I am just off the Eastbound Transatlantic aboard the CONSTELLATION. My hotel here in London (The Park Lane Hotel--executive level) has a free internet terminal so I will steal a few minutes from our post-cruise vacation to cut and paste (from my trip journal) a review of the cruise.
Our departure by car from the Berkshires of Massachusetts was less than auspicious. Leaving at 5 AM in the dark and freezing rain and enduring six hours of stop and go traffic into New York City to board our plane at JFK was painful enough but missing our flight departure time by over an hour was the worst.
We were fully prepared to have to beg, cry and fork over cash to book a new flight to replace the missed one on Jet Blue but were shocked and pleased to be able to rebook for a flight leaving in just 2 hours and FOR FREE! The counter agent at Jet Blue could not have been more pleasant and helpful. I regret that in my shock at the result I neglected to get his name so that I could personally thank him.
After this contretemps we arrived in Fort Lauderdale just six hours after we had planned. The moral to the story is to ALWAYS plan to arrive a day or two in advance for any cruise but particularly a transatlantic where the flight to catch the ship at the next port eight days later would have been expensive and almost not worth the trouble.
We were able to check in late to the Comfort Inn--Cruise port after their free shuttle picked us up at the airport. This was a hotel choice that I can recommend. It was by no means luxury but it was clean and convenient. We met several fellow cruisers enjoying a sunset meal or drink around the pool. The free shuttle also transferred us and our luggage to the ship on embarkation day.
As always when cruising with Celebrity, embarkation was efficient and quick. We had our ship card, got our photo taken and drank our welcome champagne all within 30 minutes of arriving at the cruise terminal. Our cabin was ready even though we had boarded before 1 PM so we stopped there to drop off our carry on bags before exploring the ship.
I wanted to change my dinner seating arrangements so I immediately went down to the Rendezvous Lounge to talk with the Maitre de. The change was made easily and with minimal wait time. I usually prefer late seating dinner but later realized that with the time changes I would be sitting down to dinner at 1 AM (Eastern Time) by the end of the trip! It turned out to be a good decision not only because of the time changes. We also appreciated that early seating resulted in all of the evening shows taking place after dinner while many times the late seating guests were scheduled for before dinner shows; something I have never really liked. In addition, we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner table companions.
Ed and I were joined at our table for eight by two couples in their sixties from Arizona (Pat and Kate; Joan and Ed) and two women (Pat and Phyllis) from Florida. We enjoyed comparing our daily activities each evening and sharing many great conversations with these convivial companions.
The evening of embarkation we received a bottle of Perrier Jouet Champagne in our cabin as a Bon Voyage gift so after dinner and champagne we were too tired and comfortable to make it to the cruise critic sail away party. Sorry Frank, et al, who went to so much trouble to prepare name tags for us all in preparation of the meeting.
Our Cabin, 9004, a veranda cabin, was very convenient to most areas of the ship. The Aqua Spa was just one floor up and directly over us in the bow of the ship. One more floor up was the Bar at the end of the earth, where many of the daily activities took place. Also, The Celebrity Theater was just below us on decks 4 & 5. I had been worried about the location of the cabin, so far forward, since the motion of the ship can be more noticeable that high up and forward, but it turned out to be not a problem at all. The seas and swells were high on a few of the days but Seasickness was never a problem for either of us. I kept to my previously always successful pattern of taking Bonine/Meclazine twice daily whether I needed it or not and experienced not a moment of motion sickness.
Another detail about our cabin that is important to mention is the configuration of the veranda. It is the most forward veranda cabin on Deck nine so it has an extended roof and forward wall. On another itinerary (or for sun lovers) this may have been annoying since no direct sun is likely to ever reach the seating area. However, on the Eastbound transatlantic crossing this starboard location was completely protected from any apparent wind created by the speed of the ship. As a result, we were able to sit out on our veranda on most days while many other, more open verandas were too cold and windswept.
We ordered room service breakfast every morning, preferring to enjoy it in our bathrobes before dressing for the day. It arrived very quickly and almost always had everything we requested. This cabin was not concierge level so we did not have a butler to serve it to us, but we managed very nicely on our own. If we ordered breakfast within the normal dining room breakfast hours, we could order anything on the dining room breakfast menu. At other times breakfast choices were limited to the regular room service choices, which was not a hardship!
All the dining was above par. From the Aqua Spa Cafe to the Cova Cafe to the buffet, room service and the San Marco dining room, all the food was very good. Of course the highlight was the Oceanliners dinner. I chose the menu exceptional ($59.95 extra charge) which included a paired wine served with each of the six courses. Well worth the time and expense.
We began a habit of exercising, either by walking on deck or working out at the gym, after breakfast. We finished off the workout by a long soak in the hot tub or thallasotherapy pool afterwards. We could usually complete this routine in time for one of the many activities scheduled for late morning. I especially liked the two mornings that I attended culinary demonstrations on deck three in the Oceanliners restaurant. The first demo was cooking crepes. Samples were offered afterward. The second demo was sugar sculpture. One of the specially trained chefs created incredible sculpture using only a mixture of regular sugar, water and glycerin that he prepared as we watched. He molded and blew the sugar to produce a glass-like effect. Using a blowtorch, he attached the pieces of roses, leaves, stem and base to end with a foot-high rose bush. Very cool!
For those of you considering a transatlantic cruise but worried about becoming bored during the week of sea days-- do not fear! I was never able to do everything I wanted to do. My plans to play platform tennis (discovered for the first time on this cruise and now addicted!) would often conflict with a seminar or game session. I never did get up to play ping pong, I only finished three of the books I took out from the well-stocked library and I was only able to fit in one of the many movies offered in the cinema. The cruise director, Don Fluke, did a wonderful job of planning a diverse scheme of activities. Whether you like to play basketball, bingo or bridge, compete in trivia, take dance lessons, listen to guest lecturers on the subjects of politics or psychology, read or sleep in the glass-filled atrium on the teak-padded lounges near the pool, indulge in spa treatments or take wine tasting seminars, practice your golf, and so many more choices that I have to stop listing them for fear of running out of bandwidth!
The one spa treatment we booked was the couples Rasul Treatment. It was fun! We were given a private room with a shower attached as well as a separate private steam room to use after we slathered each other with the salt scrub and the herbal mud. It lasted an hour and included use of the Persian Garden.
The entertainment aboard the ship was beyond expectation! I have become a bit jaded about shipboard entertainment over the years so this was a pleasant surprise. The three evening production shows were performed by singers and dancers of above-average talent and enthusiasm. The two male and two female production singers covered a wide range of vocal styles (from opera to hip-hop) with skill. The troupe of 10 dancers were aboard for the first time during this cruise so they were fresh and glad to be performing which in my experience makes a huge difference. If the performers seem to be enjoying themselves, it increases my enjoyment of the performance. The ensemble included a pair of aerialists that added drama and beauty to a couple of the shows.
Other entertainers included a charismatic foursome of a cappella singers called Grand Central. Also, appearing on the Constellation for the first time we couldn't get enough of this talented group. The pool-side/lounge band, Intenz, fronted by a female vocalist played mostly easy listening, soft pop and oldies dance music. The other lounge band was The Kelly Broadway Band. They played show tunes and slower dance music. I would have liked at least one live band to play more contemporary music (there was a DJ aboard who played music from the 80's and earlier) since there were a few of us aboard under 50.
The other lounge entertainers were a wonderful singer/guitar player, named Noel. He was very popular playing mostly folk and soft rock tunes. The classical group that included strings was also very skilled. Perry Grant continues to entertain his groupies and followers playing piano and singing his catalog of tunes from the 1920's to the 1950's in Michael's Club. While the music is not my-cup-of-tea, his quips and interactions with the audience are fun.
The specialty entertainers brought aboard for sections of the cruise were also consistently wonderful. First up was Doug Cameron, a jazz violinist. That genre might seem to have limited appeal and I will admit that I was skeptical about whether I would enjoy his style, but I was quickly won over. He involved the Celebrity Orchestra in his numbers which ranged from his own original compositions to Celtic to classical, all adapted and arranged for fiddle. His afternoon performance of Irish and Celtic music was outstanding!
Next, Eliot Finkel, a pianist played classical and jazz while interjecting stories of humor and pathos between songs. Friends reported that there were also two separate performances by a solo male vocalist and a solo female vocalist both who sang mostly show tunes but I did not attend their performances.
There was a performer who was billed as a comedy magician. He had audiences laughing and wincing at his jokes. The magic component was competently performed but nothing out of the ordinary. Coming aboard at the Cobh/Cork port stop, an Irish comedian performed to a packed house during both show times. I am sorry that I do not recall his name but he was very good. Knowing his audience well, his jokes hit the mark as he poked fun at such commonly experienced themes as growing older and parenting.
Consistently, the service throughout the ship was very good. Standouts include the people at the Guest Relations desk. On many cruises this is a weak spot in the chain of otherwise good service, not so this time. Every question, complaint or request I made of these crew members (and for some reason I seemed to visit almost daily) was handled politely, with good humor and efficiency. My stateroom attendants and dining room servers were perfect. They were unobtrusive yet completely anticipated my needs and fulfilled them well.
Some sort of a mix-up with the cruise critic meeting invitations left most of us unable to attend the cruise connection meeting. Most of us seemed to receive our invitations after the time of the event. Because of this and because I missed the sail away meeting I was unable to connect with my roll call friends until I received a handwritten (Again, many thinks for your beyond the call attempts to make this work!) note from Frank of our group to attend the PINK luncheon at the San Marco dining room on Saturday noon. We did attend this meeting and were really glad to be able to finally meet some of the folks we'd been corresponding with on the roll call forum. Although I did deck myself out in everything pink I could find, Ed was less cooperative. Even if he had owned some pink attire I don't think we would have seen him in it. Because of that he gracefully accepted the booby prize from the group for most un-pink person attending. I think what put him over the top for the prize was his contention that not only did he not have pink on for the luncheon, he vowed he would not ever wear pink! Well we'll see about that; his next gift of apparel from me may well have to be of that hue!
Celebrity made an effort to correct the invitation faux pas by issuing invitations to attend a bridge tour conducted by the officers including the captain. Later in the cruise they also held another cruise connection meeting with timely invitations but we had another activity (our Rasul spa treatment) and couldn't attend.
The first port after the transatlantic crossing was the port of Cobh. The hills of Cork seemed especially green after the week of nothing but blue-toned scenery. The cruise up the river Cobh as dawn was breaking was spectacular. Passing the terraced houses and church spires provided many photo ops. We were docked and able to leave the ship within an hour of docking. We had decided to explore Ireland on our own so we made our way the 100 yards to the Cobh train station bought tickets to the town of Cork (5.25 E each) and waited on the platform for the 9:00 train. The train that travels this route is very small -- only two cars -- but almost every one found a seat. The trip to Cork is less than 30 minutes traveling along the banks of the river that forms the ship harbor. At the Cork station buses and taxis are available for travel beyond the town. We caught a taxi since we planned to visit the village of Blarney and Blarney Castle. The taxi cost 15E for the 10 minute ride so we were glad to discover the town bus (2E) for the trip back but the taxi did take us right to the Castle entrance and we probably beat the crowd by taking the taxi so it may have been worth it. The Castle and the grounds were beautiful. The castle itself is mostly a ruin with no finished interior. I overheard some people saying they were disappointed that the castle was not finished and furnished but I appreciated the beauty of the ruin itself. Climbing the 115 very narrow steps (Very large people or those with mobility issues should probably not attempt them) to the top of the castle and the expansive view of the grounds was fun. The line to kiss the Blarney stone was only about a dozen people long so we joined it and took out turn being held backwards upside down to accomplish the act. The take a picture of you there to sell to you at the gift stand but we took our own photos. After a snack in a pub in town afterwards and a stroll through the high street we caught the bus back to cork. We found a local Irish pub for lunch (sandwiches and cider) and a game of snooker before catching the 3 PM train back to Cobh and the ship. This time the train was very crowded with returning Constellation passengers and the aisles were filled with standees, some not very gracious about giving up seats to older or cane wielding passengers. The station at Cobh has been converted into a museum to Irish emigration. The exhibits were well done and interesting. The station also houses a couple of shops and a nice cafe. We reboarded the ship just before 4:30 PM and the ship sailed for Dublin promptly at 5PM.
The cruise up the Irish Channel to Dublin was notable for the very dense fog that enveloped the ship soon after leaving the harbor. It continued overnight and there were still some pockets of fog when we docked in the commercial area of the port of Dublin. The distance from the ship to the center of town was a couple of miles so Celebrity offered shuttle buses ($12 round trip) for those of us not going on shore excursions organized by Celebrity. We had planned out a loose walking tour of Dublin centered around the theme of Irish born musicians. The tourist office has a more organized walking tour called Rock 'n' Stroll and sells a guide book (3E) for it but we had done some research on our own and headed out from St. Stephen's green for Grafton Street. Grafton street is the main shopping street but it is also the location of the statue memorializing Phil Lynott, the late bass player for the band Thin Lizzy. After a stop there for photos we continued our tour past St. Patrick's cathedral, the Dublin Castle and lunch in the Tender Bar neighborhood. We had a great lunch in a cafe called The Shack that was anything but! Irish country dEcor including a collection of Irish porcelain and paintings and comfortable tables made the Irish stew we ate seem downright elegant. After lunch we continued to wander the Tender Bar. It being a sunny Sunday afternoon there were many street musicians. We continued up the riverside to look for the U2 Wall. The walk turned into a hike as we persevered in our search. Stopping in a pub for a drink and to use the bathroom the locals told us that the wall had been temporarily taken down so it could be reinstalled at the under construction U2 Tower planned to open in 2008. Since our walk "wasted" an hour with our search it was getting toward time to head back to the shuttle pickup location. We made our way through town past an art festival and Oscar Wilde's Statue. Dublin has many public art works along the streets or off in small parks. We stopped here and there for browsing in the shops which opened up at noon on this Sunday before boarding the bus back to the ship.
That evening we decided to forgo the dining room to try the casual dining offered nightly in a section of the 10th floor cafe. This small restaurant offering complete table service with a simpler menu than that found in the dining room has the advantage of being sited on the port side of the ship, aft, with floor to ceiling windows. We had noticed it while viewing the sail away from Cork the previous evening. A reservation is required but was not hard to get on the spur of the moment and we loved watching the ship leave the dock and be guided out of the complicated Dublin harbor by the harbor Pilot. We especially liked the windows in the floor of the restaurant that allowed us to look down onto the sea.
The fog returned for the crossing to Falmouth. It was so thick that we worried it might cause trouble with the tendering procedure. We anchored quite far off the coast of Cornwall. We could only catch glimpses of the land from the ship but the tendering went off without a hitch and we were soon aboard the bus for the excursion to the island of St. Michael. The fog actually made the island seem more mysterious. The whole trip was well organized but expensive. We were let off in the town of Falmouth at 2:30 PM. We spent the rest of our time ashore exploring the quaint maritime town. The tender ride back was exciting. The wind had picked up and since the ship was anchored far out the seas had room to build up. The waves washed right over the top of the enclosed lifeboat we were using as a tender but we slowly made it back to the ship.
The crossing to France was uneventful; we arrived at Le Havre before dawn. I had planned a shore excursion to Paris since Ed had never been to Paris before and the Paris-in-a-day bus trip seemed a good place to start. The bus trip from Le Havre to Paris was about 3 hours long. We stopped for a bathroom break at a site overlooking the Eiffel tower and then our guide narrated the route through Paris past the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc d' Triomph, and other Paris highlights but we were not given time to get off the bus until we arrived at the Bateau for the lunch cruise on the Seine. The lunch included was not that great but there was certainly a great deal of wine offered. I was disappointed that there was not narration during the cruise so we never really knew what we were passing. After another 3 hour bus ride we were returned to the ship to get our bags packed and in the hall by midnight.
Disembarkation was slow but organized, customs was quick and we were on the bus to transfer to London by 9 AM. There was no guide on the transfer but the countryside was beautiful and the traffic was light. While our room was not yet available when we arrived the concierge took our luggage and promised to take it to the room when it was ready. We were given a key to the executive lounge and made a short stop there to have a cold drink before setting off to make our appointment to ride the London Eye and then an afternoon of sightseeing.
Overall this cruise was wonderful. I am sure that there are things I've forgotten to mention-- twelve days is a long time! The few glitches were insignificant. We met some great new friends and experienced many new things. Celebrity kept their part of the bargain.