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George Smart

Age: 41

Occupation:Leadership Development Consultant and Speaker

Number of Cruises: 18

Cruise Line: Celebrity

Ship: Mercury

Sailing Date: June 22nd, 2003

Itinerary: Alaska


Overall: A wonderful, relaxing way to explore the cities and beauty of Alaska's Inside Passage. Explore the ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka, plus a few hours in Disenchantment Bay, the access point for Hubbard Glacier. A refined, classy ship without a super premium price. A crew genuinely interested in the pleasure of your vacation. Nearly flawless shipboard operations, including a dining room that serves 1000 meals at a time without missing a beat. The scenery? Beautiful!

The ship: Mercury was built in 1997 as part of Celebrity's expansion into the market a notch above Princess, RCL, and Carnival. Conde Nast rates Mercury (and many other Celebrity vessels) as tops in their class. However, our first impression was that Mercury was not that different from Carnival. This changed after the 2nd day, when we began to notice Celebrity's refined customer service, its sincere crew, and the passengers themselves, who were not nearly as "wild" as on other lines. Though the ship was full, everyone was nice, and even the kids were amazingly well behaved. The bars, the casino, and the disco were never crowded. We had the place to ourselves most of the time.

The staff: Julian Bertsch started his seagoing life as an AV geek -- handling sound and lighting for shipboard production numbers. Now he's Mercury's Cruise Director -- professional, informed, entertaining but not intrusive, handsome, and (sorry girls) no longer available - he's heading to the altar this fall. Two gems on his staff: The vivacious Robin Pilarski and the smooth and stealthily charming "Cookie" will make great future Cruise Directors. Robin's birthday is coming up September 10 - wish her a happy 25th!

Best Deals

The best place to hang out, day or night, is the Navigator Club, the ship's huge disco up on Deck 12. With a commanding 180-degree panorama out floor-to-ceiling windows, the multi-leveled seating areas are wonderful for viewing the gorgeous scenery.

Celebrity allows advance tour booking on their website, a wise idea, especially for the more popular tours. Although in the Caribbean you can save as much as 40% by booking excursions over the web with vendors in advance, we did not find the same savings in Alaskan ports.

Like other cruise lines, Celebrity offers an adult unlimited soda card for US $39/adult for 7 days. You cannot buy this by the day, only for the entire cruise. If you don't drink alcohol, this is the way to go.

The helicopter trips to glaciers, dogsled trips, and other unusual excursions are expensive, and everybody leaves the ship grumbling about it. But everyone comes back beaming.

Definitely take a taxi to and from the Vancouver airport -- it is only $13 CDN per person and much faster than the Celebrity bus. Plus you don't have the long waits for other passengers and their bags.

Best prices on quality t-shirts that won't fall apart on their 3rd wash is at the Juneau T-Shirt Company just across the street from the Juneau dock.

The best Spa deals are in the glass display case to the left as you enter the spa reception area.

Typically those deals are for when you're in port. Feeling a little "dirty"? Get the magic mud and then clean up with your beloved in the mysterious and sensual Rasul Chamber.

Join Celebrity's Captain's club. It's free and you get perks on your next Celebrity cruise.

Aboard Ship

Our cabin (1138) was spacious and spotless. Mercury's elevators, toilets, lights, and other systems always worked. Everywhere was super clean and polished, including the public areas. Breakfast in bed is a must. Breakfast is also served up on Deck 11 and in the main restaurant, Manhattan.

The food? While we were thoroughly impressed with the crew and their exceptional friendliness, the food itself was truly the same as compared to other lines. That's not a bad thing, as the food is very good, just not up there with the ship's other superlatives. Extra points, however, go for the Baked Alaska - still served flaming - unlike many other cruise lines who have eliminated this classic cruise practice.

The most romantic spots are on Decks 9 and 10 at the back of the boat, deserted after about 11pm (wink, wink). If you have been on Carnival, NCL, or Princess, there are some things you won't see (or hear). There is no 24/7 pizza/salad/ice cream. Except for a daily status report from the Captain, there are no announcements (this is VERY good). There are no towel police tracking your every move. There is no entertainment by the waiters except for the last night which makes for more elegant dining. And there are no tired dancers selling $1 scratch-off cards (that no one seems to win, ever) in the hallways. Typical tips of $10 per person per day are additional, given the last day of the cruise.

The ship's sushi bar is open every night from 6-10pm. Other Deck 11 casual restaurants close for dinner, except for a small area called "Alternative Casual" which requires reservations and $2 per person service charge. So in order to eat, you've got to make reservations, eat sushi, or show up at the main restaurant on Deck 5 dressed appropriately. That means two formal nights (tux or dark suit), two informal nights (slacks and tie), and two "casual" nights (slacks and sport shirt). Guys, they'll let you slide if you don't have a tux, or even a tie, but don't try to sneak by in jeans or t-shirt on any night. This is a classy ship, not uptight, just classy.

The Photo staff was never in our face except for getting on at Vancouver. And no badly made-up guy in a pirate suit took our picture, ever.

Group gym classes like aerobics and kickboxing, formerly free, are now $10 each. There's no free cruise bingo on the last day, but the last bingo does have a pot that ranges from $3000-6100.

Not So Great

If you put Celebrity tags on your bag prior to arrival, they will somehow be plucked from beneath the airport (before clearing Customs, which is quite a feat), and delivered to the ship. No one tells you this in advance. You begin to suspect something when your bags never come out on the belt. The experience is quite a bit unsettling. It took us 20 minutes to find a Celebrity rep to assure us the bags were indeed going to make it to the ship.

Don't trust any biking shore excursion that says "easy." Those descriptions were written by lean 25-year-olds in Lycra. Pass unless you've got your own bike and you ride it 5-10 miles regularly.

Internet is expensive at 50 cents per minute, and there's no deal to get unlimited access during the cruise. We saw few people at the terminals. Bring your cell phone, as all ports are hooked up to the grid and depending on your calling plan a call home may be cheaper than a portside landline. It certainly will be cheaper than the shipboard phone.

Expresso and cappucino after dinner, free on Carnival and other lines, is extra.

Lukewarm salt water plus minerals equals the amusingly pretentious "Thalassotherapy" pool, $10 a day to visit. Hot tubs (four of them) are free on Deck 11.

Conclusion: A winning cruise!

To see all our reviews, visit http://www.strategicdevelopment.com/travel . Happy Cruising!

George and Eleanor

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