This much anticipated occasion of reuniting with a familiar acquaintance had been in the planning stages for almost two years. The agony and the ecstasy of waiting so long added to the excitement. Before anyone thinks this is going to get juicy I should clarify that the occasion was a Southeast cruise and the acquaintance was the Celebrity Millennium. The last time we sailed on a Millennium class ship was six years ago on the Constellation. However with "solstilization" what is old is new again and we looked forward to seeing the improvements since the April 2012 refurbishment. Like assessing an old flame that has had some major Botox you see the improved exterior but wonder if what lies beneath is a shallow personality. Would the cruise and refurbishment be tantamount to being dazzled by all the bells and whistles only to be sullied by bad behavior and broken promises?
Unfortunately that was the case. While the Millennium had some classy new venues including Cafe al Bacio, Bistro on Five, Qsine, Blu and a bevy of new aquaclass staterooms, the final result was more style but lacking in substance.
We had reasonable expectations for this new journey since our last Celebrity cruise on the Solstice a year and half ago. We expected to be returning to the comfort and familiarity of a good friend. However, the embrace was lukewarm and the result was more akin to feeling like a jilted lover. By the end of the cruise as in many relationships it was evident that we had ultimately grown apart. Being past Celebrity cruisers we had always thought they offered great value and service once onboard. We were sailing at the Elite level for the first time and were ill prepared for what was to unfold over the next two weeks
We arrived in Singapore at 6:00 am on an overnight flight from Shanghai. The next day we checked out of the Fullerton Bay Hotel (which was fantastic) and boarded the ship with our luggage. We were standing on the gangway when the Celebrity crew started frantically running back and forth anxiously requesting everyone's passport. Why was this not done in the cruise terminal? It seemed very unprofessional and slightly intrusive. While we were later told that the Singapore port authority insisted on stamping each passport, Celebrity should have anticipated this and planned accordingly. The passport "inquisition" created a 3 hour delay departing the port. This was only the beginning of discovering that the Celebrity Millennium was not organized, poorly staffed and blamed everyone but themselves for any problems.
The Captain and Tenile:
Captain Tamaras was one of the few bright spots and was great when he was not absent. He made up the lost in Singapore by sailing at 21 knots. However, with the exception of attending a few public events he stopped making the daily announcements. His absence was quite mysterious as was the presence of any of the senior officers walking around the ship. The other standout on the ship was Jennifer, the concierge. She is a superstar and very bright and energetic. Nothing was ever too much trouble and she was conscientious and always smiling through the chaos. How she ended up on this ship with such mediocre staff was amazing for us but must have been torture for her.
The Room: As mentioned above we had an Aquaclass room which was one of the new ones added during the refurbishment. Our stateroom 1141 was located aft overlooking the wake. The view was superb but the room itself was surprisingly basic. It could have easily been mistaken for just a standard stateroom. The orange sheer curtain, red upholstered sofa, strange headboard rails and bland wood panels made us grateful for the abundance of overnight port when we could stay at a nice hotel. We removed the curtain and covered the sofa with the foot rolls from the bed. The Hansgrohe showerhead and shower glass door were the only accoutrements that reminded us that the room was Aquaclass. The room was thankfully clean, and since it was less than a year old in good shape.
Everyone says food is subjective. However everyone also knows the definition of awful. Not only was the service in Blu poor but the food on many occasions was uneatable. This was in sharp contrast to the light and healthy food on we had in Blu on the Solstice. The meals on the Millennium were very disappointing. A pasta dish had so much salt that even the server advised against it. The clam chowder had no clams and was actually a loaded baked potato soup, not chowder. The fish dishes were dry and overcooked. The risotto was drowning in dark sauce. Sound yummy? The matre never smiled and it looked like he hated his job. We only ate breakfast in Blu once and due to the poor service decided to eat in the Oceanview or sometimes Olympic with our Elite status. We ate dinner in Olympic on the second night and had a wonderful meal. We also dined in Qsine twice and very much enjoyed the theme and the excellent food. These meals redeemed Celebrity somewhat but did not excuse the poor food elsewhere. The food in the Oceanview was uninspiring and average. I often had Asian food as the other items were unappealing.
This was the area where Celebrity rated the most disappointing for the entire cruise. The Guest Relations staff is poorly trained and incompetent. While the itinerary for Southeast Asia was new and the first time sailing to this destination, they just used this as their answer to anything that was not going to plan. The major fiasco with obtaining our passports upon arrival in Laem Chabang is regrettable but the manner in which Celebrity handled it was abominable and inexcusable. While some passengers may be better geared to embracing the chaos, the majority of us were not so fortunate. Standing in line for over 2 hours in a hallway to the conference room to retrieve a passport was bad enough. But then having the crew yelling out staterooms numbers at the top of their lungs and then having a second crew member repeat it as if at a cattle call for those further away was disgraceful. They also handed out passports without looking at them or checking the seapass card. Consequently some people received the wrong passports and then returned them. The people going on ship tours were in the theater and apparently faced their own anguish over this fiasco. Some people on ship tours never received their passports and the tours left without them. When we returned to the ship from our overnight in Bangkok there was a letter from Celebrity about the delay getting off the ship. Big surprise, they blamed the Thai authorities and accepted no accountability!
Round two involved the infamous Vietnam visa and landing cards. Unfortunately Celebrity did a poor job or explaining on the ship who needed which visa and when staying overnight. One couple applied for the group visa not understanding this did not cover them for an overnight tour. When the day came to retrieve our passports in Phu My for Saigon, Celebrity did a much better job. The Millennium sent out a pilot boat and the Vietnamese authorities joined the ship shortly after 3:00 am. However, I did hear from other passengers that they still had trouble getting their passports returned. They asked one of the guest relations reps to find out what happened and were just told to wait. Apparently the Captain was there too and could not get his passport either!
The crew could also not get most simple things right. Something as easy as telling us the bus number for our excursion in Halong Bay seemed too hard. We arrived from the tender and walked off the dock and were told to go to Bus #38. There was only one bus for this tour and it was #37. While standing in line to exchange money I noticed a man who wanted to know when a particular lecture was taking place. The crew member was impatient with him. The passenger was persistent and had to explain that the title of the talk was highlighted on the top of the program but the time area showed a totally different subject. The crew member got on his radio and then told the passenger they would discuss the topic he saw at the top even though it was not listed in the program. Exchanging money on the ship was fun. You stood in line forever only to be told that you could only get a small amount or none at all as they had run out. They also did not do a good job of explaining that they would not take back Vietnamese Dong. Some people were unhappy being stuck with unused currency.
We took two ship sponsored excursions. The first one was Hoi An On Your Own. This was a bit of a misnomer as the guide insisted on marching us down the street in Hoi An for a 30 minute tour only to show us the Chinese Market which no one cared about. We also had to negotiate with him on the time we would return to port. He said 1:00 pm which meant we would only have 1 hour on our own to either have lunch or explore Hoi An. Everyone was very unhappy and after some tense conversation he agreed to let us return at 2:15 pm.
The second excursion we took was laughable. It was in the port of Halong Bay and was supposed to be a Countryside and Shopping tour. It was quite funny because there was no resemblance to the tour description and the actual tour. It should have been called "The Bathroom Tour". Twenty minutes after leaving on the bus we were told we were stopping for someone to use a bathroom for 5 minutes. Many people got off the bus and twenty-five minutes later we were finally on our way. Then 20 minutes later we stopped again for someone else. This time almost everyone got off the bus and the wait was about 25 minutes as we watched some passengers who were buying fruit. We finally made it to what was supposed to be the Yen Tu Pagoda except you have to take a cable car to get there but we were at one of the temples at the base. We were told to wander around and everyone kept asking where the nuns and monks were. It was finally explained that we were not really at the pagoda but just some associated buildings at the foot of the mountain. Next we were told we would go see a farm. When we arrived, there was no farm. It was a ramshackle house where we were supposed to look at their bedroom and living room. It was embarrassing to most of us to intrude on these nice people. Our bus also suffered a gas leak which required making a ramp for the bus in several places including near the railroad track so the damage did not get worse. At one point the bus driver backed us out into oncoming traffic and it was hard to watch. I sat there nervously in my seat as we straddled the railroad tracks watching the large trucks barreling down the road and praying they would stop. I also wondered how often does the train come? We made it out only to stop 25 minutes later for yes, another bathroom stop! This time I made good use of the time and used the western facilities. It was a very nice bathroom and I wish I took photos of not just this one but the first two as well. The shopping never happened because the guide said it was not good. We actually had the bus drop us off before the pier at a night market and we walked the 20 minutes back in the dark. We were also supposed to enjoy a drink at a local hotel but that did not happen either because we ran out of time. Most passengers on the ship took the trip to Hanoi.
We had done an overnight Junk in Halong Bay the night before which was fantastic. If the Celebrity excursion was my only experience in this port I would have been very upset. However this tour was so absurd that we just laughed about it later.
The best part about the cruise was all the overnights in port. Being able to spend 2 days each in Bangkok, Saigon and Halong Bay was fantastic and what drew us to this itinerary in the first place. There is a saying that goes "don't be sad that it is over just be glad that it happened". In our case we were ecstatic it was over and not sure what exactly happened!
I am happy to say our time off the ship was great which is reflected in the port reviews. However, the low quality of the stateroom, terrible food, inadequate staff and disappointing ship excursions convinced us that Celebrity was taking us for granted. When you are with someone for a long time sometimes you forget to show appreciation. Celebrity made this exact choice. It seemed like they had us at their mercy and they just didn't care. To add insult to injury a few weeks after returning home I received a letter from Celebrity's President Michael Bayley about how they spoiled us on Millennium! They have that partly right. They spoiled the cruise for us by their inadequacy, lack of planning and professionalism. I should also add that on January 7th two weeks after we came home I cancelled a cruise I had booked many months earlier on the Infinity sailing in August 2013. The reason for cancellation was solely based on our experience on the Millennium. The woman from Celebrity didn't even care why I was cancelling. She just provided the cancellation confirmation. I received my deposit back the next day.
I completed the questionnaire on the ship but never heard one peep about it from Celebrity since we came back. By contrast, after our Solstice Cruise in May 2011, I mentioned my disappointment with the pillows in Aquaclass but also said what a fabulous time we had. A week later I received repeated calls from Celebrity trying to speak with me about the pillows! How times have changed.
It is true that relationships require a lot of work. However, sometimes you need to decide when it is just too hard and you cut the cord. Sadly that appears to have happened here. Good bye Celebrity and hello again to Crystal and Oceania.