Arrival was a breeze -- a Celebrity agent met us at the airport and we were whisked to the Sheraton for a couple of days. Fort Lauderdale was lovely, shame we weren't there a few more days! Embarkation day came all too quickly and we were picked up and arrived at the terminal before we knew it. Apparently the cruise terminal is being upgraded, but we stood in line for a few minutes, chatting with our fellow passengers and were onboard in no time. There is half a glass of complementary champagne as a welcome, but people seemed to gulp it down before they even entered the ship! One of the first things we saw when boarding was a picture of Shirley Bassey, so that made our smiles even broader!
Our cabin wasn't ready, so we had a look around and had a quick bite in the buffet until we could get settled. As we were still looking around, the announcement was made that the cabins were ready, so we dropped our hand luggage off. For sailaway, we'd arranged to meet up with fellow Cruisecritic guests at the Mast Bar (mainly because the organizer was a smoker!) On the way, we bumped into a couple who had contacted us on the LGBT "Meet Me On Board" forum who told us that there was an LGBT meeting in the Martini bar at 7.30. For no obvious reason, apart from "it might frighten some guests" this wasn't in the paper, but it was on the community noticeboard near Customer Services, with a couple of other daily announcements. 8.00 was the single mingle in the same bar, the most expensive on the ship, forgive me for being slightly cynical at this choice of venue! It did seem very strange timing as it clashed with the entertainment and dining arrangements. But hard to work out what would have been better, to be honest, as there was so much going on! We were told that Celebrity was voted the best LGBT friendly line, however, I'm surprised there wasn't a formal meet and greet, perhaps in Michael's Bar on one of the first nights.
After some very excitable greetings with fellow Cruise Critic passengers at the Mast Bar, we went to the cabin to see if our cases had arrived, but they hadn't - but was then time for the drill, which really only showed us how to get to the muster station -- lifejackets weren't required. Shame as it's always such fun to see everyone wearing them, and a great photo opportunity!
After the drill, back in the cabin, our luggage arrived. It quickly became very clear that we'd brought far too much -- although there was plenty of storage space!! Being mainly 30C, apart from the formal nights, other nights were simply smart casual -- some men wore jackets, but shirts and trousers (or even jeans in some cases) did the trick.
Our inside cabin was just the job -- we decided to have a cheaper cabin, you can always put the telly on to see what it's like outside! Everything was fine, we were surprised that there was no safe, but we hadn't brought the crown jewels! Having an inside cabin let us afford the drinks package (we chose the dearer one, just so we didn't have to think whether we wanted something or not, we could just order it!) The drinks package proved to be a very good move, especially as there were 8 sea days, along with my husband's 60th birthday, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. I reckon we just about broke even, but it was well worth the convenience of not having to sign and get annoyed with the 15% service charge which is put on everything. And if in doubt, champagne was always there to make things better when you couldn't get a cup of tea (they did run out of English breakfast tea towards the end of the cruise!!!!). There was one discrepancy on our drinks bill, we ordered the $15 flight of martinis and were charged the full price, instead of the $3 difference after the $12 allowance. However, a quick word with one of the Jamies and the whole amount was recredited.
There were two Jamies onboard, one male, one female, both British -- one was the hotel director (who sorted out the discrepancy), the other the assistant entertainments director. You did see both at the same time, so it wasn't a case of Benidorm's Les/Lesley!! I wonder how that would have gone down with some of the passengers!! Having said that, our fellow cruisers that were very well travelled and more open minded than perhaps the majority of Americans who apparently haven't even got a passport.
As we're Brits, we very much missed a kettle in the cabin (sorry, stateroom) -- we did pack a flask, and although our room steward filled it up each night, it wasn't really hot enough by the morning to make tea (or redbush as we prefer -- we'd taken our own, but it was sometimes available in the buffet, with lots of other choices of teas). We didn't see that much of our room steward, but he always greeted us when we saw him and our cabin was always kept clean. There were no towel animals, but there was always a chocolate on the bed and sometimes our tee-shirts were folded nicely each evening. For tea, we could have ordered some hot water from room service, but that's a bit of a faff, and we didn't always have time to wait in the morning.
The staff onboard are absolutely excellent -- and as has been mentioned several times, from the captain and the senior staff to the waiting staff and room stewards, everyone is very friendly -- and very hard working. And most of them are very good looking!
Although we had select dining, meaning we could eat when we wanted, in practice, we tended to eat at the same time, with the same people! Our routine was the 7 o'clock show, then to the Martini Bar (do try the flirtini, it's a great conversation piece, and tastes lovely!) - then it was onto dinner.
Going into dinner, Tanesha is the star of the show -- better than any entertainment -- she welcomes you into the restaurant with her own style -- the first time we noticed her, she was wearing a feathery top which we all had to stroke! Obviously a very unusual thing for some of us to do!! Seeing Tanesha quickly became one of the highlights of the day! I would love to see her run for parliament in her home country of Jamaica one day, she would be a real asset.
Also onboard, there were a number of Serbian staff -- not best known for smiling in their own country, so it came as quite shock when we met a few with broad smiles, their answer was "you'd be smiling if you weren't in Serbia in the winter!!!" (I'm not sure they mentioned the winter, truth be known!)
The food was very good, however, having an allergy to cheese, it was sometimes very difficult to find something suitable -- we didn't always have the same waiters, which is one of the downsides of selective dining, so it was always a relief when one said "there's cheese in that" and suggested something else. Although I still got something with parmesan shavings on top... And one night, by mistake, I got an old menu, showing that the food had been dumbed down -- the snails had become mushrooms, for example.
We only had breakfast in the restaurant once -- perhaps it was where we were sat, just by a waiting station making it very busy, but nothing came out at the right time, and the menu wasn't anywhere near as extensive as the buffet -- we found it easier to get things for yourself in the buffet, rather than waiting for milk for the cereal etc. Having said that, the once we did use the restaurant, we sat with a lovely couple and had quite a chuckle about everything going wrong!!
For breakfast in the buffet, there was a huge range, including English bacon and "bangers" (no idea what they were, but unlike any sausage I'd ever seen!) Being allergic to cheese, I was very disappointed that the only potato product was cheese potatoes -- and I had to be very careful that the spoon for the potatoes hadn't been used in any of the other dishes.
At one end, there were lovely waffles, and freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice was available where ice cream was served during the day. That was included in our drinks package, otherwise it cost $2.50 plus the tip. The waiter had a machine to make orange juice, but not for grapefruits, which was done by brute force. Shame it came in a plastic glass, though.
Lunch in the restaurant was lovely, although if you wanted something a bit lighter, the Aqua Spa had a good selection -- you could also ask for grilled salmon, pork, chicken or tuna (if my memory serves me correctly) -- that took around 10 minutes to arrive. The food here comes from the staff at Murano, so can be a little more adventurous. For example, we spotted broccoli sorbet and asparagus sorbet. Unfortunately, they tasted like cold Brussels sprouts, but had to be tried. If you're trying them, ask for the mango sorbet as well, to take the taste away! Or perhaps you like cold Brussels sprouts!
In the evening, the most delicious miso soup and sushi was served at the back of the buffet -- we tended to have that at 5.30, as an appetizer, as we ate quite late. And during the afternoon, it was very hard to walk past the burgers and chips (with lovely fried onions and mushrooms)!
We really couldn't see the point of Murano -- it was too hot to eat too much, and the quality of the food in main dining restaurant was excellent without having to fork out another $40 each!
But enough of the food! There was plenty more to the cruise! The Cruise Critic get together was held on the first day, where we organized a gift swap. We also got a tour of the bridge, which is always a great privilege.
Truth be told, the entertainment in the theatre was a bit hit and miss, we thoroughly enjoyed the hypnotist -- Joshua Seth, who hypnotized some of our friends. We enjoyed the show so much, that we ran to the restaurant, ate within 45 minutes (just three courses) and watched the second show, which was even funnier! There was also a very good Canadian singer, a pianist, a magician and a comedian. Oh, and an Australian singer who ended with a very jingoistic song about freedom. To my mind, we're on holiday, and really I don't want to be reminded about the woes of the world! The ship is testament that everyone can live in peace and harmony -- there are countless nationalities onboard -- staff and guests -- all getting along just fine without having to preach about the way they see the world. For two weeks (or a fortnight, as we say), I'm happy to leave the cares of the world behind me and live in a fantasy where everything is fabulous, which, on board it was.
There were also three production shows. The first two were mediocre, the one about Liverpool and the British Invasion was hilarious for all the wrong reasons -- with Brits on board, they should have done some more cultural awareness -- I seem to remember Los Bravos (a Spanish group) were included, and the backdrop of a double fridge and double oven were bigger than most kitchens in the 60s!) And I don't really remember jeans and t-shirts being popular in the early 60s here in the UK. But I was only a toddler! However, the Broadway show was fabulous, especially the Jersey Boys/Mamma Mia mashup - and more than made up for the others being a bit naff!!
And here I am, having had the most fabulous time, moaning about the size of the fridge in a show. I'm sure someone else will mention the Christmas pudding, the other major disappointment of the cruise! And surely someone else will mention the daft Christmas present of a very heavy photo frame, not the most appropriate present to give on a cruise, where everyone has already packed too much before they start!
After the shows, every night saw another, later bit of entertainment either in the Crystal Room, or Hemispheres. There was usually a disco in Hemispheres, and for some reason it wasn't open to under 18s (although they had their room next door, so had things to do, but they played a game at getting to the disco!) The later entertainment consisted of 60s/70s/80s nights -- with John doing the hardest quiz show in the world. They certainly were hard if you didn't know the answer, or lived on the wrong side of the pond (for example, the Americans thought it was funny when I asked who on earth was Ed Sullivan?) -- anyway, if you ever do the quiz, the answer to who was on his show the most was the Dave Clark Five. And as you can imagine, it was no use asking for Wizzard, Slade or the Wombles Christmas Song, but that's the beauty of travel -- and you know you're on a Christmas holiday when you hear the Feliz Navidad song!
Whilst on the subject of entertainment, we were very disappointed with the staff show with just one Indian Elvis, two activity staff members doing impersonations/juggling and then a waiter trying to turn the whole thing into a Church Service. We have no problem with having religion onboard, but surely it should be kept behind closed doors between consenting adults, rather than forced upon you, which happened once or twice on the cruise. I suppose it's just that we're used to coming from a much more diverse country. But there were always alternatives -- for example, there was a great Swedish Acapella group and other musicians playing around the ship in various venues like Cova.
During the day, we liked to go to the trivia -- being Brits, we made sure we teamed up with Americans, so we had a good range of knowledge, and ended up being the "the most trivial people on the ship" twice (ie we won!)! But it does make you realize how much the Americans have the same words as us, but we use them in a completely different order! The language divide also stretched across the border, where "servicios" (European Spanish for toilets) became "banos" (European Spanish for Baths!) We also won a riddle contest, meaning we were also the most riddle-iculous people onboard! But that was only because we sat next to a very clever American who knew most of the answers!
Must say that our fellow passengers were all very lovely and friendly! They were mainly American, but with over 100 Brits, some Mexicans and a fair few Scandinavians/Dutch people, there was a lovely mix.
Other activities during the day included interesting talks about how the ship worked, how DNA solves mysteries and also something about the military which wasn't our cup of tea at all. And then there was Uncle Marty, telling us about the Panama Canal. In an accent reminiscent of Stephen Hawkins, he told us about the canal in his own inimitable way. Although inimitable, most of the passengers had a go at imitating him!
We also had a go at bingo -- nothing like our game, a bit more complicated (especially after a glass of wine at lunch) -- and we were delighted when our $60 became $80 when I won -- it was great to see a negative balance on our account! Having bought the drinks package and tours beforehand, we didn't spend a great deal on board, just a few bits from the shop and the DVD of the cruise -- always great to watch and relive very happy memories.
Another highlight of the tour was that although the ship was full of children, the activities staff must have locked them away as they were nowhere to be seen, and weren't any bother at all! We did, however, run into them on Christmas Day, where Santa was giving out presents and we went to Cova for a cuppa by mistake! Santa gave gifts out in age order, and we did giggle when we saw a 17 year old boy sit on Santa's lap -- he was far bigger than Santa!
New Year's Eve was excellent -- there was a party on deck and having an all inclusive drinks package, I'm not sure if the champagne was free, but it was certainly flowing! The atmosphere was fabulous -- embarrassingly, I did manage to lose my room card that night, no idea how, my husband had gone to bed and I couldn't find my card anywhere -- so a kindly member of staff took me to guest services and a new one was issued immediately without any problem! Must say we only needed guest services twice, (the other time was to get a copy of the daily newspaper) both times everything was fine and they were most helpful!
I must admit that my memories of later on New Year's Eve are a little patchy -- the last thing I really remember was stealing the sparkly LED glasses that the rather dishy Israeli Chief of Security was wearing and giving them to a girl from Manchester. It took him a few minutes to realize that they'd gone!!!! It was definitely time for bed after that!
As for the tours -- we did one at every port. We booked them all through Celebrity and found them very interesting, and worth the extra money -- after all, some ports were safer than others, and we didn't want to be kidnapped in Colombia! From the first - Cartagena, where our guide, Benny, took us up a hill (so I called it the Benny Hill) - to the last -- Cabo San Lucas -- where we had a delicious lunch in Hotel California as made famous by the Eagles -- we had no regrets booking them through Celebrity. Our only comment would be to improve the "lunch" provided on the Panama City / Miraflores Locks tour. It was a turkey sandwich and a bottle of water (with no veggie option) and could easily be improved. All of the other tours were very good at dealing with requests -- after all, that's one of the reasons you pay that bit extra. Must say that it was a great shame that the only port to be tendered was Cabo on New Year's Day, as my head was very tender after the New Year's Eve party!!!! But that all worked very smoothly, apart from the sea being a bit bumpy in the tender! And it was a great tour with a completely bonkers tour guide!
One suggestion for the ship is that we'd love to have seen - larger "odd" and "even" signs for the cabins at the lifts -- we had to look every time, and often went to the wrong side! But we got there in the end!
Obviously a cruise ship carrying 1800 passengers can't get everything right -- some of the funniest "complaints" we heard were that the cruise was too long, it wasn't sunny enough in Mexico, and there was too much to do-- and you couldn't hire a tuxedo onboard (to which I pointed out that you can hire them beforehand -- and Matalan sells them very cheaply!!) And I'm always bewildered by people moaning about internet access. Cruiselines aren't really the best holiday if you need internet access -- it will always be slow due to it coming from a satellite rather than a phone line. And if it were free, it would probably come to a complete standstill! I was glad not to have to bother with my emails, however, I admit to getting back to nearly 3000 was a bit daunting!!
Unfortunately, last impressions are just as important as first impressions, and disembarking was a complete disaster. Our slot for meeting immigration was 7.45, just when we wanted to have our last breakfast, which we had to rush. We got to the queue, and even sitting in Cova for a coffee for half an hour, we still queued for an hour, when we'd be told it should take no more than 15 minutes. Having a transfer to a day hotel, we waited until 10 to disembark (coffee was served at Cova, but everything else was closed -- and that might have been because we were friendly with the waiter who possibly did us a favour). We then queued a further half hour to get out of the terminal with our luggage, only to find that apparently the transfers were going to the airport first and we were told it was going to be at least 2 hours before our coach came. With nowhere to sit, and no shade (my husband has had skin cancer, and the sunscreen was packed somewhere deep in a suitcase), we got a taxi, the supposed $8-10 fare turned into $15) - only to find that the coach had just turned up at the hotel before us, meaning we were very last in the queue at the hotel. A very miserable end to a great holiday. A huge shame and would make us think twice about booking with Celebrity again (although not for that long - we've put a deposit down on another one already and can't wait to sail with them again!!)
If the trip has taught me one thing, it's never to laugh at Americans when they're touring Europe! Now that's a New Year's Resolution that will be easy to keep! For Americans, if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium, but for us, we didn't always know what day it was (a sign of a great holiday) and definitely got confused between Guatemala, Colombia and Costa Rica etc!!
One last thing -- at security in San Diego Airport, we had to take off our belts -- the lady said "do hold your trousers up", to which I said "there's absolutely no need, we've just been on a two week cruise!" She thought that was very funny, and testament to the marvelous time we'd had!