by George in NY
April 23, 2005
We sailed the Celebrity Horizon from San Juan to Norfolk on April 23. My wife and I traveled with longtime friends Tom and Laurie. Initially both couples booked Concierge Class on the Atlantic Deck. Celebrity offered both couples complimentary upgrades as Captains Club members (and I presume as good customers since we all have sailed Celebrity quite a bit through the years). We were assigned the President's Suite 1058 -- the top suite onboard the Horizon. Tom and Laurie got Suite 1014, the next category. We considered this a wonderful gesture of customer relations by the Captains Club desk.
This was a repositioning cruise; the Horizon sailed from Tampa to San Juan and then to Norfolk, where it would commence the 2005 Bermuda season. Repositioning cruises often offer very good pricing. In this case, I was told that 600 passengers originally sailing from Tampa remained onboard for the second week's sailing from San Juan. Some were even sailing for a third week to Bermuda. Generally, taking such a long cruise means a bit older crowd, and this was no different. There were some young families with kids, but they were in the minority.
We flew from New York JFK to San Juan the day prior on Jet Blue. We had also booked the one-night pre-departure stay ourselves at Best Western Pierre in San Juan. The hotel was just fine. We didn't really have much choice; most hotels insisted we book at least two nights because it was "season policy."
The hotel was just fine for a short stay. Rooms were clean, mattresses in good shape, and pillows were great. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. Rooms feature a coffee maker, microwave and ironing boards. These are tucked into a tiny closet space. The hotel had a nice bar area in the lobby and a restaurant. They offered a fixed price dinner for $26 and it was reasonably acceptable. You are an easy taxi ride ($10 without luggage) to Old San Juan or to El San Juan Hotel casino area.
We took a taxi to El San Juan for some gambling. The Casino was good to me, but I was surprised that a casino in such an upscale hotel was understaffed and the machines were showing wear.
Our hotel offered continental breakfast in the pool area. The small pool area had nice tables and chairs outside. Previous reviews I read complained about the elevators and they were in fact not the most reliable I have seen. Overall I would have no problem staying at the Best Western Pierre again. I wouldn't want to do a week there but a day or two would be just fine. Another plus – there's free Internet in the rooms with a very easy high speed connect.
We took a taxi to the pier area in Old San Juan -- very reasonable for four people and luggage at $25. Porters were available and embarkation was just starting; we were through and on board in less than 30 minutes. But cabins were not yet available and were locked; signs advised cabins would be available at 1 p.m. and that a buffet was being served.
The President's Suite wasn't really comparable to the Royal Suite on Horizon's sister ship Zenith. The Royal Suite on the Zenith is far roomier and better designed. The Horizon was the first Celebrity ship when Chandris Line started Celebrity as their upscale line. The Zenith was commissioned two years later with some design changes (obviously one was a better designed top suite). While the Royal Suite on Zenith has a dining area, this suite didn't. Celebrity might want to think about selling Horizon -- not because she is ancient but because she doesn't really meet the changing demands of the U.S. cruise market. The absence of balconies is a large minus for her, and her size and capacity probably work against her in the minds of company bean counters. The other design change made over the first years of the Horizon's life was fixing the beds, deck by deck, so they could be put together. Originally all the twin beds were affixed to the floor.
Still, the President's Suite is a lovely accommodation with twice the normal cabin space. It has a Jacuzzi tub and walk-in closet. You are provided with bottles of scotch, vodka, and free soda. (After the first bottles of liquor you do pay for replacements). The suite had an Aiwa CD player, a box of Cova chocolates, bottle of champagne and butler service. (The butler delivered tea at 4 p.m., canapés at 5, and other amenities.)
The butler, Taylan, was exceptional; however, he became ill for the first three days of the cruise and another butler filled in. He was competent but seen little as he was probably a bit over worked. Service did not suffer but we missed Taylan; he was very pleasant and service oriented.
We were assigned to Table 48 with our traveling companions, two lovely ladies from Boston, and two nice sisters traveling without their mates. We all enjoyed evening conversations and got along well. I value the cruise dining experience and spending a week with people of different backgrounds and opinions. An interesting group of tablemates makes for a wonderful end to the day. The waiter and assistant also can make or break a cruise for us. In this case it didn't break the cruise for us, but didn't offer any added good experience.
Our waiter Pablo was capable and provided the minimal amount of service for acceptable dining. The assistant waiter (never did get his name) was the only person I met recently who has a worse memory than I do. At least I can claim the "senior moment" excuse, which he could not. Two ladies had tea instead of coffee every night; not once did he bring it automatically. We asked for cheese plates as appetizers for the table at start of meals. Never once did he provide them unless we asked. During our January sailing on Coral Princess, our waiter Fabio not only automatically provided cheese platters but went further, bringing a different assortment every night complete with crackers.
The food was excellent; there is no doubt in my mind that Celebrity still makes the best desserts at sea. The coffee remains horrible (as it does on most lines). Thankfully, the Cova Café offers wonderful brewed coffee, espresso, and so forth and has an outer perimeter of tables for smokers. Talking about the Cova Café, I have to mention Ahmet, a nice bar waiter working in Cova each morning. He greeted me with a smile every morning, got my coffee fast, knew my name and always asked if Mr. Tom or Mrs. Laurie would be joining me. He was three months into his first contract and hailed from Turkey where he was a bar manager. I have no doubt that he will be a manager again in no time. The extra tip I often give the dining room waiter (but didn't this time) was happily given to Ahmet instead.
The buffet area for lunch was very good as we expected. I do wish that
About the third day, the buffet area was suddenly no longer self-serve. We already know what that means now: a touch of Norwalk virus must have surfaced onboard. As I mentioned, our butler was ill three days "with the flu," he advised. One of the onboard TV channels carried a notice that 25 million cases of Norwalk-type viruses occur annually in the U.S. and cautioned on proper hand washing. It was also noted that workers were constantly wiping down handrails, slot machines and so forth. I did not personally see or hear of anyone being ill. I think the cruise lines are all very quick to react now to any potential viral threat.
The casino staff was very pleasant and though I didn't leave rich I can't complain. The slots were hitting far better than most I have seen on other ships. You can charge up to $2,000 a day on your onboard card via the casino cashier with no surcharges -- not a great policy for the inveterate gambler, I would think.
I usually ignore those who complain about drink prices, since I am from New York where the price is generally high anyway. I seldom see much difference between the prices of a drink on a ship vs. a local bar in NY. That said, even as a New Yorker I thought that the Horizon's drink prices were getting carried away. One of my tablemates was charged more than $9 for a glass of Chardonnay at dinner from the bar waiter. A Dewar's scotch and soda was more than $6 with tip.
Some reviews mentioned the carpets were stained and in bad shape. I can't contest that; the corridor carpeting could stand to be replaced. But overall the ship appeared to be very clean and in great shape. I sailed the Horizon in 1990 for the first time and I think Celebrity has done an excellent job of maintaining her. We had no complaints about the ship or cabin condition though the air conditioning did seem a bit less than cold at times.
It was a great cruise, except for the waiter and assistant. The butler and cabin steward did fine job; room service was excellent (but it should be with a butler). The staff was friendly and service was generally excellent. The casino staff was wonderful as well.
Everyone gets an assigned lounge to wait in; then that lounge is notified when they can disembark. Celebrity now offers room service the morning of disembarkation -- one of the best changes many lines have started in years! When you are getting up super early for departure day it is wonderful to be able to have some coffee (syrupy or not) and a roll or something delivered while you get ready.
We were scheduled to arrive in Norfolk at 10 a.m. but were at the dock by 7. Disembarking was no problem; porters were available (which is good because it is a bit of a walk to the circle where you can get picked up). The line for taxis was a city block long and moving slowly. Those who bought bus passes to airport from Celebrity did much better -- their luggage was placed on bus for them and considering shortage of taxis they were probably happy to ride a bus. We elected to drive home, which turned out to be the best option. Our travel mates decided to fly, but the first flight available was after 3 p.m. Due to weather in NY, they actually didn't leave until after 5. We rented a car from Hertz on Monticello Ave in Norfolk; they picked us up and we were on the road by 10 a.m. We arrived at home just 15 minutes after our flying friends. Our cost with gas was $148; theirs (not counting transportation from airport to home) was almost $500. Plus we had a lovely crab cake lunch in Delaware on the way.