We just returned from the April 16th 7-day Southern Caribbean sailing of the Celebrity Summit. It was not our best Celebrity cruise to date, but we thoroughly enjoyed our trip.
Background: This is our fifth Celebrity cruise, and our sixth overall (first one was with Princess). All our previous cruises have reviews on Cruise Critic, written shortly after each cruise. My wife (30) and I (36) are professionals living just outside of Washington, DC. We have no children.
About cruising over Spring Break: 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. Last year, we took our second spring break cruise on Millennium (a 10-day from San Juan) and loved it. On that trip, the number of children was manageable; most were well-behaved. This cruise fell somewhere in between—more about this later.
Pre-Cruise: We originally were going to fly the day of the cruise. However, American Airlines cancelled their direct flight from Dulles to SJU a few months before the departure (this happened two years ago too, by the way). Instead of taking their horribly inconvenient flights through Miami, I demanded our money back when they would not even switch to more convenient flights. By then, the direct United flight was over $800. So, we opted to go the night before. We figured that the $300-$400 per person savings more than offset any hotel costs. Despite a pretty horrible flight down there, we are now really keen on going down the night before a cruise. We boarded the ship so much more relaxed than when we go the day of the cruise, which requires getting up at 4 or 5am to catch a flight. We were already in vacation mode when we woke on Saturday morning.
Anyway, we arrived in San Juan at about 1030pm Friday night. Getting a cab to our hotel (Hotel Casablanca) was easy. Hotel Casablanca is a small, boutique hotel in Old San Juan with no elevator (which we knew ahead of time). Our room didn't have a closet, but for one night it was fine. It's a pretty and clean hotel, but our room faced the street and it was VERY noisy until about 2-3am. I am a heavy sleeper, and I woke up a lot. They also claimed to have a continental breakfast, but I didn't see one, so we walked to Starbucks. It is otherwise a nice and clean hotel, certainly fine for one or two nights.
Embarkation: This was again good. After having the hotel call a taxi, we took about a 10 minute cab ride to the pier. As in the past, there were stevedores when we arrived at the pier. We had to line up to hand them our bags, as there were a couple of people were in front of us. By the way, I requested (on-line) that Celebrity send us luggage tags, which saved us the hassle of filling them out at the pier. They no longer send them automatically. Tips were expected, but they were very appreciative and not pushy. There is still a duty-free liquor store in the cruise terminal. Two years ago, I took in a bottle from the store with no problems. Last year, Celebrity scanned bags (in addition to the San Juan Port Authority), saying they would throw out any liquor found, so I didn't bring anything in. This year, they seem to have a new policy/procedure: one crewmember asked if we had liquor in our carryon bags when we boarded. If we did, we would need to check it with him, not unlike when one buys liquor in port. We only bought bottled water and diet soda ($2.99 for an 8-pack), as the store no longer carries tonic water. Our bottles of wine were fine to bring on (in our checked bags, as they were bottles from home), as Celebrity policy allows. You can also buy wine/champagne in the duty-free store.
The whole embarkation process took us 20 minutes, tops. We arrived at about 11:45. The "Select/Elite" line was (we are now "Select") nonexistent. We could have also used the Concierge Class line, but that had a couple of people in it. The regular line was the longer, but even that didn't look too bad. We boarded the ship around noon, though our rooms were not ready until 1:30. We made a reservation at Normandie for later in the week and confirmed our table for two with a not particularly warm, but still professional, maitre d', and had lunch at the buffet.
Ship Details: We had been on the Summit back in January 2009, along with her sisters Millennium (2010) and Infinity (2008). A lot has been commented on the condition of the ship. Two years ago, there were a lot of soft spots in the dining room—those have been repaired, fortunately. That said, she does need a little bit of an overhaul. For instance, our TV was really old, with a badly chipped plastic casing. The drawers to my nightstand didn't really work so hot. The curtains and bedding is a bit out of date and worn in places. They did, however, paint the railing on our balcony during the cruise, and lots of maintenance was going on. Pristine? No, but still in good enough shape to be classy. The public rooms are still in good shape, and the gym is well-maintained (though they need more exercise bikes). The Summit will supposedly be "Solsticized" early next year...and it probably needs the overhaul. That said, we found her in good enough shape that it didn't adversely affect our cruise...at all.
Dining: As is our preference, we had a table for 2 at the late seating (6:00 is way too early for us). I have to say our waiters were nice gentlemen, but they were (especially our waiter more than his assistant) somewhat inferior to the ones we have had on our previous three Celebrity cruises, who were really superb. They were polite and we could engage them, but our main waiter didn't come by much to see if we actually enjoyed our courses. Moreover, some of the minor things that make a difference were lacking: they never once cleaned off the table with the bread crumb collector or asked if we cared for fresh pepper. They didn't ask if we wanted refills on our coffee (though our assistant waiter knew our preferences pretty quickly, which is nice), though water glasses were kept well-filled. No tragedy, but when the previous waiters do those things nightly without fail, you start to miss it and wonder "Why not this time?" It was still very good service—it just wasn't superb service. The timing was good for us—we don't like to rush dinner on vacation. Our assistant maitre d', Bruno from India (Goa) was good. Besides being pleasant, he asked if things were up to expectations and whether there were any issues he needed to address. We said we were happy, because of course, not de-crumbing our table linen is not something I would consider mentioning. Our sommelier was friendly and engaging, though she was clearly rushed and a little nervous, which my wife and I think stemmed from youth and a lack of confidence in her English, as opposed to any lack of wine knowledge. She did recommend a nice Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and she liked what we brought, but she tended to recommend wines exclusively at the high price range. That said, we did tip her and our waiters modestly more than the standard amounts.
As for the food, I think it has taken a slight, but somewhat noticeable, downward turn since our previous cruises. As was the case on our last cruise, soups and salads are combined, in effect making dinner a 4-course meal instead of five. That said, our waiters were happy to add an additional entrEe or request. The rack of lamb was great, but the beef tournedos on the second formal night was a big disappointment. The lobster tail is a bit small, but I thought the lobster itself was fine, though we had to request that it be shelled. My wife enjoyed the quail dish and pork chops, and I liked the veal. The salads tend to be a bit boring, but acceptable, though my wife said her Caesar salad from the "always available" menu was poor, and she is not usually picky. The chilled soups ranged from great (black cherry, pumpkin) to good (gazpacho) to inedible (the cold pea soup, which was even more unappetizing than it sounds. I quietly asked our waiter for something else, a first for me). The appetizers were still excellent; the steak tartare is great. The desserts were usually tasty, although there is now a smaller nightly selection (3 or so), as they have expanded their "always available" options, including apple pie a la mode, which my wife liked.
Just like all our previous cruises on M-class ships, we ate at Normandie, the specialty restaurant. While very good, it was slightly less impressive than our previous visits. Like the main dining room, I sensed that things are a slight notch down in terms of food, service and presentation, though all were good. They seem to have reduced the number of courses; the salad we both had looked nice, but was not good; they asked for our dessert order at the beginning of the meal (I don't recall that in the past), which I wasn't crazy about. The cheese course is still there, but less a big deal. There was also less theatre, which I enjoy in such a place. On previous visits, I thought that walking away with that experience for $35/person was more than worth it—this time, we were happy, just not bowled over. Still glad we went. By the way, they continue to play—somewhat loudly—flute-intensive, elevator music versions of songs from musicians like Phil Collins, which I find amusing, if slightly out of place.
The dining room is closed for lunch on port days. The one sea day was a buffet, which we skipped this year. We only ate breakfast in the Cosmopolitan restaurant on disembarkation day, though the breakfast there is quite good with plenty of variety. We used our Concierge Class room service for breakfast almost every day. While the food was good (especially the smoothies and French toast only available through CC), every day the order was missing something, and often several things. I used to doubt this happened to others. Now that we experienced it firsthand, I have to admit it is annoying, especially when the order was significantly wrong enough that we had to call to get it fixed. The person on the phone wasn't particularly polite or at all apologetic. Each day, our breakfasts were delivered by the same cabin stewardess (not our main one), so perhaps she wasn't very attentive. At least it was always on time, and I like that they call in advance. We didn't eat at the buffet for breakfast. Overall, I would give dining an honest B+. Good, but not the solid A it has been in the past. While this may sound negative, the previously three Celebrity cruises set the bar quite high.
Fellow Passengers: This is always an important issue for us. It really affects how we enjoy our cruise. I have to confess we didn't sign up for the Cruise Critic Connections party. I had been too busy in the months before the cruise to follow the threads on Cruise Critic, and when I looked at the last minute, there were too many posts to read through. Since I enjoyed previous Connections get-togethers, we hope do rejoin for future cruises. In general terms, my breakdown is as follows.
Children: I'm sensitive to this. My wife is a schoolteacher, and she does not enjoy busman's holidays. I would candidly prefer to go on adults-only cruises (whether by fiat or de facto) if they were more accessible. We were reluctant to go on another spring break cruise after our first cruise with 1000+ kids on the Caribbean Princess, but last year's cruise on Millennium was very nice, and the kids on that cruise didn't seem too overwhelming. I don't know how many under 18 year-olds were on this cruise, but I would guess somewhere around 400, slightly more than last year. In general, it wasn't too bad until the end of the cruise on the sea day. A couple we know from home that happened to be on this cruise (an amazing and happy coincidence) apparently witnessed worse behavior than we did (they witnessed youngsters yelling f-bombs and racial epithets at each other). Ours was limited to kids in the Aqua Spa adult pools (though only once), running around on the stairs at all hours of the day and night, crashing a wine tasting we attended to touch (but not eat) breadsticks that were out as palate cleansers (I sternly told them the food was not for them). Of course, the fault resides with the parents, and I understand Celebrity staff is remiss to intervene. We appreciated a few reminders "Celebrity Today" reminding parents that Celebrity holds them accountable for their children's behavior. That said, Celebrity has policies in place that I believe encourage this kind of misbehavior. Specifically, children over 8 (or perhaps 9) are able to check themselves in and out (i.e., without their parents' permission) of the kids program at their leisure (and over 12 they do not even need to notify a counselor). Children in unsupervised groups roaming around a luxurious ship? Something tells me it wasn't a rowdy senior citizen who stuck balled-up paper into the mouth of a human sculpture near the Rendezvous Lounge. The thing the made me most unhappy was witnessing how some of them talked to the staff. As a teacher, my wife was especially upset by how some children addressed these hardworking and polite men and women.
Nevertheless, we liked the adult passenger-mix on our cruise. In addition to lots of teachers, it was rather international, which we always enjoy. There were British, Germans, some French, and, of course, a fair share of Canadians. There was a larger share of Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers on this cruise than the previous two we have been on that departed from San Juan (I would guess 400 or so). Personally, I thought they added to the international mix, and their children, while occasionally loud, were on average better behaved than their mainland American counterparts. I was glad they had some Spanish-language entertainment on the ship—it felt like Celebrity was catering to all their guests. Despite my complaining, we met several nice couples from different parts of America and the world.
Activities and Entertainment: We have been on enough Celebrity cruises to know what to expect. The entertainment was almost as good as last time; not great, but perfectly fine for us. The Celebrity Dancers and Singers are not bad; their shows clearly require a lot of work and talent, but small snippets of popular hits from the 1970s or 10 different 90-second clips of Broadway songs is not particularly entertaining for me. The 55-75 crowd really seems to like it, so that's great, since they are a big portion of Celebrity's clientele. Speaking of musical selections, I find it amusing that several Celebrity cruises have performances of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," seemingly oblivious that some may be uncomfortable with the overt Titanic references.
Comedian Jim McDonald got off to a slow start, but he improved, especially in second show. Stick around for his "slide show," as that is definitely his best bit. Cruise director Damian was a nice guy. At first, I thought he was perhaps a bit bland, but his style grew on me; he has a low-key, but sincere, presentation. Speaking fluent Spanish helped him build rapport with the Puerto Rican guests, and around the ship he was very visible. Celebrity would do well to keep him around.
Every Celebrity cruise seems to have a four-man a cappella group, though this time, they (The Neptunes) were a little less ubiquitous. This is not my bag, so I will refrain from judgment, other than to say they weren't any worse than the previous incarnations.
The lounge musicians were in general disappointing. An exception was the bluesman, Charlie Butler, though he only performed outside on the aft bar, and was not given a highly visible venue. The Celebrity Orchestra musicians were good. The violinist in Cova Cafe was good, and she and her accordion cohort genuinely appreciated the response they got. Of course, I can't remember applauding an accordion player before. The rest, though, were not good. I'm not sure who enjoys elevator style music played by a middle-aged Filipino trio, but they attracted neither the late-middle aged/senior demographic, nor any ironic hipsters. Ultimately, the fact that the overall entertainment was a mixed bag is certainly OK for us. We miss some of the fantastic acts from previous cruises, though.
The casino is now smoke-free, but we didn't play, other than to briefly lose $10 at video poker (with horrible payouts, by the way) on the last night. Blackjack was always $10 and up, though craps was $5. The poker table is electronic, otherwise I would have played. It's no fun for me without the cards, chips and an actual dealer. They had a real table two years ago, but alas, no longer.
Service: Despite some of my comments early, service continues to be a strong suit for Celebrity. While I would say that the dining room was merely an 8/10 this time, our cabin steward, Jose from India (Goa) was simply great: polite, helpful and skilled, but not intrusive or obsequious. When I requested multiple limes (so not to bother him each day for one), he brought one already cut up, which was thoughtful. We tipped him considerably beyond the standard amount. Speaking of which, some reviewers mentioned that they no longer give gratuity vouchers, which I can verify. For us, this is a bit of a let down, since you feel like you are not tipping them on some level. When you tip additionally, it feels like a small tip, rather than a nice addition. I asked about this and the purser's desk said that each waiter/cabin steward member gets an electronic printout of each guest he is assigned and whether that guest is adjusting his gratuities. Even so, I would prefer something to give the staff to say thank you.
Officers/Senior Staff: The presence of the officers on this cruise was very noticeable, just like last year, and again, very much appreciated. We went to the Elite/Select cocktail party, which I believe used to be for all Captain's Club member (it's OK—now the cocktails are better), though we missed the Captain's Club party, which I hear are good. Unlike a couple of other cruises, the captain spoke perfect English. We spoke to several different mid-to-high level officers. Although I consider myself an introvert, I enjoy making small talk with these officers. They're interesting, intelligent, well-traveled and are very skilled at making you feel comfortable and classy. We also appreciated a technical talk on ship navigation given by Kostas, the safety officer, along with the opportunity to be out with some of them on the helipad when leaving Grenada. Also, a nice surprise was when Executive Chef Andy Bouchard stopped by our table for 2 asking how the food had been, and was their enough variety, etc. He recommended "Momma's Pork Chop" over the beef tornadoes for the second formal night—I should have heeded.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions: this was a nice itinerary. Not as nice as last year's, which was great, but that was a 10-day cruise.
St. Croix: Thanks to pwchief's good advice, we rented bikes on our own from Freedom City Cycles ($5/hour). They give priority to those who do the tour, and no one was there when we showed up at around 11am, but there was a sign saying they had bikes to rent by noon (I think only one guy was working that day). I won't repeat everything pwchief wrote, except to say everything he said was correct. Not a lot of traffic, so biking was safe (much safer than my bike to work, when I do it). My wife was worried about keeping up, but she was really glad we did it. While waiting, we spoke with a nice Dutch woman who lives on the island and bought some Cruzan rum for a whopping $8/liter.
St. Kitts: Like pwchief, we did the Catamaran Fan-ta-sea. Again, everything he said was correct: not great snorkeling (not much to see), but great sailing and a good crew. The only difference with pwchief's assessment, I would say, is that it felt slightly crowded on our catamaran. It was big, but I would guess there were at least 60 people on our cat. It was standing room only until we set sail. I prefer something smaller. But our crew did a nice job, and we met some nice people, and it was a full 5-6 hours. We booked this tour through the cruise line for $110/person.
Dominica: We went on a fairly strenuous hike to Middleham Falls, which is a beautiful 200-foot (roughly) falls. In the past I have taken the "strenuous" label that Celebrity gives its excursions a grain of salt. Not this one. We were one of four youngish couples, and we were climbing over wet rocks, swinging from vines, and hiking at a good clip. Unlike our more adventurous co-hikers, we did not jump off a 30 foot cliff into the pool of water at the bottom, but those who did, loved it. Our guide, Peter, was great. Very knowledgeable about Dominica's flora and fauna. He also had a gentle island charm. Great experience, and for $45 a person, worth it, though the one rum punch is served at a bar in Roseau. No other food or beverages are provided, except those you eat off the trees, so bring water.
Grenada: With our friends from back home, we hired a taxi to take us Magazine Beach and Aquarium restaurant, as we have done on our previous visits to Grenada. It was $20 each way for all four of us, though I verified that rate with the Grenada Tourism booth in the pier, and then made sure to quote it to the driver. This is quite good, considering it's about a 20-25 minute cab ride. It is an uncrowded, postcard perfect beach, the restaurant people are nice, had great drinks and clean facilities. Our friends seemed to enjoy it. There are a few vendors, but not overrun and a polite "no" sends them away. I recognized one from previous visits and we had a long conversation with him. I gave him my T-shirt, since he admired it so much. Our driver came back on-time to pick us up and was very pleasant. The dock area has some decent souvenir shops in a mall (postcards, all forms of Grenadian spices, duty free liquor, etc.).
Tobago: The area around the dock is not good, as we knew from our first visit. We thought about going to Pigeon Point, but we were beached out after Grenada. So we stayed on the ship, except for a vain search for tonic water (the very polite shopkeeper in the ferry terminal was sold out—but I bought Coke with real sugar from her).
Disembarkation: This was good, though it took a little longer than previously. We were not released until about 9:45 or so, and we weren't the last number to be called. The advantage of this slow releasing of passengers was a short line getting through customs and none finding a taxi, unlike last year. The trip to SJU was painless and takes about 15 minutes. Be sure to get in line for the USDA baggage inspection before checking in. United check-in was fast and efficient, a welcome change from Dulles. The duty free shop past security provides a convenient way to bring liquor home, which we did, but the prices aren't a steal compared with the shops in port. Flight home was nice, and even a bit early.
Some Final Thoughts: While some of this review may come across as slightly negative, it is probably because we have had such great prior experiences on Celebrity—especially our previous 10-day on Millennium last March—that this one seemed slightly off in comparison. That said, we had a great time and it was still a good deal. We paid $1900 for a Concierge Class cabin, including taxes. Not quite the bargain that last year's was, but no complaints.
Though we don't know when we will cruise Celebrity next, we booked a future cruise credit on this cruise. For a $100 (non-refundable) deposit to get a $100-$300 on-board credit seems like a good deal. We are thinking of trying Azamara (if our schedules will allow) to experience a more upscale, adult-centric experience. While the 14-day Southern Caribbean cruise on the Constellation looks amazing, it's likely too hard for my wife's schedule. We may also try Holland America or return to Princess for the right itinerary, maybe a partial Panama Canal. We are concerned the Solstice ships might be a bit too big for our taste. That said, I'm sure we will one day be back on a Celebrity cruise, especially as we are nearing "Elite" status, which comes with perks with significant value, such as internet, laundry and cocktail hours each night.