Review: Celebrity Reflection “Not So Suite” Christmas Cruise
Itinerary: Miami - San Juan - Charlotte Amalie - Phillipsburg - Miami
December 19 - 26, 2015
Cabin: 2184 (Sky Suite)
Cabin Steward: Michael
First of all, a warning that this will not be a traditional review in many respects. We are not traditional cruisers...we don't go to the shows much, nor do we take organized shore excursions very often. We prefer to do our own thing at many ports of call. For us, a cruise is about relaxing and doing what we want, when we want. Also, my reviews tend to be lengthy, so for those who just want the bottom line, here it is:
Embarkation: 5 out of 5
The Ship: 4 out of 5
The Cabin: 2 out of 5
Dining: 4 out of 5
Ports and Shore Excursions: 3 out of 5
The Suite Experience: 2 out of 5
The Casino Experience: 0 out of 5
Disembarkation: 3 out of 5
Overall Value for the Money: 2 out of 5
Now if you want the details, please read on:
We elected this cruise because it fit in the window of some airline tickets we had already bought for a cruise on NCL that did not work out. It had the same itinerary, with 3 of the 7 days being sea days, which we both enjoy. As you'll see from the signature, we have been loyal NCL cruisers for many years, and so some of this review will also contrast the NCL and Celebrity way of doing things.
EMBARKATION: We flew into Fort Lauderdale the night before embarkation, as FLL is less crowded and crazy than MIA. The night was spent at the Hilton Galleria on the Intercoastal, which has the advantage of being right on a Water Taxi stop, and having a nearby (walkable) mall, shopping, and dining options. Unfortunately, I would not recommend the hotel: it's old, tired, and badly needs renovation. If you do stay there, and have asked for a room with an Intercoastal view, make sure you get a room on the side away from Sunshine Blvd to avoid the noise of the traffic and drawbridge.
On Saturday morning, a car service took us from the hotel to the Port of Miami in about 40 minutes. We chose to arrive earlier than we normally do, as embarkation at the POM can sometimes be a lengthy affair. As it was, we got to the port about 11:15 am and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves on board in about 15 minutes from the time we gave our bags to the porter outside. Great work by the Port staff and Celebrity.
Embarkation provided the first contrast between Celebrity and NCL. When you embark as a suite guest on NCL, there is separate suite lounge where your paperwork is processed, and then you are escorted on board the ship by one of the butlers and delivered to Cagney's restaurant for embarkation lunch.
On Celebrity, there's no suite lounge and no escort. There are separate registration lines for Suites and Priority boarding, and your paperwork is processed quickly and efficiently at those stations. But once you're done there, you simply walk on board and do whatever you will.
We arrived on board before the suite restaurant, Luminae, opened for lunch, so we opted for a bite in the buffet and a walk around of the ship (more about dining on Reflection later in the review). Cabins were open for occupancy at 1:30 pm. Muster drill scheduled for 2:45 and sail away for 3:30. Our suitcases were delivered during the muster drill...very early for most cruise lines and points for Reflection's hard working staff. We sailed about 20 minutes late, the first ship out of port, followed by NCL Escape and two Carnival ships.
THE SHIP: Reflection isn't a bad looking ship, as modern cruise ships go. None of them look much like ships anymore; they're all more like floating apartment blocks. Reflection's design looks a little top heavy to me, with the ship-length overhang for the upper three decks cantilevered out over the cabin balconies. On board, Reflection is crisp and modern. Color schemes are generally subdued, furniture modern. As one of Celebrity's newer ships, nothing looks very worn yet, and everything appears well maintained.
There are a few oddities. First of all, there's no true Promenade deck that makes a complete circumference around the ship. Instead, the outer part of Deck 5 only runs down each side of the ship, and most of the view from that deck is blocked by lifeboats. So those who enjoy walking the Promenade for a little light exercise are forced to use the jogging track on Deck 15, which is much more crowded with runners and sunbathers in deck lounges.
Secondly, Deck 15 forward, which on most ships is some of the most valuable real estate, is given over to the teen and kids clubs. Right beneath the teen club, on Deck 14, are the high dollar suites...it's hard to imagine that those suites are very quiet!
Because of the suites, the forward looking Sky lounge only gets the starboard half of Deck 14, which is a shame as that's usually a favorite place to sit, relax, read, and watch the ship's progress on sea days.
At the rear of the ship, on the upper decks, are the buffet, and the Lawn club, Lawn club grill (a specialty restaurant) and the Sunset bar.
The rest of the ship is fairly conventional in layout. Conveniently, the Opus main dining room, and most of the suite and specialty restaurants, are all located together at the stern of the ship on decks 3, 4, and 5. There's the usual multi-story atrium & elevator tower at mid-aft, running from deck 3 all the way up to deck 15. Around it, on the lower decks, are the normal assortment of guest service offices, bars, shops, casino, a coffee bar, wine bar, and the “Bistro on 5” restaurant (also an up-charge restaurant). A nice feature in the atrium are the little “Hideaway” spaces on different decks as you go up: The Hideaway on decks 7 and 8, and game room on deck 9, and the library on decks 10 and 11. Aside from the game room, they're convenient places to find a spot to sit and read, and there's coffee available during the day in the Hideaway on Deck 7. Missing (or at least I never found it) was the Asian theme restaurant that's a normal feature on most ships, and that I'd read was also available on Reflection.
THE CABIN: 2184 is a “Sky Suite” (not sure if it's an S1 or S2) on deck 12, the upper-most accommodation deck (if you don't count the suites on deck 14). The cabin was surprisingly spacious, double the width of a normal balcony cabin, and about the same size as the Penthouse suites on most NCL ships. The usual twin beds pushed together to make a double, and a fairly comfortable couch that I assume folds out into another double bed. Large Screen TV, good storage with two closets and plenty of drawers and one safe. My DW appreciated the lit vanity mirror over the desk. Single-sink bathroom with reasonable storage, a good size tub with a rain shower head and hand shower. About the only thing that might be a problem is the height of the shower - I'm 5'7” and the shower head was only a couple of inches above my head...I'm not sure how a taller person would be able to stand and use the shower.
The cabin balcony was quite wide, with room for two lounge chairs, a round table, and a single upright chair. Because Deck 12 is right under the overhang for the upper decks, you're protected from the sun (and the rain) by that overhang, although your view is also somewhat restricted. There are movable dividers between the balconies, so if you were cruising with family or friends in the next cabin you might be able to ask for the divider to be opened. I don't know what Celebrity's policy on this is..some cruise lines will do it, some will not.
Unfortunately, that's about all I can say that's positive about this cabin. The cabin is located right under the Ocean View Buffet, and we had misgivings from the start about what that might mean as far as noise. Celebrity went to great lengths to assure us that “the area above is carpeted” and while that's true, it doesn't help much. The actual location of this cabin is approximately right under one of the main beverage stations in the buffet, so a good portion of the cabin overhead is not under carpet at all. Our entire cruise was spend listening to the rumbling of serving carts across the floor, the crashing of dropped items in the kitchens and clean up areas, and the stampeding feet of the buffet patrons. Since the buffet is open 24/7, the noise basically never stopped.
In addition, the noise problem is made worse because one of the main vertical support columns runs from the upper decks, down through the buffet, down through this cabin, and presumably all the way down into the bottom of the ship. This metal column acted like a drum, bringing noise from all directions into the room, but mostly, again, from the buffet above. I would not suggest this cabin to anyone who isn't a heavy sleeper!
DINING: This is obviously Celebrity's focus. With one notable exception, I'd call this a “Foodie” cruise line. The food is all well prepared, with lots of emphasis on presentation at the table. Portion sizes, thankfully, are more European than American.
Food in the Opus main dining room was, in our opinion, a cut above what we've encountered on other cruise lines. As with most lines, there's a daily menu that changes throughout the cruise, with a set of “everyday” items that are always available.
As suite guests, we had the Luminae restaurant available for all our meals. I think this perk was the one of the main highlights of the cruise. Luminae is a separate dining room on the lower floor of the Opus MDR. It is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast and Lunch menus remain the same throughout the cruise, and dinner menus change every night. As an added feature, if you can't find something you like, you have the option of ordering off the MDR menu.
The food was uniformly excellent and delicious in Luminae. Dinners are a “Five Course” meal, of which you select the appetizer, entree, and dessert. Your first and fourth courses consist of a savory bite at the start of the meal and a small sweet bite at the end of the meal before dessert. These little bites change each night. Service was attentive but not too overbearing, as long as you don't mind repeated visits from the Maitre'D to check on your happiness.
Because the food in Luminae is so good, we did not feel the need to sample the specialty restaurants as we would have on other cruise lines. I'm not sure if this works in favor of Celebrity's bottom line!
However, we did eat in the Tuscan Grille on Christmas Eve. Since the Reflection does not have a designated steak house, we chose the Tuscan Grille at the recommendation of the concierge who though it would provide us with a good steak. The concierge was not wrong in that regard - the steak was excellent. However, the other dishes were a let down after the great food in Luminae, and the waiter was one of the few Reflection staff we encountered who just seemed to be going through the motions.
The one exception to the generally excellent food: The buffet. Breakfast was always acceptable (it's hard to mess breakfast up), but lunches were mediocre at best. It was simply mass prepared, buffet food, and no different than any other cruise line in this respect. Glaringly absent was that staple of a hamburger and fries - to get those during the day you had to go to the Mast Grill. But don't bother...it's just a pre-cooked buffet hamburger anyway. By contrast, the lunchtime hamburger in Luminae was excellent, so it's pretty obvious where Celebrity puts the emphasis.
Wine by the glass and by the bottle is available in all the restaurants. Celebrity has a very high opinion of their wine cellar, at least as reflected in the prices they charge. Each restaurant has at least one Sommelier to advise on wine selection. It is possible to open a bottle of wine in one restaurant and have it available for you in another if you don't finish it at that first meal.
Celebrity's Wine and beverage packages are, in my opinion, very expensive. Many people seemed to have them, and I have to assume they were selected as a booking perk. Whether they are good value for the money depends on how much and what you drink. In our case, we're not heavy drinkers, so we elected not to take one of the packages.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: The first port of call on this itinerary is San Juan, Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, because of the distance from Miami, you don't arrive in San Juan until 3:30pm in the afternoon ship's time - 4:30 pm local time (note that the ship remained on Miami time the entire cruise). This means you're really rushed to do any shopping or sightseeing, not only by the onset of night, but because most of the shops close at 5:00 pm, and the major historic sights close at 6:00 pm. We had hoped to catch a walking and restaurant tasting tour of the old town area, but when I tried to book it through the tour operator, I was informed that we arrived too late to make the last tour of the day.
Because the distance to the next port of call is so short, the ship remains in San Juan until 11:30 pm. I'm guessing that many people must use the opportunity to go ashore for dinner and/or a bar crawl. It's too bad Celebrity can't find a first port of call that could be reached earlier in the day, but I wouldn't want that to be Nassau (the Grand Central station of the Caribbean) and geography simply precludes most other ports.
The second port of call is Charlotte Amelie, St. John, US Virgin Islands. On all our previous stops at this port we've docked at the Havensight piers, which are much more convenient to the town itself. Celebrity docks at the Crown Bay piers, which are a good 10 minute taxi ride from the town. The ship docks at 8:30 am and leaves at 5:00 pm. Plenty of time to do almost anything you'd like on the island.
Here we opted for a shore excursion, to the “Secret Sands” beach. We were attracted to this tour because the beach is in a nature preserve or park, and the impression is given that this is a “beach less-traveled”. Ummm...not quite.
Our group was driven to the beach in the usual Caribbean taxi-bus. Traffic, as usual on all the Caribbean islands, was terrible, and the ride across the island to the beach (Which is formally called Smith's Bay Beach) took about 30 minutes.
On arrival, we found the beach moderately crowded. The beach itself is a beautiful, as advertised. A long crescent of white sand, gently shelving into the water, and surrounded by a reef. We were warned that the reef had a lot of fire coral, but also told that good snorkeling was available there.
The tour operator (Topsails) laid on lounge chairs, water & soda, and offered up rum punch. Shady spots were quickly filled, but there were plenty. The beach and park have had upgrades since the tour description was written, and there are now picnic areas, and a large shower and restroom facility.
There was a crowd of college kids having a little pre-Christmas party at the beach, but they weren't very disruptive. We spent a very pleasant few hours at the beach, and then were collected by the taxi-bus. The route back to the ship was via an overlook on Skyline drive...great views, but only a few minutes available there as our driver was obviously worried about getting us back in time.
The third port is Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. Again, the ship docked at 8:30 am and left at 5:00, so plenty of time for those who wanted to do things on the island. As we've been there a few times before, we elected to stay onboard most of the day, other than a little wander through the port shops. Staying on board on shore days is one of our favorite things to do, as you end up with the ship almost all to yourself. I spent the afternoon trying out the pools, both the outdoor pool and in the solarium pool. They are fresh water pools, and neither one is heated, but the swimming was pleasant and the solarium relaxing.
Two full sea days follow as the ship returns to Miami. Naturally, the pools are packed during the day, and the cruise staff lays on activities all over the ship to keep people occupied. Because this was a holiday cruise, Christmas eve (Thursday) was one of two “Evening Chic” nights and there was caroling in the atrium and a special Christmas show in the theater. The next morning Santa made an appearance on board in the Sky lounge for the kids.
THE SUITE EXPERIENCE: Beyond dining in Luminae, suite guests receive the attentions of a butler, and can use Michael's club, a private bar & lounge on Deck 5. Drinks are complimentary in the club, and at least one of the two suite concierge staff is always on duty there to assist with all the details of your cruise. Therefore, on paper at least, the suite experience is roughly the same between Celebrity and NCL
But for some reason, the experience didn't feel the same. Partly, that was from little things. For instance, NCL suites are all equipped with espresso machines. Celebrity suites don't even have a coffee maker, and when I inquired with our Butler about morning coffee in the room, I was told I'd have to use the hang tag and order coffee for a particular time from room service. Another small thing: NCL suites all have a bowl of fresh fruit in them, replenished daily, and over the course of the cruise, the butler learns your preference on the fruit and makes sure you have what you like. The same is true for bottled water...it's always kept replenished and iced on NCL, but when I inquired about it on Celebrity, I was directed to the charge-per-item Mini Bar in the suite.
Now those may seem like small things to fuss about, but they contribute to the overall “feel” of special service and luxury that the cruise lines are trying to promote with their suites. For us, they were part of the reason we were left feeling that the suite experience on Celebrity didn't measure up to what we'd hoped it would be.
THE CASINO EXPERIENCE: Those who aren't gamblers can skip this part. We do enjoy playing in the casino, though, and while we're not high rollers, we are steady players who enjoy gambling, spend a lot of time in the casino, play max bets, and expect that our casino spending will also be rewarded by the casino club.
In this case, Celebrity's casino club is a total failure, particularly when compared with NCL. It began with the casino manager, who seemed to understand very little about Celebrity's casino club system, how the points earned on board might relate to future cruise offers, and how they might relate to future offers from MGM Casinos, Celebrity's land casino partner. It continued as we found that there is apparently no graduated player club level system, and apparently no reward system for frequent and higher dollar players on board during the cruise.
By contrast, on any NCL cruise, our play would normally quickly have been rewarded with offers of comped specialty restaurant dinners, bottles of wine and extra treats delivered to the cabin, and comped spa benefits. Additionally, we would have been offered free drinks in the casino, and quickly found ourselves on first-name basis with the casino hosts, who would have stopped by to see what they could do for us. None of that happened on this cruise.
The casino was also the “tightest” ship's casino we've ever played in. Yes, we know full well that ship's casinos aren't regulated, and are always set for lower returns than land casinos. We understand that and accept it. But the Reflection casino is beyond tight. In most ship's casinos, you'll still have a reasonable number of jackpots being won, and you'll hear the bells and the excitement around you as that happens. But Reflection's casino was a quiet jackpot desert. In spite of that, the ship's daily paper continue to publish ever increasing numbers of “Dollars paid out” by the casino. I'm not at all sure how they came by those figures, as I can only personally confirm seeing two hand-pay jackpots being issued during the whole length of the cruise.
Celebrity simply doesn't seem to place much emphasis on their casino program. There's no “excitement” generated by the casino staff, no announcements of jackpots (how could there be?), no pushing of lotto or slot contests or other special competitions. Once a night there was a brief run of random “giveaways” and a rather bored announcement of a Texas Hold game with seats open. This is all surprising, in that casino revenues are usually one of the mainstays of a cruise line's income. Bottom line here: if you enjoy gambling as part of your cruise entertainment, don't bother with a Celebrity cruise.
DISEMBARKATION: The ship-side of disembarkation was quick and efficient. We went down for breakfast in Luminae with our backpacks and totes. After breakfast we simply walked off the ship with the rest of the people exiting at that time.
Port-side was a mess. Since we were suite customers, we'd been issued separate suite baggage tags. They were red, and said “Zenith” on them. When I went down to ask about suite disembarkation with the concierge the day before, I was told that the suite bags would be in a special area in the terminal. That fits with what most cruise lines do for their suite customers.
Unfortunately the word apparently didn't get down to the Port of Miami personnel. When we got to baggage claim, we found one baggage carousel, filled with all the bags (suite and non-suite) randomly mixed together. There was a sign above the carousel saying “Red” and listing some numbers, and while our bag tags were indeed red, they had no number. There were apparently also 2 other carousels with bags running on them in different rooms.
When I inquired with a Port of Miami person about how we would find our bags, she asked for my number. When I said I didn't have one, because we were in a suite, she said “they're all mixed in” and quickly walked away. Several other suite passengers came in asking the same questions, and all were amazed that there was no separate suite baggage claim as they'd been told, and as is normally done on other cruise lines.
So...no choice but to sit and watch all the bags go by. No different than an airport, of course, but not exactly what Celebrity said the procedure would be. Eventually we found our bags...luckily they were on this carousel. I have no idea what bags were on the other carousels, or how we would have known which carousel to look on.
Customs and Immigration was quick, with short lines moving quickly past the officers desks. Once outside we had to wait a bit for our driver to show up, but once he did we were back at FLL in about 45 minutes, with plenty of time before our noon flight.
SUMMARY: As with all cruises, ultimately it's a matter of what you're cruising for. For us, Celebrity had some definite advantages when it came to food, the overall feel of the ship, and being a “dressier” cruise. The disadvantage were a suite experience that didn't measure up to what we'd hoped it would be, and a complete failure of the casino to measure up in any way. Since the ports of call and the time spent in them are the same from cruise line to cruise line, it's the onboard experience that makes or breaks a cruise. We may not return to Celebrity as a result, but we were glad to have had the opportunity to try it out. Read Less