December 4, 2004
This review is the first of two parts of the CIRQUE DU SOLEIL inaugural cruise on Celebrity CONSTELLATION, out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, December 4, 2004.
This reviewer is a semi-retired frequent traveler, not in the travel industry, 58 years old, and has cruised 15 times over the last few years (7 of those on Celebrity).
In addition to details about this particular cruise, in the second part of my review (which will follow) I shall also provide a good deal of information about cruising in general, some recent changes in the Constellation and Celebrity, and extensive activity and port information for the value-conscious (read budget) cruiser (it is possible to enjoy each island thoroughly for only a few dollars). Because this is a lengthy review, I will HIGHLIGHT a topic for each section so that the reader can scroll to areas of personal interest and skip those areas of less interest.
The BOTTOM LINE is that this is a wonderful cruise on a great ship which offers premium everything (food, service, entertainment, public areas, etc.) at an incredibly reasonable price. I will give more details about pricing and how best to obtain good values when cruising in the second part of this review. We paid about $560 US per person for two, including port charges and taxes for an outside stateroom. Considering the quality of the cruise, I doubt there is a better value in the entire cruise industry at the moment.
Of the three Caribbean cruise ITINERARIES (Eastern, Western, and Southern), my wife and I prefer the Southern because the islands are smaller and more congenial, and the shore-side experience seems more authentically "Caribbean". There now seems to be so much off-shore banking and other dealings by financial bigwigs (read hedge funds and tax avoiders) and real estate developers on the Eastern and Western Caribbean islands that sometimes the heart and soul of those islands is hidden behind the international shops, the condos, and the casinos.
Our itinerary changed a bit between the time we reserved and sailed, due to storm damage on some of the islands. No problem -- all of the islands here are enjoyable and each seems to have its own special flavor. The one drawback to a Southern itinerary is the cost of AIR FARE to San Juan, PR, which is the departure port. For those of us in the midwestern and western US, week-end airfare to SJU is easily $600 US and up, which is more than some outside and inside cabins cost for the entire cruise (including port charges).
For the budget traveler, I suggest enrolling in an air fare search engine such as Travelocity (there are several other good ones, but I like Travelocity's option of e-mail notification when fares decrease). One can buy air tickets at the best current price when booking the cruise, and then contact the airline for an AIR FARE REBATE (usually in the form of an MCO or credit coupon) when the air fare drops by $50 US or more. Some airlines charge $25 for this credit service, some don't, but in each case you will have to ask for it, it is not automatic. Our air fare started at $630, we bought at $550, and got a rebate at $460.
This SHIP LEAVES San Juan at 2300, so that even late-arriving passengers should be able to reach the ship in time. If one prefers, one can always go a day early and spend a night in San Juan. Hotel prices there are a bit high, but the old town provides an enjoyable day of pre-cruise sightseeing.
Also, Celebrity is reportedly very generous to those passengers with EARLY MORNING RETURN FLIGHTS (the ship docks at 0700 and our return flight departs at 0955). If you show your early morning return air tickets to the guest relations desk, they are supposed to give you priority in disembarking (we shall see, I am writing this portion of my review onboard the ship).
Deciding WHAT TO PACK seems to be a problem for most cruisers (quite a few of our new friends on board this cruise reported paying the stiff overweight baggage fees airlines now charge). My wife and I travel with only one carry-on (regulation airline size of 21x13x8 inches) each and we have a great time whether we are spending a few weeks on land or on sea. The secret is that your fellow cruisers are so interested in what they look like, they pay little attention to what you look like.
MICROFIBER suits and sports clothes now provide as much style and convenience as any cruiser could want. My wife and I each pack two outfits in addition to the one we wear on our flights. I have a black suit, a sport jacket with dress slacks, a polo shirt and a dress shirt, a pair of nylon pants for adventuring ashore, plus three sets of underwear, a Gore-tex type rain jacket (rarely needed), a swimsuit or two, one pair of black shoes and one pair of Teva type sandals, a sun hat, and a hanging wash kit (the hanging style is great for small cruise ship bathrooms).
My wife carries parallel items. For evening wear she may take a long black dress, but more often takes tuxedo style cocktail slacks with a silk or sequined jacket, a designer jacket for informal wear, and a black sweater and silk type blouse for casual wear. For shore adventures she takes a pair of nylon pants, a pair of shorts, and a bathing suit. She takes one pair of black heels, one pair of joggers, and one pair of Teva type sandals.
We both carry our own snorkels and masks, lycra bodysuits (for sun protection while snorkeling and swimming) and a day pack to hold all of our beach and pool items. I carry my money and documents in a fanny pack (and a money belt for shore excursions) and she uses a small leather shoulder bag which doubles as a purse while onboard.
Mirabile dictu, we do just fine and sometimes even find we have not worn all of the clothes we brought along. The secret is to do a bit of LAUNDRY every day or two. Celebrity is one of those cruise lines which do not have self-service laundry rooms on its ships. We simply hand wash items in our cabin sink, wring and rap them in those great fluffy cruise towels, and hang them to dry overnight on plastic hangers which we use in packing anyway. The clean microfiber or nylon or poly/cotton blend clothes we pack are always ready to wear the next morning, if needed.
When ARRIVING AT SJU, or any cruise port, we generally take a taxi to the cruise ship. The cruise lines all have representatives greeting incoming passengers, and we always confirm with them which pier the ship is at so that we can tell our driver. That is the advantage of traveling light - we do not even have to wait for baggage claim. If you prefer, you can book transfers from the cruise line.
On this cruise, the ship was docked at the PAN AMERICAN PIER, which is located about half way between the SJU airport and the old town. SJU airport taxis are rate-controlled by a dispatcher. Make certain you visit the dispatcher's curbside booth before getting into any taxi. The dispatcher will give you a multi-copy voucher listing the destination and the price of cab fare, which you then pay the driver on arrival (plus tip of course). In this case the pier was about $17 fare and $3 tip for the two of us and our two bags. You keep a copy of the voucher, which lists the cab's license number in case there are any problems or you forget something in the cab.
AT THE PIER, a pleasant surprise is the discount LIQUOR STORE which you can visit after checking in but before boarding. They offered wine at two bottles for $8 US (we got one delicious Chilean Chardonnay and one awful French Sauvignon blanc - it is caveat emptor so choose what you know, if possible). We also got Freixenet brut at $6 US per bottle. The wine can be drunk in your cabin or (for a corkage fee of about $15 US) in the ship's restaurants. Hard liquor is also available pier-side, but this is more difficult to carry on board unless one has only a very small quantity and is very discreet. Soft drinks are also available at the store, but the cruise line has an unlimited soft drink option for about $5 US per day, which is great for kids or anyone who drinks more than 4 sodas per day. I give kudos to Celebrity and RCCL for providing this great pre-boarding service. I suggest you not abuse it, or it may disappear.
Once on board, my wife and I have FAVORITE LOCATIONS AND DINING VENUES, and I will explore these with you in the second part of this review. Instead, I will close this part of my review with information about Celebrity's well-advertised new entertainment product.
For those who know the Constellation, the big news on this cruise was that Celebrity launched its new association with the Canadian-based CIRQUE DU SOLEIL entertainment group, well-known to Americans for its thrilling combination of acrobatics and new-age artistry seen in traveling venues across the US and in a permanent home in Las Vegas.
For several years, cruise lines have branded their cuisine with the names of famous chefs (Michel Roux, Jacques Pepin, et al.). Celebrity is the first, to my knowledge, to brand part of its onboard activities with a famous entertainment group. The idea is brilliant, but the execution is still in flux (more about that shortly).
After great expense and much effort, the 11-deck forward lounge on the Constellation has been converted to the "BAR AT THE END OF THE EARTH". Rather than presenting its usual acrobatic acts, Cirque du Soleil (CdS) emphasizes that this is an "experience" rather than a "performance", and they add that it is an experience in evolution. We attended three times (well, two and a quarter to be honest) while on the cruise, and noticed it was smoother and more refined each time, but still seemed a bit cerebral, lacking a story line or anything one could really relate to or empathize with.
THE LOUNGE has been draped in white muslin and theatrical scrims so that laser light shows can be reflected off of almost all surfaces. The bar has been retained, but now has something of an "arctic white" appearance. The perimeter seating has been replaced by curtained platforms with cushions (which may be a problem in Alaska or Norway, where these seats are prime nature-viewing locations). The remaining seating has been draped with white linen covers. The stage and dance area have also been curtained with moveable scrims that show projected images relating to the "characters" which appear and disappear over the course of an evening. We were told by another passenger that the investment in décor alone was more than $1 million US.
The lounge features several imaginary (symbolic?) CHARACTERS, each with an elaborate and ingeniously lit costume (one looks like a sea anemone, one a mushroom, one an intestinal parasite, one.. well, you get the picture). Each appears from behind the scrim, dancing and relating to the images on the scrim and the synchronous new-age music. The characters are not recognizable (to me at least) as anything from literature, history, or even the natural world. There is no real narrative associated with any of the characters - again, this is an "atmosphere" or "happening" and not a story or performance in the usual sense. The effect is something like a friendly space bar in the early the Star Wars movies.
This still is a bar, and drinks are served by an agile and (of course) gracious Celebrity staff dressed in Ewok-style hooded brown costumes. As usual, smoking is allowed on the port side (including the bar area), so you may wish to choose your seating accordingly. The music is very loud (as on all cruise ship venues, not just Celebrity's, but more about dealing with that later).
The first night of the cruise, the BAR AT THE EDGE OF THE EARTH was open only to the cruise line representatives for the launch. The second night there was a free preview for Captains Club cruisers, and the following nights there were "masquerade parties" at which those purchasing tickets ($30 per person, mask included, bookable in advance by your travel agent) were requested to wear white and were provided with masks (left in your stateroom or selected at the new CdS shop onboard). Most cruisers were elegantly clad in white, bit one iconoclastic cruiser wore his bathrobe - the essence of "thinking outside the box" when good manners generally preclude wearing one's bathrobe outside the stateroom.
I believe that in the future the CdS lounge experience will be free. Each visit we made was essentially the same format, so attending a masked (ticketed) showing is not necessary.
What was the RECEPTION OF THE WHOLE CdS VENTURE by the cruisers? Well, there was surprisingly little discussion of it (no buzz) by our fellow cruisers after the event (except for one elite-category Captain's Club lady who wanted her money back because she bought a ticket and was also given a masquerade ticket free). At the end of the cruise, all masquerade tickets were refunded.
MY IMPRESSION is that CdS is best known and loved for its acrobatics, and its "atmospherics" when viewed alone are too artsy-fartsy for most Americans, many of whom unfortunately have been "Disneyfied" into homogeneity.
I think Celebrity was a generous host and investor in the project, which is brilliant in concept, but I think that CdS fell short in the product it has provided so far. I say "so far" because I think that the product can be rescued by doing some re-programming. I think most audiences want something they can relate to - preferably a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this case, real inspiration might be found in the delightful and awe-inspiring lectures of the ship's oceanographic lecturer who demonstrated that nothing exceeds the beauty and ingenuity of the natural world. Why not base the CdS experience on creatures of the sea? It does not have to be dumbed down to a Little Mermaid or Sponge Bob Squarepants, but should have something an audience can relate too.
Perhaps it did not help that the CdS "family" on board this cruise was quite large, and although friendly, they seemed to be a bit self-indulgent both on and off stage. Ironically, the one awesome CdS experience was provided by their sole female gymnast/acrobat/adagio dancer who gave a short performance with recognizable CdS style a few times during the cruise.
(Part two, including cruise and shore details, follows)
This review is the second installment of two about the Celebrity CONSTELLATION, Southern Caribbean itinerary, Dec. 4-11, 2004. The first part covered pre-cruise planning, embarkation, and the premier showing of Celebrity's new Cirque du Soleil experience. This part covers the ship itself, onboard activities and entertainment, Celebrity's Captain's Club, a BUDGET GUIDE TO SHORE EXCURSIONS, and disembarkation in San Juan. As before, major topics are HIGHLIGHTED to assist in topic searches.
The exterior colors of the Constellation have been changed, making the Celebrity fleet more uniform in exterior appearance. The previous blue hull and gold swath of Millennium class ships, which I liked, is now a white hull with a wide blue swath like the previous Century class ships. If you fly into San Juan on the day of departure, you may see the ship docked at the Pan American pier (near the Isla Grande private airport) from the left side airplane windows just before landing at the main SJU airport.
Much has already been written about the Constellation's cabins and public areas, so I will keep further descriptions to a minimum.
In general, the PUBLIC AREAS are stylish in an elegant, post-modernist sort of way. I think they are among the handsomest in the cruise industry. There is very little of the Las Vegas style over-the-top glitz here (with the exception of the casino, of course). Think international boutique hotel atmosphere instead. Some carpeting and décor have been updated since the ship was built four years ago, so it still looks new and is very well maintained.
The ship's own ART COLLECTION is interesting and even edgy, far better than the art being sold in its onboard art auctions (which appeal to shoppers who prefer decorative art). It is worth some free time while onboard just to explore the collection throughout the ship - they have major works by Botero and Chihuly to name just two pleasant surprises.
As I extensively described in the first part of this review, the Reflections lounge on 11 deck forward has been redecorated as the Cirque du Soleil "Bar at the Edge of the Earth" experience. The 10 deck forward GYM equipment seems new, or at least in better shape than I recall it from previous cruises. We have never used the SPA services, which are reported to be good but which we find very expensive (it is easy to spend a few hundred dollars US in a day there). The MUSIC LISTENING ROOM "Notes" has been replaced by an ACUPUNCTURE venue. The THEATER is unchanged, with great sightlines but over-amplified sound as usual (more about dealing with the ship-wide entertainment decibel problem later). The dining areas, grand foyer, shops, photo gallery, library, and alternate dining (Oceans Restaurant) also seem unchanged. There is still NO SELF-SERVICE LAUNDERETTE on Celebrity ships, so bring microfiber or other easy care clothing. The photographers are polite and very capable. Our shipmates seemed to be happy with the formal portraits taken, in spite of the high prices typical of most cruise line photographers. The INTERNET venue has speedy links but relatively high prices (75 US cents per minute for internet use, but one can write WORD documents off-line, then copy and paste them into your e-mail messages while logged on the net -- the excellent internet staff will show you how, or you can send and receive simple e-mails at a fixed rate). There are also good WORKSHOPS on internet use and digital photography skills, some free and others for a fee.
As on all Millennium class ships, the CABINS are efficient in size, with extensive mirrors adding to a sense of spaciousness. Balconies are available with a large percentage of the cabins. Closets and storage space are more than adequate (remember there is a good amount of room under the bed for suitcases and miscellany). The bathrooms are small, and the regular showers are especially narrow (my shoulders touch the wall and the curtain when showering, but upper grade cabins have tubs and wider showers). Whether one wants an inside, outside, balcony, or suite is a matter of taste and budget. In general, prices are so reasonable on this itinerary (especially in the pre-Christmas low season) that this is one cruise where one can usually afford a better cabin category, if that is important to you. Port and starboard cabin locations are immaterial on this itinerary since sights and docking vary from port to port. Be aware that the new room safes re-program with each closure. At each closure, one enters ones personal 4 digit code followed by the # key. If you slip and enter a "wrong" number without watching the screen, you might not be able to open the safe again without help. The room mini-bar is convenient, but watch those prices.
The CRUISERS on this itinerary were mostly late middle-aged, with only a few younger families with children since school was still in session. We met more Latin and African Americans and more Europeans on this cruise than we had on any previous Caribbean cruise, which suggests that Celebrity is wisely broadening its market appeal.
The SHIP'S STAFF tends to be East European in the dining and bar areas, and Asian in the cabin areas. All speak English and all are extremely well trained - they certainly treated us "famously", as the advertising promises. It is ironic that each staff member we spoke with was as interesting as any of the cruisers we met. The staff members were working rather than vacationing on board largely by the circumstance of being born in a developing part of the world -- if born in America, they would probably be professionals in a variety of fields.
SECURITY onboard has improved in subtle ways. You might not notice it, but there is a guard watching the pool area from the deck above during much of the day. A few ports actually did verify our photo id at the pier (we carry a Xerox of the photo page of our passports - we never take our passports ashore). I hope in addition that there are security cameras in the public areas. My wife was robbed while alone on deck during a previous cruise, and the newly upgraded security is more than welcome.
The CUISINE on Celebrity's ships, in addition to the service, is what has made their reputation and set them a notch ahead of the competition. Dinner in the main dining room is wonderful entertainment in itself. The choices for each course are inspired, and the preparation and presentation provide the highlight of each cruise day. To be honest, the main buffet line is standard for the industry, but the specialty buffets at each meal can be delightful - custom omelets and Belgian waffles; specialty salads; good carvery meats including the honey-baked ham; glorious breads and rolls including sticky buns, panettone, light-as-air-bagels (an oxymoron but true); homemade ice cream; Aqua Spa lean cuisine; sushi; orgasmically wonderful patisserie desserts; etc., etc.
To AVOID GAINING WEIGHT, we usually have a light buffet breakfast (usually fruit and an egg-alternative omelet), a sweet roll and ship's tap water while adventuring on shore, a late Aqua Spa lunch, a pre-dinner snack (a slice of pizza or sushi), and a full late dinner in the main dining room. The latter is healthful because portions are controlled and one can have something at each course without feeling full. We have never tried the surcharged ($30 US) alternative restaurant, since the main dining room has been so enjoyable on all of our cruises.
Everyone has FAVORITE VENUES AND ACTIVITIES onboard, and on the Constellation my wife and I particularly enjoy:
---The AQUA SPA HEALTHFUL BUFFET, which is hidden behind the sculpture in the spa pool (remember, the best lean cuisine is behind the fat lady) and is open throughout most of the day. This is a great alternative to the bulk food sometimes found in shipboard buffets. It is also the place where you can find papaya and lime wedges for breakfast (which is my favorite part of any tropical vacation -- I live on papaya in Tahiti).
---The LIBRARY is small but has an enjoyable collection for those who just want to relax with a book. It has a few books in several languages (Spanish, German, French) Celebrity deserves credit adding the services of a very pleasant librarian (Patrick) rather than a rotating (uninformed) library staff.
---MICHAELS CLUB looks like a gentlemen's smoking club, but fortunately the main part of it is smoke-free and features Perry, a very talented vocalist with an excellent voice, perfect pitch, a knowledge of almost every lyric and melody ever written, a campy delivery, and a wicked sense of humor. We are not drinkers, but we spent part of every evening here.
---AFTERNOON SNACKS IN THE 10-DECK BUFFET AREA to cover the gap between lunch and late-seating (8:30pm) dinner, from exquisite pastries or homemade ice creams at tea time, to pizza or sushi a little later.
---ENRICHMENT LECTURES by educators/naturalists in the ship's cinema/lecture area. We enjoyed the oceanographer's several lectures about sea-life and life at sea. Most cruise lines underestimate their cruisers' intelligence (or maybe not) by providing more lectures about shopping than anything reasonably enriching. I give credit to Celebrity for exceeding our expectations once again.
---WATCHING CRUISERS POSE FOR THEIR PHOTO PORTRAITS on formal nights is one of our favorite pre-dinner activities. Simply take a seat near one of the photo shoots and watch your fellow cruisers look their best. Then return to the photo gallery the next day and view the results.
---CAPTAINS CLUB AMENITIES were exceptional on this cruise, perhaps because it was a club reunion cruise or because it was the Cirque de Soleil launch with all the VIPs from the cruise line's headquarters in attendance. In addition to the usual chocolate on the pillow, as "SELECT LEVEL" club members (five to nine previous Celebrity cruises), we received a complimentary bottle of private label wine in an elegant travel carrier, CdS T-shirts and masks, a travel document organizer, a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries and marzipan roses at one bedtime, an internet fee credit, and invitations to complementary wine tastings, behind the scenes tours, several complementary cocktail parties, a complementary champagne breakfast buffet, etc., etc.
It certainly is worth joining Celebrity's CAPTAIN'S CLUB, since every repeat cruiser/club member will get some extra treats. Membership is free, I believe, (there was a small fee years ago when we joined) and one gets credit for each cruise, regardless of cruise length or cabin category.
ENTERTAINMENT onboard this cruise was the best we have experienced. They really assembled the A-team, including a vocalist from London's West End, an illusionist, an impressionist/comedian/singer, a comedian, a dance/acrobatic duo, and excellent musicians in the ship's orchestra and lounges, including a string quartet, a guitarist, a harpist, and a pianist/singer. The cruise director, Eric Bohus, did a fine job in organizing all the entertainment, and we were delighted that he scheduled some of the performers before dinner for second seating guests. My only complaint was that virtually every venue (from pool to lounges to theater to gym) was over-amplified to the point of auditory pain. As a result, I carry EARPLUGS everywhere while on board, and find that using them brings it all down to a reasonable mezzo forte (and they are great on buses and planes, to eliminate travel fatigue).
Before I outline our favorite inexpensive shore activities, I will give just a little information about DISEMBARKATION. This is very well organized, with none of the overhead paging and uncertainty that were prevalent in years past. One is given the usual color-coded luggage tags, leaves suitcases in the hall the last night of the cruise, and is told a time and a location to assemble in the morning with your disembarkation group. Those with early return flights (up to 10am that morning) can show the guest relations desk the tickets, and they will give you "group 1" priority disembarkation tags for luggage and carry-ons. This group assembles at 0715 and disembarks at 0730, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Since we had no luggage other than our airline carry-ons (one each), and since we CHECKED-IN for our flight the day before over the internet (if you do not know how, learn this before you travel next time -- it allows you to go directly to security screening at the airport if you have no bags to check), we were off the ship at 0730, through pier-side customs at 0735, at the airport via taxi by 0755, and through security and at the gate at 0805. Granted, our travel style is not for everyone, but we like the flexibility and speed of traveling light - the airport was quiet that early, before the masses of cruisers had arrived. For others, I would say that a 1000 flight is reasonable, but much earlier than that may be risky.
Now for the whole reason to cruise the Caribbean - the PORTS OF CALL:
We have found that our enjoyment of each island bears no relation to how much we spend on our activities ashore. In fact, LOW-COST INDEPENDENT ACTIVITIES ASHORE are often the most enjoyable. What follows are our favorites for the various islands on this itinerary. By the time you cruise, the itinerary will have changed (see the internet or your travel agent for the latest updates, I believe Granada will return to the itinerary in 2005 and St. Kitts in 2006), but the principles we use will still be applicable.
Our first recommendation is to buy or borrow a good TRAVEL GUIDE, such as the Lonely Planet series, covering the islands you will visit. Xerox the relevant pages and especially the MAPS, so that you can take them ashore in sections - leave the book at home. Also, ask the concierge for recommendations if you are uncertain - some cruise lines have no clue about public transport, ferry schedules, or secluded beaches, but Kevin on our cruise was well informed.
CASA DE CAMPO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC -- this port was problematic in that the ship leaves San Juan late Saturday night (for late-arriving passengers), so one has only an afternoon ashore here. The cruise line provides a free shuttle (about 30 minutes each way) from the dock to Altos de Chavon (a Disney-esque artists colony on a scenic hill above the river) and the Marina (where the few very rich locals keep their yachts and vacation homes). These destinations provide pleasant walks but not much excitement. Ironically, there is no good beach at this port (although we had a brief but pleasant swim at the nearby Militas beach hotel complex). The best local beach is at nearby Catalina Island, which some cruise lines use as their port of call but Celebrity uses as a separate shore excursion. The Dominicans have made every effort to welcome cruisers, and the efficient new dock and shuttle service are impressive.
BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS - the ship docks at the port about a mile west of town. There is a free shuttle through the port area to the terminal building, and a share taxi from there into the town center costs $1 US. Instead, we recommend walking straight ahead from the terminal for 15 minutes (about half-way into town) to the Cheapside bus terminal, where you will find cheap local buses that run along the coast. Look for the dozen or so 20 passenger yellow buses in an area across from the fish market. The east coast (Atlantic) beaches are very rough and the west coast (Caribbean) beaches are recommended. Our idea of a perfect beach is a wide strip of white sand with good shade, few people, and no wave-runners. For $1 per person, we took the Speightstown bus up the west coast and got off at Mullins beach, which is a little less than an hour's ride (ask the conductor to show you the stop and the beach access). This is a strip of clean sand with very few people, good swimming, and a restaurant and chair rental nearby for those who need it. It is quite secure, and you can leave your beach bag with anyone (or the chair rental lady) if you want to beach walk or swim for any length of time. Unfortunately in Barbados the landowners are allowed to encroach too close to the surf line. One can walk for miles north or south, but one has to use occasional high tide walkways around some intrusive walled properties. Snorkeling is not very good at this sandy beach, but if you are there around noon, you are in for a treat. About 15 minutes walk north you may see a collection of excursion boats about 500 feet offshore. They are feeding giant sea turtles for the delight of their passengers. If you are a strong swimmer (and preferably have a PFD), you can swim out (straight off the concrete pier beach area) and join them. I was there just as the boats left. The turtles swam back and forth within touching range - their carapaces were easily 5 hand spans long (almost four feet). It was dream-like, the same feeling I had when swimming with dolphins, whales, and manatees - truly a privilege of a nature. For weaker swimmers, one can hire a small boat from shore (for about $20 I believe - some people offered that alternative as I walked to the pier). The bus back to the boat is convenient since bus stops are well marked and near the beaches.
ROSEAU, DOMINICA - This was a substitution for the advertised Grenada, which the ship bypassed because of recent storm damage. Dominica is an eco-island (with no great beaches) known for its forests, waterfalls, and hiking trails. Unfortunately, public transport into the hills is not readily available when a ship is in port. The usual shared minivans turn into taxis and the rates climb to 10 times the usual fare (still reasonable for most cruisers). Instead, we walk about two blocks inland from the dock and catch a minivan south along the coast for 30 minutes ($1 US each way) to Scotts Head, a fishing village with a spit of land and a mini Rock of Gibraltar offshore (which you see as you approach the island from the south). The beach at the base of the rock is narrow and cobbled, but offers very pleasant swimming and excellent snorkeling. Simply snorkel northwards along the shoreline below the rock and you will find a fine coral-festooned wall that descends about 200 feet into the blue depths. The fish here are small - even though it is a protected area, the fishing village is too close to allow fish to grow large. This is an unsecured beach, and you would do well to leave your beach bag with someone (if you can find anyone else there). My wife takes a swim and brief snorkel, and then relaxes on shore with our gear as I snorkel for an hour or two longer. After snorkeling, it is an easy walk up a jeep trail then a well-worn path to the top of the rock, where you will have beautiful views of the village and shoreline all the way back to the ship. Minivans leave the village reasonably often and the return to the ship is no problem.
ST. JOHNS, ANTIGUA - There are two bus stations here within easy walking distance of the dock, which is downtown (there also is a secondary dock a bit farther out). Ask in town for directions to the bus terminal you want. Eastside buses go across the island to historic Nelsons Dockyard, which we did not visit this time, but which has a nice secluded beach within easy walking distance (I think the name is Pigeon Point, but ask at Nelsons for the nearest beach). We arrived on a local holiday when eastside buses were infrequent, so we took a westside bus for 20 minutes ($1 US) south to Jolly beach, which is a broad travel-poster-beautiful beach lined by attractive low-rise hotels, restaurants, and dive shops. The bus drops one just outside the resorts (this is the transport for the resort workers) and one simply has to ask directions for the public beach access. One walks through several checkpoints, the beach is so secure. There were a few wave-runners, but very few people and the water is that wonderful Caribbean blue over the white sand bottom. Snorkeling is not good at the beach, but the nearby dive shops offer snorkel tours in the early afternoon for about $10-20 US depending on how much of their equipment you need. (I did not take a boat snorkel and cannot specifically recommend it). Again, return minivans to the ship are frequent.
ST. THOMAS, USVI - This is heaven for shoppers and tourist-junk-hell for almost everyone else, although there are some nice secure beaches like Magens Bay for about $8 US taxi fare and about $3 US entry fee. If you dock in the Crown Point yacht basin instead of the usual Havensight area, consider taking a water taxi from nearby Tickles restaurant (walking distance from the ship) to Water Island. This is a local hideaway with a very quiet beach just over the island crest. The ship's concierge can give the ferry schedule. It is the antithesis of the rest of St. Thomas and is kept a quiet secret by the locals. On this cruise we took a taxi ($8 US per person tip included) and then the ferry ($3 US) from Red Hook (alternately $7 US from downtown Charlotte) to neighboring Cruz Bay, St. Johns (again, the ship's concierge can give you the ferry schedules). We have been to St. Thomas and/or St. John's almost a dozen times, and the less-developed St. Johns is infinitely more pleasant in our opinion. I think that future cruise itineraries may even spend a day at each island. In any case, watch the ferry schedule closely since you need to allow time to return to the ship. The north shore beaches on St. Johns (Hawksbill, Trunk, Cinnamon) are run by the US National Park Service and are world famous. Open air taxis will take you from the Cruz Bay ferry dock to any of these for about $4 US, or you can hike from the park headquarters building to Honeymoon beach - the rangers can give you maps and specifics. Each north shore beach has good snorkeling around the peninsulas which separate them, and some have their own snorkel trails with underwater signage (but more people). The fish are protected here and are larger and more colorful than on some other islands - with luck you might even see a Hawksbill turtle or spotted moray, both of which I saw this time.
Finally, a word about CRUISE FARES - rumor has it that RCCL/Celebrity will institute a uniform pricing policy which disallows the rebates which some cruise agents offer their clients. I do not know how this will play out, but I hope it does not backfire -- other fine cruise lines like Holland offer a very competitive product and will increase market share if their prices are much lower than Celebrity's. In any case, I recommend surfing the internet to find the itinerary, ship, and price you want. Websites like www.cruise.com or www.icruise.com are good places to start. The former seems to cover a wider array of cruise lines and the latter seems to have more detailed (by cabin category) pricing information. After you know what the price should be (and, again, the pre-Christmas season is a great time for bargains), check with your personal agent since the agencies sometimes purchase blocks of cabins to be sold by a certain date at even lower rates. Some of these agencies (and unaffiliated groups like www.cruisemates.com) have e-mail newsletters to alert you to cruise bargains. On this cruise I used Pavlus Travel's website/cruise link and booked the cruise directly on the net, down to the cabin choice) at an even further discount. You can give your credit card number over the phone if you like. Later, when we received a promotional coupon through Celebrity's Captain's Club, I simply called Pavlus and they added that credit to our final bill, which was about $560 US per person for a category 7 outside cabin (no balcony but a large window), including port charges and taxes.
What other vacation could give you so much at such a reasonable cost! But do not forget to budget for tips of about $10-15 US per passenger per day for the wonderful staff. Celebrity now offers a fixed tipping option by which one simply puts the tips on one's shipboard account. I prefer to tip personally, since I tend to be more generous than the usual guidelines (which are left in your cabin with the envelopes for tips). After all, the great staff is what makes the cruise so enjoyable. I am always angered when cruisers spend money on all sorts of tourist junk and expensive shore excursions only to short-change the people who really matter. Instead, please put your discretionary spending in the hands of those who deserve it, and don't just give them an envelope with money, write each a personal note about what you specifically enjoyed about their service. If they had been born in America, they might have been your own kids.
Last but not least, have a wonderful cruise!