Mr. B. and I have gone on seven cruises with five different cruise lines (two now defunct). In the past three years, we've cruised four times: HAL twice, Carnival once, Celebrity's Connie twice. We're approaching age 65 (and Mr. B. has been retired for five years).
We had reason to be in San Diego from Nov. 30th to Dec. 6th and have "always" wanted to cruise through the Panama Canal. A little searching revealed that we could cruise on the Constellation, home of our fabulous 14-day Baltic cruise in July, 2008, and end up in Miami, positioned to drive home to the west coast of Florida. Seemed perfect! Booking quickly followed.
The cruise met and exceeded our expectations about 98% of the time.
At first we weren't going to book a Concierge Class cabin, just opting for a veranda and saving about $400 for the cabin. A few months later, though, a price reduction meant we could have a CC again (had one on the Baltic, too) for just about $100 more total than the veranda cabin. This seemed worth it, and indeed I still think it was the right choice.
On embarkation day, before we left our lovely Omni Hotel (booked for around $100/night at Hotwire), we heard that the previous cruisers' disembarkation had been delayed until 10:30 am, over two hours later than scheduled . We went at our planned time anyway, but were probably more delayed than we would've been, otherwise. The Omni, btw, had THE best staff -- getting us right into the mood of the Constellation crew who were always anxious to do whatever we needed to make our cruise successful.
The folks waiting to get off the ship after their westbound Panama Canal cruise were no doubt as anxious to get off as we were to get on, but Customs and Immigration doesn't let our anxiety concern them. They do their job. I can't say that I blame them; but it makes for a frustrating start or end to a cruise, that's for sure. Our cruise ended in a similar fashion, not with a specific delay, but the process of going through Customs and Immigration in Miami was slow, slow, slow. Perhaps Celebrity staff are overly optimistic when planning our departure times, and definitely they could give us 15 minute updates reminding us that we are only allowed off as quickly (meaning, as slowly) as the authorities manage to process us. Finding our luggage rather easily was a big relief and off we finally went, breathing a sigh of relief that we only took two hours from our expected disembarking to our actually walking away with all of our luggage firmly in hand.
Ok, back to the beginning. We arrived at the port at around 12:15. Despite the signs saying to drop luggage on the right, as we entered the port area, our taxi driver knew where to go -- on the left, where plenty of luggage had already been deposited. Ours joined it, and we walked across to the embarkation area. One lone guard was supposed to be directing us to a sitting area. There we waited a bit even before being allowed to join the end of the three long lines of people going through the security scanning process. Afterwards, though, we quickly sped through the Concierge Class check-in and showed our gold room card key to see if it would get us onboard before our "group". Sure enough, onboard we went! Our cabin was ready (it must've been about 1:15 by then) so we dropped off our carry-ons and headed up to SeaSide Cafe. As we had boarded very early, it was quite empty. It was quite delicious. When we returned to the cabin, our luggage was there and we unpacked!
I went wandering around, looking at the internet packages and then deciding perhaps I should check on our table assignment. Good thing I did! I have no idea why I was sure my request for a table-for-two would be honored. We were assigned to a large table and I waited my turn to change the reservation. In the meantime, I learned some interesting things. The seatings were very lopsided. About 1300 guests were confirmed at the Main Seating (6 pm) and only half that many had Late (8:30). We vastly prefer Late, so we were happy with that part of our assignment. Some folks, though, had to wait to deal with a more serious worry. Although their reservations had been cross-referenced with other cruisers, quite a few had not been assigned to the same table as their travel companions! They all mentioned that this had never been a problem before. I am guessing it all got sorted out. I even heard of a couple who were wait-listed for Main and they were "cleared for the second dinner!
It was quite chilly for our sail-away, but we were up on Deck 11, going from side to side, trying to pick out various landmarks. I had hoped to see the Hotel Del Coronado, but I could only guess at it. Then the lights I thought were La Jolla might've been Tijuana! However, Mr. B. was able to point out the Midway plus a newer aircraft carrier at the Coronado Naval Station to me. Mr. B. highly recommends the Midway tour.
Our experience with the food this cruise was quite a big better than in the Baltic in 2008. We felt the dinners in the Main Dining Room were outstanding, with just a few disappointments. Our serving staff would fix anything we didn't find satisfactory (only happened once). I highly recommend Loreto and Moises, as well as Nicolina, our wine stewardess.
The left side of the menu stays the same every night and we enjoyed the escargot and the French onion soup, as well as the Caesar salad, on a few nights. Be sure to say if you want anchovies! Mr. B. loved the left side apple pie, and I had fresh berries one night for dessert. Just ask! The right side of the menu changes nightly and almost always had two (or more) appealing items for us in every category, appetizers, soups and salads, and mains. Some nights we ordered a soup AND a salad. About 95% of what we ordered came out appropriately hot and delicious. How do they keep the lettuce so fresh that on the 14th dinner, a thousand cruisers get crisp lettuce in their salad? There's a hearty soup, a broth and a cold soup selection every night, always a melon appetizer and several other choices, and pretty much everything we ordered had been cooked to our liking. Whoever planned the recipes definitely does everything that appeals to me and to Mr. B. One particular favorite appetizer was a pear and goat cheese pairing. Interestingly enough, we'd devoured the poached pear dessert, the night before!
Many nights the vegetarian entree appealed to me, but so did the seafood or fish or fowl or lamb or veal. There was duck one night, followed the next by a nice duck appetizer. I even enjoyed the prime rib the first time it was offered (and Mr. B. ordered and enjoyed it, the second time). Perhaps our good experience with the food being served at the right temperature had to do with our being on Late Seating (not so busy), and being not too far from the kitchen. Of course it was also Loreto's skill!
Our buffet experiences were outstanding, too. It can be overwhelming to new cruisers, but if you go when you're not rushed, and do a stroll around the entire place, you'll be more apt to know exactly what you'd like to try, and on subsequent days you can almost plan your meal before you even get up to Deck 10. New stations that I noticed this year include the poached egg station for breakfast (still having the eggs benedict, sometimes with spinach or salmon, on the two main buffet lines), and the fish and chips/jacket potato/shepherd pie/mushy peas station at lunch. There were several nicely done Asian choices every single day at their own station, mostly Indian but also quite a bit of Thai. The waffles (go as far aft as you can to find them) are great and very popular at breakfast. Blintzes are available there, too, as well as French toast and pancakes. Waffles and blintzes especially are yummy. Desserts, ice cream, outside grill area for burgers, hot dogs, nachos, wings were all great, and then in case you get hungry, there's a substantial snack at 4 pm (finger sandwiches and more desserts) and a sushi bar at 5 pm. Mr. B. ate hot dogs for many lunches -- or a late afternoon snack! I suspect he'll start grilling them outside for us at home, now, too. Oh, and the pasta station is open from lunchtime until 6 pm. Ice cream, plenty of choices, including a sugar-free one and a sorbet and a low-fat (maybe that one was a yogurt?) plus plenty of nice toppings is open until late afternoon, too, I think. I forgot to mention the pizza station! Several pies so you can have a cheese, a veggie or a pepperoni slice, or a calzone. How about this: you can order an individual pizza for lunch! It takes about 10 minutes and they accommodated Mr. B.'s request for thinner crust, as well as his particular combination of ingredients (of course).
The concierge class room service breakfast in the cabin was great -- evidently it has nice choices that aren't on the "regular" room service, including fresh squeezed orange juice, a yogurt/granola/fruit parfait, and a few other neat choices. The only thing is, if your bagel comes less toasted than you like it, then you have to decide how to proceed! Also, I guess I forgot to specify butter -- so there was only cream cheese for Mr. B's untoasted (mini -- why only one?) bagel, no butter for my toast. After that, we went upstairs to the buffet or to the sit-down breakfast the rest of the days.
I had breakfast in the AquaSpa cafe a few times and it was perfect when I wanted a quiet and less filling meal. The yogurt parfait was half the size of the one on the CC room service and there were nice bread selections with low-fat spreads -- I only saw them there, at AquaSpa, and they were delicious. Plenty of fruit and cereal choices there, too.
Our itinerary had one huge highlight. We were transiting the Panama Canal. It was absolutely unconditionally worth it. Oh, the Canal transit! fabulous, fantastic, phenomenal. The previous day we had watched a PBS t.v. show featuring David McCullough, shown continuously on a channel to watch in our cabin, and we had the wonderful map from the book by Anne Vipond about cruising the Panama Canal. We woke up at 6 am and went up to Deck 13 (which is far forward), to watch our approach. It was just barely getting light, and I was hoping to get a little bit of photo footage of the impending sunrise -- until I missed it b/c I just couldn't get the fact in my head that, despite the fact that we were going from the Pacific to the Caribbean, we were motoring west and the sun rose behind us! At 8 am, we took advantage of the captain's being able to open the Helipad for guests to watch from Deck 5 at the very front of the ship, and we were totally enthralled. A little watching from our veranda as we cruised through Gatun Lake, and aft at lunch, rounded out our experience, and then later when the photographer's video was shown in the photo gallery, we watched and saw the part we'd missed -- seeing how tight a fit our Panamax ship was, getting through the locks.
At one point when we were waiting for one lock to open -- and we had progressed so we were VERY close to the lock, which would open towards us -- a captain's crew member went in front of the ropes at the very front of the helipad and peered over the rail, then spoke to somebody in the bridge room, which we could see above us (deck 9?). I guess all was satisfactory, as we did get where we were going, safely.
I missed seeing the view from a lower deck, where we might've seen the concrete sides of the lock, through a porthole or larger window. Also, I wish we had lost an hour's sleep after our long day in Puntarenas, which was followed by a lazy at-sea day, rather than the night before we woke up at 6 am for the canal. Also, I didn't see any of the locks from the aft deck 10 location, just the lovely Gatun Lake. I'd happily take another transit, and run around the ship to as many places as I could, to see more, more, more. The Deck 4 port and starboard outside decks would've been good, too. Do you know what an electric mule is?
[I have attached port reviews, but Huatulco and Puntarenas aren't listed as choices, so I'll just say that Puntarenas is a 12-hour port day b/c it takes so long to get to all the good sight-seeing, and Huatulco has a pretty little beach area right by the dock, and a town with good shopping, a mile away from the port.]
We had a great time with the entertainment and the new Celebrity Life programs, as well as the brain challenges. I had originally been apprehensive about seven at-sea days, but it turned out I actually had some times when I had to pick and choose among two fun-sounding activities that conflicted with each other. We easily avoided anything with a surcharge and just enjoyed all kinds of complimentary things. There were exercise classes I hoped to take but didn't, because I didn't wake up early enough! I avoided the treadmills b/c I like to walk out in the fresh air. On my two strolls past the work-out area, it seemed to be busy.
The onboard entertainers in general were outstanding. The disappointments were the one- or two-night shows (called visiting entertainers?) although many folks in the audience seemed to like the ones we didn't care for at all. The Celebrity Orchestra, the singers and dancers, the fabulous costumes and sets, the nice use of the movable stage, and the string quartet all added to our lovely cruise experience.
Two people were especially instrumental in making this the best cruise I have ever taken. Cruise Director John Grantham is a gem. For us, he was head and shoulders above any past cruise director. Perry Grant almost defies description. Perry is definitely "not for everybody", but Mr. B. and I enjoyed him so much, we spent part of about 12 evenings laughing, singing and being silly with Perry in Michael's Club. Perhaps not too many guests have seen Perry in a serious mode. Let me assure you, he is just as good at being serious as he is at being funny. It just doesn't happen very often!
I feel as though I've gone on ... and on ... and on, while barely scratching the surface.
I'll try to summarize:
Delightful: most of the entertainment and brain-challenge games and speakers, plus I happen to like the unusual art around the ship.
Delicious: 98% of what we ate and drank.
Dignified: the crew, including the captain and the cruise director and their respective staff members, and the welcome back to the ship from all ports, and the unobtrusive bar wait staff and photographers.
Divine (in the campy sense, not the religious): Perry