Our TA had often suggested we try Celebrity, but we had always resisted due to complete satisfaction with Carnival, RCCL, and Princess and the mistaken belief that Celebrity was too expensive. This fall, however, we were amazed by the pricing offered by Celebrity for the San Juan departure of Constellation, and booked an outside cabin without balcony. A weak effort by Carnival's Jubilee o our early 2003 cruise might have also played a role, as we actually were somewhat let down by that ship's condition and by its cruise director.
Our trip began with a same-day flight from Houston via Atlanta to San Juan. We have three children, so leaving early or staying over is difficult for us. We purchased trip insurance for 5% of our trip's cost, from an independent insurer and slept better as a result, during severe thunderstorms, the night before our departure. Our flights came off on time and we actually enjoyed the movie from Atlanta to San Juan (Denzel Washington as a small town police chief).
Upon arrival in San Juan at 4:20 pm, we were met by Celebrity staff for the transfer bus to the ship. We paid $26 (I believe) for one-way transfers to the dock. Our luggage was tagged prior to departure from Houston and we never saw it again until it arrived in our room around 8:30 pm. We had our ticketing paperwork filled out in advance and were only momentarily delayed entering the cruise terminal in order to fill out one local document tossed at us by Celebrity employees as we left the bus. From landing at the airport, we were drinking champagne on "Connie" in less than 55 minutes.
We were escorted to our room (and I failed to tip the escort, for which I feel bad now that I have read subsequent reviews in which tipping this service seems to be the right thing to do.) and were relaxing immediately. My initial impression of the ship's decor was very favorable, since we were led through wood-walled hallways into a very subdued and classy room. A little smaller than Carnival, and a little larger than Princess, the room had a refrigerator (under lock and key) that our room steward immediately opened for us. The shower was bigger than most we have seen and water pressure was moderate (i.e good for a cruise ship). Our steward, Hafit, was very good and very unobtrusive the entire week.
As wine-lovers, we brought along, in my carry-on, six bottles of nice reds, and drank five of them at dinner ($12 surcharge in the dining room and $15 in Oceanliners). The other bottle became a gift for our wine steward, Edit, who was a joy each night at our table-for-two in the late seating. We were on the lower floor of the dining room and had a window view, but it was always dark while we ate so the view was limited. A summer cruise would have a sunset during dinner and would make that table quite popular.
Our table service was very good, with smiles and with napkin placing done with a flourish. My favorite table service ever was on Grandeur of the Seas in 1999 (Emiel from Czechoslovakia was so good he is probably in a five star restaurant in Paris by now). The food on Connie was above average and the creme brulee was as good as I have had. I'd give the overall food a 8 out of 10, with Oceanliner's being a 10, the dining room an 8 and the buffet (lunch and breakfast) a 7. The pizza was fair, and the burgers pretty good at the poolside counter. Drinks were relatively expensive, with the 15% gratuity added (and well earned on this ship).
Oceanliner's deserves its own paragraph. Our TA had gotten us a reservation in advance, but you could do that upon arrival on the ship (and you should). We ate there Monday night (a formal night) and were very pleased with the team service and the music provided by a pianist and violinist. They were quiet enough to not overwhelm conversation, and yet they added to a classy atmosphere. I had the beef and my wife the fish and both were tasty and well prepared. The lobster bisque was great, though the cheese tray was not my cup of tea. Not to say it was bad, as Pam loved the various flavors. Dessert was the chocolate souffle and it is as good as we had been told. Our wine steward, who did not bear a grudge because we had brought our own wine, took us (after dinner) to their wine "cellar", where we saw a deep collection of wines we'll never be able to drink (that means "afford"). If the Connie were ever to sink, there would be several salvage teams trying to get to the wine - in fact, I think I'd take up diving.
The shows were fairly good, with comedy, dance, and a "west-end" London musical singer with a great voice. The theater is wonderful and well designed. No show we attended was full, though the ship was 95% full (we were told). We also enjoyed the lounge acts, relaxing in Reflections many evenings.
The Champagne bar was also fun (though smoking was permitted there) and the Martini bar (no smoking on that side) served a great martini (my wife nursed hers for two hours, it was so large). We also had drinks at the casino bar and got good service, with friendly greetings (as we did everywhere).
The casino was fun, and we played 30-45 minutes most nights. I won at craps, lost at blackjack and watched my wife win a $200 slot (quarters). Table minimums were $5-10 most of the time, though $15 blackjack was available. Many cruisers were playing BJ or craps for the first time and the dealers occasionally had to get stern about bad rolls or handling cards. Overall, we won a minimal amount (which beats the expectation). The islands were all beautiful. Our favorite was St. John (during the St. Thomas stop). We cabbed to a ferry and went over to Trunk Bay. I now have a favorite beach in the world. It also happens to be a National Park, so there are showers and concessions and it is free of local sellers. Grenada, in particular, had more than its share of sellers, and it took away from our relaxation on Grand Anse Beach.
We did one tour, in Barbados, and recommend it to all. The Five Star Catamaran was a great time and lasted five hours. We were taken to two snorkeling locations and to one beach. Food was very good and there was an open bar for those thirsty souls in need of libation. The crew was extremely friendly and the Captain was funny and a good sailor. Coincidentally, Pam and I met the cruise director from Jubilee on this excursion. Although I thought he was a lousy cruise director, he did seem to be relaxed and friendly in conversation. He said he was about to take over Carnival Destiny and was "scouting" excursions for his future passengers. Maybe he'll be a good cruise director one day and we just caught him too early.
Antigua was outstanding. We took a cab to a beach that the cabbie had endorsed (Dickinson Beach?) and it looked off toward Nevis and St. Kitts and was near to cold drinks and bathrooms. The beer we had there (in a green bottle) was said to be brewed on the island and was really good. Can't recall the name, which was probably due to the beer itself.
Dominican Republic was better than we expected. We took the ship's bus to the Marina and relaxed at a couple of bars and wandered the boat docks, looking at multimillion dollar boats and dreaming of being Warren Buffet (or at least Jimmy).
We have rarely done five islands on a seven day cruise and might not for a while. When the goal is relaxation, a three port trip is probably best. For those with energy to burn, this itinerary is a good one. There were no ugly beaches (that we saw).
Overall, this was a really nice trip for a couple trying to catch up with each other. We ate as a couple, did excursions as a couple and did not meet anyone by name (other than crew) the entire week. That may sound anti-social, but we had hoped to do a lot of reading and visiting with each other. Mission accomplished.
Celebrity is a bit nicer than the other three cruise lines we have sailed. Constellation is a class act and future cruisers will enjoy the atmosphere and service. We will be back (on Celebrity and possibly Connie), but we will not forsake any of the others. The route, the ship, and the cost will always mean something to us, and until one of these four lines truly shoots itself in the foot we intend to stay open minded.
Mike and Pam Written 3/4/04