Celebrity Constellation Southern Caribbean sailing March 19, 2005 San Juan – Casa de Campo – Barbados – Grenada – Antigua – St. Thomas – San Juan
The trip in: Our plane was supposed to leave LAX (Los Angeles, CA) at 9:35 p.m. Thursday night and we were supposed to connect in Miami to a 6:45 am flight arriving San Juan at 10:10 am. Unfortunately, there was an “equipment problem” and our flight didn’t leave LAX until around 11:30. We missed our 6:45 connection (arriving around 7:00-7:15) and American Airlines wanted to put us on a flight at 12:30 p.m. After some discussion – and waiting in line, we managed to get ourselves on an 8:12 am flight – leaving from the extreme other end of Miami Airport. We RAN and just made it, arriving in San Juan at around noon.
Friday: At San Juan Airport, near the baggage claim (yes, luckily, with all the flight changes, somehow our luggage arrived with us) there is a little booth for ground transportation. They write you up a slip there to hand to the taxi driver with the set price for the taxi ride to Condado - $14.50 for the trip with four pieces of luggage (they charge a set rate for the ride and there is an small charge for each piece of luggage). We quickly got a cab and off to the San Juan Marriott and Solaris Casino. We had a prepaid rate of $189 plus tax for the one night ($209 after adding taxes). The hotel was quite nice and up to “American” standards. The lobby and pool areas were attractive, the hotel well maintained, the concierge helpful. The room was not overly large, but comfortable enough. If there is a bad point to the hotel it’s that it is not the most convenient to Old San Juan or to the ship, requiring taxi rides everywhere, at some expense ($10 to $12 to Old San Juan or to the pier. Still, with only being there the one night and visiting Old San Juan just the once, it was fine. We were happy with the hotel.
San Juan: With only the one afternoon and evening, we opted to spend our time in Old San Juan. We took a Taxi to Fort San Cristobal ($3 per adult admission charge, as is Morro Castle…but if we knew ahead of time that we would visit both, there’s a $5 combination ticket). A Park Ranger gave us a very informative and entertaining tour of Fort San Cristobal. We wandered Morro Castle on our own. Great photo opportunities from both forts. We then wandered through Old San Juan, browsing in shops and looking for restaurants as dinnertime was nearing (most shops close at 7:00 p.m.). We ended up, on a lark, eating at a place called “Tio Danny’s” on Calle Fortaleza between Tanca and Capilla. The concierge at our hotel had mentioned a couple of other restaurants on this block (somewhat of a trendy restaurant area), but the one’s she recommended were Italian and Asian Cuisine and we decided to go with something more traditionally Puerto Rican. This place looked authentic and we ate out on the patio – with a lot of locals. I had Seafood Paella and my wife had a grilled strip steak. Both were reasonably priced at around $14-15. The food was good, but not great. We went back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep. By the way, traffic in San Juan on Friday afternoon was horrendous – worse than Los Angeles at its worst.
Saturday: We slept until almost 11:00. Got dressed, checked out and got a taxi straight to the ship. Arrived around Noon. It took us around a half an hour to make it through check-in – the longest on any ship in the past 2 or 3 years – and this was with Captains Club Select/Elite “priority” check-in. Problem with the system: Everyone gets in the same line at the curb to check in luggage – and, at around noon, it was rather long and slow. After losing the luggage, they direct you into the terminal where there are three lines – Suites, Captains Club Select/Elite, and everyone else. But all three lines are directed to the same group of check-in desks. Well, they pulled us out of our line ahead of the “others” line, but, rather than move people out of the lines to the desks AS THEY OPENED, they moved everyone into a shorter line at the desk as it got down to one or two people/families. So, they moved us to a line behind a couple of foreign nationals with some sort of Passport/Visa problem. And there we waited until the other lines all emptied into faster moving short lines. Finally, they directed us to another now empty desk – after all of the people in the “other” line had gone through and the line was temporarily empty. Still, we were doing okay. Happy to be finally on the ship.
I found my room while my wife went immediately to the Spa to make appointments. We then headed up to the buffet for lunch. Best on the buffet: The Chicken and the Polenta. The Scalloped Potatoes were a little tasteless, needed some seasoning. This was one of the only times (other than late night pizza and lunch one day when our shore excursion ran past the lunch hour and we chose not to eat in port - in Grenada) that we ate at the buffet, preferring the main dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We spent most of the afternoon back in our cabin, enjoying the balcony. We had cabin #6035. For those that don’t know, there is something rather special about #6035. Actually, it’s 6035 and the 7 cabins forward of it and the eight forward balconies on the other side of Deck six. It doesn’t show on the deck plans, but the balconies on those 16 cabins are twice the size of the rest of the balconies on the ship (except for the suites). There are also a handful of balconies that are wedge-shaped and slightly larger than normal. But these balconies are deep and rectangular and can actually handle a couple of chaise lounges with ease (ask your cabin steward). Anyway, we sat outside and read and did crossword puzzles.
Dinner first night was “Open Seating” – Casual dress. The show was only a half-hour show – one only for both seatings at 8:00 to 8:30. Singers and Dancers in “Batacuda: A Dance Odyssey”. Pretty entertaining, but brief. Lifeboat drill was at 10:30 after which we went up top for the sailaway party—after stopping by the cabin to unload the life vests. It was pretty funny seeing the few poor souls who didn’t bother stopping by their cabins schlepping around their life vests all night! They set up a small midnight buffet out on the pool deck with some steak, chicken, fruit, bread, desserts, etc. Too bad the ice cream was pretty much melted from the start.
Sunday: Had my typical breakfast in the Main Dining Room (I find it strange that so many people miss this to go to the buffet instead). I went to the Cruise Critic Reception at 10:00 am while my wife opted for “Trivia”. We spent sort of a lazy morning onboard, then lunch in the Dining Room and, finally, the ship docked in Casa de Campo at 1:00 p.m. We had a shore excursion lined up (we had one in every port) – 4x4 Cane Adventure. Met the tour at 1:20 in the “Terminal Building” (a short walk from the ship). They had four large jeeps waiting, each seating a driver and 8 passengers (3/4/2 configuration). The tour passed by all of the tourist areas without even a view of any of the resort and headed straight for the cane fields. There was one English speaking guide, Jose, for all four jeeps and he kept hopping off one jeep and hopping on the next, but spent little time with our jeep as our driver, Daniel, spoke a little English as well as French and Spanish while some of the other drivers apparently spoke only Spanish. My wife and I and two girls in the middle row were all able to converse with the driver somewhat in Spanish.
The scenery was not very attractive nor the tour that interesting. They stopped for a bit at the side of the road and had us taste some sugar cane, then poured us all a bit of rum. We also stopped at a local house and had a demonstration and sampling of local agricultural products (sugar, cocoa, fruit, etc.). Overall, a decent diversion, but not great. And, since we had early seating dinner, we got back to the ship with just enough time to get ready for dinner and not enough time to visit the Portofino-esque marina area or the artist village Altos de Chavon (both of which may be accessed by free shuttle).
We went back to the ship for our first dinner at our assigned table (informal dress), then to the show – Singer Elvy Rose (Main seating show at 9, Late seating show was BEFORE dinner at 7:15). Elvy Rose is a Cuban-American singer with a visual and style resemblance to Gloria Estefan. She did a variety of jazz, Latin and pop music and, generally, put on a good show, though somewhat Vegas lounge-like.
At 10:27 p.m., this one night only, they held the Cirque de Soleil White Night Ball at the Bar at the Edge of the Earth. They have deleted the fee and it is free with no reservations required. Guests are asked to wear white and required to wear a mask. You can buy a Masque at the Cirque shop on board, ranging from $20 to $75. Some folks merely improvised, wearing snorkeling goggles or used bingo cards, daily programs or paper laundry bags with eyeholes punched in them. The idea of the Ball is a “House Music” party (loud) with dancing. We passed, figuring we may or may not go when we return to the Connie in July. (More on the Cirque later).
Monday (At Sea): With Monday being the only at sea day on this 7-night itinerary, the tried to schedule a lot of activities into the day. Being a Captains Club Select/Elite member meant that we had a stack of envelopes awaiting us in our cabin inviting us to various special events – and most of them seemed to be on this day. At 11:00, we attended the Captains Club Select/Elite Cabernet Sauvignon blending seminar in the Ocean Liners Restaurant. It was a well-attended event. They set out six glasses of wine at every place setting: Sonoma valley Cabernet, Napa Valley Cabernet, Sonoma Mountain Cabernet, Napa Mountain Cabernet, a Merlot and a Cabernet Franc. We tasted each one and graded it and then blended from amongst them to come up with a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Somewhere in the process, I drank six glasses of wine! Then off to lunch. After lunch, at 1:00, we had a Captains Club Select/Elite Behind the Scenes tour of the Theater. At 3:30, we had the Captains Club Select/Elite Private Elegant Tea in Ocean Liners. After that, my table mates at that function talked me into attending the “Luxury Liquor Tasting Seminar” in the Bar at the Edge…More free drinks: Bailey’s Irish Cream, Don Julio Reposado Tequila, Ketel One Vodka, Johnny Walker Green Label, Grey Goose Vodka, Bombay Gin, one or two others – I lost count.
Okay, that done, I headed back to the cabin to dress for dinner – Formal Night. We had the special honor of being invited to dine at the “Captain’s Table”. As I told my wife, they must have mistaken us for someone important. Anyway, it was hosted this night, not by the Captain, but by the Chief Engineer – but, still, pretty much the same deal. We were asked to meet at certain reserved tables in the Martini Bar at 6:00 p.m. We met there and were served the drink of our choice (Great – MORE free drinks). When the Chief Engineer arrived (about 6:15), we were all escorted in a procession down the central staircases of the Dining Room to the large oval table at the center of the large rear window on Deck Four. It was all very special. Later, they sent us a photo of the whole table in a special folder with seating chart and all. After Dinner was the Captain’s Gala Toast and Introductions in the Show Room, followed by the show at 8:45: “Spotlight Broadway” with the Celebrity Singers and Dancers. Another very good show for what it was. That night, they canceled the Cirque due to technical problems. At 10:30, they had the lone Adult Karaoke night of the cruise in the Rendezvous Lounge.
Tuesday (Barbados): We took the 4x4 Green Monkey Encounter excursion which didn’t leave until 1:00 p.m., so prior to this, we caught a “shuttle” (really just a truck/taxi) into town for $2 per person each way. Downtown Bridgetown was very disappointing. Really not much to do or see or even to shop. The moment you get off the shuttle, you are accosted by a number of taxi drivers soliciting your business for an island tour or other taxi transportation. Once you dodge the gauntlet of taxi drivers, you get a rash of guys trying to sell you cheap jewelry…they are very aggressive and even rude. After walking around a short while, we were ready to go back to the ship.
The afternoon went quite a bit better. They loaded us into the back of 4x4 trucks and headed through some nicer parts of the island – up the west coast past the nicer hotels (like the one where Tiger Woods got married) and up into the mountains to the wildlife preserve to see the green monkeys and other local wildlife up close and personal. Some great photo opportunities. Then on to the other side of the island to the scenic Bathsheba with a stop for a drink and a snack and back across the island to the ship. All told, an enjoyable excursion. Dinner was Casual dress. Show this night was the Singers and Dancers again in “Fantasea” with “Special Guests” Dominique and Clarisse, two exceptional acrobats who stole the show. At 10:17, we headed up to the Bar at the Edge for the non-ball Cirque performance – basically, very weird music and lighting effects and the characters sort of get “introduced” on stage one at a time, do some sort of performance art shtick, then wander around the lounge “interacting” with people. At least it’s different than just sitting in a bar listening to familiar bad music and watching people dance.
Wednesday (Grenada): Everyone warned us about how terrible Grenada would be – that it was impoverished, ravaged by the hurricane, even that it was not worth getting off the ship. I am glad to say that we ignored all of that sort of advice. It turned out to be my wife’s favorite island of the bunch Yes, the island was hurricane-ravaged, A majority of the homes were either in ruins or had roofs blown away and were covered in plastic tarps. The national stadium looked like a junkyard pile of scrap metal. But the island itself was incredibly lush and green. Palm trees, banana trees and incredible vegetation was everywhere. We took the Mountain Rain Forest and Grand Etang excursion and got a really good perspective on the island – first the Dougladton Spice Plantation (a bit crowded and confused), then the Grand Etang National Park Crater Lake high in the mountains, to the Annandale waterfall with its cliff divers to the views from Fort Frederick. After the tour, we ate some lunch on the ship and I walked back into town (the ship is docked right next to downtown St. George’s). Okay, downtown was extremely “third worldly” and there was really nothing to shop for there (unless you are into cooking and spices), but there was a certain beauty in the architecture and colors. Dinner was Informal and the show, Patrick Murray and Matilda (a ventriloquist act) was VERY good. I sort of wished they’d book more comedians and less singing and dancing! Just my opinion though.
Thursday (Antigua): Here we did the Antigua Island and Historical Tour – basically, a ride across the island to English Harbor and Nelson’s Dockyards – which is quite attractive and well-maintained. Since it was Formal night, my wife was happy to get back to the ship a little early. This night, the dinner included LOBSTER. I was happy. The show was more of the singers and dancers with the acrobats again in “Celebrate the World”. We didn’t enjoy this show as much as some of the early production shows – a large part of it was just video tape and the songs seemed somewhat out of place – starting with songs about Paris, Rio, etc., then finishing with some ill-chosen and ill-placed country music numbers. This is where they could have used a comedian or impressionist or magician instead – just for more variety – the singing and dancing bit, however good in general, was getting old. Went back to the Bar at the Edge later for lack of much better to do. Another Karaoke night would have been welcome, but was not to be. I don’t know if it is motivated by a desire to funnel people toward the Cirque or if it’s just a different philosophy on this itinerary being so port-intensive and all, but there seemed to be less activity choices on this sailing than we’ve seen on other Celebrity cruises.
Friday (St. Thomas): Last time we were in St. Thomas, we took an excursion to St. John and only spent the afternoon shopping in Charlotte Amalie, so this time, we were determined to actually see a little of St. Thomas. I let my wife pick an excursion and she chose the one titled “Blackbeard’s Hill and Shopping”. I was considerably apprehensive – How did “shopping” get to be an excursion and why was I paying to do THAT? Luckily, it turned out to be a misnomer. The tour was actually quite good. First, they drove us around the island and up to Skyline Drive for some great views of Magen’s Bay and of Charlotte Amalie and the harbor. Then they dropped us off at Blackbeard’s Castle Inn where a second guide (Walter) took over. Walter was the best guide we’d had all cruise long. He spoke such Americanized English that it was hard to believe he was born and raised in the Caribbean and he was EXTREMELY knowledgeable on the history of the island . Walter showed us the “castle” (actually just a lookout tower built by the Danes), told us about the pirates and then led us on a walking tour down the hill toward town, stopping at a few historical houses for tours inside those houses and a look at colonial life in St. Thomas.
The tour ended at the Hotel 1829, at the bottom of the “99 Steps” – NO shopping in the tour at all! Since we were on our own to get back to the ship, we stayed in Charlotte Amalie instead. First, we headed over to the Synagogue (originally established in 1790 and rebuilt in 1830 and still in use today). Absolutely beautiful, with, believe it or not, a white sand floor. Next, we went down into town and had lunch at the Greenhouse Restaurant on the waterfront – very good and reasonably priced – we spent about $30 including tip for two. I had a “Shrimp Parmigiana” Sandwich (Breaded large shrimp with tails removed, sauce and melted mozzarella with fries) – Excellent.
We then strolled through town doing, what else (?), shopping. Bought my wife that promised “Tanzanite” ring. Why is it that I never even heard of “Tanzanite” until I started cruising? Finally, we caught a taxi/shuttle ($3 per person) back to the ship. Dinner was casual and the show was the “Farewell” show with Elvy Rose and Patrick Murray/Matilda each doing about 15 minutes, then a tape of part of the “Cruise in Review” Video they try to sell you (Am I the only one who finds this boring?). Included are clips from alleged “hidden cameras” showing people, allegedly on this cruise, stealing stuff from the closed buffet lines (of course, it’s the same staged footage I’ve seen on past cruises). Well, after the show, it was the typically depressing task of back to the room and packing up and sliding the luggage outside the door for collection – sort of a symbolic rite denoting that the fun is over.
Saturday (Alas, all good things must come to an end!): We had a return nonstop flight back to LA scheduled for 12:30, so we were given “2 – Pink” tags and an 8:00 am disembarking time. We awakened at 6:30 and headed down to the Dining Room for one last Breakfast at 7:00 am (opening time). By the time we finished eating and enjoying the breakfast conversation one last time, our “color” had been called, so we walked right off the ship, found our luggage, got a taxi ($18.50 plus tip for the ride and 4 bags) and arrived at San Juan Airport at about 8:45 – with 3+ hours to kill. The flight home was smooth, on time and uneventful. And, as of this writing, we are a mere 100 days away from flying to Europe to pick up the Constellation once more – this time in Dover. Can’t wait.
Assorted notes: Cruise Director: For the second time, we had Edwin Rojas (and he’ll be our CD again when we sail to the British Isles/Norwegian Fjords in July). Edwin, from Miami, is one of the few Americans we’ve ever seen in this post. He is generally charming and genuinely friendly, but not really funny or talented – sort of low key.
Dining: We went without visiting the Ocean Liners for a dinner this time and we ate only two lunches in the buffet – so most of our meals – including EVERY breakfast and dinner – were in the main dining room. I can never see why more people don’t avail themselves of breakfast in the dining room – it is with excellent service, unhurried, great conversation with fellow cruisers and there is a wide variety of choices – all cooked fresh for you. I also thought all of my meals were EXTREMELY good from soups and appetizers all the way through to the desserts. This opinion seemed to be shared by most of the people we met although we were surprised to talk to a few people who did NOT like the food. All I can say is that food seems to always be an issue of personal tastes and preferences. Having cruised on Carnival, Princess Premier, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean AND Celebrity, I can only say that, in my humble opinion, Celebrity is easily the best in the bunch and this cruise was no exception.
Ship: I simply cannot heap enough praise on the ship. Like its sisters on which I have previously cruised, the Millennium and the Summit, the Constellation is again, spacious, elegant and uncrowded. Public rooms are more than ample, décor is elegant and refined. The layout, for a ship of this size, is easy to navigate.
Cabin: Our cabin, #6035, is a Cat 2C (170 square feet), but one of 16 with a double-depth balcony. The space is more than adequate for two adults and there was plenty of drawer/storage space which went unutilized. The location, forward, deck six, was a good distance to the dining room, but just a staircase away from the Showroom. In some ways, I’d prefer midship, but the extra-large balcony was worth the trade-off.
Service: Celebrity, again, has no equal.
Ports, in general: Okay, I am not a big fan of the Caribbean. The islands all seem to be more of the same after a while. If you are cruising to escape cold weather, to lie on the beach or go swimming or snorkeling, that is fine. If you are into sightseeing, history, culture and architecture, cruise Europe. For scenery, try Alaska. But, even with that said, there is no such thing as a bad cruise itinerary – it’s just good to mix it up from time to time. Since we hadn’t been to the Caribbean in a few years, this was a great change of pace.
Cruise, in general: Excellent. Don’t get me wrong where I’ve made any seemingly negative comments in this review. The negatives are particularly minor and immaterial. The entire experience was relaxing, fun and special.
There is a Celebrity advertisement they kept playing on the in-cabin TV that starts out with a man saying “I used to be a King” and a woman follows with “and I was a Queen” and ending with a man back home at work saying “I consider this a temporary exile”. Well, for that last week on board the Constellation, I was a King - and my temporary exile lasts until I board the Connie again on July 16.