So, was the high profile anticipation of Celebrity's new baby, Celebrity Eclipse, with its Dunkirkesque rescue of the Brits from Santander better than the finished article? No, it certainly was not. From dropping the luggage at Southampton to collecting it again two weeks later, the whole operation ran like clockwork. The luggage drop off at Southampton was amazing with pleasant and efficient staff smoothly executing the process without creating luggage mountains and, of course, with nobody demanding a tip! We made it to our cabin two minutes before the luggage arrived!
Our cabin - well we had paid for 5* accommodation and that is exactly what we got. The furnishings, layout and cleanliness were perfect. We requested that our minibar be emptied so that we could stow our own wine and milk - yes, we took our own (plus tea and coffee) for the first few days rather than use the small milk units provided. When our milk ran out, it was easy to source milk from the breakfast buffet. The provision of a kettle was very welcome and, speaking to non-UK guests, they also could not understand why this is not available on other cruise ships. Our cabin stewards were delightful, always at hand but never intrusive.
We are not great at joining in, mainly because my husband is registered deaf, so we just get on with our own holiday. We enjoyed our balcony from early morning watching the next port come into view, to enjoying a cuppa and quiet time by ourselves in the evening before retiring. We never closed our curtains at night fearful of missing anything!
Our request for a table for two had not been granted and we had been allocated a table for eight - not a great option when one of you cannot hear. When we were shown our table, we told the waiter that we had requested a table for two, or at least a smaller table which would make communication easier, and that we would give the main dining room a miss and opt for our meals in the buffet dining room. The waiter was insistent that we should speak to the manager and took us to the upper level to meet him. I had barely explained that my husband was deaf and we were quickly allocated a table for two. The table was excellent but, if a table for two had been available, then why was our request not granted? That was the only downside (and I wouldn't really call it that) of the whole trip.
Moving swiftly away from negative thoughts, the meals were stupendous. We started off by saying we would have no more than two courses per meal, which quickly went up to three! I cannot eat poultry or chocolate (yes, I am still living) and with my other dislikes, at times it was difficult to find three courses I could eat - until our waiter pointed out that you could have two (or more) starters, mains or desserts, if you wished. There was not a single dish we could not eat, the standard of food, presentation and service was the best I have ever experienced - I think the bread basket was my husband's favourite judging from the amount of times it was refilled for him! There was a noticeable lack of vegetables in the beautifully crafted dishes, but from ogling other tables we could see that it was possible to order vegetables as a separate dish and we did our best to maintain the five-a-day culture!
The food in the buffet dining room was like a honeypot for my husband at lunch time - he loved the Asian foods. The selection was too much! Each day I carried out a circumnavigation of the serving areas before deciding what to eat and I often ended up with a little bit from here, a little bit from there - but whatever I got was delicious. It was probably a good thing that most of the desserts at lunchtime were chocolate based and therefore off the menu for me. There was always a queue for the ice cream - an indication of its quality and popularity - but this moved quickly and the staff were always laughing and exchanging banter with the guests.
Moving away from food - as we really must - and on to the organized entertainment. We did not go to any of the shows and, as always, there were mixed reviews from other cruisers. I think this is a compliment - if you please everyone then the show is only mediocre aiming to keep everyone happy and we all have different tastes. The only really negative and worrying comment I heard was regarding a comedian who used risquE jokes when children were in the audience - and this was in the early showing - with several people without children walking out because of it. This really needs to be addressed with adult content being restricted to the later show - and people being told that the content of the show may cause offence or include such jokes.
We don't do organized fitness! We walk and walk - and walk, but we didn't even see the entrance to the gym which was obviously well hidden away so as not to make us slowcoaches feel guilty. My husband sunbathes - for about an hour a day - and he was always able to find a sunbed, maybe not in exactly the position he would have liked, but there were always places available. The jury is out on the grassed area - it seemed that everyone walked round it!
The enrichment programme included various historical subjects which did not interest us but there were also several talks by a horticulturalist who was absolutely delightful. She was informed, charming, inspiring and open to questions and receiving knowledge from other people.
An added bonus of this particular cruise was the screening of World Cup football matches. I know, some people went to get away from it but I was prepared with my laptop and digital radio hoping to indulge myself some of the time. Fortunately for me, all matches were screened and where there were two matches on at the same time, one of matches was screened two hours later. All matches were shown on the stateroom televisions with some of the bigger matches also being shown in the theatre.
The itinerary clearly stated the various ports we would be visiting. I find it difficult to accept that as the docking area was, on average, one to two miles away from the city, you were required to pay US$12 per person for transport to the city centre. Having purchased the cruise on the basis that we would be transported to those destinations, surely the cost of getting passengers to the actual city, as advertised, should be borne by the cruise company? We are quite capable of walking that distance - and we did - but we and others we spoke to felt that this was merely a way of charging more.
Having been disappointed on previous cruises by the content of hyped up shore excursion, we decided to be very conservative in our choice and, as we were in Europe, decided that we were confident in making our own way around. The exceptions were our trip to Bruges - what a delight and close enough to home to make a return visit by ourselves - and St Petersburg. This was a return trip for me to St Petersburg - a place I have wanted to revisit for 31 years and it did more than justice to my memory. I was perhaps fortunate in that I remember the city so well and knew exactly where I wanted to go.
Without a separate visa we were unable to explore on our own and I cannot believe we actually paid for someone to take us shopping. "Shopping along Nevsky Prospect" was a misnomer - yes, you walked along Nevsky Prospect, but you were then taken to one shop in a side road and informed you had 90 minutes there. A quick glance around the shop and we politely (I promise it was) informed the courier that there was no way we could spend more than 5 minutes there - despite the offer of vodka - and we persuaded her that if we left the group we would be able to find our way back to the coach. We left very quickly before she could object and, therefore, went shopping along Nevsky Prospect - much to the envy of some of our group. My husband, frustrated at the length of time it took for traffic lights to allow pedestrians to cross, tried jaywalking but I pulled him back pointing out we did not have a visa to walk around by ourselves let alone one for jaywalking!
The highlight of St Petersburg has to be Peterhof. This is the summer palace of Peter the Great with beautiful gardens and the most magnificent fountains. An hour's journey outside the city, it is awesome and magical yet calm and opulent. Yes, the Hermitage has all of those qualities but you cannot see it all, it is too vast to take in. Peterhof is more compact, not poky but more manageable.
Overall, we get on with our own holiday, reading, listening to music and relaxing and not really joining in with many of the organized activities. There was always plenty to do if that is your bag, a full range of activities from dancing, sports, quizzes, food and wine tastings to tours of the speciality restaurants. There are several lounges, small and larger with plenty of comfortable and inviting chairs where you could sit and, literally, watch the world go by. Heaven knows why people needed to go to the speciality coffee shop and pay for additional coffee and pastries but Celebrity obviously knew they would - and those areas were always busy.
The main reception area was also used as a music venue and whilst this allowed the music to waft up through the centre of the ship to the upper decks, whoever thought of placing the open plan library in the same area was obviously not a book lover or had any need of a quiet space. The acoustics of that central area were such that if someone was speaking on the deck below, you could hear them. Not surprisingly, the library was little used.
The cost of using the internet on board was prohibitive and the few times I needed to check for work (yes, sad) I used internet cafes ashore.
The staff on the Customer Relations desk were first class. Nothing was too much trouble and their patience in dealing with fractious (not us) passengers was endless. There was always a smile for each passenger who approached the desk, enough pleasantries to make you feel valued, and a swift resolution of your enquiry.
Overall, everything ran smoothly, the staff and amenities were first class. There is one word I have refrained from using thus far in this review for fear of diminishing its true meaning. When we have been asked "how was your cruise" it is the first word that comes to mind. Fabulous. Thank you Celebrity.