Background Information My husband has had a Panama Canal transit on his "bucket list" for years, and when the opportunity came to take one during the holiday season (something I had wanted to experience), we signed up! We are both 60 years old, and have 16 cruises under our belts, including four with Celebrity (three of these on the Mercury). We were with a group booked by a discount travel agency out of the Seattle area. This was problematic because we were given our booking number and flight info only a few weeks before departure, meaning we were unable to book ship's tours until then (we worried that some might be sold out by the time we could book them). I also wanted to get discounted drink packages during the short internet sale Celebrity was having; we just barely made it. I booked the drink packages and two ship's tours online beforehand. Once we arrived at the ship, we found they had no record of these transactions, and we had to go through it all again in person (at a higher price for the drink packages, too). Flaky website? Memo to self: take screen shots or print receipts next time.
Travel To Port of Embarkation
Owing to my work schedule, we were unable to travel to the departure port a day or more beforehand, as we would have liked. Celebrity arranged the air for this travel-agency group. We took Shuttle Express from our Seattle home to the airport. Celebrity had us on an 11 PM flight from Seattle to Detroit, then another flight on to Fort Lauderdale leaving at what was 3 AM to us. This was HORRIBLE; it took us several days to get back to feeling normal, what with the lack of decent sleep that night and the three-hour time change. We thought ahead to bring along a small breakfast to eat in the Detroit airport, which garnered envious stares from gate-mates. Once we landed in Fort Lauderdale and claimed our luggage, there was an easy-to-spot Celebrity representative who took our transfer paperwork, handed us bus passes, and directed us to "hang out" until called. After being called, we all stood outside for some time -- a half-hour? - until the bus arrived. An agent on the bus gave excellent instructions on what to expect when we arrived at the cruise terminal. At the terminal, all the luggage was unloaded before the passengers were allowed to get off the bus and proceed into the terminal to check in. This particular terminal was very bare-bones. Once we wound our way to the front of the line, things moved along and we were finally able to board the ship!
Our veranda cabin was in fine shape (as was the rest of the ship). Biggest complaint was that our next-door-neighbor smoked on the veranda, a total no-no (not allowed in cabins or on verandas, or on the right-hand side of the ship for that matter). Perhaps he thought "no one would notice," but the odor was obvious, even with the veranda door closed. We probably should have mentioned this to someone, but oh well. Apart from that . . . it was all good. (I recall that the safe was on a shelf so high that I couldn't reach it without a chair, but my hubby took over that task for us.) We put up seasonal door decorations we had brought along (used poster putty) -- maybe every 10th door had some distinguishing decoration - and also brought a few Christmas decorations for inside our room (mini-lights, holiday fabric, small unbreakable ornaments). We found there were enough outlets (for a change); when flat-screen TVs were installed on the wall across from the bed, the outlets the old TVs had used (in a nook above the fridge) became available for passenger use. We were able to access wi-fi from our room. Our room steward, Benjo, was fine but not outstanding. Does anyone else wish the stewards didn't rearrange the bed pillows? Each night we had to go through all the pillows again to find which were the ones we had chosen as "favorites" previously. Guess I should mark them somehow. Being as there are no self-service laundry rooms on Celebrity, we learned to do hand laundry and where to hang it to dry, depending on if it was a sea or port day. There is a drying line in the shower, but we had our own clothesline and also put items subtlety on the veranda table and chairs, in ways they didn't show and could not blow off.
I was particularly interested to see how the ship decorated for Christmas. The atrium had (faux) swags and wreaths hung on the railings that circled the area. There was a lighted (and lightly-decorated) (faux) tree in each lounge and in the atrium. Public-area floral arrangements had a holiday look. The atrium stairways had numerous pots of (live) poinsettias flanking the steps, and other sets of stairs had a couple pots of them on the landings between the floors. Our cruise started on December 19 and the ship was decorated when we arrived, but the poinsettias weren't put out until after we were underway -- perhaps they had obtained them in Florida. In the atrium, there was a table with a model train that ran in the evenings. There were numerous tables with kit-based gingerbread house displays, usually but not always near dining venues. For a Christmas-lover such as myself, there was enough seasonal decoration to make me happy.
On this ship, the officers were very visible and available. They were smiling and helpful. In fact, we'd not seen as much officer/passenger integration before on any ship.
We had "anytime dining" but always took the same table at the same time and often had the same folks at the tables near us. We like to dine early so we can get to the first show and then turn in for the night. There were a few other like-minded individuals who waited outside the dining room for the doors to open at 5:45 or 6. We always got a table for two (though there was less than a foot between our table and the next one - so not very private) without a wait. We had Djoni ("Johnny") for our waiter on the first night, and requested him after that. We are not picky eaters and always found something to suit on the dinner menu. Djoni would give us his recommendations, which were pretty spot-on. We ate dinner in the buffet a few times, along with most of our breakfasts and lunches -- there are so many choices there! Indian food was especially enjoyed. I did think they needed to ramp up the salad-bar area; they tended to run out of protein items and it was hard to reach everything. We were always able to find an empty table, and there were lots of tables for two. We tried the Aqua Spa Cafe for breakfast and lunch a few times, and found it to be a pleasant experience. Sometimes we took a meal from the buffet line to our veranda, when it was not too hot out (fortunately there are trays available). We tried the burger grill; I enjoyed the turkey burgers and my husband was a big fan of the Angus burgers. There is also a sandwich "shop" on the pool deck across from the burger grill, and that was a nice change of fare. One day there was a Mexican buffet served on the pool deck. Sometimes the wind was so strong that you could not really dine outside (out back or on the pool deck); your food would blow off your plate! A big favorite of my husband's was the ice-cream station in the buffet area . . . always smiling service, many flavors, delicious! We also liked the palm-leaf cookies, and the little pastries and sandwiches, at the Cova Cafe. We did not go to the extra-fee Murano restaurant, or try room service. There were two brunch buffets held in the dining room, on Christmas Day and New Year's Day (one had to be an eagle-eyed reader of the daily bulletin to know these were happening). They were sumptuous and ever so impressive, including (on Christmas) lighted ice carvings depicting Santa's sleigh and reindeer -- so large that each took up its own table. As usual, we gained weight in spite of always using the stairs instead of the elevators!
On a cruise, we generally prefer to relax in our cabin and on our veranda, rather than participate in activities, but that doesn't mean there weren't any . . . there were many, even on port days.
We did attend a Cruise Critic get-together sponsored by the ship, on the first full day of the cruise. It was held in the Martini Bar with about 50 CC members in attendance. A number of ship's officers showed up for this event, including the captain. By pre-arrangement, there was a gift exchange with folks bringing wrapped gifts indicative of their home area -- when your number was drawn, you came up to select a gift and also introduced yourself. Some took advantage of this gathering to nail down info for privately-arranged shore excursions. The next day, Cruise Critic members had the chance to go on a bridge tour.
Captain's Club members had a short list of special opportunities made available to them; we attended the Backstage Tour. For all passengers, there was a Galley and Restaurant tour, followed by a Food and Beverage Showcase. The latter was held in a large lounge and featured stations such as Meat & Poultry, Bakery, Napkin-Folding, Cotton-Candy making (with samples), Pastry, and Fruit & Vegetable carving (a real showman here). A couple activities we tried to attend, did not materialize. We did attend napkin-folding class, watch ice-carving on the pool deck, see a cooking demo called "Global Flavors" where a mushroom rice dish and crÃ¨me brulee were prepared, and watch the "Star Chefs Cooking Show," at which two guests were paired with ship's personnel and given an Iron Chef-like opportunity to prepare a meal in very few minutes, which were judged by a panel of more from-the-audience guests.
We also attended three "Ocean's Ahead" presentations by officers on the topics of: Onboard Recycling & Carbon Footprint, Secrets of Ship Navigation, and How the Ship Moves. All very interesting, even to this non-techie person.
There were three "Beyond the Podium" enrichment speakers onboard, all of whom gave numerous talks. "Uncle Marty" Martin Harriman spoke and did Q&A sessions about Panama and the canal, and narrated our passage through the canal. What a font of knowledge, and such a fine ambassador for his country! We attended all but one of his talks. There were also Hal Tinberg (an enrichment speaker on forensics) and Dik Daso (curator of Modern Military Aircraft at the National Air & Space Museum).
Possibly not considered activities, but there were several shopping events held onboard which we attended. One, on the day transiting the canal, was on the pool deck and featured Panama-specific items. Another day was "$10 Madness" at the boutique shop.
Passengers received a Christmas card from the ship, as well as a gift. There were Catholic, and non-denominational Protestant, services available late on Christmas Eve, as well as on Christmas Day and on other days, too. The Protestant Christmas Eve service had about 100 in attendance, and included communion, plus singing of well-known hymns, expertly accompanied by the ship's show band pianist. We didn't participate in any late-night New Year's Eve activities, but reports are that a great time was had by many.
Being a holiday cruise with school out-of-session, one had to expect a quantity of children, and there were about 200 of them (on this 1800-passenger vessel) -- almost always well-behaved and out of sight, enjoying themselves. Santa arrived via the pool deck on Christmas Day, and led a parade of children to the atrium lobby, where each child was given a gift from the ship. (Santa was available on and off throughout the day for photo ops with passengers.)
We attended the early-evening show, all but one night:
19th: general welcome and a little bit of everything, including the aerialists
20th: Dance Around the World (production cast) -- formal night
21st: Greg Bonham (singing and trumpet)
22nd: Playing by Air (juggling)
23rd: (didn't attend; the daily bulletin says Steven Scott, comedian)
24th: Christmas show, very nicely decorated and performed (production cast, a capella group, aerialists, cruise director, orchestra, plus the children on board sang two songs). After this, there was caroling in the atrium, led by the officers but all could join in -- this was packed!
25th: Lelani Marrell (vocalist) -- formal night
26th: Joshua Seth (hypnotist)
27th: Liverpool Knights (production cast)
28th: Gossamer Magic (magician)
29th: Antonio Salci (pianist)
30th: double bill of Gossamer Magic and Lelani Marrell
31st: A Touch of Broadway (production cast) -- formal night
1st: Bruce Smirnoff (comedian)
2nd: double bill of Bruce Smirnoff and Antonio Salci
Also on the 2nd, there were two interesting presentations: a so-so crew talent show and "crew walkdown" (started off by a cruise-ship-passenger flashmob doing "Thriller"), and an afternoon show at which the Cruise Director, John Grantham, discussed his former life as a Hollywood stuntman, complete with film clips.
We also enjoyed the string trio, often catching them in the Cova Cafe. They played the occasional holiday tune, but mostly stuck to classical numbers. The show band was another favorite of ours -- fortunately, a number of the evening performers called them out and featured them.
Port & Shore Excursions
Briefly -- more in the Shore Excursions area. By the way, we never changed any money, but found the places that we went took US dollars, or a charge card.
Cartagena, Colombia: private city tour with Dora. She was great!
Colon, Panama (not discussed elsewhere): private tour of Gatun Locks and Panama City with Roberto of Robtad Tours. I would recommend Roberto without reservation. He had extensive knowledge, was easy to understand, was untiring in explaining how the Locks worked, and made sure we saw what we wanted to see. Five stars for Roberto!
Puntarenas, Costa Rica: tour through ShoreExcursionsGroup.com/Greenways Tours - Puntarenas Highlights
Puerto Quetzel, Guatemala: ship's tour -- Antigua - Self-Guided ("on your own")
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: ship's tour -- PV Walking Tour. We also went to Costco for a look-around!
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: tour through ShoreExcursionsGroup.com/Cabo Outfitters -- Kayak the Arch & Snorkel Lover's Beach
This took longer to get going than anticipated. We were supposed to all be off the ship before 10 AM, but no. Apparently non-US citizens were supposed to exit first, but a few went into hiding and the rest of us had to wait until they were found and had cleared immigration. Out of 26 departure groups, we were assigned #22, so we had a two-hour wait in the large theater. They showed CNN during this time -- loud and obnoxious. Yo, Celebrity - how about a "highlights of your cruise" video instead, or something about other destinations Celebrity visits? Eventually, we were let off (with what appeared to be heartfelt "goodbyes" and "safe travels" from staff), found our bags (had a hard time fighting our way through the crowd to get to them) and joined a huge line to go through the formalities. Once through all that, we had bus transfers to the nearby San Diego airport (which transfers were never collected, but we did get bussed there). Our flight didn't leave for several more hours, so we hung out at the terminal and bought lunch and such. After our flight, Shuttle Express took us home from SeaTac Airport, and our lovely cruise was done. Back to work the next day . . . sigh . . .
The itinerary was excellent, the crew friendly and helpful, Christmas was done "just right." A trifecta, as far as this cruising couple was concerned! Thank you, Celebrity, for a wonderful holiday cruise!
The ship docked at Puerto Quetzel, Guatemala, which has a well-done tourist area right there, but nothing else in the area. "Antigua On Your Own" is a ship's tour. A number of busses took this trip. Our bus had a guide, the driver, and an "assistant" (security guard). Armed personnel were present in all the tourist areas, and one also saw them sitting on top of cargo in the back of trucks along the way. The guide told us a lot about what we were seeing on the 90-minute drive to Antigua, including that coffee had been the major crop, but it had been surpassed by sugar cane. Upon arrival in Antigua, we were given a map and were dropped off at a tourist center, with shopping opportunities and restrooms. You could hire a guide or go it on your own. We went on our own, taking in the ambience, visiting the local market (a cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds), and stumbling upon a Subway sandwich shop for lunch - fun to see the similarities and differences from the versions at home. Note: the streets in Antigua have very large cobblestones; there are sidewalks but they have their issues too - wear good walking shoes! The busses picked us up from the tourist center and the ride back was quieter but not devoid of more description of what we were seeing.
Booked "Kayak the Arch and Snorkel Lover's Beach" through ShoreExcursionsGroup/Cabo Outfitters. Casey (from Oregon) picked us up and took us to meet Rojo Manny, a Mexican native. There were only four of us tourists on this outing. We were outfitted into lifejackets and snorkel gear, boarded our double kayaks, and set off. This tour was fairly early in the day, and we were able to take photos of our group at the Arch with no other boats in sight - just like in the brochures! We paddled out to the Pacific Ocean side, then back to walk on the beach some. Next, to Lover's Beach, where we geared up and went out to look for sealife - the only folks out snorkeling. We had not snorkeled in warm water before, and it was a real treat to enjoy not just the fish (of which there were many!) but also the warm water. It began to get crowded with other snorkelers when our time was up. Manny, who was very helpful with kayaking and snorkeling, pulled out snacks for us, then we packed up and headed back. Casey drove us back to the pier. It was a delightful trip!
Dora and (air-conditioned!) van with driver picked us up on time and right at the foot of the gangway, as pre-arranged. She tailored the tour to suit our desires, and the mobility of our group; the tour was just what was requested. Dora is known at many of the tour stops. She explained how best to fend off the numerous souvenir vendors that swarmed like flies around us. Dora was most accommodating about the number in our group (which doubled after our Cruise Critic meet-up on the ship). One of our group wanted to stop at a grocery store and buy 12 cans of local beer; Dora fronted him the money so he wouldn't have to get US Dollars changed into local funds for the purchase (then he paid her back in dollars). Each couple on our tour paid Dora in cash at the end of the tour. Dora was happy to answer questions about life in Cartagena and Colombia. She was easy to work with via email, prompt in her replies, and spoke easy-to-understand English. I would recommend her without hesitation!View All 367 City Tour Reviews
Jackie of Greenway Tours took us (via mini-bus with driver) to a resort area in the forest. She led us on a hike through the forest, including over several hanging bridges, while four others on our minibus did zip-lining. We also enjoyed a boat ride to see crocodiles, ate lunch at a local spot with a gift shop attached, drove through the countryside and toured through the city. Jackie was great about explaining Costa Rican culture (Pura Vida!) and we came away with a high regard for the country and its people.View All 7 Skywalk in the Forest Reviews
Boarding a bus, we went to the Malecon and walked some distance along this beach path, with our guide Victor explaining the various statuary along the way. Up to the Cathedral, to Gringo Gulch, the older areas of town, and to a jewelry store (which could have been left off the tour entirely - although I suppose some enjoyed the restroom and/or the free shot of tequila there). Victor said PV has a reputation as the friendliest city in Mexico, and he tried hard to uphold that! We walked through a park (saw where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had their homes) and Victor told the story of how his future father fell in love with his future mother while the latter was doing the laundry in the river at age 7. The tour also included some free time in the tourist area along the Malecon. This tour went longer than scheduled. I give this tour a so-so rating.View All 10 Walking Tour Reviews