March 31, 2008
This is a brief review of a very enjoyable 11 day cruise. Rather than repeat the details of my extensive Constellation review from December 2004, which may still be available on this web site, I shall highlight some of our favorite aspects of this ship and these ports. In addition, I shall offer some inexpensive suggestions for those who enjoy adventuring (or relaxing) on their own when visiting Grand Cayman, Aruba, Panama, Cartagena, or Cozumel.
Images of our cruise are available at www.picasaweb.google.com/efschlenk.
I am not in the travel business but have taken 20 previous cruises on a variety of ships, three of them on the Constellation. Reviews are by nature subjective, and I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions in this review. I shall HIGHLIGHT major topics in all caps so that readers can skip down to areas of particular interest.
At 90,000 tons and a full complement of 1,950 passengers, the Celebrity Constellation is large enough to provide a diversity of dining and entertainment options but small enough to avoid most of the frustrations associated with today's mega-ships.
This begins with EMBARKATION, which went quickly and smoothly for us, partly because we had pre-registered and pre-printed our boarding passes through Celebrity's web site, and partly because our Celebrity Captain's Club membership level gave us an express check-in line. Just like airlines, cruise lines offer perks to previous customers, and it is worth the effort to join the passenger club of each cruise line one sails on.
The Constellation entered service in 2002 and has been well maintained. The design and décor of the ship remain fresh and attractive. The PUBLIC AREAS did not seem crowded on our cruise, except during some concerts in the Cova Café or Michaels Club, where it pays to arrive early.
The ship's library ("Words") has a pleasant choice of books available on the honor system. The former music-listening room ("Notes") is no longer available, which is probably due to the emergence of iPods since our previous cruise. The fitness area is well equipped and is mercifully quiet during much of the day. The lockers, saunas, and fitness equipment remain free to all passengers, which is a plus in this day of nickel-and-diming by some cruise lines. Fitness classes ranging from low-key yoga to high-energy aerobics are available for a reasonable fee and appeared to be popular.
On all Celebrity ships we enjoy the interesting and sometimes quirky art collections (distinct from the commercial art auctions), parts of which are world class and quite valuable. Some cruise lines provide recorded tours of their art collections, and Celebrity should offer this in the future. This would make a worthwhile option during days at sea, especially since quirky art benefits from good background information.
Perhaps my major complaint about the public areas on the Constellation, and on some other Celebrity ships, is the absence of self-service laundry facilities. We have sailed on a variety of mainstream, premium, and ultra-luxury ships, and they all provided free washers and dryers for passenger use. Ironically, damage to cabin furnishings caused by passengers hanging wet clothes and trying to iron in their cabins probably costs Celebrity a good deal more than free laundry facilities would.
Standard CABINS are of reasonable size and convenient design. On this cruise, which we booked several weeks before departure, we opted for an inside cabin. On some older ships an inside cabin may be painfully small (we have had some nasty surprises on other cruise lines), but on the Constellation they measure an adequate 170 square feet (about 15.5 square meters). Granted, one does not have the pleasure of sunshine and sea breezes that a balcony cabin affords, but the absolute darkness of an inside cabin is great for catching up on one's sleep after a busy day in port or a late night out.
Our cabin steward and his assistant treated us royally. They kept our cabin immaculately clean, and they refreshed our towels frequently. The bathroom is small but efficiently designed, with a shower only. One no longer finds designer-brand bath amenities in small bottles, but shower gel, shampoo, and body lotion are available in wall mounted dispensers, which is a plus for the environment since it eliminates all the former packaging waste. Fortunately, bathrobes are still provided in all cabin classes.
Celebrity prides itself on its fine DINING, and we enjoyed their offerings on this cruise. The increasingly weak dollar and high commodity prices have become a challenge for executive chefs on all cruise lines. On the Constellation the executive chef met this challenge successfully, and in addition provided a very funny and instructive cooking course during one of our days at sea.
We sailed on a small ultra-luxury ship in the Persian Gulf during the month prior to this cruise, so our expectations on this cruise were set higher than usual. The menu in the Constellation's main dining room still provides several choices for each course, although the kitchen was understandably less able to deal with special requests and substitutions than on a smaller ship. Our waiter was commendable and was very eager to obtain our feedback in case anything was not up to our expectations.
The major drawback of the main dining room on the Constellation, as on other large ships, is the noise. We found it difficult to maintain a conversation at our table of eight without shouting, which was a disappointment since our tablemates, all from England, turned out to be good sports and excellent company. The excessive noise diminished the sense of elegance and detracted from our enjoyment of the evening meals. On top of the usual noise, at the end of each meal there were several birthdays being celebrated, each with raucous singing by the staff and passengers, a tradition hopefully forgotten in the future.
We dined at the Oceans Restaurant only once. This elegant surcharged restaurant recreates the atmosphere of a bygone era of ocean travel from the 1930s. We made reservations to dine there our first night onboard, since we feared that Oceans would be fully booked as the cruise progressed. Surprisingly, there were only two other occupied tables that evening, so we received special attention from the well-trained and personable staff.
The Oceans menu is fixed for the duration of the cruise, and we felt that we had sampled everything we wanted on our first visit. The cuisine, like the décor, favors traditional items with dramatic tableside preparation of such items as Caesar salad and shrimp flambe. The menu did not seem very adventurous or inventive. Showmanship sometimes trumps flavor in such restaurants.
Oceans Restaurant also offers the option of a tasting menu with wine pairings. We received a complimentary amuse bouche from the tasting menu, and it was enjoyable. We are not wine buffs so we decided not to try this option. The regular menu surcharge was about $30, and the tasting menu with wine pairings was about $60 per person.
On our final night at sea we opted for informal dining in the area used for the lunch buffet. In the evening this area has an attentive wait staff, full linen and crystal on the tables, and a fixed but enjoyable menu. There was almost no one else dining there that evening, and the resulting peace and quiet added immeasurably to the pleasure. Since the kitchen was smaller and less stressed than at the main dining room, it also did a better job of making a few substitutions in side dishes. Had we known about this option earlier in the cruise, we would have dined there more often.
Similarly, at breakfast and lunch we were pleased to see that the standard buffet line has been supplemented with various cooked-to-order specialty stations such as Asian stir fry, Italian pasta, and a delicatessen. We uniformly preferred the specialty food that was prepared individually or in small quantities. For this reason the Aqua Spa buffet, which is somewhat hidden behind the sculpture at the indoor pool, was also a favorite of ours.
Enjoyable dining is very important when selecting a cruise ship, and my hope is that in the future cruise lines will eliminate or at least downsize their main dining rooms and instead provide multiple smaller restaurants and bistros with attached smaller kitchens. This certainly would be much easier on the wait staff. Perhaps our expectations have risen, but it seems that over the years the larger and larger main dining rooms on cruise ships have become less and less enjoyable.
The best upgrade on this cruise was the ENTERTAINMENT. There were still high caliber Broadway reviews and lounge acts in the main theater. There were still two very good dance bands with vocalists in the lounges, in addition to the main theater band. Perry, the enjoyably over-the-top cabaret singer, still performed in Michaels Club. But now Celebrity has added a variety of musicians in smaller venues. They even presented a wonderful Chopin piano recital by a prize-winning Israeli pianist in the main theater.
There were multiple concerts in the Cova Café and Michaels Club by classical musicians (strings, piano, and guitar). The classical musicians were from Belarus, and they played everything from show tunes to dance melodies to classical chamber music, both ensemble and in solo recitals. Their talent was breathtaking, and they were the highlight of our cruise.
In addition, there were multiple concerts by an all-American a cappella quartet. The quartet was a delight to listen to and very personable to speak with. They were just out of college, and this was their first cruise contract.
Let's hope that both the classical musicians and the a cappella quartet have many future contracts with Celebrity. These alternative concerts were so popular and so crowded that Celebrity would do well to add a small concert venue or a small stage with café seating in their future cruise ships. CELEBRITY DESERVES AN AWARD (and will certainly get our return business) for thinking outside the box and providing such wonderful music alternatives, the best we have encountered on any cruise ship. In addition, Celebrity has made an effort to provide enrichment lectures during days at sea, for which they also deserve praise.
IN SUMMARY, Celebrity Constellation in the Southern Caribbean and Panama is a wonderful cruise choice if one wants a large cruise ship with good food and excellent entertainment at a reasonable price. It will be interesting to see if Celebrity's newer and larger ships (Solstice and Equinox) will be even better.
PORTS OF CALL
We have never transited the Panama Canal, so this was the highlight of the itinerary for us. Some cruise lines pass through the locks from the Caribbean to Gatun Lake and then back to the Caribbean. Instead, the Constellation remains in port at Colon, and those passengers wishing to experience the canal locks can do so in a small ferry as part of an optional excursion. This excursion costs about $150 through the cruise line, but the canal tolls are so high that cruise ships entering Gatun Lake must charge passengers an additional $120 in taxes, so the excursion cost is almost a wash. More about that later.
GRAND CAYMAN was our first port of call. This is a relatively expensive port because of the international off-shore banking community, and the absence of a cruise pier necessitates tendering between the ship and Georgetown. In the past, long waits for tenders to shore and back have given this island a bad reputation. On our cruise large local tenders supplemented the ship's own tenders, making the transfers fast and trouble free, even for those passengers without shore excursion reservations.
The most popular excursion on this island is a boat trip to Stingray City, a shallow area in the North Sound where one can stand or snorkel among surprisingly tame and friendly stingrays. This trip is available through the ship, or it can be booked from a variety of tour companies when onshore.
When on Grand Cayman, my wife and I prefer to relax and snorkel on famous Seven Mile Beach north of Georgetown. Much of the beach is now lined by a solid wall of resorts and condominiums, but there is a small relatively undeveloped area with shade trees at the public Cemetery Beach. To get there one simply walks a few blocks inland from the tender port to the main square to catch a public minibus, which costs about $2.50 US each way for the West Bay route along Seven Mile Beach. If you ask, the driver or a fellow passenger will alert you at the Cemetery Beach bus stop.
These buses also continue north to the turtle farm and the town of Hell (for those who want to visit Hell without having to stay there). Minibus service is frequent and reliable. As on most Caribbean islands, it is customary to greet fellow passengers when boarding the minibuses and to make room for other passengers as they enter and leave. A bonus is that the downtown bus stop is near the public library, where free internet access is available (but may be fully booked). In general, we have found that any internet café on the islands is much cheaper than the internet service on cruise ships and just as fast.
Our second port was ARUBA. Cruise ships dock at Oranjestad. The town is quite pleasant and there are several nice beaches north of town. The public bus terminal is in a large square behind the façade across the street from the cruise dock. Buses to beautiful Arashi beach (the northern terminus) leave several times per hour. Again, most of the route is lined by large condominiums and resorts, but Arashi Beach is undeveloped, although there are shade huts and a restroom.
An easy walk north from Arashi Beach is the California lighthouse, with a nearby restaurant and a nice view over the island and shoreline. Small dunes nearby also provide interesting walks. A short walk along the road south of Arashi Beach brings one to an area for snorkeling at Malmok. Offshore is the wreck of the Antilia, but this is too far and too deep for safe off shore snorkeling.
Along the way, the bus stops at several large resorts with their own beaches, but we met several vacationers who left their resorts to spend the day at Arashi, which they preferred. Also along the way is a windsurf rental area for those who enjoy the sport.
Our third port was the city of COLON Panama, at the Atlantic entrance to the PANAMA CANAL. Because this was the most important port on our cruise, we booked the canal ferry excursion offered by Celebrity via their website booking service. This service requires immediate payment by credit card and cannot be charged to one's shipboard account. As outlined above, it costs $150 per person for a 7 hour journey by bus and then ferry through the San Pedro and San Miguel locks to the Pacific Ocean, and back to the cruise ship by bus.
As mentioned above, this excursion costs only a little more than the additional tax for cruise ships that pass into and back out of the Gatun locks, and costs only a little more than the same excursion when booked ashore, which we did not risk due to the tight schedule. For us this excursion was very enjoyable and worth every penny. In fact, it was the first time in 20 cruises that we booked an excursion through our cruise line rather than traveling independently. Being on a small ferry rather than a large ship makes the canal engineering all the more impressive, and the ferry transits two sets of locks and travels all the way to the Pacific.
We did not spend any time in the city of Colon itself, but the cruise terminal has a pleasant sheltered market for souvenir shopping, including handicrafts from the local Indians. Their embroidery is famous and makes excellent, easy-to-pack pillow covers and shirt appliques.
Our fourth port was CARTAGENA Columbia, the historic center of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, some passengers were spooked by the reputation of Columbia and did not leave the ship. They missed one of the most photogenic cruise ports in the western hemisphere.
We made an effort to go ashore as soon as the ship was cleared, and we were glad we did. The town was wonderfully peaceful for several hours until it began to fill with tour groups from our ship and from the QE2, which was docked with us. Street vendors will offer their wares but will not pressure you if you politely decline. Remember that they are simply trying to earn a living and merit your respect.
Colon has a very pleasant cruise terminal with a free shuttle from the ship and a taxi stand just outside. A taxi ride for three people to the old town clock tower gate costs a standard $15 US. The price is posted at the taxi stand, but should be confirmed with the driver before entering the taxi. Make certain that the driver takes you up to the gate and does not drop you a few blocks away at the convention center. Return taxis are easy to find, and when metered they are less than $15 for the return trip.
For those who prefer, local English speaking guides are available in the town and via the internet. They can add interesting information and a sense of security, but we preferred to wander on our own and were quite comfortable doing so. We even came across a movie being filmed near the town walls.
Our fifth port was COZUMEL. This can be a hectic port -- when there I counted seven other cruise ships, together off-loading more than 15,000 passengers. To avoid the crowds we simply snorkeled from a dive shop that was a short walk north of our cruise dock (the most southerly of the three Cozumel cruise docks).
While eating a late breakfast, we noticed several snorkel tour boats tied up not far from our ship. Assuming that the locals know the best snorkel spots, we walked north along the shore to a nearby dive shop diagonally across from the large thatch roof pyramid in front of one of the hotels. The dive shop is in a small whitewashed building down a short drive adjacent to a walled resort beach. It offers free lockers (bring your own padlocks), a changing area, and an easy water entry.
In the past we had taken taxis to various snorkel spots south of San Miguel town, but this snorkel site was just as enjoyable and could not have been more convenient. Those who want to relax on a beach, however, will still need to take a taxi several miles south.
Have a wonderful cruise and happy port adventures!