The fourth in the line’s award-winning Edge-class of ships, Celebrity Ascent – christened in Fort Lauderdale by Captain Sandy Yawn of Below Deck fame and her sister Michelle Dunham – is being seen as a blueprint for the rest of the fleet when it comes to entertainment and food.
Celebrity is also hoping the new ship will steer it back on course after a couple of missteps earlier this year, one over food that cost it a lot of goodwill and then an ill-timed change to its all-inclusive offering.
New President, Laura Hodges-Bethge has been listening to passengers’ complaints – and even got onboard Celebrity Equinox with her senior leadership team to experience the ship from a passenger and crew point of view .
And according to newly appointed VP and MD UK & Ireland Giles Hawke (who worked as a barista in Café al Bacio while onboard), the team put up a 1,000 post it notes with observations, possible tweaks and changes during their time onboard.
Not all of these will be acted on, of course, but the key thing is – the line is listening and implementing change.
We got onboard Celebrity Ascent to get a taste of things to come.
Hodges-Bethge has made it clear that she wants Celebrity Cruises to “own the night”.
And to that end, the line has some tough competition, with brands such as NCL and MSC arguably “owning” that space with their deck parties, Broadway shows (in the case of NCL) and huge parties in the promenade (in the case of MSC Cruises).
Celebrity Ascent heralds the start of this entertainment revolution, and debuts a number of new shows, including two in the main theater, three in smaller entertainment space, Eden; and one in The Club.
And although all of these are unique to Celebrity Ascent, the technology being utilised will be rolled out across the fleet in 2024, according to Lisa Lehr, Vice President Entertainment:
“We’re going to be launching some new show product, and we’re also going to be looking at what needs to be right-sized, as far as equipment” she said, speaking onboard Celebrity Ascent ahead of its naming.
“Remember this is a brand new ship, so it has the latest and greatest technology, but when we looked at the fleet we’ve identified there is an opportunity with lighting, with sound with capabilities on the resort deck to elevate that.”
She added that the line will also be introducing some of the additional activities and parties to the rest of the fleet, including the top deck Resort Deck Party with live DJ.
The ship debuts a whole raft of new shows, including two particular standouts in the main theater: Bridges and Awaken.
Both utilize the ship’s mind-blowing technology to the full, with triple-deck height wraparound screens that immerse the audience fully into the action; strobes, light effects and kinetic lighting.
The talent the line has assembled for these shows will give you an insight to what you can expect – between them, they’ve worked with: Dua Lipa, Disney, Cirque du Soleil, Aerosmith, the Queen’s Jubilee and the King’s Coronation, Michael Jackson, SIA, Katy Perry, One Republic – the list goes on. Each one has choreographed, conceptualized, created and produced these shows for Celebrity, and each of them is unique to this ship.
Bridges starts in rainy London town on a Friday night, with Tower Bridge as a backdrop. And refreshingly, rather than leaning into those tired old London clichés of men in bowler hats and quaint Victorian streets, we see a London of rushing commuters, heading to the pub to start their weekend, with music from ELO, Take That, Adele and others providing the soundtrack.
The screens then give the effect of flight, and we next find ourselves in Venice, on the Rialto Bridge (the one with the locks) and are treated to sublime views of the city.
But it’s the sequence in New York with the Brooklyn Bridge as backdrop and the Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, Alicia Keys and Salt ‘n’ Pepa as the soundtrack that is the real standout sequence.
The pace doesn’t let up, eventually ending up in Sydney Harbour, with a beautiful finale sequence involving fireworks over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
We’ve been fortunate enough to see many shows onboard ships and Bridges blows them all away. Something truly daring and different.
Awaken is equally ambitious, loosely based on a dream sequence (though if I had these dreams I’d be very worried), riffing on robots and including songs from Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and in a particularly memorable sequence The Prodigy, with a Matrix-style backdrop.
Both left me breathless and wanting more.
Readers will be pleased to know that the reversal of the dining changes (removing the always available items) has been implemented, as promised, in time for Thanksgiving.
So on our first night, in Luminae, the suites-only restaurant, our waiter was at pains to point out that if we didn’t like anything on the menu we could always have anything from the main dining room menu.
Although ordering off the MDR menu might be slightly frowned upon in Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, Le Voyage, which has been given a significant makeover.
You have a choice of a five-course tasting menu ($125), which can be paired with wine (at an additional cost of $100), and takes around two hours; or an a la carte menu ($75).
We chose a variety of dishes including the tamarind and peanut crusted prawns, Alaskan king crab salad roasted beet and roasted cauliflower from the appetizers, all of which were delicious; followed by Brazilian moqueca, lobster risotto, chicken with mushrooms and an Angus filet mignon.
You could tell there was artistry at work going on; Boulud has trained these chefs well: light, fragrant sauces, simple flavours, artfully paired and decent-sized portions, not so much that you were full up, but simply satisfied. Sadly, there was no room for dessert as we had to rush to the show.
We haven’t had time to eat in the main dining rooms on this short cruise yet, which is always a test of food quality, but we did try Raw on 5 and the Sunset Bar.
Raw is a slight misnomer, as well as shrimp and sushi, you can also get chicken gyoza, ramen, teriyaki, skewers and dips and much more. It was just meant to be a snack-type lunch, but the quality, presentation and service was outstanding.
And a hidden gem up top at the aft of the ship in the Sunset Bar are the plates of Middle East food on offer: Labneh, Baba ganoush, hummus, Marrakesh salad, mini chicken shawarma, Merguez lamb. Each perfectly cooked and deliciously tasty and light. Each come in at $8, and the portion size is generous and includes as much pita as you want. A perfect light bite.
We haven’t eaten in Eden, but we did have a “taste of Eden”, overseen by Vice President Food & Beverage, Cornelius Gallagher. He said that – as with so many things on Ascent – the dining offering in Eden has evolved since debuting on Edge, where food played second fiddle to the entertainment. Today the food includes a full vegan seven-course tasting menu for $120.
Celebrity Ascent is a stunning ship, but it needs to be more than just visually appealing – it has to deliver what passengers want, whether that’s in the form of quality dining, accommodation or entertainment.
“Each iteration of the Edge-class of ship shatters preconceived notions of cruise ships,” said Hodges-Bethge at the naming ceremony. “We want to give people the best premium vacation ever. Full stop.”
And after just a few short days onboard, it looks as if it – and the line – is doing just that.