SUMMIT Southern Caribbean back to back cruises: Celebrity Summit Cruise Review by Iowa cruiser
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SUMMIT Southern Caribbean back to back cruises
Destination: Southern Caribbean
Embarkation: San Juan
Celebrity has earned its market niche by providing an upscale cruise experience at mainstream cruise prices. Understated elegance is their norm. The first big surprise on this cruise was the out-of-character high energy, high decibel party atmosphere, probably because of the Caribbean itinerary.
If you want a restful vacation, this may not be the cruise for you; or book a balcony where you can enjoy the sun and sea privately. Otherwise, you will find that most public areas have thump-thump-muzak with wailing vocals in the daytime, and many have over-amplified (but very talented) musicians in the evening.
The pool-side Zoomba classes each afternoon, for example, were louder than the jet blast on Maho Beach in St. Maarten, disturbing More 200 pool-side loungers for the benefit of the 20 participants.
But it is possible to avoid all this sonic boom. The gym is free of thump-thump music from 6-7am (with enjoyable and free stretch and abs classes from 7-8am). The Sunset bar (outdoor dining) area aft of the deck 10 buffet is quiet (the bar's boom box is turned off) during early breakfast from 7-8am. The beautiful Rendezvous lounge (deck 11 forward, with great views) is empty and quiet through most of the day, until evening parties turn up the decibels again. The outdoor pool is relatively quiet in the morning, especially on port days, and the indoor pool has the pleasant sound of rushing water throughout the day.
The second big surprise on this cruise was the sometimes over-cooked food in the main dining room.
Celebrity does a fantastic job with appetizers, soups, salads, and desserts (and any cold foods), but the main courses were pre-cooked and held too long before being served, making some of the meat and fish dishes relatively tough and dry.
If you like your beef, lamb, and white fish cooked medium- to well-done, it will not be a problem for you. If you prefer rare meat and succulent fish, you may be disappointed.
One solution is to choose menu items that are braised (lamb shanks), oily (salmon), or have heavy sauces (pasta). Fortunately, vegetables remain al dente and flavorful during the holding process, although they are sparse (but one can easily request extra vegetables).
On lobster night, several at my table noted that the first lobster tail was dry and tough, but a second one ordered later was moist and succulent, presumably because it had just been prepared for the next (late) seating.
Also, you can dine at the Normandie, an upscale alternative restaurant which is surcharged (usually $40 pp, with occasional early dining at $30 pp). Its main courses are prepared a la minute, sometimes at tableside. The enjoyable galley tour on the sea day ends in the Normandie restaurant with a nice display of their main dishes, along with a display of the whimsical food from the other alternative venue, Qsine.
Another a la minute venue, and without a surcharge, is the grill at the aft end of the evening buffet on deck 10. There you can find steak, pork, chicken, or salmon grilled to order as you wait. The freshness is amazingly better. I discovered this venue late one evening when I saw a line of ship's officers waiting there for their dinners. A good sign.
A nice surprise is the effort the ship's officers make to participate in activities with the guests (a cruise line policy, I believe). They engage in water-polo, team trivia games, dance contests; give enrichment lectures about all aspects of the ship and its navigation; and frequently appear in the lounges and reception areas to meet and greet guests. When one considers that they have to repeat this schedule week after week, one admires their dedication. They, and all of the rest of the crew, do a great job throughout the cruise.
Another nice surprise is the ship's art collection. One tends to take it for granted, but take the time to stroll the hallways and stairways -- there are some very fine works of art and interesting photographs throughout the ship. Some of the works are quite valuable.
In San Juan embarkation was a breeze, but disembarkation was a bad surprise. The US Customs service in San Juan apparently refuses to start work earlier than 8am, and Celebrity does not give priority to passengers traveling with only hand luggage, which means that one has to wait in line in the customs shed and then hassle for a taxi to the airport.
Unlike the SJU airport, which has a taxi dispatcher to protect arriving tourists, the taxi drivers are unregulated at the port and all of them overcharge shamelessly. The legal taxi fare from the port (the Isla Grande Pan American Pier near the convention center, not the old San Juan cruise pier) is $21 US for the entire cab, plus $1 for each suitcase.
When I disembarked, the first driver wanted $10 per passenger, the second wanted $42 plus $1 per bag, and the third wanted $35 flat but upped the price to $40 after he loaded the suitcases. The port authority and Celebrity Cruise Lines should be ashamed to let this thievery continue week after week. They need a cordoned taxi line with dispatchers to count passengers and bags, and then write down the legal fare for the drivers, just as they do at the airport.
It took me 90 minutes to get from the ship to my airport gate, which is more than twice as long as in many other ports in the US and Europe.
PORTS The nice thing about this Summit itinerary is that it has two different cycles. One week features less-developed ports with great opportunities to enjoy the natural beauty of the islands, and the other week features developed ports (often shared with other ships) with extensive shopping and tourism infrastructure.
The choice is yours. If you can, take both itineraries -- all of the islands are spectacular. Each can be enjoyed for only a few dollars per person using public transportation, as outlined below.
Keep in mind that each island has cheap local minibuses, and each cruise pier has a tourist information booth with maps and information. In addition, the ship's guest relations (not excursion) desk has maps and info about each island the evening before docking. One must go there and request it. Only a port shopping guide is delivered to the cabins.
If possible, take your own mask and snorkel and dive skins (and fins if you travel with a checked bag). The yellow beach towels provided by the ship are huge and heavy, and about as ecological to wash as an SUV. Instead take along a blue pool towel for the beach -- half the size and half the hassle.
SAN JUAN Old San Juan is a delightful tourist venue. Take your US National Park pass if you have it, since the beautiful El Morro and San Cristobal fortresses are then free (just $3 otherwise). There is relatively little traffic in old San Juan, which makes it an ideal venue for walking. Wherever you stay in San Juan, be aware that it has a very high crime rate. After dark it is best to take a taxi. There is a cheap bus and rail system, but none serves the airport, old town, and ports directly. A taxi from airport to old San Juan or the pier is about $21 plus $1 per bag. From Old San Juan to the Pan America pier is about $10-15 for the entire taxi plus $1 per bag. Plan to arrive in San Juan the day before the cruise and book a hotel online beforehand. Even though the ship departs late (8pm), some passengers missed the departure due to flight delays during winter storms.
ST. CROIX The ship docks at Frederiksted at the west end of the island, which has a pleasant waterfront but little shopping. The public bus (VITRAN) does not run on Sundays when the ship is in port. For about $18 per person round trip, one can take a shared taxi (there is a dispatcher on the pier) to either Cane Bay (snorkeling) or Christiansted (the largest town, near the east end of the island). Cane Bay has a friendly dive shop which will store your gear and rent fins and other items. Alternately, one can book a ship or local tour to Buck Island, a marine reserve near Christiansted, famous for its snorkeling. Be aware that both of these snorkeling sites are on the north coast and are exposed to heavy winter swells, which can be a challenge to inexperienced snorkelers.
ST. KITTS The ship docks at Basseterre, at a new shopping mall on the pier. If you walk straight ahead through the new and then the old mall, you will come to Bay Street, where you can get a public minibus (about $1 US pp) north to the historic Brimstone Hill fortress. The bus drops you at the bottom of the hill, and it is a pleasantly shaded 30 minute walk up the hill to the fortress (entry fee), with glorious views over the coastline. If you prefer to relax on a beach, you will have to take a taxi (no bus service) south to Frigate, Friar, or Cockleshell Beaches. There is a taxi dispatcher just before you enter the new mall, and taxi fare (shared) is $4-7 US pp each way, depending on which beach you choose. The dispatcher will protect you from drivers who might overcharge.
DOMINICA The ship docks at Roseau. For excellent snorkeling, walk a few blocks into the town and take a mini-bus south to Scotts Head, just past the town of Soufriere at the southern tip of the island (about $2 US pp). Walk the narrow isthmus a few minutes to the protected snorkeling area. Afterwards, walk the trail up to the top of the bluff for great views back to the ship and Roseau in the far distance. On your way back, stop in Soufriere at the church next to the beach. The church is closed, but the beach is a thermal spring with "champagne" bubbles -- a unique snorkeling experience. Leave a few dollars in the box for the nice fellow who maintains the area, including the changing room.
GRENADA The ship docks at St. George. Take the mini-bus north ($1 US pp) to the underwater sculpture garden at Moliniere Point. There is no direct access, so a catamaran tour is better for novice snorkelers. Experienced snorkelers can get off the bus at Dragon Bay, leave gear with the bartender there ($2 US) and then snorkel south around the point to the sculptures. There is a ($1 US) marine park fee, which the rangers will collect from a dinghy. After that snorkel, take the mini-bus farther north to Gouyave (pronounced "guava") for a brief tour of the nutmeg processing factory, or take the mini-bus south ($1 US pp) to St. George and transfer for a mini-bus to beautiful Grand Anse beach. The driver will drop you at a grassy park (Camerhogne). Walk through the park (which has fee toilets and changing areas) to the beach. There is also a water taxi from the cruise pier to the Grand Anse beach.
ST. THOMAS The ship docks at the huge Havensight Mall. I find the island over-crowded and over-priced. The only good news is that the Summit calls on Friday, which is much less crowded than earlier in the week. I no longer get off the ship when docked there. St. John, on the other hand, is gorgeous, and I spend a few weeks there each winter. It is a long day trip from the ship, but worth it if you have the time and the energy.
BARBADOS The ship docks at Bridgetown. The bus terminal is a few blocks from the ship. I usually take the Speightstown bus north (about $2 US pp). One has a choice of Mullins Beach, Folkestone Marine Park, or Paynes (Turtle) Bay. I prefer the latter, because each morning starting around 10am catamaran tours pull in and feed the large sea turtles. It is a long but easy snorkel from the beach to the feeding area. Swimming with the turtles is magnificent.
ST. LUCIA The ship docks at Roseau. One can take the bus (about $2 US pp) north to Rodney Bay (Reduit Beach), which is near the Pigeon Island National Park. One leaves the bus at a large modern mall, and walks several blocks to the beach. This entire area used to be open land (last time I was there we met a cow pastured next to the empty beach). Now it is built up with low-rise hotels and condos. Alternately, if one has time and energy, take the bus (about $3.50 US pp) south from Roseau and get off an hour later just at the edge of the town of Soufriere and then walk 30 minutes over the steep hill to the famous Anse Chastenet resort and beach. The beach is quite small, but it has a nice snorkeling area. Water taxis from Soufriere to the beach are available if one does not want to walk. Several ship tours also stop here. The best part about this journey is the bus ride -- probably the most beautiful bus ride (mountain & jungle & canyon & ocean views) in the Caribbean, possibly the world. In addition, the walk gives one spectacular views over the town and the famous two Piton peaks.
ANTIGUA The ship docks at St. John's, along with several other large ships. To avoid the cruise crowds, walk a few blocks south of the pier to the bus station next to the market. Ask for the bus to Jolly Harbor (about $1.50 US pp). It will drop you at the gate to a large marina and condo complex. Follow the road to the beach and then walk north to the end, which is much more private than the central or southern portions. There is good tree shade, and often one can find abandoned beach chairs. There is no snorkeling, but the beach and the water are beautiful. There is a short walk up the hill just to the north, with nice views of the surroundings. Buses are also available to English Harbor and gentrified Nelson's Dockyard (entry fee), but I have not been there in many years, and assume that it is crowded with cruise tours.
ST. MAARTEN The ship docks near Phillipsburg along with several other ships on the southern (Dutch) side of the island, which I find much more beautiful than the northern (French) side. It is a 15 minute walk into town, where one can enjoy the town beach and shopping, or take the Mullins Bay bus ($2 US pp) west past the airport and yacht harbor to beautiful Mullins Beach. After swimming and relaxing, one can walk 15 minutes back to Maho Beach at the south end of the airport runway and watch jets land and take off as one swims or enjoys a drink at the bar. Big planes come in around 11am and again around 1pm, then take off (more noise) between 2-3pm. There will be crowds enjoying the noise with you. Orient Beach on the French side is famous because it is topless in some areas, but last time I was there (a year ago) it was dirty (plastic and seaweed) and crowded (hotels and restaurants will chase you off their beachfront even though it is public access).
That brings us back to St. Thomas and San Juan after two wonderful weeks on the Summit.
I highly recommend these cruises, just make allowances for the few bad surprises (and they may not bother you at all if you like to party). Less
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