Celebrity Cruise Lines - Cruisemates Reader's Cruise Reviews
Celebrity Cruises

by poetic license
Panama Canal
January 9, 2006

12 Day Panama Canal: Western Caribbean

Ports of Call: Cozumel, Costa Maya, Puerto Limon, Panama Canal (Gatun Lake, Cristobal), Montego Bay, Grand Cayman

Celebrity GALAXY
Cabin 4041

This will be my first time cruising as a solo passenger, and will review the ship from this perspective. Additionally, it was a last-minute booking, less than a week from sailing date. I also have to disclose that I am an avowed Celebrity fan, especially CENTURY, and love the intimate scale.

It was an easy four hour post-rush morning drive from Austin to the Port of Galveston. My original plan was to park at the Port terminal. A block from I-45 past the exit for the port I noticed a sign for the 81st Dolphin Parking and Shuttle. What a find! Not only was parking half as much as it would be at the port, but they also loaded my luggage directly from my car to their van, and the lot was protected by a tall fence and security cameras 24 hours a day. The shuttle to the terminal was less than 10 minutes. It couldn't have been easier. Score: A+

The terminal is directly across the street from the historic Galveston Strand area, and there are several restaurants and shops nearby which set it apart from the usual working port. The terminal itself is new and clean, and Celebrity representatives were stationed everywhere greeting and assisting passengers. There were three couples ahead of me in line, and with many check-in stations open, it was less than a minute before I stood at the counter with my pre-printed XPress pass. In less than five minutes I was walking toward the escalator leading to the ship, and once aboard, I was greeted with a glass of champagne and a smiling steward who took my carry on bag and escorted me to my cabin. It couldn't have been easier or more pleasant. Score: A+

This was a spur-of-the-moment adventure, and the inside cabin a bargain. I don't spend any time in my cabin, so I decided to give it a try. Cabin 4041 (Continental Deck) was very clean, and a few feet in length shorter than the balcony cabins and probably the same size as the oceanview cabins I have had on other Celebrity ships, and larger than the oceanview cabins on Costa, MSC, and NCL. A carafe of water and bucket of ice on a tray with two glasses were already in place when I arrived at 12:45 p.m. The bedspread was a coral and blue print, with the bedskirt a complementary print in warm blue tones. Two chairs upholstered in coral fabric and a small glass topped table as well as two nightstands complete the cabin. The upholstery fabric was slightly worn at stress points such as corners, but overall that did not detract from a cozy interior scheme. It didn't take me long to assess that the mattresses on GALAXY are in dire need of replacement: There is little in the way of cushioning or comfort in them, and I immediately called my cabin steward to request an egg crate mattress pad and two feather/down pillows. Carla arrived fifteen minutes later, introducing herself as my steward, with the requested pillows in hand. She promised to have the mattress pad for me later that afternoon.

The closet corridor is spacious: There is plenty of storage, with 10 drawers, two large open bin spaces, 30" of shirt hanging area, and approximately 7' of full length hanging space. My two 28" extra thick suitcases stowed under the bed with ease. Additional storage and a safe were conveniently placed behind the mirror at the desk. It's a great place for evening bags, cameras, binoculars, and other smallish items you want to access quickly.

In the bathroom, there were several deep shelves behind doors beneath the sink, as well as a built-in tip-out wastecan. The shower was as large as you would find in a tub shower, not tiny and square as on some other lines. I loved the shower hardware with the hand held sprayhead, which was also adjustable on the wall either up or down for height. Wish I had the same at home! Everything was spotlessly clean, and there were two sets of towels hung for me, which was a nice touch, since I was traveling alone.

By the time I had finished unpacking, it was close to 2:30 p.m., and I was more than ready for lunch and exploring the rest of the ship. Score A-


Oasis Café
Deck 11. Soothing tones of blue-green dominated the scheme. Again, there are some signs of wear in the soft goods and chair frames, but nothing that was distracting or tacky. Everything is very clean and well maintained. Hand sanitizing stations are placed at the head of every serving line, and most guests were religious about using them. Traffic flow was good, never seeming to get jammed up. Score: A-

Aft Oasis Pool and Solarium
Deck 11. Behind the Café is a lovely small solarium and a small pool with table seating flanking two sides, which I immediately decided would be the ideal place for breakfast most mornings. There is a bar on the port side, and a small servery on the starboard side which serves made-to-order pancakes and waffles in the morning, pasta and pizza at noon and beyond. It is completely glass enclosed, leading to a wonderful and relaxing outdoor space in the fantail of the ship. Score: A

Fantail Deck Area
Deck 11. This is the most relaxing place on the ship to view and photograph sunsets. There are dozens of tables and chairs scattered across its width, where you may take in the panoramic view and hear the mesmerizing wake of the ship. It's a great place for cards or board games, connecting with friends, or to read and relax. Finding a spot to sit was never a problem. Although it was popular, it was never overcrowded, and I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of chair-savers here and at either of the pools. Waitstaff circulated regularly, offering drinks from the bar in the solarium. Score: A+

Midship Pool Area
Deck 11. Two saltwater pools and six hot tubs highlight the area, which are flanked on either side with comfortable padded loungers. The age of the ship was evident in the condition of the pools, but nothing to detract from the overall ambience. This was the first cruise I had ever taken where even during peak times I could find a lounger without any problem. For once, the chair hogs must have stayed home! Pool butlers vigilantly patrolled the area for litter, used towels, and empty glasses, so it was a pleasure to enjoy time here. Score: A-

Deck 11, forward. This is tucked away from the noise and traffic of the rest of the ship. There's a well-equipped gym, and the spa suite was quiet and soothing, making for a relaxing massage or hydrotherapy. Madalaina is an excellent massage therapist; I highly recommend her. The thalassotherapy pool area is wonderful; don't miss out! Unlike the M class Celebrity ships, there is a fee for use, which cuts down on high traffic and noise, adding to the tranquil experience it is meant to impart. Score: A

Stratosphere Lounge
Deck 12, forward. The official sailaway party took place in this area, but it was disappointingly underattended, and most people drifted out a few minutes after we had left the pier. The widely reported foggy windows are indeed a distraction to what would be a fabulous place to spend time on sea days. Most daytime hours it was used by the activities staff for board game and trivia events. I went up a couple of evenings after the late seating dinner, but it was usually empty and forlorn. Celebrity needs to do something about making this wonderful space a happening place. Score: B-

Celebrity Theater
Deck 7. A wonderful theater space, with balcony seating more like traditional opera boxes. It is the nicest theatre I've seen, with an intimate feel to it. Done in tones of cream and gold, the banked seating makes every seat in the house a good one. Score: A

Cova Café/Tastings
Deck 7, midship. I love the Cova Cafes, but this one was small, cramped, and not as inviting as on other ships. Also, it's in the direct flow of traffic from the shops and theater to the casino. Still, the cappuccinos are great with the free pastries offered. Good place to take a short break between activities. Score: B

Savoy Nightclub
Deck 7. A beautiful understatedly elegant space, decorated in rich ivory cream and black. Unfortunately, there is a wide screen large format TV installed here, so it becomes the unlikeliest sports bar on the planet. On this cruise, Monday night football was broadcast here. During the day, there were several cooking demonstrations held here, as well as an occasional trivia game. Although a band would play a few of the evenings for pre-dinner cocktails, this lovely space was not used to it's potential either, which is a huge pity. Score: A-

Rendez-Vous Square
Deck 6. The most popular meeting place for pre-dinner cocktails on the ship. Unfortunately, the band Black and White Trio usually provided the music. They were the worst band I've heard on a ship, but were the only band offering pre and post dinner dancing, so I tuned them out and enjoyed myself anyway. The space lends itself easily as a gathering place, and with its large-ish dance floor, it was a natural gathering spot near the entrance to the Orian Restaurant. Score A; the band gets an F!

Orian Restaurant
This lovely formal restaurant has a beautiful sweeping double staircase opening out to a dramatic top to bottom bank of windows at the rearmost part of the ship. Tables were not crowded into the space, and the dining experience was always a gracious one, whether at the open seating at lunch or the traditional seating at dinner. Hand sanitizing stations are also by each of the entry doors here as well. Score: A

After an initial favorable impression on embarkation day in the Oasis Café, I found the food there not as good or as varied as expected, which was a little disconcerting. The traditional American full breakfast items were offered every day, which is too heavy for me. Early on, I decided to skip breakfast (except for a couple of times having waffles made to order at the servery area in the solarium: they were EXCELLENT), and after a couple of disappointing lunchtime forays, I made it a point to go to the Orian Restaurant for the open seating lunch, which was very good. Hot food arrived hot and cold dishes cold. The iced tea here is the best on the ship, and always delicious. A lot of desserts offered here at lunch are not offered anywhere else or at any other time on ship, too. Sitting with a different group of people each day proved fascinating, fun, and was invaluable for meeting new people that otherwise I may not have met. Add in the gracious waitstaff to pamper us, and it was too hard to resist.

Casual afternoon tea in the Oasis Caféé is one of the best events on the ship, especially on port days. After a full day of sightseeing, it's great to come back to a wide assortment of lovely tea sandwiches, fresh pastries, cookies, fresh fruit, and ice cream (not to mention tea!) from 4 to 5 p.m. Perfect for anyone with late seating dinner, which is hours off.

Formal tea was offered once on this cruise. It was an elegant repast in the Orian Restaurant, where most everyone in attendance dressed up and put on their best manners. Don't miss the little ham mousse cornucopias; they are delicious as are the blue cheese bites, fruit tarts, and shortbread.

Dinner in the Orian Restaurant was a highlight each evening, and we had a lively table of six: a California couple traveling with their 21 year old daughter, a honeymooning couple from southern Indiana, and me. We were usually the last to clear the room! Our waitstaff, Quintas and Isik, were wonderful and accommodating. We had only to ask for something once, and they remembered it perfectly every evening afterward. The quality of meat was very good, especially the rack of lamb. I ordered everything medium rare, and it arrived exactly as ordered. The only disappointment was the lobster on the last formal night. The tail I received was mushy; Quintas rapidly replaced it with another, which was firm and meaty, but tasteless. It wasn't enough of a disappointment to mar all the other wonderful evenings or dishes, though. Vegetables were delicious, well prepared, and interesting. I especially loved the rutabaga timbale, a great surprise. We were a table of dessert lovers, and Quintas always set additional desserts in the middle of the table for us to try. Favorites were the Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee Cream, and crème brulee. Most diners complied with the dress codes suggested, and on formal nights, about 40% of the men wore tuxes and about 55% wore the alternative dark suit and tie; 85% of the women wore long elegant dresses at the late seating. I didn't see shorts or inappropriate casual wear in the dining room in the evening as others have reported. Overall Score: A-

There are the usual cruise activities: bingo, shuffleboard, art auctions, shopping talks, bridge and the like, as well as a higher than average number of trivia and board games, ballroom dancing lessons, cooking demonstrations, and wine/food pair tastings. Enrichment Series lecturer was Dick Underwood, space photographer for NASA, whose photos provided sobering evidence over the past 40 years of the effects of global warming, as well as a peek into what it takes to make pictures from outer space. Chef Marc Cummings presented cooking demonstrations on sea days. Cruise Director Shawn Cavanaugh was everywhere and clearly enjoys his job. We also had a Cruise Critic Connections party that he graciously hosted, even though fewer than half of those who had signed up came to it. The Captains Club cocktail party was elegant with all the ships officers in attendance in a reception line to meet and greet past Celebrity guests, which was a nice touch. It was the loveliest, most cordial Captains Club party I've attended, held in the Savoy Nightclub, the perfect venue for it. Movies were offered four or five times daily in the Cinema, and there were alternative medicine/wellness/acupuncture lectures, floral arranging classes, craft activities, and informal card game groups. Beauty seminars were offered in the Aquaspa. For the sports-minded, there were golf, basketball, and volleyball events, and an informal jogging/walking group that met every morning. Additionally, there were two Big Band evenings on the ship after theater events, and five karaoke nights for aspiring and/or tipsy closet entertainers at heart. The Grand Buffet at midnight was the last formal night, but I wondered who could eat another bite after the wonderful dinner only an hour and a half earlier. It was beautiful to behold, though. Score: B+

As I noted before, the Black and White Trio were sorely lacking as musical entertainment, but fortunately, the Celebrity Orchestra playing Big Band nights and the Allegro String Quartet at dinner and early evenings more than made up for them. Celebrity provided Dance Hosts for women who needed a dance partner, which was nice. No one need sit out, and the Hosts are adept conversationalists as well. There was also a party band, Fusion, who played short, occasional sets by the pool. I was surprised by a lack of live music overall; recorded music was used extensively, which doesn't make sense, given as many musicians as there were aboard. Score: B+; Black and White Trio: F

Evening shows in the theater were the typical cruise variety: A pianist two evenings, a comedian, vocal artists another evening, aerialists, and an odd marionette show. The remaining shows featured the Celebrity Singers and Dancers: Dance they could. Singing is another matter. Overall score: B-


Cozumel, Mexico
Cozumel, our first stop, has a long way to go after Hurricane Wilma. Frankly, I don't know why ships stop here right now. Cozumel needs to recover a bit more before she is truly fit to receive visitors.

Costa Maya, Mexico
You must get away from the port area completely. Although the state of Quintana Roo has only had electricity for four years, there is already a port area ?~mall' with all the usual tourist detritus: Diamonds International, Senor Frogs, etc. etc. The little fishing village of Mahahual is a $3 cab ride and 2 miles away. There are several little restaurants and shops there, and a shallow, pretty beach just across the street. I opted to take a privately contracted tour of the recent partially excavated Chaccoben ruins, an hour and fifteen minute ride from the pier. The Native One, a local tour company owned by David and Ivan, offered an outstanding tour and experience. It doesn't get better than this! Contact them at: www.chacchobenruins.com/wst_page8.html. Overall, Costa Maya offers a lot to anyone who desires a more unspoiled place to explore. Better hurry, though: A 3,500 room resort and casino are slated to begin construction later this year, and there are ?~land for sale' signs everywhere.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
Again, it's essential to get out of the port area to appreciate this gorgeous, geographically diverse country. I'm a coffee lover, and the ship's Grano d' Oro Coffee Planatation Tour excursion sounded good, so off I went. Our guide Phillipe, a former national park ranger, was very familiar with the climate zones, flora and fauna. He painted a diverse picture of Costa Rica and was one of the most knowledgeable, interesting persons I have ever met. About 35 of us took the two and a half hour bus ride up on a narrow, winding road to the Hacienda Real plantation where Don Jesus, the owner, and his three adult sons personally escorted us on our tour and answered questions. After the tour, we were able to purchase freshly roasted coffee before boarding the bus for the return trip. On the way back to the ship, lunch was provided at a tiny resort hotel in Turrialba at Hotel Casa Turire, nestled in a valley overlooking Lake Angostura and the surrounding mountains. The grounds and hotel are gorgeous, and lunch was delicious. It was a fantastic day! Costa Rica is definitely on my list of places to return for further exploration.

Panama Canal: Gatun Lake to Cristobal
We were set to enter the Gatun Locks at 6:15 a.m., so I requested a 5 a.m. wake up call in order to get a good spot on Deck 11. Too late! The ship was humming by the time I arrived, even though we were still a good half hour from entering the locks. I resigned myself to stand behind a fenced area that was already four persons deep and waited. It was worth the wait: The locks don't fail to impress. Then consider that these are the ORIGINAL locks and equipment still in use 100 years later and it blows you away. GALAXY is 106.5 feet wide; the canal is 110 feet wide! It's a tight fit, and you can touch the canal walls passing through the locks. The captain relinquishes all control of the ship while small gauge trains called mules pull the ship along and position it for raising or lowering within the lock.

DO take the ferry excursion! Passengers are tendered ashore once GALAXY enters Gatun Lake, and dropped off at a pier where busses haul passengers to the ferry near the entrance of the Pedro Miguel locks near Balboa. We traversed the rest of the locks to the Pacific, where the busses meet passengers near Panama City for the return trip to Cristobal to rejoin GALAXY. It is fantastic to see the locks on an intimate scale, and best of all, you will go through all of them as if on a transcanal voyage. The ferry provided sub sandwiches, a muffin and soft drinks for lunch.

The port area around Cristobal is a very rough area, and passengers are not advised to go on their own. The terminal area is secure, and once you pass through the main hall and all the usual souvenir places, exit the other end as if heading to the ship and keep walking to the flea market ?" where you will find locals selling Panamanian handcrafts.

Montego Bay, Jamaica
The locals are very aggressive pursuing passengers, so stick to a tour or book your own tour before leaving home with a firmly set price. I wanted a beach day, so an $8 taxi ride to Doctor's Cave Beach was perfect for me. My driver agreed to pick me up three hours later, and was true to his word. Again, if you want to shop, there are plenty of the usual places close to the pier that will happily separate you from your money.

Grand Cayman
The weather was taking a turn for the worse, so our time at Grand Cayman was cut short by four hours, so some excursions were cancelled. As expected, some people were outraged. Who can control the weather? I for one am glad the Captain places safety above inconvenience. The island has made significant headway in recovering from Hurricane Ivan two years ago. I prefer to steer clear of the shopping area which is crowded with dozens of jewelry stores and T shirt shops. Stingray City is a trolley ride away, as is Seven Mile Beach.

I have heard horror stories about Galveston, but I don't have one of my own, thankfully. Due to lingering over breakfast with onboard friends, I was late for my disembarkation time by 15 minutes, so I just went directly to deck 5 midship and checked out. There was no one ahead of me, and I walked alone all the way until I got to the long hall that enters the terminal, where there was a line about 100' long. It moved slowly, but steadily. When I arrived in the luggage area, a port agent asked each of us if we wanted a porter. I said yes, so he directed me to a line on the right where everyone queued up for a porter. It was very orderly, and I didn't have to go collect my luggage until I had an assigned porter. The wait was about 5 minutes. Once I identified my bags, the porter told me to get in line for customs and he would meet me when I was called in. That worked out perfectly, and was only about another 5 minute wait. During embarkation, 81st Dolphin Shuttle and Parking directed me to exit the terminal and they would be immediately to the left. They were there and waiting, taking the bags directly from the porter. Another 10 minute ride back to the lot, and the driver loaded my bags into my car. I never touched my bags during the entire disembarkation process, and was on my way home in a flash. My departure time was scheduled for 9:20, and though I was late, was in my car by 10:15. After my disembarkation experience in San Juan in November, this was heaven. No traffic to speak of, so I was home by midafternoon. Score: A+

The age demographic aboard this cruise tended mainly to couples in their 60s, though there were a fair amount of those in their 50s, a few multigeneration families, and several groups of women friends traveling together. About 15% were couples in their 70s and beyond. I recommend this for anyone traveling solo, and in fact, I met about a dozen women like myself doing just that. You will never feel as though you are alone, and will meet a lot of interesting people and have a great deal of fun both on and off the ship. Don't be shy! Just introduce yourself around and you're off to a great vacation. I was a little worried about the condition of GALAXY from a few of the Cruise Critic board reports, but she is well maintained with a warm, wonderful, thoroughly professional crew whose few blemishes will not mar your experience in any way. The crew is constantly cleaning, painting and grooming her. Take the plunge and sail on this lovely, more intimately scaled ship. You won't be disappointed. Happy Sailing! Overall Cruise Score: A-

Celebrity is pulling out of Galveston after the current season ends in April of this year. After it does the summer itineraries in the Mediterranean, they are moving GALAXY to San Juan to do southern Caribbean itineraries. So if you want to experience a Panama Canal itinerary on this smaller, more intimate ship, the time is NOW. This is precisely why I went when I did, and I am so very glad I did.