Previous cruise experience: 5th cruise for myself, 2nd for my husband. All previous cruises were with Princess; we decided to try Celebrity as the recommendation of a friend who has done 20 cruises with "X." This was the third cruise for Summit post "Soltisizing" in January.
We began with a flight from the northeast on a day that was overcast with light snow; there was a problem with connecting flights arriving in our departure airport so we started our day leaving late. By the time we got to our transfer airport we were told to sprint to the gate on the chance our departing flight was still on the ground; if it was not we were given boarding passes for the next flight. When we got to the gate they were lining up passengers who were sailing on that day and we got the last 2 seats on the flight; this made paying the extra $50.00 to the cruise line for our tickets worthwhile. The flight we got on was an earlier scheduled flight that had not yet departed; our actual flight didn't leave until late in the afternoon leaving those passengers to arrive well after sail time for our ship. I usually fly the day before and won't do this again; too close a call!
We got to the ship about 5 PM, missing the planned gathering of CC friends and the ship's lifeboat safety drill. We had an early dinner in the dining room, a pleasant meal and our first shot at escargot! We had an early morning excursion and after a brief ship's tour we went to enjoy our aft balcony for sail-away.
Sunday morning we had breakfast at the buffet and departed in St Croix on our ship's tour to kayak the Salt River. It was a lovely trip with some great guides and I would do it again. Interestingly I HAD to book this tour through the ship because they had an exclusive with the only kayak guide I could find for the location. I have never had this experience with Princess; we were always free to book with anyone we desired. One can certainly understand why the cruise lines and guides would do this but I hope the trend of scooping up reserves on the best tour guides isn't the trend among all the lines. We had dinner in the dining room, choosing to request a table for two during our "select" dining time. This was the first of two formal nights and we were surprised to see so few tuxes on the men; to our memory there were more people who dressed formally (tuxes, long gowns) on our Princess cruises. We both dress up for formal nights, my husband in a tux and I in a long gown or cocktail length. We tended to request a table for two all week, which we had to wait for on only 2 occasions (and not more than 10-15 minutes); the way the tables were set up we had the option of either easy conversation with couples on either side of us, or keeping to ourselves. Although many people like to have an assigned seating time we enjoy the flexibility of the open dining time and we found that most nights we were assigned to the same area of the dining room and we developed relationships with a couple of the wait staff members and most importantly to me, the two sommelier's assigned to that section. On this evening we wandered the ship, heard a delightful pair of musicians called the Mozaika Duo (accordion and violin), and retired early to our balcony to enjoy the stars.
On Monday we were in St. Kitts; this was the second of our two planned ship's excursions. Today we went to a restored plantation for a culinary demo and lunch. We are serious foodies (my husband attended culinary school) and love to cook. To us the tour was pleasant but we would have preferred a more hands-on class. The food was delicious, we learned about a few new seasonings and tried delicious sorrel tea, toured the beautiful garden, and the sun was warm. What's not to like in the Caribbean in February? When we returned to the ship I attended a wine tasting-food pairing program that was a part of the Celebrity "Life at Sea" program of activities. This tasting was recommended by the sommelier and the cost was $15.00 per person; it was well worth the expense! Celebrity has a contract with Wente Vineyards of California to use their wines for these shipboard events. There was wine, a variety of food pairings, and a very knowledgeable sommelier who walked us through the pairings; it was very interesting to see not only how the wine affected the food (expected) but how the food affected the wine (unexpected). I learned a lot and left with a very informative brochure about pairings accompanied by lots of tasting notes. After the tasting I went to the spa. I had purchased a spa pass for the week ($100.00) that allowed access to the steam rooms (one moist, one dry, one moist-herbal). Near the spa there is a pool of warm salt water and two hot tubs, there is also a locker room with a dry sauna. These areas outside of the spa are accessible to anyone. I made a habit of enjoying these areas almost every afternoon while my husband read or napped on our balcony. On Princess there was a similar area with paid access however it only cost me $60.00 for the week (it was 120.00 per couple and my sister and I split the cost; it was $189.00per couple on X). If I sail on Celebrity again I probably wouldn't do the weekly access to the steam rooms, but might do it on a per day basis once or twice; the free warm salt pool, hot tubs and sauna would be enough especially since these areas seemed to be largely undiscovered. I think on the "worst" day in these public access areas there were only 30 people in the area at any time I was there. After dinner this evening we went to the show of comedienne Fred Klett who was VERY funny and also touted himself as a "clean" comic; this is a refreshing approach once in a while, because many very funny comics use a lot of foul language. Not that I care one way or another about the language, funny is funny regardless for me, but he was a comic that you could have taken your teens to and they would have enjoyed. After the show we went to the martini bar and had a drink while enjoying Nestor Santurio, a vocalist-guitarist with Latin rhythms; we had a great time dancing to his music!
On Tuesday we were in Dominica where we toured with Bumpiing Tours; a member of Levi's staff took us on the requested "wet" tour where we went to Champagne reef to snorkel and to the village of Soufriere, where we sat in the hot baths. This is the second time I have toured with Bumpiing (www.bumpiingtours.com) and I would highly recommend them. I would also recommend the Champagne reef snorkel as one of the best places I have ever snorkeled, including Bonaire with a private guide. It is a tough place to get into the water because one has to walk out 15-20 feet in moving surf, but once you can swim it's a pretty comfortable swim out to the reef. Wear a swim belt as you can tire easily between the early surf and the length of time you spend on the reef because you won't want to leave. I was in the water at least 1 Â½ hours and we saw barracuda, parrot fish, clown and angel fish, and many, many others that I can't name. I had previously been to a location on this island to sit in the hot baths among the natural rock formations; Dominica is a volcanic island with underground activity that creates the bubbles as Champagne reef and the hot water for the baths. The location we went to on this day was more private; it appeared to be a state park type environment with baths built of poured cement where the warm sulfur-stained water was diverted to fill the "tubs." There were formed seats in them so that you could be seated and be up to your chest, or in my case, up to my neck in the warm water while surrounded by forest lands. A beautiful spot and a lovely day with friends! At dinner this evening we had one of our more memorable meals, a Cajun-blackened rib-eye steak with a red wine chosen from the Wendte tasting. We didn't go the show this evening, a musical stage production called "Sirens." It seemed to be well received but we just aren't interested in these types of shows after experiencing them on other cruises. We had quickly developed our end of day cocktail routine, Southern Comfort/rocks for my husband and a martini for me; we'd meet back at the martini bar and listen to the musicians in that area. This evening we wandered between our friends the Mozaika Duo and Nestor Santurio; Nestor was great fun to dance to! We also attended the Celebrity planned party for our Cruise Critic group. It was held in a bar that was located in an area where it took us a bit to find; when we got there the group was seated on a series of couches listening to the cruise director field questions and talking about the events on the ship for the rest of the week. It felt very stiff since people weren't mingling and it did nothing to help me to meet other people I'd been talking to on the message boards leading up to the cruise. The party broke up soon after our arrival since many people had late dinner seating's (30 minutes or so after we arrived, we were late for scheduled gathering time from dinner) but we were invited as a group to tour the bridge later in the week(we didn't go on this tour as we had other plans). Although I am often a night owl at home, I went to bed earlier while cruising due to early morning excursions and my husband's tendency to not be a night owl. We also really enjoy our deck time and would end our evening there watching the sea.
On Wednesday we were in Grenada, where we toured with Mandoo (http://www.grenadatours.com/) who was fabulous! We went to the spice plantation and to the nutmeg station, where I was able to purchase beautiful, locally made fabric imprinted with nutmeg stamps. This is a cooperative that is finding ways to keep people employed in a spice related industry now that spice production has been diminished by hurricane damage to the trees. Mandoo is a great ambassador for the island and he doesn't mince words about the political situation there. His running commentary was upbeat and fascinating despite some of his topics (Regan and Grenada anyone?). Don't let this idea shy you away from touring with him; it was a wonderful day! On this evening we had planned to attend a Life at Sea program on celestial navigation however it was overcast so we didn't bother to see if they set up an alternative plan to star-gazing on the deck. We did go the comic David Merry's show; he was a combo comedienne and magician who was also great! He wove the magic into the comedy show in a seamless manner that was very clever.
On Thursday we were at sea, and this was our second formal night. I had a massage scheduled and we had a lovely lay-low day on our balcony reading and enjoying a day of relaxation; I also spent time at the spa. I took a tour of the galley which started with an introduction to the many head chefs (pastry, prep, various kitchen location leaders) followed by each chef talking a small group down to the main galley for a tour. The program was well intentioned if not well executed. Some chefs were better than others at gathering their small groups in each kitchen area before beginning to talk about that area; in my group that left us scrambling to catch up to the group and vying for position so that we could see and hear. The head chef of the ship was touring his group behind mine and I considered joining them for a better tour as I observed him being more sensitive to the group's needs. Since this was a day where the lack of day's engaging activities was very noticeable for us, I'll comment here that overall I found that the things I would have enjoyed doing on Celebrity (more Life at Sea programs) were often scheduled while we were off the ship in a port. Likewise, much of the more off-beat entertainment was either very late (the staff talent show was at 10:30 PM, too late to start for an early riser who wanted to jump early on a port excursion). The musical talent was the same individuals and groups every night at different times and locations, which got old after the third or fourth day at sea. In addition to the duo and the guitarist I already mentioned there was a woman singer piano player (Liz Strauss) and an acapella quartet called "These Guys." A lot of the entertainment was pool games, casino related activities, or silly games such as a ship's version of the Newlywed-not-so-newly-wed game. Our group all got on this subject at the CC party and told the CD that we really thought they could at least change the questions from year to year and ship to ship. We did have fun one day helping a group of kids with suggestions on where to find items on their scavenger hunt list. This was our second formal night and my husband enjoyed the "mama's pork chops" for dinner. After dinner we strolled the ship and had a drink while listening to Liz Strauss play a "name that tune" game by playing the opening lines of a song on the piano. After researching this cruise and talking with our friends who cruise on Celebrity I had expected that there would be art auctions and viewings; there were none of these and my husband was particularly disappointed as this was a favorite activity of his on the Princess ships.
On Friday we were in St. Thomas where we had hired Henry of EEE Tours (http://www.eeetours.com/); for a quite reasonable price he toured us on the island's sights, history and current economic influences. We went to "Mountain Top" the "home" of the banana daiquiri, we also went to visit a friend who owns a roadside stop where he serves fresh-made fruit and herbal drinks with or without rum, and eventually he took us to Megan's Bay Beach (our request) where we had time to relax and swim. While very beautiful Megan's Bay is not a good snorkeling location; my only other beach experience on St Thomas was a trip to Coki Point Beach, which had pretty reasonable snorkeling; there may be better locations that I have not experienced. It was a fine, relaxing end to our cruise week. This evening we attended a show that combined to two comics we'd seen earlier in the week; they were again very enjoyable.
On Saturday morning we had a delayed departure from the ship that was attributed to slow customs agents; as concierge class passengers we were given the option of waiting in a conference room with coffee, tea and pastries available. We went there as opposed to the other waiting area in a bar for a more general (not concierge class) passenger group because we thought this group might be disembarked a little earlier, but it seemed to make no difference and we had no outside view. Fortunately for us we had a 3 night booking at the Sheraton in Old San Juan, so we had a few more days to linger before heading home.
Some overall observations about our Celebrity experience:
The price for this cruise was significantly higher than a similar cruise cabin (aft on Princess, 7 day Caribbean) and I didn't feel that the differences between the lines were great enough to justify the higher costs. We were in concierge class because it was what was available when I booked in order to get an aft cabin. We had a bottle of champagne in the room on arrival that we never drank but carried home (we arrived so late and tired and just didn't want it, then never got to it during the cruise). One of the "perks" of concierge was daily appetizers before dinner (6 pieces); these were made up too many hours before delivery to be very special, but most were ok, just not reason enough to spend the extra cost for concierge class; to my mind the only reason for investment in this class is future cruise credit if you are going to be a long-term Celebrity cruiser because you get more credit in their version of the captain's recognition program.
Food overall was quite good; we can admire the challenges of getting out food that is beautiful, interesting and tastes good on the scale of any cruise ship, however our friends suggested that Celebrity food was 'over the top' great and it wasn't for us. I certainly know that food quality is very subjective, but overall I am happier with the food on Princess for the price. We didn't eat in the specialty restaurants at all. This was a mix of wanting to experience overall dining room food choices and quality, and not wanting to pay extra for a meal that might not be "worth" the cost. Our friends on the ship told of their experiences at Qsine, where I had considered eating. They thought the presentation was very unique and fun, but overall not significantly tastier than the food in the main dining room. Another ship acquaintance recommended that we order breakfast from room service each morning; we did this twice with overall disappointing results. We were spoiled by our coffee cards for espresso and cappuccino from the coffee bar near Bistro on Five and the dining room coffee delivered with breakfast was pretty awful by comparison. Our food was cold when it arrived, and was somewhat limited in selection. After two tries we started going to the buffet and carrying trays of food back to the cabin to breakfast on the balcony; we were only one flight down so this was not a big deal and was worth the view as we docked each morning. The other disappointment was that the lunch buffet had very little variation each day; it was always a pasta bar, an Asian bar, a deli bar, pizza, and fish and chips. Burgers and fries on the deck grill were good the one day we tried them; pizza options were the usual margarita, veggie, pepperoni and white pizzas; they were good but not exceptional and the daily special was gone every time I tried to get it (they seemed to make fewer of the special ones without adjusting to demand). A nice touch was antipasti options to go with the pizza. On each buffet bar there were some exceptional items, and many that seemed the same day to day. I can see when reading this comment that many folks would look at my list of options and think, who'd be critical enough to think those weren't great options? Let me give you a more specific example of what I am comparing to, lest you think I am crazy. On Princess the buffet would have different cultural options every day. So there might be two Asian days, and the choices would be different from one another on those days. On my Celebrity experience, the Asian choices would be essentially the same every day (maybe know favorites?) and they would change two of the options to something else each day, including some curries. On Princess the other days were not Asian, but were based entirely on other cultures reflecting the staff of the ship's kitchen and I felt I experienced a wider range of choices of things I would otherwise not have an opportunity to try. This might be riskier, because even as adventurous eaters there were moments when we thought there were things that we stretching our palates a little bit far. To be fair I need to go back to Princess and do a real comparison to these notes, not one based on my vacation induced fond memories, especially since a subtle sense of decline in overall food quality on Princess on my last cruise had driven my desire to try a different cruise line. Overall though I believe I prefer my Princess food experience, where on my third cruise I did try one of the specialty restaurants, which I found to be well worth the additional cost for both exceptional food and service (Sabatini's Italian restaurant).
There were a lot of great options in the Celebrity Life at Sea programs but their timing was not conducive to enjoying them as well as a day ashore. They are great options on a cruise with more sea days to enjoy them and I wish Celebrity would consider shore time when scheduling these events. This program does stand out over Princess's similar offerings for its more interesting topics (celestial navigation, charting the ship's course, wine and food pairings and ships tours are some examples, compared to craft type programs and photography and computer classes that dominate on Princess). Similarly I thought that some of the more interesting entertainment options were too late at night for our tastes; I read in the last few days that most people return to their cabin after midnight so perhaps we are more of the exception to that rule about late night participation in events, but I'd love to know how others feel about this subject.
Lastly, because I participated in reading and commenting on several message boards about the beverage packages (cost-benefit ratios can be discussed forever can't they?) I will add that we purchased a classic non-alcohol package for each of us which served us well. This got us each a large bottle of water on departure from the ship each day, all the high-end coffees and teas we wanted (dining room staff would go to the coffee bar for us at meal time if we requested this), and fountain or canned soda if we desired (think we had 1-2 all week as we don't really drink soda). This took care of our biggest daily costs. We do drink alcohol and with the sommelier's assistance we purchased 3 bottles of wine and some single glasses of wine or beer over the course of the week to drink at dinner. Additionally we each had one other drink in the evening and I had one midafternoon drink one day at the pool. If one is not a big drinker then I'd suggest this classic non-alcohol package ($14.00 per person per day) is a very nice option if you enjoy good coffee and tea and don't want to have to search for water in port. To me the alcohol packages were pricey and I came nowhere near the cost of them with my consumption.