We were looking for an autumn two-week cruise that didn’t breach any of our red lines: 1) must be fairly cheap: 2) must be able to dine at variable times that we choose, not at a fixed time chosen by them. It also had to tick our main boxes: 1) must be a wide range of musical entertainment for us to enjoy in the evenings: 2) daily program must offer lots of options: 3) at least some of these must include, or invite, participation by guests. This simple list eliminated most of the English-style, Italian-style and American-style cruise lines. Marella, however, passed all our tests, and additionally this cruise was adults-only, so we were not likely to be impeded on the dance floor by children (just drunks, as it turned out). Having our hold bags going straight from UK airport check-in to our cabin door was an attractive extra, too.
After we booked, we got a rather skimpy summary from the agency that did not even mention which terminal at Gatwick we departed from, so we had to look it up. Nothing arrived from Marella, whose website said we didn’t have a booking with them, so we had to find a ‘back door’ into our cruise personaliser to look at aircraft seating options and enter our Advanced Passenger Information. Just two weeks before departure (and twelve weeks after we had booked) we received our Marella Confirmation and e-ticket email from the agent, and then only when asked if such a thing existed. Worse still, we found that this informative document has been sent to the agent four weeks earlier, and they had deliberately delayed forwarding it to us. In the ensuing email exchange, the agent was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the delay, and a complaint has been filed with ABTA.
The Marella confirmation itself was faulty, as it gave two different weight limits for hold and cabin baggage, so we had to query it with them direct. For this length of cruise, the TUI hold baggage limit is inadequate. We packed all we needed and it came to 23 Kg per hold bag, oddly enough the same as many carriers specify. We then had to go through the process of open, discard or substitute, re-pack and weigh, three times per bag until we got it down to the 20 Kg required, which took hours. For cruise passengers only, TUI upped their cabin baggage limit from 5 Kg to 7 Kg, still less than the typical 10 Kg, but this was scant compensation.
The transit from check-in to ship worked smoothly and without any significant delays. (Our only moan was the minuscule legroom in the standard seats of the TUI 787. Flying to Dubrovnik was bearable, but we would not want to go as far as, say, Barbados, in that seat.) The queue for registration, which took place on the ship itself, took longer, and must have been difficult for the many disabled passengers on-board. Equipped with our charge cards we went straight to our cabin, which was ready for use with the door open. We dropped our hand baggage and coats and went straight to the Lido buffet, closing the door behind us. Mistake! On this old ship, the cabin doors are not unlocked by the charge card. Two separate punch cards are left in the cabin for this purpose, so we now had to visit a busy Reception desk to borrow the spare card. Separate cards for entry and payment are a minor nuisance in any case, but less so if we had been told about them in advance.
As we came aboard, our first impression of the ship was not very favourable: it felt more like a cross-channel car ferry than a luxury resort. Up to a point this was correct: the ceilings were low, the lighting and wall-decorations were dated, and the carpets were a mixture of inconsistent colours. Additionally there was no impressive atrium to arrive into and no live music to welcome us aboard. But this feeling turned out to be false, as we slowly realised that it was the warm and convivial atmosphere created by the smiling, friendly crew that made customers come back, time and time again.
Our standard inside cabin was large. Although about same width as on a typical modern ship, it seemed to have been ‘stretched’ in the zone between the dressing table and the fixed 5’ wide bed, creating a real sense of spaciousness. It was also very well furnished with two bedside tables, two full-sized double wardrobes and fifteen drawers in total. That’s a lot! The shower room was a good size too, and even with all our stuff unpacked, there remained plenty of unused shelving.
We were pleased to find lots of hangers in the wardrobes, a tea and coffee tray that was replenished twice daily, a decent flat TV with a fair selection of UK channels, and a hairdryer. There was no refrigerator, so the usual ‘minibar’ drinks were provided on a second tray. However the safe was a disappointment, as Marella’s policy is to charge extra for its use. This makes little sense to us, as the safes are already in place, and encouraging guests to use them would surely avoid some of the issues that arise when property goes missing? The power sockets in our cabin were described on the Marella website as ‘EU 3-pin’. Our cabin had one of these, plus one UK 13 amp flat 3-pin, and (rather surprisingly) one UK 5 amp round 3-pin, a type not installed in UK homes for decades. There was also a standard 2-pin shaver point in the shower room light fitting. In general, and unusually, all the lighting was well positioned, and particularly useful were the spotlights for reading incorporated into the bedside table lamps, but with separate on/off switches.
The only poor feature of the cabin was the soundproofing; we could tell from which part of the UK those in our neighbouring cabins had come! Also we were able to feel the vibration for which this ship has become well known. While in port, this was not very intrusive in our cabin near the bow on deck three, but rather more annoying when combined with the engine vibration while at sea. There were also some unexpected creaking noises from the cabin walls when under way, which created an atmosphere of being on an old sailing vessel. At no time, however, did it interfere with our sleep.
Despite us keeping very unconventional hours, the cabin servicing was excellent. We were each provided with a large blue pool towel that dried quickly in the air conditioning. Shower room towels were changed whenever we left them on the floor, and we were never without tissues or toilet paper. The bed was made up so smartly that initially we thought they were changing the sheets every day!
The main restaurant has open seating, though you may be invited to share a table with others. We arrived at different times every night and never had to wait to be seated, and only sharing on four out of fourteen visits. Of course we could have waited for table-for-two if we had wanted to. It was all so easy and well managed we can’t see why “traditional British” cruise lines can’t do it or why Italian lines ask you to pay extra for it. The menu was varied and tasty, and hardly ever spiced: a positive, as my wife won’t even eat dishes containing pepper. (There are also three pay-extra restaurants that we had no need to sample.) Naturally there is the usual twenty-four hour buffet where the food is good, but not exotic. On my first visit here, I renamed Celebration as the“HP Sauce Boat” as I have never seen so many bottles clustered together, except in a supermarket: oddly enough though, one had to search around for some vinegar. The Lido gives onto a stern deck with tables and chairs so you can eat outside, but under cover. This area also includes comfy sofas for relaxing and reading. The deck extends into the open, with a small pool and whirlpool, sunbeds, and a small stage. One could easily spend all the daylight hours there, assuming you don’t mind quizzes and jolly games now and again.
There's a second small pool and whirlpool three decks above, and a small kids’ play area inside, but it’s not an ideal ship for children who need to be amused and occupied all day. On the plus side, there is an ample supply of sunbeds spread across many decks, some with waiter service, so you should be able to find a free one in a spot you like.
For a small ship, there is a big choice of evening entertainment venues. The two-storey theatre lounge amidships has a thrust stage with seating on three sides, but as it is also the only through walkway on this deck it must be annoying for people watching movies in the afternoon or shows in the evening. These “Broadway” shows were pre-recorded, with a just a little live singing. There was plenty of rather repetitive walking and jumping about, but not much real dancing. The performers themselves were generally very good, but it was the poor choice of music and lack of structure and consistency of narrative that disappointed us. The real joy of theatre is that it is really happening, right there in front of you, and so every performance is fresh and different. This intimacy cannot be achieved with recorded music and singing. I’ve never seen so many people in an audience leave early! It’s not as if they had a bus to catch! Maybe they had been annoyed enough by the endless ‘disco’ lighting? In theatrical terms, these shows had the worst stage lighting I have ever seen, anywhere, and that includes school plays and the village hall! The most entertaining show, by far, was the Captain’s introduction of the senior officers, which was congenial, humorous and, most importantly, live!
The secondary entertainment lounge featured a continuous programme of quizzes, game shows, and sets by an excellent five-piece band, plus the occasional karaoke slot. This had a dance floor big enough for a bit of ballroom and Latin dancing which we greatly enjoyed, although we were frequently the only couple doing it! Later in the evening it became the disco and by then the floor was jammed! Higher up there was cocktail lounge with a talented duo and a small round dance floor where we also managed a few routines, though trying to do slow dances on a high deck in two metre swells is more like acrobatics than dancing! Finally there was a traditional bar with a continuous programme of solo music, with guitar and piano alternating, for six hours every evening. The atmosphere here was convivial, with excellent interaction between the musicians, the bar staff, and some of the guests, even though the young musicians’ choice of songs was not always very well suited to the elderly clientele. Overall, there was more to do in the evenings on this small ship than on many of her larger competitors.
Marella’s prices are fairly cheap, especially when you remember that gratuities are included, but they do charge for some things other lines don’t, like shuttle buses. At a few ports the ship was moored much further from the port exit than seemed necessary. Was that to increase shuttle bus revenues perhaps? It does seem unfair to penalise disabled passengers in this way, and there were plenty on this cruise. We had a choice of 65 tours, all too expensive. In a market like this, maximum price does not always mean maximum profit, especially when there are local alternatives. We went to Rome for the day on the train, which cost less than half the equivalent tour price. A single on-board photograph costs £40, almost twice the price of some other cruise lines, and two photos cost twice that. If you are buying more than one, and it’s the last day of the cruise, you can haggle, though. We got a personal photo shoot and nine large prints for £50! The best deal of all was in the bars, where the prices are, as advertised, the same as in (top-end) UK pubs. But Marella’s measure for a glass of spirits is 40 ml, whereas pubs use 25 ml, so you get 60% more booze for your money. Cheers!
And what of the cruisers? Well, if you’ve ever been on a Thompson holiday to, say, Benidorm, you will have seen plenty of them. We didn’t meet any that were not from the UK, and most were from areas near airports where TUI operates its larger aircraft, including Birmingham, Doncaster, Glasgow, London and Manchester.
Our journey home was painful, in more ways than one. Firstly, we had to collect our own hold bags in the terminal and take them to the coach. Then the driver parked nose-in outside the airport terminal, opened the baggage doors both sides, and let the passengers unload it themselves. Another coach came in, so we now had a coach on either side, and in the restricted space chaos ensued. Passengers searching for their own bags littered the road with luggage until there was nowhere to move. We finally got to our own bags and started to squeeze through the crowd towards the relative sanity of the terminal. Then somebody dragged an empty pallet truck through the people ahead of us: I saw it too late, stepped on it, lost my balance and fell heavily. I was uninjured, but not pleased with Marella’s management of that part of the holiday.
Marella has a reputation for smaller, friendlier, ships and Celebration is regarded as the best in the fleet for this: it must really work, as she has many fans that come back over and over again. It’s easy to see why: every one of the crew that we met was happy to chat and some had become friends by the end. Nothing was too much trouble, and everything we requested was dealt with quickly, without having to ask twice.
At the end of this cruise, Celebration was due to be retired, and most probably scrapped. But such is her popularity with customers that Marella changed their minds. She left us in Malaga and sailed away for a rest in a Cadiz dry dock. There she is being treated to a month’s re-fit during which they hope to fix the vibration. Then she’s off to the Caribbean for the winter.
Would we sail again with Marella? Definitely. It’s cheap, convivial and there’s lots to do onboard.
Would we sail on Celebration again? Yes. She meets our requirements and is rather like a ‘home from home’. But she may not be to everyone’s taste, so I hope some of the detail above will help others make their choices. Read Less