To put things in perspective: We paid relatively very little for this 13 night TA (some $900 p.p. for a Concierge class balcony cabin) so we tried to adjust our expectations accordingly. Unfortunately, Celebrity managed to deliver a product which, on balance, fell below even that reduced level. First impressions do tend to color the nature of one's judgment and embarkation in Barcelona was an utter fiasco, the worst we've ever encountered. We had to wait on the pier for over four hours and, in spite of being Concierge Class and Captain's Club elite status, which ought to count for something, were put in the very last embarkation group. When we finally complained about this, we were given a totally dismissive answer, being told that, as we were not suite passengers, we should'nt complain. We eventually discovered that the delay was the result of the ship undergoing a complete sanitizing procedure due to the novovirus which had taken hold on the vessel for the last several voyages. If there had been an announcement explaining the circumstances this might have engendered more patience among the waiting passengers (force majeure cannot, after all, be argued with) but Celebrity kept stubbornly mum.
Once aboard, after noting that the usual Celebrity welcoming ceremonies were being dispensed with, we were told that the cabins would not be ready for occupancy for another three hours. Everyone managed to cope with this additional delay, even though it meant that the first night's dinner became more of an informal occasion than one might have expected. Once in our cabin, we noted with pleasure that the on Constellation, unlike on the new ships, the Concierge Class cabins are in fact noticeably bigger, allowing room for a full sized couch instead of the cramped love seat that one finds in the run of the mill cabins. Indeed, we were extremely pleased with the cabin and with the faultless and invariably cheerful service provided by our steward, Amat. As for the other Concierge class amenities, fresh fruit, a small plate of canapes brought around daily in mid afternoon, a bottle of undistinguished bubbly provided at embarkation, they were hardly worth the extra money and in the ongoing debate on these boards on Concierge vs. Aqua Class on the big ships I would come down strongly in favor of the latter.
On board, the anti novovirus campaign which had been shrouded in secrecy before we boarded, was omnipresent. At every doorway crew members were stationed with spray bottles of disinfectant for one's hands. At the buffet noone was allowed to help himself to anything, all foods, breads, drinks were dispensed by crew members, at peak times at least half the tables had signs on them announcing they were unavailable because they awaited sanitizing. Even though this occasioned some delays this was fine with us, we are all in favor of combatting infection. What we objected to was that although the casino and all the shops, certainly notorious venues of infection, (one may disinfect the chips, the cards, the merchandise, but the first time any of these are handled by a passenger they once more become a potential source of infection) the library, which unlike the former venues is not a revenue producer, was kept closed throughout the voyage. Complaints about this elicited, at first, vague promises that it would open soon, later airy dismissals. It was evident to us that Celebrity's position was a completely cynical one: there were not enough passengers seriously interested in obtaining books to justify the expense and trouble of santizing the library. All this could have been avoided if Celebrity had posted a notice on its web site ahead of time that the library would be closed so that one could bring one's own reading matter aboard(this was known, as it was closed throughout the first half of the Back to Back) but, God forbid, such an announcement could have had a negative effect on last minute bookings. Even so, the sanitizing campaign was unsuccessful: in spite of the Captain's confident pronouncement that "we are winning the battle" a substantial proportion of the passengers came down with some sort of gastro-intestinal or respiratory infection, or both.
Our major source of compaint, however, was the quality of the food on offer. The fare at the buffet, while as varied as ever, was simply not as good to our taste. The room service menu, except at breakfast, was extremely limited and not well prepared (on the day we took sick I recall a mini steak which was both incredibly tough an thoroughly overcooked). But it was the main dining room which had declined most steeply from the level we had experienced on Constellation five years and three years ago. I would say the gamut was from good (I recall an eminently satisfactory veal cutlet and a nicely prepared, if oversalted, veal liver) to mediocre (most of the entrees, including all fish, which were invariably tasteless, most of them having simply been boiled in water) to outright bad, including all steaks, which were without exception tough, inferior quality meat, and a truly disastrous lobster which was served on the last formal night. This consisted of cut up, previously boiled chunks of meat, mixed with potatoes and a vile sauce and inserted in a half shell to give one the impression that one was being served the real thing. This had no business on the table of any cruise line, much less one that claims to be well above the average. A further complaint is that at the time at which we booked, six months ahead of the cruise, we requested a table for two and were assured that this would be forthcoming. When we went to the main dining room we were seated at a table for six and, upon speaking to the maitre d'hotel, were informed that there was simply no table for two free. We ate at the specialty restaurant, Ocean Liners, one evening. There the food was truly excellent, I had a memorable lamb saddle. So, the moral is, if one wishes to eat well one has to dine there every evening. However, the cost is now $40 p.p., in addition to a cover charge of $10 p.p.(plus 15% service charge). Over a thirteen night cruise this increases the price by $1,595 for two, never mind that the less expensive wines available in the main dining room are not on offer there. I have come to the conclusion that, if the total cost rises up into that range, I would be better served to throw in a few hundred dollars more and book on one of the premium lines (Azamara, Oceania) or on those luxury lines that, occasionally, offer an affordable TA voyage (Seabourne, Sea Dream).
What did we like about the crossing: As I've mentioned already, our cabin was more than satisfactory, large enough for two with ample storage space. The evening entertainment, for the most part, was excellent. We very much enjoyed the very talented classical pianist and the equally good Irish soprano, as well as the highly professional dancers and musicians. The one ship's excursion we booked, the bus trip to Teneriffe's National Park, was eminently worthwhile, with a truly startling landscape upon arrival and, for once, it wasn't egregiously overpriced. And, the Captain's Club amenities constituted a real bonus. It was a pleasure to get a whole week's laundry from our pre cruise trip through Spain done for free and the 90 minute free Internet access p.p. was more than adequate to our needs. Although we aren't morning drinkers and consequently didn't partake of the Bloody Marys, Mimosas and Champagne on offer, we very much enjoyed the breakfasts in the Ocean Liners, with the specialty coffees made with much better tasting coffee than was available in the other dining venues and unlimited quantities of truly excellent smoked salmon and delicious almond croissants. The complimentary cocktail hour was truly welcome. Perhaps, as my Charming Dinner Companion who is a wine drinker, remarked, the quality of the wines being passed around might have been a tad better, but I had no complaint whatsoever about the quality of the Scotch and our table companions, who are Martini drinkers, informed us that those, as well, were excellent. And my CDC was extremely pleased with the complimentary water color classes and dance lessons as well as with the hair cut she got in the spa.
Over all, then, a mixed bag. It may well be that on the regular cruises, which are more expensive, the food is better. But we take exclusively TA cruises, generally two a year, and for me that was the deal breaker. I look forward to our Azamara TA in the Spring, in the hope that my judgment will turn out to be correct.