We just got back from our first cruise and everyone in our party loved the experience, to the point that 2 days after our return, my parents booked again with Celebrity: a 14 day TransPanamanian cruise.
Colleagues of mine have long trumpeted the great experience of cruise ships, Celebrity in particular. So I finally decided to organize a trip to try it out with my wife and my parents. My wife and I are 40 and 39 respectively, My parents are both 60.
In preparation for booking my first cruise, I spent a lot of time reading ship reviews and readers comments on bulletin boards. I found the information invaluable and I was grateful for the time people spent writing. In thanks, here is my small contribution (pay it forward).
Before I begin, I would like to say that I have tried as mush as possible to give an even handed and constructive critique of our experience.
Cruise: 6 day West Caribbean cruise -- January 16th to 21st, 2005. Ship: Celebrity Summit room 8043 and 8056. Port of departure: Fort Lauderdale. Destination: Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, Cozumel.
Embarkation (A): Our package included the transfer from airport to ship. Celebrity people were waiting with their placard held high as we got to the airport luggage area. They told us to gather under a particular sign once we recovered our luggage. Once everyone was gathered (about 12 people) they walked us to the next terminal (3 minute walk). We were then handed to another friendly Celebrity staff member. After a 5 minute wait we were ushered to the bus and drove for 15 minutes to the port terminal. There we went rapidly through security, the check in counter to receive our cruise pass, pictures for security and souvenir pictures to commemorate the beginning of our trip. About 40 minutes elapsed from the time we had our luggage in hand to being in our cabin.
Room quality (B): We all found the ship to be very clean. Our room was a nice size. There was plenty of storage space (including under the beds). The shower size was decent (we could squeeze in 2 together). Some people might find the beds a bit too firm, but we slept like babies. Noise was not an issue with the hallway or the adjacent rooms. Surprisingly there were some cleanliness issues: -- There was a quarter size stain on our bedspread. -- As I had previously read on a review, the toilet seat seemed weather beaten. The seat was clean but some of the enamel was cracked and chipped (how this comes to be I don't know). -- As I had previously read on a review, there was some mild mould in the shower area and a rust stain in one corner of the bathroom. Personally it wasn't bad enough to bother my wife and I. I've seen worse in 3 star Caribbean resorts (I guess the heat and humidity of the tropics makes it a recurring problem). In comparison, my parent's room and bathroom were spotless. Note: A couple at our dinner table had room 8048 and told us they had a mobile cleaning platform stored in front of their balcony. I later took the time to check this out and found that they did indeed have these platforms on every floor . They slide on rails that circumvent the ship and seem to be stored at the extremities of each ship section (where the ship's width changes). Something to look at before you book. The couple complained, But they were stuck with it for the duration of the trip.
Service (A): We found all the staff to be friendly and helpful. Here are a few anecdotes:
On the first formal night we ordered room service to hold us over as we got ready for our 8:30 late seating. As our steward was delivering our food I was taking out my shirt only to realize it was quite wrinkled. I knew there was a laundry service on the boat, but you had to ask for it before 9:00 a.m. With my steward before me, I asked him if he had a iron I could borrow in a pinch. He promptly took my shirt and told me he would fix it if I was willing to pay the regular 2$ ironing fee. Within 15 minutes I had a beautifully pressed shirt delivered in person. Now to me, that is service.
I lost my credit card in Grand Cayman. I saw the 8$ minute fee for ship to shore phone calls in my room and decided to see the concierge (before spending 100$ waiting on hold for a Visa agent.) The concierge called the phone number on my wife's credit card and then handed me the phone. In 5 minutes my card was cancelled and a new one sent to my home. All at no cost. I then went to the ship's bank and had the credit card information changed for our billing.
Our waitress in the main dining room was fantastic (Magdelena from Poland). On our first night of dining, my wife ordered some sort of breaded veal that was not to her liking. I promptly told my wife that she should not be shy about asking for something else. As soon as she asked our waitress for something different apologies were given and a different meal quickly replaced. The maitre d' then came over to make sure that everything was to her liking. Apart from that incident the food during the whole cruise was great.
During morning and lunch buffets staff were usually there to assist you with carrying your tray to your table.
Service for drinks at lounges was not always quick but adequate.
On the 2 first dinners of our cruise a couple at our table was ordering wine by the glass. However, when it came time to order a second glass, the sommelier was nowhere to be found. The couple would inform our waitress of their desire to order wine and she would go running in search of the sommelier. On the 3rd night the maitre d' came over to our table apologizing about the wine service and informing us that a new sommelier had been assigned to our table.
One morning I sat down with my wife for breakfast and noticed that music was playing on the speakers. Normally the setting was quite peaceful in that area of the ship. But listening to Eminem and other rap impresarios at 7:00 a.m. was a bit much for me. Within 2 minutes a server came to refill our coffee cups. I politely asked him if it would be possible to turn down the music a notch. He immediately went to the galley and turned off the music. (I guess this was their motivational music while setting up shop, waiting for the first customers to roll in.)
Rule of thumb: if something bothers you, don't sit there fuming and complaining on how terrible things are. My experience has been that the crew wants to please, unfortunately they are not psychic. Furthermore each client is different: one passenger's nirvana is another passengers hell. In most cases: ask and you shall receive.
Food (A-): The quality and variety of food was very good. The food at the Cosmopolitan restaurant (5 course meal) was usually very good. There was only one dish during the whole week where I found that the meat was a bit tough. If you go with the chef's recommendation you won't go wrong.
We ate at the Normadie restaurant (30$ premium) for my wife's birthday. Well worth the extra money. Food, service and ambiance were excellent. Reserve quickly though. The restaurant was already fully reserved for the week when I enquired at 10 p.m. on the first day of our cruise. Only by being first on a reserve list and by inquiring daily did I manage to get in.
The healthy eating menu at the Aquaspa Cafe and the sushi bar (aft part of the Waterfall Cafe) were wonderful.
For those that lack imagination or a culinary pallet, there is always the Waterfall Grill where you can get burgers, pizza and fries. There is also a pasta bar at the Waterfall Cafe.
One thing that surprised me (since I didn't read about it in the forums) was to find out that one could reserve casual dining during the entire cruise. So if dressing up isn't your thing, don't fret, there a place for you every night at the Waterfall Cafe. So there is something for everybody.
Entertainment (B): I found all the shows done by the Celebrity singers and dancers to be delightful. The aerialists were at times amazing (could work for Cirque du Soleil anytime). There were also 2 special guests during the week (I forget their names). One was a British stage singer that was very good. The second was another Brit, versatile on 4 different instruments. She seemed nervous, her jokes floundered and she could have done with a bit more practice (the couple at our dinner table however found her wonderful).
We only spent the first day poolside (with all other days on excursions). I found the pool area relatively restful. The activities staff made a few forays at entertaining but the crowd's enthusiasm was mild. If you are looking for poolside with fun fun fun and staff blaring encouragement on loudspeakers all day, this isn't a ship for you. The band Prodigy played a few sets in the afternoon and I found them to be of average quality. For total peace and quiet lounge at the AquaSpa. Note: there was some lounge chair hogging by the pool (but plenty of space on the upper deck). Personally, I don't take a towel laying on a chair as an indication of possession. So I am not shy about taking a deck chair that has a towel on it. At worst I would apologize and move on (IF the person ever shows up). I found that most lounge chairs with towels on them stayed empty for hours on end, so why not take advantage of it.
Ports of Call:
Ocho Rios: Dunn's River Falls. Only 3 miles from the ship, my wife and I took a taxi (10$ US) there and paid 10$ US each to get in plus 10$ US taxi back to the ship. That's 40$ US for 2. Celebrity wanted 37$ US per person. Do things on your own, it's a lot cheaper and you can keep your own schedule. The falls themselves are beautiful and worth the trip, but be ready for the mass of people climbing them. From the ship we walked into town to do some shopping. For the uninitiated this could be an uncomfortable experience since the Jamaicans are continually harassing you. Even once you are in the gated shopping areas, the salespeople are relentless.
Grand Cayman: Celebrity had no excursion on the internet for Stingray City, so I booked with Captain Marvin via internet. This outfit is 2 blocks from the pier and therefore convenient. Once on the Celebrity Summit, Stingray City was offered (46 versus my 39$ excursion). Unfortunately the trip was cancelled (for the 3rd straight day) because of the swells in the bay. So from the pier we took a 15$ minivan ride to Hell and the Turtle Farm and got off at 7 Mile Beach (which was sheltered from the waves) and snorkeled. I was surprised to still se so much destruction 4 months after the hurricane. There are still several establishments waiting for available labour and construction materials.
Cozumel: This was my 5th time on the island. If you like to Scuba, this is the place. It has changed since the last time I was here in 1992. My jaw dropped as we arrived in port to find that we were EIGHT cruise ships visiting that day. My wife and mother did the swim with dolphins experience at Chankanaab. Under the advice of a colleague who previously missed out on the dolphin experience, I booked this excursion well in advance with Celebrity. I was disappointed but not surprised to see how commercial the dolphin experience has become. I did it at Puerto Aventuras 13 years ago and it was a personable experience with only 12 people in a huge basin (it is no longer like that). At Cozumel (same dolphin company) you have a basin half the size with different sections cordoned off: 5 groups of 12 doing the dolphin touch and 3 groups of 12 doing the swim with dolphins. So you've got almost 100 people in the water, with another 100 on the docks waiting their turn. But what you don't know won't hurt you: my wife and mother absolutely loved the experience. We all spent the rest of the day lounging in the sand, snorkeling and visiting the rest of Chankanaab. We all found it to be an enjoyable place (not overly crowded despite all the cruise ships).
Debarkation (D): What a bad way to end an enjoyable experience. We were told to congregate at the cinema at 9 a.m. for debarkation. After an hour of waiting with no crew member present and no announcements on the intercom, people were getting restless (some had early flights to catch). Finally at 10 a.m. someone shows up to guide us off the boat. As we were walking out of the cinema the crew member was almost mauled by the scores of people sitting impatiently on the floor in the hallway. Reason: as we walked past them his walkie-talkie blared a voice saying ''Whatever you do, keep them under control as best you can.'' In all honesty I don't think the delay was Celebrity's fault (although they could have handled it better). There were only 2 immigration officials to handle all 2000 passengers. Once we got thru customs we got our bags (which were real easy to find since there were hardly any left), we waited 20 minutes for the bus to drive us to the airport. (At this point Celebrity is out of the picture.) The airport was pure chaos, the bus had trouble pulling in at each terminal because of the traffic. The bus driver told us that on weekends Fort Lauderdale can receive up to 14 cruise ships a day. Clearly the airport doesn't have the infrastructure to handle the volume of transfers. Once we got off the bus we were amazed to find that the check-in counter for our airline was OUTSIDE ON THE SIDEWALK. After that line up we encountered another line-up for the X-ray of our check-in luggage. Again the system was completely overwhelmed, with suitcases piled all around the machines that just couldn't keep up. We finally got to the boarding gate at 1 p.m. for our 2 p.m. flight. That's a 4 hour transfer. We were lucky, because most people were having their flights delayed or cancelled as a winter storm was hitting the east coast.
I hope this review was helpful.
P.S. Too often I have read scathing comments from a disgruntled reader who is willing to trash a whole cruise because of one bad experience. You will probably find that your cruise enjoyment will reflect your view on life. If you are easy going and enjoy life, chances are you'll enjoy your cruise. If you have an axe to grind or you are bitter and disappointed in life or you think you deserve better because you feel you got a bum rap in life, then you'll probably find something drastically wrong with your cruise.
Also, perspective is the key. What value did you get for the dollar. Some people seem to want to pay for a Pinto and then complain that it doesn't drive like a Porshe. The mid-range cruise ship offers transportation (ports of call), lodging, meals and entertainment for 100$ to 150$ a day per person. You will be disappointed if your expecting the same experience as if you had gone to Vegas and spent 300$ on a room, 200$ a ticket for a show (Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion) and 100$ per person for a 5 course French meal. That's 450$ per person (double occupancy), not 150$.