Number of Cruises: n/a
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: n/a
Itinerary: Trans Canal
9/17/00 to 10/1/00
Prologue: The day before the cruise was to end I got the little questionnaire card. You know the ones, with all the questions, rate the food, cabin, service, etc. So, I fill it out. Then I wonder how come I rate the overall cruise experience excellent, when I've marked so many of the individual items good, fair and in some cases poor? For the answer to that you'll have to read on.
Planning: The conventional wisdom today for the big savings is to book early. I guess I don't do conventional wisdom. Perhaps it is because I'm a master procrastinator. All year long I get the little notices, scour the web sites, look at the paper but never get around to booking. Then as fall starts to descend, the need to cruise overwhelms me. So in the first week of September 2000 I called my travel agent to check into a few Holland America Line specials for October and early November. My requirements, no less then 12 days, not too many ports (I'm a sea day kind of guy) and any old grade of outside cabin. I would book as I did on the Veendam last year as a single, so I knew that I'd be paying the supplement.
I had a darn good idea of what was available, my travel agent gave me the costs and cabin options for the cruise I requested. What happened next showed me why it is essential to use professional travel agents. They come up with options that the most dedicated Internet cruise surfer miss. During the conversation he said, "you know, if it's sea days you're after you should consider the Celebrity's Mercury they're doing a one day sale. I can get you 14 days from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Ft. Lauderdale for a lot less money and in a better grade of cabin then the 12 day Caribbean cruise you're considering. The only problem is it leaves in two weeks, September 17th." A Panama Canal cruise in September? Conventional wisdom says no, too hot, too humid, too rainy, too many hurricanes. "Book it," I said. Because it was two one way airfares from Seattle to San Diego and Ft. Lauderdale to Seattle, I couldn't do better then what Celebrity air/sea program was offering. All in all, with airfare, port taxes, and paying 200% cruise fare I still couldn't afford not to go. Such is the beauty of a cruise that is being wholesaled. Was there anything I missed? Well, as it turns out there was. That night at the local watering hole I casually mentioned I was taking a cruise to a long time female friend (and I mean friend, might as well be my sister, involved in a long-term relationship, sort of friend). Offhandedly I invited her, as I had the year before. This time she consulted her partner who said without missing a beat, "go for it Linda." She did.
Getting There: We were at Celebrity's mercy regarding the air connections. Already being on the West Coast I had assumed we would be routed through LAX, but there was no way to know. Even my travel agent didn't know until the documents were Federal Expressed 3 days before the cruise. "Salt Lake City!!" I groaned. He reassured me, it wasn't that far out of the way. I checked the map, he was right. My ability to procrastinate is exceeded by one other quality, my ability to worry and make contingency plans. I did a quick check of other flight from Salt Lake City to San Diego, and found there was only one that would get us to the ship on time if we missed our connection. I felt like I was on the high wire with a tiny little net below me.
As it turns out the fates were with us. The flights went off without a hitch, although leaving at 6:05am meant getting up somewhere around 3:30am. We arrived in San Diego shortly after 1:00pm, and were greeted by the unflappably pleasant Celebrity ground personnel, with those charming Steppford wife smiles. "It's in the water Linda," I whispered, "if they offer you something, don't drink it." After our bags came off the carousel, we were directed to possibly the only non air-conditioned bus in San Diego and it's about 100 degrees outside, much hotter inside. This is our first chance to see the demographics of the cruise, and we're none to reassured. We're both 45, and felt like teenagers compared to our fellow passengers on the bus. Fortunately the drive to the ship is short. Hot, but short. What comes next was also hot, but not so short.
Embarkation: We arrive at the pier around 1:20pm. The huge warehouse type room is packed, and stiflingly hot. They are already boarding number "6". Knowing a thing or two I don't let my jaw drop in shock, I don't take in the sights and sounds, I don't complain, I beeline for the number table and get "16." Linda weaves her way in behind me, since at 6'6" and 240 pounds I'm easy to spot in a crowd. All right, 250 pounds, but I was planning to lose weight. This is our second chance to see the demographics and we are relieved. There are quite a few people our age and younger, some a touch older, a few families with well-behaved children, and of course the spry and not so spry "seasoned citizens," truly a mixed bag. On a 14-day cruise I had expected a much older crowd.
It's taking about 10 minutes per number so I figure had an hour and a half to wait. Celebrity has set up little refreshment stands with nondescript watery Kool-Aid sort of drinks (Steppford water?) in the front half of the Hall. People are literally jammed into the room. Scanning over the top of the room (helps being tall) I see the area away from the check-in lines and all the little booths is far less crowed. We wander over there and find some very nice empty metal benches, a bar and garage style doors that are open to the breeze and view of the hull of the ship. Everyone else stays over by the check-in lines perhaps expecting that they'll call the numbers randomly. People watching easily fills the next hour and twenty minutes until our number is called. We zip through the line, they take an imprint of the credit card, and we're on our way, after stiff arming the photographers at the gangway. The last thing I want to see is a sweaty disheveled picture of myself before I have a tan!
The Cabin: We are escorted to our category 4 cabin on the 9th deck (Vista) number 9019, well forward on the port side. Having looked at the deck plan I knew exactly where we were. Right over the bow thrusters, but fortunately on a very high deck. My initial reaction when they opened the door was, "how are we going to get all our stuff in here?" Followed by, "can you find our room steward to separate the beds." They had been made into a double, and traveling with my friend (might as well be sister, has a partner sort of friend), it was a little closer then either of us planned to be.
The cabin had a very large window, small love seat, three closets (although only two are hanging full length, the middle unit is shelves and drawers), a corner unit that contains the TV, Safe, and locked Mini Bar. Two nightstands with drawers, a small desk with drawers and a chair. The carpet, bed spreads and curtains are done in pleasant blues, which worked rather nicely with the bleached ash looking cabin paneling. Across from the bed and desk were large mirrors that I did my best to avoid for the duration of the cruise. Linda suggested that if they were smoked or peach colored, it would be much kinder. I must say the bathroom unit, although small approximately 6 x 4 is incredibly ingenious. It has without a doubt the best shower I've ever seen in a non-suite. As it turned out all of our stuff did fit in the room with drawer space to spare. Hanging space was a little tight for a 14-day cruise. It would be a very comfortable home for two weeks, and the more time passed the more I came to realize how well it was designed. The room Steward did an excellent and unobtrusive job throughout the trip.
The The ship itself is vast, exceptionally clean, and the public rooms are much more tasteful then they look in the brochure. I won't do a room by room review. Look at Celebrity's deck plans for the exact layout if that interests you. There were a lot of things I liked and several I did not. This is a beautiful ship, no doubt about it. However, it is also a ship that lacks a truly great room or lounge. The room with the most comfortable chairs and decor is Michael's Club, a "clubby" cigar bar that was rarely used, perhaps due to the stench that lingered in the room if there were more than two people smoking. The Pavilion lounge located aft above the restaurant has a large tiered sitting area and dance floor, but the low ceiling and numerous massive almost pyramid style pillars make the sight lines truly horrendous. A potentially great lounge (Tastings) was cut in half by the Atrium and another Rendez-Vous is used as a thoroughfare to the restaurant. In short, although many rooms have wonderful features, none really pull al the design elements together. The closest was The Navigator Club while an underused disco at night is a wonderful multi level room with two story windows on three sides. It was great for the transit of the Panama Canal, or a place to pull up a chair and read a book by day.
Sadly much of the furniture throughout the ship is uncomfortable. The banquettes that line the some of the lounges are rock hard. Some of the armchairs are as low as a bean bag chair, and not easily exited from. The barrel chairs tend to be narrow and very heavy. Certainly there is furniture that is comfortable, but much of it, alas is not.
There is no full promenade area on the Mercury. Sadly this is the trend in ships today. There is a tiny little jogging area on the Sky Deck (12) that was twelve laps to a mile. Since this is where I was usually tanning my considerable girth, I got to know these healthy joggers and power walkers almost intimately. There is a partial promenade on the 6th deck. To do a complete circuit of the ship I'd start on the 11th level, towards the bow (always taking a minute to gaze down at the crew pool area located in the bow section, which weather permitting was quite visual) and work my way up to the 13th (although very quietly since this is above the Sky Suites) towards the stern.
Another annoyance is that there is no self-service laundry on board. I have no problem paying for the cleaning of a dress shirt, suit, or slacks. I do mind paying a $1.00 for a pair of socks. Having read other reviews, we brought some dry detergent and did the small stuff in the sink and used the handy line in the shower to let things dry.
The Pools: The two main pools are located on the Resort (11th) deck, one is fresh water, one salt. There are several hot tubs in this area also. The pool area has padded chaise lounges on the main level, but not in other areas. Due to the number of sea days and we were running at a fairly high capacity, finding a lounge in the sun on the main level was a little dicey. However one level up (Sky Deck) there was always an abundance of open lounges, and frankly better breezes. No complaints here. In the rear of the ship there is a smaller pool covered by a dome. Most of the time the roof was closed and this area used more for eating then for sunning or swimming.
The Spa & Gym: The Aqua Spa is run by Steiners. For those who don't know, Steiners is to Ship Spas, what DeBeers are to Diamonds, a complete monopoly. I didn't use these facilities. I'm not sure what would happen if someone tried to wrap me in seaweed, or exfoliate me in other fashions. I don't want to know. You do have to go past the mint smocked Steiner maidens to get to the gym. I always thought they were looking at my pores a little too hard as I passed. It was creepy. The Gym is L shaped with a very small free weight station, some Nautilus style equipment, stair steppers, treadmills and such and the like. Not large, but it seemed more than adequate for the number of passengers who actually used them. There was also a carpeted aerobic and stretching area.
That's Entertainment: There are three kinds of entertainment on a ship. The Show's, The Headliners, and the Lounge Acts. I don't expect a cruise ship to be Las Vegas. I've done Vegas, from backstage. I expect the Production shows to be amateurish. I suspect the headliners are on their way down the slippery ladder of semi-stardom. Lastly, I hope the Lounge Acts are marginally entertaining, and musically competent. Ultimately, it gives those who want something to do after dinner other than drink and gamble someplace to go. The venue for the shows and headliners is the Celebrity Theater. Done in shocking red and gold it is quite comfortable and has good sight lines generally. However when the stage is open (without backdrops) to the wall of video monitors it is very unfinished and distracting. You can see behind the exposed floor speakers to the back wall. The stage floor itself could use a new coat of paint. Minor flaws certainly.
On this cruise, there were some highs and lows. At the onset I don't usually name, names. Chances are you'll not have the same band or person on any ship you travel on. Normally I would speak in generalities. I'm certainly not going write someone's name for all to see that I think is incompetent. No, I don't want a drink thrown in my face in the very unlikely event our paths would ever cross again.
Lounge Acts: Several of the lounge acts were quite amazing and really the best entertainment on the ship. I'm going to name them because I hope you'll be as lucky as we were and run into them. Voltz, labeled as the "Caribbean Band" they could play almost anything in any style, and they possessed truly gifted lead singer. The Kaster Strings, the classical combo, extremely talented, symphony quality musicians with a good range of classical and popular music. Finally, Full Sail, an accappella quartet. These guys had just gotten together a few months before the cruise, and they are learning new songs literally by the day. They were great.
Headliners: The cruise had a variety of headliners, none of which are really household names. For a reason I might add. Of course there are comics. One was introduced with the fanfare of being a 4 time star search winner. Gosh. For one musician the term "The Piano Wizardry" came before his name. Piano Lizardly may have been more appropriate. I'm sure he was telling the same jokes as on his first cruise on the Titanic. He probably got to the lifeboats before they were full because they booed him off the stage. Another Pianist, classical this time, did a very sweet history of Chopin, with a wonderful narration. Another comedy team, another musician so on and so forth.
The Production Shows: Exactly what you would expect, lots molar exposing smiles, reasonably good singing, sort of high kicks, not so leggy dancers, and choreography that would work even if he ship were about to capsize. This isn't Vegas, this isn't Atlantic City, this isn't Reno, this isn't Branson, this isn't, well you get my drift. This is a cruise ship. They don't pay enough money to get top dancers, or choreographers. Ultimately what does it matter if the robes for the Jesus Christ Superstar number look like they belonged on the Liberace Tabernacle Choir? These kids are doing a very competent job, if you want to see a great production show, go to Vegas or Atlantic City.
Special recognition should go to the Celebrity Orchestra. They were all talented, professional musicians and they produced a very good sound.
The Cruise Staff: If I had written this the first two days of the cruise it would have sounded like this: To them "perky" would be considered a state of clinical depression. They have achieved frenetic. So much so that they should post a warning sign, advising diabetics to stand back 30 feet to avoid insulin shock. That is what I would have written. Over time I got acquainted with several of the young men and women that make up the cruise staff. I like them. On a one on one basis they're wonderful people. They are following orders, and doing their jobs. Put them in a group, play some music and wham, "perky". I'm not sure who determined that "perky" was going to be the style that all cruise staffs must emulate. I wonder if that person will die a horrible, yet smiling death? They would deserve such a fate for what they have wrought on not only the passengers, but also the cruise staff members. For it is these young men and women that are going to suffer the lasting consequences of perkiness, lockjaw and those little squint lines around the eyes.
The Cruise Director: See above but add: perpetually disingenuous.
The Food: The Main Dining Room: Here I expected Celebrity to shine. They shamelessly tout their dining experience as a cut above all the other premium lines. "Exceeding Expectations." They advertise. If the review were written that first night it would have been "Crushing Expectations." I will say at the onset, that all of the food, no matter what the course, was beautifully presented. I went with what the chef recommended that first night. Great appetizer. So-so soup. The freshest looking salad I've seen on a ship but I chose a dressing (tasting of turned buttermilk if that's possible) that made it inedible. A truly wonderful steak, but the little potato fritters had a consistency of quick drying spackle. Literally I could not get the taste out of my mouth, or my teeth. I wondered if they might have discovered through serendipity an amazing new tooth bonding process. Things happen that way you know. In the days that followed, the kitchen seemed to even things out a bit. However, things were either a hit, in that I mean excellent or a miss, meaning in some cases inedible. In their defense if you didn't like what you ordered, you could order something else, which was promptly brought without question. Based upon the per diem of what I was paying for the cruise I had no business complaining even if they served me pureed rats. Hum, perhaps that was the filler of potato fritters.
The Service: The dining room staff tends to be Eastern European. Our waiter was wonderful, pleasant, professional and appropriate in all circumstances. He did have one presentation thing we found amusing and that was to squeeze through two diners with the dessert tray and hold it so low you thought he was going to rest it on the water glasses. Our assistant waiter had two moods sullen and intrusive and he could switch between them faster than a person with multiple personalities on diet pills. It wasn't just our assistant waiter, I heard many other people discussing their waiters or assistant waiters also. They seemed to be using the passengers to work on their English and were often involved in LONG rambling antidotes. While you can't fault them for learning English, often when it comes to dinning service, the less said the better. One person said that he thought the Eastern Europeans were trying to emulate the banter of (Princess's) Italian crews, but with none of the charm. That summed it up well I for some of the servers I thought.
The Dining Experience: Part of the experience is the food and service. Ambiance is another. Being on the second level of the Manhattan Dining Room our table lacked the sweep and grandeur of the high ceilings of the first floor. Still it's a very lovely room. For me, the key to the dining experience is your tablemates. Great conversation can make up for almost anything I have found in my previous 11 cruises. Although we had signed up for a table of 10, we got a table of 6. Two other couples not much margin for error I thought as we approached the table. For those of you who have ever been at a "bad" table you know what I mean. A negative tablemate or two and you're off to the restaurant manager for reassignment. As it turned it there was no need to worry. To Marilyn and Neil, Phil and Sharon, thank you. You were definitely one of the highlights of the cruise. We tended to laugh harder, and linger longer than any other table in the restaurant.
The Buffets: Bar none the best buffet restaurant I have ever seen on a ship or anywhere else. An amazing variety of foods, fresh and wonderfully presented in four separate stations. Waiters are present to take your tray after you go through the line to help you find a table. This is a very nice gesture, especially for the older passengers. There are two smaller buffets in the main and rear pool area, for after hours continental breakfast, burgers and ribs for lunch, and after hours pizza. It seems you could eat about 20 hours a day if you chose.
Room Service: Linda came down with a respiratory infection 7 days into the cruise and had room service one night. Ordered through interactive TV the selection is extremely limited. A few soups, a few sandwiches and a few beverages. The food is edible and extremely bleak, period end of story. If you were thinking of having a romantic dinner in your cabin, think again. Room service for dinner will satisfy only those who are so sick that venturing out of the cabin is a fate worse than death.
Lounges and Deck Service: The numerous lounges had very professional bartenders and service personnel. I am one of those people who appreciate the fact that Celebrity adds 15% to the bar tab as gratuity. That way I don't have to hunt down my favorite bar servers the last night of the cruise to tip them. The servers do get to keep the15% I confirmed, although I wasn't certain if the bartender ended up with a small percentage. I tend to tip in excess of 15% in the real world, and in certain circumstances WAY in excess of that. I can usually tell when that happens the following day when I can't read my own signature on the charge slips. The deck service was appropriate and not pushy. My only beef in this regard has to do with Celebrity's policy not to allow the servers to wear sunglasses while on the open decks. It's amazingly bright out there and I think they're endangering the health of their employees, a number of which complained of headaches and dizziness.
Cabo San Lucas: Hot. This was a Tender Port, which is always difficult for the passengers who are less mobile. Since we were the first cruise ship through of the season, the vendors were very aggressive.
Acapulco: Hot and huge.
Puerto Caldera : Hot and dirty.
Cartagena Columbia: Hot and surprisingly modern.
Aruba: Hot and quite pretty
As you can see, it was hot. We knew that going in, you can't buck conventional wisdom and not pay a price. However, we were fortunate to skirt most of the hurricanes and tropical depressions. One of the reasons I chose this cruise was the number of sea days 9 (if you included the Panama Canal).
A cruise for me is about the ship, not the ports. You really don't do a cruise to get to know any port intimately. There just isn't time. Celebrity offers a variety of shore excursions, some of which are good values, some not so good. Quite a few of the tours involve being bounced around in buses and short photo opportunities. Since I'm 6'6" I have found from past cruises that the people in the seat in front of me, do not appreciate having my knees in their back the entire trip. I don't do buses anymore. I've been to Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco a number of times before anyway. I didn't do any organized tours, but went ashore for long walks, a little shopping, and to hunt down Internet Cafes to send home messages everywhere expect Cartagena. Since Columbia second main industry seems to be kidnapping, I promised my sister before I left that I'd stay on the ship. You certainly are safe enough on the tours, since they like to pick individual business people for ransom, instead of tourists by busload.
Port Guides: A particular pet peeve of mine. Only a few shops get recommended and included in the Port Guides, and they tell you those are the ones that have paid Celebrity a "promotional fee." Since many of the passengers do not carry other travel guides they are left to fumble around in the dark (actually the blazing sun).
The Panama Canal: This was my first passage and I was prepared to ho-hum the experience. There is a set of locks about 5 miles from where I live and I've done them hundreds of times. Gates open, boats go in, gates close, water is pumped in/out, boats rise or lower, gates open, boats goes out. However, it is the sense of history here that is impressive. Celebrity ran little programs on the TV and gave us printed material on the locks that put the whole experience in perspective. The failure of the French to build a sea-level canal, the horrific loss of human life due to accidents and illness, and technology that was extremely primitive. Yet, the locks where completed in 1914 and still operate. A tribute to mans ingenuity over nature when such things were appreciated. The Mercury is one of the largest cruise ships capable of passing through the Canal and it was a very tight fit indeed. What I found more interesting then the Locks themselves was Lake Gatlun. It was rugged, lush and incredibly beautiful. The Mercury really absorbed people well for the Canal crossing. Although the weather was hot, it was not unbearable. Many ventured out on the open decks and some used the Navigator Lounge or the lower public rooms in air-conditioned splendor.
Medical Facilities: Unfortunately both Linda and I had the opportunity to visit the facilities aboard ship. She for a respiratory infection the 7th day into the cruise ($246). Me, for a sinus infection the 12th day ($75). I got the better deal because I have more medical savvy, and declined a number of tests. Having had a rare cancerous tumor 2 ½ years ago, I'd already been through the ringer (an operation, chemotherapy, and radiation) once. I know my body, scared (and tubby) as it may be. After the obligatory blood pressure and temperature I had a very long visit with the doctor discussing the relative merits of different antibiotics. The facilities themselves are quite adequate, and the doctor seemed very knowledgeable, even with English as a second language. There were certainly a number of passengers streaming in and out throughout the cruise. Bugs spread quickly on ships.
Disembarkation: Always the saddest part of the trip. Celebrity did a very good job with organization and staging. However, there were too few porters to help you with your bag once you got to the pier, and the buses to the airport a bit of a hassle. Celebrity can not be blamed for the passenger that finally figures out they're on the wrong bus after 27 announcements where the bus was going. I pity the poor bus driver who had to haul all the luggage out to find the guys bags. If you're going to the Ft. Lauderdale airport, do yourself a favor and grab a cab, it only costs a few bucks.
The Overall Cruise Experience: So now that you've read the above you may wonder, why I rated the overall cruise experience excellent? Because the cruise experience is more then the sum of the individual parts. The overall cruise experience is a state of mind. It is about stepping outside of your normal life. It's about how you relate with the people. It's about conversation, whether at dinner, by the pool, or a snide aside during a show. It's about never having to use the same towel twice, clean a plate, or cook a meal. It's about watching people. It's about joining in the organized activities, or just sitting in the shade with a book. It's about savoring the moment, trying to slow time down and burning images into memories. In this regard I thought Celebrity pulled all the pieces together well. While there were certainly things that were not perfect, there weren't any glaring errors. There is also another factor, in that you get what you pay for. In this case I didn't pay enough to have anything other than an incredible time.