This was our sixth cruise, and our second with Celebrity. We chose this cruise for the itinerary, and the offer of the classic drinks package and onboard spend. Our expectations were high following a wonderful cruise on Celebrity Century last year, and by and large this one did not disappoint although there was room for some improvement.
Embarkation was smooth and quick with no hanging around. We parked off-site (booked independently) and were bussed in from the other side of Southampton Water. I'm not sure if I would use this service again - it was rather slow (a lot of waiting for the bus to the ship, and back again after the cruise). It was significantly cheaper than the on-site parking option though, so I suppose you have to weigh up whether you want to save time or money.
Our verandah cabin was on deck 9 midships. Very comfortable and plenty of room for three adults and all our clothes. The double bed was huge and very comfortable, and the sofa bed was made into a single bed for our daughter which she also found very comfortable and did not take up any extra room in the cabin when it was made up. Having the tea and coffee making facilities in the cabin is a nice touch.
The food was delicious and very well presented. We ate in the main dining room almost every evening (went to the buffet one evening having returned exhausted from a wonderful day in Rome and too tired to get changed for dinner). We were on the early sitting for dinner (18:00) which for me was a bit early. I hope to persuade my husband to try anytime dining next time. Our waiters Silva and Ghosh were very friendly and attentive, as was our sommelier Ivonne, and we never had to wait long to be served for either food or drink. Two of us had the classic drinks package and this allowed us to drink limitless amounts of wine by the glass at dinner - Ivonne would top up our glasses at regular intervals without having to be asked. Our daughter does not drink much alcohol so she would drink water or a soft drink with dinner. We ate breakfast and lunch in the Oceanview buffet, there was always enormous choice and the food was fresh and tasty. I have to follow a strict gluten-free diet and this was well catered for at dinner, with the menu indicating which items were gluten-free. We did not eat in the speciality restaurants - why pay extra when the food in the main dining room is more than good enough? My only disappointment was that our maitre d' was not very visible and therefore difficult to find to talk about my dietary requirements. This was in stark contrast to our last Celebrity Cruise, where the maitre d' was often to be seen and was very approachable to ask for special requests.
With regard to the drinks package, we found that information on what was included was hard to come by. Guest relations gave us a list, but it was not exhaustive, so we used to ask before ordering. We didn't feel embarrassed to do this - better to ask than to be faced with an unexpected bill to sign. The inclusion of bottled water was very useful. However I would not purchase the package if it was not included, and would probably prefer to pay less for the cruise than have the drinks package included as I am not a big drinker.
Entertainment on this cruise was excellent, with a good amount of variety and the standards generally very high. We went to almost every evening show - my favourite by far was the ventriloquist Gareth Oliver, whose act was quite unique and made me laugh more than I had in a long time. I did not enjoy Bobby Davro - I felt his act was out of date and rather near the mark for a family audience. Other entertainment on board included Les DeMerle and his jazz band. I am not a fan of jazz but Les and his beautifully singing wife had me converted. We also enjoyed Steve Womack, the late night comedian and singer who was very funny.
There were plenty of activities on board. We particularly enjoyed the film lectures by Howard Lanning, the lectures about the ship by the staff captain and a former engineer, and we took part in one quiz and also played bingo, although I felt that this was quite expensive ($25 minimum per session). I was disappointed that the backstage theatre tour was only available to Select and Elite Captain's Club members. This was one of a few instances where there was a noticeable "class" difference, something which I hoped had been eliminated in cruising but seems to be creeping back. My husband enjoys a little flutter in the casino but very few people seemed to use it so there was little atmosphere and we did not spend long there (just as well for the wallet!).
The Hot Glass Show is a wonderful addition on this ship. The glass artists gave several demonstrations during the cruise and made some beautiful pieces, some of which were auctioned at the end of the cruise for charity. They also raffled some pieces at the end of some of the demonstrations, and my daughter was lucky enough to win a unique piece which now has pride of place at home.
We made limited use of the loungers and swimming pools, we always managed to find somewhere to lie or sit when we wanted to, although the rampant reservation of loungers which were subsequently not used for long periods (or people not disposing of their towels when they had finished with loungers) was a little irritating.
As mentioned previously, one of the reasons we chose this cruise was for the ports of call. We did not take any shore excursions, choosing instead to make our own way in each port. With some careful planning this worked very well, and I fulfilled my wish of visiting the Colosseum, beating the ticket queues by going to the Palatine Hill first and buying our tickets there - no queue! We felt the ship's excursions to be very expensive, the biggest rip-off being the $19 shuttle bus in Lisbon. If you are able-bodied, take the train from outside the port, either to the centre of the city or to the Belem Tower for €3.5 return! Or if you are really fit, walk! We walked one way to the Belem Tower and took the train back.
The retail options on board were very disappointing. The choice in the Celebrity souvenir shop was limited, and was stocking souvenirs from its previous cruise to Norway rather than souvenirs from the Mediterranean. The perfume and beauty shop was closed for the first half of the cruise, and the Michael Kors shop was closed for refurbishment until two days before the end of the cruise. When it did finally open it was very expensive and the choice of stock (handbags and clothes) disappointing.
My other disappointment was the lack of visibility of the officers and senior crew members. At the Captain's Club welcome party they seemed to visibly shy away from talking to passengers. This was in contrast to Celebrity Century last year where staff from the captain down seemed to be everywhere, and always coming forward to chat with passengers. How I miss Captain George and Cruise Director John!
Overall we enjoyed this cruise and the beautiful ship very much, improvements in retail and staff interaction with guests would make it even better.