Constellation - Northern Europe: Celebrity Constellation Cruise Review by BaltiGator

Celebrity Constellation 4
Member Since 2006
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Constellation - Northern Europe

Sail Date: August 2006
Destination: Baltic Sea
Embarkation: Dover
This was the second cruise for DP and myself, having sailed on RCI's Jewel of the Seas a few months earlier. I think comparing the two ships is relevant, given their common corporate ownership, similar size, and similar layout and design.

The executive summary, for those with short attention spans: this was a wonderful cruise. The ports were fantastic, the weather was generally very good, and we met many really great people on board. The ship itself, about 4 years old, was in very good condition and very enjoyable to sail.

Now the details. Embarkation was relatively smooth, with the usual champagne offering in the Grand Foyer upon arrival. No one was around to offer an escort to our room, but for us that hardly mattered; we had reviewed the ship's deck plans and knew where we were headed. Besides, we had only one carry-on bag between the two of us so we were hardly in need of such assistance. It would be nice to know whether those who may have desired More escort/orientation services were able to get them readily, but I cannot confirm that one way or the other. I did, however, see a small group of elderly women getting a tour of the ship on the first day.

The Grand Foyer rises three levels up, from the third to the fifth decks. The floor is a sprawl of blond and gold marble in a star pattern flanked by warm but light-colored woods. Beyond lies the guest relations area, the concierge, the bank window, the future cruise sales office, and the shore excursion windows. Off to the port side is a bank of glass elevators that were always busy and often full. At key times one might wait as long as 10 minutes (!) to get one. We often walked the stairs instead, or used the forward and aft elevators, which were rarely as busy. Sometimes the middle elevators were so full that weight restrictions caused operational problems. Sometimes, however, it appeared that the weight of the elevators passengers was the real problem.

The centerpiece of the foyer is an alabaster staircase ascending from the third to the fourth deck in full view of the observation areas on all three levels. The large blond and rust stones of the staircase are lit from within to fantastic effect, and several bands of gold and rust-colored fabric flank it from above like royal columns.

Whereas Jewel's Centrum rises several floors higher, creating an awesome, dizzying display of engineering achievement with a very sophisticated and modern appearance, the relatively smaller and more compact Grand Foyer on Connie feels warmer, more traditional, and more elegant, especially upon first arrival.

The third deck, also called the Plaza Deck, is also where Ocean Liners, the specialty restaurant, resides. (More on this later.) There are also some conference rooms and a cinema. The cinema is poorly laid-out. The chairs are quite plush and comfortable, but far too many of them have rather extreme viewing angles of the large screen. This "movie theater experience" is executed much more intelligently on Jewel, where the cinema looks exactly like a small replica of a "stadium-style" theater, in which every seat has a great view. The movie selection was reasonable on our cruise, though we didn't take any in.

Walking up the beautiful stone staircase to the fourth (Promenade) deck, one finds oneself standing on a short, thick translucent glass bridge connecting the port and starboard observation areas. This and the staircase itself are presumably the promenade to which the deck's name refers, and sure enough on formal nights this is where people could be seen lined up for photos or just strutting around.

On the starboard side is the Internet Cafe, one of two ship areas devoted to computer access. The color scheme here is the same as throughout almost the entire ship, featuring lots of blond tones, light woods, and bright color accents.

Internet time is absurdly expensive at 75 cents a minute, so we just avoided it entirely (and were surprised at how easily we managed without the online world for two weeks!), but really, it's hard to understand why Celebrity charges so much. Jewel charges 50 cents, and even that seems a tad excessive. Moreover, the pre-paid "packages" Celebrity offers are sort of a joke. For example, you can pre-pay 100 minutes for $70, thereby saving a whopping 5 cents per minute. Woo hoo!

Forward of the foyer on deck 4 is the Fortunes Casino. As we don't gamble I've got little more to say about it, except to note that it appeared they have the usual assortment of entertaining and idiotic ways to lose your shirt.

Forward of the casino is the photo gallery and sales center (which looks like it might on any similar ship) and a more private space called Michael's Club, a piano bar and lounge that eschews Constellation's otherwise bright and light color scheme for a darker, old-world feel. It resembles the library or study of a crusty British country club, with lots of mahogany, traditional club chairs, and softer lighting (though the carper does retain the brighter colors of the rest of the ship). It's a beautiful space but very much underutilized. For one thing, its closed doors and turned-off lights during the day often gave the impression of the place being locked up, which was almost never the case. It also has the appearance of being a cigar bar, which also isn't so, but which kept a lot of timid people from venturing inside. The biggest problem, though, is that it's only staffed in the evenings, so there's not much reason to be in it during the day, unless you want a very secluded and dark place to yourself. And the evening entertainment in Michaels Club was always the same, so if you didn't care for that persons particular stylings (as we didn't) you pretty much never went back (as we didn't). It seemed a shame, as Michael's Club could really be used for so many more things.

Another lounge occupies the fourth deck just aft of the foyer and forward of the main dining room. Called the Rendezvous Lounge, this space features a central dance floor and small band stage surrounded by rust-colored lounge chairs with bright stripe backings. The most interesting thing about the lounge is that the ceiling is cut away in a circle that matches the circular area where the stage and dance floor are below, so that people on the fifth deck above (in another lounge) can look down upon the musicians, dancers, and guests, while people can look up too. This also allows the music to permeate both levels of lounges, a clever arrangement, though the music at times was too loud for conversation if you sat near the center on either level. Fortunately, there are slightly more secluded (and quieter) areas of chairs and tables around the corners and off to the sides.

Aft lies the main dining room, called the San Marco Restaurant, which occupies two floors with a joining staircase, balcony views on the upper level, and large floor to ceiling windows at the stern of the ship. This layout is almost identical to Jewel's and provides surprisingly intimate dining in many areas, except perhaps at the very center of the lower level, where in the middle of a busy meal you might feel more like the survivors of a Poseidon adventure.

We had a table for six on the lower level nearer the front of the room and by a window, and we found that to be a very quiet and comfortable arrangement. On one of the open seating nights (when we were docked overnight in St. Petersburg) we and two of our dining companions tried a balcony table on the fifth level overlooking the main floor below. That was also a nice spot, offering a great view of the action as well as the musicians (seated next to the upper staircase landing), but our own table seemed a bit more intimate.

The restaurant continues the ship's overall color schemes, with rust chairs and carpeting, blond/gold accents, and spectacular flush-mounted ceiling lighting composed of the same beautiful stones (or perhaps an imitation) as the staircase in the Grand Foyer. Admittedly we couldn't really admire the ceiling or the grand rear windows from our regular table, but on the other hand being next to a window we did get to enjoy the automatic drawing of the window shade near sunset each evening. (This phenomenon can also be experienced while sitting in the Rendezvous Lounge and Ocean Liners.) A nice touch.

Moving up to the Entertainment (fifth) Deck, one finds a collection of shops called the Emporium midship. Thats about all Ill say of the shops, other than the obligatory sarcastic comment that at times you would have thought they were giving away bars of gold. Mostly it was overpriced junk and stuff you could buy in the ports for less. But we have to have shops on ships, dont we? And hey, DP and I bought a pair of discounted Celebrity tee-shirts, so we did our part.

Also on the fifth deck are the lower entrance to the theater (more on the theater later), the upper level of the main restaurant, another lounge, and a coffee bar and seating area called the Cova Cafe, which overlooks both lower levels of the Grand Foyer. The space surrounding the coffee bar is again done in a scheme of blonds and golds with bright color accents. It was nice to sit at one of the many little tables and sip a cappuccino or nibble on an afternoon pastry (brought round on a cart by a lovely young Hungarian woman) while watching the goings-on all around. We also enjoyed playing backgammon there, borrowing the board and pieces from the glass-enclosed card room adjacent to the coffee bar, which is cleverly named Cards. It has a dozen or so tables set up for game-playing. With many windows looking out on the ocean or port scenes, as well as a transparent view of the coffee bar area, the card room feels bright and airy, but because its doors remains shut, it can feel stuffy when full of people, which is why we generally preferred to sit just outside it for our backgammon sessions.

Aft of this area is the fifth deck lounge, which as previously mentioned has a central cut-out balcony view of the Rendezvous Lounge below. The upper lounge actually has two names. On the port side it is called the Champagne Bar (yes, the blond color scheme once again prevails) while starboard it's the Martini Bar. Don't believe the hype, at least not completely; it's not really two bars but rather one continuous area with identical furnishings that can be crossed from side to side in the middle near the balcony. However, to be fair, one side (the Martini Bar) is non-smoking so people do tend to gravitate to one side or the other. Plus each side has its own bartender and wait staff, and the Martini Bar does try to specialize in various martini concoctions (though of course you can order anything you like). So it did sort of feel like two separate lounges. (The Martini Bar also has a collection of Van Gogh flavored vodkas, which I happen to like, and which may or may not be available elsewhere in the ship.) We had excellent service in the Martini Bar and highly recommend it for a pre- or post-dinner drink. But be warned. Along with the Rendezvous Lounge below, these sitting areas, being adjacent to the restaurant, go from ghost-town empty to jam-packed full in a matter of minutes just before and after each dinner seating. Oh, and the lightly-seasoned curly breadsticks are a winner too.

The sixth through ninth decks (Penthouse, Vista, Panorama, and Sky Decks) contain only staterooms except for one area on each level directly midship. On the sixth deck this area is the second computer room, and unlike the fourth deck computers that are arranged in the round, these are arranged in classroom-style for classes and other teaching assistance (as well as Internet and general computer access when there are no classes). The sixth-deck computers are also set up to let you burn CDs of your digital photos. You can download your digital photos via card readers in either computer area and they are stored for free on the ship's servers. You get 1.5 GB per person as of this writing. The catch is this: the storage is free, but the CD burning is not. It's $15 per CD, which seemed outrageous to me. I can understand that there should be some fee associated with this activity, especially since so many people needed the assistance of the computer staff to download and burn their files. But $5, maybe even $7 or $8, sounds more appropriate to me. For someone like me, who didn't need anyone's assistance, and who moreover helped a couple of other pax sitting on either side of me when the staff was too busy near the end of the cruise, well, they should have paid me. Still, I took so many pictures on this cruise that I had to reluctantly fork over $30 for two CDs so that I could reuse my memory cards. I guess it was better than having no such storage service at all, which would have forced me to delete lots of pictures during the cruise. (I'll wean and edit them anyway, but it's nice to be able to do so at home at my leisure.) So Im not complaining about this too loudly. More like muttering.

On the seventh level the public midship area is called Acupuncture at Sea. We peeked in there once and it looked nice and relaxing, sort of an outpost of the spa, but we didn't use it at all. A licensed acupuncturist was available most of the time.

It is worth noting that the computer area on the sixth deck and the Acupuncture at Sea suite on the seventh deck were once a common area called Notes, with the two levels joined by a staircase. Evidently this was an area for music downloading and listening. I'm not sure why Celebrity reconfigured these spaces. Maybe Notes was underutilized, or maybe it didn't generate enough revenue, or maybe the demand for computers and acupuncture services was just much higher. In any event I can't help but point out that the new configuration yields two areas that potentially produce lots of revenue.

On the eighth and ninth decks the midship space is occupied by the library, called Words (undoubtedly intended as a companion name for the original Notes). This area is still two levels joined by a staircase. Unlike the library on Jewel, which is so tiny as to be more aptly described as a nook, and which uses an honor system, this library feels more robust, since it is an actual enclosed space on two levels, with far more books, a librarian, and a check-out system. Very nicely done. Now, you may ask if I bothered to read anything as erudite as an actual book on this cruise. I did not. But if I wanted to, I certainly would have had a nice selection to choose from.

Now, a momentary respite from public spaces to mention our cabin. It was a standard balcony cabin on the seventh deck, on the starboard side and forward of midship. Since we had the same class of cabin on Jewel the comparison was inevitable. Constellation wins hands down. Despite having virtually the same interior square footage, the layout of our Constellation cabin was superior, with more useful storage spaces and a more open feel. The bathroom also had a far better layout than Jewel's, with a bigger shower stall, more comfortable toilet location, and gobs of bathroom storage (Jewel's bathrooms have precious little). However, Jewel's color scheme was more appealing, as the cabins on Connie once again feature lots of blonds, light woods and bright color accents (in this case, a light blue that was particularly unattractive in my opinion). Still, overall the cabin was quite comfortable and well designed, and the balcony, though small, was pleasant. Stateroom attendant service was competent and friendly. (I should mention, since there was a recent review of a different Celebrity ship in which the unfriendliness, or at least nonchalance, of the staff was noted, that on this ship all the staff were constantly smiling, greeting the pax, and in general seemed very eager to please.)

The tenth level (Resort Deck) is where most of the public goings-on can be found. Here you'll find the gym, spa, indoor pool, lower level of the outdoor pool, buffet, and grill.

At the bow is the gym. It's a good-sized space with plenty of treadmills and other exercise equipment, though with only four working elliptical machines (two more were out of order) there was sometimes a wait for these. A half-dozen or so stationary bikes were also often fully occupied during the early and mid-morning hours. Around lunchtime the gym tended to empty (time to pack on the calories we had just burned off, and then some), but on sea days there was another spike of activity in mid- to late afternoon.

Gym towels are plentiful, but I was surprised by the lack of hand wipes, and only occasionally could one find the bottle of disinfectant spray to spray down the equipment with. Also lacking is any kind of drinking water. You have to go outside the gym just to get to a fountain. Really there should be a water cooler with cups. In these little details, Jewel's gym is exemplary, while Connie's is just adequate.

The spa features several attractive-looking people standing around waiting to sell you stuff, as well as a thermal suite called the Persian Gardens. We didn't use it or any of the spa services.

The indoor pool area, called the Aqua Spa due to the presence of the Thalassotherapy pool, is a lovely and generally quiet space, with dozens of Adirondack-style chairs, plentiful towels, and soothing music. The high, arched glass ceiling lets the sun in and lets you view the sky above (people on the upper deck of the outdoor pool can also look down upon you). There is a small cafe that serves healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner options buffet-style. We ate our breakfast there often, away from the maddening crowds who would pile up their plates with eggs, sausages, and pancakes. (You can't get any of those things in the Aqua Spa Cafe, but you can get cereals, yogurt, fresh fruit, muffins, bagels, salmon, and of course morning beverages.) Hanging plants, wood columns, and interesting sculptures add to the greenhouse ambiance. Through no fault of the ship, the Thalassotherapy pool was out of service our entire cruise, apparently due to a Legionella concern from the prior sailing which had to be addressed. (Can someone explain to me just what the heck thalassotherapy is anyway? Is it even a real word? My DP enjoyed making fun of it by calling it the Jurassotherapy pool.)

Aft of the indoor pool is the two-level outdoor pool, with the usual accoutrements, and beyond that is the Seaside Cafe, also known as the buffet. With occasional exceptions, you can't have your dinner buffet-style on Connie, though they do reserve a section of the tables for what they call Casual Dining. This is for those who don't want to dress up or otherwise make an appearance in the main dining room, like maybe if theyve got a sudden nasty zit on the nose. But it's still table service.

Breakfast and lunch at the buffet are madness, with none of the elegant ergonomics of Jewel's efficient self-serve "floating" buffet stations. Instead you queue up at one of four starting points, and then try to make your way through several bottlenecks, not the least of which is getting a tray and cutlery in the first place. The coffee/water stations stand apart but are also poorly designed and present another bottleneck. Servers on our cruise were polite but ignored requests for small portions, and the crowd often bandied about in the usual rabid zombie me-first state of mind, with plenty of cutting in line and bobbing and weaving and generally making it difficult for others to maneuver about. Thank God some of us at least maintained our smiles and courtesies.

To be fair, there are a few nice features on the buffet, such as a made-to-order pasta station, a nice salad bar (much better than Jewel's), fresh cheese and bread offerings, and two ice cream stations. Pizza and sandwiches are also readily available, and in the early evening fresh sushi is prepared by real sushi chefs, though ours were occasionally seen arguing with each other, perhaps disagreeing on the correct technique for slicing eel. At the very aft of the buffet is an outdoor grill that serves hamburgers and so forth. There are certainly plenty of options overall, but with its poor layout and crowded conditions, the buffet is one of the least successful elements of the ship.

Up on the Sunrise Deck (number eleven if youre still counting) you'll find a lovely though tiny conservatory displaying and selling fresh flower and plant arrangements, a jogging/walking track around the upper level of the outdoor pool, several kiddie/teen areas, an outdoor bar, and an indoor observatory/lounge at the bow called the Bar at the Edge of the Earth. Previously known as Reflections, this space was originally conceived with an ultra-modern design featuring lots of metal, modern lighting, and violet hues. Evidently somewhere around the time Cirque got involved with Celebrity they redecorated the lounge to look more like the morning after Mardi Gras, with oddly-shaped fabrics dangling everywhere for a more mysterious look. It works to a certain extent, though it grows tiresome by the end of a two-week cruise.

The twelfth and top deck, called the Sports Deck, is really two mini-decks. The forward portion has additional lounge seating and a topless sunbathing area, though we never saw anyone topless up there (then again, this wasn't a warm and fuzzy Caribbean cruise), while the aft section has a combination paddleball/basketball court. It isn't really much of a deck, unlike Jewel's top deck, which is fully connected and features a more extensive variety of sport activities, but it does serve its purpose. The crew appeared to play basketball up there more often than the pax.

The food on board was generally very good. The main dining room offers five courses, including appetizer, soup, salad, main course, and dessert. The variety of choices was generally excellent, with virtually every menu offering pasta, fish, pork, beef, and poultry options, plus two vegetarian entrees if you were lucky enough to glimpse one of the vegetarian menus. Overall I'd give the dining room food 3 to 3.5 stars, with appetizers and soups generally faring best. Desserts looked tempting but were often a bit disappointing. To counter that problem several varieties of ice cream and sorbet are offered each night. The peanut butter ice cream was marvelous.

The quality of the buffet food was generally a notch lower than in the dining room, though the variety of offerings made up for that. One could certainly make a wonderful salad for lunch with a nice serving of fresh cheese and bread on the side. Entrees were of mixed quality but side veggies were generally very good.

The low point in the ship's cuisine was the coffee. It was pretty terrible, bitter and artificial-tasting. For anyone who thinks otherwise, the coffee is definitely made from a syrup base; it is not freshly brewed. We found it nearly undrinkable at first, but being coffee addicts we slugged it down anyway. We found that two little creamers per small cup of coffee made it almost palatable, and as the cruise went along we sort of got used to it. But really, it was pretty awful. To be fair, two of our traveling companions found it "not all that bad" though I'm pretty sure they were in the minority and being a tad generous in their assessment. The coffee in the specialty coffee bar was, of course, far superior, but it also cost extra and wasn't available in the very early morning hours. My recollection is that the coffee on Jewel, also a syrup-based product, was not nearly as lousy as the stuff on Connie.

Finally in the food category there is Ocean Liners, the specialty restaurant. One can't argue with the impeccable if slightly stuffy service, nor with the outstanding ambiance, featuring a darker decor and live harpist, plus more of those automatic window shade thingies, but for a $30 surcharge I was expecting the food to be just a bit better than it was, and this sentiment was echoed by several of our traveling companions. To be sure, it is haute cuisine, certainly of a higher quality than in the main dining room, but it still wasn't quite all that and a bag of chips. Moreover the main entree options are rather limited, and you can't order extra courses like you can in Jewel's specialty restaurants, one of which, Portofino's, is still my favorite specialty restaurant to date. I would suggest giving Ocean Liners a try only on longer cruises, just for variety's sake. Few people we talked to found it especially memorable.

The theater is your typical multi-level facility with plentiful seating and good views all around. One annoying aspect is that bar waiters try hard to sell cocktails just before each show, when people are milling about and getting settled into their seats, and in this chaos sometimes a drink was spilled on someone's blazer or evening gown. At least the real entertainment was quite good, far superior to what we saw on Jewel, where the ship's in-house production company was rather amateurish and disappointing. On Connie the in-house troop was far better, still not world-class but about what I would call off-Broadway quality. Several guest performers were excellent, including a violin virtuoso and a West End entertainer. Best of all was the Taste of Cirque. Though short in duration it was highly professional and polished.

The overall condition of the ship on our cruise was very good. Yes there were the occasional carpet stains and missing bits of wood here and there, but nothing beyond the normal wear and tear one might expect from a four-year-old ship. Public bathrooms were consistently spotless and smelled fresh, whereas on Jewel a few of them had started to reek near the end of the cruise. Sitting areas were comfortable, pools and outdoor decks were always kept clean, carpets were vacuumed daily, and glass surfaces and railings were cleaned and polished regularly.

Service, as previously mentioned, was always professional, courteous, and friendly. Others have sometimes complained about the guest relations staff on Celebrity ships. We found them to be superb. We also had a problem with the bathroom in our original cabin that rendered it rather unpleasant to use, and our concerns were promptly and courteously handled by the housekeeping staff. Ultimately we were moved to a cabin down the hall, and given a complimentary bottle of champagne and night at Ocean Liners for our trouble.

Disembarkation in ports and post-cruise went smoothly, and necessary evils such as the muster drill and crew fire drill were kept as unobtrusive as possible.

Bottom line: other than the few minor issues mentioned herein, it was hard to find fault with this cruise. The ship was comfortable and felt far more intimate than its 90,000 tons would suggest, the food was at worst adequate and often very good, the service was almost always outstanding, and the itinerary was splendid. We also met many wonderful people who added greatly to our overall enjoyment.

Comparing the Constellation to the Jewel of the Seas yields two very fine vessels with slightly different plusses and minuses. Overall we preferred Jewel's layout (especially the buffet), as well as its more sophisticated decor and pleasing artwork (most of the art on Connie is either bland or atrocious or both, with a few notable exceptions such as the enormous snake-like colored glass sculpture hanging from the ceiling on deck 11). But we liked Connie's cabin layout much better (especially in the bathroom), as well as the intimacy of her public areas and the healthy dining choices and relative peace and quiet in the Aqua Spa Cafe.

Certainly we would cruise Celebrity again in a heartbeat (in fact we are booked on two other X cruises) and in particular, we can recommend the Constellation very highly. She has plenty to offer young and old alike, and anyone who cant manage to have a good time on board is not worth hanging out with anyway.

Happy cruising! Less

Published 10/03/06

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