We've just returned from our first Celebrity cruise, which sailed from Southampton to Le Havre, Le Verdon (for Bordeaux), Bilboa, Vigo, and Porto.
For background, we have cruised approximately 10 times before on a variety of lines/ships, and booked this "last minute" for a relaxation holiday, as neither of us is particularly passionate about wine. We had been to a couple of the destinations before, and planned to do our own thing in each port rather than book on the organised excursions.
Our initial impression was good - information arrived in good time, including the change of dock at Southampton, and despite being a late "guarantee" booking we were allocated our cabin number a couple of weeks prior to departure. We drove to the port and used a valet parking company for Â£93 for the 12 nights. The boarding process was a breeze and took less than 15 minutes and we were aboard at approx 1pm. We were surprised to find no-one around to show you to your cabin, but we found it easily and were very pleased with it. It was clean, spacious and had a very large porthole which made it light and airey. Altho' I had requested twin beds, it had been prepared as a double. However, our cabin steward(ess), who arrived within minutes of us, arranged for it to be disassembled whilst we were at lunch, and also cleared the mini-bar at our request to make way for our own drinks.
Having unpacked our luggage which arrived within a quarter of an hour, and stowed it in the capacious wardrobes, and variety of drawers and cupboards, we headed for the buffet, Seaside Cafe, on deck 10. As we expected, since it was lunchtime on the first day, it was pretty chaotic, and it seemed that most of the 2000 passengers aboard must have descended simultaneously. Nonetheless we found a table to share, and did a scout of the food counters and were pleased by the variety on offer - Pizza, made to order pasta, Asian Delights, English favorites, Sandwiches, Salads etc. etc. plus a good selection of desserts and an ice-cream bar (I can wholeheartedly recommend the hot chocolate sauce....)
It soon transpired that the main reason for the chaos (in my Opinion) was the layout of the food stations, and the fact that most of the food was seved to you rather than self-service. This led to queueing and to-ing and fro-ing. The best example of this is the Tea/Coffee station where you pick up a cup in the middle, go to one end for the coffee (assuming that there was some - often there wasn't), then you had to swerve around the person pouring their cold drink which was set between you and the milk, you then had to cross the corridor (a motorway of food gatherers!) to get sugar and a teaspoon, and cross back to put the used sugar sachet and used teaspoon in their respective recepticals. It's a small thing, but would be soooo easy to rectify and it must irritate many people each time they went for drinks.
Breakfast the next day was even worse and it took me 25 minutes to gather the components of a cooked breakfast, fruit, and 2 coffees and 2 juices (the first 3 coffee stations I visited were empty, and when I pointed this out to an assistant he simply swapped the signs for the caffeinated and the de-caf and said there was plenty!!!! It drove me mad the number of times that the coffee and/or milk containers were empty when I was trying to get hot drinks, and I was surprised that they didn't seem to have anyone responsible for checking them on a regular basis. It also surprised me that there was only one day when a waiter was offering coffees or teas at the table at breakfast, on most ships we have been on this was a daily service.
Dinner the first night was also a surprise, because having asked for a table for 2, and assuming that because this was in our booking documentation it had been assigned to us, we were shown to a table for 10. As it happened this turned out very well and we had some very interesting and entertaining evenings, but I would have preferred to have been told in advance that this would be the case. Why bother to ask you what you would prefer and then give you the absolute opposite?
The food in the main dining room was, to my mind, variable. I had steaks a couple of times and they were really good, however other main courses reminded me of school dinners (and that is not a compliment). I was disappointed that a "luxury" cruise line didn't do more on the presentation of its food - it seemed singularly lacking in swirls, dustings, scattering and artistic smears, but maybe this was to encourage you to go "up market" with the pay extra restaurants? I thought, on the whole, that the food was a good "pub grub" standard but certainly not 5* restaurant. The formal nights were the most disappointing, with no real noteworthy dishes at the first 2. The last formal night had options of Lobster, Beef Wellington, and Quail (amongst others) which got me excited, but the reality was underwhelming - the lobster came with a mound of watery rice and even more watery broccoli and the Beef Wellington came with a distinctly soggy bottom.
Another major gripe was that the MDR was not open for breakfast or lunch on any of the port days - so only available for 3 out of the 12 days. This meant little choice but to cope with the chaos of the buffet at breakfast. There seemed far fewer staff than we had on a comparable Princess cruise earlier in the year, and I wondered whether they had pared back to make these cruises more cost effective and that closing the MDR had been one of the casulties? We made up by eating afternoon tea, and some of the best warm scones to be found at sea!
On the subject of staff, I know it's very subjective, but I found them a little down-spirited on this cruise, and wondered whether it was the effect of THAT DOCUMENTARY. Mostly we did have very good service , but there were a few occasions where they gave the impression that they couldn't really be bothered. To the lady in the sunshine cafe who bought me Jello when I really needed it - thank you very much and may you too be shown the kindness of strangers. To the person who chose to do nothing but recommend expensive and inappropriate ship services to a person in need of help, may you one day understand how it feels. And to the senior staff who I found so casually unhelpful and mis-informative in Le Verdon, I shall make my views known elsewhere....
On the plus side, we found the entertainment generally very good, particularly the production shows which were not far off West End standards. The musicians around the ship were varied and great, and the activities team were fun and professional in equal measure. I thought that there was something for everyone, and if shows weren't you thing then there was always the Cinema, or free and pay-per-view movies in the cabin. You could also spend your evenings in a variety of bars.
We found that compared to UK land and ships prices the drinks were on the expensive side (probably 50% up on those of P&O, Thomsons etc, but comparable to Princess).As we don't drink much it doesn't really worry us, but we'd like to say a big thank you to those that do, and those that spend freely in the Casino and the Art Auctions because the cross subsidies help make it a very good value for money cruise for us. However, would I do it again.......on balance, probably not. The couple of bad experiences with senior staff and the underwhelming dining experiences are enough to make us want to spend our money elsewhere.