My wife and I are in our early 50s, very active and seldom take ship's tours (due to not wanting to be part of the herd moving around at port, we like being off on our own). This was our 16th cruise and we had always said that we have never had a bad cruise. We still haven't, although this cruise is likely our least favorite of all of the cruises we have taken to date. It was a good cruise, although not great (as had been the case with some of the others).
This cruise is a 13-day transatlantic crossing from Barcelona to Fort Lauderdale, with port stops in Malaga and Cadiz, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal and Ponta Delgada, Azores. We also spent the prior 12 days onboard the Solstice for the Mediterranean cruise, which was a comparatively younger and more active cruise. This transatlantic cruise felt more like a floating nursing home.
Embarkation in Barcelona was expected to be late due to the noro virus breakout on the previous cruise. We were on that cruise and were asked to get off the ship that day to allow for a thorough cleaning. Celebrity offered a free shore excursion as part of this request, which was a nice touch on their part. We had planned to go to Montserrat on the train, so we took the Celebrity tour there instead. In retrospect, we wished we had taken the train, since we had little time at Montserrat and were there at the wrong time of the day to see the key attractions. Anyway, that aside, Celebrity did their best to get everyone off the ship and the offer of a free shore excursion was a good thing to do on their part. We were assured that as back-to-back (B2B) cruisers, we would be escorted back onboard in a special line. That didn't turn out as planned. Yes, they did have a special line for B2B cruisers, but given that there were over 400 of us (out of 2800 total guests), they didn't prepare adequately and that line ended up being far longer than the lines for those joining the cruise in Barcelona, so the wait times were excessive. In addition, we ended up being herded through the area where pictures were being taken, rather than simply escorted back on ship, as was promised.
The expectation was that the ship would be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized and we would no longer be under the lockdown of the noro virus when we got back onboard. However, they continued the restricted activities for the entire cruise, which impacted the overall level of service on the cruise. I'm not sure what happened that they kept the ship under lockdown (the term used by the crew to describe the curtailed services during the noro virus outbreak) the entire cruise, but if they had everyone get off the ship, perhaps they also had some of those who were sick get off the ship and onto the free shore excursion tours? If so, that would have simply infected more people. Anyway, it was a severe restriction in the overall level of service throughout the ship, since they had so many more people assigned to serving in the lido (Oceanview Cafe) and additional cleaning activities (such as the ever-present hand sanitizers squirters at the entrance to the restaurants and even when entering the shops, as well as constantly wiping down bannister railings, etc.), which took away from other areas. The dining room service was slowed considerably. While we were asked to be patient several times throughout the cruise, that the crew was doing the best they could, it had a big impact on the level of service on the cruise. I do not fault the crew for this, but the management of the ship. I am sad to say that I am an RCL shareholder (RCL owns Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara) and this cruise showed a lack of overall management and training. The crew and staff were not adequately trained for handling this type of noro virus outbreak and it was an ongoing inefficient level of service, which, in the end, was apparently was not effective in stopping the noro virus. As if throwing a larger number of people at it would somehow solve it, rather than look at the processes themselves. Also, we were told that many of the crew were putting in extra and double shifts. As a former HR professional, this gives me cause to pause to consider what they were asking of the crew, apparently for no additional pay in return. If anything, the overall level of service went down and those who paid tips outside of automatic tipping (or additional tips) would likely have given less, rather than more. Several joked about this being the Oliver Twist cruise. "Please, sir, may I have more?" with hand in plate, waiting and hoping that the crew would see you and give you a morsel of bread. OK, it really wasn't that bad, but it certainly did not live up to the "Live like a celebrity" tagline used by Celebrity.
So the noro virus thing was a definite damper on the overall cruise experience. Our conclusion is that we will not again take a cruise that has this combination: 1) large ship (over 2,000 passengers); and 2) majority of passengers arriving on long haul international flights. That combination means that there is a much higher likelihood of a noro virus outbreak. So a large ship (including this one) from a domestic port, such as Florida, probably would be fine. But when you combine a large ship with an itinerary such as this (transatlantic, where more than 90% of the passengers were coming from the US), it's a recipe for noro virus soup.
The other thing that surprised us with this itinerary is the age range of the passengers. My wife and I (we are both early 50s) were younger than 98% of the other passengers. There were approximately 8-10 children onboard, 8-10 teenagers and maybe 30-40 adults younger than us. That leaves a whopping 2,700+ passengers older than us, some considerably older. I had not expected that this would be a floating nursing home, but about 20% of the passengers seemed that they could have been on leave from the nursing home and most of the passengers would be considered elderly (not just old, elderly). So there was a very slow pace to the cruise itself. We had never done a transatlantic (and probably will not again), so perhaps this is typical of all transatlantic cruises. The onboard activities seemed to reflect this age group as well. We have been on Royal Caribbean several times as well (this was our third Celebrity cruise) and the age range was much younger and the activities were, well, more active. This is probably a decent cruise if you are 65+ and would like to simply sit around and relax all day, playing bridge and dominoes. However, this is not a good cruise for you if you want to be active while onboard. I asked at Guest Relations one day (when requesting the daily newspaper, which you had to stand in line to request, another byproduct of the noro virus precautions) about whether all transatlantic cruises have passengers this old and she said yes, the elderly like this cruise because there are so many sea days where you don't have to get off the ship.
We had a balcony cabin on the 6th floor (6235) on port side on the hump and were very, very pleased that we were on the outside of the hump. Look closely at your balcony cabin selection for this ship or you may be disappointed. First of all, the port side had the sun for the transatlantic crossing. It would have been much more difficult to be starboard side for the week plus of the crossing and never see the sun. But in general, most of the balcony cabins on the 6th floor have an obstructed view, although most are not listed as such by Celebrity. Look at a map of the ship (such as the one here at CruiseCritic) to understand which cabins are obstructed and which are not (although the map itself does not show the obstruction, see my following notes). Any of the cabins on the outside of the hump or within two of the outside on the angle are not obstructed. However, the balcony cabins forward of 6235 (which is located near at the stern stairway/elevator bank) in the center of the ship that are not on the hump have a lifeboat that is almost at the level of the railing in front of the cabin. So while were were able to see almost straight down into the sea and could watch dolphins, etc., these cabins only have a view further out at the horizon. The cabins toward the rear of the ship not on the hump also have a partially obstructed view, since the lifeboats are not as large in this area, but the winches to launch them are still just as high. Even the balconies on higher floors (such as 7, 8, 9, etc.) have a partially blocked sea view when looking down at say a 45 degree angle. So consider this fully when you book your balcony cabin to avoid disappointment. One other thing to consider with a balcony on the 6th deck port side is that the 5th deck port side promenade (which is not much of a promenade, since most of it is blocked by lifeboats) is a smoking area, so the cigarette smoke will be directly below your balcony, which may bother some people. This is especially apparent on the bump-out portion, where the smokers tend to congregate directly below (since the view is not obstructed by lifeboats).
The cabin itself was nicely appointed and worked well for us for the 25 days (this cruise and the one prior). Although I had read complaints on other reviews of the overhead storage above the beds, we found it to be quite helpful for storing additional items that were not needed on a daily basis. However, I can see how the overhead storage would be difficult to reach for an elderly person with mobility issues. One other interesting design note is that the bed has rounded corners. So if you are either tall or sleep with your toes hanging off the end of the bed (as I do), you may find this bed design to be a challenge. Yet I've stubbed my toes on the corners of rectangular beds on past cruises and never did with this one, due to the rounded corners. Good for getting around the cabin, not as good for sleeping. Although the bed itself was very comfortable otherwise. The TV is a Samsung flat screen, about 30-32" and worked well for the variety of TV and movie offerings (including a large number of free on demand movies) in the cabin. It has a decent interface that worked well most of the time, although there were some issues with both sound lockout and being frozen in the middle of a movie (requiring a full reboot of the system, not obvious how to do this unless you are a techie, ask your cabin steward if this happens). We typically did not watch much TV or movies on past cruises, but found ourselves doing so on this cruise due to the lack of available entertainment on the ship. The bathroom area is the standard small bathroom layout, although we found the shower area to be larger than other ships. Yes, you could actually drop the soap and pick it up without having to step outside the shower. The balcony area had a small table and two chairs that recline almost flat to become loungers. My wife at times brought the vinyl padded backs to the couch out onto the balcony to make a padded area on which to lay out in the sun. In a design flaw on the ship, the opaque glass separating the balconies (which could be opened if you have adjoining rooms with family members) would rattle with vibration of the ship. The quick fix was to simply roll up some paper to force in between the glass and the separator, problem solved. Another design flaw that only showed up on days that they were cleaning the balcony directly above (twice during the cruise) was that the water drainage channel leaked (we're talking gallons, not just drips) onto the front half of our balcony. We alerted the room steward, but apparently nothing could be done to fix it until dry dock (which is scheduled for January 2012, although just for one week). One specific area of concern we had with this cabin is that the door is in full view of the hallway in front of the stairwell. Just be careful when opening the door that you don't expose your spouse to the world. In a rather weird design quirk, the peep hole in the door sent a laser of light from the lobby area directly to the bed at night. Since we didn't have a cover over the peep hole, we had to stuff some tissue in there to block the light. Regarding noise, the cabin was fairly well insulated. The only exception was the one evening when they did Dancing with the Stripes in the 3rd floor lobby and there were people watching from all of the atrium levels (including our level, 6th level). People were screaming (yes, screaming, since the level of noise was how they determined the winner) from our deck level (this happened on both of our cruises) and it was also rather late at night, so either go to bed late that night or expect to be awakened by screaming in the nearby atrium. The cabin steward (Rufina) was excellent and was always there to meet any of the needs of the cabin and to keep things clean and tidy.
One additional note about the ship is that it does not have a self-service laundry room, as we have found on other ships where we have been on long voyages. So on a longer cruise (we were on for 25 days with our B2B 12-day and 13-day cruises), you will have to plan for the additional expense of cleaning your clothes through the onboard service (which is quite expensive, can run into hundreds of dollars just for doing laundry for two people, not including any dry cleaning) or take a part of one of your shore days to track down a local laundry service.
The entertainment onboard was both excellent and average. The singers and dancers were quite good, some were even outstanding. While most singers and dancers on cruise ships strike us as being not good enough for Broadway, the singers in particular were of a Broadway quality level. The shows provides were well staged and choreographed, especially "Celebrity, the Show" (their Cirque du Soliel type show). This show gave several of the dancers the opportunity to show their skills beyond dancing, including two dancers who were outstanding at strength gymnast moves as well as ballet moves. One of the dancers was outstanding at doing a hula hoop routine and another dancer was excellent with both yo-yo (yes, yo-yo) and juggling. The other mainline entertainers were good to excellent. We had Pete Matthews (comedy juggler) onboard, whom we had seen on a prior cruise. He was outstanding and we went to his show twice one night. Andy James, a sleight of hand magician, was also excellent. The other acts were good and kept us entertained in the evenings, we never felt the need to walk out of a performance early. However, once you got outside the headline shows at Solstice Theatre, the entertainment was average at best. There was an a capella quartet onboard (Blend Tech) that was quite good, but most of the time they performed in Entertainment Court on the 4th floor, which meant that most people were standing to watch them, and usually only for 15 minutes. So it was a good act, but not the best venue for their talents and not long enough for each performance. The other musical acts around the ship were typically lacking. Ray Brown Jr. Quartet played only so-so jazz with a limited repertoire (we heard the same songs repeated several times during the cruise) and typically had only a few people listening. Anton Marlokov was an acoustic guitarist who rarely had anyone actively listening, same thing for Igor Pasltsev on piano. The string trio, Voyage Strings Trio, was quite off and it was apparent that they lacked both talent and any sense of timing for playing together--I have seen street musicians who would put this group to shame. The DJ, Krazy Prince, was simply a guy with a laptop loaded with iTunes, going from one song to the next. None of these acts had any level of engagement with the audience. The party band, Top Notch, was a lively 6-person band that was the only one really worth watching. Top Notch had real energy, even though they lacked an appropriate venue in which to perform in the evening (the only venue that worked well for them was the Sky Lounge on the 14th floor or the pool deck on 12, yet they were typically playing in the 3rd floor foyer area). In addition to the lackluster performances of most of the entertainers (Blend Tech and Top Notch being the exceptions), the timing and scheduling left much to be desired. Most sets were short--as little as 15 minutes (in the case of Blend Tech) to 60 minutes max and often the entertainers quit before their scheduled time (Top Notch consistently shut down 5-10 minutes early, apparently to give time to pack up their instruments). There were often times when there was literally nothing taking place onboard the ship during the evening and when there was entertainment, it was a max one hour set. Not sure if this was a scheduling error or if it was part of Celebrity's attempt to get you to gamble or shop (always open). Another real miss was not having a consistent outdoor pool band. Although we had temps around 70 each day during the transatlantic portion and plenty of people laying out by the pool, Top Notch only performed a few times and only for an hour each day. They needed a good Caribbean band playing by the pool during the day and a good piano bar singer in the evening, but didn't have either. Maybe they add these on the Caribbean itineraries, but that was not the case with this cruise.
The food onboard in the main dining room was good to excellent and the service was good, although somewhat slow. We tried two of the specialty restaurants, Murano and Tuscan Grille, both were excellent both in terms of food and service, although debatable if they are worth the extra cover charge ($40/pp for Murano and $30/pp for Tuscan Grill). Feedback from others on Silk Harvest ($25/pp cover charge) was consistently negative. We likely would have purchased the discounted 3 dinner package at $70/pp (vs. $95 separately) at the beginning of the second cruise but for the negative reviews on Silk Harvest. We also ate at the crepes restaurant (Bistro on Five), which was well worth the minimal cover charge ($5/pp). As we had experienced in the past, you need to come there hungry and be willing to leave food if you are going to get through each course. Ask for partial/half portions to keep the portion size down, otherwise you won't make it all the way to dessert. We went a few times to Oceanview Cafe (their version of the lido) on the 14th floor, but the food there was average at best and the need for them to serve the food cafeteria style (due to the noro virus outbreak) took away from it being a viable venue. Because of this, you got the portion they gave you, rather than taking what you wanted. Getting the right portion of condiments and seasonings (even salt and pepper were restricted to servers) was next to impossible. And the service was extremely slow, since you had to wait in line at each food station. We also went to AquaSpa Cafe on deck 12 several times for breakfast and lunch and enjoyed it, as it was the only healthy alternative onboard. We did have room service for breakfast most mornings on our balcony and that worked out very nicely. Note that you can request things that are not on the room service pre-printed menu (as long as they are generally available) by simply writing it into an open area, then circling it. My wife usually had smoked salmon each morning, even though it wasn't listed on the menu. The lunches which we ate onboard on sea days were generally quite good in the main dining room and AquaSpa Cafe, although they were not as good in Oceanview Cafe. We generally try to avoid the buffet, so this wasn't a big issue for us. However, if your style is to eat many/most of your meals at the buffet, it was definitely of a lower quality than the main dining room. And this was the first cruise ship where we did not see trays provided in the buffet, so often the diners were juggling two plates and a drink. Needless to say, there were several drops along the way and the need to clean up after the drops.
The Cruise Director, Stuart, was probably our least favorite cruise director of all the cruises we have taken. He simply lacked an engaging personality, charm and wit that we have seen from other cruise directors. He mainly acted as the master of ceremonies introducing the acts, then after the act had completed, asking us to give another round of applause (which often felt obligatory at that point rather than spontaneous), then giving the pitch for other activities taking place onboard and finishing with his "Remember, wash your hands" instructions, like we are all two-year-olds. No real stage presence or charisma, he's in the wrong role. He was placed into the Cruise Director role after a successful stint at the crew activities director. He always seemed to be uncomfortable onstage and couldn't wait to hand over the microphone to the next act. His team also does the scheduling for the activities, which was very poorly executed. For example, the Beyond the Podium series typically had two speakers each day at sea, and several times they scheduled one at 12:15 and another at 1:30. The first speaker typically ended about 1:15. So if you wanted to see both speakers, you had to opt out of eating lunch or just grab a snack (since the main dining room is open 12:00-1:30 for lunch and the lunch buffet in the Oceanview Cafe is open from 12:00-2:30). The easy answer would have been to simply schedule these presentations for 10a (or 11a) and 2p (or 3p) to allow people time in between for lunch. As mentioned prior, there were typically dead spots each evening for activities and entertainment. Most lounge entertainers did sets of only 1 hour (and most quit early), after which you needed to move somewhere else for a different entertainer. Perhaps this is part of the Celebrity strategy for moving people around the ship to get them to gamble or shop in between, but we would have loved to have had a piano bar singer to stay with for the evening either before or after the headline show, yet not to be.
The sports activities onboard were severely lacking, but that was probably due to the age range of the guests. I showed up for dodgeball and I was the only one there. Kinda hard to play dodgeball when you're the only one. No pool activities like you would typically see on a warm weather cruise, even though the several days at sea on the crossing were very nice weather and could have used some sort of activity on the pool deck.
The Hot Glass Show is unique to Celebrity and very interesting. I went to the show several times and enjoyed watching them create different works of glass art. The lawn area immediately behind the glass show area was typically underutilized, with only an hour or two of scheduled events there each day. It would have been nice to have that area open all day for bocce ball, croquet and other lawn sports, especially since the more active sports were being cancelled due to lack of interest.
Table tennis was a popular activity onboard, although the venue used was less than ideal. While the tables were typically located in Quasar, an off to the side (and generally underutilized venue except for ping pong), they moved the tables out into Entertainment Court for the tournaments. The problem with that location is that it is also the traffic area where people move from one end of the ship to the other (particularly the Solstice Theatre, which has the main entry at that level nearby), so there are people walking into the playing area on a consistent basis, making a continuous game without a hinder rather difficult.
Solstice Theatre was utilized for Beyond the Podium speakers during the sea days. Some of these speakers (such as Dr. Holly Grant and Anthony Dalton, sponsored by Smithsonian) were excellent, telling stories that went far beyond their PowerPoint presentations. Others (such as Dr. Kathleen Wulf) were simply recitations of their PowerPoint slides, which consisted only of research they had done to put together the presentation. In the latter case, it just felt like she had put together the presentation to get a free cruise and she presented like it was a sixth grade history class, with her husband operating the PowerPoint slides (probably to get him a free cruise as well?). The other speakers (sponsored by Smithsonian) were seasoned speakers and storytellers, bringing their topics to life.
The Internet connection onboard is the typical satellite connection with its characteristic works sometimes performance. I used my mobile phone to access my e-mail and was able to send and receive all of my e-mails each morning and evening with only 1 minute of connectivity. However, general Internet surfing was painfully slow, almost like going back to dial-up days. And I'm lucky that all of my friends and family heeded my request not to send large attachments, which would have had a big impact in my daily download.
The ship has a few interesting nooks and crannies that aren't obvious. One is the deck space immediately in front of the Fitness Center on the 12th floor in front of the ship. This area was underutilized and unknown to most, although Celebrity did not always have the furniture out on the deck. But it is a nice quiet area for sail ins. Another is deck 16, which is a great place for laying out in the sun on a busy day.
There is a 1/8 mile walking track on the 14th floor (one deck above the pool deck on 12, there is no 13), although it is in a less-than-deal location, since the Oceanview Cafe is also located on deck 14 instead of 12 (most other cruise ships have it on the same level as the pool deck, Solstice has it one level higher). Due to the location of the cafe, many of the overfed buffet eaters waddle from the front of the ship (where the cafe/buffet is located) to the rear (where their elevator bank is located) along the outdoor walking track. You can walk quickly, you just have to be prepared to walk around those who are just using it as a hallway, not a walking track. During our 25 days onboard, I only saw three people attempt to use it as a jogging track and they spent most of their time dodging people on the track.
The pools (two outdoors, one indoors) are too small to swim laps, but are large enough if you are just looking for a good soaking. There are six hot tubs (four outdoor, two indoor) that have bubbles, but no jets, So don't except an invigorating Jacuzzi jet, they are more just for relaxing. The indoor solarium area has several very comfortable and intimate seating areas, perhaps the best setup we have seen on any cruise ship. Great when it's cooler outside, although probably not used as much during warmer weather in the Caribbean.
While activities like a bridge tour, galley tour and other behind-the-scenes tours are typically offered on ships of other cruise lines for free, Celebrity offers them at a charge. Just one more way to squeeze out another dollar, but we had done all of these before on other ships (for free), so we did not do them on this cruise.
The ship itself is huge, so we were rather surprised at both: 1) the amount of movement we encountered, especially in our first sea day after Lisbon; and 2) the amount of creaking in the ship. We have experienced similar amounts of movement in previous cruises (where the entire line of people walking appeared to be drunk, swaying from side to side in the corridors), but it had always been on smaller ships. We were surprised that such a large ship could not stay stable. There were quite a few people experiencing seasickness, which likely further contributed to the noro virus lockdown (since the medical staff may view any type of sickness as potentially being noro). Also, we had never heard such a large amount of creaking on the ship. One passenger commented that it sounded like we were breaking up. It was quite loud, both in the cabins at night while sleeping as well as in the common areas (especially around the steps). While the ship had several nice design elements (such as the lawn court on the 15th deck), it also had its share of design flaws, which created chokepoints for traffic flow. This, combined with the advanced age of most of the cruisers, meant that you simply had to walk slowly when going through any public area. There are only four exits from the Solstice Theatre, two of which are from the balcony, so it takes a large amount of time to funnel everyone out through those chokepoints. At least they did not typically setup the t-shirt sales in the hallways, a trademark of Royal Caribbean's ships we have sailed. It is a smoking ship, although the smokers are restricted to just a few public areas. Is it a beautiful ship? It is a nice ship, although not really beautiful. It's simply a mass market ship designed to provide a maximum number of balcony cabins. Because it is newer (built in 2008), the ship was overall in good shape with no signs of wear-and-tear showing up yet.
Disembarkation was an unexpected nightmare. It felt like being in a long, snaking Disneyland queue, except that everyone was dragging suitcases with them. Several elderly passengers simply cut the line and said they refused to stand in a line that long, so the rest of us just waited that much longer. Celebrity simply wanted everyone off the ship. Further disorganization once we exited the building for the taxi line. Overall poorly managed on the part of Celebrity. It was like they didn't know they would have that many people arriving in port that day?
Would we go on the Solstice again? Probably not. Would we consider going on Celebrity again? Yes, although not on a transatlantic and not on a large ship with an international debarkation port which may be more subject to noro virus. My wife and I decided that we are going to try more small ships and unique itineraries. We already have planned to go on a world cruise on Pacific Princess in January and this cruise was a good tuneup/preparation for us. That ship is considerably smaller (less than 700 passengers).