Thomson Celebration Cruise Review by Malcolm Oliver: Thomson still Impress
Thomson still Impress
Interestingly this cruise was booked at the shortest notice that I've ever given (about one month ahead) and was the cheapest fare that I've ever paid.
The ship is in very good condition although many of the public rooms still have a 'retro' look, even though the carpets and soft furnishings are contemporary. As you would expect there is no big atrium to greet you on boarding. For those of you worried about the small ship experience, please rest assured that Celebration has all of the public rooms and facilities that most passengers will ever need.
It's important to note that all older ships do have their design and operational quirks. However these are often outweighed by the intimacy and charm.
All of the cabins have a 'dated' look. This is because much of the fitted furniture such as wardrobes, dressing tables, wall and table lamps etc. are original dating back to 1984. The mattresses of the two twin beds in my cabin: number 476 (basic More outside, deck three, amidships, one porthole) were very comfortable and obviously newish. The two beds were arranged in an L shape, one under the porthole and one along the length of the rectangular cabin. Some inside cabins also had the same layout. This is quite a common layout on older ships.
The chair in my cabins, which could have easily been an original, was quite large for the room, heavy (so difficult to move) and its upholstery was looking a little tired. The bathrooms dEcor of pink tiles also looked original and tired, although the toilet was probably newer. The sink and toilet worked well. The shower was a little bigger than many on modern ships; therefore the shower curtain did not stick to your back. The shower controls were old and quirky, but they worked. Thomson provides complimentary tissues, bottled shampoo, soap bars and shower cap (non-branded), which is a nice touch for a 'budget' operation. A chocolate is still left on your pillow each evening, so no cut-backs there, either.
To use the cabin safe, a 'special' electronic key has to be obtained from reception and a charge of £12 per week is added to your onboard account. Personally I think that making a profit from passenger's security is a little below the belt.
Inconsistent air-conditioning on older ships is common. The air conditioning in my cabin worked to a fashion, but it was not very adjustable. A visit from an Engineer did not fully resolve my cabin air-con issue completely. The sound insulation between cabins is not great. It is possible to hear voices, the toilet flush or the TV from the adjacent cabins. The heavy draws and wardrobe doors can be heard slamming at times, too.
In my experience, older ships always have some engine noise. Some quite obtrusive engine/generator noise could be heard at the aft end of each passenger corridor of decks 1, 2, and 3. This was present even when in port. I'd be amazed if at least some of this noise could not be heard within certain aft cabins.
The main two entertainment venues of the ship are the 'Broadway show lounge' and 'Liberties'. Although the lido deck and the Explorers bar were also used on occasions.
The 'Broadway show lounge' is located on deck 6 with both fixed seating and many moveable tables and chairs. There is no raked seating and there are a number of columns, so sight lines were variable. There was also an upper mezzanine level with additional seating and a bar, which tended to get rather hot as the heat from below rose. The show lounge reminded me of the QE2's a little. Unfortunately just like the QE2, corridors passed thorough both levels of the lounge. However the doors were shut during show times to discourage passengers just passing through. Even though there were two performances of each show at 8.30pm and 10.30pm, you needed to arrive at least 15 minutes early in order to not get a restricted view seat. On a positive note the room was atmospheric, not being over large. The sound quality was always reasonable.
'Liberties' is a cabaret lounge located on the uppermost deck, deck 6. Although not a particularly attractive room as such, it was a functional one. It is a medium sized room with a bar, small stage and dance floor, which helped to make it quite an atmospheric room at times. Various quizzes, games shows, dance tuition, bands, singing, Karaoke and a disco all took place there regularly.
Thomson's onboard entertainment team of ten young performers provide virtually all of the entertainment in the 'Broadway Theatre'. This is in contrast to most other cruise lines that hire an array of guest artists with just a few production shows per week. On Celebration the on board team provides six shows, with a guest magician on my cruise providing the seventh evening of entertainment. The team also performed an afternoon play and offered several 'sail-away' deck parties. In addition selected members often sang in 'Liberties' cabaret lounge late evening.
The team were obviously very enthusiastic and energetic. However I though the team that I saw a on the 'Red Sea Magic' cruise (2006) were stronger in the vocal department. Unfortunately all of the music accompanying the performers was pre-recorded, rather than using a live band, although I doubt if there was much room on stage for a band, anyway.
The ships lido deck is quite wide and there is a permanently located covered stage, behind the pool. This was used by bands and entertainment staff for participation games and quizzes.
The cinema is a nice touch and is surprisingly large with proper raked seating. New releases are repeated three times per day. The same movies also appear on the cabin TV at times during the cruise. However the quality of the data-projection, is a little substandard.
I'm please to say that Thomson have preserved many of the cruise traditions and manage to pack them all into one week. The amount of different activities and games offered daily was very impressive, these included: a crew show, Captain's cocktail party, midnight buffets, Gala diner, buffet magnifique, baked Alaska parade, two sail-away parties, six production shows, one play, DVD Concerts, new films in the cinema and on TV, quizzes, game shows, dance classes, napkin folding, bingo, spa seminars, port talks, fashion show, carpet bowls, fruit and vegetable carving, ice sculpture, various deck sports, carpet bowels, scrabble, jigsaw, bean-bag boules, bridge, cards, Captains Q&A, cocktail demonstration, Wii games, deck quoits, and more.
There are four locations to dine onboard the Celebration. The Meridian dining room is the main dining room and it has plenty of space between all of the tables and chairs, which were very comfortable.
The Meridian provides waiter service for breakfast, diner and evening meal. Open seating is offered at all times, and the dress code is smart-casual, apart from the formal Captain's 'Gala Diner' once per week, where guest are assigned an early or late sitting which ties in with one of two Captain's Cocktail party (held in the Broadway show lounge) and the after diner show. However, Brits being Brits, some passengers dressed up a little every evening.
The waiter service was efficient and unobtrusive and the food was excellent. I don't know how Thomson achieved it, because the quality of dining room food definitely exceeded the fair that I paid. The meals had five courses. Luxury Items like Lobster Tail, veal, salmon, pork loin and beef were offered daily. The menu's also contained interesting international dishes such as paella and vegetable samosa/curry. As a comparison, the food was better than I had experienced onboard NCL's 'Norwegian Jade' (in the no-fee dining rooms) and better than the QE2 (Mauritania grade). The food was certainly no worse than I have experience with RCI and Fred Olsen, in fact many of the dishes were probably better.
Once per week the Meridian hosts the 'Buffet Magnifique', a midnight food extravaganza complete with ice sculptures and fantastic vegetable and fruit carvings.
The prices of the wines on the list were very reasonable, starting from around £10. Likewise the prices of bar drinks were on a par with the average UK pub. Thomson do NOT add a 15% service charge to drinks as many cruise lines do.
An alternative dining option is 'Zilli's', which is an intimate 40 seat room at the rear of the starboard side of the Meridian. The dEcor is tasteful and modern. Booking is recommended and it carries an additional fee of £12.95 per person, for two courses and £16.95 for three courses. Zilli's menu is the same daily. I decided that I must try it.
Being much smaller, the waiter service was more attentive than it the Meridian. The portions appeared to be minimalist, but the presentation was like a work of art. The appetizer: sautEed Mushroom with goat cheese was superb. The chilli Penne pasta appetizer was very passable, but not exceptional. The main course of lamb chops were excellent - in fact it was some of the best lamb that I have ever tasted. After finishing the second course I was surprisingly satisfied, so I passed on the deserts. So was the experience worth £12.95 each - yes it probably was.
The Lido restaurant (a self-service buffet) is the other main dining option. The buffet was a true 'Lido' with doors that opened onto the stern of the ship. There were plastic tables where one could dine on deck, overlooking the pool. Pizza and burgers were also cooked and served from a small 'Terrace Grill' offering a third dining option. There was also a Lido bar which served this area. This deck area was very popular with the smokers. The 'Lido Restaurant' worked very well and had a right and a left entrance with duplicated food on both sides. Queues of more than a handful of passengers were rare. Even at it's most crowded one could easily find a table, unlike 'King Court' onboard the otherwise breathtaking Queen Mary 2, for example.
There was a free 24 hour self-service tea/coffee station in one corner of the Lido which had the most comprehensive range of Tea bags that I've ever seen at sea, plus coffee. The Lido food was truly a 24 hour service. Breakfast began at 6.00am and merged into lunch, afternoon tea, then dinner, then midnight buffet, then the late night menu, through to 6.00am again. Diner theme nights were offered: 'Spanish', 'Italian' 'Great British' and 'Indian'.
There were always a range of reasonable self-service food choices in the lido, although the variety was not as great as on a mega-ship. Soup, salad, breads, cheese, meats, vegetable dishes were always on offer. What was not usually on offer were the more exotic meats and seafood that you would expect to find on premium cruise lines. The sweets (or should I say 'puddings'), were very British and very popular, such as 'Bread & Butter' pudding, 'Pear & Apple Crumble' and 'Rice Pudding'. The cakes were particularly nice and included sugar free options. Porridge and American pancakes were often available for breakfast along with the de rigueur bacon, eggs and pastries. A self-service afternoon tea with delicious freshly baked scones, cream, preserves and finger sandwiches was held most afternoons.
Room service is 24 hours and unfortunately carries addition fees, unlike most cruise lines where it is free. A continental breakfast, for example, is £4.50p. For this reason I did not see it being used very much compared to other cruise lines where it is free.
Ports of Call
In most cases the ship berthed near a town at each island, so it was possible to simply walk ashore. In Funchal, Madeira, I walked to the cable car in the bay and ascended to Monte, visiting two very extensive and very beautiful Botanical gardens. I took the traditional way down, riding a wicker sledge. Morocco was one port where I'd definitely recommend an excursion. Unfortunately, the Marrakech option involved a four hour journey on poor roads, which I considered too far in a day. (A new road will cut this time in half by 2010). Therefore I choose a shorter trip to 'Taroudant', an ancient walled city. Although only four hours flight from London, Morocco's 'souks' selling exotic spices, complete with donkeys pulling carts, felt like I'd travelled back in time.
Tenerife had a very good Museum 'Museo de la Naturaleza y E Hombre' (Natural History) as well as much modern shopping. In Lanzarote I took a tour of the amazing 'Lunar Route', a road cut through the volcanic lava and rock. It was truly amazing and really did resemble the moons surface.
The internet is full of five star reviews of Thomson cruises from very satisfied customers. Cynical commentators have suggested that Thomson passengers are generally easily impressed because they are either cruise 'virgins' or have never cruised with other line to draw a comparison. Well there may be an element of truth in this, but this cannot account for all of the positive reviews. I have cruised with most of the major lines and I'm not easily impressed. Thomson's food and service is as good, and sometimes better, than many other mass market cruise lines.
Thomson are not about impressive state-of-the-art ships. They focus on the onboard experience. If you are looking for a more intimate British experience with food and service at a quality which often seems to exceed the fare paid, look no further.
Malcolm Oliver, April 2009 Less
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