Southern Ultimate Caribbean Tour: This was our third, consecutive cruise with Celebrity and the first time on Eclipse. Having cruised twice prior on the Equinox, there was much familiar about Eclipse and even some things that surpassed Equinox. Read on for specifics:
Often, we drive from Ontario to Fort Lauderdale but, this year, we drove to Cleveland and flew in from there. The experience was relatively painless. A taxi whisked us to our favourite Fort Lauderdale stopover hotel room at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 two days prior to sail. There are many things we love about this hotel but the most notable feature (given we're travelling with a tween) is the luxurious poolside and heated swimming area! We had a great couple of days lounging and swimming and generally acclimating and being pampered by the attentive hotel staff. Our room was well appointed and its proximity to the pool and private balcony were winning features!
Cruise Day! Check-in & Embarkation
We left via taxi to head to the Port around 11:00 a.m. Our taxi driver was very kind and drove around the side of the hotel so that we didn't need to drag all our luggage from the back of the resort to the main entrance. We had some issues once we arrived at the port due mainly to the fact that there were seven ships in port that morning! It was crazy and traffic was at a complete standstill. After we sat in traffic for a good ten minutes with little or no sign of getting moving anytime soon, we discussed the possibility of walking the rest of the way and letting the taxi take on another fare as plenty of passengers had disembarked and were anxious to hail their own driver. Just as that conversation came full circle, there was a sudden break in traffic and we managed to get out right in front of a friendly porter who immediately took our luggage and was given a nice tip for his efforts.
Embarkation was a breeze! Our documents were all in order and there was absolutely no lineup. With our paperwork complete, waivers signed and credit card swiped, we were on our way to another exciting cruise! Rounding the corner, we had a surprise stop but the wait turned out to be under fifteen minutes. The organized crowd control never fails to impress me. Although the embarkation crowd was growing, Celebrity staff have the embarkation down to a science and it makes it most pleasant indeed. We were comfortably seated in rows while we waited our turn to head straight onto the ship where our champagne and orange juice welcome awaited.
As usual, we packed a carry-on bag with our bathing suits, sunscreen and change of clothes so we headed immediately up the pool area. We wandered up to the cafeteria, had a quick bite in the Oceanview and then managed to be among the first guests in the pool. It is that precise moment when the vacation sighs begin. The day was somewhat overcast but overall better weather than snowy Ontario and, being Canadian, the cold pool was not much of a deterrent for us...
About the Eclipse
The Eclipse is practically identical to the Equinox. The singular difference we noticed was QSine in place of the Silk Harvest restaurant (a welcome change, in our collective opinion!). Aside from that, the only other notable difference was the artwork throughout the ship. It was fun to feel so familiar with so many things yet see different displays than we had grown accustomed to.
In the past, I wrote about the Equinox that "We did not feel continually pursued by vendors to buy things on board. Certainly there were plenty of opportunities to spend money but it was subtle and not "in our face" -- a fact we very much appreciated!". I wish that this remained true but there seems to have been some policy changes which created a slightly more visible and assertive sales tactic. Although none of my initial observances were of much consequence, we did encounter a problem (a significant problem, in my opinion) in this regard in our first few sea days. More about that under "Fun Factory".
The brilliant layout I exclaimed over in my review of the Equinox remains true for the Eclipse. "Never did I feel like I was standing in line forever to get a little something while my breakfast got cold. Everything was plentiful and fresh. The waffles and cheese blintzes are not to be missed at breakfast! The variety offered for lunch and late afternoon/evening snacks of small sandwiches and daily sushi were certainly enjoyed on more than one occasion." I did notice that there was a bit more variety in international lunch time fare this year - the curried selections and papadam bread became a fast favourite! There is always a great variety of fare available at lunch in the Oceanview cafe so we were not disappointed. Overall, there may be a slight decrease in quality in certain food areas: most notably the belgian waffles and nacho chips. They just weren't as good as I remembered them from our last two cruises. Neither one of them was as crisp as they should have been.
We chose select dining as we enjoy the flexibility of eating whenever we like. We never had even a moment's wait though this may be attributed to the fact that we dine quite late. The MDR was pretty much as we remember it with one exception: I think Celebrity must have invested heavily in GREEN BEANS! Please, if anyone from X is reading this - lay off the heavy presence of the green bean and come up with a few more interesting options! There's that whole roof you could garden on if necessary!!
I wrote in prior years about "little surprises" the chef would add to the menu. That was absent this year but, to be honest, I didn't realize it until I reread my prior review.
Our favourite meals, hands down, occurred at the specialty restaurants. We visited Tuscan Grill twice and QSine twice as well as having the occasional lunch in Bistro on Five. I learned today that there is an "ultimate specialty dining" option and explained it to my husband. His response? "We'd need wheelbarrows to take us off the ship if we ate in those places for 14 days in a row!" It's true. The food in the specialty restaurants is far and away the best food found on the ship. There was not a disappointment among any of our fine meals enjoyed in the specialty restaurants this cruise!
Since I summed this part up so well last time, I'm offering the same review of the pool area again:
"THE POOL! What isn't great about this pool? First, it's not salt water taken from the freezing cold ocean the day you embark. No, it's heated! It's sufficiently but not over-chlorinated and is crystal clear. There is a shallow side and a deeper side to suit whatever you desire.
The chairs surrounding the pool are ample. We never had trouble finding a place to be regardless of when we arrived poolside. The wait staff are plentiful, the special drinks most enjoyable and the open air design allows you to bathe in the sun or hide in the shade -- truly a little something for everyone.
There is a live band who plays in the late afternoon. It can get a little loud then and usually disturbed my zen so I often chose to depart at that point. The band and singers were very good (although, when they played country music and had it representative of Canada it got my back up a little). The ship does need to tone down the volume somewhat though. The "dance floor" is unique in that it spouts water and has colour changing lights beneath one's feet. It was fun to watch those who were so inspired get up and give a little of themselves over to the music.
There is a fabulous family sized hammock on the back of the pool area (near the entrance to the Solarium). What a wonderful place to take a nap when you can snag it! There are also large cushy lounges surrounding the pool. These go early but if you're lucky enough to gain access to one, it makes a splendid outdoor napping place."
Celebrity seems to offer a tiny bit of cultural enrichment but this area continues to lack compared to some other cruises I've been on. I sincerely wish they would look at including more "paid" activities for those of us who have a burgeoning need to be creative or busy doing something new while onboard! In the past, we've had the option to glaze ceramics (for a fee) and have them fired and ready within a day or two to pick up. We've had talks about the southern sky from astronomers out on the deck in the evening... these are the kinds of things I'd love to see Celebrity consider adding to their experience. I know it's an odd thought but not everyone cruising enjoys shopping! It would be nice to have some experiences that are related to the people, the art and the culture of the various Caribbean islands. Then again, that is just my opinion.
The Fun Factory
In my experience with the Fun Factory, the experience is very much subjective and dependent on the time and duration of the sailing as well as how many other kids are aboard. The general report from my ten year old daughter was that the planned activities were mostly shelved as there were not many kids sailing when we did (surprising, since we travelled during Canada's March break!). Nonetheless, my daughter enjoyed attending the club occasionally and had the freedom to come and go as she pleased.
A shoutout to Ella who was tremendous with the girls and really engaged them in things they enjoyed doing! Thank you Ella!
Now, for the less positive experience with the Fun Factory:
We had an unpleasant several days following embarkation with pressure mounting daily for my ten year old daughter to decide whether or not to sign up for a VIP package. Had this package been a minor expenditure, it would have been a no brainer. However, as we learned more details, we understood it was $230 for a bridge tour, a backstage tour in the theatre and a bunch of celebrity souvenirs. As my daughter is interested in theatre, we were considering it as a possibility but also explained this experience would need to be partially paid for with a decrease in souvenirs elsewhere as the pricetag was not insignificant. Ultimately, we had left the decision up to her.
Unfortunately, the decision was taken out of all of our hands when, the day before we landed in our first port, my daughter was asked again at the Fun Factory if she would be signing up for the VIP experience. When she explained that she wasn't yet decided, they added pressure on her and said "The ports all have the same stuff and you can get all your souvenirs right here". THAT, for me, was the end of any contemplation over the situation. This is a drastic change from any experience we've had with Celebrity. I'm very unhappy about how the Fun Factory pressured her into feeling like she really needed to sign up for such a costly (and lacking in value, in my humble opinion) program.
In my opinion, if Celebrity has something to sell consenting adults, should be directing it to the adults. As for selling to kids, it's been done elsewhere for ages and I choose not to frequent those venues that have such policies. I'm highly disappointed that this was our experience with the Fun Factory especially since the initial low key sales policy was something we found so attractive about Celebrity and one of the main reasons we keep heading back to them.
The Hot Glass Show!
The Corning Museum of Glass is hanging out on the roof of the Eclipse as well as the Equinox! There were two shows most, if not each of the days of our cruise. We managed to attend all but one of them (and that was only because our specialty dinner restaurant was so enjoyable that we inadvertently prolonged it!).
George Kennard, G Brian Juk and Dan Alexander were the gaffers representing Corning's Museum of Glass on this journey. The pieces they made were nothing less than awe inspiring. We were very fortunate to win one of the auction pieces (made by George Kennard) as very few pieces are available for purchase -- and even then -- the money is not kept but it siphoned into a scholarship fund for glass makers and/or a selected charity. On our cruise, the selected charity was for breast cancer.
I commend Celebrity for their inclusion of this wonderful Hot Glass at Sea program. It's one of the reasons I will continue to sail on the three solstice class ships offering the amazing show. It is, in fact, the highlight of our Celebrity cruises to date!
There is no smoking on balconies or inside the ship areas on Eclipse. I am a smoker and don't mind that I need to move to a designated smoking area. My husband is a non-smoker though and he was somewhat disturbed by a constant breach of this rule on the Port side of the ship near the back of our deck. It took several complaints over numerous days to guest services before he could breathe easy again on the balcony.
Non-smokers being surprised that smokers have a designated and comfortable lounging area on the port side of the ship by the pool continues to present an issue. Celebrity, PLEASE PUT UP SMOKING AREA SIGNS or include them on the ship's maps! It will result in happier cruisers -- both smokers and non-smokers!
This year, I opted for the non-alcoholic premium beverage package. I was thrilled with it! I was able to get two or three litre-sized bottles of water each day, several cafe lattes from the specialty coffee place on the fifth floor, the occasional bottle of Pellegrino and all the smoothies I could drink poolside for a fraction of what the individual prices would be. This is an oft debated topic on the forums and it still comes down to personal value. You may not be as thirsty for water as I am in tropical weather but for me, it was a definite savings!
Ports of Call
To be honest, we did not take full advantage of this year's itinerary due to much craziness pre-trip. We did enjoy the ports we visited very much and were pleasantly surprised by some of the art and culture based materials we found in the unlikeliest of places!
As we are doing a repeat of this cruise next March, I plan to do some research and find some exciting venues to visit. Watch out for the review of that cruise when we return in early April 2014 :)
Once again, we booked a future cruise for next year before disembarking this one. We continue to love Celebrity and will cruise with them as long as they continue to do what they do and do it well!