Let me start with a little background to put this review into some perspective. This was our ninth cruise, our sixth with Celebrity but our first on an S-Class ship. Every cruise is special but we wanted something extra special to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Before booking and even setting our budget, we researched every cruise line and every itinerary finally deciding that we would spend two weeks relaxing in the Caribbean on Constellation in one of her Penthouse Suites with the huge aft balcony over Christmas and the New Year. Of course, when details of the 2012/13 cruises were released for sale, Eclipse had replaced Constellation on this route and the holiday cruises were split. The best laid plans ...
The scheduling of this cruise immediately gave us logistical problems. We really wanted 3-days in port pre-cruise but that meant flying on Boxing Day [26th December] and travelling down to Heathrow on Christmas Day. Not something we thought it fair to ask our taxi company to do. We eventually decided on travelling down on Christmas Eve and spending Christmas Day in a Heathrow hotel. More research resulted in us selecting the Ambassador's Suite at the Marriott.
The suite was definitely the right choice with a huge sitting/dining room and ample-sized bedroom with king-sized bed. It had 1Â½ baths, two wardrobes, a large desk area, two really comfy sofas and a dining table that could seat six people more than comfortably. Compared to what we would have paid for a standard room, the suite was excellent value. The service was quiet and efficient. Complimentary Internet access was provided for printing boarding passes. There were two issues which marred our stay a little but both were probably one-offs. Because it was Christmas, there was only one restaurant open serving a reduced menu plus a set three-course Christmas dinner. The food was mediocre at best. A bigger issue but not really anything the hotel could do much about was some of the other guests who were not only very obvious for the size of their group but whose behaviour was loud and unpleasant. There was no breakfast provided in the Executive Lounge but the other complimentary refreshments, including wine and beer, were and we especially enjoyed the cheese board after dinner. Our breakfast in the restaurant was complimentary. It was one of the most laid-back Christmases we have spent but enjoyable none the less.
Our usual preference would be to book our flights [and pre-cruise hotels] through Celebrity but, by the time the flights came on sale, prices had risen so much that we would not be able to afford business class through Celebrity. In the end, we arranged our BA own flights. Apart from a delay of over an hour whilst we sat on board due to a problem with the hydraulics, the flight was very pleasant, the food surprisingly tasty and the cabin crew friendly. We made up much of the lost time at the start.
However the biggest surprise was Miami airport. Our previous experiences there since 2009 have been more than unpleasant and, for different reasons, it has taken us between 2Â½ and 3Â½ hours to get through the system. Recent reports on Cruise Critic did not encourage us to believe there had been any improvement. However, the airport has not only clearly undergone a huge upgrade but we were actually made to feel welcome. Immigration and Customs were friendly without being unprofessional -- not quite up to the high standards of Philadelphia or even Las Vegas but no longer an airport we feel we want to avoid. One thing to note about Miami airport is that there is now a US$5 charge for a luggage trolley and you will need $1 or $5 to feed into the machine. The result of this is that available porters are now much more difficult to find.
Our three days pre-cruise, booked through Celebrity, were at the Embassy Suites hotel in Fort Lauderdale. This is not the most luxurious of hotels but we like the space in the suites [especially useful for storing cruise luggage] and its location [close to a number of restaurants and shopping for everyday items and wine] but, most important, we are used to it and enjoy our stays there. This was our fifth time here. What we had forgotten is how friendly and efficient the hotel is. With the complimentary full breakfast and daily evening Manager's Happy Hour and suites equipped with microwave, fridge, coffee maker, iron & ironing board and hairdryer, and a lovely outdoor pool area we consider the hotel extremely good value.
For the first time, we decided to skip the Celebrity transfers and take a taxi to the ship in an attempt to avoid arriving with a crowd. In the event, we were persuaded at the hotel to take their shuttle but this still allowed us better control of our luggage. We arrived at the terminal about 11 o'clock and no queues but, once we had checked it, realised that we had not avoided the crowds. The ground floor waiting area was already full. We were directed upstairs to the suite waiting area but had hardly sat down when we were called for boarding, suite guests first.
There had been some reports about problems with those who required assistance boarding but there was no sign of problems this time. The area for those requiring assistance was next to that for suites and they followed us boarding. However, there were only two people using mobility scoters and no wheelchair users.
After some confusion, we discovered that we could use Michael's Club where we met the Captain's Club Hostess and there were light refreshments. We able to book a cabana on Labadee through the Concierge but little else because our butler arrived to take us to our suite long before the announcement that the staterooms were available. Having been told that our butler would be Luis, we were really surprised [and pleased] to meet Jose, our butler from our previous cruise on Infinity. To avoid confusion with another Jose, he was now known as Luis.
The one word we both use to sum our suite now we have had time to reflect will probably be a surprise. It is not "large" nor "luxurious" but "comfortable". The suite is very large and really luxurious but, above everything, it was comfortable. We loved it! We had spent many hours studying photographs and videos on the Internet and these give a very good impression of what it is like. There were few surprises except for the lighting and the bed. It is very good lighting but there are 32 light switches [excluding any of the doors which turn on internal cupboard lights when opened] many of which are sophisticated combined on/off/dimmer switches. We never did completely master them! The huge king-sized bed was so comfortable! It was the most comfortable bed we have ever slept in by a very long way.
Even some of the critical reviews I have read about Eclipse describe her as stunningly beautiful but that description did nothing to prepare me for just how stunning and beautiful she is. There is something about her that is beyond her contemporary beauty and I was struggling to put what it was into words until Captain Manetas summed it up by saying that it was the German engineering. And he was right, it is all the small details such as the soft close drawers that make all the difference.
One of the issues attracting a great deal of criticism before our cruise was the music throughout Eclipse -- not just the volume but also the type of music played. This certainly was not a problem on our cruise. There was loud, very modern music in the Martini Bar but, most of the time, it was difficult to hear the music there over the buzz of conversation or the music from the foyer. There was just one evening when the bar was unusually empty that the music was too loud. Elsewhere on the ship, there was different music in different areas and the musak piped into the hallways was at very low volume and varied from Christmas Carols to the Beatles. The only music we found objectionable was the guitar player. In the Sunset Bar for sail-away from Fort Lauderdale, not only was he far too loud but he was also very bad! Unfortunately, like a bad penny, he just kept turning up everywhere. Conversely, Twist of 8, the party band, on the Pool Deck on New Year's Eve played for something like 4 hours without a break and created the perfect party atmosphere.
Since 2009, we have chosen to eat only in the speciality restaurants but we did enjoy our one visit to Blu on our last cruise and hoped to be able to repeat that experience as well as having dinner served in our suite for the first time. Pre-cruise, we booked five nights in each of Murano [including our two complimentary meals] and the Tuscan Grille. [Our four visits to Qsine on our last cruise were probably enough for us.] Despite the rumours on Cruise Critic, we were able to book Murano for New Year's Eve in advance. As it was, we were invited to the Captain's Table for New Year's Eve, took part in the Chef's Table for another of our planned visits and organised a dinner in our suite for four Cruise Critic friends for a third. To make up for there were two lunches held in Murano -- an extra one because of New Year.
We were disappointed on our first visit to find that they are no longer able to serve fois gras on board. The fois gras on Celebrity ships has always been the best we have found anywhere, including some of the top restaurants in Paris, and something we always look forward to. They have also discontinued my favourite desert, the Pear & Pineapple Napoleon -- this, apparently because it was not very popular! Having overcome these disappointments, we found the quality of the food in Murano outstanding even by comparison with its equivalents on the M-Class ships. The lobster was excellent every time we choose it.
Conversely, although we still enjoyed our dinners in the Tuscan Grille, it did not come up to the high standards of Constellation in 2010. Personally, I found the Tuscan Onion Soup disappointingly thin and the Calamari nothing special. Both were firm favourites on Constellation.
I had breakfast each morning in Blu but, despite hoping to go more often, we only managed to fit in one visit for dinner but we exceptionally lucky. The Chicken Consumee we had loved so much on Infinity last year was on the menu again this evening. We had a thoroughly enjoyable meal and my husband thought the New York Strip better in Blu than in the Tuscan Grille and the Main Dining Room on New Years Eve.
We ate lunch most days in the Oceanview Cafe and much preferred the island layout over that on the M-Class ships. We were surprised to find that we did not miss the trays. The selection of food each day was excellent and varied. In particular, I found the choice of curries exceptionally good and my husband was impressed with the pies of which there was usually a choice of two types. The Caribbean Buffet provided on the second Sunday [a sea day] was really good and most enjoyable. Lee Goble, the new Executive Chef, even ensured that there were whole coconuts which were broken open after the coconut water had been drunk for the coconut jelly to be eaten.
However, the dining highlights for us would have been the Chef's Table and the lunches in Murano had it not been for the meal provided when we entertained some Cruise Critic friends for dinner. Between them Chef Lee and Antal Puskas [Maitre d' of Murano] wanted to create something special for us and they excelled themselves with a four course buffet.
For our last cruise, we purchased a Premium Alcohol Package each but we had a couple of problems for the package to be more convenient: we found the choice of wines by the glass not too our tastes even paying the supplement for those over $12/glass and had far too many problems being charged for drinks at Cafe al Bacio. We certainly did not get good value from the packages. Because of this, we initially decided not buy a package this time. In the end, we did buy the Premium Non-Alcohol Package still not expecting to save money. This worked for us this time and the only problem we had was trying to convince the bar staff in the Oceanview Cafe that Strongbow Cider is not a Soda and we should be paying for it!
We have cruised with Elite status for some years now but have never attended the evening cocktail event. Although we really enjoyed the Elite breakfast in Michael's Club on our first cruise after it was introduced, since then all Captain's Club events have been far to crowded for us to enjoy them. When the Captain's Club Hostess informed us that there were 500 Elites on board we said that we would not be attending any of the Captain's Club events. We did receive three vouchers each for drinks on New Year's Eve when there was no Elite Cocktail Party but they were not accepted in the bar where we were meeting friends so we did not even use these.
We have never been to a show on a cruise and consider relaxing over a good meal our entertainment. We did make an exception to watch the Hot Glass Show and really enjoyed it, staying for the full two hours despite a very heavy rain shower. We were so pleased on the last day of the cruise to be lucky enough to buy, at auction, one of the piece we had seen made.
The rain plagued us in most of the ports. This was our first Caribbean cruise and, other than Labadee, we had not been to any of the ports before. We had few plans in advance because we are not beach people and, as I mentioned, it was our intention to simply relax. However, we did book two excursions pre-cruise. Some years ago, in Grand Cayman, we had taken a submarine tour but a recent hurricane had made the water cloudy. We decided to try again in Bridgetown. Although [perhaps surprisingly] Celebrity offered this excursion for less money than booking direct, we did book direct because they offered a special "VIP" package not available through Celebrity. This cost just US$40/head more than the standard tour and was well worth it because we got the best seats in the submarine, just behind the pilot. We had a great view through the front window as well as the sides. The VIP package also gave us exclusive use of the top deck of the tender boat to and from the submarine, priority boarding and disembarkation, canapes, fruit juices & wine, and a souvenir photograph. It was a far better experience than in Grand Cayman: the water was crystal clear, there were lots of fish to see and we went to a depth of 149 feet [as opposed to 100 feet]. We can highly recommend this tour in Bridgetown, with or without the VIP package.
Despite having no experience, I have always wanted to ride a horse along a beach and booked the Celebrity tour to do this on Aruba. This turned out to be one of the many highlights of this cruise for me. Despite being a complete novice, I gained the satisfaction of learning how to control a [admittedly, beginner's] horse, Lulu. We had a fantastic ride over the rough terrain of the Arikok National Park to a small cove where, unfortunately, the heavens opened and we were soaked to the skin destroying the photo opportunity. However, that was the only negative aspect of the whole fantastic morning.
Disembarkation and Journey Home
Prior to the cruise, there were a number of reviews on Cruise Critic complaining about the distance people were required to walk on disembarkation. As my husband has difficulties walking long distances [and because of our experience of how his need to stop for rests caused obstructions to others disembarking in Hong Kong in similar circumstances], we arranged for him to have wheelchair assistance. Everything went very smoothly and the only negative was the extremely long queue for taxis. Celebrity had actively discouraged guests from relying on this method of transport and cannot, therefore, be blamed for something outside their control. The taxi queue was well controlled and we probably did not wait longer than the other option we had considered.
We had pre-booked a day-room at the Miami airport Sofitel hotel where we had a lovely lunch outside enjoying the last of the Florida sun. I am not sure if we really got value for money as we spent very little time in our room before catching the hotel shuttle to the terminal but it was nice to have somewhere to sort out the luggage and relaxing for the short time we had.
We had another delay after boarding -- this time because a passenger had been taken ill and her luggage needed to be removed from the plane. Again we were about an hour late in taking off and made up no time on the journey. Arriving at Heathrow, we waited about 45 minutes for a gate to be made available for us but at least the snow had not started, yet.