Editor's Note: Prior to its debut in New York on May 5, 2007 -- just a few weeks after our visit to the Grand Bahama Shipyard in Freeport -- the foundling Celebrity Journey became part of the industry's newest cruise line: Azamara Cruises. The ship is now known as Azamara Journey.
Like every other big-ship cruise line, Celebrity has far more invested in a bigger-is-better shipbuilding strategy than in one that favors boutique-sized ships. The plan there is to produce vessels with a wide range of amenities suiting every type of cruise traveler. Indeed, its upcoming new-builds -- Solstice, Equinox and Eclipse --all epitomize this approach (and in fact, at 118,000 tons and 2,850 passengers, each of these will be quite a bit larger than Celebrity's current biggest-in-fleet Millennium-class vessels, which measure 91,000 tons and carry 1,950 cruisers).
The line is also shucking off its older, more moderately sized vessels; Horizon was the first to go last year, and Zenith departed just this month.
So all that makes Celebrity's acquisition of two, turn-of-this-century, mid-sized ships -- which had been operated by Spain-based Pullmantur, itself an acquisition of Celebrity parent Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. -- quite intriguing. The first to join the fleet is Celebrity Journey (previously known as Pullmantur's Blue Dream); Celebrity Quest will begin sailing this fall. Both measure 30,277 tons and carry 710 passengers.
Cruise Critic's Carolyn Spencer Brown recently traveled to the shipyard in Freeport, Bahamas, where Blue Dream-nee-Celebrity Journey is being refurbished, for an exclusive at-the-shipyard preview. David Kelly, Celebrity's associate vice president of fleet operations, took a few hours out of his insanely crazy schedule to show her around. Join Spencer Brown as she describes the ship's transformation below in her own words, photos and exclusive video. And don't miss our "before and after" pictures, which will debut in early May.
Editor's Note: We have a winner in our Celebrity Journey contest! Sue Clark Koenig wasn't the first to respond ... but she was the first to have the right answer. There's an extra chunk of steel missing from a cabin on Deck 8; it's been temporarily moved to allow for loading of suite bathroom units.
The Back Story
The ships that Celebrity has added to its fleet are special in their own right. Back in the mid- to late-1990's, an upstart cruise line called Renaissance designed and launched eight nearly identical ships that were revolutionary in their own way. Balconies, not so common then, were plentiful so that even travelers sailing in moderate-priced cabins could afford one. The ship's four restaurants -- a buffet venue, a main dining room and two boutique eateries -- were all open seating. At the time? Sacrilege! Also radical: Renaissance's ignominiously named R-series vessels didn't allow kids -- or smokers! Alas. When the cash-poor company was forced to fold immediately after September 11, 2001, the eight ships were split up and sold or leased to cruise lines such as Swan Hellenic, Princess, Pullmantur and Oceania.
Interestingly, each cruise line has updated and upgraded them in different styles. The investment in refurbishment varied widely; Swan Hellenic, for instance, pulled out the casino (which Princess, when recently transforming Minerva II into Royal Princess, put back in); Princess has only provided as-needed maintenance and refurbishment to its Pacific and Tahitian Princess ships; Oceania has invested millions of dollars into upgrading its vessels ... and Pullmantur literally changed nothing.
Since Celebrity announced this past winter that it would assume ownership of these twin ships, details have been hard to come by. What we found out on our trip to Freeport to see Journey was that its evolution has been a work in progress. Initially, Celebrity's announcement noted that the ships would be positioned as part of its Xpeditions sub-brand, and that enhancements would include entirely new bedding and soft goods, and the addition of popular Celebrity signature elements such as the Martini Bar, Sushi Cafe, Acupuncture at Sea, Michael's Club and the Cova Cafe.
The signature elements will indeed be incorporated into Celebrity Journey (it's too soon to talk about Celebrity Quest). The rest of the details have been confusing, according to member postings on Cruise Critic's Celebrity forum, where rumors have been running amok. Among them? Dining would be set-seating -- which may be a Celebrity big-ship tradition, but was definitely not what ship designers originally had in mind. There'd be kids' facilities (particularly important for its first season of sailings to Bermuda since this ship would take over for Celebrity Zenith, which had children's programs). Much of this info, our readers reported, came from Celebrity's own sales representatives and, indeed, one travel agent has been telling customers on Cruise Critic's boards that she can't really give much accurate information until the first sailing on May 5.
It was clear during our visit to the ship, however, that Celebrity has now articulated how Celebrity Journey, and, later Celebrity Quest, will fit into the overall fleet. Though they will have some trademark Celebrity features, such as the Cova Cafe, Michael's Club and Acupuncture at Sea, they will not offer a carbon copy Celebrity experience. There will be no facilities for children. Dining will be all open-seating all the time. And all cabins will have butler service.
Back to the Shipyard
Pullmantur may have operated the ships over the past few years, but as we mentioned, the line virtually didn't change a thing -- not as much as a tattered bedspread or worn carpets. And in places where work has not yet begun, you can see that public rooms and cabins look quite worn and tired.
Over the past few weeks (and the next one) shipyard workers have had their work cut out for them in transforming the ship into a contemporary, sleek at-sea version of a boutique hotel. There were just four weeks in which to reupholster chairs and sofas, redesign dining room seating arrangements, lay down carpets and flooring, hang signs, gut half a deck so that larger suites can be built on site, create two alternative restaurants, upgrade all in-cabin features, from bedding to balcony furnishings, tear down walls, build up walls, paint and plaster, and refit kitchens to fit U.S. vessel sanitation rules and regulations.
And that's only the half of it.
The work began in early April as Pullmantur wound up Blue Dream's final cruise in Brazil. David Kelly -- a long time Oceania staffer who recently joined this line to oversee the two R-series ships, from refurbishment to operation -- is supervising the project. He and 10 other Celebrity officers, including the ship's new head housekeeper, who comes from Silversea, boarded in Brazil and immediately began to work. A 24-hour stop in Trinidad, solely to offload Pullmantur equipment, supplies, and refurbishment-generated trash and debris, was the only time the ship docked on its way to Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island (the same shipyard, you may recall, that handled the recent refurbishment of Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas).