Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Celebrity Equinox - The Prologue to the Travelogue

On Sunday my family embarks on a 13 night cruise on the brand new Celebrity Equinox. Our cruise is roundtrip Rome with port calls in Naples, Italy; Athens and Rhodes, Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey; Haifa and Ashdod, Israel and Alexandria, Egypt (overnight)...with four sea days.  We will be overnighting off the ship in Israel and in Egypt.

I will be providing you with some of my insights and observations as we travel on a very interesting itinerary; though we have been to many of the ports before.  I will, however, spend less time discussing the hardware as I recently did so in my review of her sister, the Celebrity Solstice

As I have stated for years, I believe Celebrity not only gives the "best bang for the buck in the business" it also provides...if you want it...a near luxury experience.  Starting off with the "best bang for the buck" this cruise retails for $2,164.46 per person including all fees and taxes, or only $166.50 per day...and that is for Concierge Class balcony cabins (we have two). 

Celebrity has elevated and differentiated the cabins on the Solstice-class ships.  There are the oceanview and balcony cabins and then there are the Concierge Class and Aqua Class cabins, followed by the suites.  As I stayed in an Aqua Class cabin (which provides certain healthy amenities including spa access and dining in Blu, the spa restaurant), this time my experience will be different.  Concierge Class cabins provide the following amenities which are additional to the standard cabins (skipping the less relevant ones):

• Welcome champagne
• Daily fruit selection
• Fresh-cut flowers
• Daily hors d'oeuvres
• Menu of pillows-Conformance, Body, Goose, and Isotonic®
• Duvets and pillow-top mattresses
• Hansgrohe® showerhead
• Early embarkation and debarkation
• Shoeshine service

Added to these amenities are the Captain's Club (past passenger program) amenities.  We are "Select" members which afford us (again only relevant onboard items):
 
• Invitation to the exclusive Senior Officer's Cocktail Party
• Exclusive Captain's Club Celebration event
• 25% off any single internet package
• Complimentary pressing of 2 garment items
• One standard bag of laundry (wash, dry, fold) at discounted price of $20 during cruises of 12 nights or longer

I also have a $200 onboard credit for being a shareholder of Royal Caribbean.

So with my priority early embarkation, chilled champagne waiting for me in my balcony cabin, daily hors d'oeuvres, fresh flowers and the like  all set to go, I am not yet ready to go.  I need to organize some "luxury". 

The main dining room is beautiful and my sampling of the service in November on the Solstice was, honestly, excellent my wife and I tend to enjoy more intimate dinners (and our children tend to enjoy the buffet, room service and the children's activities).  So I have pre-booked 3 dinners in Murano, the most upscale restaurant (and if it is anything like the specialty restaurants on the Millennium Class ships we will be very happy), 1 dinner at Silk Harvest (the Asian fusion restaurant) and 1 dinner at Tuscan Grille (the steakhouse).  When you consider we will be off the ship two evenings, we have already managed to avoid (bad choice of words?) the main dining room for 7 of the 13 nights.

The Celebrity just announced it is introducing on the Equinox "Celebrity Life, a new series of palate-pleasing, intellectually-enriching and life-enhancing programs designed to deliver the most unique and sophisticated onboard experience in premium cruising."  What is entails...to the extent the information is available...is a group of enrichment programs broken down into three categories:

"Savor" takes an already stellar culinary experience to new heights, with eight new wine enrichment events, six spirits and mixology tastings, and more than seven different interactive programs for guests, hosted by the ship's Executive Chef and team.


"Discover" presents an opportunity for guests to do or learn what they have always wanted to try, but never had time to accomplish. Whether it's ordering a bottle of Chianti in Italian, or exploring the universe in 40 minutes, guests can delve into a wide variety of interests.

"Renew" offers an improved, more goal-oriented approach to classes, seminars, and treatments designed to help guests on their journey to looking younger, feeling better and living longer.

These three programs are then broken down further.  Without getting into all the specifics, which you can find here, one drew my attention: 

The "Celebrity Vineyards" wine enrichment program, developed in partnership with the United States Sommelier Association, will feature a host of immersive wine events providing guests the opportunity to expand their understanding and appreciation of the fascinating world of wine. Among the varied activities are the comparative wine workshops Celebrity introduced in 2007, sanctioned by the renowned Riedel Crystal.


I have been advised that this is "sign up on the ship" program and pricing was not available yet.  OK, not a luxury start, but it has given me something to look forward to and investigate; an a clearly interesting enrichment opportunity. 

Am I done yet?  Nope.  I know the "smuggling booze" issue comes up.  I am not really overwhelmed with this issue.  Celebrity allows you to bring two bottles of wine per person onboard at embarkation ostensibly to be drank with a corkage fee in the restaurants.  However there is no requirement to drink them there, so our pre-dinner drinks in our cabin are taken care of.  We, therefore, will have our cabin stocked...with very little effort...purchasing some wine the day before while in Civitavecchia.  Also, the kids will get soda cards, so for $5 a day ($65 per child) the soft drink issue is resolved.  Now, purchasing a bottle of wine with dinner is not a big deal and how much more am I going to drink?  Note:  Once this is organized it does nothing to interfere with my 13 night cruise, so let's put substance over form on this one. OK?

Yet another luxury touch are private tours.  We are only taking two tours; both private.  A 2 day in Israel and a 2 day in Egypt.  I will discuss them in more detail as they happen, but I do wish to make two points now.  First, a high quality private tour for 4 people is less expensive than a "similar" cruise tour....and you can have your tour highlight what you want.  (We are Jewish so our focus is somewhat different than what the ship's tours offer to the mostly Christian passengers.)  Second, our overnights provide us with (hopefully) some better experiences.  We are staying at Jerusalem Hotel (Palestinian owned and operated) in Jerusalem rather than the ship's tour chain hotel with a fixed menu restaurant and in Giza we opted for Pyramid View rooms at Le Meridian Hotel rather than the ship's lesser rooms with a private felluca ride rather than a belly dancing dinner cruise.  (I am sure it won't be like falling asleep to a view of the Acropolis in Athens, but it should be pretty cool.)  Obviously the other benefits of private tours will certainly increase the "luxury" aspect of our cruise.

So with only a little pre-cruise effort I think we are looking at a pretty upscale experience.

Now, do I expect it to be as luxurious as when I step onto the Seabourn Spirit or, should I even mention it in the same breath, the Seabourn Odyssey?  No.  But do I think I will be in a great compromise because there will be thousands of other people on the same ship?  No.  My cabin is an upscale sanctuary with nice amenities.  My dining will, for the majority of the time, be in smaller venues.  My tours will be private.  And, I would suggest, take a look at the hardware and tell me you can't find beautiful, uncrowded spaces.  Oh, did I mention the kids will be happy and entertained when on the ship...which will also upscale my, personal, experience?

If there are things you want to know, post your questions on The Gold Standard Forum and I will try to respond.