This was only our second cruise, the first having been a short 4 night several years ago on Royal Caribbean, just to see if we would enjoy cruising. My husband and I travel frequently, own several timeshares which we utilize extensively, and I travel a great deal for business, so we are used to going with the flow and have no problem overlooking minor "hiccups" in the course of travelling or on a vacation. We did notice some worn areas on the ship, but never anything that disturbed us, overall it looked great, and the staff service was absolutely excellent.
First, thank you to everyone on Cruise Critic for posting so much helpful information and answering our questions, as we found that planning and preparing for a cruise vacation is different from other types of vacations! The tips we gleaned from reading reviews and the message boards were a big help.
We decided to splurge for a concierge balcony cabin. This trip was planned as something to look forward to, following my husband's radiation treatment for prostate cancer. We wanted to be a little pampered, and we were. We booked through an American Express Platinum Card travel agent, and received several perks as a result: free several category cabin upgrade, free bottle of premium sparkling wine upon arrival, and a free dinner in Normandy. We also enjoyed the other things that came with a concierge cabin, including the fresh flowers, fruit, and canapes in the early evening. We enjoyed the canapes on the balcony with a drink of our choice every day before dinner. We also used the binoculars that came with the cabin on most of our shore excursions, saving us from having to pack our own. We found our bed to be very comfortable. There was plenty of storage in our cabin. I would have preferred a glass door to the shower versus a curtain, but that was a minor irritation. I heeded one comment on the message boards about the hair dryer (having to hold down the button to have it operate), so brought my travel hair dryer, and was glad I did. We also brought a power strip, which was a great suggestion. There were only two useable outlets by the desk/vanity in the cabin.
We flew to San Juan on the Thursday prior to embarkation on Saturday, and stayed at the Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, in the Condado area. Since I travel so much for business, frequently staying at a Marriott property, we were given a free room upgrade when we checked in. We had looked at reviews on Trip Advisor and had booked a partial oceanview room to be on the ocean side of the hotel. The room was very nice, our room was quiet, the beach was beautiful, and the pool area was very nice. Lots of shade in the pool area, which we liked, but there were lots of beach chairs available on the beach if we had wanted to sit in the sun.
We had dinner in the hotel the first night and were somewhat disappointed in the food for the price. Breakfast the next morning - the buffet - again was pricey, but good. We had booked a tour of the El Yunque rainforest online, but the tour operator got the dates mixed up and did not show to pick us up, so we took a cab to Old San Juan and toured the forts and walked around the city all day. By the time we got back to the hotel we were so tired, we opted for room service for dinner. Breakfast the next day, then took our time repacking, bought some wine to take on board the ship (the allowed 2 bottles per stateroom), and we arrived at the port at around 12:30 PM.
We had no idea what to expect regarding embarkation, and were surprised at how quickly the staff processed us. We were on board within half an hour. Our stateroom was ready for us to drop our carry-ons almost as soon as we boarded. Our stateroom steward Sandi greeted us right away, and showed us several things about the cabin. We still kept tracking him down to ask more questions (due to being almost first time cruisers!) and he very patiently and pleasantly handled every issue for us. He was great throughout the cruise, as were all the other staff members who worked with him. It seemed he had a sixth sense about when we were in or out of our stateroom, as he seemed to always go in to freshen it up when we were out, and to leave us fresh ice in our ice bucket without being asked.
We had reserved Qsine for dinner that first night, and loved it. We always ate at a table for two throughout the cruise, because my husband is very hard of hearing and cannot participate in conversations with other people at dinner in a restaurant. The waitstaff at Qsine walked us through the iPad menu (a lot of fun!) and gave us some advice regarding how much to order. The wine steward was excellent, and made some recommendations for very enjoyable wine that was actually less expensive than the one we had initially selected. I can see that Qsine would be even more of an experience with a larger group but we definitely had a great time and the food was very good.
We did not buy any of the beverage packages, just ordered as we wanted drinks, and I think we did the right thing for us.
We had room service breakfast on our balcony every morning, ordering the night before by filling out the card and hanging it on the cabin door at night before going to bed. Unlike other reviewers, I liked the coffee. I liked the room service coffee better than that served in the dining room or the buffet cafe. The additional options for the concierge balcony room service breakfast menu are good - we enjoyed the scrambled eggs and asparagus as well as the mixed berry and granola parfait. One morning, we wanted a different omelet than the ones offered, so I simply wrote in what we wanted on the card, and the omelets arrived the next morning exactly as ordered. Another comment about room service breakfast: the card lists ranges of delivery times just as in a hotel (7:00 to 7:30 AM, 7:30 to 8:00 AM, etc.), but every morning, the delivery staff arrived right on the first time posted, or even a few minutes early (if we chose 7:00 to 7:30, they arrived right at 7:00 AM for example). We really appreciated the promptness, because we want our coffee shortly after we get up.
We had dinner in the MDR Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, then dined in Normandy Wednesday and Thursday, returning to the MDR for Friday evening. My only criticism of the MDR food was that the two different fish dishes I ordered were overcooked, and I did not care for a NY strip steak prepared with a fruit-based sauce (I just did not like the combination of rare beef and sweet fruit, a personal preference), but everything else we had was good (not outstanding but very tasty and prepared well). Normandy was excellent. One night I had the goat cheese souffle and the lobster prepared tableside, and my husband had the scallops Wellington and veal chop, the next night we both had shrimp and the filets mignon - everything was outstanding. The entire experience at Normandy was wonderful. We had not expected the cheese course (very much like my experience dining in parts of Europe), and that was fun, but left us little room for dessert.
We did not go to any of the shows due to my husband's hearing problem. We don't gamble so did not try the casino. We did attend the presentation on shopping in the ports, and a few of the Celebrity Life presentations, which were informative. I had to stay in touch with my clients so purchased WiFi time, at $0.55 per minute for 90 minutes. The staff at the computer center was very good and helpful when I went to get my iPad set up for use on board the ship. They offered a few classes during the cruise, but I did not take any of them.
We also met with the Future Cruises staff person, and purchased an Open Passages voucher for $200 (for two people) which goes towards the deposit and gives us $100 onboard credit on a future cruise of 6 to 9 nights. It is good for any future Celebrity cruise and never expires, so we thought that was a good deal.
We had booked most of or shore excursions on our own, after researching on Cruise Critic message boards (thanks, everyone, again!).
On Barbados, we arranged for a private tour with Cameron Reid. We had researched Barbados and wanted to see Welchman Hall Gully, Harrison's Cave, and the Mt. Gay Rum Factory. All 3 were very well worth seeing. Cameron charged $135 for the car for the day, and took us to each location, with as much time as we wanted to spend touring each place. I had sent Cameron an email prior to leaving for Puerto Rico, telling him that my husband was experiencing some residual side effects from his radiation treatment and needed to stop fairly often at a men's room, and Cameron was very considerate of this requirement. He gave us an informative oral history of the island and answered lots of questions for us. He also talked with us about living on the island, some of the politics going on currently, etc. We would definitely book with him if we go back to Barbados.
On St. Lucia we booked Spencer Ambrose's Land and Sea Tour. We met up with Spencer and two of his staff outside the terminal, and had Lawrence for our driver, who was great. There was a small group of us in the taxi van, and we all enoyed the tour. Lawrence explained everything we were seeing as we went along, stopped many times for photos, the banana plantation, warm fresh-baked bread, etc. as other reviews discuss. The active volcano was definitely worth seeing. We did not realize we would have a separate guide at the volcano park, so were glad we had brought some small bills for tips. Jalousie Beach was nice, the view was incredible, and the lunch provided by Spencer's staff was enjoyable. We took a speed boat back along the coast, and Spencer pointed out the sights, Marigot Bay, one of the sites of one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, and homes of the "rich and famous" as we went along. Spencer had been made aware of my husband's medical situation by email before we arrived, and he was very considerate of him. We loved the tour and enjoyed Spencer and all of his staff whom we met.
On Antigua, we booked with Lawrence of Antigua, a small group tour in another large taxi van. Lawrence initially was a little difficult to find after we got off the ship. He had told us to walk straight out from the ship and we'd see his sign. It turned out that he was farther from the ship than we expected but we did find him after asking another tour operator. This was a very interesting tour. We had read about the history of Antigua and wanted to see the sights in the national park, which was exactly what we did. We enjoyed seeing the ruins at Shirley Heights, the informative multi-media presentation at the orientation center, and Nelson's Dockyard. We both wished we had been able to spend a lot more time at Nelson's Dockyard. We opted to return to the ship after the historic part of the tour, rather than go to the beach for a couple of hours, so Lawrence dropped everyone else off at the beach and took us back to the cruise ship terminal. Again, Lawrence was aware of my husband's medical situation ahead of time, and was careful to provide him with many options for bathroom breaks. We would certainly book with Lawrence again.
We had spent quite a bit of time on previous vacations in St. Maarten, the next port of call, so we did no tours, just walked around on our own and then relaxed back on the ship.
On St. Thomas, we had booked "A Lovely Island and Beach Tour" through Celebrity. This turned out to be another taxi van with a small group from the ship, and provided a nice overview of some of the key island sights, then a 2 hour break on Magens Bay Beach, where we had to rent beach chairs for $14 for the two of us. I think next time, we would opt to tour on our own, so we had more time to see certain places without being on such a regimented schedule.
One experience we had not planned was a visit to the ship's medical office. I slipped and fell on Antigua (completely my fault) and banged my knee and scraped my leg pretty severely, so we decided to have it looked at. We had to wait till the office opened again at 4:30 PM (it is closed except for emergencies while the ship is docked in port). Not knowing what the procedure was, we did not realize that our health insurance would not be accepted for payment, but I was given documentation of the service they did for me and the charges, which were added to our Sea Pass account. I have since submitted them to my health insurance company for reimbursement. The care I received was very good, the staff very polite and careful.
On return to San Juan, we were not thrilled with having to get up so early, grab breakfast in the buffet, and get out of the cabin by 8:00 AM, but everyone had to do it, of course. That is how they are able to have the cabins ready so early for the incoming passengers. We ended up waiting in comfortable chairs in our assigned area in Cellar Masters (wine bar on 5) until 10:45 AM to disembark, as our flight was not until 1:49 PM. We think the staff did a good job of staggering disembarkation so that it went smoothly and there was not a very long line-up for customs clearance. It was nice to be able to sit and relax and read until we were called to disembark. We had a little trouble locating all of our luggage before getting in the customs line, but a porter helped us and carted all the bags through for us on a dolly - well worth his tip. No trouble getting a taxi for the airport, and we arrived in plenty of time to check in, get through security, and wait for our flight home.
In conclusion, we would definitely book on Celebrity again.