This cruise had only two real warts, I'll get those out of the way first, because this was mostly a good experience.
1. The Celebrity website is truly amateurish, not at all intuitive or user-friendly. For examples:
- I pre-ordered one in-room liquor service and wanted to order another. The site wouldn't accept an addition to my order and didn't acknowledge that my order had been received. To get a second order, I had to place it independent of the first. Only when I had done that and logged out did I get an e-mail that both orders had been received. There was no flexibility for the usual "shopping cart" approach to order say two liquors, one mixer, and one box of snacks. Each of the two orders had to be independent, with all the trimmings on each.
- Our traveling companions pre-ordered the same shore excursion that we did in Puerto Rico. Once on the ship, they learned that they were not reserved. Fortunately they were able to get in on a wait-listed basis.
2. This is the big one. The on-board Guest Relations department was a train wreck! For examples:
- On Monday the daily events newsletter cautioned all guests wanting to take advantage of the "luggage valet service" to be sure to turn in the necessary forms not later than noon Thursday. I'd never heard of a luggage valet service, so I stopped by the guest relations counter on Tuesday. There an enthusiastic young lady explained to me that for $20/person, Celebrity would check our luggage through all the way from the ship to our home return-flight destination. And print our boarding passes. That sounded too good to be true. It was. When I took the forms back the next day, a different young lady, told me that the luggage valet service had been cancelled for every cruise but one in the last five months. It was cancelled again for our cruise. Fortunately, we had not cancelled our airport shuttle service in favor of a more-comfortable cab.
- We had a suite coupon for ninety minutes of free internet service. At the iLounge, a young man explained the mechanics of the transaction. We would receive a charge for the service and an offsetting credit for the coupon. The charge was processed in about four minutes. It took five days and three trips to the guest relations desk to get the credit booked.
- For debarkation scheduling (a Guest Relations department function), we requested a 9 a.m. departure, and coordination with the couple we traveled with. Our companions did the same. My wife received four luggage tags and instructions to go to a given staging location at 8:00 a.m. I received six tags with a different number and instructions to go to a different location at 9:10 a.m. Our traveling companions received 10 tags with a third number and were told to go to my staging location at 8:50 a.m. Not yet realizing the time discrepancies, I called the guest relations desk and asked about the different tag numbers. I was told that the numbers don't mean anything, but only the tag colors do. That was wrong. The tag numbers determine which luggage carousel one's luggage comes out on in the Miami cruise terminal. Our and our companions' luggage came out on different carousels, causing us to get separated in the confusion of debarkation. If I had not used only my own tags for our luggage, my wife's luggage would have come out on a third carrousel.
With all that said, and acknowledging that that those things made me cranky, now let me say why I still thought the cruise was good to very good over all.
Embarkation at Miami is as good as it gets. The port facility is first-rate, and the Celebrity shore people are too.
The Eclipse itself is fantastic. Of course it's nearly new and in great condition, but there's much more than that. Where many ships present grand vistas and wide open spaces and spiral staircases, the Eclipse puts much of that space to more practical use -- an enormous number of comfortable over-stuffed chairs in conversational groupings. It's like a decentralized but very upscale hotel lobby. One could always easily find a nearby place for a comfortable and audible conversation with old or new friends.
The Eclipse does have its grandeur. The atrium is relatively small in footprint, but extends for about nine decks and features a thirty-foot potted ficus suspended about thirty feet in the air. The library is grand in the manner of the old English manor house, although one can see that all the books that are out of reach were bought by the yard for decorative purposes. The Oceanview Cafe buffet features a novel and intelligent layout, with all of the dining tables arranged around a central serving area that has food arranged by type on separate islands, as opposed to the conventional linear layout. The Moonlight Sonata main dining room is beautiful. It's on two levels, roomy and modern but not garish. The Eclipse Theatre is much like a traditional opera house -- elegant, relatively small in footprint, but extending vertically for three decks, although one can only enter from two decks. Much is made of the half-acre grassy area on the 15th deck, and it is pretty, but it didn't enter materially into our experience.
We had a Celebrity Suite stateroom. It was slightly smaller than the Grande Suite we normally get on Royal Caribbean, but it felt much smaller because Celebrity didn't use mirrors as generously as RCL does. A big plus was that it had a separate small bedroom. A minor minus was that the bathroom was pretty small, with only one sink, although it had a standard tub with all the European hardware bells and whistles. More big pluses were that we had enormous flat-screen TVs in both den and bedroom, and real-time FOX News.
The butler service that comes with the suites was no big deal. To be fair, our butler was very good, but he only did one thing that our better stateroom attendants haven't done in the past. That one thing was to bring a traditional tea service to the stateroom every day between 4 and 4:30 p.m. Most days, we were just going out to something, but on the other days, it was very pleasant. One day we had room service breakfast, and he set it up on the balcony with table cloth and all. That was nice.
Overall, not including Guest Services as noted above, the service on this ship was excellent. Everyone we met in any hallway, even those remote from our own stateroom, gave us a friendly greeting and most asked if they could be of help. The bar and restaurant service were among the best we have seen.
A minor irritation was that, not only does the ship have no cigar bar, but they also ban smoking on even one's private balcony. I wonder whether Al Gore is on the Celebrity board.
The guests were more mature than on our other cruises, both in age and demeanor. I have read somewhere that the average age on Celebrity cruises is about 55 and that seems entirely credible, at least when there is no school holiday.
We were a group of four, and neglected to request a table for four in the main dining room. That turned out to be a blessing. The other two couples at our table were so friendly and witty that we sometimes had difficulty in finishing dinner within the allotted time. In fact we met more friendly, outgoing, self-confident but not full-of-self people than we had on any previous cruise. That may have to do with the maturity thing.
The stage shows were generally quite good, way above average for cruise entertainment. There was a Cirque du Soleil knockoff acrobatic show that was really impressive. Lindsay Hamilton was a fantastic singer, and also self-effacing and clever. There was a juggler / comedian who was almost too good for his own good. He made his juggling look so easy that sometimes we in the audience forgot to applaud. The sole exception to the good shows was that by the Eclipse's own song and dance troupe. They were painfully loud and painfully bad. It was cruel and unusual! We left early.
Besides the stage shows, the Eclipse had some really good staff and guest lecturers and mini-shows. One officer spoke on the ship's navigation. There was an Iron Chef - type competition, in which two guests with professional food-preparation experience each chose one of the ship's chefs as partner and competed to prepare the best meal in 15 minutes, while the ship's head chef answered questions from the audience. Then there was a four-lecture series by a man named Tom Eastwood. I won't spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that he has been everywhere and done everything and is an outstanding speaker and not to be missed.
The food definitely received mixed reviews. One guest said it was the best he had ever had in twenty cruises. I thought it was about typical, and my wife said it was the worst she had been served in our ten cruises. One of our traveling companions, who is a bit of a connoisseur, commented only on the lamb. He had it several ways and said it was exceptional every time. The reviews became unanimous when we ate in the Murano specialty restaurant. The four of us ordered four different dishes, and every one was exceptional, as was the service.
Celebrity really knows how to treat its frequent guests and suite guests. We received a lot of perks that were real experience-enhancers. I'm not talking about your typical disposable slippers and free Coke at the pool bar. Our night at the Murano was complimentary, a $160 value for the four of us. We received $180 worth of free internet time (We only cashed in $45 and used about $10, but it was nice to have it available.). The Captain's Club hosted a great continental breakfast every morning and a cocktail party every evening. These are just the best of several nice treats.
The ports of call were Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Maartin. None was worth writing home to Mom about. The San Cristobal fort in San Juan was really interesting, but the rest of that shore excursion was, "This is a condo, and that is an apartment building, and this is a government building, ..." Our friends had fond memories of Marigot on the French side of St. Maartin, but things had changed a lot in the last twenty years. Now one can hardly see the harbor for the many booths selling T-shirts, postcards, and trinkets. We did have a very good lunch in Marigot.
Of course, every cloud has a silver lining. The good thing about even a bad port is that there's plenty of room in the ship's pools, hot tubs, and spas.
We had twenty-foot waves between Miami and Puerto Rico. I heard several complaints of sea-sickness. However, I suspect those cases were as much psychological as physiological. The ship's stabilizers worked great, and nobody in our group had any problem at all.
Debarkation is always a fire drill and, as I have noted, Guest Relations fanned the flames. However, the Port of Miami made it as painless as possible. Traffic patterns were good, and the airport-style luggage carousels clearly marked with luggage tag numbers helped a lot.