-Let me first start off by saying that I have cruised extensively with Royal Caribbean and Carnival in the past, and this was my first time sailing with Celebrity. I had my Royal Caribbean credits transferred to Celebrity, though, so I am an "elite" member of their Captain's Club program.
-We started our vacation off by flying into Barcelona 2 days ahead of our sail date. (For new cruisers, if you are leaving from a port that is not near your home, it is most advisable to arrive at least 1 day ahead of time to give you a cushion against flight delays/cancellations and other travel mishaps.) Check in at the Barcelona port was an absolute breeze, except that the seapass card for a last minute addition (well, 3 days prior to sailing) to our stateroom was not ready. No big deal, though. We boarded the ship and were greeted with complimentary champagne and mimosas. Nice touch. The ship itself is very nice. It is well decorated and has a nice layout. The public areas are beautiful, for the most part - save an awkwardly decorated & enhanced foyer that you must pass through any time you want to go to the specialty restaurants or the Concierge lounge. (It is a room about 5x5' and has black walls with flowers on the vine painted on them, and ants are painted on the floor - all with 'outside' noises being piped in. The sky is painted on the ceiling and there's a large vase on a lighted pedestal. It's very strange, and the posted explanation doesn't clear it up much.) There is even a hot glass blowing studio on board, where you can watch glass blowers at work creating beautiful pieces of art. They cannot sell their work, but they do offer a charity auction at the end of the cruise featuring a few pieces made during the sailing.
-Having sailed so much with Royal Caribbean (R/C), we were expecting everything to be at least 1 notch better on Celebrity, as Celebrity is billed as a Luxury liner and an upgrade to R/C. This turned out NOT to be the case in all areas except dining. We ate in the Oceanview Cafe (Windjammer for those used to R/C), the Dining Room, Tuscan Grill and Murano (both Specialty Restaurants which have a cover charge) and we ordered room service. Overall, the food was outstanding. The food in the Dining Room offered a great variety every day, as in there were many meal options to choose from for each meal. There is a standard set menu that is offered every day with soup, salad, steak, chicken, etc, and then there is the daily menu which also offers good variety from beef, veal, pork, chicken, lamb, vegetarian, etc. The "types" of food offered was a good variety, as well - it wasn't too heavily focused on one cuisine or another. The Specialty Restaurants we tried were both very good, as well, though in my humble opinion they made the food too 'fussy' for its own good. For example, in Murano I ordered filet mignon, and it came out as 3 mini-filets wrapped in puff pastry, each with a separate sauce and topping. Perhaps I'm just too used to Chops Grille on R/C, where a filet mignon comes out as a filet mignon that could put any Ruth's Chris, Morton's or Del Frisco's to shame. The Oceanview Cafe offered a good variety of food, as well, though it stuck to the same type of food every day. There was the indian cuisine station with some curry, the mexican station offered the same tacos, fajitas and chile con carne every single day without variation. The salad bar had the same cold salads every day. The sandwich bar had the same bread and meat assortments daily. The grill put out the same minute steak and grilled chicken breast daily. There was very little food that actually changed. This being said, the food was still very good.
I do have to comment on our waiter in the dining room. Our table was 2 tables away from the Captain's table, but we apparently had a very inexperienced waiter. He lacked personality and confidence. He made no attempt to call us by our names (which is always done on R/C). The pace of the meal was so wildly off, despite repeat comments to the Maitre D. The first and second course would come out in perfect time, but it would be 20 minutes later before the entree would come out. It wasn't a backup in the kitchen, either, as tables around us with different waiters would get their meals well before us. Our assistant waiter was very good, though.
-Moving on to service. We were in a Sky Suite which comes with a Butler. Our first butler went by "Chip." He was exceptional at attending to our needs and even anticipating them. Unfortunately, 3 days in to the cruise, out of the blue and with no explanation, we got a new butler named Tagu. Nothing wrong with Tagu, but he was not nearly as attentive as Chip and we felt it quite odd that our butler would have left a few days into the sailing without at least introducing us to his replacement. We later came to find out that Chip's contract had ended and he went home to his family, which is wonderful, but we felt at a minimum, he should have mentioned that he would be leaving, or introduced the new butler himself. Oh well, not that big of a deal. Our stateroom steward was not very attentive, either. We had to repeatedly ask for ice to be brought, and for other things to be done. One other important thing to note is that the sheets on our 12-day cruise were not changed at all! One of my roommates had a stain at the bottom of her sheets that was there the entire cruise. I was not aware of this until the last night when she mentioned that the stain was still there, or we would have told the butler or stateroom attendant to change the sheets, but either way, they should have been changed at least at the half way point of our cruise. Elsewhere on the ship, the service was all very good. It was no different from any R/C cruise we've been on, though. Everyone was polite and helpful for the most part.
-We did notice that there were several issues of miscommunication or misinformation. There was a special tea being offered for elite members, but the location printed in the notice was non-existent. It took a while for us to find where the tea was actually being served. Also, we were anticipating invitations to a special Champagne High Tea (that cost $25 per person), which we had to sign up for twice, but the invitations never arrived. They said they put them behind our stateroom number sign outside the door one evening, but they were never there. I suggested that they either have the butler/stateroom attendant leave any notices/invites inside the room, or that they be slid under the door. When they put them outside the room, they can easily fall to the floor and then be picked up as trash, or mistaken for someone else's.
-Now to Entertainment, or lack thereof. I personally am a fan of the production shows. I enjoy going to the nightly show after dinner and the entertainment is usually of good quality. Unfortunately that was not the case on this sailing. The staff singers were mediocre, at best. (I am a long time musician, so I feel it is appropriate for me to judge.) The dancers were also mediocre. The very first stage production show I would rate as 'below average'. The second one was very good, though. There was a pair of specialty dancers who were "very good," and an a capella group (Ringmasters, I believe was their name) who was also "very good." There was a juggler who was average. There was a stage 'funny guy' who got himself injected into shows where he had no business being. For example, one of the production shows was a danced-themed show that featured different styles of dance. The pair of specialty dancers came out to do a serious Tango, but the funny guy was all over the stage during their dance and it ruined the whole vibe of the show. I can say with complete honesty that this was the worst entertainment on a cruise ship that I have experienced in a very long time. That statement does not apply to the live musicians, or the a capella group, though. The live musicians - the ones who played during the shows, and the individual or bands who played throughout the ship - were outstanding.
-Keeping with on-board entertainment, there wasn't very much offered in the way of regular entertainment during the day. What I mean is that a majority of the things to do revolved around items that cost money, such as spa or acupuncture seminars, wine or liquor tastings, art auctions, bingo games, special sales on items in the gift shops, etc. There was very little offered that did not cost more money. The a capella group would perform for 15 minutes twice a night, there was a jazz guitarist who performed for maybe an hour twice a day, a pianist who performed about the same, the hot glass show was about 2 hours long and it was done most days, and there was a movie being played somewhere, but it was one that was available through the free on-demand selection in your stateroom.
-Lets talk about Guest Relations. Anyone who has cruised before knows that Guest Relations is your go-to point for almost any concern, complaint or issue that you might have. We found out, however, that with Celebrity Cruise Lines (much UNLIKE R/C), their Guest Relations officers do not have access to systems used by other departments such as Shore Excursions, or the iLounge/Internet. They could not tell me what excursion a specific charge on my seapass account was for. And for those who have sailed R/C previously and used their coupon books, specifically the free internet time, you simply go to Guest Relations and they apply the free minutes to your account right away. Not on Celebrity. You have to first sign up for an account, buy a package, then turn in the coupon to the Internet department and they will issue a credit within 2-3 days. Guest Relations might take your coupon for you and pass it along to the internet department, but they cannot actually make the adjustment themselves.
Speaking of coupon books... The coupons offered by Celebrity were actually very good. As an elite member, I got a coupon for free laundry of up to 30 items, free pressing of 2 items, free dry clean of 1 item, a bag of laundry for $20, and 90 free internet minutes. There was also a coupon for a free specialty coffee while dining in a specialty restaurant, which is nice if you drink coffee (I personally do not). There were 3 $5 match play coupons for the casino, which is standard to R/C as well. (More on the casino shortly.) The other coupons were not very useful, but those I mentioned were of great value and it was nice to have them. It would have been nice to have some deals on the photos they take, or a coupon to use in their gift shop. (R/C usually offers a photo coupon that takes 15% off, or something to that effect, and a coupon for their themed merchandise for 20% off or something similar. These weren't offered on Celebrity.)
-Lets talk gambling! The casino was a very nice size, and it was WONDERFUL that it was non-smoking! Three cheers to Celebrity for that! However, the slot machines were incredibly 'tight', almost unbelievably so. Don't get me wrong - I do not go into a casino expecting to win, but it is nice to be able to sit down at even a penny slot machine and be able to play for an hour on $20. You couldn't do that on our sailing. I was in the casino almost every day and/or night, and only ever heard of 1 big winner the entire 12-day cruise. (A lucky guy won $7,500 on a slot machine. It would have only been $750, except he was betting 10 credits per line. I wasn't even in the casino when that happened, but a cabin mate told me about the win as she witnessed it firsthand.) The casino tables were all set up for at least $10 minimum, with the exception of roulette, craps and a blackjack table that was set for $6 minimum. They offered a Baccarat table, though I never saw anyone at it. (Perhaps they only had it out since one of our ports of call, Nice France, had an excursion to Monte Carlo - the casino, and game, famous from the Bond films)
-Now its time for shore excursions. I will talk in more depth about the ports later on during the Port Reviews section of this review, but I want to comment here on shore excursions overall. You have to be very careful about choosing which shore excursions you will go on, and you have to clear your expectations of what responsibility the Ship bears while you are on one of their excursions. At our very first port of call - Nice, France - I fell down into the mid-bus stairwell and injured myself, all because the bus driver did not wait until everyone was seated before taking off. The driver started driving then unexpectedly slammed on the breaks which sent me flying backwards down the exit stairwell in the middle of the bus. I fell backwards in an awkward position and hit my head on the closed door, and scraped up my back on the steps. I had to actively seek out a Celebrity official to make a report of the injury - which was witnessed by the entire back half of the bus. I was referred to the ship's Medical Facility where my statement was taken by the ship's security officer, and I was examined by a ship's doctor and given generic Aleve to take for the pain and swelling. I was told by the Doctor as well as 2 other officials in Guest Relations that they are constantly dealing with this problem of bus drivers taking off before everyone is seated. I also learned that every time a crew member goes on an excursion, they are required to fill out an observation form to report if the driver is using the a/c or heater appropriately, if they wait for all passengers to be seated before driving, etc. I was not aware that they did this, but it obviously doesn't do much good. Even after I reported my injury, the very next day on our next excursion in the new port of call, the driver took off before everyone was seated. This was a completely different tour company, in a different country. This situation could have been much worse, if it had been one of the more elderly guests of the ship who fell instead of me. I also broke my pair of $350 Maui Jim sunglasses that were less than a year old, and Guest Relations would not replace them due to the cost, but told me to select a pair from their shop and they would comp those. (For the curious, I ended up with a pair of Oakley sunglasses in a similar style to mine, but for those who do not know much about sunglasses, Oakley does not even come close in comparison to the protection and quality of Maui Jim.)
We had a 2nd issue come up in Rome, and this is worth mentioning here. We have always been under the impression that if you are on an excursion that was offered by the ship, that the ship was responsible for you and would ensure you got back on time or would wait to depart until you had returned. This is not always the case, and was a very tough lesson for us to learn, so I'll tell you about our experience with the hopes that it might save someone else from having to go through what we did. When the ship docks in Civitavecchia, you are actually about 90 minutes away from Rome proper. So you have to take a transfer into Rome, and Celebrity offered either a Bus or a private train that would take us in to Rome and bring us back to the ship. We spent 5 days in Rome last year, so were already fairly familiar with Rome, and we chose to take the private train since it should be a little faster. The train ride was fine, and we were given a map that also had 3 numbers to call in case of emergency. The guide stressed this fact about having the 3 numbers to call in case of emergency. We got off the train and the guide was going to walk to the Vatican and then we would be on our own, to meet at a bar next to the train station at an appointed time for the ride back to the ship. Unfortunately, this guide was a very fast walker and had a large group of people following her. To top it off, she zig-zagged down different streets to get to the Vatican. To make a long story short, when it was time to head back, we could not find the train station and the map was completely useless - it wasn't a detailed, street-level map, and the photo representations of landmarks were not even close to being accurately oriented. The map showed that we came in behind and to the left of the Vatican. Unfortunately that was not correct. We tried calling all 3 emergency numbers, and 1 didn't work at all and the other 2 went straight to voice mail. We left several messages but no one called us back. We finally got in a taxi and he took us to the train station, and we arrived 5 minutes after we were told to meet. By that point, the group (and our train) had already left. We panicked since no one would answer the emergency phone numbers and our ride back to the ship had already left. Generally speaking, if you do not arrive back to the ship on time, it leaves without you and it is your responsibility to catch up to it at the next port of call. This would have been a disaster for us, however, as we had no clothes or passports with us since we were advised not to take our passports with us, and little money due to pickpocket concerns. We ended up buying train tickets at our own expense and just barely made it back to the ship with about 10 minutes to spare - the officers were literally there waiting to pull the gangway up. We went to a manager in the Shore Excursions department and showed them our receipts for the metro, the taxi and the train for all 4 of us, and showed them our phone and where we had been calling frantically with no return phone call. Celebrity took our information, said they would "file a report" and 2 days later we had a note left in our room that thanked us for our feedback and apologized for the disappointment we encountered. The appropriate response would have been to refund 1/2 of the excursion cost, as we did not get to ride the private train back to the ship, and we provided receipts proving that we had to pay our own way back and showed all of our attempts to reach someone with their emergency phone numbers.
So, after all of that has been said, for the extra money that it costs to go on Celebrity, and having to suffer through all the little annoyances and sometimes bigger issues, we will just stick to Royal Caribbean.