Monday, January 24, 2011

Goldring Travel's 2011 Celebrity Century Cruise - How Close to Luxury Can Celebrity's Smallest Ship Get? Part II

Our too early in the morning flight had us arrive in Miami about 9:45 a.m. and at the Port of Miami by about 10:45 a.m. After a brief wait for security, we were quickly through check-in and aboard the ship well before noon. With a quick and efficient check-in, things are looking good.


With our suite not yet ready we headed to Islands, the casual buffet restaurant for an early lunch. The first topic was, however, not about the ship or the food, but rather whether it made economic sense to purchase a beverage package and, if so, which one. I had pre-purchased the Premium beverage package for $281.00 including the 15% gratuity for this 5 day cruise. At about $49 per day if you enjoy a good whisky, some of the nicer wines by the glass or even a bottle of water without hassle, it makes good sense.

The question then became was it worth it for spouses to get a beverage package as well. After about 15 minutes of this discussion I was pretty much sick of it and, to be honest, didn’t want to have my cruise sucked down to the level of “nickel and diming” or, for that matter, talking about nickel and diming. So I made an executive decision: Buy the second card, good or bad economies aside, and just enjoy the cruise.

The next thing you know it was no longer about the economies, but how the drinks were now “free”. So a glass of faux champagne became a true glass of champagne, a glass of house white became a nice chardonnay and it was “cruise on”. This really changed the entire tone of the cruise for many in my group. OK, it is not "The next round is on me", but it is certainly a way to upscale your experience...and it immediately does.

To be sure, if you are someone who has saved to purchase a standard cabin for your annual cruise and this is it, the cost of the beverage package is nothing other than really expensive and, to be honest, there are ways to have a really good time without spending that kind of money on drinks. But, as I said, I am looking at whether there is a luxury experience to be found on the Celebrity Century.

Now, with that out of the way, I am now able to eat my lunch with a nice glass or two of wine without guilt or debate. I wanted to eat light (yeah, like that is going to last) so I had a small portion of a basmati rice dish and two small fried chicken legs. They were actually very tasty. My wife had some cream of tomato soup that she also really enjoyed. And then I just took a walk to see what else was at the buffet and I saw steak and kidney pies, meat pies and pasties. They were, without hesitation, excellent. I am traveling with a few Scots, Irish and English (all now naturalized Americans) and they could not believe how good they were. They were very happy to hear that they will be available all cruise. (Jumping ahead, there also was excellent blood sausage and streaky bacon available at breakfast.)

No one had any complaints about the food. No, it is not Seabourn, but the standard still was quite high with proper carving stations, Indian cuisine, fresh pasta, etc. I found this interesting because being the oldest and smallest ship in the Celebrity fleet I was pleased to see that even though the modern layout of the Solstice-class ship isn’t really possible, the food offerings were. To be sure it is an adventure finding the different dishes as some are forward port side, some are dead aft and others are midship starboard.

Service was also good with more than enough staff to make sure the tables were cleaned, but to be sure the quality of the cleaning (like crumbs on seats) is not what it used to be. It is clear that there is far fewer staff in the buffet area to service the tables and carrying your tray is long gone as is any real interaction with the guests.  There is just too much to do with the number of staff present.

Did this lack of interaction truly affect my experience?  Not really, but it did immediately adjust downward my level of expectation and the possibility of finding a "luxury" experience.

We finished lunch and went to our suite (1064) which is a Sky Suite. It has a nice layout with more than enough space, plenty of storage, a flat screen TV, small sofabed and chair. Our balcony is very large with room for a teak table and two aluminum and mesh chairs and two chaises with comfortable cushions on each…with room to spare. The first thing that struck me is that the sofabed and chair are more than tired as the fabric is stained and worn. While the suite is otherwise clean and pretty well maintained, that really puts you off…and raises your antennae as one begins to look closer at everything.

I noticed that our teak decking is in good shape, but some of the painting done to the metalwork has splashed or dripped here or there. Some of the stainless steel needs a good cleaning and, while our suite’s has a finished overhead the one next to us has what is above it exposed and it has paint over rust in a sloppy fashion. None of this will affect our cruise, but it most certainly confirms Doug Ward’s (Berlitz Cruise Guide) observations.

One true complaint is the bathroom lighting. It is terrible. It is a small florescent strip light that actually makes one feel like you are in a small dimly lit basement. With today’s lighting technology a solution would seem to be easy. Other than that, the bathroom has a whirlpool tub with shower above, plenty of storage and a single sink with more than enough counter space. The amenities are fine and the towels are just enough (2 facecloths, 2 hand towels and 2 bath towels).

Once again:  Luxury...not really.  Good enough for me on a five day Caribbean cruise?  Probably.  (Though the furniture is really kind of offputting.)
Sailaway was pleasant, but with cloudy skies and cool temperatures it was pretty uneventful and subdued…which was just fine with me.

We have three large tables on the second level of the main dining room overlooking the lower level. Our waiters and wine waiters were very good, but you really have more interaction with servers, which I found interesting. Everyone enjoyed their meals with one exception. The woman sitting next to me ordered Prime Rib and the piece she was served never should have left the galley. It was small, grey and truly unappetizing. But with a quick word it was replaced with a very good piece of meat in about 3 minutes. I had fish (not sure what it actually was) that was actually borderline excellent.

Being with friends makes the interaction with staff less important, but there is no question that if you are looking for that sort of interpersonal experience, it is not happening on this ship.  If you think about it, the staff is used to seeing passengers for only 2-5 days, so there is no real chance to have any meaningful interaction.  Everyone is very nice and accomodating, but they know you will be gone before they can even figure out what your likes and dislikes are.

My DW insisted that there was no need to purchase a bottle of wine as we had our drink cards, so the wine waiter should be adept at pouring and refilling our glasses as needed; not at 20 minute intervals. The wine by the glass is very limited in selection, but there are some OK choices if you are not looking for a critical tasting. It actually worked quite well. Again, it was not a Seabourn experience, but our glasses were tended to more than adequately and, once they knew we had the beverage package they never asked for the card again.

After dinner we went in various directions. A few of us wound up in Michael’s Club, which is one of my favorite venues on any Celebrity ship. Years ago it was the cigar lounge, so you know the look and feel. There was a very good pianist and singer who was quite adept at being entertainer when appropriate and being background music at other times.  The service was excellent and, of course, once they saw your card one time they never asked for it again.  (BTW,  YOU NEVER SIGN FOR DRINKS, but merely show the card...so for those complaining about always having to sign...don't.)

There is no question that you feel more people and that you need to adapt to walking around this group of five standing in the passageway. You also need to appreciate that this is truly an economy type cruise and for most it is a very exciting experience, but for others it is a rather inexpensive quick getaway from their home in Miami. When Seabourn did its three day New York City cruises to nowhere the crowd was different so I have to make sure I am taking that into account when I look at things.

Overall it was a nice first day. It is going to be a nice cruise.  It is not, however, going to be "luxury", but that truly was a long shot to begin with.