Why we’re not loyal to one cruise line

cruise ships in portOn more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.”  In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak.  Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research).  We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak.  Here’s our story.

We like to travel.  We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc.  We just like to experience new places.  We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship.  Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them.  They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits.  The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world.  We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter.  We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.

The first cruise: Carnival

Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans.  We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation.  So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.

“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences.  “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”

And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami.  Needless to say we had a wonderful time.  This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room.  The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited.  We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.

Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask.  The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience.  The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved.  So it was on to Holland America.

Setting sail on Holland America

We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise.  We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites.  The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.

 Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.
The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean.  Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations.  After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom?  Well, we couldn’t.  Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).

Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.”  The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this.  If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted.  Exceed?  Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).

Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas

Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent.  We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.

Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive.  This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar.  If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.

Overall, the cruise was wonderful.  The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers.  We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers.  To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship!  One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro.  It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.
Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice.  Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.

We will probably return to Regent someday.

Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea

After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale.  With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up.  And moving up we were.

The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary.  But more important than that, the service was impeccable.  We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.

Our transatlantic voyage

Everyone should do it once.  Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship.  Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York.  What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship.  Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.

With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?

Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit.  After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown.  This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.

Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond.  The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation.  It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin.  How could we possibly top that?

Onward and upward?

We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try.  Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.

After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney.  Why Oceania?

Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit.  They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania.  We had not.  Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try.  But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.

We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history.  Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.

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Travel & Dining: Inseparable for discerning travelers

Come into Qusine aboard the Celebrity cruise ship Summit with us.

It would be hard to imagine traveling without considering the pleasures of dining on the road.  For us, travel means time away from our own kitchen and dining room, and invites us to sample more than just the sights and the sounds – we can taste our travels as well.  And when you seek information about dining while away, you usually think about finding restaurant reviews in the cities and countryside where you‘ll be traveling.  We’ve had many memorable experiences in wonderful city restaurants as well as some in more off-the-beaten track locales, but one of the most memorable dining experiences we had recently was on board a cruise ship.

The fun begins with the innovative decor in orange, black & white. See those light fixtures?

As difficult as it may be for some of the more jaded among us to comprehend, cruise ships today are truly entering the competition for dining experiences.  Of course we’re not talking about the main dining room where hordes of wait staff flutter about taking hundreds of orders and serving mountains of meals all within an hour and a half time frame – although that experience does have its merits.  We’re talking about the continuing move in the cruise industry toward offering more and more inventive ways to entice you away from that main dining room for an experience that you might not be able to have anywhere else.  As we’ve discussed previously, the notion of specialty dining spaces on board cruise ships is not without its challenges, but it is also not without its rewards.

Dinner for your group or just the two of you.

Earlier this year we traveled from Puerto Rico through Bermuda and landed in New York aboard the Celebrity Summit.  While on board, we had dinner in several of their specialty restaurants, but the one that rewarded us with the most original experience was Qsine.

From the moment we walked into the space we felt a bit like Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Surrounded by orange, white and black, we sat beneath a light fixture composed of multiple table lamps – all hung upside down.  Then the server brought the menu.

What fun!  An iPad menu.  This wasn’t the first time we’d ever been handed an iPad at a restaurant (it seems to be a bit of a fad for those that can afford it), but it was the first time that the menu had such interactive capabilities.  We were charmed from the start.

A bit like a tasting menu, the selections sounded interesting and different – just what you want when dining is more than simply eating, as it is for us.  Then we had a bit of fun with the mixed drinks menu.  The iPad allowed us to ‘mix’ the drinks by moving the offered ingredients into the glass on the screen, finishing with ice and then shaking!  A great way to get to know your drinks!

After a very entertaining run-down of the menu by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable wait staff you could encounter anywhere (they seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us), we chose a variety of their items all designed for sharing.  Then the parade began.

Chefs will always tell you that the presentation is as important as the dish itself, and it is true that we experience our food not only through taste and smell, but also through our visual sense.  The staff at Qsine seems to have this down to a true art.  We’ll leave some of the presentation as a mystery so that you too might experience this some time, but for those of you who might not, we‘ll highlight one particular presentation.

Have you ever had a dish served to you vertically rather than horizontally?  Didn’t think so – neither had we until we dined at Qsine.

The vertical serving dish as Patty peeks through from the other side.

When the waiter brought the course to the table, he placed something that resembled Patty’s Victorian dollhouse in between us on the table – but with the front wall missing.  In each little cubby-hole resided a different tasting dish from the part of the world we’d chosen for that particular course.  What fun it was to look, consider and sample the food.

Oh, and about the food?  It was one of the most satisfying dining experiences we’ve ever had.  It occurred to us that if Celebrity wanted to franchise this concept on land, hip Torontonians and maybe even New Yorkers would flock to just such a spot.  Maybe we’ll invest!

The ‘suite experiment’: Celebrity cruises ‘royal suite’ fails the test

The Celebrity ‘royal suite” living room & dining room.

It all started as the grand experiment: the discerning travelers would return to the scene of their first cruise ship suite experience, and travel in a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship.  We’re just back from that cruise and the verdict is in: the Royal Suite was not royal, and either we’ve changed, or Celebrity cruises has faced the recession by short-changing their highest paying per-person-per-day cruisers (we say that because the only suites larger are the two penthouses which seem to mostly be occupied by multiples whose cost-per-day can be kept down by sleeping on pull-out couches and sharing a bathroom!).

The experiment needs a bit of background: after our first suite experience, we were convinced that this was the only way to travel, thus took another Celebrity cruise in the same category suite as well as two Regent cruises and one on Silversea.  Both of these last two are billed as “six-star” luxury cruise lines and are all-suite accommodation (although the term suite covers a lot of ground).  We also sailed aboard the Cunard Queen Mary 2 in a Queen’s Grill suite last year, a singular experience if ever there was one.

We first need to say that we had a wonderful time on our vacation, the staff on the ship (especially in the dining room) adding considerably to that favorable experience.  However, as the “suite experience” goes, it failed the test of discerning travel.  When is a suite not a suite?  When it lacks the suite experience.

This was our third Celebrity Royal Suite experience.  At just under 540 square feet with a living room, dining room, bathroom with double sink, Jacuzzi tub and stand-up shower, as well as a 195 square foot verandah, as cruise ship accommodations go, these should be luxurious.  Well, that depends on how much you pay – and we paid a lot.

Art – need we say more?

All of the suite experiences we had on luxury lines (Silversea and Regent, as well as the Queens Grill suite on Cunard) were terrific – but as anyone who knows anything about cruising recognizes, they are very expensive in relative terms.  For example, aboard a Silversea ship for a comparable cruise in a comparable suite we paid almost double the cost of the Celebrity.  Silversea is however, all inclusive, but does that justify the price?  How much can you possibly drink in a week or two?   At this stage, we think the Silversea price is justified.  But you need the rest of the story.

We boarded the Celebrity Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Unlike on the more exclusive lines, there are inevitable line-ups.  Although there is a dedicated line for suite guests, there is a wait nonetheless.  Last year when we boarded the Silversea Silver Spirit in Barbados, we were warmly greeted by staff and directed immediately to the ship where the check-in procedures took place.  At Celebrity we were perfunctorily directed by a pointing finger wagged by a young man who looked to be fourteen years old.  He directed us to stand behind an older woman who had decided to take the opportunity to have every single question about the cruise answered.  Hmm…

Then we were directed to get our keys from the maître d’ next door who informed us that as suite guests we could dine “for free” that evening in the specialty restaurant of our choice.  We chose our restaurant and our time and were promptly told we could not be thus accommodated.  So, we opted out. (Later, our butler was able to procure a reservation at one of them – and not our first choice –  after considerable haggling as he told it). But specialty dining is another story.

We boarded to find ourselves greeted by a tray of drinks and little else.  (Oh, for the Cunard, Silversea or Regent greeting where they take your hand luggage and show you to you suite with a smile!).  We found the staircase and made it to our suite on our own.  When our butler found us, we were delighted to find that he was the same one we had had on the Celebrity Century almost five years ago in our first suite experience – so we expected to have exactly the same service.  Well, things seem to have changed.

First, there was the water.  We asked to have the expected carafe of ice water alongside the ice bucket on the suite bar only to be told that Celebrity had discontinued that service.  There was now a large bottle of water (for purchase) in the suite refrigerator.  When asked why this had been done (other than the obvious money grab), he told us that it had been done for health reasons.  What nonsense!  What’s the difference between the stainless steel carafe of water and the stainless steel bucket of ice beside it?  Or for that matter, the communal jug from which ice water is continually poured during dinner?  And what about their “save the waves” environmental program?  Bottled water?  Which reminds us: there is no recycling bin in the suite.

The cruise line web site indicates a number of impressive amenities in the suites.  Frette linens, Bulgari bath products etc.  However, a significant number of the expected (and listed amenities) failed to materialize:  second hair dryer, slippers, “pillow menu”, reserved theater seating, tote bag (come on people, a flimsy grocery bag is not a tote), and our personal bug-bear – there was no luggage valet service (presumably on offer for everyone aboard).  When we asked, we were told that it was in selected ports only – and we were further told that there was such an indication on the web site.  With respect, we beg to differ, as this screen capture from their web site indicates.  In any case, they did send us up a bottle of wine to compensate.  Nice, but not what was on offer.

The snip from the Celebrity web site – snipped after our return. No mention of “only in selected ports” here. Check it out at http://www.celebritycruises.com/onboard/singleColLanding.do?pagename=onboard_outstanding_service

We then went out to our verandah where we intended to spend a lot of time.  But the cushions were missing from the lounge chairs.  When asked, the butler informed us that the cruise line had removed them during the refit in January since they were considered (by someone) to be a fire hazard.  So, for two days we sat on loungers that were designed to be topped with comfy cushions until we could stand it no longer.  Guest relations promptly sent up the cabin attendant with cushions that are evidently now provided only on request.  If we had not been in the same suite previously, we would not have known that they were missing: we would only have known that Celebrity had the most uncomfortable lounge chairs known to man.   Evidently were not the first guests to complain either.

The chaises in the foreground. No cushions? What were they thinking?

There were two burned out light bulbs in the suite and one of the sinks in the bathroom lacked a stopper. Since these were not major inconveniences, we decided to see if anyone noticed during the eight days.  No one did.  It was often difficult to get service in a bar, and the debarkation process was chaos.  Part of what sets the six-star cruise lines apart from others whose bread and butter is not their highest-paying customers is the attention to detail – details that you expect not to be overlooked.

There were other parts of the cruise that now lead us to believe that the recession has taken a toll on service and amenities – but that’s a story for another post.

The bottom line is this for us:  when seeking a six-star suite experience, cruise on a six-star ship.  Suites on the other lines appear to be simply larger staterooms.  Pity.

The Celebrity Century: Welcome to our suite life!

If you have taken even one cruise, it is likely (at least the statistics say so) that you will take another one.  Oddly, when we asked out 22-year-old son a few months ago about his vacation preferences, even he said that his very favorite vacations were cruises.  So, evidently cruises are not just for the boomer-and-beyond crowd!  So, as you contemplate booking that next cruise – whether you’ve been on one or ten – with respect, please permit us to give you a wee piece of advice.

If you are thinking of upgrading to a larger, nicer, better-located-and-with-more-amenities stateroom, consider the answer to this question before you do:  Are you prepared to book this level of stateroom (or above) and pay the price for every cruise you will take in the future?  If the answer is no, then step away from the upgrade.  The fact is this: once you upgrade, you will never go back!

We know this because on our 20th wedding anniversary five years ago we decided to book a Royal Suite on a Celebrity ship to travel the Mediterranean for the first time.   Since then, we have been on half a dozen cruises and we have never been able to convince ourselves that we’d enjoy anything less.  Ouch, that can be expensive – but oh how you will enjoy your cruise!  From the perspective of the discerning traveler who is judicious about that luxury spending, it his worth every penny.   In our opinion, as we’ve mentioned before, bigger is not better when it comes to cruise ships – unless you’re referring to your suite!

Before we cruised only in suites, we didn’t know what we were missing.  That was just fine.  But we find now that the lines are using photos of their suites in much of their advertising.  If you’re a bit curious about what a suite is really like, come inside our suite on a recent cruise aboard the Celebrity Century.  In later posts we’ll take you aboard Regent and Silversea.  Promise!  Click on the photo to take you to the tour…