We just returned from the January 19th 7-day Southern Caribbean sailing of the Celebrity Summit. It was an excellent cruise. That said, I think the "Solsticizing" of the ship is, on the whole, a negative. More details later.
Background: This was our sixth Celebrity cruise, our third aboard the Summit, and our seventh overall (one cruise on Princess). Our first cruise was in 2007, and all of our cruises have reviews on Cruise Critic. My wife (31) and I (37) are professionals living just outside Washington D.C. We have no children.
We have cruised on spring break before, as my wife is a teacher, but this time we were able to do so in January, which we prefer. There were very few children on this cruise (never heard an exact figure, but I'm pretty certain it was fewer than 50, and most of those were less than six years old), which we both appreciated.
Pre-Cruise: we were unable to go down the night before due to a lack of good flights in the evening. Last cruise (also from San Juan on Summit in 2011) we were able to go the night before, which allows for less panic and a better night's rest. Fortunately, our direct flight on United from IAD was fine--at most, 10 or 15 minutes late. There was a very long line for taxis at SJU airport. After realizing using a porter meant you could get a taxi faster, we used one. I'm not sure I'm fond of that system on principle, but after seeing people doing it and saving 20-30 minutes, I decided that the price of a nice tip was worth it. We got to the Pan American port around 1:30-2:00.
Embarkation: This was good. Short line to give the porters our bags (tips were appreciated, but not at all pushy). When we went in the building, there was no one in Select/Elite line, maybe one person in the Concierge Class line (we could have used both), and about 10 or so people in the regular line. Using the Select/Elite line was fastest, and we had our boarding material within 5-10 minutes. The duty free liquor store is still there--and this time, no one scanned our bags as we entered the ship. Whatever the case, we only bought a 12-pack of Diet Coke (rather pricey $8.95) and a few cases of bottled water from the shop. Their wine selection was limited primarily to Bordeaux, but we had brought two bottles from home anyway (which Celebrity allows).
The New Summit: As mentioned, the ship was "Solsticized" in early 2012. In some respects, this was a good thing. Here were some of the positives: the carpeting and bedding in our Concierge Class cabin had been replaced; new veranda furniture was much nicer; new flat panel TV takes up less space; public area carpeting and paneling in better shape. Unfortunately, most of the changes, I believe, were bad ideas. Top among these is the reduction in space of the Revelations Longue to accommodate the children/teen areas that were moved to create more cabins in the aft. To have an adult nightclub venue right by the children's center is foolish, and it clashed badly. On a spring break cruise with lots of kids, I can imagine it being a disaster. The second biggest offender is the conversion of Michael's Club. To call it a conversion is a misnomer; it's really a demotion. It basically has been stripped to a room with a big television screen playing sports (fine during the NFL playoffs, but unused at other times) with no live entertainment and none of the previous club chair longue appeal. I love drinking exotic beers, so I was looking forward to its "craft beer pub conversion". But the room was so devoid of anything appealing, we never went. Crush, the martini bar, is where the old computer and game rooms used to be. That's fine, but now there is no game room, which is sad. Qsine's concept did not seem appealing at all, and not worth the hefty surcharge, so we didn't go. Cellar Masters--again, as an oenophile, I was eagerly anticipating this--had no service and a confusing and complicated dispensing system with limited selection, so we never used it. Not all of the new eateries were duds: We didn't eat at Bistro on Five for their crepes, but that seemed like a good concept, especially for lunch, and reasonable for a $5 surcharge. Cafe al Bacio seems similar to the previous Cova Coffee and with some nicer additions to the furniture. Since we weren't Aqua Class, we couldn't eat at Blu, but the room looked nice. Blu's menu seemed similar, but a tad more modern, than the MDR. I understand Celebrity is looking for additional "revenue areas," but some concepts work better than others, and most of these did not.
Hard-Selling: I will start this section by giving my perspective. As I put in the comment card to Celebrity, I do not mind paying extra for most things, especially things that represent something special or additional. I would include among these: alcoholic drinks, gourmet coffees, gratuities, spa services, and specialty restaurants. What I dislike is what I would call the constant hard-selling and announcements for things that are not particularly related to the cruise, e.g., on-ship jewelry sales, art actions, excessive bingo or casino announcements. I have to say, each Celebrity cruise has had some of this, but I really felt it was excessive this time. A big waste, which undermines Celebrity's constant claim that they're trying to save paper, is EVERY night receiving an "invitation" to an art auction. I also was saddened someone from the casino crew asked the captain to announce--after he finished a navigational talk--some special in the casino. The welcome aboard announcement repeated every hour saying "your room is, have lunch at the buffet" was always followed by a casino/jewelry/drink special announcement. And finally, and most annoyingly, this time the photographers were far too aggressive when debarking at each port. Again, I don't mind paying extra for things, but being bombarded takes away from the precious time one has on vacation. If this subsidizes my cruise fare, please tell me by how much so I can pay more a line that does less of it. Moreover, I found it unpleasant the extent to which Celebrity had increased these activities on this particular cruise.
Dining: Fortunately, the dining in the MDR was excellent this cruise. As is our preference, we had a table for 2 at the late seating (8:30). Our waiters (David from Colombia and Peggie from Nicaragua) were both excellent. Neither super chatty, but David always had a sincere smile and good recommendations, and Peggie had a quiet calm, efficiency and a subtle sense of humor. They were certainly deserving of additional gratuity.
The menu has been updated. The layout is a little different (in my mind, a little easier to follow), and there are some more modern touches, both in the physical menu and dishware, as well as the meals themselves. One thing that has gone away is they no longer bring out a dessert tray, but rather have it on a separate dessert menu. That's fine, and I can imagine how that saves labor, but seeing the desserts before deciding was always nice. They no longer offer to pepper your food (and certain soups or salads called for it) or do the full Baked Alaska parade. Overall, we both found the food at least as good as last time--probably better--in the MDR. We didn't have a bad meal there and never felt compelled to order anything off the "always available" menu, especially with David's good recommendations. Lamb in particular was excellent. A few minor drawbacks: I miss seeing steak tartar on the appetizer menu. I also didn't find our assistant maitre d' particularly endearing. When he visited us, he seemed interested in pushing Qsine, rather than focus on how the MDR was doing. I thought that was annoying, especially because he, like others, seems to think (much to my bewilderment) that ordering tapas on an iPad makes a meal particularly magical.
Our sommelier (Alen from Croatia), like David and Peggie, was another highlight. A delightful young man who comes from a family of vineyard owners, he has a true passion for wine with none of the pretense or condescension. Great recommendations and he appreciated the bottles we brought from home. He's new to being a sommelier on a cruise ship, so he's still learning the ropes. But if you have him, I highly doubt you will be disappointed. We also tipped him additionally at the end.
Just like all our previous cruises on Summit, we ate at Normandie. I'm starting to cool on it a bit. Each time, it seems a little less impressive and the cover charge keeps going up, now to $40/person. I heard someone say or write that you go for the service and ambiance, and not so much for the improved food, and I would agree with that. The meal itself was perfectly fine, but I think the dishes have become less opulent. Incidentally, I had to send back my chateaubriand because it was completely brown throughout and I ordered it medium-rare. A chef came out with a properly prepared one and clearly was a little embarrassed by the first dish, and I appreciated his concern. Again, great service (except for the sommelier who was just so-so) and a nice experience, but I'm not sure I would recommend it as a "must-do". I can now happily report they have appropriately quiet, soft music playing, not the loud, flute-intensive elevator music covers of Phil Collins songs. This change is nice, but before the Phil Collins flute jam music, they had a real musician, which has sadly long been cut.
The dining room is closed for lunch on port days. The one sea day was a buffet, which we skipped this cruise. We used room service for breakfast, which unlike last time, they got the orders correct. Their "Concierge Class" breakfast room service has taken a slight notch down, but it's still pretty good. (Their smoothies were much less good, but it could have been a bad draw this time). We ate light lunches at the buffet, and I have to say, it's not at all impressive. I also found the sanitation practices (and I'm not a huge germophobe) not particularly rigid: dirty tongs getting on food, more self-serve than really should be allowed, etc. The Aqua Spa cafe has some nice options, and I like that it is quiet and not heavily used, and their coffee was drinkable. Overall, I would give dining in the MDR an A; Normandie, for what you pay, an A-; CC breakfast from room service a B+; the regular buffet a B-; the Aqua Spa cafe an A-. The pizza gets a B+, but the burgers get a C. The no-charge ice cream is a B.
Fellow Passengers: This is always an important issue for us. It really affects how we enjoy our cruises.
Children: I'm sensitive to this. As mentioned previously, there were very few (I would guess 30 or so). And the ones I saw were well-behaved, which was nice. I saw one girl with two counselors, so that should give an idea of how busy the kids' club was. In general, it gave the cruise an adult-feel, which is what my wife and I want.
As for the rest of the passengers, Celebrity typically enjoys a more refined guest reputation than this cruise often seemed to have. There were plenty fitting the late-middle aged, dignified couples one sees on Celebrity's TV ads, but this cruise also had a little more of what I would imagine one might find on a "Fun Ship" cruise. There was a sizeable "here to party" contingent, including one very drunk woman who embarrassed herself rather badly during a show one evening with constant shouting at the performers. As for ages, plenty of people between 50-70; not so many 75+. The fact that there are few people in their 30s doesn't make us feel out of place though. It's nice to feel like "the young couple" among a large group. The cruise was rather international, though a little less than others out of San Juan. There were at least 50 German-speakers, which I use as a chance to improve my language skills. Some British, a few French speakers, and, of course, a fair share of Canadians. There was a smaller share of Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers on this cruise than the previous two we have been on that departed from San Juan (I would guess at most 100). Major announcements were made in English, followed by Spanish and then German.
Activities and Entertainment: We have been on enough Celebrity cruises to know what to expect. The entertainment was not the best we have experienced, but not the worst either.
The Celebrity Dancers and Singers are what they are: their shows are physically very demanding and require a lot of talent, but I don't understand them from an entertainment perspective. That's more a fault of the shows themselves (which I find are nothing more than bizarre montages of 15-second snippets of famous songs) rather than a slight at the performers themselves. Nevertheless, the acrobatic duo from the Ukraine was amazing in both talent and performance.
We thought cruise director Lisa Richard was excellent. She's intelligent and genuine, and has the right combination of energy and self-deprecating humor to do the job effectively. Comedian Louis Johnson was enjoyable, though we missed his adults-only show as I wasn't feeling well. His humor was enjoyable and insightful (though I found his comic delivery a little off) and he wasn't afraid to tackle semi-taboo subjects, such as race and politics. The "mentalist" Alan Chamo was enjoyable as well, largely because he didn't seem to take what he was doing too seriously. His tricks were clever, though they didn't always work, which sometimes makes the experience more enjoyable.
I have stated this before in previous reviews: for some reason, every Celebrity cruise has a four-man a cappella group. I don't understand their appeal one iota. I think it could be a generational thing: Maybe Baby Boomers love to hear music of the 1950s and 60s done in this style, because each quartet always seems popular--to my utter astonishment. I would much prefer a string quarter or four more cabin stewards to fill those spots. I won't say the AquaFellas were any worse than prior a capella incarnations, and they seemed like nice guys, but this sort of thing is really not my bag.
The lounge musicians were in general disappointing and lacking in number. With Michael's Club no longer hosting one, they only had one pianist who loved to do every song ala Elton John. Xtasea was the party band, and they were not bad as longue musicians go, but they weren't around much, except on the pool deck. The Celebrity Orchestra musicians were good, but hard to find outside of shows. I miss having a violinist or other classical musicians, which previous cruises have had.
We did not play in the casino. There was a $5 blackjack table that was always full and a $25 table that was always empty. Craps was $5, but we didn't play that either. Poker is all electronic, and that seems like as much fun as playing solitaire on a computer. They had a real table a few years ago, but alas, no longer.
Service: Despite some of my complaints about the new Summit, service continues to be a strong suit for Celebrity. Unfortunately, I think these folks are worked even harder as there are a few hundred more passengers but slightly fewer crew, thus a pax:crew ratio now of 2.3:1 instead of 2.0:1, though perhaps they are compensated more now. Dining room service was rock solid this time; our cabin stewardess, Norma from the Philippines, was great: polite, skilled, but not intrusive or obsequious. She remembered preferences and informed her assistant of them. One interesting thing--which has been mentioned by other reviewers--it was impossible to get a burnt out light bulb replaced, even though Norma tried. I realize running a ship this size is a big operation, but Celebrity can often be disorganized in these respects. Like our waiters, we tipped her considerably beyond the standard amount. As has been noted, they have stopped giving out tip vouchers, which I feel is a bit of a let down.
Officers/Senior Staff: The presence of the officers on this cruise was again very noticeable, just like last cruise, and again, very much appreciated. I think this is something they're trying to do more. We went to the Elite/Select Senior Officers cocktail party. Unlike last cruise, this time it was jammed, perhaps due to the evening on which it was held (second formal night at 7:45), so we didn't get to chit-chat with any of the officers, but they were there. We also saw several when we went out on the helipad while leaving Dominica, which was also a nice thing to do. The captain gave a navigational talk, which I thought was worthwhile.
Spa: As a birthday gift, I got my wife got a massage/facial combo treatment of some kind. She said it was enjoyable. As for the product selling at the end, she called it tolerable, and that some of the recommendations the woman mentioned were good onea--just that my wife said she could get equivalent products for half the price. My wife uses the line "I need to talk with my husband first since this was a gift," which might be a stretch factually speaking, but gives her a polite out.
Medical Staff: Never had experience with them prior to this cruise. I caught a cold midway through the cruise, and I went down hoping they might carry something like Dayquil. The nurse was attentive, asked how I was feeling, and what symptoms I had. They gave me the equivalent of Robitussin and Sudafed for a completely reasonable $12 or so. I am glad to know we can use their services in the future, even for minor illnesses.
Captain's Club: We were Select (mid-tier) on this cruise. I have to say, the benefits are pretty insignificant. We used coupons for: 15% a bottle of wine $40 or more, free cappuccinos when you dined at Normandy--pretty modest stuff. We went to a small wine-tasting (four pours) and (as mentioned) the Senior Officers cocktail party. I won't complain about this too much, as I guess Celebrity's product is good enough that the limited Select benefits do not seem to discourage people from returning. Fortunately, after this cruise we will be "Elite", which will provide us real value: free bag of laundry, dry cleaning, cocktails before dinner, and 90 minutes of internet.
Connecting Staterooms: Unless you are traveling with the people in the next room, avoid them at all reasonable costs. First time we've had one, and we could hear our neighbors constantly. We know more about their lives, their thoughts on gun control and their marital problems than any strangers rightly should. They were no doubt loud people, but the connecting door has an air gap down at the bottom, and it massively amplified how much you can hear. I am just grateful they weren't loud late at night.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions: this was a nice itinerary. In the past, we have had at least two new ports of call every cruise. Unfortunately, this time they were all repeats, but there are always multiple things to do on most islands.
St. Croix: Like last time, we rented bikes on our own from Freedom City Cycles ($5/hour). They give priority to those who do the tour, but they had plenty of bikes when we showed up around 10:30. Not a lot of traffic, so biking was safe (much safer than my typical bike to work). We took a more adventurous route this time, going up about 1000 feet and through some rocky roads. Well worth it. Upon returning we bought some Black Strap Cruzan rum ($11) from a nice Dutch woman whom we met last time we were here.
St. Kitts: We hiked Mt. Liumuga with Poinciana Tours (booked independently for $70/person). This was by far the hardest day hike I have ever been on. In hindsight, it could have been because I was starting to come down with a cold. Still, it was a muddy, 2000 foot vertical climb (and you were climbing at times). One needs to be agile and in good shape to do it. It is easily twice as difficult as other hikes labeled "strenuous." Like Woodstock '99, I'm glad I could say I did it, but I have no intention of ever doing it again. Al and David from Poinciana were great, so I recommend them as they do smaller groups (7 in ours) and cheaper than through Celebrity. We went at a faster pace than the cruise tour hike, as well.
Dominica: We did the Kayak down Layou River with Wacky Rollers booked through Celebrity. It was $60/person and worth it. This was a treat for several reasons. We had a small group--maybe 10--while having a large crew of 5, all of whom were great. My wife hadn't been kayaking before and my experience is with canoeing, so we tipped over (we were the only ones), but the crew set us back up immediately and even effortlessly found our missing flip-flops downriver. The rapids don't last long, but the trip out to the ocean was nice. A bigger treat was the crew themselves, especially listening to one of them, an appealing young man named Jermaine, talk about his life growing up in the village of Layou (800 people). The excursion offered both adventure and plenty of individual attention; but the last half hour sitting in the village--away from other tourists or vendors--listening to them tell stories and talk about their lives was an unexpected treat.
Grenada: I wasn't feeling well and since this was our fourth time on the island, we just bought a couple of T-shirts and some nutmeg in their mall shop at the pier.
St. Thomas: We had only been to this port on our first cruise in 2007. This time, we went on the St. John Half Day Champagne Cat booked through Celebrity. This was largely a disappointment. The nice aspect was that we got to see some of St. John and the snorkeling around Honeymoon Beach was rather good: sea turtles, nice coral, and a good amount of fish and not too crowded. Unfortunately, the outfit that seems to do lots of cruise ship excursions in St. Thomas did things that annoyed me. First, if you are going to call yourself a Champagne Catamaran, then something better than Cook's, cans of Miller Lite, 2 liter bottles of soda, and an orange water cooler is required. Secondly, the crew of three young American women implied multiple times that serving weak rum punch, handing us snorkeling equipment, and false enthusiasm were sufficient for us to provide a large tip (which they were happy to tell you meant 15-20% of the cost of the trip). We were also told (again repeatedly) tips were exclusively how they make their money (and, one assumes, by selling their T-shirts, which they pitched for 10 minutes). Apparently, an $80/person 4-hour trip with 40 people onboard is insufficient to fund their wages. Did we have a bad time? No. But I was looking for a different experience. I also found, after having a wonderful crew of Dominicans really take care of us (and only vaguely mention "if you would like to show you're appreciation, that's great"), to then be subjected to this sales and tip spiel by three American post-college girls unbecoming. Next time, we'll do something smaller through an independent line. As for St. Thomas shopping, I'm not sure if things have changed, or if this pier (Havensight) has much worse deals, but the prices on duty-free liquor are much higher than what I remember. A liter of Tanqueray at three shops was $19, almost as much as back home, and $3 more than on the ship (where we would up buying some). I recall it being around $10 in the past on St. Thomas.
Disembarkation: This was fairly good. The breakfast buffet was crowded on the final morning, but there were lots of people working so there was enough food. We were not released until about 9:15 or so, and we weren't the last number to be called. The advantage of this slow releasing of passengers was a tolerable line getting through customs (15 minutes, maybe) and almost none finding a taxi. The trip to SJU was painless and takes about 15 minutes by taxi. Be sure to get in line for the USDA baggage inspection before checking in at the airport. United check-in there always seems disorganized and unpleasant, even if you are Premier. But we had time to kill.
Some Final Thoughts: This was still a great cruise for all the important reasons: service, food, itinerary, and on-board ambiance. My biggest complaints on this cruise were that i) I found the new "Solistice-izing" of the Summit to be, on the whole, a thumbs-down, ii) that the pushing of jewelry/art auction/spa packages/etc. was greater than in previous Celebrity cruises and that iii) the buffet food was rather mediocre. That said, these are minor nitpicks. We had wonderful service this time, and the food was very good in the MDR. Celebrity still provides a tranquil, reasonably upscale atmosphere. Even with the additional passenger cabins, the ship rarely felt crowded, even on the sea day. We actually paid a bit more for this cruise than almost any prior Caribbean cruise of the same length: about $2500 for Concierge Class cabin, but we still felt it was a good value. I personally would be happy to pay a tad more if it meant more waiters, cabin stewards, and fewer art auctioneers and jewelry sellers. Though we bought another "Celebrity Passage" ($100 non-refundable deposit for a generic cruise in the future to get an onboard credit), we are not sure when we will cruise again with Celebrity. The Solstice ships are perhaps too big for our taste. We have wanted to try Holland America and some of their smaller ships and more interesting itineraries. That said, the Summit out of San Juan has lovely itineraries, so I'm guessing we'll be back on a Millennium-class ship in the near future.