In my professional life, my wife and I assess services from a customer perspective, and have always tried to switch off when on vacation, cruising. However, having become fed up with the overly sugar coated reviews often found in cruise magazines and newspaper cruise reviews, and having just completed my fourteenth cruise, I thought it was about time I made my debut on Cruise Critic, which for me at least, seems to be the only place you can find a more balanced assessment of cruising. I assume that the magazine and newspaper reviews are frightened of losing advertising revenue, or dare I say, 'cruise freebies' if they are in the least bit critical.
It has been a very interesting experience cruising on two Celebrity ships, the Constellation and the Millennium, in the space of just over a month. Apparently they are sister ships, if this is the case the Millennium is in my opinion, certainly the ugly sister. We have a saying in England, 'all fur coat and no knickers' meaning while something may look good on the outside, more often than not it is lacking in substance. This, in my opinion, is certainly the case with the Millennium, where it seemed to me the passengers existed for the convenience of the staff rather than the other way around. Never in all my fourteen previous cruises, have I encountered so many unfriendly staff and managers, and it's an interesting concept, having a Guest Relations Manager, whose staff on the reception desk try their hardest to prevent access to. Their catering department also seem to have re-invented the concept of continental breakfast. I have stayed in hotels and cruised on ships all over the world, and toast and cereal have always been included in the aforementioned selection elsewhere, although not on this ship.
I have never understood why anyone working in the customer service industry who faced with two options of helping their customers or upsetting them, would want to choose the latter, which is what happened on more than one occasion on this Millennium cruise. The situation certainly wasn't improved by the fact that we were 'guinea pigs' on the ship's inaugural cruise for this particular Asia itinerary, something we were not told when we paid premium prices to book, but learnt very quickly when every time something went wrong the standard response from staff was 'well we haven't done this before'.
With regards to the overall experience, the Celebrity Millennium holds in excess of 2000 passengers, which in days gone by would have been considered to be a large ship. I guess these days it would be seen as a medium size vessel. The actual cruise itinerary was pretty good, though I would have preferred more time in Vietnam. The embarkation process in Singapore, where we had spent the previous days, was smooth and efficient. Although the terminal is so new, some of the hotel concierges and taxi drivers did not seem to be aware of it. We were greeted by a friendly check in staff and were on board in no time at all. I think it's good that Celebrity allow you to board early and enjoy the facilities, even if you have to wait for your stateroom to be ready.
We set sail for Bangkok the following afternoon, and stayed overnight there, allowing for various other shore excursions, we chose a visit to Pattaya. It was a shame the docking port was so far away, the travel time for our excursion to Bangkok was in excess of three hours each way, and Bangkok seems to have some of the worst traffic I have ever seen. Someone should tell them that traffic lights and roundabouts have been invented!
We then continued onto Ho Chi Minh City for another overnight stay. Again the port where we docked was a good two hours away from the city. The next day we visited Vung Tau. The ship then set sail for Phu My, I would have preferred more time in Vietnam, at this point, I should declare a bias, as my wife and I love the country and its people. At this port, we had to choose between visits to Danang, Hoi Ann and Hue. We chose Danang, as we had visited before, and love it there. In retrospect, we probably should have tried one of the others, although we did have a great time in Danang again.
Although all cruise excursions are over-priced, Celebrity did a good job in selecting their trips. Our next port of call was Halong Bay, another overnight stay, and a truly magical place. We had to be tendered here, and it's probably fair to say, this was more than a little chaotic, again maybe because this was the first time, and we were 'guinea pigs'. The next day we chose the 12 hour trip to Hanoi, although there were other options. It was a three and a half hour journey each way, and having endured the long trek in Thailand, we had to think long and hard before undertaking the journey, but it was definitely worth it!
It had been a busy few days, so it was great to follow this hectic period with our fourth and final sea day, before arriving in Hong Kong, our final destination. Once again there was an overnight stay, before disembarkation, which I am sad to say was a bit of a shambles. As we had booked an excursion which would drop us at the airport at the end of the tour, we had thought, reasonably in our opinion, our cases would be waiting by the bus, but unfortunately a whole container load had gone missing, and it took around 30 minutes before our luggage appeared.
We were surprised by how many children and teenagers were on the Millennium, but that may just be because we are used to sailing with Fred Olsen Cruise Line. However, we found it unacceptable that Celebrity were fairly lax in enforcing their own rules. Both the Constellation and the Millennium are their only two ships with thallasotherapy pools, which if you are not familiar with, are a brilliant way of relaxing and getting rid of aches and pains. When on the Constellation, the month before, occasionally it was not working, and I had to bring it to the attention of the Guest Services Manager. The problem on the Millennium, despite their rule being adults only, there was on more than one occasion, noisy kids inhabiting the therapy pool. Sorry to sound like a grumpy old man, but there were plenty of other pools for the kids, and it's supposed to be a relaxing area. My other problem is, when I drew this to the attention of the manager responsible, she told me that they would only be allowed in there for an hour, they were still there when I left after more than two hours! If I had wanted to spend my vacation with noisy kids, I could have brought my grandchildren.
Some of the other issues were, although our inside stateroom on Deck 8 was spotlessly clean, and an adequate size, there was a lampshade missing for the whole of our cruise, and dents in the wall. Also, there were hardly any British based TV channels for much of the cruise, although CNN always seemed to be available. Most of the passengers we spoke to were also disappointed by the slow, and at times non-existent Internet service. It simply isn't good enough to say 'the ship is at sea'. It is after all the 21st century, and the technology exists certainly to make the Internet more reliable. Besides, we were in the same area of the world, sailing with Holland America three years ago, and we don't recall having anything like as many communication problems.
To end on a more positive note, the ship had an excellent gym, and I don't ever recall seeing any of the equipment with a broken down sign. Also, the personal trainer Simon certainly knew his stuff. There were some great fitness classes, and he developed an exercise programme for me taking into account my dodgy shoulder. Our stateroom attendant Eddy was the best we had ever had, and he responded to all our needs quickly and efficiently, always with a friendly smile. Jennifer, the ship's Concierge was also brilliant. The food on board was well presented and there was plenty of choice. Apart from the Assistant Manager, the Shore Excursions Team were also great, friendly, helpful and informative. The other highlight of this cruise was the Cellar Master Eagle and his Sommeliers Arie and Ravi who even went to the trouble of arranging a private wine-tasting for us and some of our friends. Having completed a specific wine cruise on the Constellation the month before, it was great to gain yet more knowledge on this complicated subject thanks to Eagle and his team.
Oh, and the Guest Services Manager I spoke about at the beginning, when we bumped into her at a Captain's Club event, she was horrified to find out that we had had difficulty in making an appointment to see her, and was happy to rectify the problem.
So of course we will be travelling with Celebrity again, though it will be on a different ship!