We just returned from the March 26th 10-day Southern Caribbean sailing of the Celebrity Millennium. It was a great cruise.
Background: This is our fourth Celebrity cruise, and our fifth overall (first one was with Princess). All our previous cruises have reviews on Cruise Critic. My wife (29) and I (34) are professionals living in the inner suburbs of Washington, DC. We have no children.
Before discussing the cruise itself, I think it's important to state how much we enjoyed the Cruise Critic group on this sailing. Neilrr was a terrific leader. The Cruise Connections party, while entirely enjoyable, was only one of the many highlights. Because we were such a large, organized group, we were invited to things such as bridge and galley tours. Of course, doing shore excursions with people from Cruise Critic, to say nothing of all the independent social events, really contributed positively to our cruise experience.
Our first cruise was an Eastern Caribbean itinerary on the Caribbean Princess in April 2007—a honeymoon cruise for us. While we were happy with Princess, the presence of 1000+ (often unruly) children was a big issue for us. As a result, we reluctant to go on a cruise again over my wife's spring break. Since she's a teacher, we are limited in when we can take vacation. We thought the 10-day cruise, out of San Juan especially, would limit the children to a manageable number—more about this later.
Pre-Cruise: We flew to San Juan on Friday morning. We are always concerned about doing it the day of the cruise, but our flight from IAD was direct; 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. Fortunately, everything was fine, and we arrived in San Juan on time, at about noon.
Embarkation: This was good, helped by last year's experience. We queued up to take a taxi from SJU to the Pan American Pier (I would say it's about a 20 minute ride). Just like last year, there are helpful Puerto Rican tourism employees that fill out a form for you to give to the taxi driver. The fare is still $19 plus $1 per bag from SJU to Pan Am Pier. We waited maybe 10 minutes for a cab, tops. There were stevedores when we arrived at the pier. We had to line up to hand them our bags, as there were several people in front of us. This was because most people did not have luggage tags. We upgraded from a Concierge Class cabin to a Sky Suite the week before the cruise, so the luggage tags we had were no good. Tips were expected, but they weren't pushy about it. I heard one woman ask "What do I owe you for this?" and the stevedore responded "Whatever you want to pay." We gave them about $8, since we had four suitcases. There is still a duty-free liquor store in the cruise terminal, 15 feet from where you check in. Last year I took in a bottle from the store with no problems. This year, Celebrity passed out flyer saying any liquor bought there would be confiscated and destroyed. Since you cannot buy liquor there unless you are sailing, I'm not sure how the store is staying in business. Suffice it to say, we only bought bottled water, diet soda and tonic water. Carry-on bags are scanned by Port of San Juan workers—not sure if they were enforcing the liquor ban. Checked bags were inspected (they even inserted notes saying so). Our bottles of wine were given the all clear.
The whole embarkation process took us about 30 minutes, tops. During this process, we were offered a complimentary meal at the Olympic (specialty restaurant) on the first night, since we were in a suite. When we boarded on the ship, around 1:00pm, our rooms were not quite ready. We made another reservation at Olympic for later in the week, confirmed our table for two at the late seating and then they announced the rooms were ready.
The suite, I must say, was a little bit of a disappointment. We upgraded at the last minute because it was only $300 more (total, not per person). As I learned from our Cruise Critic cabin crawl, not all Sky Suites are the same; and ours wasn't one of the nicer ones. Ours, while bigger than a Concierge cabin, wasn't that much nicer. It did come with a butler, and ours was quite nice, but we didn't use him too much (other than him setting up breakfast for us every morning). We don't regret doing it, but I don't think in the future we would upgrade to a suite unless the price is really close to a CC cabin.
There were some initial issues with the stateroom and our attendant. In retrospect, they mostly seemed to stem from the fact that the room wasn't properly prepared: the mini-bar/fridge wasn't unlocked; the safe didn't work; there was only one beach towel; no Celebrity towel bag; no turndown service the first night. After some polite complaining to guest relations, things improved dramatically. Both the chief housekeeper and our cabin stewardess made sure things were in good order after that. I have concluded from this experience that letting Celebrity politely know that our expectations were reasonable, but not being met, really makes them try to rectify things. They did follow up a few times to make sure things had improved.
Ship Details: The Millennium, like the Summit and Infinity that we have been on, is in pretty good shape and a classy ship, given that she's 10 now years old. A few worn areas and such, but in general the public rooms are nice, and in general in better shape than the Summit was last year. The funky artwork is always interesting, if not to everyone's taste. We liked the same places on the Millennium as we did on her sisters: Michael's Club, the specialty restaurant, the Metropolitan (MDR) and the outside promenade. The theatre is also quite attractive, and there was always a seat available.
Dining: Because we ate at the Olympic the first night, we didn't meet our waiters in the MDR until the second night. We had a table for 2 at the late seating (8:30), as 6:00 is way too early for us. I have to say our waiters (both from Bali) were very nice gentlemen who did their jobs well. Perhaps because they were more reserved than some of our waiters in the past, and struggled with their English on occasion, it took a little while longer to click with them than our waiters on the past two cruises. That said, we were very happy with their service; it's just that our previous waiters set the bar very high. By the end of the cruise, they had our preferences down pat, and on less busy nights we were even able to have some nice conversations about their lives back home. We also really liked our assistant maitre d'. He stopped by every night with a few comments about the food and upcoming events. Our sommelier (like our maitre d', from Macedonia) was very friendly and engaging, though she was clearly overworked. She made some recommendations and clearly appreciated the one nice bottle we brought ($25 corkage fee). We felt all of our dining room staff deserved gratuities beyond the standard amount.
As for the food itself, I was worried given some of the recent reviews. I know Celebrity enjoys a very strong reputation for its cuisine. I wasn't cruising in the 1990s or early 2000s, so perhaps it has slipped since then. However, I felt the food was as strong as it was on our previous cruises in 2008 and January 2009, and overall, felt it was still very good. If your comparison point is how the food was in the past couple of years, I don't think much has changed in quality. The only difference I noticed is that the soup and salad courses are now combined into one section, in effect changing dinner from a 5-course to a 4-course meal. That said, our waiters always inquired if we wanted a fifth course or an additional entree (rarely had room). On the second formal night, we ordered both soup and salad and they brought them out as separate courses. Yes, the lobster tail on the formal night is a bit disappointing in size, but I thought the lobster itself was tasty. The filet mignon was very nice, as were most of the other main dishes, including the lamb and duck. My wife ordered cornish hen on second formal night (not a lobster person): too dry, but otherwise, we were happy. The salads still tend to be a bit boring, but perfectly acceptable. The chilled soups weren't always as good as I remember, but perhaps I just picked some losers along with some winners this time. The appetizers were still excellent. The desserts were quite tasty, although there is now a slightly smaller nightly selection (3 or 4), as they have expanded their "always available" options. One afternoon, we did the "wines around the world" tasting for $20/person (up from $15 last cruise). The wines were better this time, though, so I guess it justifies the price increase.
Just like our previous trips on Infinity and Summit, we were delighted by the specialty restaurant on the Millennium (Olympic). We ate there twice, and both times the food was terrific and the service great, and a 10/10 the second time. During our first visit, there was a bit of wait in being greeted after we were seated (like 10-15 minutes). Unlike our previous visits, however, we did not do the "Menu Exceptionale," as the menu has changed and the price of the wine pairings has gone up considerably (from about $60 total to $90 per person). That said, the a la carte menu was great, and we ordered some things off the menu on the second visit. To walk away with that experience for $35/person was well worth it. While I wouldn't call the main dining room food truly gourmet, the food in the Olympic is. By the way, just like the SS United States and Normandie, there's a collection of memorabilia from the Olympic—tremendously interesting for nautical history enthusiasts, and a nice entrance room to boot. The only miscue, which I find more hilarious than anything else, is Olymipic's music. Both nights we were there (and therefore, I assume every night) the music that is played, somewhat loudly, over the speaker system is flute-intensive, elevator music versions of songs like Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love", Phil Collins's "Against All Odds" and Bryan Adams's "I Do It for You." Speaking of musical selections, I should say that while I listened to my share of them back in the 90s, I don't consider Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots quintessential wine-tasting music, but that's what was being played during that event.
As it seems to be the case these days, the dining room is closed for lunch on port days. We went to the dining room's brunch buffet on the second sea day, which happened to be Easter, so there were lots of decorations, including rabbit ice sculptures. The suite room service breakfast is certainly better than the one in the standard cabins, and similar to the one in Concierge Class (though we had to special request the smoothies they have in CC, which are great). We only ate breakfast in the Metropolitan restaurant on disembarkation day, though the breakfast there is quite good with plenty of variety. So, overall, I would give dining an A. Not being huge buffet people, I wish the main restaurant were open for lunch at least some port days. Most port days we either skipped lunch or ate onshore.
Fellow Passengers: This is always an important issue for my wife and me. It really affects how much we enjoy our cruise. The people we met from the Cruise Critic boards were really terrific. We were delighted we were able to spend time with many of them on excursions, ship tours and at both organized and impromptu parties. If you have the opportunity to form a cabin crawl on your cruise, I highly recommend it. Even though we have stayed in a regular balcony, an oceanview, and a CC cabin on past cruises, to see them all on the same night helps you gain perspective. And thanks to MRoadster for the tour of the penthouse suite! We met a lot of people who make going on a cruise really special. In more general terms, my breakdown is as follows.
Children: I'm sensitive to this, or at least, that's what people tell me. We were reluctant to go on another spring break Caribbean cruise after our first cruise with 1000+ kids on the Caribbean Princess, but the times we can go on vacation are limited. I don't know how many under 18 year-olds were on this cruise, but I would guess somewhere between 300-400. I first want to say that the children we met at the Cruise Critic functions were all very nicely behaved and sweet. That said, overall it was a mixed bag. Many of the kids got dressed up every night for dinner and shows. The two times I was at the Aqua Spa adult pool, there were few to no children. On the other hand, there were often kids running around on the stairs or through musical performances (and being appropriately shushed by fellow passengers). Of course, the worst offenses were ones in which the fault resides with the parents: a 4 year-old, on a leash, throwing a temper tantrum in the casino at 11:30pm, four unattended 7 year-olds running on the stairs at midnight chasing one another like it's a playground, a very loud 8 year-old girl in the Olympic who clearly had too much Coca-Cola (the invitation to the Olympic says "no guests under 12, please."). None of this is Celebrity's fault, of course, and none of this ruined our cruise. But there were times when it was frustrating. Again, many children were well-behaved, and there weren't so many roaming gangs of adolescents (like there were on the Caribbean Princess) that it felt like the Jets vs. the Sharks each time we ventured out at night.
Overall, we liked the passenger-mix on our cruise. It was also rather international, which we appreciated. There must have been no fewer than 50 Germans, some French (including the ubiquitous, older, non-English speaking Frenchman who kissed all the ladies' hands and oozed charm by the bucketful), Spanish-speakers from a variety of countries, and, of course, a fair share of always-pleasant Canadians. Among the Americans, Celebrity also seems to have a more diverse set of passengers. It's my observation that there are a large number of middle-aged, upper-middle class, well-educated couples on Celebrity cruises, which is certainly fine for us. But the mix was a little broader than that this time. I'm glad that—unlike some previous cruises—I did not witness firsthand any incidents where passengers were overtly rude or demeaning towards the staff. That said, seeing people lift Easter decorations into their purse, or put empty glasses or trash on pieces of art and other such behavior, did sadly occur.
Activities and Entertainment: From all that I have observed and read, this is not Celebrity's strong suit, and this cruise did little to change that reputation. I will start with the positives. The last two nights we had West End singer Lindsay Hamilton join the cruise. I didn't know her work, but she was—I'm quite certain—the best singer I have heard on any cruise. She also had a cheeky, but charming, on-stage personality. There was also the low-key, unpretentious comedian-juggler (really a juggler with a sense of humor) Chuck Gunter who was a pleasure to watch.
The Celebrity Dancers and Singers were not bad, but their three shows, while progressively better, were a bit odd. They work extremely hard during their long shows. Mainly their material is popular Broadway songs or a 70s disco tribute they called "Boogie Wonderland," which at times was unintentionally funny. Not to everyone's taste, but pretty good production values, nonetheless. I'd give them a B. Singer Travis Turpin tried hard, and certainly had a pleasant on-stage personality, but I found his musical selections too bland to be really enjoyable.
Cruise director Rich Clesen was a nice guy, and we met him a few times around the ship. I have to say, given that he evidently performed at Second City, I was expecting a joke or two that I could at least smile at. That said, he wrapped up each evening nicely, was easy to like, and pleasant off-stage.
Now, for the less positive. Magician Tony Albano was barely watchable. He had just enough wit that you felt bad for him, as people seemed bored by his two performances.
I have come to realize that every Celebrity cruise seems to have a four-man a cappella group performing all over all the ship. I didn't like the previous incarnations, but I'm sad to say that North by Northwest set a new low. They seemed like nice guys, but watching them with their awkward stage presence, lack of charisma, and their corny lyrics was painful. And while I might be a harsh critic of such entertainment, I'm pretty sure this time I was not alone in my feelings.
Also, the lounge musicians, I have to say, were really disappointing. Last cruise the Rendezvous Lounge musicians were a phenomenal, four-man jazz band, The Elk Island Quartet. The lounge acts this time, I thought, ranged from bland to unwatchable. On the other hand, the Rendezvous Lounge was crowded every night around dinnertime with 60-somethings dancing, so this could be a matter of generational preferences.
Ultimately, the fact that the overall entertainment was a mixed bag is certainly OK for us. For what we paid for this cruise, I don't think I could legitimately complain if there were next-to-no entertainment, and that certainly wasn't the case. If Celebrity has to cut back, we would much prefer it to be in this respect, rather than in food, service, or ship maintenance, all of which were excellent on this cruise. If high-energy entertainment on a ship is very important to you, I would recommend looking elsewhere.
The casino is now smoke-free. We played craps, but no blackjack, as there was only one $5 table, and it was usually crowded (while, of course, the $25 table sat empty), but finding space at the $5 craps table was not a problem. The poker table is electronic, so I didn't play any Hold 'em. I need to feel the cards, chips and see an actual dealer. They had a real table on the Summit last year, but sadly, they seem to have switched to machines, at least on the Millennium.
Service: I think service continues to be the strong suit for Celebrity. While I would say that the dining room was merely a 9/10 this time and cabin service was less good than our past two cruises, they were still very strong. And I think all the other service experiences this cruise (specialty restaurant, bar service, etc.) were perhaps even better than previous experiences. I particularly recall that, unlike on previous cruises, where you sometimes get the sense on the final day that they are ready for you to get off, staff seemed genuinely interested in whether you had a good cruise, which we certainly did. In general, it was great. Also, the presence of the officers on this cruise was very noticeable, very much appreciated, and we really enjoyed the bridge tour.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions: this was, we thought, a really nice itinerary. We were thinking of trying Holland America on another 10-day cruise, but this itinerary was far better sounding. Here are the specifics:
Tortola: We took Patouche tours on a catamaran that held only 17 people to Virgin Gorda and snorkeled. It was nice to have a reasonably large catamaran with so few people, and the crew was very good. It’s $80 a head, so it’s not cheap, but I’m glad we did it.
St. Maarten was a little more than pleasant than our last visit. Being the third time on the island, we wanted to do something different than going to Orient Beach. So, we watched the planes land at the Sunset Bar (slow service, but great views) right by the famous Princess Juliana Airport. When we talked to different cabbies, we were quoted different prices, but $20 one-way is about right for two people. Also, don’t worry about getting a cab back. There are drivers there waiting at the bar to take you. It was a Sunday, so the trip back to downtown Phillipsburg was only 20 minutes, but I would leave maybe 40 if you went during the week. We bought the local guavaberry liqueur and some jewelry for my wife.
St. Lucia: an island with lots of natural beauty. We booked the zip lining tour through Celebrity, Treetop Canopy Adventure. I’m glad we did it once, but it wasn’t quite as thrilling as I perhaps thought it would be. Since there were several ships in port when we were there, it took a while to get out of Castries. Our tour guide was nice, but the zip line operators seemed to be all teenagers, who while friendly, could make things feel a tad amateurish. Safety was not an issue, however. We left our camera on the bus ride back, and Celebrity contacted the tour operator. They found it, and when we got back home, we arranged for them to have FedEx mail it to us. That alone should be enough to recommend them.
Barbados: we took the Silver Moon lunch snorkel cruise (like Patouche, booked independently). It was a large catamaran that was limited to 24 people. Snorkeling wasn’t spectacular, mainly because it was rainy at times, though seeing (and touching) the sea turtles was nice. The crew was good in terms of getting drinks (great selection), and the lunch was very tasty, but they were fairly hands off, perhaps even blasé, when it came to instruction, advice or information. But in general, we would definitely recommend them. It was $90/person. There were four ships in port, although Barbados is better able to handle this than St. Lucia. On Barbados there was: Adventure of the Seas, Mein Schiff (a German ship), and the lovely-looking Silversea’s Silver Shadow. We bought a liter of Cockspur rum in the duty free shop on the pier for a very reasonable $10, but later learned a less attractive shop in the same pier sells it for an obscenely cheap $8, so shop around.
Grenada: With some of the terrific Cruise Critic people, we hired a taxi to take us Magazine Beach and the Aquarium restaurant, where we went like last year. Since there were 8 of us, it was only $5/person. Perhaps because the novelty wears off, it didn’t feel quite as nice as last time, but we still really liked it. It is an uncrowded, postcard perfect beach, and the restaurant people were nice, served great drinks and had clean facilities. Our driver took us to somewhere else initially, and insisted it was the right place. We’ve debated whether this was an honest mistake. Suffice it to say, if you go, make sure you see the sign for Aquarium Restaurant before you get out of the cab. Our driver came back right on-time to pick us up and seemed quite pleasant. The dock area has some decent shops and helpful tourism booths. Outside the dock area can be a tad sketchy, but not so much that this very nice island should not be explored.
Curacao: We walked around Willemstad, which is worth exploring, and then spent the afternoon on the ship. The historic synagogue’s museum was closed, as it was Good Friday. We bought some Blue Curacao. A warning about this: Senior’s Curacao of Curacao corked cap is not entirely leak proof, a little spilled out on the trip home because it was on its side.
Aruba: We went on Mi Dushi, a 1925 Swedish motorized sailing ship. We booked this through Celebrity for $74/person. We stopped at three snorkeling sites, including the shipwreck of the German WWII ship, The Antilla. That was really nice good snorkeling, though the water out there (65 feet deep) starts getting choppy. The crew was very good, had plenty of drinks and liquors (though no beer), and their lunch was good. It was also a full 5 hours, and the rides to and from the ship in converted school buses were fun and a bit silly. Highly recommended.
Disembarkation: This was pretty good. We finished breakfast at about 8:30, went to the Rendezvous Lounge, and shortly thereafter one of the crew announced that people could leave the ship whenever they wished. We waited about 15 minutes the let the crowd die down a bit and walked off. The line through customs was maybe 15 minutes. Just like last year, getting a taxi was a bit disorganized. There are plenty of taxicabs, but there is only room to load about 5 or 6 cabs at a time. The result is that people moving along side the curb waiting for a cab were getting passed over by people behind them taking the cab that parked in the spot available. Fortunately, after a while, some women from the Puerto Rican tourism staff made sure people did not cut ahead. The trip to SJU was painless and takes about 15 minutes. Similar line definition problems occurred at the check-in for United, but once passed there, it was fine.
Some Final Thoughts: This was our first 10-day cruise; and we really felt the difference, in a positive respect. While every vacation, or at least every cruise, is ultimately too short, this one felt like enough. We were, on the last day or two, ready to go home on some level. I did not feel that way on the 7-day cruises. That doesn’t mean we won’t do another 7-day cruise again, but I now see the advantages of something longer, and am certainly not worried about 10 days being “too long.”
That said, unlike last time, we didn't book a future cruise credit on this cruise. For one, the future cruise salesman claims you can no longer book a future cruise credit for Celebrity and use it on Azamara (or vice versa). We also aren't sure when our next cruise on Celebrity will be, and there’s no OBC for the Xpedition, which we are considering. We are thinking about trying Holland America too.
Nevertheless, we really liked enjoyed ourselves on this cruise. While I can point to a few things that perhaps were not as nice as our previous Celebrity cruises, this one only fell short by a little in those respects (and food was not one of them). There were also things about this cruise we liked better than any previous sailing. Going into this cruise, I was fully aware that we got this cruise for a song (our Sky Suite was more than $1000 cheaper than our shorter, 7-day Alaska sailing on Infinity in 2008 in Concierge Class, and only a couple hundred more than our regular balcony 7-day Southern Caribbean on Summit last January). And yet, I felt no slip in quality. By the end of the cruise, we were in complete bliss.