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.

Good things come in small packages: A small-ship cruise

A picture is worth a thousand words - The Silver Cloud (on the right!)

For many people, bigger is better.  For us discerning travelers…not so much.  When the ship Oasis of the Seas launched in 2009, we took one look at its specs (close to 6000 passengers) and knew immediately it wasn’t for us.  The largest ship we’d been on at that time was just slightly over 2000 passengers, and we knew that was quite large enough.  But we wanted to go smaller.  So we looked to the self-described “six-star” experience.

It’s wonderful to be at that point in our lives (nudging ever closer to retirement and yet still with significant cash flow) so that we can travel in a way that allows us to be a bit more discerning than we used to be – because, self-described or not, the so-called six-star cruise lines cost.  And for us, there is one place where bigger is better when it comes to getting on a cruise ship; that place is the size of the stateroom.

On the occasion of our twentieth wedding anniversary some years ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship and we’ve never been able to go back to a smaller stateroom.  So, we are looking for value when we choose an experience.  In the case of moving to smaller ships, we first tried Regent – first the Navigator (490 passengers) and then the Mariner (700 passengers)[1] – then ended up earlier this year on a Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud with all of 296 passengers.  What an experience that was!  Even if you can’t afford a Silversea cruise, or a Silver suite on board, come along with us and we’ll tell you what it’s like.

Art in the suite dining room

We boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown, Barbados at the cruise terminal.  We were greeted not by the usual line-ups and booths that face you when you go aboard a larger ship in places like Fort Lauderdale; rather there was a table with three of the ship’s personnel to greet us with our documents and a wave us to the pier.  Once on board, with a glass of champagne in hand, we had our ID photos taken and were whisked to our suite.

What made the ship so different than previous experiences was that you could stand in the bar at one end of the ship and look down its one corridor and see to the other end.  Then, as you walked along the corridors past occasionally open doors of suites (every stateroom aboard is at least a small suite) and see out both sides of the ship: there are no interior cabins; everyone has an outside suite and some 90% have verandahs.

Patty in the suite living room

The ship’s itinerary took us to several islands that we had never visited before either as an island vacation or as a cruise ship port.  These included Dominica, Bequia and St. Bart’s.  Some islands just don’t have the capability for one reason or another, to host the larger ships, so smaller is better when it comes to accessing them as ports.

We prefer just the two of us for dining companions on any given cruise ship.  In fact, when ships have set dinner times and tables, if we can’t be guaranteed a table for two, we won’t book.  We’ve been burned in the past by having to spend a meal or two in the company of loud wind-bags who like to hear themselves talk – not our idea of a relaxing meal.  On these small ships you just arrive at the dining room any time during dining hours and ask to be seated.  In our case, our requests each evening for a table-for-two were never a problem (unlike a previous experience on a Regent ship when the maître d’ simply could not seem to understand precisely what a table-for-two meant).  Despite our  preference for ‘twosomeness’ in dining, the ship is small enough that you would have to stay in your suite the entire cruise to not come in contact with just about everyone on board some time during the 10 days.  The amazing thing was that we found ourselves in the company of some 250 like-minded people.  These were people who could afford to travel well, but who were looking for an experience that assured them they had spent their money well.  They were not disappointed in this experience, nor were we.

One aspect of travel aboard these six-star ships a traveler needs to know is that people dress.  Some of the lines (Regent for example) have really moved away from truly formal evenings, however, every night on the Silver Cloud was like a cocktail party with cocktail attire expected – and you would certainly stick out if you chose not to dress up a bit.

Our invitation to dine with the Captain of the Silver Cloud

Of course, the food was wonderful and these are all-inclusive experiences.  Not once does a bar tender ask you to sign a bill.  There is no passing over your room key for anything to be added to your bill (except spa services and if you choose wines off the sommelier’s premium list).  Wine, drinks, and gratuities – they are all included in the price.

The entertainment was fairly low-key and yet there was always something to keep us amused.  We would not, however, like to have too many days at sea on such a small ship.  This kind of a cruise where there are five or six lovely ports to explore is the ideal way in our view to experience all the perks of small-ship cruising.

We ended up sharing our van and driver with several passengers from another larger cruise ship who were stranded at a beach on the island of St. Kitts.  When they asked us which ship we were from and we mentioned the Silver Cloud, one of them asked us what it was like on board such a small ship.  “I  heard that everything is included and you have a butler,” he said.  We nodded.  He sighed.  “I’m going on one of those someday,” he said.  “It looks like a private yacht.”  Couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Bequia
Bequia