"I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead" Mark Twain
Comparisons are odious, but I suspect a lot of you will be interested on how Mr PhoebeCat got on with Celebrity Constellation ("Connie" hereafter) after 10 voyages on Cunard's 3 queens.
We now book insides on the "why pay more" principle. On Connie the bed faces the door. This isn't bad, just different. Personally, I find the Cunard approach cosier. On the other hand, above the bed on Connie is a wall to wall mirror - which successfully creates an illusion of massive space. There isn't a full-length mirror for the ladies though: perhaps with the relaxed dress code Celebrity don't think one is necessary.
Although the Celebrity wardrobes are good, they form the other wall of a corridor with the bathroom which means only one person can access them at a time and you can't open the bathroom and wardrobe doors simultaneously - not the end of the world, but does require some thought when both of you are dressing for dinner.
Subtle detail; the end of the bed and mattress have a chamfer to allow more space to negotiate the sides.
There is more under-bed space on Cunard; but many more drawers and nifty cupboards on Connie. Both favour light wood and cream walls; Connie's is lighter and brighter. Cunard has more upscale pictures and twice the size of sofa. Cunard has UK plugs; Celebrity US and European two pin only (pack adapters...). Cunard's safe is twice the size; Celebrity's mini-bar is better stocked. Cunard's postcards are on quality stock and show the ship; Celebrity's show a happy web surfing woman and are flimsy. Honours even all things considered. I could hear water being run in other cabins, which is a first on a ship, but it didn't disturb my sleep. We were on deck 2 so there was more of a thrum than usual but this was quite soothing.
As you'd expect from an older ship there was a fraction more felt movement and some window frame creaking in the lounges. Carpets and soft furnishings are in pretty good condition though.
No contest; Celebrity is a model of how to offer usable multi-function TVs. Using the Celebrity remote you can order food, play music from three channels and order pay per view movies as well as viewing your bill and ordering breakfast. The only thing that could be enhanced would be reserving seats at the speciality restaurants. The blue theme used on the TV menus is really well designed too. Cunard should be embarrassed by the older, smaller, fuzzier screens (completely bizarre for newer ships) they offer. Well played Celebrity.
Both lines include cotton balls and ear buds (rationed on both); Celebrity's helpfully wrapped in packs of four. Cunard's toiletries are top notch and include shower gel; Celebrity's packaging is shockingly old-fashioned and they are wedded to soap. Endearingly, loo rolls have grown in 10 years; they didn't fit on the spindle, but did fit under the cover. (You wanted detail - you get detail from this correspondent.) Towels were a good size and very soft.
The shower on Connie is fully twice the size of Cunard's which themselves are are plenty big enough. The major ding against the older design is that the floor is tiled - tiles mean ridges, ridges mean nasty black marks. It's not that Connie's showers haven't been cleaned by the steward; but they don't look especially inviting. Water flow is at the adequate, rather than invigorating end of the scale. The grimy floor tiles were my only real gripe all voyage - replace the shower trays and you'd have a gem of a ship. In a magnificent recovery though, Celebrity issue questionnaires part way through as well as at the end, and when we raised this our jolly Steward bleached the tray and on the next port day it was partly re-grouted. You can't fault that level of response. Even more "wow" was receiving a personalised card to say it had been a pleasure having us, along with champagne and chocolates, in return for completing the second questionnaire card.
Like most homes, Connie's corridors have a very slight but distinctive aroma, something you don't notice on Cunard. There are pronounced temperature variations around the ship, and by the theatre on embarkation day and occasionally in the bathroom a noticeable whiff of cigarette smoke, even though it's a non-smoking ship. Boppy pop at a reasonable listening volume is absolutely pervasive, decks and all. It didn't bug me all the time but I never quite tuned it out either.
To emphasise this point: I love Buble as much as the next man, but if I'm trying to turn off my brain to recover my inspiration by absorbing myself in a glass of Pouilly Fume I've never tried in the dark and sophisticated wine lounge, this experience is not helped by his murdering "Money Can't buy Me Love" at full throttle next to my chair. Please!
The decor is endearingly bonkers and has bags of personality. It looks like what it is: a mad millionaire throwing their favourite textures into a melting pot. At every turn is another installation: a man made of metal letters, artificial plants in glass cubes, steel cables with steel people wobbling at the top, a glass staircase that appears to exist solely for the purpose of housing a deck-height's worth of orange and red glass tubes like alien entrails; and my favourite, a 6 foot tin foil Swatch that could come straight from an ambitious third former's art project. I tootled round with a permanent grin. It's a shame the interactive art tour was dropped after a refit because it no longer matched the locations; I'm sure there are some great stories to be told behind these pieces; especially the mysterious gold clogs.
For the maritime hard core, an unexpected treat is Ocean Liners - not just modelled on the dining rooms of the Normandie and Ile de France, but with their original deck plans mounted in its foyer. Very evocative.
At times the sheer incongruousness of the Muzak choices was laugh out loud funny though. Notwithstanding the above, when we ate in said speciality restaurant we were treated to hair metal and Michael Bolton. I'm pretty sure neither were present on the Ile de France.
Lobster prepared at the table here was good theatre, but for my taste at least the full-on lighting killed any attempt at historic ambience - the real tea lights were no competition for halogens - and the service, whilst jocular, was a bit all over the place. It's a testament to how good the main dining room food is that the flagship speciality venue failed to best it; the risotto was better cooked in the main restaurant, and the sharing desserts in test tubes were a great idea but fell short of perfection in the creme br'lee and ice cream servings.
The Tuscan Grill, in contrast, nailed it: low lights, evocative setting, perfect service and pace and food bursting with flavour. The only noticeable US bias is that the air conditioning was a bit fierce, and our little English tummies couldn't do full justice to the entree portions, but as a package this was one of the best meals I've had at sea. The actual steak in QV's speciality restaurant was better meat to my taste, but in all other respects Tuscan Grill has it.
The Casino is Vegas incarnate - it still takes and dispenses coins into buckets, has slots with chrome handles and goes on for miles. The daily programme reported an unfeasible-sounding $89k paid out; if true, the amount paid in must be stellar. It was certainly always brisk when we low-rollers called in to play the penny slots.
There's enough spatial weirdness to match the Overlook Hotel, with some very slight inclines dotted about. All the lifeboats are on retractable arms and the promenade deck is grippy grit rather than fake teak; together it feels substantially wider than on the Queens, although looking down from above this may be as much a trick of the surface. More chairs on the prom deck wouldn't go amiss.
The ship effectively has a nipped-in waist - on 5 the atrium is noticeably narrower than on the Queens; on the shopping arcade the walkways are twice the width. The top decks are on a flying buttress, again giving a pleasant increase in width. Plenty of room to slalom with the portliest.
The amenities are grouped in the centre; the decor is fabulous at setting different moods, but an hour's exploration and you realise this is an intimate rather than imposing ship. Everything is central, and a quick stroll away.
The best theatre show is the glass lifts with their exposed mechanisms. The internal lifts also have a real sense of occasion: they are octagonal, well-panelled and have a handy large print sign above the doors with what is on each floor.
Thoughtful touches abound: water on the return gangplanks; hummus as well as butter at dinner, wake-up calls before breakfast in bed is delivered (and it was always as per the order, and on-time). Excellent chocolates can be taken from a wooden box at Cafe al Bacio whenever the fancy takes you.
The speciality coffee rocks; the Martini bar, for all it's trick iced surface, failed to grab. Service was reluctant, the menu not amazing, and the mixes unsubtle and watery. Absolut was heavily featured. Bear in mind though, I am a spirit snob. The martini bar isn't set up to recreate the Commodore Club; "crush" is what it is billed as, and that's what it delivers.
If camp audience abuse in a wood-panelled club setting is your bag, you need to hop on before Perry Grant leaves the ship (he already looks as if he left this life many years ago). A cadaverous queen belting out show tunes and ribbing the front row, he is one helluva act, with patter clearly honed over the decades. Great showbiz jackets spanning pink gingham to silver lame too.
Our special guest table companions one night hit the nail on the head: there isn't the equivalent of either the Cunard pub or jazz lounge where you can settle down for a drink and a chinwag. We managed well enough to fill our evenings anyway.
The ecomatic wine dispensers need a second card because they work off a chip not a swipe. The idea is great, it's just a shame the majority of bottles were recent vintages. 1oz is a perfect measure for experimenting to find your taste and at an average of $2 a glass you can work through a fair range on the cheapest $50 card. A nice idea, as is the tapas on offer in Cellarmasters. I got a lot out of trying the US-centric bottles on offer.
I came braced for American-bland and was delighted that I could not have been more wrong. Soup in Cafe al Bacio was full of herbs; the chicken panini was billed as "a bit spicy" and certainly was - bursting with flavour. The main restaurant meals were superb. Personally I'd have less liquid in my snail bowls, but offset against that is that they are available every night - heaven.
Splitting the menu into standing favourites - French onion soup, Caesar salad, escargot, steak - and today's special means you are always sure of a great meal and removes the whiff of special pleading around asking on Cunard if you just want a steak.
The self-serve (affectionately known in our house as "the motorway services") is small; pizza is pre-prepared rather than to order but is fine for a snack; the sushi selection is good: it serves its purpose. We weren't tempted to linger, or visit often. The cookies were initially of the dry variety rather than Cunard's moist numbers: but they were always publicly available, without resorting to the literally "under the counter" shenanigans we had last time, and improved over the voyage. Since the weather was kind what we did enjoy was escaping to the open air deck at the back to eat en plain air; definitely the most agreeable spot on board.
Ice cream on Constellation is simply marvellous. For free you get a daily choice of 6 flavours with M&Ms, jelly beans and teddies and chocolate sauce. For $3 you get reduced fat gelato made fresh with additional sprinkle options - and 2 for 1 in the afternoon.
The young female vocalist of Top Notch belted out very creditable Adele and Katy Perry covers on sail away. Full marks!
The late night movie on the first night was Iranian drama A Separation. Even fresh and exceedingly tasty popcorn was provided, and this is laudably ambitious programming for a cruise ship. Really impressed with the film, and that it was shown projected. Holiday highlight.
A German duo for port lectures on Spain and France was an "interesting" choice. Crosswords are available from Guest Relations, and there's the usual cookery demonstrations, but lectures aren't what you come here for, and the daytime programme could be found thin on a longer trip than ours.
Pretty much the entire senior officers (looking relaxed and happy in shirtsleeves) turned out for a Cruise Critic meeting, which was a nice surprise. When they thought no one was around, I saw the photography staff doing country dancing in the photo gallery and it was a lovely moment. It feels like a happy ship, and that makes a difference. The tension in the ranks was palpable on QV last time. The officers were very visible throughout, and ate in public rooms.
The library is a beautiful room on two levels, but felt like the owners had given up: barely a reference book in sight, just a tired selection of mainstream fiction. No bookshop either. Perhaps the only area where Cunard are clear winners.
There are shops. It's the same tat all the lines sell, minus themed fudge. Nothing more to say. Certainly not cheaper for perfume than ashore.
A good product at a good price. Maybe it's me believing my own kidology, maybe it's the itinerary bring a holiday one for us rather than a destination in itself, but whereas before I've felt the convincing illusion of being on a "voyage" and part of a maritime tradition even though I know it's mass market tourism, this always felt like a "holiday", albeit a thumpingly good one. We have in the past bemoaned the slack adherence to the dress code on Cunard: I freely admit it's my snobby aesthetics, but the endless parade of middle-aged legs in sandals and three-quarter shorts every day did wear me down just a tad for the first few days; I couldn't help feeling a this ship this well-finished deserves better passengers. (This definitely took the prize for all-time fugliest clientele.) I can entirely see why this is Celebrity's most returned-to ship by their regulars though. It has bags of character, and delivered a rest and a wide smile. Job done; we will be back.
Afterword. "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Thoreau