Before I begin, let me preface my commentary by saying that we have been on two other 14-day cruises on Celebrity cruises on Solstice-class ships (on the Equinox and Eclipse) prior to this one, so we are familiar with how Celebrity does things. We had a reasonably good time, but there were disappointments/frustrations too, many stemming from the failure of one of the Reflection's engines that plagued the rest of the cruise.
- Pros: We arrived at the embarkation hall relatively early (at 12:30pm), before the lines got long. We knew what to expect: drop off our luggage, have our documentation/passports ready, and undergo port/ship security. For us, the whole process took about 50 mins. Since the ship was staying in Venice for a night before sailing, we ate lunch at the Oceanview Cafe (Deck 14) and then disembarked the ship for sightseeing. When we left at around 2:30pm, we saw that the lines had become VERY long. We were certainly glad we arrived early!
- Note: We travelled to Venice by Trenitalia on our own to the Santa Lucia train station. As we expected, we had to cross a bridge to get to the bus/traffic plaza where the PeopleMover tram could take us to the cruise ship terminal area. What we did not expect was that the bridge is essentially a steep staircase, so it was somewhat difficult for rolling luggage. Not a Celebrity issue, but something to note for future travellers to Venice. (Also, something to note is that the new private rail carrier, Italo (www.italotreno.it), is nicer and more cost-effective than the government-run carrier Trenitalia.)
- Cons: After getting off the PeopleMover tram, there was no signage directing us to the Reflection! How to get from the PeopleMover tram to the Reflection is not a straight or short path. We eventually walked over 1,000 meters to the ship, curving around another embarkation hall for other cruise ships. Celebrity should have posted a few directional signs to the Reflection (at least directing us away from the other embarkation halls). The fact that other cruise ships were also embarking passengers (and the rain) only added to the confusion. Taken together, it was a somewhat frustrating experience, despite the reasonably speedy embarkation.
One problem that we quickly discovered after embarkation was that a drink package which I purchased prior to the cruise was NOT already added to my Seapass. But having been on other Celebrity cruises and encountered a similar problem, I immediately checked my account after using the Seapass for the first time. And, upon seeing the problem, I quickly went to Guest Services to fix it on the first day. Eventually, they gave me an old-school drink sticker to put onto my Seapass, which worked fine.
SHIP DESIGN AND ENGINE FAILURE
- Pros: As a new ship (3rd cruise), the Reflection still had that new ship smell and the corridor carpets were noticeably fluffy. In contrast to the older Solstice-class ships, the pool deck was elevated to Deck 14. In addition to adding more staterooms, the new design enclosed the walkway from forward to aft, which encouraged more people to use it as a passageway. That, in turn, led people to use the forward elevators to reach the Oceanview Cafe, rather than crowd into the only aft elevators.
- Cons: Beyond its aesthetic beauty, we did not expect the newest ship in Celebrity's fleet to suffer such a major engine malfunction. On the 4th day of the cruise, as we sailed from Dubrovnik to Rhodes, a loud bang/boom rang out from the ship's aft. Then the ship noticeably shuddered. Those in the aft of the ship said it violently shook. Soon, the ship's speed was reduced to under 10 knots (from a cruising speed of 24 knots). The next day, the captain announced that an engine problem occurred, but that it could have been a malfunctioning "warning indicator." Many aboard thought that was unconvincing and rumors started to swirl, especially after people commented on seeing one propeller wake (rather than two) behind the ship for the next 10 days. To compensate for its slower speed, the ship missed Rhodes, a big disappointment (one of the reasons we chose this cruise)! While the ship's speed recovered to 16-18 knots for the rest of the cruise, we were chronically late into most of the remaining 9 ports. We felt bad for those cruisers who continued on the transatlantic cruise that immediately followed ours. Sailing a ship with one engine across the Atlantic Ocean in the beginning of winter didn't sound like fun, especially since we did that sailing last year on the Eclipse.
Another con was the new cabanas on the Reflection's lawn. They significantly reduced the area on which guests could enjoy the grassy spaces. Given the chilly November weather, no one really rented the cabanas, but the grassy spaces remained roped off. On the Equinox and Eclipse that was not the case. On the Reflection, Celebrity's pictured advertisements did not reflect reality. And we on the Reflection should know, because Celebrity was busily filming advertisements throughout the first week of the cruise, including on the off-limits lawn!
- Note: When the captain made his announcement, he only did so in the corridor public-address system. So, if you wanted to hear what was going on, you had to dash into the ship's corridors, as you could not hear the announcements in your staterooms (a success for stateroom soundproofing, I guess). Looking down our corridor, it was a funny sight: like prairie dogs, we all had our doors cocked half open with our heads stuck outside.
On all our cruises, we had an inside stateroom on Deck 8 forward. The room was designed almost exactly like its counterparts on the Equinox and Eclipse. There was a different desk drawer arrangement, with 3 deep drawers instead of 5 shallower ones. While this definitely worked better for use as hampers, a shallower top drawer would have been useful to stow frequently used items, like glasses, small personal items, etc. As is standard on all Solstice-class ships, there were 2 American-standard power outlets, which meant that we did not have to bring European power converters across the Atlantic Ocean, thankfully.
- Pros: Keeping in mind that the Main Dining Room must serve hundreds of guests at the same time, the MDR's food was above average, with the exception of a couple of nights when the steak was very stringy and the pork loin was very dry. Of course, the wait staff was ready to replace whatever you disliked with something else.
The wait staff was clearly stretched in the MDR, but they did their best to serve as quickly and accurately as possible. Apparently, many had come from other Celebrity ships and, given that this was the ship's 3rd cruise, they hadn't worked together for very long.
The Lawn Club Grill was definitely fun! The whole staff was very enthusiastic and making the pizza was quite entertaining and delicious! We chose not to grill our own meats, but it was still a good experience, even at night. We thought it would have been even better in the summertime before sunset, when we could still see the sea!
- Cons: The Oceanview Cafe on Deck 14 offered the standard Celebrity cafeteria fare as the other Solstice-class ships. Generally that fare was good, although the stir fry was particularly bland. What was different on the Reflection was the increasing monotony of the food offerings. Aboard the Equinox there were some variations with the occasional appearance of Chinese char siu bao or German schnitzel. On the Eclipse two years later, there was less variation, but still had a couple of nights with Asian-style roasted pork. The Reflection had exactly the same dishes for lunch and dinner every night, except from the single appearance of duck spring rolls (clearly made from leftover duck confit from the MDR menu the day before).
Strangely, one of the easiest and most popular Oceanview items -- the garlic bread -- was discontinued halfway into the cruise. Many guests asked about it (seems easy enough given the leftover French bread from breakfast), but the crew said that it was dropped from the menu. Another item that suffered from cutbacks was ice cream. Over the last few years, the range of ice cream flavors has gradually declined at the Oceanview Cafe. Mango, coconut, caramel, pistachio... all have disappeared. Even the soft-serve frozen yogurt flavors were narrowed to one (chocolate).
As for the MDR itself, we chose the Select Dining Option. Theoretically, that enabled you to choose your dining time and seating arrangement. However, every night, there was some confusion with the hostess and invariably a line formed. Once we were shown to the wrong table in completely the wrong section! Having done Select Dining before on the Equinox and Eclipse without incident, we were surprised about the disorder. Tip: regardless of your reservation, just go early if you want to be quickly seated.
Doing the math behind getting a soda package, we calculated that unless you consume 3 or more sodas per day, the drink package is not worth it. Guests should take that into account, particularly on cruises with many port calls, since that often prevents lunchtime soda consumption on the ship.
Many guests took this cruise because of the high number of port visits. But, due to the Reflection's engine problem, the ship failed to keep up with its original schedule, often arriving late at many ports. That essentially reduced the amount of time that guests had in each port for those who wanted to return to the ship before sunset. (With the language barrier, it was difficult to be certain whether port transportation back to the ship [such as the Piraeus port bus] would be available late at night.) Celebrity could have reduced the uncertainty with an announcement regarding times of shore transportation services. That way more people could have taken advantage of the ship's later departure as well.
Moreover, given the frequent port delays -- the exact timing of which was not known until late in the evening before -- if you had set-up your own shore excursions, then you constantly had to find a way to reconnect with your guides to inform them of the delay. (And with a VERY slow Internet connection at $0.75/minute, that can be frustrating.)
Fortunately for us, this cruise had several ports that could easily be toured on own own. In fact, that is one of the reasons we selected this cruise. At three ports (Venice, Dubrovnik, and Toulon), Celebrity chartered its own boat or bus shuttles for $20/person. At Venice, we were dropped off near St. Mark's Square; at Dubrovnik, we were dropped off at Pile Gate; and at Toulon, we were dropped off on the harbor promenade. At two other ports (Piraeus and Civitavecchia), the port provided transportation to the port exit. And at the remainder (Kusadasi, Catania, and Rhodes [had the ship not skipped it]), the port was directly adjacent to their city centers so only a brief walk was needed. Valetta was the only port that really needed a Celebrity-organized shuttle bus to reach the city center, but didn't have one. Instead, we trekked up a very steep slope to reach the city walls.
Many of the guests have noted that many shore excursions seemed to end with the obligatory visit to a "local handicraft" facility. That was especially the case in Kusadasi, where one would feel pressured by rug merchants. We experienced this on our earlier cruises too, so we chose to minimize our Celebrity-organized shore excursions. In Kusadasi, rather than face another tour that ended with apple chai and a hard-sell rug merchant, we took a restaurant suggestion from our Turkish waiter aboard the Eclipse and strolled around town instead.
In Catania, we chose to stay in the city rather than go to Taormina, which is known for high-end shopping, an ancient amphitheater, and stunning views of Mt. Etna. Since it was a very cloudy day, we guessed Mt. Etna would be obscured in the clouds. And so in Catania, we explored a new museum focused on the 1943 Allied landings on Sicily, called the Historical Museum of the Landing in Sicily 1943 (www.provincia.ct.it/il_territorio/musei/museo_dello_sbarco_in_sicilia/indexEng.aspx). Its audio-visual effects were immersing and a MUST for anyone interested in military history. While it tries to convey what the landings were like for Italians, it also shows military operations down to the divisional/regimental level (much like the American Civil War museums in the United States) of American, British, Canadian, German, and Italian forces.
In Naples, we also toured on our own. There, we would highly recommend Napoli Sotterranea (www.napolisotterranea.org), which is an underground tour of Naples. It is offered in English every other hour.
In Livorno, we took a good shore excursion to the Tuscan hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano. For those who have already see Florence's art museums, taking a nicely-paced walking tour of Volterra, having a delicious lunch at an agrotourism winery, and having some independent touring in San Gimignano was worth the $155/person price tag. However, the roads on which the buses take are VERY narrow and not for car-sickness prone guests. Often you hear the saying about Italian roads that they are so narrow that two trucks can't possibly pass each other without one going into a ditch. Well, on our ride to Volterra, that is what happened. A dump truck in the oncoming lane tried to get by our bus, but by inches gradually rolled over into a ditch!!! (No one was injured, thankfully.)
In Toulon, the harbor itself was a sight to see, given that it serves as France's main Mediterranean naval base. France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and several destroyers, frigates, and amphibious assault ships were in port that day -- quite the naval display. We had wanted to go to Cassis to see the calanques, but the tour booked out, so we ended up touring the city's Sunday market and its Museum of the French Navy, which offers a discount to cruise ship guests with their Seapasses!
ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT
- Pros: The Filipino cover band in the main foyer certainly had a very wide range and must be among the hardest working performers on the ship. They were always there! Sure, if you're sitting up in the Hideaway (Deck 7), Game On (Deck 9), or Library (Deck 10) trying to read or do something, it could be loud, but people really seemed to enjoy them.
We also liked the fact that the musicians and performers rotated cruises. Halfway into our cruise, they would cycle out onto other cruises and new musicians and performers would arrive. That kept the performances relatively fresh.
- Cons: That said, more generally, you could feel the budget cuts on the margins. The atmosphere for the sail away was not even close to the same as the Equinox, no live music or ribbons. We were surprised, since there was a wonderful opportunity for a sail away event given the slow transit by Venice's St. Mark's Square.
We did notice more Celebrity Life activities aboard the ship, but for the most part there was an associated upcharge. Given that we liked the art activities aboard the Eclipse, we were looking forward to the Reflection's Art Studio, but except for a handful of events they all required $10-20 per person. At that price, we would have expected better events than watercolor painting for beginners.
We were lured into the art auction trap with a lecture on art history But after attending it, we could never escape the Park West note cards to attend its never-ending series of art auctions. We eventually went to one auction, but it was so dismal that we opted not to return.
We did think that Celebrity Central, which normally was idle during the morning, could have shown movies after breakfast.
On a 14-day cruise, we were surprised to find that our steward failed to change our bed linens until we asked him to do so after the 6th or 7th day. I'm not sure if this is a new Celebrity policy to reduce wash loads (as many hotels have started to do). Until we said something, he would simply straighten and turn down the bed linens every day. If this is Celebrity policy -- and not simply a lax steward -- then Celebrity should do what hotels are doing, which is to give guests a card that they can put on the bed whenever they think the bed linens should be washed.
As for our steward himself, he had a knack of showing up at exactly the wrong times (when we were showering or changing for dinner) every day, even though we did these things at the same time every day. It became annoying. That said, our junior steward who took care of our bathroom was great; he always did a good job! Actually, the stewards in the next corridor (8109-8195) were equally gracious. They remembered us even though we weren't their guests! They were far more welcoming than our steward and even remembered that one member of our party had an injury. On the other hand, our steward did little more than ask us to rate him highly on our comment card.
The equipment is new and identical to those aboard the other Solstice-class ships. There's a good range of 15-16 weight machines and two full rows of treadmills looking out on the starboard side. There is only a couple of low bicycles, so it was harder to snag one of these. We went 3-4 times during the cruise; always nice.
One thing we learned from our prior sailings: if you don't have much luggage, it is FAR better to disembark yourself rather than use the Celebrity luggage tags. Since we disembarked in another EU country, we did not have to pass through customs; that also made things easier. Our disembarkation from the Eclipse in Miami last year was a 5-hour disaster!