Recently returned from Constellation reposition from San Juan PR to Cape Liberty NJ. Had stateroom Concierge class on Panorama deck midship. So many pleasurable moments experienced by our family during cruise, thanks to wonderful staff and crew.
Embarkation in San Juan total time 10 minutes a breeze A+. Stateroom and sevice A+. Dining at San Marcos Restaurant service,food quality, and presentation A+.
I know now why Celebrity Cruise line especially Constellation has won the Conde Nast Traveler award as best ships in the world. Ports of call A. Everything from the moment we boarded to our disembarkation in New Jeresy could only be described as just right with impeccable service and attention that could certainly spoil anyone.
I could not complete this review without mentioning just a few of so many who orchestrated this unforgetable experience. Marta Arriaza stateroom attendant and her assistant. Santos Gomez-Head waiter San Marco Restaurant and his assistant, Bravo!. Lana from Words. Ronel Philander-Concierge. Christine-Aqua Spa. Gary and Bennett ship's security during port calls. Melissa-Customer Service Corporate. Senor Ramon Santos-Corporate. Many thanks to all of the Constellation. Looking forward to cruising again with Celebrity in the near future.
Itinerary: San Juan, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Thomas
Cruise History: 2003 - 3 Day Carnival Cruise (Fantasy) out of Port Canaveral 2004 - 4 Day Carnival Cruise (Celebration) out of Jacksonville, Florida 2005 - 4 Day Carnival Cruise (Celebration) out of Jacksonville, Florida
Choosing Cruise: Work schedule finally allowed taking a week long cruise instead of the 3-4 days cruises. Wanted to take a cruise with another cruise line besides Carnival. Did extensive research on-line looking trying to determine which cruise to take.
Research showed 3 cruise lines going out of San Juan on week long cruises; Princess, RCL and Celebrity. T he reviews I read were not as good for Princess as RCL & Celebrity so decision came down to RCL & Celebrity. The cruise prices for RCL seems to be a lot higher than Celebrity. From all I read on Celebrity and the Constellation, it was highly rated, so I made my decision to go with Celebrity.
Purchasing Tickets. I was prepared to purchase through one of the cruise on-line retailers when discovered if you have a Discover Credit Card and make arrangement through their recommended travel agency, you receive a5% rebate on the ticket price (before taxes). I gave them a call and was quite satisfied with the finial ticket prices. Was cheaper than what my research showed from the on-line sites and in addition will get the 5% rebate.
In researching cruises also determine it was more cost effective and flight schedules were better to fly out of Orlando Airport instead of Jacksonville Florida or Savannah Georgia. Finally decided that could combine a visit to Disney World for one day, then fly out of Orlando airport to San Juan. Only 4 hour drive from residence in GA to Orlando.
Orlando Airport Parking in one of the satellite parking lots cost $7.00 a day. When checked on parking prior to trip, airport web pages show parking at $5.00 a day. Got to airport about 6 a.m. for a 8:15 flight. There were still big lines for people checking in baggage and going through security, but for the most part things went pretty smoothly.
San Juan Airport: Arrive at airport around 11:00 a.m. Claimed baggage and headed for ground transportation. When arriving at ground transportation, they have someone who will ask you where your going, how many people are traveling with you, and how many bags. They will then Fill out a sheet with the total cost which you will give to driver. For 3 people and 6 bags, we were charged $23.50. Trip to cruise port lasted around 30 minutes.
Embarkation: Went very smoothly especially if you have done the pre-check on-line and printed out your pass. We were checked in and on-board within 30 minutes.
THE CRUISE: Knew it was going to be a good cruise and had made the right decision to choose Celebrity when you a greeted on the ship with a glass of champagne and they assign someone to show you to your cabin.
FOOD: Food was great! Good variety. On lobster night, they bring a large lobster tail to you and they even remove it from the shell right at the table for you. We decided to make reservations for the OceanLiners restaurant. Glad we did. The meal was fantastic. After 2 hours of choreographed dining we could hardly get up. Seemed to be a 10 course meal to me and it was good. I did though make the mistake of accepting a glass of champagne at the start of our meal, thinking it was included in the extra $30.00 per person charge to dine in OceanLiners. Found out later the champagne was not included when saw a charge of $18.00 for a glass of champagne on my bill. All in all would highly recommend going to the OceanLiners Restaurant if you have not been before.
Staff. All the staff was great. Everyone greets you when you pass them in the halls, leave the dining areas. Our serving staff could not have been better. Our table # was 450. Waiterâ?Ts name was Michael (From India) and his assistant was Chavez. The Asst Maitreâ?~d was fabulous and really made the dining experiences a delight. His name is Lorenzo and if you are on the Constellation I would highly recommend asking to be seated in his area. He had a wonderful personality and always came by for a chat during the evening meals. He told us he had been with Celebrity for 10 years and had started out as a busboy.PORTS:
Dominican Republic. Took the Eco Water Tour. Road in some high speed boat to a mangrove swamp and boarded a dug out canoe and cruised around the mangroves. Was quite peaceful
Grenada. Took the Spice tour which lasted around 8 hours, including lunch. Spent a lot of time in bus climbing the narrow winding roads. More than once I though our bus would not make it up the steep inclines but they did without problems. Went to a Run Distillery which was real interesting. They have a waterwheel they use to cruse the sugar cane to make the rum. They even let you try a sip of 150 proof rum. A sip is about all you can handle. Said the proof is so high, it cannot be exported off of Granada. Barbados. Took a tour of bird sanctuary that had been set up to preserve one of the last mangrove sanctuaries in Barbados. Was really enjoyable.
St Kitts. We were scheduled to take the small gauge railroad tour of St. Kitts. Our tour was scheduled to leave at 1:15 pm. around 1:00 pm we were notified that they were experiencing some mechanical problem with the trains and we would be delayed around 15-30 minutes. An hour later they started to board the buses. We sat on the hot buses for it seems another 30 minutes when they came an told us we were ready to go, but in order to make sure we got back in time for the ships departure, they would take us half way around the island on the train, then we would get back on the buses for the other half. When we were told this, half of the folks on the bus including us decided to skip the tour and get refunds which Celebrity credited to our bill.
St. Thomas. We took the Blackbeard Castle tour. Once we made it up to the castle, we were informed that Black Beard really didnâ?Tt have any association with the structure. It had been rename this long ago to take advantage of tourism. Did have a nice walk down from the castle and view some of the other structures that had been built by the Europeans when they first came to the island. The end of the tour ended in the main shopping district and we were told we were on our own to get back to the ship. Taxies are everywhere though and cost $4.00 per trip. Since we were able to view the cruise ship from the shopping areas thought it would be a nice walk back. It was nice walking along the water front but a lot longer that it looks. Wish had taken the taxi, but made it back ok otherwise.
On-Ship Entertainment. The singers and dancers on the Celebrity were the best we have ever seen. Really did enjoy the Cirque du Soleil show. The female lead singer for the show was one of the best singers I have heard in a long time. Just a wonderful voice.
End of cruise. Our last night in the dining room our tablemates had brought one of their friends with them. While we were introducing ourselves, come to find out their friend was the female lead singer from the Cirque du Soleil show! We started to talk and I mentioned how much I enjoyed her singing and wish she had a CD out. To my surprise she said she did have one out and they were being sold in the Cirque du Soleil store on the ship. This was a CD she had personally made and all the songs were sung in Spanish. (Sheâ?Ts from Canada) Here name is: Francine Poitras. After diner, I went and purchased her CD. Later on that evening, we saw her in one of the lounges and mentioned we had purchased her CD. She asked if we would like for her to sign they CD which she did and even wrote a very nice note to us. That really was a nice way to end a fabulous cruise.
Embarkation. We were off the ship by 9:30 am and picked up bags and through Customs in 45 minutes. Taxies are readily available and made it to the airport without any problems.
Final Thoughts. Just a great cruise. Celebrity and the Constellation are first class. Lorenzo our Asst Maitre'd was fantasic. Noticed next cruising season, the Constellation with be embarking from Fort Lauderdale, Florida so may have to take advantage of this. Really want to take the Baltic cruise out of London on the Constellation though.
Our vacation on the Celebrity Constellation was the best! We had booked this trip in October 2005. Our travel agent, Melissa, from American Express was wonderful! We highly suggest booking your trip with her (800-297-5627 x4318). This was my 4th cruise and my husband’s 3rd cruise. Our flight on Continental to San Juan, Puerto Rico was great! We took a taxi to the Pan American pier (we didn’t have a transfer to the ship) – this took about 15 - 20 minutes. We were in awe to see the ship for the first time. What a spectacular view! Getting on the ship was no problem at all. There were minimal lines which moved very quickly. The whole embarkation process was extremely organized.
As soon as we boarded the ship, we were greeted with champagne and taken to our stateroom. A lunch buffet was awaiting us on the 10th floor deck. We had a midship cabin (#8098) with a balcony. What a clean and beautiful room! Melissa had suggested an 8th floor cabin which was insulated from the noise on the 10th floor (where the pool entertainment was). She definitely made theright decision. Our cabin was bright and well appointed with plenty of storage. The mattress was extremely comfortable. We were even able to leave the sliding door open when the air conditioning was on. The CC class extras were just as they stated and made all the difference (padded deck chairs, fresh fruit, appetizers at 5 PM daily, terrycloth bathrobes, fresh flowers and more were extra touches that we thoroughly enjoyed). The port views were great from the side of the ship we were on. We loved to sit on the balcony and watch us pull into the new ports each day. We also enjoyed the mail in the door slot each day telling us of daily activities. Our cabin steward, Caetano, was excellent! He attended to our every need.
The ship was immaculate! We enjoyed the layout of this ship much better than the Celebrity Galaxy. We also enjoyed the art throughout the ship. My husband enjoyed the Seaside Grill at the back of the ship. It was cigar friendly in the evenings. We enjoyed the internet café greatly – we loved to be able to communicate with our family and friends. The conservatory is beautiful and peaceful. I loved the jogging track on the 11th deck – I walked a few mornings and loved the views! The glass elevators were the best we ever experienced. They were super quiet and fast and the views were wonderful! We never felt like there were over 2,000 people on this ship.
The food on the ship was excellent. We loved the breakfast and lunch buffets in the Seaside Café. The aqua spa cuisine was unbelievable! We had the early seating in the dining room for dinner. The food was great! Our waiter, Marcin, and assistant waiter, Antonio, were great! James, our bar maid, always had a smile on his face! We didn’t get to try the Ocean Liners restaurant but we heard that the food is very good.
We did not do any of the excursions. We visited the Southern Caribbean. Our 1st stop was in the Dominican Republic. We took the free shuttle to the marina. We basically just walked around – since it was a Sunday, everything was closed. Our next day we were at sea. Our 2nd stop was in Grenada. We walked off the ship into a poor village and got right back on the ship. Our 3rd stop was in Barbados. We took a taxi with 2 other women to a public beach and swam for a few hours. Our 4th stop was in St. Kitts. We took a taxi to a public beach and again swam for a few hours. Our last stop was in St. Thomas. We ended up taking a taxi to the Red Hook ferry which brought us to St. John. This was our favorite stop. We took an open taxi to Trunk Bay and I cannot tell you how unbelievable this beach is.
The pools on the ship were very nice. They never seemed overcrowded. There were lots of padded lounge chairs and towels for the guests. There were 4 freshwater whirlpools – my husband loved the whirlpools! Even on the sea day, the pools and whirlpools never seemed overcrowded.
The entertainment on the ship was top notch! Perry Grant (the lounge pianist) was great! Very entertaining! The violinists in the Cova Café were superb! The shows in the theater were great too!
We loved the entire experience for the week. The staff and itinerary made us feel special. It was relaxing, interesting and just the right feeling of being pampered. We loved Julie the librarian. Everyone was so helpful! On our day at sea, we were given a bridge tour (we had asked about this) and found it to be very enjoyable. The captain and his staff did a great job with explaining the behind the scenes experience especially with the state of the art engines that have almost 0 percent emissions. The ship also has a soda package – you pay $40 for the week for unlimited soda which was a great idea.
We think you would be hard pressed to find any criticisms with any aspect of your week on the Constellation. It was a great trip! We spoke to people on the Princess lines at some of the ports and found out they had many criticisms with their ships (ex: the Princess cruises weren’t given pool towels). Many small details on the Constellation contributed to a very good trip. I credit Celebrity and the Constellation staff for this. Our experience on this ship make it difficult for us to choose another ship or another cruise line in fear that it won’t be just as good.
On the last night of our trip, we placed our luggage in the hallway by midnight. We had received papers telling us about what to expect for disembarkation in the morning and where we needed to gather. On our last morning, we got up early and left our cabin by 8:30 AM. We had a wonderful buffet breakfast and loved the view next to the window. We had to meet in an assigned public area (we were in the theater) – this was based on flight times. They called the “grey” group (which was us) and then we disembarked the ship. Taxis were awaiting you as you leave the ship (but we had a transfer back to the airport). The whole process took very little time and was extremely organized!
We are looking forward to our next cruise in January 2007 which will be sailing in the Western Caribbean. We are very excited to be sailing on this wonderful ship once again!
We just returned from the Constellation's Baltic cruise, and it was outstanding. We booked over a year in advance, so we had plenty of time to plan, generate expectations and something to look forward too, of which we were not disappointed. The weather was almost perfect, just a little cool the first couple of days, but no rain for two weeks. We selected June to get ahead of the summer tourist season and for the weather, and could not have been more pleased. We arrived in Dover a day early to allow for the time adjustment and to avoid any possible flight issues, which needs to be considered when long distances to take a cruise. We stayed at the Castle Guest House (http://castle-guesthouse.co.uk/#), a delightful B&B owned and operated by Liz & Rod. We traveled to and from Dover from London with Steve Knibbs Dover Airport transfers (firstname.lastname@example.org), which proved to be very reliable and we very much enjoyed his service and conversations. We also spent the better part of our day touring Dover and had a great time, especially at the castle.
Boarding the Constellation was a breeze. We arrived atthe ship at 10:30, after just ten minutes in the terminal and we were on board. Celebrity seems to have this process down to perfection.
The ship is in immaculate condition, with everything extremely clean and polished. Having been on many Celebrity ships in the past, they seem to keep their ships in top condition. We had a balcony room on deck seven mid-ship, which was quite comfortable and adequate. Having traveled with our friends before, we get rooms on the opposite sides so we can take advantage of each others balcony for viewing opportunities and evening get togethers.
The food on board was simply the best we have ever had on any cruise, it was outstanding, along with the service. You have a choice of five entrees at each meal, and it was a hard decision on which to choose, quite often we would have to get an extra selection for the four of us to sample, and the same for the desserts. We did go to the Oceanliners specialty restaurant one night, and I would highly recommend it, the food and service were outstanding. The buffet selection for breakfast and luch was also quite good, both in selection and quality. The salad bar and Pasta station was open 24 hours a day, and you also could get hamburgers, etc. from noon until late in the evening.
Entertainment on the ship was also very good. We attended the shows every night and very much enjoyed them. Nick, the Cruise Director was the best that we have experienced, we could all use a shot of his enthusiasm.
The ports of call were the main reason we selected this cruise. However, we were a little disappointed that Celebrity changed the itinerary about two months before our cruise, and reduced our port times considerably, this is our only complaint. As an example, Gdansk was added to the itinerary and we only had about six hours in port, and the city is an hours drive away, it just didn't do it justice.
I'm not going to elaborate on every port, but each one was wonderful, especially Stockholm and St. Petersburg. Don't miss the sail into Stockholm, the three hours up the fjord is prettier than the inside passage to Alaska. We made our own arrangements in each port except Gdansk, were we took a ship's tour because of the time constraints and the distance. The trip to Berlin had some issues, as you can see below, in addition it is a very long and tiring day, and is not for the weary traveler.
In St. Petersburg we used Red October for a two day tour, and it was an outstanding two days, the highlight of our trip and one that we will remember forever. We had a great tour guide, whose English was impeccable and we were also joined by three other delightful couples who we connected with through Cruise Critic before the cruise. Red October's store is also a great place for souvenirs and gifts.
While our experiences of making our own shore arrangements have served us quite well over the years of travel and cruising, just a word to the wise, you can encounter problems. We initially booked a tour of Berlin for the four of us through Berlin Stadtfuehrungen Sightseeing Tours, however after connecting with others through Cruise Critic, who also booked with the same company, we cancelled our tour several months in advance to join with the other group. After arriving in Berlin following a 2-1/2 hour bus ride, the tour company then advised me that they did not accept my cancellation, despite my four e-mails to them, of which I showed them copies. They then held our group hostage and would not return us to the ship until I paid additional funds. This put a damper on what should have been a terrific day. We're now protesting the charges through our credit card company. Be careful who you book with, unfortunately their are company's who lack integrity.
The debarkation process at the end was as good as the boarding process. We were off the ship by 7:00, luggage was easy to find, and we were quickly on our way to London for more fun.
As I said at the beginning, this was an outstanding cruise, and I would highly recommend it to all. Now, to start planning our next journey.
What an adventure! We are both in our early 50's. On this cruise we took my wife's 90 year old father with us. We have been on 9 previous cruises. We arrived in San Juan on the day of sailing. We had purchased Celebrity transfers from the airport to the cruise terminal. This was about the smoothest embarkation that we have had.
We got right on the ship. Our bags arrived in our cabin within an hour. We had a Concierge Class cabin, 8139. They do tell you that this is part of the Concierge service. We were handed a glass of either champagne or orange juice. We headed off to the buffet area for lunch. We have been told by cruise critic members that this was one of the bestships they have sailed on.
The ship is laid out nicely. My wife's reaction was that it was a letdown. We had sailed last year on the Jewel of the Seas in the Baltic, and she felt that the Jewel was much more elegant and "modern" looking and much more to her taste. After a few trips around, I found thatthe ship was very easy to navigate. The dining room and buffet areas are in the back and the Celebrity Theatre is up front. With the Casino and shops in the middle, we were all set. We did not visit many of the bars but found the Cova Cafe to be very interesting. You could always find the captain there in the afternoon. He told us he really enjoyed their coffee. We did have a chance to go to the hospital as my father in law came down with bronchitis. The staff there was very friendly. They took great care of him. I just think he enjoyed the young nurses. Just remember that it is on a cash only basis even with
the medical insurance with the cruise line. You need to pay all the money up front, then put your claim in for a refund. In port, you will be leaving from either deck 2 or 3 or both. I was disappointed in the game room since there were few games to play. The best room was the computer room on deck 4. It was always busy, but was open 24 hours. There is also a computer classroom on Deck 6 which you could also use. They hold classes on different subjects. We took a class on downloading your digital camera. At the end ofthe cruise, they would help you load your saved pictures onto a CD. I do want to mention that the casino was not overly busy. I did ok on the craps table as I had it to myself almost every evening. They had only one ping pong table. We really enjoyed playing here after dinner or in the morning.
This was a Concierge Class cabin. We only paid about $100USD over a regular one. It was larger and had some nice features. There were fresh flowers in the room (not changed the entire cruise) and bathroom (which were changed).
The towels are thicker compared to the Holiday Inn type towels you will get in the regular cabins. My wife felt that the rugs were getting threadbare and needed changing. She also said the mildew in the shower and bath could've been taken care of easily but wasn't. We were dissappointed with no towel animals. The cabin attendant, Luna, and her assistant George, were tremendous. They took care of everything we needed. They kept the cabin very clean. We always enjoyed talking with them although Luna was the most talkative.
She was always on top of things. Can't say enough about them. The balcony was very nice as the chairs had a nice pad on them. I didn't like the binoculars that were in the cabin. They did not work well. My father in law did not like the pull out couch. He hurt his back on it the first day. We were able to get him into another cabin the next day. It was an inside cabin. He still complained about that bed as being lumpy and slanting toward one side.
CRUISE CRITIC CONNECTIONS PARTY
It was very nice to finally meet everyone we have been writing to on the threads on Cruise Critic. We enjoyed the one on the Jewel and thought thiswould be the same. It was not. We were given an invitation to meet at Michael's Club on the first sea day in the morning. All they had for us was coffee. There was no representative from the ship talking to us. Only the cruise director was there for a very brief time. We only know this because the cruise director told us later he was there. On the Jewel we had pastries and there were drawings for prizes. I know this is not a big deal, but I felt it added to the enjoyment. We had a great turnout. I think we had over 40 show up. There was a group shot taken by the cruise photographer. When I questioned the Cruise Director why it was not a bigger celebration, he told me that it is not done that way on Celebrity.
We had a early problem in the main dining room We had asked for a window table for 4 when we booked 8 months earlier. We found our table to be in the center of the main dining room. I spoke to the assistant head waiter. He found me a window table right away on deck 5 (upper level). It was a great table. Our waiter was Ottoneil (from Guatemale)and the assistant was Made (from Bali). They were very good. Made always had a smile on his face and knew exactly what we wanted. I had bought a coke card (don't bother with this unless you buy alot of cokes). I had ordered a coke at each meal. We had one bar server always bring me two cokes at the beginning of the meal. The food at dinner we rated good to very good. I always enjoyed the different selections of soup and appetizers. We both finally settled on getting Ceasar salads every night. My father in law felt that the fish dishes were overcooked. Mine were ok. One night the steak was tuff and even the second one they sent out was worse. Other than that, the food was good. The desserts and breads were always the best. I think this was also true on the Jewel.
The buffet was a very clean enviornment. The servers all wore gloves. The buffet selections left alot to be desired. On several occasions, we could not find anything we liked. We ended up going for cheeseburgers,fries, and pizza which were good. I can tell you those were the best fries I have ever tasted on a ship. The ice cream bar was very good. Great flavors in sherbet. Room service was good, delivered when ordered. We tried it for breakfast one day and found the food was not hot. I tried the sushi bar a few nights. It was very good. Another problem I found was there was not a good selection of cereals(breakfast). Mainly bran cereals and corn flakes. A box of Cherios would've been a welcome change.
This is where Celebrity shines. All the staff we encountered were friendly and always willing to help. Even the captain was accessible. Anytime we asked for anything, we received it. One point we didn't like was the cruise director, Ed Rojas. He was very nice when you met him, but I felt he was extremely too low key. Kudo's to the computer staff. They were always willing to help you out. Ariel was extremely knowledgeable and was always available for you. The rest of the computer staff was equally helpful and took the time to work with you if you had a problem.
Since this was our first transatlantic, we didn't realize the significance of the many sea days. I didn't like them. After day two, I was relaxed enough and was looking for some land action. I think our next cruises will be more port intensive. There were not many activities on those days. We did have guest lecturers. Marlin Fitzwater was the best. He was humorous.
The others were dry. And all of them were republicans. We would like to see some diversity in this area. I do want to let you know that during the entire voyage, the seas were very smooth or slightly rolling. We avoided any potential storms as they sailed around them. Even the Bay of Biscay was calm.
Too many production shows and not enough comedians. We felt that this was a very weak area and geared to an older crowd. A few highlights were Elliot Finkel, a pianist and Paul Boland and Marlise Boland, a husband and wife team whose performance was very good. He did musical impressions and she was a singer. The Celebrity singers and dancers were very talented but how
many production shows can you see on a cruise?
Because we were Concierge Class, we were able to get off the ship early. We also were able to meet in the Cinema as the rest of the ship met in the Celebrity Theatre. They had danish and coffee for us there. When we got off, there were plenty of porters to help you load your luggage and bring it to the bus. It went very smoothly. The whole process took less than 30 minutes. Overall, I felt that this was a good ship with great service. While I would never do another transatlantic, I would probably sail on this ship again with a different itinerary.
A Disappointment. After all the good reviews and ratings I had seen concerning this ship, it did not live up to expectations.
The worst aspect of the cruise was the lack of activities. There were no audience participation events or game shows in the evening - the only things to do were to eat and go to the theatre. The entertainers were OK and the shows mixed (one very good but others poor). Dancing was very limited because there was only one very small dancefloor which was in a poor condition. The only large dancefloor on the ship is in the large lounge taken over by Cirque De Soleil - this was not used at all during the day and at night became the disco - the Cirque de Soleil 'Experience' is a bit of a non-event, just 5 people in costumes trying to interact with the passengers.
Also poor was the buffet. There was only pizza and pasta in the evening, and at breakfast and lunch it was far too disorganized, resulting in a lot of waiting in line - the buffet staff were not very good either.
The cruise directorand his assistant were noticeable by their absence, adding to the overall feeling of disinterest in the passengers.
The only things above average about the cruise were the restaurant service and the Thelassotherapy pool.
Other passengers who had sailed with Celebrity before told me that this cruise was not typical, but I will think twice before cruising with them again.
My husband and I just returned from a 7-day cruise on the Constellation departing from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I want to begin by saying that the cruise ship was incredible! The service was excellent through out the ship. The staff planned everything perfectly!
The entertainment was extraordinary! Besides the fantastic dancers and singers, there was an unbelievable aerial acrobatic duet, Dominique and Clarisse. (a Cirque Du Soleil kind of performance extraordinaire!!) A fantastic string quartet played in the café most evenings and on the formal nights in the dinning room, which added to the overall elegance of the cruise. The Bar at the Edge of the Earth, which was created by Cirque Du Soleil, was a unique experience. (You must try it!!)
The staff took every measure to keep the ship as germ free as possible. The railings, walls and elevator buttons were constantly cleaned with antibacterial spray. The public bathrooms throughout the ship were impressive with fabulous fixtures, flowers and fresh rolled hand towels for drying. There was even an attendant in the public bathrooms on formal nights.
The food was good, very good but not excellent. However, the pastries were exceptional! Theluncheon buffet could use some improvements. (The hamburgers and pizza were over cooked) I realize that preparing food in such large quantities is difficult and this makes it hard to get the food prepared the way you would like it such as medium rare. One evening, we dined at the specialty restaurant, Ocean Liners, and it was superb!! Overall, this was a fantastic cruise experience with sophistication and elegance. I can't wait to cruise on the Constellation again!
This review is the first of two parts of the CIRQUE DU SOLEIL inaugural cruise on Celebrity CONSTELLATION, out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, December 4, 2004.
This reviewer is a semi-retired frequent traveler, not in the travel industry, 58 years old, and has cruised 15 times over the last few years (7 of those on Celebrity). This itinerary was the traditional seven night Southern Caribbean, and it will change a bit in 2005 (more about that later). This was also a Captain's Club reunion cruise and included the presence of the top executives of Celebrity and their parent (Royal Caribbean) corporation for the Cirque du Soleil (CdS) launch. (The Celebrity execs are an innovative and good-humored bunch, but more about that later too). The CdS corporation was also heavily represented, since this represented a major investment by both Celebrity and CdS.
In addition to details about this particular cruise, in the second part of my review (which will follow) I shall also provide a good deal of information about cruising in general, some recent changes in the Constellation and Celebrity, and extensive activity and port information for the value-conscious (read budget) cruiser (itis possible to enjoy each island thoroughly for only a few dollars). Because this is a lengthy review, I will HIGHLIGHT a topic for each section so that the reader can scroll to areas of personal interest and skip those areas of less interest.
The BOTTOM LINE is that this is a wonderful cruise on a great ship which offers premium everything (food, service, entertainment, public areas, etc.) at an incredibly reasonable price. I will give more details about pricing and how best to obtain good values when cruising in the second part of this review. We paid about $560 US per person for two, including port charges and taxes for an outside stateroom. Considering the quality of the cruise, I doubt there is a better value in the entire cruise industry at the moment.
Of the three Caribbean cruise ITINERARIES (Eastern, Western, and Southern), my wife and I prefer the Southern because the islands are smaller and more congenial, and the shore-side experience seems more authentically "Caribbean". There now seems to be so much off-shore banking and other dealings by financial bigwigs (read hedge funds and tax avoiders) and real estate developers on the Eastern and Western Caribbean islands that sometimes the heart and soul of those islands is hidden behind the international shops, the condos, and the casinos.
Our itinerary changed a bit between the time we reserved and sailed, due to storm damage on some of the islands. No problem -- all of the islands here are enjoyable and each seems to have its own special flavor. The one drawback to a Southern itinerary is the cost of AIR FARE to San Juan, PR, which is the departure port. For those of us in the midwestern and western US, week-end airfare to SJU is easily $600 US and up, which is more than some outside and inside cabins cost for the entire cruise (including port charges).
For the budget traveler, I suggest enrolling in an air fare search engine such as Travelocity (there are several other good ones, but I like Travelocity's option of e-mail notification when fares decrease). One can buy air tickets at the best current price when booking the cruise, and then contact the airline for an AIR FARE REBATE (usually in the form of an MCO or credit coupon) when the air fare drops by $50 US or more. Some airlines charge $25 for this credit service, some don't, but in each case you will have to ask for it, it is not automatic. Our air fare started at $630, we bought at $550, and got a rebate at $460. One can book air tickets through cruise lines, but in general their prices are not competitive with internet air fares. The advantage to booking air tickets through the cruise line is that if there is a flight deviation or missed connection, the cruise line will usually get you to the ship one way or another (which is why the first port of call on most itineraries is often the most convenient and the least interesting).
This SHIP LEAVES San Juan at 2300, so that even late-arriving passengers should be able to reach the ship in time. If one prefers, one can always go a day early and spend a night in San Juan. Hotel prices there are a bit high, but the old town provides an enjoyable day of pre-cruise sightseeing.
Also, Celebrity is reportedly very generous to those passengers with EARLY MORNING RETURN FLIGHTS (the ship docks at 0700 and our return flight departs at 0955). If you show your early morning return air tickets to the guest relations desk, they are supposed to give you priority in disembarking (we shall see, I am writing this portion of my review onboard the ship).
Deciding WHAT TO PACK seems to be a problem for most cruisers (quite a few of our new friends on board this cruise reported paying the stiff overweight baggage fees airlines now charge). My wife and I travel with only one carry-on (regulation airline size of 21x13x8 inches) each and we have a great time whether we are spending a few weeks on land or on sea. The secret is that your fellow cruisers are so interested in what they look like, they pay little attention to what you look like.
MICROFIBER suits and sports clothes now provide as much style and convenience as any cruiser could want. My wife and I each pack two outfits in addition to the one we wear on our flights. I have a black suit, a sport jacket with dress slacks, a polo shirt and a dress shirt, a pair of nylon pants for adventuring ashore, plus three sets of underwear, a Gore-tex type rain jacket (rarely needed), a swimsuit or two, one pair of black shoes and one pair of Teva type sandals, a sun hat, and a hanging wash kit (the hanging style is great for small cruise ship bathrooms).
My wife carries parallel items. For evening wear she may take a long black dress, but more often takes tuxedo style cocktail slacks with a silk or sequined jacket, a designer jacket for informal wear, and a black sweater and silk type blouse for casual wear. For shore adventures she takes a pair of nylon pants, a pair of shorts, and a bathing suit. She takes one pair of black heels, one pair of joggers, and one pair of Teva type sandals.
We both carry our own snorkels and masks, lycra bodysuits (for sun protection while snorkeling and swimming) and a day pack to hold all of our beach and pool items. I carry my money and documents in a fanny pack (and a money belt for shore excursions) and she uses a small leather shoulder bag which doubles as a purse while onboard.
Mirabile dictu, we do just fine and sometimes even find we have not worn all of the clothes we brought along. The secret is to do a bit of LAUNDRY every day or two. Celebrity is one of those cruise lines which do not have self-service laundry rooms on its ships. We simply hand wash items in our cabin sink, wring and rap them in those great fluffy cruise towels, and hang them to dry overnight on plastic hangers which we use in packing anyway. The clean microfiber or nylon or poly/cotton blend clothes we pack are always ready to wear the next morning, if needed.
When ARRIVING AT SJU, or any cruise port, we generally take a taxi to the cruise ship. The cruise lines all have representatives greeting incoming passengers, and we always confirm with them which pier the ship is at so that we can tell our driver. That is the advantage of traveling light - we do not even have to wait for baggage claim. If you prefer, you can book transfers from the cruise line.
On this cruise, the ship was docked at the PAN AMERICAN PIER, which is located about half way between the SJU airport and the old town. SJU airport taxis are rate-controlled by a dispatcher. Make certain you visit the dispatcher's curbside booth before getting into any taxi. The dispatcher will give you a multi-copy voucher listing the destination and the price of cab fare, which you then pay the driver on arrival (plus tip of course). In this case the pier was about $17 fare and $3 tip for the two of us and our two bags. You keep a copy of the voucher, which lists the cab's license number in case there are any problems or you forget something in the cab.
AT THE PIER, a pleasant surprise is the discount LIQUOR STORE which you can visit after checking in but before boarding. They offered wine at two bottles for $8 US (we got one delicious Chilean Chardonnay and one awful French Sauvignon blanc - it is caveat emptor so choose what you know, if possible). We also got Freixenet brut at $6 US per bottle. The wine can be drunk in your cabin or (for a corkage fee of about $15 US) in the ship's restaurants. Hard liquor is also available pier-side, but this is more difficult to carry on board unless one has only a very small quantity and is very discreet. Soft drinks are also available at the store, but the cruise line has an unlimited soft drink option for about $5 US per day, which is great for kids or anyone who drinks more than 4 sodas per day. I give kudos to Celebrity and RCCL for providing this great pre-boarding service. I suggest you not abuse it, or it may disappear.
Once on board, my wife and I have FAVORITE LOCATIONS AND DINING VENUES, and I will explore these with you in the second part of this review. Instead, I will close this part of my review with information about Celebrity's well-advertised new entertainment product.
For those who know the Constellation, the big news on this cruise was that Celebrity launched its new association with the Canadian-based CIRQUE DU SOLEIL entertainment group, well-known to Americans for its thrilling combination of acrobatics and new-age artistry seen in traveling venues across the US and in a permanent home in Las Vegas.
For several years, cruise lines have branded their cuisine with the names of famous chefs (Michel Roux, Jacques Pepin, et al.). Celebrity is the first, to my knowledge, to brand part of its onboard activities with a famous entertainment group. The idea is brilliant, but the execution is still in flux (more about that shortly).
After great expense and much effort, the 11-deck forward lounge on the Constellation has been converted to the "BAR AT THE END OF THE EARTH". Rather than presenting its usual acrobatic acts, Cirque du Soleil (CdS) emphasizes that this is an "experience" rather than a "performance", and they add that it is an experience in evolution. We attended three times (well, two and a quarter to be honest) while on the cruise, and noticed it was smoother and more refined each time, but still seemed a bit cerebral, lacking a story line or anything one could really relate to or empathize with.
THE LOUNGE has been draped in white muslin and theatrical scrims so that laser light shows can be reflected off of almost all surfaces. The bar has been retained, but now has something of an "arctic white" appearance. The perimeter seating has been replaced by curtained platforms with cushions (which may be a problem in Alaska or Norway, where these seats are prime nature-viewing locations). The remaining seating has been draped with white linen covers. The stage and dance area have also been curtained with moveable scrims that show projected images relating to the "characters" which appear and disappear over the course of an evening. We were told by another passenger that the investment in décor alone was more than $1 million US.
The lounge features several imaginary (symbolic?) CHARACTERS, each with an elaborate and ingeniously lit costume (one looks like a sea anemone, one a mushroom, one an intestinal parasite, one.. well, you get the picture). Each appears from behind the scrim, dancing and relating to the images on the scrim and the synchronous new-age music. The characters are not recognizable (to me at least) as anything from literature, history, or even the natural world. There is no real narrative associated with any of the characters - again, this is an "atmosphere" or "happening" and not a story or performance in the usual sense. The effect is something like a friendly space bar in the early the Star Wars movies.
This still is a bar, and drinks are served by an agile and (of course) gracious Celebrity staff dressed in Ewok-style hooded brown costumes. As usual, smoking is allowed on the port side (including the bar area), so you may wish to choose your seating accordingly. The music is very loud (as on all cruise ship venues, not just Celebrity's, but more about dealing with that later).
The first night of the cruise, the BAR AT THE EDGE OF THE EARTH was open only to the cruise line representatives for the launch. The second night there was a free preview for Captains Club cruisers, and the following nights there were "masquerade parties" at which those purchasing tickets ($30 per person, mask included, bookable in advance by your travel agent) were requested to wear white and were provided with masks (left in your stateroom or selected at the new CdS shop onboard). Most cruisers were elegantly clad in white, bit one iconoclastic cruiser wore his bathrobe - the essence of "thinking outside the box" when good manners generally preclude wearing one's bathrobe outside the stateroom.
I believe that in the future the CdS lounge experience will be free. Each visit we made was essentially the same format, so attending a masked (ticketed) showing is not necessary.
What was the RECEPTION OF THE WHOLE CdS VENTURE by the cruisers? Well, there was surprisingly little discussion of it (no buzz) by our fellow cruisers after the event (except for one elite-category Captain's Club lady who wanted her money back because she bought a ticket and was also given a masquerade ticket free). At the end of the cruise, all masquerade tickets were refunded.
MY IMPRESSION is that CdS is best known and loved for its acrobatics, and its "atmospherics" when viewed alone are too artsy-fartsy for most Americans, many of whom unfortunately have been "Disneyfied" into homogeneity.
I think Celebrity was a generous host and investor in the project, which is brilliant in concept, but I think that CdS fell short in the product it has provided so far. I say "so far" because I think that the product can be rescued by doing some re-programming. I think most audiences want something they can relate to - preferably a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this case, real inspiration might be found in the delightful and awe-inspiring lectures of the ship's oceanographic lecturer who demonstrated that nothing exceeds the beauty and ingenuity of the natural world. Why not base the CdS experience on creatures of the sea? It does not have to be dumbed down to a Little Mermaid or Sponge Bob Squarepants, but should have something an audience can relate too.
Perhaps it did not help that the CdS "family" on board this cruise was quite large, and although friendly, they seemed to be a bit self-indulgent both on and off stage. Ironically, the one awesome CdS experience was provided by their sole female gymnast/acrobat/adagio dancer who gave a short performance with recognizable CdS style a few times during the cruise. We shall see what the future brings to the Celebrity/Cirque du Soleil marriage. In the meantime, see it and judge for yourself.
(Part two, including cruise and shore details, follows)
This review is the second installment of two about the Celebrity CONSTELLATION, Southern Caribbean itinerary, Dec. 4-11, 2004. The first part covered pre-cruise planning, embarkation, and the premier showing of Celebrity's new Cirque du Soleil experience. This part covers the ship itself, onboard activities and entertainment, Celebrity's Captain's Club, a BUDGET GUIDE TO SHORE EXCURSIONS, and disembarkation in San Juan. As before, major topics are HIGHLIGHTED to assist in topic searches.
The Constellation is at the large end of the medium-sized cruise ship spectrum at 90,000 tons. This size is the largest we care for, since the mega-ships (100,000 tons and up) have a reputation for diminishing returns in their quality of dining, service, and efficiency. Celebrity is in the planning stages for new ships, and hopefully they will add smaller rather than larger ships to their fleet. Smaller cruise ships allow greater flexibility in itineraries and port access without sacrificing comfort or onboard activities.
The exterior colors of the Constellation have been changed, making the Celebrity fleet more uniform in exterior appearance. The previous blue hull and gold swath of Millennium class ships, which I liked, is now a white hull with a wide blue swath like the previous Century class ships. If you fly into San Juan on the day of departure, you may see the ship docked at the Pan American pier (near the Isla Grande private airport) from the left side airplane windows just before landing at the main SJU airport.
Much has already been written about the Constellation's cabins and public areas, so I will keep further descriptions to a minimum.
In general, the PUBLIC AREAS are stylish in an elegant, post-modernist sort of way. I think they are among the handsomest in the cruise industry. There is very little of the Las Vegas style over-the-top glitz here (with the exception of the casino, of course). Think international boutique hotel atmosphere instead. Some carpeting and décor have been updated since the ship was built four years ago, so it still looks new and is very well maintained.
The ship's own ART COLLECTION is interesting and even edgy, far better than the art being sold in its onboard art auctions (which appeal to shoppers who prefer decorative art). It is worth some free time while onboard just to explore the collection throughout the ship - they have major works by Botero and Chihuly to name just two pleasant surprises.
As I extensively described in the first part of this review, the Reflections lounge on 11 deck forward has been redecorated as the Cirque du Soleil "Bar at the Edge of the Earth" experience. The 10 deck forward GYM equipment seems new, or at least in better shape than I recall it from previous cruises. We have never used the SPA services, which are reported to be good but which we find very expensive (it is easy to spend a few hundred dollars US in a day there). The MUSIC LISTENING ROOM "Notes" has been replaced by an ACUPUNCTURE venue. The THEATER is unchanged, with great sightlines but over-amplified sound as usual (more about dealing with the ship-wide entertainment decibel problem later). The dining areas, grand foyer, shops, photo gallery, library, and alternate dining (Oceans Restaurant) also seem unchanged. There is still NO SELF-SERVICE LAUNDERETTE on Celebrity ships, so bring microfiber or other easy care clothing. The photographers are polite and very capable. Our shipmates seemed to be happy with the formal portraits taken, in spite of the high prices typical of most cruise line photographers. The INTERNET venue has speedy links but relatively high prices (75 US cents per minute for internet use, but one can write WORD documents off-line, then copy and paste them into your e-mail messages while logged on the net -- the excellent internet staff will show you how, or you can send and receive simple e-mails at a fixed rate). There are also good WORKSHOPS on internet use and digital photography skills, some free and others for a fee.
As on all Millennium class ships, the CABINS are efficient in size, with extensive mirrors adding to a sense of spaciousness. Balconies are available with a large percentage of the cabins. Closets and storage space are more than adequate (remember there is a good amount of room under the bed for suitcases and miscellany). The bathrooms are small, and the regular showers are especially narrow (my shoulders touch the wall and the curtain when showering, but upper grade cabins have tubs and wider showers). Whether one wants an inside, outside, balcony, or suite is a matter of taste and budget. In general, prices are so reasonable on this itinerary (especially in the pre-Christmas low season) that this is one cruise where one can usually afford a better cabin category, if that is important to you. Port and starboard cabin locations are immaterial on this itinerary since sights and docking vary from port to port. Be aware that the new room safes re-program with each closure. At each closure, one enters ones personal 4 digit code followed by the # key. If you slip and enter a "wrong" number without watching the screen, you might not be able to open the safe again without help. The room mini-bar is convenient, but watch those prices.
The CRUISERS on this itinerary were mostly late middle-aged, with only a few younger families with children since school was still in session. We met more Latin and African Americans and more Europeans on this cruise than we had on any previous Caribbean cruise, which suggests that Celebrity is wisely broadening its market appeal.
The SHIP'S STAFF tends to be East European in the dining and bar areas, and Asian in the cabin areas. All speak English and all are extremely well trained - they certainly treated us "famously", as the advertising promises. It is ironic that each staff member we spoke with was as interesting as any of the cruisers we met. The staff members were working rather than vacationing on board largely by the circumstance of being born in a developing part of the world -- if born in America, they would probably be professionals in a variety of fields.
SECURITY onboard has improved in subtle ways. You might not notice it, but there is a guard watching the pool area from the deck above during much of the day. A few ports actually did verify our photo id at the pier (we carry a Xerox of the photo page of our passports - we never take our passports ashore). I hope in addition that there are security cameras in the public areas. My wife was robbed while alone on deck during a previous cruise, and the newly upgraded security is more than welcome.
The CUISINE on Celebrity's ships, in addition to the service, is what has made their reputation and set them a notch ahead of the competition. Dinner in the main dining room is wonderful entertainment in itself. The choices for each course are inspired, and the preparation and presentation provide the highlight of each cruise day. To be honest, the main buffet line is standard for the industry, but the specialty buffets at each meal can be delightful - custom omelets and Belgian waffles; specialty salads; good carvery meats including the honey-baked ham; glorious breads and rolls including sticky buns, panettone, light-as-air-bagels (an oxymoron but true); homemade ice cream; Aqua Spa lean cuisine; sushi; orgasmically wonderful patisserie desserts; etc., etc.
To AVOID GAINING WEIGHT, we usually have a light buffet breakfast (usually fruit and an egg-alternative omelet), a sweet roll and ship's tap water while adventuring on shore, a late Aqua Spa lunch, a pre-dinner snack (a slice of pizza or sushi), and a full late dinner in the main dining room. The latter is healthful because portions are controlled and one can have something at each course without feeling full. We have never tried the surcharged ($30 US) alternative restaurant, since the main dining room has been so enjoyable on all of our cruises.
Everyone has FAVORITE VENUES AND ACTIVITIES onboard, and on the Constellation my wife and I particularly enjoy:
---The AQUA SPA HEALTHFUL BUFFET, which is hidden behind the sculpture in the spa pool (remember, the best lean cuisine is behind the fat lady) and is open throughout most of the day. This is a great alternative to the bulk food sometimes found in shipboard buffets. It is also the place where you can find papaya and lime wedges for breakfast (which is my favorite part of any tropical vacation -- I live on papaya in Tahiti).
---The LIBRARY is small but has an enjoyable collection for those who just want to relax with a book. It has a few books in several languages (Spanish, German, French) Celebrity deserves credit adding the services of a very pleasant librarian (Patrick) rather than a rotating (uninformed) library staff.
---MICHAELS CLUB looks like a gentlemen's smoking club, but fortunately the main part of it is smoke-free and features Perry, a very talented vocalist with an excellent voice, perfect pitch, a knowledge of almost every lyric and melody ever written, a campy delivery, and a wicked sense of humor. We are not drinkers, but we spent part of every evening here.
---AFTERNOON SNACKS IN THE 10-DECK BUFFET AREA to cover the gap between lunch and late-seating (8:30pm) dinner, from exquisite pastries or homemade ice creams at tea time, to pizza or sushi a little later.
---ENRICHMENT LECTURES by educators/naturalists in the ship's cinema/lecture area. We enjoyed the oceanographer's several lectures about sea-life and life at sea. Most cruise lines underestimate their cruisers' intelligence (or maybe not) by providing more lectures about shopping than anything reasonably enriching. I give credit to Celebrity for exceeding our expectations once again.
---WATCHING CRUISERS POSE FOR THEIR PHOTO PORTRAITS on formal nights is one of our favorite pre-dinner activities. Simply take a seat near one of the photo shoots and watch your fellow cruisers look their best. Then return to the photo gallery the next day and view the results.
---CAPTAINS CLUB AMENITIES were exceptional on this cruise, perhaps because it was a club reunion cruise or because it was the Cirque de Soleil launch with all the VIPs from the cruise line's headquarters in attendance. In addition to the usual chocolate on the pillow, as "SELECT LEVEL" club members (five to nine previous Celebrity cruises), we received a complimentary bottle of private label wine in an elegant travel carrier, CdS T-shirts and masks, a travel document organizer, a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries and marzipan roses at one bedtime, an internet fee credit, and invitations to complementary wine tastings, behind the scenes tours, several complementary cocktail parties, a complementary champagne breakfast buffet, etc., etc.
It certainly is worth joining Celebrity's CAPTAIN'S CLUB, since every repeat cruiser/club member will get some extra treats. Membership is free, I believe, (there was a small fee years ago when we joined) and one gets credit for each cruise, regardless of cruise length or cabin category.
ENTERTAINMENT onboard this cruise was the best we have experienced. They really assembled the A-team, including a vocalist from London's West End, an illusionist, an impressionist/comedian/singer, a comedian, a dance/acrobatic duo, and excellent musicians in the ship's orchestra and lounges, including a string quartet, a guitarist, a harpist, and a pianist/singer. The cruise director, Eric Bohus, did a fine job in organizing all the entertainment, and we were delighted that he scheduled some of the performers before dinner for second seating guests. My only complaint was that virtually every venue (from pool to lounges to theater to gym) was over-amplified to the point of auditory pain. As a result, I carry EARPLUGS everywhere while on board, and find that using them brings it all down to a reasonable mezzo forte (and they are great on buses and planes, to eliminate travel fatigue).
Before I outline our favorite inexpensive shore activities, I will give just a little information about DISEMBARKATION. This is very well organized, with none of the overhead paging and uncertainty that were prevalent in years past. One is given the usual color-coded luggage tags, leaves suitcases in the hall the last night of the cruise, and is told a time and a location to assemble in the morning with your disembarkation group. Those with early return flights (up to 10am that morning) can show the guest relations desk the tickets, and they will give you "group 1" priority disembarkation tags for luggage and carry-ons. This group assembles at 0715 and disembarks at 0730, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Since we had no luggage other than our airline carry-ons (one each), and since we CHECKED-IN for our flight the day before over the internet (if you do not know how, learn this before you travel next time -- it allows you to go directly to security screening at the airport if you have no bags to check), we were off the ship at 0730, through pier-side customs at 0735, at the airport via taxi by 0755, and through security and at the gate at 0805. Granted, our travel style is not for everyone, but we like the flexibility and speed of traveling light - the airport was quiet that early, before the masses of cruisers had arrived. For others, I would say that a 1000 flight is reasonable, but much earlier than that may be risky.
Now for the whole reason to cruise the Caribbean - the PORTS OF CALL:
We have found that our enjoyment of each island bears no relation to how much we spend on our activities ashore. In fact, LOW-COST INDEPENDENT ACTIVITIES ASHORE are often the most enjoyable. What follows are our favorites for the various islands on this itinerary. By the time you cruise, the itinerary will have changed (see the internet or your travel agent for the latest updates, I believe Granada will return to the itinerary in 2005 and St. Kitts in 2006), but the principles we use will still be applicable.
Our first recommendation is to buy or borrow a good TRAVEL GUIDE, such as the Lonely Planet series, covering the islands you will visit. Xerox the relevant pages and especially the MAPS, so that you can take them ashore in sections - leave the book at home. Also, ask the concierge for recommendations if you are uncertain - some cruise lines have no clue about public transport, ferry schedules, or secluded beaches, but Kevin on our cruise was well informed.
CASA DE CAMPO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC -- this port was problematic in that the ship leaves San Juan late Saturday night (for late-arriving passengers), so one has only an afternoon ashore here. The cruise line provides a free shuttle (about 30 minutes each way) from the dock to Altos de Chavon (a Disney-esque artists colony on a scenic hill above the river) and the Marina (where the few very rich locals keep their yachts and vacation homes). These destinations provide pleasant walks but not much excitement. Ironically, there is no good beach at this port (although we had a brief but pleasant swim at the nearby Militas beach hotel complex). The best local beach is at nearby Catalina Island, which some cruise lines use as their port of call but Celebrity uses as a separate shore excursion. The Dominicans have made every effort to welcome cruisers, and the efficient new dock and shuttle service are impressive.
BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS - the ship docks at the port about a mile west of town. There is a free shuttle through the port area to the terminal building, and a share taxi from there into the town center costs $1 US. Instead, we recommend walking straight ahead from the terminal for 15 minutes (about half-way into town) to the Cheapside bus terminal, where you will find cheap local buses that run along the coast. Look for the dozen or so 20 passenger yellow buses in an area across from the fish market. The east coast (Atlantic) beaches are very rough and the west coast (Caribbean) beaches are recommended. Our idea of a perfect beach is a wide strip of white sand with good shade, few people, and no wave-runners. For $1 per person, we took the Speightstown bus up the west coast and got off at Mullins beach, which is a little less than an hour's ride (ask the conductor to show you the stop and the beach access). This is a strip of clean sand with very few people, good swimming, and a restaurant and chair rental nearby for those who need it. It is quite secure, and you can leave your beach bag with anyone (or the chair rental lady) if you want to beach walk or swim for any length of time. Unfortunately in Barbados the landowners are allowed to encroach too close to the surf line. One can walk for miles north or south, but one has to use occasional high tide walkways around some intrusive walled properties. Snorkeling is not very good at this sandy beach, but if you are there around noon, you are in for a treat. About 15 minutes walk north you may see a collection of excursion boats about 500 feet offshore. They are feeding giant sea turtles for the delight of their passengers. If you are a strong swimmer (and preferably have a PFD), you can swim out (straight off the concrete pier beach area) and join them. I was there just as the boats left. The turtles swam back and forth within touching range - their carapaces were easily 5 hand spans long (almost four feet). It was dream-like, the same feeling I had when swimming with dolphins, whales, and manatees - truly a privilege of a nature. For weaker swimmers, one can hire a small boat from shore (for about $20 I believe - some people offered that alternative as I walked to the pier). The bus back to the boat is convenient since bus stops are well marked and near the beaches.
ROSEAU, DOMINICA - This was a substitution for the advertised Grenada, which the ship bypassed because of recent storm damage. Dominica is an eco-island (with no great beaches) known for its forests, waterfalls, and hiking trails. Unfortunately, public transport into the hills is not readily available when a ship is in port. The usual shared minivans turn into taxis and the rates climb to 10 times the usual fare (still reasonable for most cruisers). Instead, we walk about two blocks inland from the dock and catch a minivan south along the coast for 30 minutes ($1 US each way) to Scotts Head, a fishing village with a spit of land and a mini Rock of Gibraltar offshore (which you see as you approach the island from the south). The beach at the base of the rock is narrow and cobbled, but offers very pleasant swimming and excellent snorkeling. Simply snorkel northwards along the shoreline below the rock and you will find a fine coral-festooned wall that descends about 200 feet into the blue depths. The fish here are small - even though it is a protected area, the fishing village is too close to allow fish to grow large. This is an unsecured beach, and you would do well to leave your beach bag with someone (if you can find anyone else there). My wife takes a swim and brief snorkel, and then relaxes on shore with our gear as I snorkel for an hour or two longer. After snorkeling, it is an easy walk up a jeep trail then a well-worn path to the top of the rock, where you will have beautiful views of the village and shoreline all the way back to the ship. Minivans leave the village reasonably often and the return to the ship is no problem.
ST. JOHNS, ANTIGUA - There are two bus stations here within easy walking distance of the dock, which is downtown (there also is a secondary dock a bit farther out). Ask in town for directions to the bus terminal you want. Eastside buses go across the island to historic Nelsons Dockyard, which we did not visit this time, but which has a nice secluded beach within easy walking distance (I think the name is Pigeon Point, but ask at Nelsons for the nearest beach). We arrived on a local holiday when eastside buses were infrequent, so we took a westside bus for 20 minutes ($1 US) south to Jolly beach, which is a broad travel-poster-beautiful beach lined by attractive low-rise hotels, restaurants, and dive shops. The bus drops one just outside the resorts (this is the transport for the resort workers) and one simply has to ask directions for the public beach access. One walks through several checkpoints, the beach is so secure. There were a few wave-runners, but very few people and the water is that wonderful Caribbean blue over the white sand bottom. Snorkeling is not good at the beach, but the nearby dive shops offer snorkel tours in the early afternoon for about $10-20 US depending on how much of their equipment you need. (I did not take a boat snorkel and cannot specifically recommend it). Again, return minivans to the ship are frequent.
ST. THOMAS, USVI - This is heaven for shoppers and tourist-junk-hell for almost everyone else, although there are some nice secure beaches like Magens Bay for about $8 US taxi fare and about $3 US entry fee. If you dock in the Crown Point yacht basin instead of the usual Havensight area, consider taking a water taxi from nearby Tickles restaurant (walking distance from the ship) to Water Island. This is a local hideaway with a very quiet beach just over the island crest. The ship's concierge can give the ferry schedule. It is the antithesis of the rest of St. Thomas and is kept a quiet secret by the locals. On this cruise we took a taxi ($8 US per person tip included) and then the ferry ($3 US) from Red Hook (alternately $7 US from downtown Charlotte) to neighboring Cruz Bay, St. Johns (again, the ship's concierge can give you the ferry schedules). We have been to St. Thomas and/or St. John's almost a dozen times, and the less-developed St. Johns is infinitely more pleasant in our opinion. I think that future cruise itineraries may even spend a day at each island. In any case, watch the ferry schedule closely since you need to allow time to return to the ship. The north shore beaches on St. Johns (Hawksbill, Trunk, Cinnamon) are run by the US National Park Service and are world famous. Open air taxis will take you from the Cruz Bay ferry dock to any of these for about $4 US, or you can hike from the park headquarters building to Honeymoon beach - the rangers can give you maps and specifics. Each north shore beach has good snorkeling around the peninsulas which separate them, and some have their own snorkel trails with underwater signage (but more people). The fish are protected here and are larger and more colorful than on some other islands - with luck you might even see a Hawksbill turtle or spotted moray, both of which I saw this time.
Finally, a word about CRUISE FARES - rumor has it that RCCL/Celebrity will institute a uniform pricing policy which disallows the rebates which some cruise agents offer their clients. I do not know how this will play out, but I hope it does not backfire -- other fine cruise lines like Holland offer a very competitive product and will increase market share if their prices are much lower than Celebrity's. In any case, I recommend surfing the internet to find the itinerary, ship, and price you want. Websites like www.cruise.com or www.icruise.com are good places to start. The former seems to cover a wider array of cruise lines and the latter seems to have more detailed (by cabin category) pricing information. After you know what the price should be (and, again, the pre-Christmas season is a great time for bargains), check with your personal agent since the agencies sometimes purchase blocks of cabins to be sold by a certain date at even lower rates. Some of these agencies (and unaffiliated groups like www.cruisemates.com) have e-mail newsletters to alert you to cruise bargains. On this cruise I used Pavlus Travel's website/cruise link and booked the cruise directly on the net, down to the cabin choice) at an even further discount. You can give your credit card number over the phone if you like. Later, when we received a promotional coupon through Celebrity's Captain's Club, I simply called Pavlus and they added that credit to our final bill, which was about $560 US per person for a category 7 outside cabin (no balcony but a large window), including port charges and taxes.
What other vacation could give you so much at such a reasonable cost! But do not forget to budget for tips of about $10-15 US per passenger per day for the wonderful staff. Celebrity now offers a fixed tipping option by which one simply puts the tips on one's shipboard account. I prefer to tip personally, since I tend to be more generous than the usual guidelines (which are left in your cabin with the envelopes for tips). After all, the great staff is what makes the cruise so enjoyable. I am always angered when cruisers spend money on all sorts of tourist junk and expensive shore excursions only to short-change the people who really matter. Instead, please put your discretionary spending in the hands of those who deserve it, and don't just give them an envelope with money, write each a personal note about what you specifically enjoyed about their service. If they had been born in America, they might have been your own kids.
Last but not least, have a wonderful cruise!