(10:30 a.m. EDT) -- This sailing was a long time coming.
Celebrity Apex, the newest ship from Celebrity Cruises, was supposed to debut in the U.K. (where it was due to be named) in March 2020.
Well we all know what happened then.
The sister to Celebrity Edge, Apex improves on the design (which was already cutting Edge), to be more exciting and special, and thrill cruisers with excellent dining, original lounges and innovative entertainment.
It's does all that. It's just done it about a year later than expected.
We're onboard Celebrity Apex's first sailing with passengers onboard, on a roundtrip itinerary from Athens around the Greek islands.
Here's what it's like to be sailing on the newest ship at sea.
The buildup to the first passenger sailing on Apex was extraordinary. The ship was delivered to Celebrity in March 2020, but it never actually sailed with paying passengers. So, this is truly the ship's inaugural voyage. We're sailing with about 670 passengers onboard (a little over 20 percent capacity) -- and more than 900 crewmembers -- so the ratio weighs heavily in favor of the guests. But it's not just a numbers game. I think we'd feel the same warmth with half the number of crew.
You can't walk more than a few feet without someone saying hello, or welcome back, thank you or "How was your day?" We experienced the same thing when we were onboard Celebrity Millennium a couple weeks ago, but being a new ship, there was an extra layer of pride and happiness around being back onboard.
In this era of sailing, it's impossible to talk about cruising without talking about the health and safety protocols in place. On Celebrity Apex, which is sailing from Athens for the summer, the cruise line is following Greek protocols, which means all passengers and crew are wearing masks in all public spaces.
Every adult onboard is vaccinated, but because masks are required in Greece, Celebrity is adhering to the same rules. It's not onerous -- we've all gotten used to wearing masks as part of our everyday lives on land -- but it's not the same experience we had on Celebrity Millennium sailing out of St. Maarten and which did not require masks. (We're hearing rumors from the Greeks we meet in port that the country might abandon masks as soon as July 1, which could have a trickle-down effect to the ship's policies.)
Crew are polite in reminding people of the mask rules, and if you forget yours in your cabin, they'll make sure you have one. You'll also get a small paper bag at mealtimes to hold your mask, so you don't have to put it directly on the table. If you're eating and drinking, outside on a lounger, swimming or in a hot tub, you don't have to wear your mask, and we've seen a number of passengers making sure they have drinks in front of them at all times.
But masking is only a small part of what Celebrity has done to ensure passengers are safe and healthy.
As mentioned, vaccines are required, as were antigen tests in port prior to boarding. Nurses were onsite to administer the nasal swabs, and passengers waited about 20 to 30 minutes for results, where were delivered by email or app. All passengers will have an additional antigen test onboard before they disembark, as required to get back into the United States. Celebrity Apex has the ability to run the tests and get the results onboard.
Social distancing is in place throughout the ship, especially in places like the theater (about every other seat is closed) and at bars. There are fewer loungers on the sun decks, which really isn't a problem with so few people onboard but could become an issue as the ship sails closer to 100 percent, when more passengers will battle for those chairs and prime spots.
Paper menus are available on request, but each bar and restaurant offers QR codes so you can read the menu on your mobile device. This has been a bit hit and miss for us; sometimes, the code works like a champ and the menu pops up immediately; other times, it takes a few tries.
And the buffet, as we have found on all the other ships we have sailed with since cruising restarted, is no-longer self-serve.
Also, Greece does not proscribe ship-sponsored shore excursion bubbles, so it's been a joy to wander at will in the beautiful islands we are visiting.
One of the most innovative spaces on Celebrity Apex -- or perhaps any cruise ship -- is Eden. The multiuse venue takes up a huge swath of the ship's aft interior area. During the day, it's a chill space with lots of bright, natural light for reading or relaxing. Guests can laze around in a variety of cool, funky chairs and couches (we love the hammock), dip down to the Eden Cafe for a light bite or grab a trendy cocktail at the Eden Bar. Eden is decorated with lots of plants -- real and not -- with a palette of greens and pinks.
At night, it offers dining at its exclusive restaurant and entertainment from about 6 p.m. to past midnight. It might be a band, a duo, aerialist or acrobat. It's all done around a unique theme -- "Night of the Chill" or "A Night of Enchantment," for examples.
When Eden debuted on Celebrity Edge, some passengers seemed to struggle with the concept, which involved interactive experiences with "Edenists" -- performers who interacted (sometimes oddly) with the audience, making them part of the show experience. Some guests called it fun, others thought it was awkward.
On Apex, it's been fully refined. You still have acrobats, aerialists and musicians, but the vibe is totally voyeuristic -- audiences don't have to participate, and the talent is so solid. You can drop in to catch bits and pieces of the show and leave when you're ready without feeling like you're missing out on anything. It's a fun experience that puts you close to the action without that obligation of being involved.
Apex offers a satisfying variety of excellent cuisine, and it does so in a way that feels fresh and different.
The main dining rooms -- Cosmopolitan, Tuscan, Cyprus and Normandie -- offer a good variety of included choices, and there's plenty of space in each to accommodate all diners onboard. The ship also has two included restaurants aimed at passengers booking certain cabin level -- Blu, a healthier option for AquaClass cabins, and Luminae, an upscale dining experience for suite passengers.
But the specialty restaurants really set Apex apart. For one thing, you can feel like you're part of the ship's energy at night, thanks to the open feel of the dining venues. Fine Cut, the ship's steakhouse, Raw on 5, a sushi and seafood restaurant, and Le Petit Chef, an animated 3D dining experience, are located just off Apex's Grand Plaza -- the heartbeat of the ship.
You can enjoy your meal but still get a piece of the action when the chandelier over the martini bar starts flashing and the flair bartenders do their thing. Likewise, the restaurant at Eden sits just below the stage and dancefloor level of the venue, so you can dine while enjoying live music and a show.
Food at every restaurant we've visited has been excellent, with enough variety to suit most tastes. We've enjoyed lunch at Le Grand Bistro and dinner under the stars at the Rooftop Garden Grill, as well as a hearty meal at Fine Cut. We also loved the new animated show at Le Petit Chef, which tells a family friendly love-story that integrates the 3D table visuals with real-life courses. Dinner on the Edge, which takes place on Apex's cantilevered Magic Carpet platform, is the top-ticket on the ship, offering al fresco dining with the best views.
New on Apex is Craft Social, a pub offering craft beers and cocktails alongside light bites, like onion soup, brie mac and cheese, and glazed chicken wings.
Celebrity has a long history of integrating artwork into its ships, and on Apex, it is tough to miss. The collection is fun, bold and thought-provoking. Our favorite pieces are in and around Eden. To get to the venue, you'll walk through the "immersion tunnel," a silver-and-white statement tunnel about 20 feet long that has you feeling a bit like you've jumped through the looking glass. It's filled with sculptures that are sure to have you stopping to get a closer look.
Inside Eden, even the furniture is artwork, with chairs designed to look like lily pads and a connection to nature at every turn. Our favorite piece here, though, is located out on the adjacent deck and is called "Brotando: El Nacimiento de Fraxinus excelsior." The larger-than-life sculpture depicts a blue and white man crouching, with branches growing out of his body.
Apex also has a statement piece on its pool deck -- giant hands forming a heart -- which is sure to be the selfie spot onboard.
If you're a fan of art -- or just curious -- you can grab the art book from your cabin and walk the halls to take in the sculptures, paintings and photographs that thoughtfully adorn spaces throughout the ship.
It's so wonderful to be back on a brand new ship, and none of the protocols has us feeling like it's just too much of a departure from what we love about cruising. We've all gotten really used to them, so it doesn't detract from the overall experience.
In fact, being onboard Apex feels like the most normal activity we've done in a long time. Apex is a bold cruise ship loaded with activities and entertainment. It might have had its big debut delayed but is definitely enjoying its moment in the sun with its first batch of happy cruisers enjoying all the food, activities and amenities this week in the Greek Isles.