We were celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary, and we decided we wanted to do a big cruise for the occasion. We'd sailed with Princess for 6 consecutive cruises, but as we evaluated itineraries, we didn't like any of their Europe/Med options for 2011. We had some specific requirements: Santorini was a must have port, an overnight in Istanbul was very appealing, and we wanted a min of 2 sea days on a 10+ night itinerary. We were also interested in trying either Celebrity or HAL, having heard great things about their newest ships. HAL was a bit pricier for both the cruise itself as well as the airfare to the embark/debark port Venice (compared to Rome). So we chose the 11 night E Med r/t Rome on Equinox with 3 sea days.
Hotel Info (if any)
We stayed in Rome 3 nights pre-cruise at the Hotel Paba on Via Cavour, 2 blocks from the Colosseum. This was one of the Rick Steves recommended hotels in his Rome 2011 book. Considering how expensive hotels can be in Rome, we thought this offered a pretty good value. Not fancy but not hostel-spartan either. It was conveniently located to sights within walking distance, and a Metro stop was only a few blocks away.
Travel To Port of Embarkation
We took the IC train from Termini Station to Civitavecchia. We had purchased our tickets in advance to obtain 2nd class seating. The train left about 15 min late but we made up time along the way, arriving about on time. Be warned though that the Civ port station doesn't have any elevators or escalators so you have to drag your 50lb suitcases up a couple flights of stairs. Once out of the station, it was a few blocks walk to the port and the complimentary shuttle buses waiting to take you to the ship.
We arrived at the cruise ship terminal about 11:15am. Walked right up to the Concierge Class desk and we were onboard within 10 min. Cabins weren't ready yet - definitely a difference from Princess where we're used to getting into our cabins immediately. So we headed up to Bistro on 5 for lunch (see below). Cabins were available about 1:15pm. Our luggage was delivered about 2 hrs after that.
Hands down the best one we've ever had on a cruise (and we've stayed up to a mini-suite on Princess). The bed was definitely the most comfortable we've had with a pillow-top mattress. The bath shower was fantastic - floor to ceiling glass enclosure meant no fussing with a stupid curtain and getting water on the floor, a spa quality shower head, and enough room to fully stretch your arms out. Strangely enough though, no built-in clothesline for hanging swimsuits, etc. but I have a travel clothesline so it wasn't a problem for us. Plenty of storage cabinets in the bathroom which helped compensate for a slightly cramped amount of counter space. The flat screen TV and the interactive media system was definitely a notch above what we'd had with Princess. The ability to pull up your shipboard account from your room TV - priceless! The remaining storage areas throughout the cabin were more than sufficient. Our cabin was on the Sky Deck bump-out (port side) so we had an extra deep balcony. The patio furniture was superior to what we'd had with Princess - lounge chairs with separate footstools were wonderful for relaxing.
As for the Concierge Class perks, we enjoyed the premium linens/towels, fresh flowers, and plush bathrobes.
I don't think I can say enough good things about the Equinox! It met or exceeded our expectations based on what we'd been reading about the Solstice class ships.
We thought the layout of the ship worked well - didn't really encounter many areas of mass congestion. We were very impressed with the quality & variety of seating furniture, particularly on the deck areas. Padded loungers, comfy club chairs, clamshells, etc. - far superior to those awful hard plastic pool loungers.
Big thumbs up on the Celebrity smoking policies - absolutely wonderful to be out on our balcony and not have to be bothered by adjoining cabin smokers. Also the fact that the casino was non-smoking was great so that as we walked by/through that area it didn't reek.
We did purchase an Internet package but used it via wi-fi on our iPads in our stateroom, so we didn't make use of the Internet center.
We didn't spend any time in the fitness center, mostly since I forgot (honestly) to pack my tennis shoes. We also didn't do any spa treatments, and we didn't do any casino gambling, so I can't comment on those ship areas.
We thought the main theater was nice, but the Celebrity Central theater really suffered from a lack of cupholders and the seats were not too comfortable.
It was a little cool most days to be using the outdoor pools until the end of the cruise, but the indoor Solarium was nice with the hot tubs.
I'd describe the overall decor of the ship as upscale/chic with a lot of use of color in lighting and museum-quality artwork/sculptures installed all throughout the ship.
We don't tend to do a lot of the organized activities - we bring plenty of reading material and enjoy quiet time on our balcony or in the library. However, we are bingo fans so we did that a few times - won twice so that helped pay for our specialty dining (see below) and other onboard expenses. Bingo was definitely not as popular as it is on Princess. We also attended a couple of the Beyond the Podium Series lectures (Dr. Karl Misulis was both interesting and entertaining), the Chef cooking competition (really enjoyed the samples at the end of the show!), and a couple of the Hot Glass Shows which were really cool.
I would say the service level was a noticeable notch above Princess, and that's not to say we haven't had perfectly good service on Princess from our cabin stewards and dining staff. But what really struck us about Celebrity was how often we were asked for our feedback, how they could make our cruise better, etc. We had this experience consistently from our cabin stewards (perhaps also because we were Concierge Class), our dining staff, and from other staff members that I wouldn't necessarily have expected it from. Walking down the hallways, other cabin stewards would stop and say hello/ask how our cruise was going. Maintenance staff would do the same in the stairwells. There seemed to be a genuine commitment to getting guest feedback and understanding how a great cruise could be made even better.
Port & Shore Excursions
We tend to do a mixture of ship excursions, private excursions (usually CC group arranged), and DIY. For this cruise, we did the following:
Mykonos - DIY
Kusadasi - CC tour of Ephesus using About Ephesus
Istanbul - DIY
Athens - DIY
Santorini - Ship tour Village of Oia & Santorini Island
Naples - Ship tour Exploration of Pompeii
Dining is one of the most important aspects for us!
Let's start with the buffet - no question Celebrity is superior to Princess in every aspect: logistics, diversity, and quality. The layout of the Oceanview Cafe is insanely better with a bigger square foot area and multiple and repeating stations. The variety of foods offered was consequently much greater and it included unique ethnic/international options as well as typical foods. I thought the quality was higher than Princess overall.
MDR - We like the flexible dining so we chose Select Dining. Most nights, we were immediately seated. A couple times we had a short wait. As for the menus, we found that there might be one or two standout items on the menu (don't miss the cajun blackened ribeye steak, the JVS signature mozzarella meat balls, or any goat cheese appetizer), but as a whole, we thought the menus on Princess were more consistently to our liking from appetizer through dessert. We were especially disappointed in Celebrity's desserts. The items just weren't that appealing - whereas on Princess, we often find ourselves ordering a couple of them in one night.
We had our embarkation lunch at Bistro on 5. Very nice choice to start the cruise! The crepes were quite large and delicious. Well worth the $5 upcharge.
We purchased the specialty dining package for a night each in Murano, Tuscan Grille, and Silk Harvest, which saved about $10 over the cost of each separately. Prior to the cruise, I expected I would rank order them as 1. Tuscan Grille, 2. Silk Harvest, and 3. Murano. Instead, my rank order was 1. Silk Harvest, 2. Murano, and 3. Tuscan Grille. I'm glad we ate at all three, but I was most disappointed in Tuscan Grille.
Silk Harvest - Best for both service & food. Just a superior evening. I love the decor & ambiance. Our service was impeccable. And the food was wonderful. We tried the lettuce wraps, wontons, a few of the sushi, fried rice, spicy pad thai, pearls of asia coconut milk, and cheesecake rainbow roll. Everything was fresh with quality ingredients, and it was all delicious.
Murano - The atmosphere of this restaurant suffered from its location on the ship - when the doors open, you hear all the noise & music coming from the lounge just outside. Our service was excellent. And the food was very good. We tried the warm goat cheese souffle, lobster bisque, lobster tail (both thermidor style and broiled), dark chocolate souffle, and grand marnier souffle.
Tuscan Grille - The location at the rear of the ship made for some nice views out to sea. Our waiter was somewhat odd and I didn't feel like the service was up to the same standards as I'd experienced with the other specialty restaurants. And the food was okay - maybe because we'd had such great food in Rome, I was setting myself up to be disappointed. We tried the calamari fritto miso, pomodoro e mozzarella di bufala, cioppino, insalata di arugula, bistecca toscana "ribeye" (I thought the night before cajun ribeye in the MDR was a much better steak), papapardelle alla Toscana, toffee panna cotta, and tiramisu creme brulee.
What I missed from Princess was of course the pizza and the International Cafe.
I'd give the nod to Princess overall for entertainment - we missed having a comedian as an alternate entertainment option, the absence of a piano player in Michael's Club (one hadn't been on board since Mar apparently), and Movies Under the Stars. Our favorite entertainer on Equinox was definitely the a capella group Full Tilt. We followed them all around the ship for their performances - great group of guys. We saw most of the production shows: Equinox-The Show (best show of the cruise), Livewire (Celtic), Judy Kolba, Jayne Curry (who we ended up talking to at the Rome airport leaving the cruise - nice lady), Remix, and A Voyage to Remember. We also watched the movie "The Adjustment Bureau" in the Celebrity Central theater - we didn't find the selection of movies on this cruise very appealing, and this theater isn't a comfortable place to watch a full-length movie.
Husband doesn't dance so we don't spend any evenings in the clubs.
We had a CC arranged Rome Cabs for our transportation to the airport, so we opted for self-disembark. Walked right off with no delays.
Our 1st time cruising on Celebrity and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We will definitely sail again with X and look forward to moving up the Captain's Club levels.