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Walter Oney

Age: 55

Occupation:Freelance software developer

Number of Cruises: 11

Cruise Line: Celebrity

Ship: Mercury

Sailing Date: February 17th, 2002

Itinerary: South America

We took a 14-day South America cruise aboard Mercury and would give the cruise an overall rating of Very Good except for the second-hand smoke issue discussed at the end of the review. This was our eleventh cruise vacation and our first cruise with Celebrity and its affiliates.

Transportation:

We handled our own flight arrangements and cannot comment on how well or poorly Celebrity does this. Flights from the US to either of the embarkation ports for Mercury's South America cruises (Buenos Aires and Santiago/Valparaiso) are very long, and we overheard a few people complain about crowding in the coach section of their flights. We burned a good many frequent flier miles to ride up front on United Airlines and were very glad we did. We did purchase airport transfers from Celebrity, so we joined the throng at the Buenos Aires airport (code EZE, which I'll guess New Orleans would be glad to swap for) for a one-hour bus ride to the pier. The transfer and subsequent embarkation process went very smoothly except for the minor snag of needing to fill in an immigration form that Celebrity neglected to provide ahead of time. If you buy a sea/shore package, you will want to be especially cautious at the airport and on the streets of Buenos Aires during Argentina's current financial crisis. We heard of fellow passengers being mugged right outside their hotel. Current ploys include spraying you with mustard and picking your pocket while cleaning you up, jumping out of a vehicle disguised as a taxi long enough to rob you, throwing a baby at you and picking your pocket while you're distracted, and holding a baby with a fake wooden arm while the free arm picks your pocket. I took the unusual precaution of putting my wallet in an under-garment money belt while I was in the airport. Debarkation in Valparaiso and bus transportation to the Santiago airport were also very smooth, but our privileged status as suite passengers may have had something to do with that. Celebrity lets passengers keep their bathrobes for the last morning instead of taking them for laundry the night before, and we appreciated that accommodation. We got special permission from our cabin stewardess to stay in the room until our group was called, so we avoided the crush in the public rooms. Carnival gives every passenger this option nowadays, and Celebrity would do well to follow suit.

Because of limitations on award travel, we needed to fly to Buenos Aires to catch our flight back to the US. We had clear weather and a wonderful view of the Andes. But beware of thieves and red tape at EZE! We had no problem with the former, but experienced a fare dose of the latter - Argentina immigration insisted on us completing both entry and exit forms and going through customs even though we were simply in transit, and we also had to endure long and poorly disciplined lines for check-in for our connecting flight. This was an unwelcome contrast to the much simpler transit procedures at every other international airport we've visited. If you need to spend time at EZE, I highly recommend joining an airline club so you don't have to wait in the crowded, smoky, hot and humid, and potentially crime-ridden public areas. SCL is a much more modern airport, but the smoking restrictions are routinely flouted outside the airline clubs.

The Ship

Mercury is relatively new (built in 1997), and the crew keeps it extremely clean. We heard other passengers comment favorably on the cleanliness of the ship, too. The d├ęcor is a bit austere, but the walls are filled with highly eclectic photographs that hold interest wherever you happen to be. There are basically two places to eat on Mercury. The Manhattan Restaurant is the main dining room features a two-story stern window and a sort-of atrium in the middle. Live music was provided during dinner by an excellent group of professional musicians. Propeller vibration was very noticeable in the dining room, particularly when the ship was touching bottom (!) in the Rio Platte off Buenos Aires and Montevideo, but that didn't interfere with enjoyment. Buffet meals are served in a very large space on deck 11 near the pools. Up to six separate lines can be served, depending on need. Seating is ample, but it obviously helps if you're willing to be gregarious and share a table with strangers. Hamburgers and pizza are available at two nearby grills at different times of day.

The main theater features ample and very comfortable seating. We had no trouble finding a place to sit for shows or other mass events like port talks, but the ship wasn't full and someone else's mileage might vary. The stage features a rotating ring and several trap doors. The lighting system is extremely versatile and gave some dazzling effects under (I presume) computer control.

The ship has a card room, a library, and a small movie theater that all seem adequate for their purpose. Someone else who reviewed Mercury said they found the library to be too small, but that wasn't my experience. The card room has a small selection of foreign language books, and perhaps the other reviewer was thinking of that.

There are several public watering holes, but we didn't spend any time in them because of smoke. Ditto for the casino, which featured a huge population of slot machines and a few gaming tables. There are four swimming pools if you count the pool in the fee-based spa, and six 4-person Jacuzzis.

The gym, which is free, had about ten treadmills (for which advance reservation of half-hour slots was required) and an assortment of other equipment. There is a marked jogging track on the open deck that can really only be used in the early mornings or in the evenings because it shares space with a bar and a sunning area. It was obvious to me that a jogger would be very frustrated trying to negotiate this path after breakfast, so I never tried.

Activity space on deck is pretty limited, but I never heard anyone complain on that score. There is a shuffleboard court and a couple of places to play basketball or volleyball. There is a golf simulator that I never visited.

Stateroom

Our stateroom was a bit of a disappointment. We selected a Sky Suite, which is the third category of cabin on Celebrity ships, but did not think it a good value. We had a compact bathroom with tub and shower. The Jacuzzi jets in the tub worked, but so what, given that you were still in a standard-sized tub with no room to immerse your body in the flow? The "suite" part of the description is a misnomer-there was a couch and enough extra floor space to walk around the bed, but that was all. We had a veranda that was way larger than our needs. For a change, we had lots more closet and drawer space than we needed, but if you were to put more people into this room (by folding out the couch), you might run out. There is open deck above the Sky Suites, but Mercury bans jogging and other exercise on that deck. Thank heaven, because sporadic heavy footsteps on this deck were very noticeable in the stateroom. If you just want an outside cabin, or a cabin with a veranda, there are cheaper choices on Mercury. If you want luxurious accommodation, you would need to opt for a Royal Suite costing about 40% more or for one of the two Penthouse Suites costing twice as much. We took advantage of several perks that went along with a "suite" cabin on Mercury. We had a full breakfast in the room most days (outside when the weather permitted), but we never did get pancakes or french toast that were hot enough and we once got watered-down orange juice. The "butler" delivered afternoon tea and snacks. There was a special line at embarkation (but the regular line was empty when we arrived anyway), and they let us off the ship first at debarkation (but that just gave us more time to wait at the airport).

In addition to the extra cost of the stateroom, suite passengers are expected to tip their butler at the same rate as their steward and dining room waiter. For a 14-day cruise, this is an extra $50 per person, which is more than fair given the amount of extra attention.

All things considered, I think most people except the wealthy would do better to get any old outside cabin on sale than to pay for a Sky Suite. Wealthy folks should go for a better cabin or just choose another ship.

Food and service

Food on our cruise was very good, and service was generally excellent. Beef and lamb dishes, in particular, were excellent. Our dinners always arrived hot and cooked the way we asked. There was plenty of choice, both in the main dining room and in the buffet. I did hear a few repeating passengers remark that, in their opinion, food quality had gone down hill since the merger with Royal Caribbean, but my only point of comparison is with other cruise lines. By that standard, Mercury's food was better than average but not the best we've ever experienced.

Service for dinner was uniformly excellent. Even the Maitre D' was visible all during the cruise instead of magically appearing on the next-to-last night to serve some sauce (as occurs on other cruise lines) just so you'll know who to give the tip envelope to. Service at breakfast and lunch, both of which were open seating, was often slow and sometimes verged on discourteous. One hesitates to blame this on the fact that one only tips the waiter and busboy one has at the assigned dinner table, but the inference does seem rather clear. If anything, service at breakfast on the last morning was better than usual, which seems a bit surprising since the dining room staff at that point had nothing to gain or lose.

Entertainment and activities

We didn't attend many of the shows, so our experience is only episodic. There was a tango show that was pretty good but didn't have as much dancing as it might have. I saw one production show that featured great singing, exquisite timing, dazzling lighting and other production effects, and just mediocre dancing. You would need to interpret my evaluation of the dancing in light of the fact that I'm a huge fan of classical ballet in a city with a world-class company. I also watched a musical show featuring a xylophone virtuoso, about whose personality there will be just two opinions. An amateur folk dance company and a choir came on board at Puerto Madryn and gave performances that we enjoyed.

Mercury featured the usual run of shipboard activities, including bingo, duplicate bridge, napkin folding, crafts, volleyball, passenger talent show, how to live forever by spending your life savings on spa treatments, etc. Our cruise included a "Survivor South America" series of skits involving luck and ability to perform silly stunts rather than cutthroat competition, and the skits were shown later on the stateroom TV, so you didn't have to be present to enjoy the entertainment value. There was also a series of brief Spanish language lessons featuring common phrases. Many of the activities happened in public rooms where people were allowed to smoke, though, so we pretty much had to avoid them.

There were a few "enrichment" lectures during the cruise that were intended to discuss geography, geology, and biology for South America. In company with everyone we talked to, we would like to have seen many more lectures. (Bear in mind that even in our mid-fifties, we were younger than the average passenger on this cruise.) Unfortunately, the lecturer Celebrity brought on board had dim and poorly chosen slides, wasn't an expert in any of the subjects he was discussing, and didn't present his material very well. One highlight that we heard several comments about was a description of Osorno, the main volcano in the area of Puerto Montt, at the conclusion of which was the startling statement, "Oh, by the way, this slide is Mt. Ranier and not Osorno." Duh.

Itinerary

The point of taking this cruise for us was the ports of call, which I'll list in the order of our trip. Mercury also does this trip in the opposite order, with some variation in ports.

Montevideo is the capital and major city of Uruguay. We took a city tour in the morning and thought briefly about shopping in the afternoon. The tour was a typical highlight bus tour and was worth the price. Shops didn't open until 10 or 11 AM, so the morning is the right time to take such a tour. Mind you, shops also close for a lengthy siesta in the early afternoon, so you can't shop then either. There wasn't much to buy in any case.

Puerto Madryn on the coast of Argentina would like to be a tourist destination but doesn't really know how yet. Celebrity organized several tours and then cautioned us that every tour involved a multi-hour trip on a bus without air conditioning over dusty gravel roads with guides lacking professional training. So we decided to stay in town, where we discovered that most shops took their 3-hour siesta even with a ship in port. People who took a tour to see a supposed Welsh village were very upset because the village in question was a couple of houses purpose-built for the tourist trade. People who took a tour to see elephant seals did actually see some, but one of the buses broke down in a cell phone null area. People who went to see penguins were happy with their tour. Sounds to me like tourism here is still a work in progress.

Stanley is the capital and major city of the Falkland Islands. Mercury anchored in the harbor, and we rode back and forth in the ship's own tenders. The tender operation was well organized, and the ship's officers were no more than usually incompetent at handling the tenders. (Most passenger lists include a large number of small boat owners, all of whom could dock a small boat better than the officers of a large ship. This cruise was no exception). Celebrity didn't organize any tours in Stanley, but quite a few passengers arranged privately for tours when they got ashore. We walked around town on our own and hitched rides to and from a cove and erstwhile penguin rookery (we saw 8, total, penguins because of the late season) in light drizzle and had a ball. Falkland Islanders are understandably cross with Argentina over Argentina's territorial claims. After the 1982 invasion, Argentina mined all of the good beaches using low-metal mines that can't be detected or removed, with the result that large areas of the island are now fenced off and permanently inaccessible. I would rate it highly unlikely that the islanders would ever consent to being governed by Argentina.

Cape Horn, which is actually an island instead of a true cape, is the southernmost point of South America. We had flat seas and 20-mile visibility for our visit, which is quite a rarity. Seeing Cape Horn was the main reason my wife wanted to take this trip, so she was understandably glad.

Ushuaia, Argentina, bills itself as the end of the world. We took a tour to the nearby national park. Our guide, a special education teacher during the winter, was vastly overtrained for the job of a mere tour guide, and therefore gave us lots of extra information. The town itself had plenty of tourist shopping. I recommend reading E. Lucas Bridges' The Uttermost Part of the Earth ahead of time to gain an enhanced appreciation for Tierra del Fuego in general and the Ushuaia area in particular.

Punta Arenas, Chile, is a sizable port on the Straits of Magellan. Mercury anchored out here for some reason, so tendering was required. We didn't take any of the offered tours, which was probably a mistake in retrospect because this is a working and living city with few tourist shops and little to see in the city itself.

The Chilean Fjords is the name given to the extensive archipelago in the south of Chile. Mercury spent a day cruising up and down one fjord to see a glacier. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy with a light drizzle, and we were unable to see the (what I suppose to be) striking peaks of the Darwin Range of the Andes.

Puerto Montt, Chile, is a small city at the head of a lengthy bay. Mercury once again anchored out, this time because of insufficient water at the pier. The tidal range here is an impressive 25-30 feet. The tide was out in the morning, which meant a long climb from the tender dock. We took a bus tour that included Puerto Varas and Fruitillar, both of which were well worth seeing. Here, too, we had an overtrained guide whose "real" job is being a graduate student in oceanography, so the tour was very informative. The tour included a walk through the fish market, which was more interesting than, and exactly as smelly as, we expected. The tour finished with a 20-minute stop for shopping in a craft market that was a five-minute walk from the tender dock. It felt like the fish-market and shopping stops were just there to pad the tour to four hours. I would also recommend precautions against pickpockets in these crowded areas.

Additional costs

In common with most cruise lines, Celebrity quotes fares for the cruise portion of a vacation only nowadays. Air and shore accommodations are extra, as are port transfers and tours in the various ports of call. Beverages on board will be expensive, and you aren't allowed to bring your own on board (they screen your hand luggage to be sure of this) or to buy duty free liquor for consumption during the trip. Tipping is expected at the end of the cruise and provides most, if not all, of the income for your cabin steward and for your dining room waiter and busboy. These are standard features of every cruise we've ever taken, so they're not cause for complaint. People who are closely counting the cost of a cruise vacation simply need to be aware that these costs are over and above whatever you pay for the cruise.

Also in common with most cruise lines, you can give a charge-card imprint at the beginning of the cruise and thereby avoid all hassles related to your shipboard account at the end. Your room key doubles as a payment card at the bars and shops, so you needn't carry cash while on board.

Celebrity is now asking passengers to tip the assistant chief housekeeping officer responsible for their portion of the ship. This is not in accord with industry practice, but the requested amount is just $3.50 per person per week. We didn't feel bad about tipping our officer because she was very responsive to a sewer-gas odor we noticed at the beginning of the cruise.

My only wish in connection with the extra costs is that tipping could somehow be accomplished by credit card. There is an ATM on board, and there is also a bank that will cash travelers checks for a fee, but these resources usually run out of cash just in time for the tipping rush at the end of the cruise and I've learned not to rely on them. Instead, I brought a substantial amount of additional cash on board and kept it in my in-room safe until the last night. I think that most cruise lines would do well to worry about having large amounts of hard currency floating around below decks at the end of a cruise and about the sometimes high costs that crew have to pay to transfer money to their home countries. These concerns could be reduced by providing for electronic payments of tips.

Smoking Policy

The only negative part of our experience relates to the smoking policy aboard Mercury. We are very sensitive to second-hand smoke and not shy about saying so. The elevators, dining rooms, theaters, library, and card room are non-smoking. All other public rooms are divided into a port-side smoking area and a starboard-side non-smoking area. The casino is basically all smoking because smoking is allowed at the slot machines that surround the gaming tables. Passengers are explicitly allowed to smoke on the port side open decks but occasionally smoke on the starboard side too. They are allowed to smoke in their staterooms and in the hallways and elevator lobbies. Smokers carry lit cigarettes through non-smoking areas with fair frequency and with no risk that I observed of being chastised by the crew. Smoke predictably drifts from the smoking side of every public lounge to the non-smoking side, so that it would be more accurate to say that rooms are divided into smoking and second-hand smoking sides.

Mercury's well-intentioned but ineffective restrictions basically mean that much of the ship has a greater or lesser amount of smoke hanging in the air. Ventilation was good enough in the dining room, card room and library to keep those rooms smoke free. Smoke did seep into the theater, however. Opening our veranda door drew a blast of air from the hallway outside our stateroom, and that brought with it a frequent dose of cigarette and cigar smoke. We needed to put a towel under the stateroom door to cut this down to a manageable level.

Since many shipboard activities took place in smoking venues, they were basically off limits to us. It's an especial shame that the Navigator Lounge on the bow-end of deck 11 isn't smoke free, because it would otherwise have given us a breathtaking forward view. In the course of conversations with other passengers, we often raised the subject of smoking. Every single passenger we talked with, including passengers from outside the US, said they were bothered by second-hand smoke. Celebrity's sales agent told me that Celebrity feared losing European custom if they made more restrictions, but my conversations suggest that they haven't actually been asking their passengers what they'd prefer. I will guess that most passengers are currently just accepting the situation and not saying anything on their comment forms.

If you are a non-smoker who's read this far, you can help yourself and the majority of cruise ship passengers, who don't smoke, by saying something about it on your comment form the next time you cruise. As for us, it would appear that our best bet is to encourage Carnival to send Paradise to the places we want to visit and to hope that other cruise lines follow Carnival's lead by launching their own smoke-free ships.

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