Third time’s the charm, they say. Well, it’s not like we hadn't been charmed by our previous two voyages aboard Summit. The most recent was two years ago, also to Bermuda, and that had been our last time with Celebrity as well (with two sailings on Holland America in between). We knew we’d find some differences in the two-year interim. And yes, we did find some shortcomings, experienced some disappointments. Overall, however, we were pleased with the Celebrity product and would sail again given the right itinerary and opportunity. We certainly started off well into positive territory given that, despite booking a relative bargain Category Z at the last minute, we were upgraded to a Category 7 oceanview. It was nice being back aboard Millennium class, on which we’ve spent over a month – good feeling to know exactly what is where, almost like coming home. Priceless experiences include sitting out on the aft deck enjoying waffles or poached eggs in the morning, and a cigar and a beverage in the afternoon.
The ship itself looks great. Hard to tell, in most places, that Summit is going on her thirteenth year. The “Solsticizing” refurbishments were a plus for some of the public spaces; but even those that were not affected have been kept up immaculately. Of course, if you look for aging, you’ll find it... the usual toll that the sea takes on a ship... and indeed room for cosmetic improvements such as replacing some the deck chairs. The unfortunate partial chopping of the Revelations lounge and the Cosmopolitan restaurant did leave their impact in the form of a more crowded feeling (at peak times in the lounge, and squeezed tables in the dining room). Wish they’d changed out some of the “artwork,” but then that’s in the eye of the beholder (“behold, a papier mache and glitter tribute to ‘70s big hair!”). Though we’ve read others complain of cleanliness issues particularly in the Oceanview Cafe, we experienced none of this, with tables cleared rapidly at various hours and an overall level of hygiene that we’d generally expect.
The crew did seem more stressed and overworked than before, though this is a trend across the industry. Compared both to our last cruise on Summit (May 2011) and last cruise overall (Holland America, Veendam to Bermuda, June 2012), we felt something was missing here. It’s hard to fault anyone for “doing one’s job,” especially when that job was tough to begin with and has been made tougher by cost-cutting measures. And yet that’s largely how we found the crew aboard this cruise: doing their job, but not going above and beyond. It’s times like these where a company can become a victim of its own success. “Making an exception can create an expectation” – is that the saying in the service business? Anyway we’d often found Celebrity’s service exceptional, and thus had come to expect this level in many ways. The crew we encountered were nice enough, don’t get me wrong. And I couldn’t perform anywhere near the way they do given the job conditions. But as compared to previous cruises – both on Celebrity and elsewhere – there was no “wow factor.” The attention to detail seemed to be lacking. Giving us the wrong evening’s menus in the MDR, for example, or forgetting bread, water, utensils, and/or other components of the meal. We reported an occasional mechanical noise in/near the cabin, nothing major, but nothing was ever done (as far as we could tell) or communicated further to us. And we encountered bar waiters who did not know what the drink of the day was, or what went into a Dark ‘N’ Stormy (the popular drink of Bermuda, something served regularly on these runs). None of these on their own may not have meant much. Assembled together, however, along with other items and events, and we began to see a pattern that reflected an overworked staff and an obvious cost-cutting implementation by the cruise line (and industry) to place more responsibilities on front-line staff without providing adequate training. Given the continued value in this form of holiday, we will still include cruises as part of our travels – and some of those cruises will be with Celebrity – but this is one aspect I guess we’ll just have to accept as “not like it used to be.”
If art is subjective, food is even more so. We know that two people on the same cruise can have vastly different experiences. And what one person likes may be less appealing to another. Having said that, our dining experience on Summit this time was rather hit and miss. To Celebrity’s credit, food in the MDR generally came out at the proper temperature and timed more or less well enough (though at some meals there was a lag between courses). Portions seemed bigger than before; however we would gladly make the trade-off to lower portion size in return for higher quality ingredients and execution. Perhaps others wouldn’t, and perhaps that’s the demographic Celebrity are after? We also found the seasoning on many items to be off; over-salted in some cases, and quite often far too much pepper. It started on the first night, a large slab of prime rib nearly covered in black peppercorns. Bell peppers were also used liberally in many dishes – even in the shrimp cocktail, which was served in the MDR in a normal bowl sitting in lettuce, not neatly arranged atop a silver cup (sauce arrival still pending). This continued, despite requests to the contrary, and bled into the experience at Qsine and Normandie as well. In fact, our first go at Normandie (part of the 3-night dinner package) was a disappointment compared to the many wonderful meals we’d previously experienced at Normandie and other specialty venues. Gone from the menu were items we’d previously enjoyed (foie gras, escargots, table-side Caesar salad, steak Diane (or any steak other than chateaubriand for two). Change is okay, but when change means trading foie gras for pork belly AND raising the price, one has to wonder. Apps were not warm enough, and Mrs. YOW’s venison was overdone and over-seasoned (sent back, with an offer to refire or replace, but frankly we weren't in the mood to wait). Fortunately we returned to Normandie on the last night (in part due to having bought the package), and our experience was vastly improved. The cheese course alone almost makes Normandie worthwhile, and the lobster (when cooked properly) doesn't hurt, either. The desserts were outstanding, especially the crepes in strawberry and pinot noir sauce. In fact, across the board, desserts were the highlight of our dining experience on this cruise. Qsine was fine, once, and we’re glad we gave it a try (still not worth the asking price on its own)... and the flavours here were hit and miss, some spot on, some well off. The chef came out after we complained about pepper here as well; we had a nice chat, and he suggested that their use of lemon pepper in this venue was superior to the black pepper (over)used in the MDR.
Having overheard our conversation, a patron nearby (clearly intoxicated) told the chef that we were “crazy,” that the food was “awesome.” This got us thinking. For those who've been drinking (and Celebrity are selling and giving away a lot of unlimited beverage packages these days), maybe this food is ‘awesome’, or at least seems like something closer to that. Perhaps the expectation on Celebrity’s part is that more people are drinking, therefore more people want food that goes well with drinks – or that less people will be able to tell the difference between quality dining and what is (IMHO) currently on offer: decent banquet food that neither consistently matches the descriptions on the menu nor lives up to the expectations created by the tagline, “Modern Luxury.” We did bring this to the attention of higher-ups, and eventually got a letter from Hotel Director Niina. And after this we noticed our servers (and stateroom attendant) inquiring regularly as to how were finding the experience and if we desired anything. Again, for those on the front line, we can’t fault them for doing their jobs. The second formal night in the MDR was a solid meal, and we were glad we gave a Normandie a second chance: the ‘last meal’ aboard ship was one to remember.
Amazing, as always. This time we were treated to three glorious days of sunny, dry weather. The whole place was in bloom, so the scents of jasmine, oleander, and hibiscus permeated the air. Got to more beaches this time – no jellyfish, so that’s a bonus – and returned to some of our favourites as well. Lovely people, including our friends and family who live in Bermuda, but really everyone we come across every time we visit. Only complaint was having to leave.
Overall we were (and are) very pleased that we chose this cruise, even at the last minute amidst a flurry of holiday choices. We are fortunate that we are able to continue to travel, and a Celebrity cruise remains a fine option. There is some attitude adjustment to be made in this day of travel – we know things aren't like they used to be. And that’s okay. In fact, some things are better. Most are still good. And that’s what a cruise represents to us – a good experience, at a good value. We will continue to alternate between cruises and land vacations. And when cruising, we will continue to look at the options amongst a handful of lines, with a ‘slight leaning’ towards Celebrity.