This was my 10th cruise and my husband's 7th, but our first on Celebrity as well as our first Mediterranean sailing. Though we sometimes travel with family during our annual August vacation, this time it was just the two of us.
PRE-CRUISE: We flew to Rome three days in advance from Boston on Aer Lingus, staying at Hotel Albergo Del Senato. The hotel is absolutely gorgeous and sits directly on Piazza Della Rotonda, right beside the Pantheon. The location is ideal for getting to the major sites, either a short cab ride or a short walk away. We were given a room on the third floor facing the Pantheon and piazza, as I had requested in advance. The room was fashioned in understated elegance and the bed very comfortable. But the real beauty is what awaits the eyes outside the window. The windows open in and the shutters slide out, providing the most amazing view of the Pantheon and all the lively action happening on the plaza below. No need to worry about noise, either, because the windows are fairly soundproof and block out any noise below. With a prime location, comfortable accommodations, a killer view, complimentary breakfast, and helpful and friendly staff, we couldn't have picked a better hotel for our first visit to Rome!
We booked all our transfers with RomeCabs. Our driver from the hotel to the cruise port in Civitavecchia was Monica, who arrived 15 minutes early to assure a timely departure. She was a friendly people person with a great sense of humor, and got us to the port safely and quickly. We arrived at the cruise port at about 11:00 am and were driven directly to the ship. Because we booked Aqua Class, we had priority embarkation and were through registration and onboard in no time at all.
STATEROOM: Just before final payment, we took advantage of a great deal and upgraded ourselves to Aqua Class and chose one of those raved-about balconies on the slant of the bump-out section - #2150, deck 12, starboard side, facing forward. The balcony was huge, although the railing was showing some wear right down to bare wood and was in need of serious refinishing. Still, this was by far the nicest cabin we've ever had. The room was decorated in warm tones with a sofa positioned next to the balcony door. The most pleasant surprise was the cabin bathroom. It was very large for a standard cabin bath, with modern fixtures and lots of storage space. No knees up against the sink while you're sitting on the john and plenty of room to move around. The shower was a roomy half-moon shape with sliding glass doors - no clingy shower curtain, and a heavenly shower head that sprayed the water perfectly. As a perk of Aqua Class, our cabin steward did a wonderful job of keeping us supplied with fresh fruit, late afternoon appetizers, tea, ice and all the complimentary bottled water we could use.
DINING: We were assigned to the Aqua Class dining room, Blu, and it wasn't love at first sight for us. On our initial visit, we were seated in the middle of a row of three tables for two, situated close together, and just like my aversion to the middle seat on a jet, it was awkward and uncomfortable, robbing me of my much valued personal space. However, with each meal, the concept grew on us, and we realized that all it takes is a simple hello to your fellow table mates to figure out whether to strike up a conversation or leave them to their dinner. Breakfast on the first morning, for instance, was a better experience, as we were seated at a table by the window. With my husband's obvious disappointment at not getting a window seat that first night, he became well acquainted with the wait-staff as the guy who "likes light". Obviously, it wasn't always possible to have a seat by a window, but it didn't hurt to ask, and one evening we were given a pager to wait. Service was good, the staff was attentive, and we found the food to be excellent for the most part. While French Onion Soup was not on the Blu menu, our waiter was happy to bring my husband a bowl of his favorite whenever requested, and he loved it. As much as we enjoyed Blu, however, we wouldn’t book Aqua Class just to dine in Blu. We would still have been perfectly happy without the added perks, and the main dining room (Opus) would have suited us just fine.
Here are comments on the other dining venues we tried:
Tuscan Grille: This was our only specialty restaurant, as we found Blu provided us all the wonderful food we could want. Since it was my husband's birthday, we decided to splurge. The decor is very nice, and the food was great! For all the folks who have been warned about the ribeye steak in Tuscan, the cut my husband had was fine and cooked to his liking. I had the shrimp & scallops dish, which was delicious. The Tuscan onion soup was superb, too.
Oceanview Cafe: In general, breakfast lunch were good, with many stations and lots of choices, and we never had a problem finding a seat. Great dessert, pizza, pasta and ice cream stations, too. We chose to forego formal nights this time around and chose to grab a plate here on the first of two formal nights, while we awaited the setting of the Mediterranean sun. The sunset was lovely, but the dinner buffet here wasn't anything special. Neither the food nor the ghost town atmosphere did a thing for us, and we decided that would be are one and only night in the buffet.
Mast Grill: Great burgers and hot dogs ... but where the heck was the relish???
Aqua Spa Cafe: It didn't do much for my meat and potatoes husband, but for me it was a great place to grab a light, healthy lunch and was very convenient to the Solarium pool, our favorite hangout.
Bars/Clubs: The only one we spent any time at was the Sunset Bar, which was a great place to enjoy a cool beverage while watching sail-away in all the ports.
Special Occasions: Celebrity remains low key when it comes to special occasion celebrations. No balloons on the door or singing waiters. In fact, we were celebrating our anniversary while dining in Blu one evening. I was just remarking to my husband how senseless it is to note a special occasion in the Cruise Planner when Celebrity doesn't acknowledge the special day, when, lo and behold, here comes our waiter with a little chocolate anniversary cake with a candle. He lit the candle, sliced up the tiny culinary delight for us, and graciously wished us a happy anniversary. Nothing corny or crass - just class and style! However, it must be hit or miss with the cakes, because on the following night in The Tuscan Grille, there was no mention of happy birthday or a cake to be seen.
Café al Bacio: I wish Celebrity had a coffee card - one price for 10 coffees - or something similar, as Princess does. I got by with the mediocre regular coffee in the morning, but I like to treat myself to a specialty coffee in the afternoon, and Café al Bacio was the place to find it. A coffee card would have made it more economical without having to buy a beverage package.
DRESS CODE: We didn’t participate in formal night this time around and left our dress-up clothing at home. We dined in Blu on the second formal night, and despite being a business casual option on formal night, I have to say that 90% of the guests were in formalwear. We also found that people were more apt to dress it up a bit every night on this cruise – more than any other cruise or itinerary I’ve sailed.
We found the entertainment severely lacking compared to other cruise lines, and due to the port-intensive itinerary, I found myself napping a lot or spending time on the balcony, thus missing most of the acts, but here is a small recap of what we saw and heard:
Reflection (song and dance production show): Talented singers and dancers – delightfully entertaining.
Walker Black Duo: Guitar & Vocal. A little too mellow for my husband's tastes, but I enjoyed this coffee-house style duo.
Daniel (Guitar and vocal): Excellent guitarist and vocalist, and we both enjoyed him. Unfortunately, we only caught one performance at the Sunset Bar during our sail-away from Athens.
Soulful Electronica: We caught snippets of this high-energy dance band often while passing through the atrium, and what we heard was very good. Actually, since the sounds from the atrium soar up the full vertical length of the atrium, we often heard them from all over the ship.
Casino: I won about 80 bucks on the first sea day, and did even better on a subsequent night. From then on, the machines ate all my winnings, and then some. My husband had no luck either.
Art History 101. We enjoyed one of these brief 30-minute seminars presented by the art auction people. We found it informative and entertaining, and it didn't take a huge chunk out of the day like an auction, yet still allowed ample time to down a couple of glasses of free champagne.
Art auction. Despite our vow not to purchase any more cruise art, I saw two matching relatively inexpensive pieces by Charles Lee I just had to have. I didn't need much convincing, either, after a rum-heavy concoction just prior.
Solarium pool: Our favorite place on the ship. We loved this relaxing retreat! Quiet, pretty, uncrowded (with the exception of sea days when an unoccupied chair was difficult to find), enclosed and protected from the hot sun, it was our favorite adults-only spot to relax. The pool was large enough for laps, and the water was a comfortable temperature and re-energizing. I extend my compliments to the crew for swiftly re-directing any wandering little kids under the age of 16 to the main pools.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? The following comments are by no means a criticism, but just a few things about the ship that didn't make much sense to us:
Noisy atrium: Loud blaring music, activity and noise in the grand atrium, mid-ship ... not all the time, but enough to wonder why Celebrity designed it this way. Woe to the folks who thought they would find peace and tranquility in the Library, Hideaway Lounge, or Card Rooms, all of which happen to rest on the edge of the atrium's upper open decks above, who must have been scratching their heads in confusion while inserting their earplugs.
Ship decor: While most areas of the ship were elegant and classy, we found others to be - well, a little strange. The psychedelic cosmic flower garden motif leading to the specialty restaurants on deck 5 - or what my husband fondly called the "drug room" - was odd and out of place. The much talked about upside down silver-toned tree thingy in the center atrium - which we figured out was actually the "roots" extending from the green tree above it - was just plain ugly to me. The martini bar, all in monotone gray, could really use some color. Putting it simply, it seems that Celebrity couldn't decide which paint brush to use when designing Reflection.
The "fake" promenade deck. The lack of a real promenade deck was the biggest design flaw in the Solstice class ships, if you ask me. Sure, you can stroll a distance from about the front elevators to the rear ones on either side, but except for a few feet on either end, most of your view will be blocked by the ship tenders. I like to begin every day on board with a few laps around the promenade deck, and I sure missed one here.
Speaking of laps – the jogging track is sorely misplaced. Just try jogging or even speed walking in the middle of the day around the main pool and see where it gets you - especially on a sea day. You’ll be competing with deck loungers, meanderers and groups of swimsuit clad folks just chilling in the middle of the track. If there can’t be a dedicated jogging track, then don’t have one at all.
The Lawn: The jury is still out on this one. It's pretty, but a better use of this space would be to expand the Sunset Bar, which is a perfect gathering spot with incredible views - especially during sail away. The bar and surrounding area could use a bit more seating for a ship this size.
The language of the sign at the Solarium Pool indicating "Solarium Adults Only 16 Years and Above." I've always thought of adults as being 21 or maybe 18 and older? Hmmm....
PORTS: Every port was an adventure and we saw so many incredible things. Here’s a recap:
ROME: The first morning, we woke early and took a taxi at 7:00 am to the Vatican for our pre-reserved 5-hour VIP tour of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica with Through Eternity Tours. I highly recommend this small-group tour, limited to just 7 people, the primary reason being early-entry to the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a massive crowd, we were able to enjoy the magnificent art of Michelangelo with just a couple of other small groups. Later, as we passed through the chapel again on our way to the Basilica, we completely understood the importance of this early tour. By that point, the crowds were so heavy that every inch of the chapel was filled with people gazing up at the ceilings, shoulder-to-shoulder, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for these people who could not have had the same serene experience as we did. Our guide was very knowledgeable, thoroughly explained the history of what we were about to see, and expertly guided us through the Vatican museum exhibits, the Basilica and finishing up outside at St. Peter’s Square. We sat a few minutes taking in the surroundings, amazed that we were actually there in this holy place. We rested our weary feet and were grateful for the drinking fountains throughout the city, allowing us to refill our empty water bottles. We would have liked to linger for another hour at the Square, but by this time we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by taxi for a mid-afternoon rest.
The next morning, we awoke refreshed and met our guide at 8:30 am for our pre-reserved 3-hour small-group tour with Walks of Italy of the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum. Just as with the Vatican tour the previous day, this tour gave us early entrance to the Coliseum before opening to the masses, thereby avoiding huge crowds that arrive later. Tickets are reserved in advance by the tour company, so there was no waiting in line. Our tour guide, Rosa, was friendly, knowledgeable and explained in detail everything we saw. Experiencing these ancient ruins was just amazing, and it really made my day, knowing I walked along the same ancient road that great emperors walked. We leisurely walked back to the hotel, stopping for pizza at an outside cafe and picking up a few souvenirs along the way.
Being within eye's view of the Pantheon, our visit to Rome would not be complete without a look inside. Since we were scheduled for a 10:00 am ride with RomeCabs to the ship on embarkation day, we used the time after breakfast for a walk through this magnificent ancient wonder. We stood in awe as we gazed upon the Greek-style portico and huge bronze doors, but the inside Roman-style rotunda, the infamous dome, the tombs of famous people including artist Raphael and modern Rome's first two kings, and the vastness of it all simply took our breath away.
SANTORINI: We took the Oia and Winery tour with Celebrity, mainly to take advantage of the early tender departure. The ride to Oia was very pleasant, with the guide giving some history and pointing out the sights along the way. Our first stop was the winery. There were multiple busses parked, so the wine-tasting portion of the visit was a little crazy, but the views were incredible. After tasting a sampling of three types of wine - all of which were nothing note-worthy, we contined on to Oia. We aren't in the best of shape, it was hot and humid, and the walk from the bus up the hill left us gasping for breath. With only an hour in Oia, we decided to plant ourselves in the first restaurant we saw, which turned out to be a great decision. We were shown to a shaded table with an awesome view, ordered a Greek Salad, Souvlaki, wine and beer, and we couldn't have enjoyed our visit any more than we did. Back aboard the bus, we continued to the town of Fira, where we browsed a few shops on our way to the cable cars. There was no line at all, and it was a quick cable car ride down the cliff. Later, from our cabin balcony, I managed to zoom in on the donkey trail and photographed some riders going up and down the ziggity-zaggety trail. It looked like a long way up and not a journey we would have wanted to take.
ISTANBUL: Originally, we were going to take a taxi into the city to explore on our own, but at the last minute decided to book seats with Celebrity's "Istanbul On Your Own". What a huge mistake! Celebrity describes this excursion as a stop at the Spice Market “for the ones who would like to discover the market…with access to the old city”, then the last and final stop at the Grand Bazaar…with “plenty of time to discover the Old City and Bazaar on your own.” This was a huge misrepresentation on Celebrity’s part. We were hardly “on our own”. It was all about shopping. The group was herded to the Spice Market – which we didn’t mind, as we wanted to do a little shopping. But after an hour there, we were told to board the bus and proceed to the second stop – the Grand Bazaar. But wait! There would be no Grand Bazaar until you were forced to undergo a “carpet demonstration”. To make matters worse, it wasn’t a demonstration of how carpets are made, but a presentation. In other words, a sales pitch. Unless you're interested in buying a carpet, it's a waste of time that could be spent at places more worthy.
Following the carpet pitch, the guide (and by the way, why does an on-your-own tour need a guide, anyway?) began to lead the group to the Grand Bazaar for more shopping. However, this was where we said see ya later, bud. We left the group to continue on our own to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque was closed on this Friday morning, until 2:30, which was the time we had to return to the bus. After some photographs of the exterior of the Blue Mosque, we walked over to Hagia Sophia Museum to visit this incredible former church/mosque. It took about 20 minutes to get through the line, and once inside, we were amazed by the architecture. First a mosque for 916 years, then a church for 435 years, it became a museum in 1935. The enormity of size, the spectacular dome and the artwork and mosaics are a feast for the senses. It began raining when we left, and we started to make our way back toward the bus, stopping at a restaurant along the way for lunch. By the time we got to the bus, we were soaked.
Also, be aware that EVERY tour with The cruise lines In the Turkish ports include an obligatory stop at a rug or carpet demonstration, i.e. sales pitch. Sadly, the "on your own tour" was no exception.
Here's a Tip: If you do happen to take this tour or any Istanbul large group tour and are out on your own, remove your tour ID sticker. The carpet hawkers are relentless when they find out you came in by cruise ship, and they will try to engage you in friendly banter to reel you in. Just smile, say no, and continue on your way.
Later on in the evening of our first day in Istanbul, we did Celebrity's Nighttime Bosphorus River Cruise. After the on-your-own tour fiasco, I was a little apprehensive about this ship-sponsored tour, thinking it was going to be a crowded boat with hundreds if people packed into bench seats. It actually turned out to be quite the opposite and a lot of fun. Guests were spread out over two decks seated at large round tables with white linen, appetizers, and wait-staff pouring all you can drink free wine, beer and soft drinks. We were one of the first to board and chose a prime table overlooking the back of the boat on the upper open deck on this warm beautiful night. We met some nice fellow American table mates from Arizona and Texas, and had a really great time. A belly dancer provided lively entertainment, choosing some lucky victims to join in her dancing. Great fun!
KUSADASI: We pre-booked a private tour to Ephesus with Ephesus Shuttle. As expected, it was very hot, humid and crowded, but our very knowledgeable tour guide allowed us to go along at our own pace through the Library of Celcus, ancient Brothel and Baths, the Theatre where St. Paul preached, and more, allowing us ample time at each point of reference along the way for pictures, water breaks and some shade where available. I highly recommend this tour for a reasonably priced way to see the ruins at a relaxed pace and one-on-one with a guide. We opted out of the terrace houses due to my recurring knee issues, but Ephesus was absolutely incredible and well worth the experience. Tip: If you're heading out to Ephesus, you'll most definitely need to bring water, a hat, sunscreen - and an umbrella as a shield from the sun wouldn't hurt either, as there is little to no shade. Be sure to wear sturdy, flat non-skid shoes or sport sandals, because the walk is entirely on slippery marble or uneven cobblestones.
After the tour, we stopped at The Temple of Artemis, even though it was not included in our tour. Unfortunately, all that remains are a single column and a few piles of rocks. Still, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is worthy of a visit. We finished up our tour with a delicious lunch at a small local restaurant, and returned to the port. She asked, but we declined a visit to a carpet store for a demonstration, as we had neither the interest nor the money to invest, and we never felt pressured into attending one.
MYKONOS: We had no excursion or tour booked here and originally thought about staying on the ship, since we're not really beach people. I am so glad we didn't. We walked along the gorgeous waterfront, strolling by the shops and restaurants and were rewarded with beautiful views of a clear, turquoise sea and a refreshing ocean breeze. We continued along the ocean road to the right and came upon a little blue-domed chapel, and went even further for even more beautiful views and a quaint alley with shops and cafés. We enjoyed lunch at an outdoor cafe overlooking the harbor with a front row seat to all the action around us. Mykonos was a pleasant surprise and a few relaxing hours to spend on shore.
ATHENS: We took a taxi from the cruise port for the 20-minute drive to the Acropolis Museum. If you want to see the Acropolis but are unable to make the climb (like me), go to the museum. It may not be the same as being there, but it's an excellent alternative. What you will see are many of the original ancient artifacts and statues, as well as the ancient streets and ruins of buildings below as seen through the glass floors throughout the first floor of the museum. No photography is allowed inside the museum, but while some areas had the camera police standing around, other areas of the building, particularly the third floor, seemed to be more lax. In fact, be sure to go to the third floor viewing area where you will be able to see the ancient monuments of the Acropolis on the "holy rock" and take photos. One of the museum's exhibits which really impressed me was the Caryatids, the original gigantic figures of 5 of the 6 maidens which supported the roof of the Erechtheion, one of the ancient temples on the rock. Also, near the third floor viewing area, you'll see many of the original statues and sculptures removed by the Greeks from the Parthenon to protect them from the elements.
We spent a couple of hours at the museum and continued on our way down the road and around the corner to Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus, the latter of which we photographed through the fence without actually paying to walk through the gate. By the way, you can get some interesting photos of the Acropolis through the Arch. Of course, no first visit to a city is complete without sampling the local food, so we stopped for lunch between the museum and the Arch.
NAPLES: We joined a small group tour with AP Tours (8 people) of the Amalfi Coast, Positano, Ravello and Pompeii. Our driver was professional, friendly and had a great sense of humor. Our first stop was Positano, where we walked a little ways along the quaint, but crowded streets and picked up a couple of ceramic gifts to take home. We continued on our way for another brief stop at The town of Amalfi, where he had a quick lunch and then back to the van to continue to our third stop of Ravello. This was our favorite town on the tour. It was not crowded, very pretty with some lovely homes and scenery. The town square was lined with shops and restaurants, and we wished we had more time to spend here.
Our last stop was a guided tour of the ancient ruins of Pompeii. We hired a guide, who showed us around to the most important buildings and homes and gave us a good history of Pompeii and its destruction with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I was worried about what the uneven stone pavement and stairs would do to my knees, but Pompeii was not difficult to maneuver at all. We found our earlier visit before the cruise to The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill to be much more challenging. Of course, it helped that we had a bit of cloud cover to keep the heat down.
This was a great tour, and I highly recommend AP Tours. The only thing I might suggest to others - and do differently next time - would be to choose no more than two towns to visit on the tour, allowing more time in each.
DISEMBARKATION AND FLIGHT HOME: We had a flight home at 11:50 a.m., and were off the ship with the first group at 6:50 am. It took all of 5 minutes to collect our luggage and meet our driver from RomeCabs. We shared a ride with some new cruise friends and shared stories of our 11 days on board the Reflection.
Our return flight to Boston was the low point of this trip – not just because it’s always sad to leave, but because of the security ordeal in Dublin and nearly missing our connection. We had a 2-hour layover in Dublin, with barely enough time for three different security checks, carry on bag inspection (me) and a full pat down (me again). I guess it was my lucky day. It was 2 hours of long lines and frustrated passengers. We made it on board the plane with minutes to spare and had a safe flight to Boston, where our driver was waiting for us to take us back to the real world.
This cruise was fabulous – both the ship and the itinerary. Except for the afternoon rain in Istanbul, we had great weather and calm seas, and the heat and humidity could have been much worse than it was. I would love to revisit Rome, Istanbul and Naples some day to see the sights that a day in port can’t possibly cover. We were very impressed with Celebrity and would sail the line again in a heartbeat!