This was our second cruise on a Millennium class vessel although the Constellation has been Solticised, so the layout and "feel” of the ship differed somewhat to our initial experience on the Infinity some four years ago. We nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed the cruises. We had visited most of western Turkey as well as Athens previously but this was our first experience of the Greek Isles which did not disappoint. But our overriding impression of the cruise was that of the outstanding service we received invariably from the ship’s staff at all levels and at all times.
It is a truism that an organisation’s leadership largely dictates it’s ensuing culture and quite obviously the tone of this cruise was set firmly by the Master of the vessel Captain Tasos Kafetzis who we understand is the youngest ever Captain of a Celebrity vessel. He clearly leads by example, is obviously well liked and respected by the crew and ensures that his Officers are visible and approachable at all times, creating an almost family feel to the cruising experience.
BEFORE THE CRUISE
We flew from South Africa direct to Istanbul where we overnighted at the quaint Hotel Sapphire in the Old City. We had booked an airport transfer online through a service instanbul.safeairporttransfer.com that we can recommend. The service was on time, efficient, comfortable and, at Euro 23 for the car, probably not much more than the cost of a taxi. Even though our transfer was at peak morning rush hour, we arrived at the hotel some six hours before the regular check-in time of 14h00. We expected to merely drop off our luggage at the hotel and do some touring before the scheduled check-in time but the hotel reception staff made special efforts to release a room beforehand and to our surprise we were offered a room within an hour of our arrival. We were also offered a complimentary breakfast while we waited for your room which we declined as we had already had breakfast on our flight before landing at Ataturk airport. We were very impressed with quality of service and willingness of the hotel staff to go this extra mile a commitment to customer service that we have seldom experienced at other establishments on our world-wide travels especially from the major chains.
After checking in and refreshing ourselves we set off to tour parts of the Old City. We had been to Istanbul on two previous occasions so were familiar with most of the major attractions but nevertheless opted for the hop on hop off bus tour of the city to re-orientate ourselves with where the major sights, mosques, palaces and markets are situated. That evening we decided to try a traditional Turkish kebab meal. Our hotel was literally surrounded by restaurants offering very similar menus at similar prices. We randomly chose the New Hatay because the outside seating seemed to be a bit more secluded than most others with seating projecting into the sidewalk and we think we lucked out with our choice. The food was good, reasonably priced with excellent service.
The following day, after a late breakfast, we made our way to the port to embark on the Celebrity Constellation. Embarkation formalities were swift and uneventful and we were soon orientating ourselves to the layout and attractions of the recently Solticised vessel. We spent the balance of the day relaxing on board.
The first official day of the cruise was actually a port day as we only sailed from Istanbul at 8 p.m. We decided to spend the morning touring the Dolmabache Palace, one of the major attractions we had not visited on our previous tours of Istanbul. Very impressive with historical significance to both the Ottoman Empire as well as to modern Turkey as the Palace was Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s last official place of residence.
Although we had visited Turkey and Greece before we had not yet experienced cruising the Aegean Sea and visiting some of the Greek Isles had long been on our bucket list. By and large, despite a feeling of sameness with what each destination had to offer, we were not disappointed with our choice of this itinerary. All ports were distinctively beautiful and all had unique feature/s and places of interest to visit and sights to view. This was our tenth cruise and for the first time we opted not to partake of any of the ship’s recommended shore excursions, deciding to experience the sights and features of each destination on our own. In Athens, Rhodes and Chain (Crete) we used the hop on hop off bus facility to orientate ourselves to the city and in all places visited we spent most of our time walking to the various view sites, scenic attractions and markets. Our favourite destinations, purely personal preferences, were Bodrum, Marmaris and Chania although Athens will always have a special place in our hearts as well. Santorini with its hilltop villages and Mykonos, picture postcard Greece in our view, were also well worth visiting.
The food on the Constellation was generally good especially in the San Marco main dining room where we had, as always, opted for the Select dining experience. It never ceases to amaze us how the cruise ships can prepare and deliver banquet style meals day in, day out to over 2000 people, attractively presented and generally of consistent quality at each meal sitting. There was always an impressive range of pizzas and pastas available. On the two occasions we decided to have a casual dinner at the Ocean View we were more than happy with the fare on offer.
We alternated breakfast and lunch between the Ocean View Café, the Aqua Health bar and the Poolside Grill. Although we were a bit disappointed with the sameness of the fare on offer, especially at lunch in the Ocean View Café, there was usually sufficient variety to ensure one did not go hungry! If we were ever at a loss on what choice to make we knew we could always rely on getting a quality burger at the Poolside Grill. Our main niggle is the quality of the coffee provided in the Ocean View Café tasteless and largely undrinkable in our view. Perhaps this is a cunning ploy to encourage passengers to make more use of the Café al Bacio coffee outlet which offers a range of excellent coffees at a fee of course!
We dined at all three speciality restaurants. Our first night on board actually co-incided with our 43rd wedding anniversary, so we decided on a celebratory dinner at Ocean Liners, the speciality "French” restaurant. The food, service and ambience were all excellent although at and overpriced USD45 per head we posit that most guests will only be able to afford to visit this establishment for special occasions. The restaurant was only a third full at best. A nice touch though was a special cake commemorating our anniversary presented with suitable fanfare at the end of our meal.
We were disappointed in the Bistro on Five casual dining venue specialising in a range of crepes and panini’s. We only used this facility once but found our choices to be too spicy for our taste although the crepes were of good quality.
On the other hand the Tuscan Grille was excellent and of all three speciality venues, was the one we liked the best. Primarily a steakhouse it nonetheless offers an excellent selection of pastas and seafood as well, while the desserts are among the best we have yet had anywhere. Again, at USD35 per head, the price was off-putting and the venue was less than half full on the night we attended.
The cost of drinks on board continues to be horrendous especially for passengers who do not earn dollars or euros. For instance, at a current exchange rate of over 10:1 between the USD and the South African Rand, the cost of a beer at USD 5,5 is almost four times the cost of a beer back in South Africa.
However, on this cruise we qualified for a Classics drinks package as a special Celebrity promotional offer. The package at USD 49,95 each per day is good value providing unlimited non-premium beers, wines, spirits, soft drinks and bottled waters up to specified limits plus the full range of speciality coffees and teas. The range of wines on the package is very restrictive but we still managed to find perfectly quaffable vintages within the selections available. While being incredibly convenient, unless one is a reasonably heavy drinker we found it was difficult to consume beverages to the value of the daily cost. Typically we would have a drink before dinner, a couple of glasses of wine during the evening meal and perhaps a beer or speciality coffee during the day. We also regularly used the package for fresh squeezed juice at breakfast and to obtain our supply of bottled water for the day. Even all this did not come close to the cost of the daily package.
Quite unconditionally, the service on the Constellation was the best we have yet experienced on any cruise. Attentive, efficient and invariably with a smile, we could not fault the service offered by all staff and crew at all levels. Celebrity obviously places a strong emphasis on staff training. All staff are invariably polite, generally knowledgeable and willing to do that little bit extra with a smile.
The standard and variety of entertainment offers on this cruise was also some of best we have yet experienced. The Cruise Director, Mark Western, was energetic, personable and a great entertainer in his own right and ensured the comprehensive daily entertainment programme offered something of interest to all guests whatever their taste. Some of the acts and artists were undoubtedly of international class including an operatic quartet that could rival Il Divo anytime, a brilliant magician/illusionist, a breath-taking aerial artist duo, an absolutely outstanding pianist who kept the audience enthralled with his around the world compositions for an entire hour, a couple of very good singers and a number of excellent bands and musicians offering a range of music including classics, jazz , reggae and country in a variety of venues throughout the day.
Our cabin was a standard balcony on the 7th deck amidships. We knew what to expect and were not disappointed. While somewhat small, it was always kept scrupulously clean and adequately equipped. Cabin attendants Sharon and Jaeval were especially attentive to any of our needs. Sadly, because this particular itinerary was so port intensive, coupled with a few days of inclement weather, we seldom made use of the balcony facility.
We like the size, design and layout of the Millennium class ships. Although we were informed the ship was fully booked with over 2100 passengers, we never felt crowded and even in the Ocean View Café we were always able to find a table although we tended to avoid the inevitable scrimmage at peak breakfast or lunch times. The range of bars, lounges and quite places are also impressive while the coffee bar Café al Bacio on deck 5 was always a welcome respite for a speciality coffee and slice of fresh cake in the afternoons.
Disembarkation was somewhat chaotic caused mainly by the excruciatingly slow progress disembarking passengers made through the immigration/passport control process. As we were staying in Istanbul on our own for a couple of days post cruise, we had opted for a late disembarkation time so despite the delays we were not all that inconvenienced by the slow disembarkation procedure.
We spent two days in Istanbul prior to our flight back home. We had pre-arranged hotel accommodation and again were fortunate to be offered a room shortly after arrival at the hotel, the Eurostars Old City, a well situated establishment within walking distance of most of the major attractions of the Old City. During the two days before trekking off to the airport for a very late flight, we did the obligatory cruise of the Bosporus, walked our socks off re-acquainting ourselves with tourist attractions such as the New Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque, before doing some late shopping in the Grand and Spice bazaars.
The evening before we flew home we also returned to the excellent New Hatay restaurant for another lovely meal of traditional Turkish fare.
All in all a wonderful two weeks in a part of the world we have come to love. The ship was great, itinerary interesting, generally good weather etc. and our only minor reservation is that this particular itinerary is perhaps a bit too port intensive with only two cruise days during the twelve night cruise. We enjoy the more frequent sea days that have typified our previous cruises.
Irritatingly, Celebrity continue to penny pinch on a number of unnecessary issues such as the "complimentary” bottle of water provided in the stateroom that one is automatically charged an exorbitant 4 USD if it is used, or the 10 USD shuttle one is encouraged to purchase on board only to find this is twice as expensive as an identical service offered by public transport on shore! They should rather just build these irritating minor charges into the cruise fare and be done with it. It would create a better impression with the customers who would feel they were getting these additional services with the compliments of the cruise line.
Our real beef though is with the Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited organisation itself that seems to be only interested in focusing on the interests of the North American market. We have previously sailed on two Royal Caribbean, one Azamara and four Celebrity cruises (with another already booked for next June 2014), so have already demonstrated our loyalty to the RCCL cruise line. Yet two new loyalty benefits that were aggressively promoted on board are denied to non-North American customers! We refer to:
a) the newly devised "MyCruise Rewards Programme” that offers members benefits such as two for one airfares, discounts on beverage packages, speciality restaurants and shore excursions, plus the opportunity for members to earn loyalty points for all cruises and on-board services purchased that can be traded for discounts on future cruises or used to purchase on-board credits; and
b) a special promotion offered towards the end of the cruise offering a 5% discount on a future cruise if booked before we arrived back in Istanbul. However, on enquiring about this special discount we were informed it only applied to Alaskan and Caribbean cruises which are almost exclusively aimed at the American market.
This exclusive focus on pandering to the needs and expectations of an already privileged part of their customer base makes one question whether to continue to remain loyal to the RCCL brand or to try another cruise line that is more interested in treating ALL its customers equally and fairly.