We just returned from our January 17th sailing on Celebrity Summit and had terrific time.
Background: This is our fourth cruise, and our third on Celebrity. All our previous cruises have reviews on Cruise Critic. My wife (27) and I (33) are professionals living in the inner suburbs of Washington, DC. We have no children. We cruised with long-time friends of ours, neither of whom had cruised before. While I wouldn't call them cruise converts now, they were happy with their experience on Celebrity. They were skeptical going in, but I believe the cruise exceeded their expectations, especially in terms of food and service.
To summarize our previous cruising experiences briefly: our first cruise was an Eastern Caribbean itinerary on the Caribbean Princess in April 2007. With Princess, we were happy. However, the presence of 1000+ children was a big issue, one I know that was shared by other cruisers on that trip. Our second cruise was a short Bahamas trip on Celebrity Century; we were largely disappointed, as it appeared Celebrity did little to make that short trip special or even worthwhile. Our last cruise prior to this was an Alaskan itinerary this past summer on Celebrity Infinity. That was delightful, and restored Celebrity's reputation in our minds. Despite some mixed reviews about this ship on this itinerary, I am pleased to say this cruise matched or exceeded our expectations.
Before our previous cruises, I would do some research on Cruise Critic and similar sites, but this was the first time we signed up for the Cruise Critic/Celebrity Connections party and followed the Roll Call threads for this sailing. We were glad we did. We met some very nice people at the Connections party. We even wound up taking shore excursions with people we met. Running into several people from the Roll Call/Cruise Connections throughout the cruise made for an even nicer experience. I don't know if we had an exceptional group at the party, but we were glad we went, and will likely do so in the future. Special mention should go to the organizer, Barryod, for doing such a great job. It was also a good chance to meet the cruise director, Gary Walker. I thought his on-stage personality was only decent. Off-stage, however, he was pleasant and engaging. We enjoyed talking with him.
Pre-Cruise: We flew from D.C. to San Juan on Saturday morning. We were worried about doing it the day of the cruise, but our flight from DCA was at 6am, so I figured we'd have time to recover in case something went wrong. Additionally, my wife couldn't really afford taking another day off, being a school teacher. Fortunately, other than a 45 minute delay in Miami, we were fine. We were at SJU by 2:45 or so.
Embarkation: This was pretty good, but not the best we've had. We queued up to take a taxi from SJU to the Pan American Pier. There are helpful Puerto Rican tourism employees that fill out a form for you to give to the taxi driver. The fare is $19 plus $1 per bag from SJU to Pan Am Pier. As an aside (learned during our post-cruise stay in San Juan), I suggest one makes sure the fare is made explicit when you don't have the form (i.e., regular taxi rides). It starts to get "interesting" otherwise. There were stevedores when we arrived at the pier, but they didn't meet us at our cab. Rather, we had to line up to hand them our bags, as there were several people in front of us. Tips were expected, but they weren't pushy about it, and I'm not sure everyone did. We gave them about $5. Just to confirm what others have mentioned: there is a duty-free liquor store in the cruise terminal, somewhat comically 15 feet from where you check in. I will admit I was guilty of taking in a bottle of Tanqueray, which I think ran about $14 for a liter. Just put it in your carry-on bags, as the Port of San Juan employees scanning your bags are looking for things more nefarious than smuggled booze. For fellow G&T aficionados, I can report that they do sell six packs of tonic water there too, though you can get the nice, old-fashioned, glass bottles of Schweppes made with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup, in ports like Dominica and Tobago. Also, the buffet has plenty of limes. But I digress...We boarded around 3:45 and our luggage all arrived by 5:30, which I considered rather fast.
Unlike in Alaska, we were not offered to be escorted to our room, as I think they didn't have any cabin stewards around to do it. We knew our way around, having sailed on Summit's sister, Infinity; but I was mildly disappointed about that. (Our friends who boarded two hours later were offered to be escorted, so it's hit-n-miss). So we took our glass of champagne and found our way. For our Alaskan cruise, we had Concierge Class, and this time we only did an oceanview with balcony (category 2B). Before I thought a price difference of perhaps $40 pp for a 7-night cruise was worth it for CC. After not having CC, I think it might be worth $100 pp to us. While the cabin was almost as nice, a few extra touches made a big difference. The much better room service breakfast menu is really worth it, if—like us—you get it a lot.
Ship Details: The Summit is certainly a classy ship, and in general in good shape. That said, they absolutely must do something about all those soft spots in the main dining room. They're not just unsightly, but a safety hazard, especially for older people and women in high heeled shoes. The public rooms are nice, and the funky artwork is always interesting, if not to everyone's taste. The stateroom itself was in pretty good shape and the bed and pillows were hotel-quality. Our cabin steward did a great job of keeping things nice—more about him later. As she is a sister of Infinity, Summit's layout was very easy for us to navigate. Love the dEcor in Michael's Club. Unfortunately, the evening pianist, Wally B, was not worthy of the surroundings. In general, Celebrity's styling suits our tastes well.
Dining: For dinners, our experience was very positive, probably the best so far. When we boarded, we went to the maitre d' to find out our seating arrangements: we were seated at a table for two. This was our initial request, but we changed it after our friends booked this cruise to be together at a table for four. Either their travel agents didn't fully convey it or Celebrity didn't make the change. The maitre d' was very professional, refusing a tip, saying he'd fix it by the second night. The ladies in our group wanted to be seated together on the first night, so when we saw him again at dinner, the maitre d' was actually able to accommodate us at an empty large table. We got our permanent table on Day 2, which was the first formal night. Our waiters, Danny from India and Alexander from Ukraine, were flat out superb. Terrific gentlemen, who remembered preferences right away, names, and never once mixed up an order that I recall. On the final night, Alexander forgot to fill my wife's coffee cup after placing it on the table. When I asked if she could get a cup of decaf, he seemed genuinely upset with himself for forgetting. Alexander in particular combined well-trained service with an interesting personality and gregariousness. Danny made great recommendations and guided us away from some menu items, which was much appreciated. He also seemed to genuinely care that we enjoyed our meals. What more could you ask? The food was as good as I've had on any cruise. The lamb, beef tournedos and lobster were all standouts, as well as chilled soups, something I think Celebrity does very well. The salad courses are probably the weakest, in my mind. Not bad, just pedestrian. While no meal was the best I've had in my life, it was probably the best combined week of eating in my recollection.
On past Celebrity cruises, I've been bearish on the sommeliers, but we had a good one this time, and it made quite a difference. We brought our own bottles of wine twice, and he was helpful with serving them. I saw from the receipts that of the $25 corkage fee, $5 goes to gratuity, which I was glad to see. We did the wine tasting in the middle of week for $15/person. Not great wines, to be sure, but for that price, I'm not going to complain, though the event failed to provide me names of inexpensive wines that I'd actually like to buy. Our sommelier also made sure we had proper glasses for our after-dinner wine to take to the Rendezvous Lounge. His appreciation for wine and genial personality went a long way. He also helped one night when getting a drink from bar service was a little slow.
Just like our Infinity trip, we ate at the alternative restaurant on the third night. Having eaten at the SS United States on Infinity, we had high expectations. Again, Normandie was the gastronomical highlight of the trip, hands down. Other than a small delay in being greeted after seated, service was equally good, and the timing between courses was optimal, in my opinion. We again did the "Menu Exceptionale" with wine pairings, this time for a table for four. Again, it was worth it. The only reason I think we did not go to Normandie twice is because we thought it would be too indulgent to do so. To walk away with that experience for $120/couple plus tip was well worth it. A three hour experience; and we closed up the place without ever feeling rushed. By the way, just like the SS United States on Infinity, outside of Normandie is a collection of memorabilia from that ship—tremendously interesting for nautical enthusiasts.
The biggest culinary disappointments were the breakfast room service and the fact that the dining room is closed for lunch. Without Concierge Class, the breakfast menu is seriously inadequate: runny eggs, no fresh fruit, very limited menu, though delivery and presentation were very good. With CC, like on our Alaska trip, the in-cabin breakfasts were really good: great French toast, eggs, fresh fruit and smoothies. The dining room was closed for lunch every day we were in port (which was every day but one). During the sea day, it was a brunch buffet, though nicer than the ones in the Waterfall Cafe. Still, it's not the same as a sit down lunch. I'm not an expert on restaurant management, but I can't imagine the cost is that much higher than the buffet; and in my opinion, this isn't a place to cut corners. Breakfast in the Cosmopolitan restaurant was great. However, due to shore excursions in the morning or wanting to sleep in, I think we only ate there twice (three if you count the brunch). So, overall, I would give dining an A-. If they opened the restaurant for lunch (at least some days) and had a better room service menu for breakfast, it would be an A.
Fellow Passengers: This is always an important issue for my wife and me, even though we were traveling with friends on this cruise. It really affects how much we enjoy our cruise. We were very pleased, in general. The Cruise Connections people were a terrific group, and every time we hit it off with someone, they seemed to be from the Roll Call boards. They were the types of people who make going on a cruise fun. Personally, we met some great people on this cruise. In more general terms, I think there are definitely different types of passengers based on what part of the ship you found yourself. My breakdown is as follows.
Children: I'm sensitive to this, especially after our first cruise with 1000+ kids on the Caribbean Princess. There were, according to the cruise director, slightly fewer than 100 children on this sailing, as one might expect in January. I actually thought there might be fewer. In any case, by in large, they were all very well behaved, and I can't think of one time when they seemed to be a big presence. Many of the kids, especially the girls, got dressed up every night for dinner and shows, which I think helps contribute to their behaving well and providing everyone a more upscale cruise experience. The only time I found it to be a (minor) problem was when some mothers brought their infants (not children, but infants) to dinner or the theatre, which of course, made for some noise. I think it's hard to fully appreciate Broadway show tunes at the age of six months, but I could be wrong about that.
Poolside, there was a heavier presence of people who seemed to be on the cruise solely to lie out in the sun, sit in the hot tub, drink cans of beer, be occasionally loud and make questionable wardrobe decisions. I think I rarely saw those people on shore excursions, in the formal dining room at dinner, on the mellower parts of the top deck, or in some of the jazz clubs at night—places more to our liking. Those quieter places seemed to be filled with more of what I assume is Celebrity's core demographic: reasonably worldly, middle aged (not necessarily senior), upper-middle class couples amenable to socializing and dressing up, and we appreciated that. We actually met two younger couples in our "demographic" who were both terrifically nice.
As for ethnicity and countries represented, much has been written recently about the number of Puerto Ricans on the ship, and how that affects the experience. On our cruise, I would guess there were around 100, 150 tops. There did not appear to be many, if any, who booked at super low rates at the last minute. Like their mainland American counterparts, they seemed to run the gamut in terms of socioeconomic status and behavior. There were some nice ones on our shore excursions and some loud ones in the elevators. In general, the loudest and rowdiest people on the ship were poolside and most definitely from mainland America. There seemed to be a large number of Canadians on the cruise, which makes sense given how pleasant it must be in Ontario in January. The ones we met—and we met several—were all exceptionally nice and in good spirits. I think that should surprise no one.
Activities and Entertainment: the Broadway-style production shows by the Celebrity Dancers and Singers were not bad. I think some of them are more talented than others, but they work extremely hard during their long shows. Mainly their material is popular Broadway songs (e.g., "The Producers", "Hairspray") or covers of very well-known oldies/pop songs. Not to everyone's taste, but well produced, nonetheless.
Given that every Celebrity cruise seems to have one, I guess I underestimated the market for young, four-man a cappella groups belting out tunes. In this case, the band, called The Boomers, wasn't very impressive in my opinion, and they came across as a bit smarmy. But if you like to see a cappella every time you can, by all means go on a Celebrity cruise.
Comedian/Juggler David Deeble was not bad and definitely worthy of a night's entertainment. Some of his material was unoriginal at times, but his mildly caustic humor was enjoyable; his stunts—especially during his first show—were impressive. Definitely a solid B+.
The casino, I noticed at the end of the cruise, seems to have gone smoke-free. I realized after the cruise was over and talking with fellow passengers that it never smelled of smoke. Evidently, this is a new policy, though I cannot confirm this firsthand. We played craps, blackjack and poker. Poker tournaments were often full well in advance, but finding a $5 table for craps and blackjack did not seem to be a problem. Of course, my wife fared better in terms of luck than I did, which does argue that there is some justice in the world.
For the first time, we actually participated in some of the "classic" cruise activities on this trip, like trivia and Pictionary type games. I was a little shocked at how competitive (to the point of mild cheating) some of the passengers—all 55 and up—were during these games. I'm not sure if that made the games more interesting or more frustrating. But in any case, the activity crew was mixed: some were good; some were not. Sadly, it seemed the ones hosted by American crew members were less engaging than their foreign counterparts.
Finally, I must conclude my comments about the entertainment with very high praise for the four-man jazz band playing in the Rendezvous Lounge for many hours, every single night of the cruise. They are called the Elk Island Quartet. These four men from Toronto, all under thirty, were extremely entertaining, playing a combination of jazz favorites and rock tunes in a jazzy style. They had great talent, and played for hours seemingly effortlessly. Our friends, jazz aficionados, were very impressed. We spoke to the band members for a few hours after the shows on a couple of nights. They were engaging and charming, and we learned a great deal about what it's like to work as an entertainer on a cruise ship. A great band to listen to before or after dinner.
Service: I think service continues to be the strong suit for Celebrity, especially dining room and cabin service. As mentioned, our waiters were great. Our cabin steward, Santana from India, was excellent. He volunteered to do things, such as bring us a plate of cheeses and shrimp with flowers one night, after noticing our friends would come over to join us for before-dinner cocktails (with the aforementioned Tanqueray). He brought extra ice at 5pm so that we've have a mid-day refill. He opened our door if we were walking to our stateroom. And he cleaned the room very nicely. Naturally, like our waiters, we tipped him beyond the standard amount.
Speaking of which, there is a new policy about tipping, or at least there was on our cruise. The tips are now automatically added—not just the option of having them added, like in the past—to your stateroom account. Also, the amount has been raised to $11.50 per person per day. I personally would be delighted if this were to pay for increases for the cabin stewards or waiters, but now $1.25 per day goes to, in Celebrity's words, "alternative dining service to be distributed as appropriate." I'm not sure what that means, but increasing the tip amount $1.50, while only 25 cents of that going to your waiters and none to your cabin steward, seems a little wrong. That said, service was excellent, so if this helps employee morale, or distinguishes Celebrity by having their employees better paid, or helps pay for their higher crew:passenger ratio, then I think it's worth it. In past cruises, the front desk wasn't always on top of things. This cruise, they were good. One or two members weren't the best, but most were professional, competent and polite.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions: this was important on this cruise, as every day except one we were in port. In general, I would say that for us, the ports were a mixed bag, as were our shore excursions, but generally we had a good time. Here are the specifics:
St. Maarten was a little disappointing after having been there once before. I'm not sure if we got off at a different water taxi stop or whether it was because it was a Sunday, but the shops were largely deserted and, perhaps as a result, we seemed to be bombarded by people doing lots of hard selling of tours and such during our visit to Phillipsburg. We bought some local liqueurs and then took our excursion to Orient Beach. The beach is still scenic, but it was actually much more crowded than our last visit. Our guide/bartender said that was because it was the weekend, though we enjoyed the beach, nonetheless. I'm not sure I would recommend our excursion, as you could probably hire a cab with a group of people, rent chairs and buy your drinks a la carte for less than what we paid, but I'm not sure.
Dominica: I was mixed on this one. It's a poor island, but one with genuinely polite people and great natural beauty. Our original tour, a fairly strenuous nature hike, was cancelled, and instead we rebooked a bus/hike tour by a rather interesting (if slightly unusual by American customs) tour guide, who had essentially rented out a taxi van for the day to show us some of the falls and sights. The fact that there was noticeable tension between him and the taxi driver made things somewhat odd (like when the driver turned on the radio when the guide started to sing the national anthem of Dominica). We did do some mild hiking on the tour, which was nice. I also recommend Kubuli, a tasty beer from Dominica. I got the impression Dominica is trying to improve its tourism industry, especially playing up its eco-tourism niche.
Grenada: I had read many reviews on Cruise Critic saying what a bad stop this was, and that so many people had, or wished they had, stayed on the ship. Fortunately, I had also read that there were quieter beaches than the apparently overrun Grand Anse. We chartered a taxi to take us Magazine Beach and the Aquarium restaurant, and were delighted we did—so delighted that I almost want to keep from advertising it. It was an uncrowded postcard perfect beach, and the restaurant people were nice, served great drinks and had clean facilities. Our very professional taxi driver helped us get set up and came back right on-time to pick us up. I believe we paid $7 per person each way for six of us, which was good considering the ride was about 20 to 30 minutes each way. There actually were a few vendors trying to sell goods, perhaps about five to ten in the course of three or four hours, but none were overbearing. Also, the dock area has good shops and helpful tourism booths. The taxi drivers wear uniforms and badges. I thought it was very well run.
Tobago: basically stayed on the ship. I heard some people had a good time when they had an excursion, but the area near the dock is really bad, and my wife felt unsafe walking around. We bought tonic water from a polite shopkeeper in the dock terminal and got back on the ship. I think Celebrity needs to reconsider this one until the dock area improves.
Barbados: Very built up and clearly much wealthier than places like Dominica. We had a good time snorkeling and on a 4x4 adventure, booked through Celebrity. "Adventure" was not an overstatement with all the ups and downs traveling through sugar cane fields in the back of the truck. The shipwreck snorkeling part was too short, but run by a good crew. As it turns out, it was starting to rain and our friends were getting a little seasick, so the short time wasn't a bad thing. We also bought the obligatory Barbadian rum while there. The people on the island were incredibly friendly, most notably school children in the backcountry we crisscrossed.
Disembarkation: This was fairly easy. We could have gotten off at 8:30, but we were in no hurry and didn't hear our number called, so we got off at 9:30. There was about a 15 minute wait to get a taxi, not because there was a lack of them, but rather, they were only able to load up about three or four cabs at a time. We stayed at the Condado Plaza Hotel and Casino for one night afterwards, which I thought was OK, but not great.
In conclusion, we had a great time on the Summit. It wasn't a perfect vacation, but it was pretty close. We were happy enough that we put a deposit down on a future cruise, as we were confident we will cruise Celebrity again. When exactly and what itinerary remains to be decided, but if our next cruise turns out like this one, we'll be very happy.