the best in the world.   The vessel was a world-class live aboard ship.  The crew couldn’t have been any better.  The food was borderline gourmet.  Everything exceeded our wildest expectations.  We really viewed this as THE highlight of our entire Australia experience.  I really couldn’t have thought up a better way to spend some great quality time with my dad than this.

Though the Spirit of Freedom is priced a bit higher than some of its competitors, I can say that you get what you pay for.  Pricing information can be found on the Spirit of Freedom website, here.  I highly recommend this trip to all divers — it’s certainly a bucket list-type trip!

How I Booked it…

No points or miles here!  I sent in a reservation request on the website and finalized the details via e-mail with the Spirit of Freedom staff…

Spirit of Freedom Website

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Two Days in Dubai, Day 2

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1  (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda


…Continued from Day 1

I wokeup relatively late on Saturday morning, and opted against breakfast since in my infinite wisdom, I’d consumed a massive cheeseburger at about 3am the night before.  At that point, I met up with three friends in the lobby of the Park Hyatt where we caught a cab to the Dubai Mall. Today was the day I was most looking forward to:

We were scheduled to SCUBA dive.

In an aquarium.

An aquarium in a mall.

With sharks!!!

Dubai Mall has a very large aquarium smack-dab in the middle of it.  It features an absolutely massive glass panel, which is the world’s largest acrylic glass panel.  The aquarium is in plain view of all levels of the mall, so it truly serves as a centerpiece.

Aquarium in a mall

Aquarium in a mall

Dubai Mall Aquarium

Dubai Mall Aquarium

The World's largest acrylic glass panel at the Dubai Mall

The World’s largest acrylic glass panel at the Dubai Mall

Me at the aquarium before my dive

Me at the aquarium before my dive

In the weeks proceeding the trip, we had arranged to dive in the aquarium with Al Boom Diving — a diving operation that runs dives to many sites in the Persian Gulf, as well as the Dubai Aquarium.  We were asked to arrive at noon for an hour orientation and about a 45 minute dive to follow.  We went through a brief orientation that went over the nuances of aquarium diving, and highlighted how NOT to get bitten by a shark.  After the orientation and signing our lives away on waiver forms, we suited up and got in the water.

It was quite an experience.  The Dubai Aquarium has an extensive collection of fish, sharks, and rays.  In particular, this aquarium has the world’s largest collection of Sand Tiger sharks, a particularly ferocious looking, but relatively docile species.

A Sand Tiger shark

A Sand Tiger shark

While a couple other friends snorkeled above, we had another friend who took pictures of us from the outside the entire time.

Relaxing at the bottom of the fish tank

Relaxing at the bottom of the fish tank

Our group diving!

Our group diving!

Chilling on the reef as a Sand Tiger shark cruises above us

Chilling on the reef as a Sand Tiger shark cruises above us

Without a doubt, the most unique and memorable part of this dive was having an audience.  It felt like I was a goldfish in a fish tank, and the humans were all gathered looking at me.  Seriously though, it was pretty cool waiving back at the little kids who ran to the glass waiving with grins ear-to-ear.

Diving with an audience

Diving with an audience

The sharks were of no concern to me, and they really didn’t want much to do with the divers, as expected.

Me after the dive

Me after the dive

We finished up the dive, dried up, and then I headed for a dim-sum lunch with a friend while the rest of the group went to High Tea at the Burj Al Arab hotel – supposedly the world’s only 7-star hotel.  After lunch, we went to check-out the Burj Al-Arab from the outside and the Jumeirah Beach Resort.  It was entirely too hot outside, so we went back to our hotel to hangout at the pool.

Burj al Arab

Burj al Arab

Me in front of Burj al Arab

Me in front of Burj al Arab

Dusk over Dubai Creek with Burj Khalifa in the background

Dusk over Dubai Creek with Burj Khalifa in the background

I got a quick nap in after the pool, and then we headed to have a traditional Arabic dinner at Reem Al Bawadi.  This place did provide a good sampling of some Arabic foods, but there were also some highly Americanized selections – like fried mozzarella sticks. Unfortunately, the service was extremely slow, but it was nice to have dinner with a huge group of about 16 people.

 

Mezze at Reem al Bawadi

Mezze at Reem al Bawadi

Dinner at Reem al Bawadi

Dinner at Reem al Bawadi

Once dinner was complete, we hailed a few cabs and took them to the Jumeirah Beach Resport, where we went out to have drinks at 360, the club at the end of the Jumeirah Marina’s pier.  The views from out here of Burj Al Arab were phenomenal.

360

360

Burj al Arab from 360

Burj al Arab from 360

Burj al Arab

Burj al Arab

We had an awesome last night in Dubai out at 360 – the drinks were great, and the views of the area were just awesome.

We then called it a night and headed back to the hotel for some more fun.  It was a late night, so I slept in pretty late on Sunday.  I awoke to join some friends at the pool for a few hours before I headed back to the room to pack.  I said my goodbyes to my friends, and met my S-Series Mercedes for a lift back to Dubai International Airport, where I had a 5:25pm flight scheduled back to Hong Kong and then to Tokyo.

My sweet ride back to DXB

My sweet ride back to DXB

Overall, I really enjoyed Dubai.  It’s a shame that I didn’t get the three intended days here since I was planning to meet my former roommate and friend from Grad school in Dubai the first day before he left for Japan.  Alas, this was not in the cards due to the debacle with my outbound flights.  I also missed out on a trip to Abu Dhabi, but there’s always time for that in future trips.   The biggest takeaway from Dubai is that it’s an interesting place.  There’s obviously a ton of money here, and as a result you have some pretty phenomenal architectural marvels.  Folks over here are also pretty intent on making Dubai a true tourist destination, and they’re well on the way to accomplishing this.  I didn’t get a chance to go dune-bashing, which I really wanted to do.  I do regret sitting out the Royal Tea at the Burj Al Arab, but when planning it, I couldn’t justify paying the price for it.

Dubai from above

Dubai from above

Food and especially drinks are not cheap in Dubai.  However, cabs are dirt cheap.  Our hotel was a bit out of the way — by Dubai Creek, but this was not at all a problem since the cabs were so reasonable.  The city does have a metro system, but I never tried it.   Dubai is a city of what seems to be a never-ending number of malls, so there are retail shops from every high-end retailer you could imagine.  I’d love to come back to visit my roommate and knock some other things off my list, but honestly, there are many other places that I’d rather visit first.  With that said, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to spend a few days in Dubai, as it’s a place where I’ve wanted to go for quite some time.