I was expecting more. Celebrity's advertising promised a somewhat more upscale version of Royal Caribbean, but I did not see it. Granted the ship itself is well appointed in the style of a four- or five-star contemporary hotel, though a little cold, corporate and formulaic (think a new, high end Starwood property) for my tastes. Everything considered, the on-board experience was somehow lacking and certainly had no "wow" factor (Cunard's elegance, Carnival's laid back fun, NCL's friendliness).
The service was all over the place: friendly and earnest most of the time, but occasionally forgetful or indifferent (short-staffing? Inadequate training?). The embarkation was very smooth: 30 minutes curb to state room. But why no greeting or "welcome aboard" at the gangplank, or for that matter a glass of champagne? Our group just walked on: no one to provide directions to state rooms or elevators. Even the most pedestrian of hotels will direct you to the elevators.
My next encounter with the staff was with Guest Relations after my luggage failed to show after three hours. The GR counter person showed me some orphaned luggage, remarked that luggage gets lost all the time and then suggested I just wait. Just before dinner at 8 I called, but still no luggage. "Patience!" I have no patience -- and like to dress appropriately for dinner -- so set out on my own, going up and down the corridors until I found my luggage in front of a state room exactly two decks up. I explained this to the GR head the next day (there was no followup from my earlier visit and call) and they were profusely apologetic, offering a generous onboard credit and champagne in the room. So great recovery there.
That brings to mind the complete lack of pre-embarkation communication. I booked with an on-line service and at no time between booking and embarkation did I get any communication from Celebrity: no e-mails, no mailings / brochures or luggage tags, no attempt to market any on-board service or generate excitement about the cruise ahead. Just an invoice. Other cruise lines, Cunard, notably, do a great job on pre-trip orientation / product marketing (excursions, etc).
The food was average to awful. I'm a corporate events planner and I'd guess the menus would compare to a premium banquet menu at a big city Hilton. Competent, but uninspiring and in some cases, just bad. (I felt I was always waiting for the key note speaker to mount the dais). The main dining room menu was especially lacking in creativity. It reminded me of my dad's country club, circa 1976, e.g. Baked Alaska, Cherries Jubilee, Prime Rib, Shrimp Cocktail. My group found the beef dishes, and old stand-bys such as French Onion Soup and Creme Brulee to be the best; we learned that anything "exotic" was to be avoided. Now another inconsistency: the wait staff was superb and the sommelier always remembered my wine selections. And the wine list itself was quite good -- a real value.
The Ocean View Cafe (the buffet) had reasonably good food, though nothing special and no rotation nor themes. It became boring after a few days. The real problem there was seating: our group often had to wander around for five or ten minutes before finding an open or clean table. The main dining room for breakfast was perfect, but how hard is it to mangle an eggs benedict or waffles? Funny, but the best meal we encountered was the cookout lunch on Labadie Island -- the marinated flank steak was superb!
Unfortunately, we were mostly shut out of the specialty dining venues. They are mostly set aside for premium class passengers, or have to be booked well in advance. I suspect there is high demand given the quality of the main dining room. Two of our party did get into the Tuscan Grill at 6PM, and gave it good reviews. Lesson learned: book the first moment you get on board.
On board activities were weak. My group of five is very well-traveled, so maybe we're demanding, but glass blowing? Elementary classes in iPads, iPods and iPhones? The obligatory wine tastings? There were three at sea days and for the fist time on a cruise I was actually bored. Why not movies from, say 9 a.m. to midnight? Or classes in poker and blackjack (Note to Celebrity: it would help generate revenue as the guests "practice")? Or astronomy? The Eclipse -- a Solstice class ship -- passed through a lunar eclipse on the, coincidence, solstice. Maybe an eclipse-themed party? Or maybe lectures (Cunard does a great job with these). Or a walking tour of the ship's excellent and often whimsical contemporary art. Please, Celebrity. More creativity!
Like so much else on the ship, the entertainment was inconsistent. An excellent 5-star Cirque du Soleil type show, a fun dance show (think Marie Antoinette's court dancing to house music), a good Broadway review, but a laughably lame last night show that would have fit in at some Catskill resort, again, like the food, circa 1976. A suggestion to Celebrity: make your cruise director more visible. The only time we saw him or any of his staff was at the shows. Maybe if he chatted with the passengers more he would learn more of what they like and do not like.
The cabins are perfect. Efficient. Contemporary. Comfortable. Celebrity and the ship's designers are to be commended. I especially like the larger bathrooms and the extra-comfy mattresses.
As for ports of call, I'm afraid I cannot comment. I have spent a lot of time in the Caribbean on business and pleasure, so nothing is really new to me. I know my group found Viejo San Juan worth the visit, but were very disappointed in St. Maarten (the excursions were all booked well in advance and the rental cars and tour busses at the port were mostly sold out or too expensive, so all went back on board). Labadie island was fun (try the amazing zip line across Adrenaline Bay!).
The fitness center was five star. Attentive staff. Great machines. Free weights. Not crowded at all. The Spa seemed a little pricey ($125, 50 minute deep tissue massages).
The pool areas were a major disappointment. All loungers were taken by 9, "reserved" with towels, with no pool butlers or extra loungers in sight. I was on three Queen Mary voyages and do not remember their pool areas being anywhere near this crowded or noisy.
Sadly, the trip ended on a sour note. The disembarkation at port of Miami, 26 December, was absolutely chaotic. +2,200 passengers crammed into a too-small luggage hall and then a horrendous queue to pass through the customs check (only two ICE agents on duty! and no Celebrity personnel visible). Lots of cutting in line and arguing (hint: get a porter who can "expedite" your party and tip generously). Then, no taxis, and another horrific (and mismanaged) queue. We started disembarkation at 8:20 got into taxi at 10:30. I live in Miami Beach, so no problem for me, but others trying to catch planes were getting concerned. I think it was also challenging for the older passengers.
Bottom line on the Eclipse: great vessel and good value, especially for those not demanding about food, or consistent service or those just looking to chill. But the ship has nothing memorable or special about it. It's hard to describe, but the ship lacks a "personality." For that matter, I'm not sure what the Celebrity brand stands for. Fun? No. Luxury? No. Friendliness / service? No. Great food? No. Elegance? No. Low prices? Maybe.