Philip M. Haggerty
Occupation:Retired city attorney
Number of Cruises: 12
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: May 7th, 2004
Itinerary: Atlantic Repositioning
My name is Phil Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. I am a retired city attorney and Edith is a homemaker and retired health services provider. This would be our twelfth cruise and sixth on a Celebrity ship. We have sailed the Caribbean on Galaxy, on the defunct Commodore Lines’ Enchanted Isle, and on Norwegian Sun and HAL’s ms Veendam. We cruised on Regal Princess to the Baltic and Sun Princess to Alaska; Carnival’s Elation to the Mexican Riviera and Celebrity’s Infinity both through the Panama Canal and to Hawaii. Last year we did the Mediterranean on its sister ship Millennium. Our most adventuresome trip was around Cape Horn from Santiago to Buenos Aires on Celebrity’s Mercury. All of these cruises except the first two, Carnival’s Elation cruise and the Enchanted Isle trip, can be found on reviews on this site.
Our purpose has been to provide detailed, specific information, which might be of use to anyone contemplating a similar itinerary in particular, and to provide general information of use to neophyte cruisers. I also endeavor to compare ships and cruise lines. Of necessity, these comparisons are limited to our experience, and the opinions I express are mostly personal, flavored with comments from fellow passengers. For example, neither Edith nor I gamble, so our comments on the casino are a reflection of what others may tell us. We are not great dancers, but do a little when the venue and music are suitable. Nor are we deck loungers, spending long periods of time stretched out next to the pools, but I can report what the decks looked like. No one can do everything that a cruise ship offers, or experience all the venues provided. My e-mail address will be attached so that anyone can communicate with me concerning this review, or any other cruising thoughts or experiences that they want to share.
WHY THIS CRUISE?
Simply put, we really wanted to sail across the ocean. The Pacific is too big, and the opportunities usually involve very lengthy routes through various Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia, and finally, the Orient. I think there is an occasional rare cruise across the North Pacific to Japan. But every year most cruise lines offer what are called “repositioning” cruises to (and from) Europe across the Atlantic . These cruises arise from the fact that Baltic and Mediterranean Sea cruises can only be done economically in the summer; the Caribbean cruises are less in demand at that time; and the only way to get a ship to do the Med or the Baltic is to sail it, or “reposition” it each spring and return it each fall. The advantage for the cruiser is that you get a cruise of at least 14 days (in most cases) for a very reasonable price compared to the normal Mediterranean and Baltic cruises (which offer no discounts). And in order to sell the repositioning cruise, a certain number of port stops are thrown in. In our case the scheduled itinerary was from Baltimore (where Galaxy sails to and from the Caribbean in that season) to the Azores, Madeira, Gibraltar, Malaga, Villefranche sur Mer and debarking in Rome. Of the 14 days, six would be in port and eight at sea, the highest ratio of sea to land days we had ever experienced, and one of the major reasons why we wished to take this cruise.
There are six major areas of pre-cruise preparation - what cruise to take - insurance-how to purchase your cruise - getting to and from the ship - what to bring with you - what off-ship excursions can be pre-planned and/or pre-purchased.
There are a number of lines; in fact all major lines except Carnival; which do some European cruises, and which therefore have repositioning cruises each year. Because they are essentially “one-shot” deals; only one trip each way each year and with no choice of date or itinerary per ship; selection of the dates and routes may be the most important factor. Do you want to end up in the Mediterranean, or in Northern Europe? When can you leave? Most trips go over in May and return in August or September. What stops are offered? What ships are offered? Some of the Caribbean ships are repositioned to Alaska each year; and this venue is increasing in demand for vessels. There are fewer ships doing Mediterranean, Baltic or other European cruises so the selection is limited. We picked this trip because we like Celebrity Cruise Lines, had sailed on and enjoyed Galaxy, and very much liked the proposed itinerary.
We buy insurance, but not through the cruise line but through a firm called CSA. The rates are good, you can choose the amount (we usually do not buy the whole cost of the trip). You can select the dates to cover pre-cruise and post-cruise travel, as well as non-cruise line excursions. We buy the cruise through our travel agent in order to get the best rates available, make a more informed cabin selection, and generally have better control than trying to do it over the internet. The web can provide a lot of information, but you really need the cruise line brochure to select your cabin.
Getting to and from the ship is the greatest hassle and the most frequent source of complaints about cruise travel. If you are departing from and returning to the same city, you can almost certainly find round trip air fares on your own at less cost than the air package offered by the cruise line. However, if you have different cities for embarkation and debarkation; it is often expensive to obtain one way flights, and the cruise line may be able to do it for you at less cost. This is almost always true for long trips, although sometimes you can arrange a round trip flight that works. For example, when we went to South America, we bought a round trip ticket to and from Santiago, and when the cruise ended in Buenos Aires, we were able to catch a fairly inexpensive flight across the Andes from Buenos Aires to Santiago. Similarly, for our Baltic Tour-Cruise last year, we flew to Frankfurt round trip, bought one way tickets from Frankfurt to Budapest where the tour started and did the same from Copenhagen, where the cruise ended, to Frankfurt for the return. For this cruise I could not get a decent fare from Rome back to Phoenix, so we let Celebrity do the air connections for us. It meant that we had a red-eye from Phoenix via Detroit to Baltimore, landing the morning that the cruise started. The return was not bad however, with a decent departure time from Rome and one stop in Cincinnati. By using the cruise line we were assured of transportation from the airport to the dock, often a major consideration. So if you do your own airfare, you have to take this cost into account. The differences can be marked. You can see your ship from the San Diego airport; but it was a 45 minute bus trip from BWI to the Baltimore pier.
The other major concern was getting from the debarkation port of Civitavecchia to Rome, about 50 miles away. The cruise line will provide transfers to the airport, or to Rome if you buy one of their tours, but if you are going to stay in Rome for a few days, as we planned to, then there is a question of finding a way to get to Rome with all your baggage. When we visited Rome as part of our Mediterranean cruise, we were able to take the train there and back quite simply, but we were not carrying anything larger than a camera. Fortunately we were able to work with fellow passengers via Celebrity’s “Cruise Connection” to get a very good deal on this. We will explain this later.
Planning your clothing is also a matter requiring some care and attention to detail. This is getting more difficult since airlines are imposing weight limits even in the United States; and internal airlines in Europe may have a 20 kilo; (44 pound) per person weight limit. We had more than one couple on our cruise tour last year who paid in excess of $300.00 for overweight charges on the flight from Prague to Copenhagen.
On a transatlantic trip you may have somewhat cool, if not chilly weather at sea, followed by fairly warm port days. It is a good idea to check weather reports for your land sites. On a 14 day cruise there are three formal nights and several informal nights in which jackets were suggested for men. But we are getting pretty good at eliminating the non-essentials, limiting items like shoes, using wash and wear underwear, and using the ships laundry when necessary. Many cruise lines have self service laundries, but neither RCI nor Celebrity provide these. We had a Cruise Critic Board posting (more about that later) from someone wondering about packing her 10 dresses and 10 pairs of shoes! We look on cruises as relaxing ways to see the world, and don’t worry much about impressing people with the extent of our wardrobes.
Planning land excursions is time consuming, informative, sometimes frustrating, but almost always more economical than simply booking what the cruise line may offer.
We look at travel books, those available at our local library, and those we can browse through at our local Borders or Barnes & Noble. We also look at what the cruise lines have to offer, since they always list the length of time for each excursion. This is helpful and indeed necessary in planning your own trip if you are using your own transportation to get to the same place that the cruise tour is going. The cruise websites are getting more detailed and Celebrity also provides a slick and detailed brochure. There are tricks for using the web. Don’t simply put in “tour”, because you will bring up a wealth of the multi day tours offered by travel agencies and tour companies. Put in “day tour” or “day trip” with the name of the city, and you will get a more useful selection. You may have to use “auto rental” rather than “car rental” in Europe. Check the details on any car rental offer to see what fees and insurance is included. On this cruise we had a lot of contact with fellow passengers via the Cruise Connection; and while we did not join any of the tours that some of them worked up; others might find this useful.
THE CRUISE CONNECTION
All cruisers should be aware of and use this service. Basically it is a website set up by a firm that wants to sell cruises. But to do so, they provide a site which has a large amount of useful information, and also “boards” on which people can post notices directly related to their specific planned cruises. The site is www.cruisecritic.com.
If you click on “boards” at the menu on top; you will go into the board site. There you can register and see if your next cruise has a board working. In the case of RCI and Celebrity there is the added feature that these lines will host a party on board ship after sailing for all who have registered provided that the minimum number of 25 is reached.
While most of the time the chit-chat is casual and free wheeling, in the case of this cruise one of the members, Bev, lined up a bus in Civitavecchia to take people and their luggage to downtown Rome for 15 Euros each. Believe me, this was a great bargain, as well as a relief in knowing we could get our stuff to town. In addition, she lined up several van tours for the Azores, Gibraltar and Madeira at a savings over the cruise tours, and with the advantage of using small vans rather than large tour buses.
While we did not join her on these excursions, we used the board to find two fellow passengers to rent a car on Madeira, and several people who planned on hiking up the Rock in Gibraltar. When we sailed the Mediterranean last year on Millennium, we used the board to meet several people in Barcelona the night before we sailed and also to find a couple who shared our taxi tour with George the Greek in Athens. I just went back to the site as I was writing this, two weeks after we landed, and found post trip memos. There were more than 35 couples signed up on our board, and it is a great way to meet people.
ARRIVAL AND EMBARKATION
It is difficult and expensive to get one way air tickets from Europe to the United States, so we opted to have Celebrity make the arrangements. This also had the advantage of assuring our transportation from the Baltimore Airport (BWI) to the pier. Unfortunately we were at the mercy of Celebrity for the choice of flights, and they chose to send us by red-eye, leaving Phoenix at 10:45 on May 6 and arriving, via Detroit, in Baltimore at 8:00 A.M. on sailing day. This was not a very pleasant flight. We were among the first of more than 450 Celebrity passengers to arrive at BWI that morning, so we were put on the first bus at about 10:00, and drove through industrial Baltimore for 45 minutes to arrive at the pier at 11:00. As Captain’s Club members we had a fast check-in, but still waited in a very plain warehouse type of pier facility until noon, when boarding was allowed. We did have priority in boarding, and were in our cabin on Deck 12 shortly after noon. We went to the buffet for lunch, but it did not open until 1:00. When it did we had fish, which was warm enough, and pretty good. We returned to our cabin to meet our cabin attendant, Robbie, from the Philippines and our butler, Wilfred from India. Repositioning cruises are comparatively inexpensive for the number of days provided, so we opted for a Sky Suite. Two-thirds of these on Galaxy are on the aft portion of Deck 12, a most unusual arrangement. It did mean that these verandas were very large, and partially open. Ours was as wide as the cabin, of course, but 15 feet deep, allowing room for two lounges, two chairs, a foot stool, a round table and a small coffee table. The cabin was in the usual good taste for Celebrity, with pleasant wood paneling, two nice paintings, a large wall mirror, a desk with a fair amount of surface space, a sofa, arm chair, table and TV console. The bathroom featured a tub-shower with a jacuzzi tub. As usual a good deal of shelf space and drawer space was provided, both in the bathroom and in the cabin. We never filled all the drawers or shelves, although we used up most of the hanging area in the closets. Celebrity provides terry cloth bathrobes for suite holders, in addition to umbrellas and binoculars.
A fruit basket is also provided and maintained throughout the trip, and the thermos ice bucket and water pitcher were also kept filled. The light was good, but the switch arrangements not exactly intuitive. They took a little getting used to. Sky Suites, with 246 square feet are about 45% larger than the standard cabin. We like the extra space, and had Sky Suites on our two Infinity cruises, 14 days through the Canal and 11 days to Hawaii. We had standard veranda cabins for the 14 day Mercury trip around South America and the 12 day Mediterranean cruise on Millennium, as well as on our first Galaxy cruise, a 7 day Caribbean trip. We noted some changes from our first cruise. The door handles to the veranda had been updated, and worked much more smoothly. The clock on the cabin wall never worked, but we never asked that it be fixed. I could never figure out how to set the time display on the VCR, but the telephone always has a display of the correct ship’s time.
After lunch we unpacked and toured the ship. Galaxy is now over eight years old, and there are occasional spots showing a little wear and tear, but they are minimal. As always, the maintenance on Celebrity’s vessels demonstrates the real meaning of the term “ship shape”. The crew is constantly cleaning and polishing everything visible. Considering that the major source of the flu attacks that have affected some ships is human contact; it was comforting to see the hand railings on the stairs being faithfully wiped down at frequent intervals. Galaxy has a high space ratio of over 41.40; which translates into more space per passenger than any other major line cruise ship (except for the Constellation Class ships). Its arrangement is fairly standard except for the cabins on Deck 12. The forward part of that deck has the Stratosphere Lounge, with many windows facing out and forward, and high powered binoculars on fixed stanchions in several places. Deck 11 has the covered Oasis Pool (aft), the main buffet; the open pools and Jacuzzis (center), and spa (forward). Decks 10, 9 and 8 are all cabin decks, with a small library and internet center (out of order on this cruise) on Deck 8. Deck 7 is the entertainment deck with the Savoy Night Club aft and, as one proceeds forward, the casino, a seating area, a good selection of shops, a coffee bar, and the balcony of the theater. Deck 6 starts aft with the upper level of the dining room, and proceed through the Rendez-Vous Lounge, the photo gallery, Michaels Club, the Cove Cafe Milano, meeting rooms, the card room, the Cinema and Conference Center and the main level of the theater. Deck 5 has cabins forward; then Guest Relations, excursion and future booking areas amidships, with the lower level of the dining room aft. The area between the midship elevator-stair bank and the dining room is taken up entirely by the main galley. Therefore there is no connection on that level; so you can only reach the lower level dining area by going up from Deck 4 or down fr om Deck 6, using the aft stairs or elevators. Deck 4 has cabins and the medical center and Deck 3 only tender access. The style of decoration is art deco, running to glass, aluminum, and light wood, with well placed and very nice art work. Even the walls passing through the cabin areas have art works or artistic photos. This last feature is common to all Celebrity vessels, but not found on other ships. The elevator bank-stair well areas are wide, deep, well lit, nicely decorated, and very pleasant. The pool areas have attractive, well padded lounges. The aft portion of the buffet deck has a clear plastic domed pool surrounded by cabana style furniture; and it proved to be a popular area for people to bring their buffet meals in lieu of the indoor buffet seating area. The main dining, in common with all Celebrity ships, has a two level window running virtually the full width of the ship, providing a marvelous view seaward as well as providing excellent light. There is an interior “Grand Staircase” leading down from the Deck 6 eating area to the Deck 5 level. The room is reasonably spacious, and while there is, of necessity, a number of server stations, they are well placed and comparatively unobtrusive. The buffet is well arranged and has good quality furniture. There are four serving areas and various “stations” which serve different functions depending on the time of day. There is an omelet station for breakfast, which becomes a pasta station at lunch. There is a sushi bar set up from six in the evening until ten; which we greatly enjoyed for a snack after the show. The ice cream station had a devoted clientele, and in the covered pool area aft there was a hamburger grill and a pizza station in which the pizza is made fresh, on the spot, rather than pre-made. There is no true alternative restaurant, although you may make reservations for a “fine dining” service in the buffet area at night.
OFF TO ROME
We sailed away on time, down Chesapeake Bay and started our five consecutive sea days before we would see land again. We had experienced four straight sea days on the way to Hawaii last December, so we had some idea of what to expect. What we did not expect, but perhaps should have, was a notice in our cabin that the itinerary had changed. It seems that Spain has unearthed a law which says that no ship can dock in a Spanish port if its last stop was in Gibraltar! They cannot enforce this against European Union registered vessels, but except for Costa Lines, there are very few EU registered ships, and certainly ours was not. So we dropped Malaga from our itinerary, moved Villefranche up one day, and slipped Livorno, the port for Florence and Pisa, in between Villefranche and Rome. This meant that we not only lost our chance to see the Alhambra, but our pre-payment for tickets and deposit for our rental car. It also meant we lost our pre-payment for tickets on the French Railway between Villefranche and Cannes. There had been a report by one of our Cruise Connection Board people that they had heard that this had happened to a Royal Caribbean ship, so Celebrity certainly had warning before we left and had not told us. We might have been able to go on the net and reverse some of these charges. So we were victims of Spanish annoyance at Great Britain over Gibraltar, a fit of pique that has only lasted 300 years.
Since we could not reverse Spain’s politics, we resolved to enjoy the relaxation of five sea days. Celebrity makes a good effort to provide on board activities on all its extended cruises. They have what is called an “Enrichment” series of talks. There are usually three or four of these every sea day, and they feature diverse speakers. On this trip we had Colonel Walter Cunningham, a NASA Astronaut, Geri O‘Neil, a psychologist, Teddy Pohlman, PhD. talking on various subjects; and Michael Sax lecturing on Oriental Medicine and acupuncture. We also had a librarian, Erin, who had been on Infinity when we went to Hawaii, and she has special interest chat sessions in the library. We think it is a great touch to have a librarian, although the library itself could stand expansion, both in space and in stock.
In addition there were the usual cruise trivia games, dance lessons and similar “stuff“. Celebrity also tries to introduce staff and crew members in chat sessions, which are nice, although the Greek officer staff is not always as fluent in English as the rest of the crew. The food manager, Hans van Wetzen, is Dutch, and speaks excellent English as do most of his countrymen. There also was an open rehearsal for the production singer and dancers, which I will discuss in the entertainment portion of this review. The major point is that there is always something of interest happening at virtually every moment on Celebrity sea days. We had noted that on the three sea days on HAL’s Veendam for our Caribbean cruise, the daily activities were very limited. On Galaxy the only problem was that there were almost too many events scheduled and some conflicts of scheduling.
All these sea day events were well attended, and one reason was the weather. This was still the North Atlantic in early spring, and not the Caribbean. The weather was moderately rough, although not as rocky as our Hawaiian trip sea days last December. It was also quite cool on deck, which, combined with strong breezes, made limited use of the pool area to those who wrapped themselves from head to toe in towels. The only pools which got any use were the heated Jacuzzis, and the main pools were closed from time to time because of rough conditions. Nonetheless we greatly enjoyed these first days; slept very well; and woke up saying - “Gee, another neat sea day.”
TWO UNUSUAL EVENTS
There were two unusual events, one somewhat tragic, that occurred. The first was the embarkation adventure for Geri O’Neil, the psychologist. She, her husband, a couple of passengers and a few crew members had been scheduled by Celebrity to fly from Florida. The plane developed serious trouble shortly after take-off and had to return. The next plane to Baltimore got them there in time to arrive at the pier as the ship was pulling away. They waved frantically and received cheerful waves in reply from passengers along the rail, much to the annoyance of Geri and her fellow travelers. Celebrity then flew this group to Norfolk, Virginia, the juncture of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and; when the ship stopped to let off the Chesapeake Bay pilot at about 2:30 in the morning, sent a small boat out with Geri and the others so they could embark.
The second event occurred during the sea day between the Azores and Madeira. In the early afternoon the captain came on the public address system and told us that there was a medical emergency with a passenger. He said the ship would start speeding up and that later it would be met by a medical helicopter to remove the patient. Since Galaxy does not have a landing pad, the passengers were told to vacate the aft end of deck 11 outside the Oasis Pool and eating area, enabling the crew to put out a large “X” target for a wire litter basket to be lowered for the patient. By the time this occurred we were at dinner, and we found out that the chopper arrived, accompanied by a re-fueling plane and lowered its basket. But apparently the passenger had died while waiting, so the helicopter went back to Madeira empty. The extraordinary lengths the ship went to effect aid was immensely impressive.
OUR SHIPBOARD COMPANIONS
While we were waiting to board at the Baltimore pier, we spotted Joyce and her husband Howard, who live in Apache Junction, near Phoenix, and who we recognized from our Infinity Canal cruise. We also had had a lot of Cruise Connection Board conversation with these people, but of course knew none of them by sight. Our initial table group consisted of Jack and Ray from Florida (but originally Massachusetts), Ken and Jackie from San Antonio and Milo and Florence from Virginia.
The second night, Ken and Jackie were gone, and we were joined by David and Brittany, a young couple on a slightly belated honeymoon cruise. They were gone also by the third night and we were down to six people until joined two nights later by Anne from Columbia, Maryland. Finally, after Madeira we were joined by Matt from Canada, who had become acquainted with Anne and was invited to join us. Despite the musical chairs, we were a congenial group.
While we had a scheduled Cruise Connection meeting, the Board people had decided to have a pre-meeting in the Stratosphere Lounge immediately after the lifeboat drill which took place at 4:30 on sailing day. We had agreed to wear Mardi Gras beads, so Edith and I wore our beads from the Rio Suites in Las Vegas. About 20 or so showed up, and it was fun putting the faces to the names. We met Bev and Mike who organized the Civitavecchia to Rome transfer and Arno and his wife Joanne who had agreed to accompany us on our Madeira expedition. We had our regular meeting on the second day out, and because that was interrupted by a loud Trivia game, Celebrity set up another meeting. It is nice to have extended contacts when there are a lot of sea days. We also met several people through the Captain’s Club gatherings. These have become fairly large since the number of repeat cruisers is increasing each year.
Even the Select and Elite Captain’s Club groups, those with five or more cruises for Select and 15 or more for Elite, are getting sizeable.
This was an almost exclusively adult cruise. There were perhaps five or six toddlers, and one or two school age children aboard, but that was it. While there were a few Europeans, the rest of the passenger list was almost entirely American and Canadian.
THE PORTS OF CALL
Our first stop was Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel in the Azores. We had arranged for a taxi tour with an English speaking guide from a firm called Archipelago Azores, located in England. We found them on the net and the website is: www.azoreschoice.com. Our contact was Sarah Bennett. The price was £110 for an eight hour tour; which worked out to be slightly more than $202.00. Howard and Joyce agreed to come with us and split the cost. Our driver was at the pier with a sign, and we headed first to the spectacular Sete Cidades Lakes. After fixing a flat tire, and stopping for coffee (quite reasonable at 1 Euro per cup) in a small town, we then headed though the mountains to the north coast. Afterwards we went back across the mountains to another lake and then down into the Funchal Valley, which has bubbling volcanic pools. We then saw the area where there is a place where natural volcano heat is used to cook food. The ground is sandy, and there are holes dug into the sand. You place your cooking pots filled with food in these holes, covering them up with wooden lids and then the sand. The food will cook, without water, for five or six hours. You can then remove the pots and you have a fully cooked meal. The rule is, first come first served, and a couple of local restaurants were in the process of removing their pots to take them to town for the lunch trade. São Miguel is a beautiful island. Everything grows here, and all the homes are decorated with flowers and flower pots. The pace of life is relaxed and the people are friendly, although not many speak English. The cost of housing is reasonable compared to the rest of Europe, or even Madeira, and the tourist trade is still not heavy. The climate is cool and pleasant, without any great extremes, and we were fortunate to have a beautiful day. Our driver told us that he had a pickup at the airport, so he dropped us off in town at 2:00 P.M. We had a snack at a local shop, and wandered around Ponta Delgada for a while before boarding. After we returned home, I contacted Archipelago Azores concerning the shortened trip, and quickly received an apology followed by a credit posted to my credit card for 1/4th of the charge. They are a responsible company and worth considering by anyone traveling to the Azores. This was an altogether delightful stop. Our driver was very knowledgeable and pleasant, and we all enjoyed every part of our visit. That night, after dinner we went to the Stratosphere Lounge and listened to the disc jockey play Neil Diamond as we sailed past the neighboring island of Santa Maria at sunset. Edith wants to find a time share on São Miguel and return there, she was so impressed.
This island is south and east of the Azores. There are three islands in the group, although only two are inhabited. There are nine of the Azores islands spread over some distance. Madeira is about twice the size and has twice the population of São Miguel. It is also much more mountainous, even getting a dusting of snow on the peaks. We had made arrangements for a car rental, but neglected to get the address. We could find no telephone directory, and nothing open in Funchal, Madeira’s port city, at 7:00 when we arrived. Arno and Joanne had agreed to go with us, and after wandering around in a somewhat futile manner, we were approached by a cab driver. He recommended not attempting to drive ourselves, and this comported with some advice I had read in one or two travel books. He offered to drive us around for six hours for 75€ per couple, which was reasonable given the cruise tour prices. He spoke English fairly well and was able to describe where we would go. I had read enough about the island to agree that his locations were appropriate so off we went. We shortly realized that driving ourselves around Madeira would have been extremely difficult. The first place we visited was a lookout spot called Eiro de Serrado, which overlooked a valley called the Nun’s Valley, where nuns purported fled to when threatened by Barbary raiders in the 16th Century. The view down from the 1080 meter (3540 feet) heights was spectacular, with the sun just beginning to fill the town and farms below. We could see excellent examples of the terrace farming which is found at every reachable and arable spot of land available. These terraces are watered by a complicated irrigation system, bringing rainwater down from the mountains and to the lands by a series of small canals called levadas which serve large areas on the island. Our driver stopped by the roadside and let us walk out onto one of these terraces along a levada bank. The people working these small farms may have jobs elsewhere, but can raise three to four crops a year. The hillsides are extremely steep, and you very often must climb up or down to reach the terraces, and, in some cases, the homes themselves. We drove back to the shore to see the Monte Cliffs which plunge well over 1000 feet into the ocean.
We also stopped at a small and very colorful fishing village, and then drove through the entrance to the famous Reid’s Hotel, founded by British emigre’s in the 19th century. You can get a nice room here for $400.00 per night and up. Our driver showed us a good deal of new home construction, virtually all for foreigners as their retirement homes or second homes. Many come from Scandinavia, as well as England and Germany. These homes, some of which have spectacular hillside lots overlooking valleys or the sea, easily run 500,000€ or more. Madeira gets a substantial tourist trade, and has time shares available. It also sells a lot of its Madeira wine, but Edith, at our driver’s recommendation, settled for a drier Portuguese wine rather than the sweet local wine, no matter how famous. One of the local wine purveyors is an English family which has lived there since 1805 when its founder arrived as an English soldier for stationing there in the Napoleonic wars. As on São Manuel, we were struck by the fact that every home was decorated with flower beds and/or flower pots. Our driver confirmed that this was a universal practice. After we were dropped off we returned to the ship briefly, and then returned to walk around Funchal. A convenient bus shuttle was provided. It is a very pretty town of about 50,000; and while somewhat limited in what it had to offer, was extremely pleasant and clean, and did have some nice shops. We were extremely impressed and delighted with both the Azores and Madeira, and can see why they would be marvelous places to spend a week or two. If one really wants to explore Madeira, I imagine it can be done in a rental car provided you have a very good map, are extremely patient, and don’t have to make any deadlines. Our decision to take the taxi was the right one. While we could actually see about half of São Manuel from our various mountain viewpoints, we probably only saw about 10 percent of Madeira. These are simply delightful islands populated by friendly, well educated, and courteous people, who take care of their homeland, their towns and their homes.
We were to land at 7.00 A.M. and, while some of the Cruise Connection group, including ourselves, wanted an early start, some were willing to wait until 9:30 or 10:00.
So the early start group came down to four of us, and after a quick breakfast, we were off before 8:00. There was no shuttle service available, and it was a relatively long walk to the town itself. The maps provided at the tourist office on the pier were of little assistance in locating the foot trail, so we proceeded mainly by asking questions of the locals on the street. They were all very friendly, with some better informed that others; but eventually we found the trail by going past the Naval Cemetery and the Rock Hotel. It was rather steep at first, but later more level. The road was asphalt, and wide enough for two cars if they were careful. We came to a Park entrance where we paid a fee for all the attractions, and then went up to the first of these, St. Michael’s Cave. This is a very interesting series of caves, with some fairly large rooms, including one which is fitted with several hundred theater seats as it is a natural amphitheater with very fine acoustics. The caves served as a hospital in World War II. By this time our little group had split up because Jack had forged ahead at a rate suited to his stamina as a tour cyclist, far beyond my level. Most of the Rock is easily accessible by car or minivan, and there were lots of these arriving at the cave and going on to the monkey sites, as well as the restaurant at the top of the cable car stop. We met Jack coming back down, but his wife, Kathy had already taken another route with a fellow cruiser, a German-Canadian named Klaus. Edith and I were not sure where they were and we took a route that our map showed as leading to O’Hare’s Battery, the highest point on the Rock. We came to a locked gate with what looked like fortifications beyond it. We heard voices on the hill above us to the left, and found a small trail leading up the hill. When we reached the top we found Kathy and Klaus and a couple of other people taking in the most spectacular view down both sides of the rock. The Mediterranean was on one side and the bay leading to the
Atlantic on the other. While we had enjoyed many fine views of the bay side, looking over the harbor and to Spain on the west and the north, nothing compared to this view from the highest point on Gibraltar.
We then went back to the road and proceeded north to where people in vans had stopped to be entertained by the famous Gibraltar apes. These monkeys are not too large, the largest male running to perhaps 20 pounds, and the babies about two or three pounds. They are absolutely fearless, and will climb on you and steal anything loose. I got some good photos. We then went on to the cable car stop, which also had a restaurant and some viewing areas, as well as some chickens. We met a number of other cruisers, including the late start hiking group; but as far as I know, we four along with a mother and daughter from the ship were the only ones to make it to the true Top of the Rock. We went down by a different route which took us into an area occupied by homes. Our goal was the Moorish Castle, but when we got there, it was closed for repairs. We were getting close to town at that point, and left the road to take what are called the Castle Steps, a stairway through homes and across streets, giving us a close look at everyday living in Gibraltar. We reached town, which by this time was open for business, with a large selection of stores along Main Street. We found that we had reached te Alameda Botanical Garden, and went in. It has a very complete collection of desert type plants in a most appealing arrangement. We then took the long, hot walk back to the ship. While we were displeased that the parochialism of the Spanish government prevented us from visiting Spain; and we initially would have happily traded the Gibraltar stop for the Malaga port of call, we were delighted with Gibraltar.
VILLEFRANCHE SUR MER AND CANNES
We had made this stop on our Mediterranean cruise aboard Millennium just one year ago. On that occasion there had been a French railway strike, so we were forced to abandon our plans for Cannes, and we visited Monaco instead. The report of that visit is in our review on this site. This time we went to Cannes. Villefranche is a tender port, and when we went in on the first boat we had on board a ship’s doctor and nurse attending a passenger in a wheel chair who was met at the dock by an ambulance. This was obviously the end of the cruise for her. The railway station is visible from the ship, about a quarter of a mile east, up one flight of stairs, though a tunnel under the tracks and again up to the station. The tickets for seniors cost a total of $21.00 for two, round trip. Don’t forget to stamp the ticket in the machine on the platform. The trip to Cannes takes a little over an hour, and, although “second class” travel, was quite comfortable and pleasant. The famous Cannes Film Festival was in full swing, and this small, but attractive city was a very lively place. The streets are narrow, but have every chic store and product in the world available. The harbor and marinas were filled with luxury yachts, many of them chartered by film companies touting their candidates for the various Festival awards. People were constantly on the lookout for live actors and actresses, but we did not see any. There are a number of small beaches, well decorated with topless swimmers. The sand on this stretch was very fine, as contrasted with fairly rocky or pebbled beaches at other points along the shore. We ate at a small restaurant looking over a portion of the harbor, across the street. I had a lunch sized portion of bouillabaisse, the signature Coté d’Azure seafood dish, and it was excellent as well as being a nicely sized portion. Prices here are definitely on the high side. A full dinner bouillabaisse could run 50€ at a casual restaurant. We actually did a little shopping. Edith loves a European chain
called Mango, and she bought a t-shirt there. The clothes prices seem slightly higher than in the US, and this may be a result of the dollar to euro exchange rate. The weather here, as it had been at every stop along our route, was sunny and cool, and it was enjoyable and relaxing simply walking about and people watching. Although Galaxy did not sail until 10:00 P.M., we took a train back which got us on board before 5:00.
Livorno is the port gateway to Pisa and Florence. We had also stopped there on our last cruise and taken a good ship’s tour to Florence. This is also written up in our Millennium review. We did not want to duplicate this, and reports we received last year indicated that the ship’s tour to Pisa was not worthwhile; so we opted simply to visit Livorno. We went to town by a shuttle through the busy harbor area, and were dropped off at a square near the center of town. Livorno’s center city is not large, but well laid out and easy to navigate with a simple map obtained from the tourist kiosk in the square where we started. The downtown stores were not open when we started so we walked to what was marked as a “market” area. This proved to be made up of two components. The first was a “flea market” with open stalls selling all sorts of wares. It was very crowded with locals, and lots of fun. Near it was a large, single story building. with a high ceiling and skylight, divided into several rooms. This was mostly a fresh food market, with meat, fish, vegetable and fruit stalls operated by many vendors. The display of fish in particular was the most extensive and varied we had ever seen, including the famous market on La Rambla in Barcelona. We were in awe. The meat, fruit and vegetable stands were almost as spectacular. We then walked the few blocks back to the main shopping area and soon found, of course, a gelato stand, to my delight. We walked the town some more, but found that the stores were closing at 12:30 until 3:30 as they did in smaller cities in Spain. We went back to the boat shortly thereafter. Livorno is a very pleasant, quite clean and relaxed town. We also got our first glimpses of Italian police. I don’t know how they would stack up against say the “blues” of the NYPD, but they certainly would win any uniform contest. There are both Carabinieri and local police, and I have no idea of their respective jurisdictional boundaries, but the uniforms are alike in color, dash and pizzazz.
As I mentioned, our transfer into Rome from the port city of Civitavecchia had been arranged by Bev from the Cruise Connection Board group. We had what we thought was a very large tour bus, but ended up having to put luggage in the seating area, which was not too bad since there were about 32 passengers. The cost was 15€ each. If we had tried to get a van or car adequate to haul our complete luggage, the cost would have been closer to 40 or 50€s apiece. If you are not disembarking in Rome, but merely visiting, you can take the shuttle to town and walk to the railway station in the way described in my Millennium review. Although the cruise directors on both ships disparaged European trains as unreliable, we believe that this is simply to push ship’s tours. Our experience with railways in Spain, France, Italy, Sweden and Denmark has been that, while they can be crowded in rush hours or on holidays, they are fast, clean and run on schedule.
A friend of mine who has worked on and off in Rome for forty years (he was the Time Magazine correspondent for the Vatican II Council) recommended the Michelangelo Hotel. It is part of the Starwood chain and a true 4 star European hotel; very close to Vatican City. Our three nights, with one fairly expensive dinner, ran $750.00; about par for a good European hotel. Our room was large; more like an American hotel than European, and with a decent view. The staff was very friendly and professional. We would recommend it within its price range. In our prior one day stopover visit we had gone to the Colosseum and Palantine Hill. This can be reached easily via subway from the railroad Terminii station, so is pretty handy for a one day trip. When I got back home, I e-mailed my friend to thank him, and he replied that now I would understand why it takes three years to really see Rome. All great cities are unique, but the age of Rome, dating back to Year 1 AUC (Anno Urbis Condite - the Year of the Founding of the City; which is 753 B.C); makes this town just short of 2750 yeas old. Since this is a cruise review, I will not attempt to describe our three days there. Suffice to say that it is beautiful in a different way; has very good, and reasonable restaurants; marvelously stylish residents and a different geography. You can get oriented as to where things are in Central Rome fairly quickly. The problem is “You can’t get there from here.” Streets that seem to start in one direction end up going somewhere else. The “somewhere else” may have a lot to offer on its own, but frustrating if you have a specific goal. Nor can you really go by taxi or bus since the traffic is unmanageable. Actually, we took a cab on Sunday, the only rainy day on our entire trip, up to the Borghese Villa and Museum. Perhaps because it was Sunday, it was relatively quick and inexpensive. In any event, it is a city worth seeing, even if you don’t have three years to spare. I would note that the Vatican Museum (which includes the Sistine Chapel) has extraordinarily long lines before it opens at 8:45 A.M. On a weekday, or even Saturday (the only Sunday it opens is the last Sunday of each month) it would be better if you show up at about 2:00 or 2:30. The last group is admitted at 3:45 I believe, but that is the admission time; it does not close until later. If you can get to a restaurant called La Scala on Viale Parioli, we heartily recommend it. Edith says the antipasto buffet was a meal she will not forget.
We also recommend getting your airport transportation through your hotel. You will find on the streets or being handed out; fliers advertising airport services. However they may not be reliable, but a good hotel’s recommended transportation service, while more expensive, is safer if you must meet a flight. Our driver charged 47€, but it is a lengthy drive and the price appeared reasonable. No tip is required unless the driver has to manuever a lot of heavy bags, and we did most of our own. The flight back was non-stop to Cincinnati, which seemed unusual. However it worked out well since the airport does not have that many international flights arriving, and we were able to get through immigration and customs quickly and were on our way home with a minimum of airport delay.
THE CREW AND CRUISE MANAGEMENT
There were a few mixups insofar as scheduling events were concerned. It seemed that the crew was a little confused with the difference in timing after doing several months of one week Caribbean cruises which have a pretty set routine compared to starting of a cruise with five sea days. Everyone was cheerful and helpful, and Celebrity made up for interrupting our first Cruise Connection gathering with a noisy triiva contest by hosting a second Cruise Connection gathering. There were a number of Captain’s Club events, and several “meet the crew” sessions. Our contacts with Guest Relations were limited, but they were uniformly helpful and pleasant. The shore shopping lady was not very experienced, but very nice. Celebrity did publish a separate shore newssheet at each port with a map and shopping guide for “recommended” shops. The arrangement is that if the shop will gurantee satisfaction for 60 days, and pay a fee to Celebrity to be listed, they will be included in the shopping talks and handouts.
In addition to the daily handouts on ship activities, Celebrity provides a newssheet running about 8 pages each day, called the “U.S.A. Times” which contains general world news. It is delivered to suites, but available at Guest Relations for everyone else. There are editions in German, French and Spanish, as well as Canadian and UK editions. We had no contact with either the shore excursion desk or the future booking desk. We tried to use the concierge to reach the French Railway to cancel our original train purchases since the abandonment of the Malaga stop meant we reached Villefranche the day before our original arrival date and consequently the date of our pre-purchased train tickets; but she was unable to contact them. I think her internet skills were somewhat limited. The spa people were pleasant, but all that we saw them for was to pick up towels for the Thalassotherapy Pool which on Galaxy and Mercury is inside the spa area. One of our tablemates who had a regular cabin, paid for the use of the Thalassotherapy Pool which was complimentary for suite holders. He complained that no one at the Spa desk checked to see if he paid, so that apparently anyone could use this pool. I usually had my ship’s card in my hand, and the color identified it as a suite holder’s card; but I don’t really recall anyone at the desk looking at it. So our friend was probably correct in being a little miffed at paying for something which anyone could have without payment.
When we think back over our various cruises, and check our past reviews; a theme begins to emerge. Insofar as the theater presentations go, we generally like the production numbers; dislike the comedians, and think that the singing acts and other acts are fair, but too loud. We like the smaller music groups for the most part. This cruise was no exception, but on the whole we enjoyed the non-production shows less than usual. There were four production shows and, on a sea day after the first show, we were able to go to an open rehearsal. We found out that one of the singer/dancers had to leave just before we sailed due to a family emergency. One of the male dancers had injured himself and missed the first show. Another girl was wearing an ace bandage on her ankle. This team of singers and dancers had never worked together before the on-shore rehearsals for this trip, and with the missing participants had to re-block their stage moves on board twice! In addition, the rocky sailing for the first five days affected two shows. All in all, it led to great admiration for the heart and spirit of these kids, and they are all young. The last production number was new to Celebrity, and a little far out. We had been told on a backstage tour of Infinity that these production shows cost up to a million dollars each, and therefore stay in the Celebrity repertoire for at least five years, even though the singers and dancers change all the time. We have also read that Celebrity has signed an agreement with Cirque de Soleil. We had seen the latest Cirque de Soleil full show about a week before sailing, and that was some production! There is no chance that a full scale Cirque show could be done on board, but if there is a way to come even close, it indicates that Celebrity is serious about outdoing other cruise lines. Of the non-production shows, one was an electronic violinist and another a female singer, both of whom were so over-amplified that their skills were undone, and Edith, as well as some others, were liter
ally driven from the theater. We missed one comic and should have missed the other. He simply was not funny. A pianist was okay, but the juggler was mediocre at best. We had seen the magic act before, and it was okay. We skipped one other act and heard we were wise. For the first time we went to the movies twice and saw first run films, the beautiful “Girl With the Pearl Earring” and the grim but well acted “House of Sand and Fog”.
We thought the duo playing dance music in the Rendez-Vous lounge before dinner each night did a nice job. We liked the fact that the disc jockey would establish themes around artists. There was a pianist and a guitarist, and well as a small combo playing dinner music; but no Amanda with her harp that we enjoyed so much on Millennium.
Perhaps we expect too much by way of entertainment. We have had a couple of outstanding performers; Lindsey Hamilton on Mercury and a husband/wife mime act on Regal Princess come to mind; but most are only fair to good, with some outstandingly bad. We also have voiced complaints about the noise level, and were not alone in our feelings. We spoke to the Cruise Director about this, and were assured that the sound was turned all the way down. Personally I believe the sound technicians have been listening to rock music turned all the way up for so long that their hearing is damaged, and they have no idea how loud they are allowing the sound to get. The Cruise Director, Dru Pavlov was on Millennium last year, and is very pleasant. He does not try to be a comedian. But to return to the entertainment theme; I believe we all expect too much from cruise shows. There are 100 ships with a passenger capacity of more than 1000 each sailing the seas virtually 365 days a year. That is a lot of shows and a lot of entertainment to provide. How much talent is there available when you are competing with Las Vegas, the multitude of new casinos and other entertainment venues? Ray Charles just died. How many others are there out there? I would be happy if those responsible for the entertainment checked the comedians out to see if they were really funny; and then instructed the sound technicians to turn the volume down a lot on all the others.
CELEBRITY FOOD AND SERVICE
Now this is a more inspiring subject, although even here there will be critics who seem to enjoy finding things to complain about. It is not possible on board ship to have true gourmet dining at the level found in the classic restuarants. But given that, Celebrity has the highest quality of both food and service of any major cruise line, and it seems dedicated to maintaining that level. We were taken on a galley tour by the food service director, and he confirmed that each food order is individually prepared after the waiter brings the order to the kitchen. This does not mean, of course, that the food you eat was in the refrigerator, uncooked until you ordered it. That is not true of any restaurant. Bur it does mean that as many items as possible are not prepared until ordered, and that plates are done up in advance awaiting anticipated orders. The presentation is also well done. The service by our waiter Ganesh, and his assistant Abi, both from India, was excellent. Celebrity arranges the dining room work load so that the wait staff is not overloaded, and has time to chat with the guests a little during the meal and more so afterwards. We had noted that on Princess in particular, and also on Holland American, the staff was spread so thin that contact with passengers was at a bare minimum, despite their best intentions. Celebrity’s higher staff to passenger ratio also enables the wait staff to remember patrons’ individual desires and standard requests.
We like the buffet arrangement, and it was crowded only once or twice. The food was kept reasonably warm, and the selection fairly good. Real china is used, along with cloth napkins. Waiters are available to carry your tray to a table, should you so desire it. Breakfast is fairly standard, but there is a lot of fruit and the croissants have improved. The coffee seemed better in the buffet than on prior cruises, although it is always good in the dining room. We had one breakfast in the dining room, and a couple of lunches. They were quite good, but the temptation is to eat too much. The pizza station prepares their product from scratch with a lot of variety. The ice cream station seemed to be open for longer hours than on prior cruises. The sushi bar in the buffet area was open only from 6:00 to 10:00 in the evening. It was very good, and had regular attendance from a Japanese foursome, which is a positive sign. We used it for post show snacking almost every evening, and could only wish it were open for more extended hours. There is a hamburger and hot dog grill in the aft pool area, and that resulted in a cooking grease smell on our deck which was immediately above it. This went away after about three days, so we concluded that it was a vent fan problem later corrected. Every day between 8:30 and 11:00 AM there are free danish and croissants at the Tastings Cafe (you have to pay for the coffee there), and between 3:00 and 5:00 PM there are free pastries at the same location.
All in all, the food and food service on Galaxy was a delight, as it has been on all other Celebrity cruises.
Celebrity keeps its announcements to a minimum. The Captain comes on the general PA system at noon to announce speed, location, weather conditions and the like, followed by a few announcements of events by the Cruise Director. Then there was the sick passenger announcement mentioned earlier. Also, one night at about midnight we were woken up when the gong sounded and there was an announcement of a medical “code alert” at a specific cabin. We found out the next day from someone who was near that cabin that it proved to be a pretty minor matter, but this was the first time on any cruise that we had ever heard such an announcement.
The elevators have no announcements. This is great. On Millennium class the elevator always says: “Deck 5 - Doors Opening - Doors Closing”. On Princess the deck name was announced as it was on HAL. A quiet elevator is nice.
We went through several time zones and had five 23 hour days, sometimes leading to missed appointments even though the telephones always had a correct ship’s time display.
The question to ask at the end of any cruise is - did it live up to your expectations? Of course for that question to make sense, you had to have some relatively well defined expectations to begin with. You can’t make them as you go along. It also is probably better to wait for at least a few days after you get home to consider this question. We both agreed that (a) it was one of the better cruises we have taken and (b) yes, it did live up to our expectations and in some ways exceeded them. We had looked on it as providing a lot of relaxing sea days, and a new and different way to get to Rome and have a better look at that city. The unexpected bonus pleasures were the first three stops; São Miguel in the Azores, Madeira, and Gibraltar. We really had no idea of what these Portuguese islands would provide, and only a general concept of what the Rock would be like. We were enchanted by the Azores and Madeira, and delighted with Gibraltar.
Given that my expectations in the entertainment area are growing less and less with each cruise, I cannot say my expectations were not met; they weren’t very high to begin with. But the food, food service, cabin, cabin care, ship appearance and a host of other facets of Celebrity’s management all lived up to what have become fairly high standards.
We heard complaints about conflicts in scheduled events the first one or two days at sea. There was a tour of the Azores taken by several of our table companions that drew a major complaint about the guide. She apparently knew nothing of her subject matter, could answer no questions, and simply read from a guide book. We also heard that one of the buses transporting people from BWI to the pier in Baltimore went out of service and that it left people waiting in the airport several hours before a substitute was able to get them to the ship. But given the size and complexity of a cruise operation, the possibility of human error is always there. One simply cannot expect perfection in all facets of a cruise. This cruise was quite inexpensive for a 14 day cruise; less than $300.00 per day for both of us for a Sky Suite. It certainly was a reasonable price for a very intriguing and novel trip; relaxing in many ways and still affording us some new experiences ashore in very different and attractive places.
We had no major complaints, and generally were very pleased with this trip. We would definitely recommend a repositioning cruise such as this; especially if your past experience has been limited to the standard venues for cruising.