About us: PhDiva and boyfriend (BF) are 40-somethings from the DC-metropolitan area. We are cruising with my parents, Dearest Mother (DM, aka "CruisinCadie") and Dearest Father (DF).
My mantra: "If I'm not having a good time on vacation, it's my own [darn] fault." Repeat as necessary.
Background: I confess I was under-enthused about several aspects of this trip.
1. The ship. We prefer the smaller, less than 2000 passenger ships such as the Dawn/Sun Princess, Celebrity Galaxy, or Celebrity Summit. Our experiences on the larger Star and Grand Princess paled in comparison. Would the ship feel crowded? Would the service be up-to-par?
2. Celebrity Select dining. Due to dietary restrictions, I order my meals in advance. We usually opt for fixed seating, which allows us to develop a rapport with our wait staff and the Assistant Maitre D' and generally alleviates my concerns about eating something that I shouldn't.
3. Other people's opinions. Many CruiseCritic.com threads negatively described changes at Celebrity:
a. Substandard service
b. Uncomfortable beds
c. Poorly designed storage space in the cabins
d. Mediocre food in the main dining room
e. The Lawn Club. A "lawn" at sea? WTH?!?
4. Our cost-saving efforts. Our travel agent arranged for BF and me to get a senior discount by booking BF and DF in one cabin and DM and me in another. Upon boarding, we were simply to go to guest relations and arrange to switch keys. Despite everything I read on CruiseCritic.com, I was still concerned about how this would work.
5. Our big splurge. This was our first cruise in a balcony stateroom. Would it be worth the extra expense?
The bottom line:
1. The ship. I LOVE the Equinox. She's gorgeous! She reminds me of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. There were plenty of lounge chairs, even on sea days. The buffet area occasionally felt a little crowded, but this was less of an issue than it had been on other ships. Yes, I never figured out where the various food stations were, but it didn't detract from the overall experience. On our way home, BF and I realized that we only ran into my parents twice on the ship. If we hadn't made plans to get together for dinner, etc., we might not have ever seen them.
2. Celebrity Select dining. Celebrity accommodated my dietary restrictions just as if I had fixed seating. All things being equal, I should opt for fixed seating just because the service is a smidge more timely. As BF pointed out when I was having a diva-moment, the wait staff can't be hovering over my water glass when everyone is eating different courses at different times. Besides, telling new wait staff that I don't need a menu because I pre-ordered my meal was tedious.
A reminder for those who have food allergies: Even when the waiter insists something has been prepared properly, mistakes can happen. See http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1548566 for the details.
3. Other people's opinions.
a. Substandard service -- As noted in the paragraph above, the critics have a point here. Maybe I'm confusing Celebrity and Princess, but I remember our prior cruises had more staff patrolling the buffet area to clean tables and to provide guests with coffee refills in the morning. Our cabin service was "good," not "excellent." About half-way through the cruise, we received and filled out the "attention to detail" card. Our complaints were minor, but worth calling to Celebrity's attention (e.g., lack of towels, a missing ice bucket). Later that day, we received a personal visit from one of the officers; I hope we didn't get our cabin steward in trouble.
b. Uncomfortable beds -- I like a firm mattress, so this was not an issue.
c. Poorly designed storage space in the cabins -- Yes, the cabin layout is different from that of older ships. We ended up hanging our shorts and t-shirts in the closet, but there was plenty of room to do so. I'd brought hangers from home, but am sure our room steward could have gotten us more. We had storage space to spare in the bathroom.
d. Mediocre food in the main dining room -- A myth! The food was on-par with our other cruises.
e. The Lawn Club -- I love it! It's the epitome of indulgence, luxury, stupidity, ridiculousness, and all that makes a vacation an escape from reality. Why grow grass on a cruise ship? Because we can!
4. Our cost saving efforts. The exchange of room keys went smoothly, but there were a few hiccups with the billing of shore excursions. I'm not convinced our travel agent handled my mother's travel insurance correctly, but fortunately, DM didn't need it.
5. Our big splurge. Yes, we enjoyed our balcony and felt it was worth the extra expense. But, my vacation would be just as enjoyable with an inside cabin. Given the choice of a balcony and an inside cabin, I'd take a balcony any day. If the choice was between an inside cabin and not being able to splurge on other aspects of our vacation, give me the inside cabin.
A day-by-day review:
January 1, arrival and overnight in Fort Lauderdale. We stayed at the Sleep Inn, Dania Beach. It was adequate. BF and I walked to the local Publix and bought sodas and water to keep in our fridge on board.
January 2, boarding and sail away. The hotel-provided transportation to the ship went smoothly. We left the hotel at noon. By the time we boarded the ship and exchanged BF's and DM's sea pass cards, the cabins were ready for the guests. We ate at the buffet, explored the ship, and booked our spa appointments. Our luggage arrived and we were mostly unpacked before dinner. Afterward, we met our cabin attendants and had them empty the mini-bar fridge and remove the table by the couch. I went to sleep shortly thereafter.
January 3, first day at sea. You wouldn't know it based on the amount of time I spend on the water, but I am prone to sea sickness. My plans for the day included a 9 AM lecture on Cozumel and Tulum, a 10:15 meet-and-greet with fellow CruiseCritic.com members, the hot glass show at 11, massage at 1, etc. My reality entailed a brief appearance at the CruiseCritic.com gathering, reclining on my balcony while trying not to think about how lousy I was feeling, getting a lovely massage that I was too sick to fully enjoy, napping, etc. Usually, BF and I wander around to the various photo spots when we're dressed up on formal night, but not this time. I wasn't thinking clearly when I elected to wear the dress with which I need to wear heels. The sea was so rough that the ship cancelled the evening show out of concern for the dancers' safety. It was another early night for me.
Of note: The fridge in our cabin wasn't working, but guest relations had someone replace it while we were at dinner.
January 4, Cozumel. We'd booked a snorkel tour with Papa Hog's Dive Shop through Island Marketing Excursions. The waves were intense, so I checked our email ($0.85 per minute) to see if the excursion was still on. Seeing nothing to indicate it was cancelled, we walked up to Papa Hog's, passing all of the tour hustlers and taxi drivers on our way. We checked in with Mike (aka Papa Hog), confirmed that the harbor master had closed the port to small boats because of the weather, and were told Island Marketing would refund our deposit via the credit card I used when reserving the trip. We'll see how smoothly that happens.
After returning to the ship and eating lunch, we decided to ask one of the tour hustlers about getting a driver to take us to the Mayan ruins on the island. He wanted $45 per person, I offered $20 per person, and we landed on the mutually agreeable $30 per person. The weather was perfect for wandering around the ruins. All-in-all, it was a delightful day.
January 5, Roatan. Thanks to the input from CruiseCritic.com, BF and I booked an excursion called Maya Key Private Island instead of going to one of the West End beaches. The snorkeling was like swimming in an aquarium. The folks who went to Tabayana beach said it was too rough to fully enjoy the snorkeling there.
January 6, second sea day. Several of the lectures looked interesting (Thatch Huts and High-Tech Wizardry at 9, The Great Cruise Liners at 10, Secrets of Ships Navigation at 11), and we had the option of attending the chi-chi-frou-frou Captains Club event in the afternoon. But, the motion of the ship was still bothering me. Browsing the ship's stores didn't even appeal. My plans were to start writing this review, write a few post cards, and organize my photos. Instead, I lounged and napped.
After dinner, I attended my first ever cruise-ship show. Yes folks, in 9 cruises, I've never attended an evening show before now. This one was a Cirque du Soleil style performance, which I greatly enjoy. The show wasn't as elaborate as a full, arena-sized land-based production, but the acrobats were just as amazing. Perhaps they were even more than amazing, given that they were performing on a moving ship. WOW!
Our cabin steward left us a "towel critter" made out of beach towels.
January 7, Puerto Limon. We took the ship-sponsored Costa Rica Favorites tour, which consisted of a boat ride through the Tortuguero Canals, a brief hike through the rain forest, and an aerial tram ride through the rain forest canopy. The guides were informative, the scenery was beautiful, and the animals were abundant in the canal area. I got some great photos!
BF and I went to part of the evening glass blowing show; I gave up after about 20 minutes.
January 8, Colon. This was our second trip to Panama. Our first trip, on Celebrity's Summit, we'd taken a boat ride around Gatun Lake and went to the locks. This time, we elected to see the lake by kayak, via the ship-sponsored Gatun Lake Kayak and Eco Adventure. The photo ops were better on the boat-based trip, but kayaking was fun. I had a hot stone massage in the afternoon.
After dinner, we watched more glass blowing and both won glass pieces that the staff raffled.
January 9, Cartagena. BF and I would have brushed up on our Spanish and explored the city on our own if we hadn't been traveling with my parents. Instead, we booked a city tour with Dora De Explorer, along with several other people from our ship. I haven't cross-walked what we actually did with what we'd asked to do, but the tour was excellent! A couple members of our group were moving at a slower pace than the most, but she always made sure the stragglers weren't left behind. The tour was informative and well paced. I highly recommend Dora.
January 10, third sea day. After breakfast, we found comfortable chairs at the Lawn Club/Sunset Bar. I finished the book I was reading while BF watched several families play a modified version of putt-putt. Celebrity keeps the grass long enough that the lawn isn't a true putting green, but they have putters and golf balls and holes. I started writing this review, finished postcards, and started to relax. It was our second formal night.
January 11, Grand Cayman. We love Grand Cayman, having spent a week there 9 years ago. We had thought about taking the local bus to our favorite snorkeling site (Cemetery Reef), but opted for a slow start to the day instead of rushing off the ship. After breakfast in the dining room, we collected our tender tickets and left the ship without undue delay. We wanted to snorkel Cheeseburger Reef as we'd never snorkeled there. As before, we couldn't find the entrance, so we walked to the Wreck of the Gamma. After snorkeling there, we went back toward town (still missing the entrance to Cheeseburger Reef) and stopped at a bar that offered free access to the water where we could leave our gear (with or without renting a locker) and snorkel to the Wreck of the Cali. After another snorkel and a tourist-priced but tasty lunch, we snorkeled at Eden Rock, bought some souvenirs, and made it back to the tender dock by 2:45.
The rest of the day entailed sleep, dinner, and more sleep.
January 12, final sea day. I still needed to buy souvenirs and postcards, so we made several trips to the onboard shops. I had my last spa treatment (a ginger-lime scrub and massage), and tried not to get sunburned.
January 13, disembarkation. The valet luggage service is well worth the money, so we weren't expecting to see our luggage until baggage claim in DCA. While sitting in the Equinox Theater, our cabin number was paged (apparently they'd been paging us by name and cabin number throughout the ship, but we couldn't hear it in the theater). Our luggage had been "randomly selected" for inspection. While our initial thought was "Yikes!" I'd do it again in a heartbeat. With our official Celebrity escort, we bypassed all of the lines, handed over our passports and customs form at a TSA inspection room, answered a few questions ("What did you buy?" "Where were you born?"), got our passports back, and went on our way. We were at the airport before we would have even gotten off the ship.
Final thoughts: Yes, Celebrity has changed since we first cruised on the now-defunct Galaxy. I routinely keep track of our expenses while cruising so I can compare our total costs with what would pay on a more luxurious, all-inclusive line such as Reagent; for the money, Celebrity is still a great value.