By way of introduction, my wife and I are both 60ish and avid cruising enthusiasts, having gone on over 20 cruises in the past 27 years (RCCL, Princess, Azamara, HAL, NCL), this being our sixth cruise with Celebrity. In 2011 we had a wonderful 12 day cruise on the Mediterranean with the Equinox' sister ship, the Solstice, so we were very much looking forward to this Central American cruise, having knowledge of the ship and certain expectations as to food and service.
I can accept the fact that service in general is not what it once was, and that specifically the cruise ship industry is mired in competition and oversaturation, with escalating costs, and that finding quality staff to service the hundreds of currently floating cruise ships is becoming increasingly difficult, but I don't understand how Celebrity could deteriorate so significantly in just a few years. If half as much effort was put into food preparation and meeting the expectations of their passenger guests, as was put into promoting future cruise bookings, selling ship sponsored shore excursions, up-selling services/ drink packages and specialty restaurants, etc., then Celebrity would have no competition in the cruise industry.
The Equinox is a beautiful ship, well laid out, comfortable and spotless, with some unique features like the mid-ship Atrium with 8 glass elevators and an open view to every floor from the Lobby on the 3rd to the 15th floor (no 13th floor), and the tranquil glass enclosed Aqua-Spa Solarium for adults only, with dancing waters and serene music, although when the hot tubs fill with people yelling over the jets, the tranquillity is lost. The common areas are modestly appointed but modern, deck space is nicely designed with plenty of lounge chairs in full sun or shade, even on ship days, although the chairs are tightly packed and sometimes difficult to get on and off without rubbing thighs with your neighbors.
Embarkation was relatively painless, we arrived just after noon and it took about 30 minutes and were met with champagne as we boarded (as per tradition), then we proceeded to explore the ship which we were familiar with and ended up in our cabin, with our luggage arriving around 4pm. The cabins are fairly plain but an adequate size, comparably speaking, with only a few drawers but large closet and storage over and under the bed; the large flat screen TV has about 20 channels, mostly devoted to ship stuff (excursions, shopping, views, amenities, etc.) and news channels, although there are dozens of free On-Demand movies and lots of music. TV was better than on most other ships. The veranda is small with two chairs and a table, but all that you need for breakfast coffee or late day cocktails. The cooler is packed with expensive beverages, which we removed and stuck in a drawer. The bathroom is quite roomy and perfectly laid out. The muster drill took longer than on most ships and was inconvenient to get to and from, but in light of recent cruising events it made you feel more secure knowing that its being taken seriously.
As most readers of Cruise Critic are already familiar with cruising and only wish to confirm their expectations or want to hear the negatives and criticisms, I will not disappoint.
On the six days that we were in ports (Grand Cayman, Cartagena, Colon/Panama, Costa Rica, Belize and Cozumel) we arrived about 7am and were rudely awakened with announcements on the PA system advising of disembarkation, tender service, shore excursion meeting places, etc. This went on every 15 minutes, and in 3 or 4 languages. If you were an early riser and going on ship sponsored excursions, then this was useful, but if you had no plans or enjoy sleeping in when on vacation and leisurely getting up to coffee by 9 or later, this was aggravating.
The passenger makeup was probably 40% N. American, 40% European (mostly Brits, French, German, Italian) and 20% Hispanic and Asian, and the average age was well over 70 (which explains the Catholic priest on board providing daily services and probably reading last rites). There were also more scooters and wheelchairs on board than I've ever seen in one place. So the ship tried to be all things to all people and accommodate everyone's physical, ethnic and culinary needs, which may be necessary to compete in the cruise market, but it quickly became obvious that Celebrity should probably try to do less and do it well.
Unfortunately on port days there were problems with disembarkation by tender as priority went to those having booked shore excursions through the ship and everyone else had to wait until late morning to get off. There was also very little information provided by the ship as to the ports of call. On every cruise we've been on, guests are provided with maps of the city or island, points of interest, history, geography, beaches, shopping areas, local customs, currency exchange and culture of the people. On this cruise you were provided only with ship sponsored shore excursion info and maps of the stores approved by the ship for buying Tanzanite and Rolex watches. As we have been disappointed repeatedly by ship sponsored tours (a sucker born every minute) and have no interest in paying a few hundred dollars for bus tours to see monkeys in trees, turtle farms, banana plantations or swim with dolphins, we were left to our own devices to get off the ship, find taxis, arrange our tours, find shopping areas and beaches. Celebrity needs to be less self serving and consider their guest's interests and needs.
If I were more cynical I'd say that Celebrity goes out of their way to force passengers into conforming to Celebrity's way or the highway; and make independent activity by passengers both on and off the ship as difficult as possible so that you just follow the course of least resistance as dictated by Celebrity.
As another example, the Main Dining Room was only open early for 1Â½ hours for breakfast and for 1Â½ for lunch (not open at all on port days), so the only alternative was the Oceanview Cafe, which was a zoo, only with less appealing food. So for those that sleep in or don't want to formally sit and order food, other than a few bistro type cafes, the only real choice for breakfast and lunch was the buffet, which had terrible traffic flow with five large stations in the middle of a 2,000 sq. ft. cafeteria. The offerings at each station were totally disjointed; the hot food was at either end and the drinks and coffee were on either side (and at the far end of the cafeteria by the outdoor patio, which was nice but very windy at times). People wandered aimlessly from station to station while banging into each other and staff, which seemed equally lost in the cafeteria. I've never experienced such chaos while dining, or had to duck out of the way of staff.
There was an incredible variety of food in the Oceanview, but none of it was noteworthy. It should not be that difficult to tell the difference between a cheese blintz, a cannoli and a stuffed manicotti, however..... For the herds of "Biggest Loser" candidates on board I'm certain that the food was perfect. The plates were huge, with large edges which allowed one to pile on 4-5 inches of food without dropping a crumb, but for those that have a pallet rather than just a gullet, most of the food was bland, boring or inedible, and what was tasty usually ran out early.
The cafeteria service was another problem, as you would order an omelette and stand there for 10 minutes... then stand in line for 5 more minutes to get toast while your omelette got cold.... then you'd look around for other items while everything got cold. After all that you would look around for 10 minutes to find a clean table to eat at. My wife and I never ate at the same time, as we would get to the cafeteria, get drinks, find a table then one of us would get our food while the other held on to the table, and then alternate getting food while the other ate by themselves. The Eggs Benedict were poached one at a time in a large pot while 10 people waited, rather than poaching 6 eggs at a time. On one occasion my wife waited for several minutes at a carving station while the three serving staff behind the counter scratched their lottery tickets and joked around. These continuous inconveniences eventually forced you to eat the cold scrambled eggs or pick up dried sandwiches rather than wait in lines. Cafeterias are never enviable dining alternatives however other cruise lines make every effort to improve the experience; there is usually a flow pattern or several lines with organized plating and at the end of the line staff usually take your plates and lead you to seating with or without other people, as you wish. It was quick, efficient and organized. Here, however, people in scooters were trying to drive and balance their plates while serving themselves then trying to find a table. This obviously encouraged them to order room service or get others to find food for them which was unfortunate, as the staff was of no help. Celebrity really missed the boat here......pun intended.
The MDR was better in quality but very much hit and miss. On my first occasion I really enjoyed both the salmon and the NY strip, then on later occasions the same entrees were tough or dry and inedible. Portions were ridiculous as one person's entree looked like an appetizer while the other was enough to feed a family. You could not tell from the descriptions and every night everyone around our table wished they had ordered someone else's dish. Our waiter was very nice and tried really hard but his recommendations at dinner were nonsense and obviously parroted what he was told to say, probably making suggestions based on what was most plentiful in the kitchen that day. Another problem is that the Equinox has Early and Late seating for dinner as well as Select Dining (anytime), which doesn't work and adds to the chaos. It should either be 2 sittings or open seating for everyone. We had requested Select Dining ,which we didn't get, with Late Seating for two as a second choice. On our first night we didn't have our table assignment card with us so rather than look it up the Maitre'd just sat us at an open table with two other couples. On the next night we went to our assigned table only to find that it was a table for 10 with only the two of us sitting there, which looked ridiculous and made us stick out. Upon complaining we were moved the next night to a table for two next to the front doors, while dozens of other tables around us were empty. Nobody really cared, although the staff kept asking us daily if we were pleased with our new table assignment as though they had done us a great favour. Service in general was just mailed in, done by checklist, and not sincere or consistent.
The specialty restaurants were definitely better. The Tuscan Grill had some atmosphere and the food and service were of better quality, although not sure that it was worth the additional $70 for the two of us, as the calamari appetizer was chewy and the meal took almost three hours with half hour breaks between courses. For this reason we cancelled our dinner at the Murano Restaurant which we enjoyed on the Solstice, as it was an additional $90 and we knew that the tableside cooking would have taken 3-4 hours and our reservations were for 8:30. Once again Celebrity appears to be trying to clearly distinguish between the terrible food and service in the cafeteria, the mediocre and inconsistent food and service in the MDR and the clearly superior food and service in the specialty restaurants which are what a cruise dining experience should be, but for an ever escalating cost.
A less significant disappointment was the ports of call, which were somewhat pointless. Grand Cayman is lovely, but we arrived on a day with 6 other cruise ships, which made getting around difficult, the beach was packed and shopping was impossible. Cartagena was very hot and busy and we laughed at the ship excursions, so took a taxi to the Old City, which was nothing more than a tourist trap, with hundreds of small tacky shops with aggressive street merchants and pushy jewellery salespeople. It was funny watching the 25-30 horse drawn carriages single file in a smelly parade around a few city block with our fellow passengers paying $100 for this pointless ride. Colon is a run down and busy port city so you can't get out to the Panama Canal fast enough. It is unfortunate that the cruise doesn't go into the canal and Gutan Lake rather than park in Colon. Costa Rica and Belize are very poor third world countries, yet attractive in some aspects, but not much to see or do other than zip lining, which might not have been the best choice for this geriatric crowd. Cozumel was OK but the International Port was several miles south of the main port and city centre and somewhat inconvenient.
The entertainment was average for a cruise and fine for the audience, with the one exception being an all Chinese band called Southside, which was just exceptional. They played throughout the ship at different times, with two incredible vocalists who did everything from Country to Hispanic melodies, with a special talent for Soft Rock and Jazz. The disappointment in the entertainment was the Theatre shows which were mostly held at 7pm and 9pm. This meant that late seating in the MDR forced you to watch the 7pm show so you had to get ready for dinner at 6pm. Once again it was of benefit for Celebrity not to have 8pm and 10pm shows like every other cruise ship, thus forcing night-lifers to spend money at either the ship bars or the Casino after dinner. Clever on their part but very transparent.
Disembarkation was a nightmare and put the cherry on our disappointments, taking almost 4 hours as Immigration was understaffed, blaming the government sequester problems.
I believe that the actual cruise price was of good value however everything on this trip was an up-sell or add on expense. The ship sponsored tours were far too expensive for what you got and capitalized on an older clientele which was nervous about travelling on their own yet wanted to see some sites in each of the ports. The alcoholic drinks were very expensive in most bars at $10-12 as was the coffee shop, Cafe al Baico, which had delicious pastries and desserts for free but unless you bought a $5 nothing special coffee, you were ignored by the servers. With a couple of drinks per day and a bottle of wine every second night and the gratuities, be prepared for an added $800-$1,000 on your tab, without any shore excursions.
One final tip -- don't buy anything in the on board shops during the first half of the cruise as everything goes on sale by the end of the cruise.....