Who we are
This was our sixth cruise, our second on Constellation and our second transatlantic. Our first cruise was on Constellation and we were keen to see how she looked following her Solsticisation but, having had two outstanding cruises in 2009, this one had a lot to live up to.
Our flights were booked through Celebrity. Unlike the recent experiences of other who have booked BA through Celebrity, we did not have a group booking and were able to manage our own reservations and check-in online 24 hours before our flights.
We only booked an over night stay at the Gran Hotel Havana in Barcelona pre-cruise this time leaving us just time for a late lunch of tapas and a quick room service evening snack. We requested a corner room similar to the one we had previously and, as the only one available was on the Club Level, we were given a complimentary upgrade. This was a nice touch not usually to be expected if only staying for one night.
We book our pre- and post-cruise packages through Celebrity and the great thing about this in Barcelona is that you leave your luggage outside your hotel room and do not have to bother about it again until it turns up delivered to your stateroom. This year, the luggage did not have to be put out until 8:45am allowing us plenty of time to pack our toiletries and nightwear in our check-in luggage. The coach only picked up from one other hotel so the trip to the ship was fast.
The layout of the terminal had changed since our last cruise from Barcelona in 2007 and security scanning was the first followed by check-in which was not as smooth as we had hoped. I suppose that it really did not take very long but, as we have never before had any wait to check-in on any cruise, having to queue came as an unpleasant surprise. Having a choice of the suite queue or the Elite queue we joined the shorter suite one. There were only two other couples ahead of us. However, they were also using the suite check-in for passengers using wheelchairs. There was a steady stream of these and, as they were given priority, we had a really long wait. Although with over 400 Elites on board, that queue was realy long, we would have been checked-in much, much quicker if we had used that queue.
This slight annoyance was quickly forgotten and we stopped by the speciality restaurants desk to change the time on our online reservations in Ocean Liners to the time we really wanted. On this cruise, suite guests were being offered complimentary speciality dining on the first evening. As we had already reserved online for the first night, our payment was automatically refunded to our onboard account. Alongside the speciality dining desk, there were also areas where you could purchase wine, beverage or spa packages at the pier. Next there was a reasonable selection of duty-free shops including a couple selling wine and bottled water. Having picked up a couple of bottles of wine we were ready to board at about 11:30 just 75 minutes from the time we were required to meet in the hotel lobby.
Thanks to Cruise Critic, we knew to head straight to Bistro on Five after first checking out Ocean Liners. We were disappointed to see that the Champagne Lounge that had been added when Constellation was Solsticised had since been removed. We thought that the lounge was a great idea and had been looking forward to using it.
By the time we had reached Bistro on Five, we had fallen in love with Constellation's new look. Our first ever cruise was on Constellation and you always love your first ship but we were falling in love all over again. Bistro on Five was a welcome haven of peace on this first day. We had a leisurely lunch getting to know the maitre d', Jonny, and our two waiters, Nemanja and Crystal. I was delighted to find that they had cider on board and you simply must try the Italian crepes. This was getting better and better.
The announcement that the staterooms were ready came at 1pm. On the way to our suite, we ordered our "Build It Yourself" wine package in Cellar Masters where we met Duarte Da Silva, the food and beverage manager who let us have the dates and times for all the culinary events. My husband loves these and did not want to miss any of them.
Now it was time for our first look at a Royal Suite. It was gourgeous with the same elegant new decor of the rest of the ship. In most of the photographs we had seen, the M-class Royal Suites had looked very dark but, while not as light as a Celebrity Suite, it was far from dark. The bedroom and bathroom are much larger than in the Celebrity Suite and the balcony is wonderful. With the hot tub, two loungers and dining table with four chairs it only lacked a side table by the loungers. This was quickly rectified by Bernard our stateroom attendant who found one for us from somewhere [well, the Pool Deck we realised later] in no time at all. With two large sofas and an armchair, the sitting area is really comfortable. We found the large coffee table really useful but were constantly walking into it. Our shins were black and blue and may have been saved by rounded corners to the table-top. The dining area has a good sized table and four wonderful leather-upholstered chairs.
A big surprise was finding, in addition to the bottle of French sparkling white wine, two complimentary 1lt bottles of spirit and 8 cans of soda waiting for us. When we said that we had not expected them, our butler later explained that it "depended on the ship" but that, on Constellation, they were provided in the Celebrity, Royal and Penthouse Suites. Had we known, we would not have purchased the bar set up package.
Before long both our stateroom attendant, Bernard from Goa, and our butler, Alex from Mumbia, had introduced themselves to us. We did not meet Heru, Bernard's assistant until later. It was impossible to fault how these three looked after us for the whole cruise. Nothing was too much trouble for them. Our suite was spotless the whole time and any request was met sooner than we could reasonably have expected. For example, Bernard delivered the side table for the balcony within about 15 minutes before, even, our luggage had arrived.
We had time to explore the suite and stow away everything from our carry-on luggage before our suitcases started to arrive but we had managed to unpack all four cases before lifeboat drill. There is ample storage space in the suite although I think the Celebrity Suites have slightly more hanging space. Of course, we needed extra hangers, as always, but these were quickly supplied. We have always thought that one of the luxuries of a Celebrity Suite was sufficient cupboard space to be organised - a cupboard for port visits, another for souvenirs to take home, etc. The storage is even better in the Royal Suite.
We did not eat in the main dining room at all so are unable to comment on it but Ocean Liners, Tuscan Grille and Bistro on Five were wonderful as well a the Aqua Spa Cafe for breakfast. The food in these four venues under the control of Sous Chef Niels from the Netherlands was of the highest quality.
Ocean Liners had the same menu as the SS United States when we were on Infinity a year ago but there were subtle changes to the presentation. We loved the Roquefort ice cream with the cheese course and the Porcini Gelato with the Wild Forest Mushroom Cappuccino. The service from maitre d' Srdjan and his staff in Ocean Liners was, as always, impeccable and the quality of the Foie Gras as good as that we had in the Olympic on Millennium in 2007 and better than any we have eaten in France.
This was our first experience of the Tuscan Grille and we realy liked being able to experience a totally different dining experience to Ocean Liners. The service provided by maitre d' Vlaho and his staff was also excellent but with a much more relaxed approach. The food was incredible and, one day, my husband had one of those extremely rare experiences - the absolutely perfect meal where all the courses worked together for him in that moment of time. He had a perfectly seasoned Bistecca Tartare, Cioppino [rustic San Francisco seafood stew], Grigliata Mista [mixed grill] and gelato. Our only negative comment about the Tuscan Grille would be that the tables were much smaller than we like and became expremely crowded when the anti-pasta platters were served. However, this was easily rectified by foregoing a window table and having a table for four until they "found" a larger window-side table for us! The anti-pasta platters comprising a plate of Proscuito ham, cheese, artichoke hearts and olives with small bowls of sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic and olives and a bread basket we wonderful but far too tempting.
With over 400 Elite Captain's Club members on board, it was impossible to hold breakfast [or cocktails] in Michael's Club. This was such a shame because the ambiance was just not the same in the Relections Lounge. We tried breakfast there a few times as well as in Bistro on Five and in-suite [with perfectly poached eggs on each occasion] but, eventually, settled for the Aqua Spa Cafe wishing that we had discovered the freshly made fruit jams long ago. With fantastic breads and a great selection of fresh fruit and cereals, this made a perfect spot for a healthy breakfast. My husband did abscond on a couple of occasions to try the less healthy options in the buffet.
Not many novice cruisers are likely to choose a transatlantic cruise with seven consecutive sea days. Consequntly, as mentioned before, there were over 400 Elite Captain's Club members on board out of nearly 600 members in total. Not only was the Elite breakfast crowded but also the Celebration.which was held twice, once for Early Seating and once for Late Seating. Unlike on Infinity last year, there was only 2 or 3 food stations set up. The queues were long, it was noisy and there was not enough seating for everyone. We decided to leave before the event really got started. However, with so many members on board, it is difficult to know what could have been done to make the event better. If it had been held in the main dining room, there would have been more seating but it would still have been busy and noisy.
There were around 200 members on our active Cruise Critic Roll Call. A number living in Florida had already met up for a brunch before leaving for the cruise. Another group had met up in Barcelona before embarkation and there was a sail-away party on board. Because of our travel and dining plans, we missed all these events. By the time of the Cruise Critic Party on day five of the cruise [the first sea day] most of the group already knew each other well.
We found the party more useful on Azamara Quest where we had a much smaller roll call and all the senior officers attended the party giving us the opportunity to get to know then. With a group as large as ours on Constellation, we far outnumbered any officers and staff brave enough to turn up.
We were invited to tour the Bridge and the invitations made it clear that this was not offered to other passengers. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, again the large numbers resulted in the tours starting every 30 minutes and the time on the Bridge shorter than we have experienced in the past.
The numbers of Captain's Club and Cruise Critic members on this cruise very much affected the success of the events arranged for us. If these are important to you, transatlantic cruises are probably best avoided because it is hard to see what Celebrity can do to improve the situation when the numbers are so large.
Officers and Crew
Unlike on Azamara Quest and Infinity where senior officers were ever present, contact between the Captain, Hotel Director and the senior officers appeared to be solely at stage managed events which, because of the numbers of Captain's Club and Cruise Critic members on board, were crowded. Although crew morale appeared high and consequently service was good, from experience, pasengers appreciate the day to day contact with senior officers which was missing on Constellation.
However, In maked contrast to our previous transatlantic cruise on MIllennium in 2007, all the officers and crew unfailing greeted us everytime we saw them and were immediately responsive to every request, even when they only overheard a comment in passing. In this they cannot be faulted. It is clear that the Captain and Hotel Director ran a happy ship and this is what is important for the passengers to have a great cruise. However, unlike on Infinity a year ago where the Captain and senior officers were ever present, we rarely saw the Captain and other senior officers unless they were having a private meal in a speciality restaurant.
Being regulars in the speciality restaurants we were well known to their maitres d' and their staff and they ensured that we were well looked after all round the ship. We had absolutely no complaints on that score.
Entertainment and Activities
We never go to the shows on board so are unable to comment on them and, after only three previous Celebrity cruises, felt that we had "been there, done that" with most of the activities. I did attend a couple of lectures but, yet again, found them disappointing but I am probably far too hard to please because I know that others found them very interesting.
The main focus of our cruises is always the food and we are more than happy to spend the whole evening dining. In the past, this has always started by enjoying a pre-dinner drink. Previously on Celebrity ships, this has been at the Champagne Bar where we have made new friends. The Martini Bar has always had a different ambiance. With the loss of the Champagne Bar on Constellation, we felt that there was no longer anywhere for us to go in the evening. Consequently, we spent a great deal of time enjoying our suite on our own and the highlights of our cruise were the Wine Harvest Celebration Dinner and Lunch with the Executive Chef.
We attended the Wine Harvest Celebration Dinner at the same time last year on Infinity and, although we enjoyed the occasion, we were a little disappointed. Unlike on Infinity when there was a totally different menu, the menu this time was made up of items identical, or very similar, to items off the normal Ocean Liners menu. As we were already eating in Ocean Liners on alternate nights, we felt let down by the choices. All the wines served were from one French maker. Except for the desert Sauterne from Bordeaux, they were all from Burgundy and very similar. While we would normally prefer to drink French wines, the Wine Harvest Celebration dinner on Infinity gave us the opportunity to sample, enjoy and learn about great wines from other areas. Although a representative of the wine maker was present to explain the wines, it was clear that he had not selected them and may have made different choices.
If the Wine Harvest Dinner was slightly disappointing, lunch with the Executive Chef was wonderful and far exceeded our expectations. Executive Chef Andy Bouchard was a great host and showed us how the meal was prepared. He answered all our questions and even demonstrated additional techniques such as how to fillet a flat fish. The wines paired with the food were great and we enjoyed them much more than those at the Wine Harvest Dinner. We will certainly sign up for this event in the future but perhaps not make any plans for dinner in the evening next time!
Ports and Shore Excursions
We booked this cruise for the sea days and to relax so only booked one ship's shore excursion. In fact, we did not venture ashore at all in Palma and only for a very short time in Alicante. We had been to Malage before and headed to Taberna El Trillo for lunch.
In Funchal, we booked our own tour of Blandy's Wine Lodge followed by shopping for Madeira wine and a mediocre and disappointing at the Golden Gate Restaurant [which had been highly recommended on Trip Advisor].
We booked our Celebrity tour of the Pyramids of Guimar on Tenerife online for £31.50 and we considered this to be excellent value. The coach took a circular route with a stop for photographs looking down on the cruise port from the La Esperanza forest on the way to the site of the pyramids. At the Park, we were given a superb guided tour by the Director Science followed by a short film. Following light refreshments, we had some free time to explore the site on our own before the coach journey home. Although there was an opportunity to purchase souvenirs, unlike many tours, we were actually rushed through the museum shop and there was no pressure to buy anything.
As we had booked our post-cruise stay in Fort Lauderdale, we were given the fairly late time of 10am to meet in the theatre with the request to meet there a "few minutes" before the allocated time. We had arranged for our butler to leave cereals and fruit in our suite on the last evening so that we could get ready to disembark at our own pace. Once we were ready, we went on deck to enjoy the sun while we waited for our time slot. At about 9:30am an announcement was made over the tannoy that all label colours had been called and all passengers should now leave the ship.
Expecting that most people must now have disembarked, we were surprised to be part of a huge crowd. Eventually we found ourselves in the baggage claim area and were told to collect our luggage before queuing again for immigration control. It took a while to find a porter but this proved to be a great move because the porters were taking their "customers" almost the front of the long queue. Without a porter, it would have taken considerably longer to emerge from the terminal.
Outside, we had a short wait for our hotel transfer because Celebrity were sensibly using small vans rather than waiting for enough people to fill a coach.
This was our third time staying at the Embassy Suites Hotel. We are more than happy with our choice and get a very good rate from Celebrity - certainly cheaper than we can book ourselves. Although not the most luxurious hotel, we are more than happy with the space we get and find the location extremely convenient. The provision of free Internet access for airline check-in and emails is also appreciated.
We loved the revamped look of Constellation, and are looking forward to our next cruise on Infinity immediately after her dry-dock.