Three transatlantic cruises, three cruises with much in common, but each with a decidedly different flavor. Our recent crossing on Celebrity Equinox turned out to be my favorite. For the first time, it felt like the passengers were not just an afterthought to a re-positioning of the ship. We sailed from Fort Lauderdale to Civitavecchia April 16-30, my fifteenth cruise but my first time with Celebrity Cruises. I hope it won't be my last, because they get some very important things right, compared with my earlier sailings with NCL and Princess.
Spare you the details? Fine. The ship is beautiful, with immaculately clean public areas. The onboard vibe is modern, relaxing and a bit upscale. The crew did a fabulous job. The itinerary gave us some great ports to explore. The weather was spectacular, with almost no rain and smooth seas during all but a few of our eight days at sea. And I was certainly glad that I purchased the Premium Beverage Package before sailing. Whatever my whim, I just asked, and with a swipe of my card, it was mine - with no slip to sign. Celebrity made me feel like a celebrity!
In the details, though, the difference from one transatlantic to another become clear. On other cruise lines, the crew goes out of their way to greet you on embarkation day and then all but ignores you for the rest of the cruise. On the Equinox, they smiled and said "hello" every time they saw you, every day, whether they knew you or not. No matter the department, I found them to be well-trained, hard working professionals dedicated to service.
They take good care of the ship, and it showed in areas like the stair towers, where there was always something being cleaned, to the public restrooms, which were staffed with an attendant during the busier times, and where drying your hands with rolled cloth towels seemed luxurious, but was routine. I never want to use paper towels again! Oh, and speaking of towels... NCL and Princess issue you towels that are yours for the cruise, one per person, and you're responsible for their return. Heck, on Royal Caribbean they made me present my cruise card to get one, and if I didn't bring it back, I'd get hit with a $25 charge! Not on the Equinox! The pool deck had stations holding dozens of clean, fresh pool towels. Take as many as you'd like! Dump 'em in the return basket when you're done, no questions asked. Again, a luxury. But should it be? Everywhere else this perk has been eliminated in the name of cost-cutting, but not on Celebrity.
We were cruising with friends, so we dined nightly at a table for four on the main level of the Silhouette dining room, a two-deck affair hosting two nightly seatings along with those who choose Select, an anytime dining option. It's a pretty room, anchored toward the back by the two-story glass wine tower. Celebrity prides itself on its wine list, and the Solstice class ships such as the Equinox have more choices than many restaurants on land. On the Equinox, you are served not just by a waiter and assistant waiter, but also a sommelier to keep your wine glass full. The room gets very noisy, though, sometimes requiring a shout to be heard across the table.
Whenever Celebrity Cruises is mentioned, people rave about the food, and say that they've built their reputation around the dining experience, so I was expecting great things. After all the hype, I was somewhat disappointed. Meals were comparable to those on Princess, better than Royal Caribbean and lots better than NCL. There were few dishes that I'd call exceptional, most were perfectly adequate, but two or three I could have done without. At other times of day, the Oceanview Cafe dished out a tasty variety of breakfast, lunch and snack time offerings. I thought the made-to-order stir fry station was a real treat, but it was always busy because there was only one staff member to man the wok. By the pool, the Mast Grill served hot dogs, sausage and some of the best hamburgers and fries on the high seas... or anywhere else, for that matter.
We didn't attend many evening shows. It seemed that the daily program favored those with a first-seating dinner time. Ten out of the fourteen nights, the show times were 7:00 and 9:00 PM, meaning we'd need to go before dinner, and if a port call kept us out until 5 or 6, it would mean a rush to get ready. Instead, we'd often go to a bar or nightclub after dinner, which we'd finish between 10 and 10:30, and be out and about until midnight or later. As a result, we were rarely up and ready to go for the morning activities starting around 10. I was able, though, to see a few of the lectures in the Beyond the Podium series of what they called "Celebrity Life" actiivities on the interactive television system. This TV/computer hybrid not only displayed video but played music, movies, allowed you to order room service or shore excursions and to check your onboard account. Most of its functions stopped working once for a few days, and eventually someone came to the cabin to press a reset button in the clothes drawers below the unit. Why it took three days and many calls to Passenger Services to accomplish this, I don't know. It seems that no matter the ship or the line, the folks at Passenger Services don't listen to what you say, and will say almost anything if you'll just go away.
There wasn't much of interest scheduled in the afternoon, but it left time for relaxing on the balcony with a book or soaking up some salt air and sun by the pool. And because they were heated, there was hardly a day when they couldn't be used. I was impressed by the security officers that monitored the area. Things were always quiet and trouble-free there, and their watchful eyes added to my peace of mind.
It's amazing how fast it all goes by. Fourteen nights! An eternity! An abundance of sea days. Right. It does fly. But, as on any cruise, you choose how to spend the day, and this itinerary did give a lot more freedom than other more port-heavy cruises we've taken. We enjoyed a series of wine tasting events hosted by Mark Fine of Gerard Bertrand. There was ring toss near the pool, the Hot Glass show up top near the Lawn Club (featuring real grass), a game of Scrabble in the cabin or even a decadent afternoon nap. The Martini Bar was the hottest nightspot on board, and I won't say how many nights we warmed a stool at the icy bar and watched the mixologists there put the best moves of Tom Cruise in Cocktail to shame. Once or twice, these visits fueled my attempt at Karaoke, and I found myself wishing that the ol' video camera's batteries would conk out before I did.
The first port of call after a week at sea was Ponta Delgada in the Azores, and we enjoyed our Celebrity excursion there to the blue and green crater lakes and Sete Cidades. This tour included a wine tasting, but I honestly cannot recommend that you try Azorean wine, in the unlikely event that you ever have the opportunity. Not good. Then, after two last days at sea we were in the Mediterranean. At the Strait of Gibraltar, with Spain to the port side and Morocco to starboard, the sea is less than eight nautical miles across. We passed through in the afternoon, and it was a thrill to see Africa for the first time with our own eyes, as we ran up and down and from deck to deck for the best views. Soon the Rock of Gibraltar came into sight and the second half of the cruise began. Next up were stops at Cartagena and Barcelona in Spain, La Seyne-sur-Mer near Toulon, France, and Livorno and Civitavecchia, Italy.
Cartagena is a great little town, not touristy at all with a vibrant port area and a lot of historic sites within walking distance. People have lived here for over 2,000 years. We visited the Roman Theater, Punic Wall, and savored the panoramic view from high atop the hill at Castillo de la ConcepciÃ³n.
Barcelona, on the other hand, is touristy and crowded and overflowing with spectacular sights, tastes and the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, and was the highlight port of the cruise. We got around on foot and with the help of the city's modern, easy-to-use subway system. From Parc Guell to La Sagrada Familia, the bustling La Rambla to the explosion of wild colors and varied tastes inside the La Boqueria marketplace, we saw all that we could in the space of a day and wished we could stay longer - the universal lament of the cruiser.
A Celebrity tour in France took us to Marseilles, with the only stop there at the Notre-Dame de la Garde, an ornate basilica capped by a statute of the Madonna and Child looking down over the town from the top of a 500-foot hill. Everything else was seen from the windows of the bus. We visited the sunny, cozy and charming harbor area in Cassis, at the foot of the Cape Canaille cliff, where we took time for lunch and to browse the many shops and then to Sanary Sur Mer, another quaint harbor town that is home to fishermen who sell what they catch right at the dock, and where we watched children playing at a small amusement park while enjoying a lavender-flavored gelato.
In Livorno we shared a private van with the couple we traveled with and the four of us were treated to a day in Pisa and Florence courtesy of the folks at Rome In Limo. Words cannot describe the feeling I got seeing the Leaning Tower in person. It's one of those things you see so often in pictures that when you're actually there, you can't believe it. A minivan can go where buses are not allowed, so we were practically driven right up to the front door of every attraction. The highlight was our visit to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo's David in all his giant-slaying glory. Those Florentines sure know what to do with a piece of marble! Our driver gets high marks for the place she brought us to for lunch - Oibo - not far from Piazza Santa Croce. The pizza had that great wood-fired oven taste and the pasta was homemade. And she again proved she knew her stuff at the end of the tour when she brought us to what had to be the best gelateria in town.
After the cruise was over, we spent three days and nights exploring Rome. Because it was just six months since our last visit, we were able to visit some out-of-the-way places at a relaxed pace. Stefano at Rome Cabs handled our transfers from the port to Rome and from our hotel to the airport. We'd used their service before, and were again tremendously pleased - I recommend them highly.
So, our first Celebrity cruise compared very favorably to our transatlantics on Princess and NCL. Celebrity's cruise experience is refined, sophisticated and friendly, with a minimum of hype, noise and cheesiness. It's stylish but not pretentious. The crew of the Equinox was one of the best we've sailed with. I'd trust my precious vacation time to them again without hesitation.