Celebrity in Alaska

Mercury & Galaxy off to AlaskaClick for full-size pic

Is there room for one more cruise operator in Alaska? In 1996, Celebrity decided to find out, going head to head with Holland America and Princess Cruises.

The summer of 2000 marked Celebrity's fifth season in Alaska, with the Mercury and her sister ship Galaxy operating weekly sailings from Vancouver through the Inside Passage and as far north as Seward. And it appears the line's Alaska presence next year will be even stronger.

During a recent Alaska cruise on Mercury, we learned that by next summer, Celebrity and parent RCI will launch their own shore tour operations, with rail cars and buses doing the Denali/Fairbanks run, among others. Can Celebrity/Royal Caribbean Lodges be far behind?

Mercury sailoutClick for full-size pic

Mercury was built at the Joseph Meyer shipyards in Germany in 1997. Her home port is Fort Lauderdale, and her principal cruising areas are the Caribbean, South America, the Panama Canal and now, Alaska. This 77,713-ton ship carries 1,870 passengers, with mostly Greek officers and an international crew.

Any review of a Celebrity ship must emphasize the quality of the cuisine. Since the legendary Michael Roux was named the line's Executive Chef, Celebrity--in this reviewer's not so humble opinion--has consistently presented the best food in the industry. (And I go way back with this line, to the Britannis, the Amerikanis and the Azure--when the line was called Chandris, for the Greek family that founded it.) The food is innovative, beautifully presented and consistently fresh. Chef Roux's imaginative expertise with food is so superior that it would take pages to mention just his featured creations. Simple food is kept simple, wholesome and unadulterated; gourmet dishes are sauced and seasoned superbly; desserts are suitably sinful. (He and his brother have written some cookbooks, so pampered passengers can relive the Celebrity dining experience at home.)

The Chief Housekeeper, obviously proud to be showing off the ship's accommodations, took me on a tour starting with the two Penthouse Suites, which are more like small condominiums than cabins. These two have it all: space, beauty, convenience, luxury--and a big price tag to match.

The suites' oversized living rooms have a movie projector that lowers from the ceiling to show videos on a large wall screen (all this equipment is hidden in ceiling and wall paneling, and appears at the flip of a switch!). There are two baths, a powder room and an outdoor jacuzzi on the veranda. There is a butler's kitchen with microwave, icemaker, and cupboards filled with exquisite tableware and crystal; oriental rugs cover the floors, and the dining room table seats six.

In case the Penthouse Suites aren't within your budget, take heart: The superior and deluxe cabins have lots of closet space and beautiful art work (the whole ship abounds with art, most of which can be bought). Baths in the cabins have stall showers as well as a shower in the tub, double sinks and a separate toilet. Even the inside cabins don't feel especially confining, thanks to savvy use of mirrors and colors. Inside cabins have TV, but no VCR.

The Spa is magnificent. An oversized hydra-bath is a highlight of the operation, which also offers exercise machines, sauna and steam bath, therapy and massage areas. (There is a daily charge for the hydra-bath, or it may be used for 15 minutes as a tie-in with a massage.) Full-service beauty and body treatments are offered at competitive prices with other cruise lines.

Among the Mercury's other public areas are a large casino; an extensive boutique area stocked with some very classy merchandise, well-chosen and attractively displayed; a well-stocked library; and a computer area that, unfortunately, was inoperative on our cruise.

I saw plenty of children and young people on my recent cruise, and Mercury seems to do a good job with its youth program. Kids are divided into four groups, age 3-6, 7-10, 11-13 and 13-17 with hours from 9 a.m. until noon, 2-5:30 p.m. and 7:30-10 p.m.

The staff at the reception/guest services desk is friendly, capable and helpful. During evening entertainment, the ship offers some male dance hosts.

Alaska shore tours on the Mercury are well-chosen and well-run. Land tours here are similar for all the major cruise lines. They are fun and informative and exciting, but because of the geographical and weather limitations, they can't be very innovative from ship to ship. (How many glaciers can you visit on one trip?) Fortunately, I never get tired of Alaska's landscape. I recommend a plane trip to the Taku Lodge for a salmon lunch or dinner; with luck, it will also include a close-up encounter with a huge bear who wanders down from the woods when he smells salmon on the grill. A trip from downtown Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon narrow-gauge railway goes up the side of a mountain and offers some breathtaking scenery through the Tonga National Forest, the largest national park in the U.S.

Overall, the Mercury and her crew offer a superior cruise experience for passengers. But no ship is perfect, and nit-picking is part of my job, so here goes.

When a ship offers an alternative dining room, shouldn't it be open every night, especially on a short seven-day trip? It was frustrating to find this facility closed for the last two nights of my cruise, and I still can't figure out why! The same goes for movies shown in the Cinema: There should be movies every day--shown maybe three times a day and never repeated on a seven-day cruise. Lord knows there are enough videos in existence to have more variety.

There was no fruit offered in the cabin, and no passenger-operated laundry available. Several passengers commented on a lack of clear signage on the ship, particularly the overhead signs inside the elevators, which were almost impossible to see. (Some ships have floor/carpet markings woven right into the design to indicate fore and aft directions--very effective.)

In the food and beverage area, how expensive can it be to offer bouillon for an hour instead of half an hour? Also, I was puzzled by the attitudes of many of the dining staff, particularly in the Palm Court Buffet. Many of them struck me as dour and unfocused. A first-time cruiser remarked to me: "I thought the people who took care of us would be smiling and friendly. A lot of them seem unhappy, almost sullen." This is a comment I heard again and again from other passengers.

Among the things for sale in the ship's duty-free shop is liquor, at bargain prices, but it may not be taken to one's cabin. The shop holds it, to be delivered to you on disembarkation. A notice in every daily paper warns that "duty-free liquor purchased on shore will be confiscated and returned to the passenger on disembarkation."

Can any readers with legal expertise explain to me why I could buy duty-free cosmetics or jewelry in the same on-board shop and take it back to my cabin for immediate use or wear, but could not do the same with alcohol? It clearly strikes me as a commercial decision by the cruise line, and one that does not send a welcoming, accommodating message to passengers.

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